Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Has digital camera technology reached a plateau of excellence?

Has digital camera technology reached a plateau of excellence?

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  The Leica M10-D has the best chance of being a long-term digital keeper, free from the temptations of extra electronic gizmos. This is digital photography at its most simple (Image Leica Camera AG)
The Leica M10-D has the best chance of being a long-term digital keeper, free from the temptations of extra electronic gizmos. This is digital photography at its most simple (Image Leica Camera AG)

My experiences over the past year or so with the old Leica X1 and, more recently, with the X2, have shown me that we don’t have to have the latest gear to produce good images. Sensor density increases, AF systems get cleverer and faster, and dynamic range plumbs ever greater depths. Yet old cameras such as the X1 and the M9 or even the M8 still satisfy and bring home the goods. It’s all an attitude of mind.

An M10 purchased now will still be producing excellent photographs in ten or, even, twenty years’ time (subject to no irreparable digital parts). It is unlikely to last 50 or 60 years as has the M3, but, in the digital world, the M10 is definitely a keeper. After all, many photographers are still making the M8 sing for its supper and still believe it produces a unique image profile.

Plateau of excellence

It’s tempting, then, to assume that we have reached a plateau in digital photography where future advances, attractive as they might be, are not strictly necessary. Especially since much of the advances these days bring added complexity, both in menus and esoteric options.

MyX2, a seven-year-old design, with its top-mounted shutter speed and aperture dials, is all I need to make pictures. It is a very simple camera and all the better for it. Unfortunately, the uncomplicated, focused approach adopted by Leica in designing the X1/2 has been lost, even at Wetzlar (except, of course, with the perennially simple M rangefinders).

I could make a very strong case for a revived X1, perhaps based on the CL body, with crystal-clear physical controls and an f/2.8 or f/2 fixed 35mm-equivalent lens. I am sure it would sell.

  Harking back to simpler days, all analogue controls and a minimum of digital frills — veteran Paris taxi shot with Leica’s veteran X2
Harking back to simpler days, all analogue controls and a minimum of digital frills — veteran Paris taxi shot with Leica’s veteran X2

Hair shirt

Please don’t misunderstand. I love new technology, I am generally an early adopter. I have my Macs, my iPhones and iPads, my Watch. I monitor most aspects of my health, including sleeping patterns, and I delight in exploring new boundaries. I have joined both the paperless and cashless societies. I am always on the look out for the next big thing.

But when it comes to photography, I am a simple soul at heart. For some reason, I do not delight in technological advances in camera design to the extent that I do in the wider world of gadgets. I’m generally satisfied with an uncomplicated approach. It’s why I like the X1/2 and the M digitals.

My hair shirt was scratchy enough to have encouraged me to trade in my M10 for the new M10-D. They don’t come much more basic than that. 

The M10-D is a good example of a digital camera that should still be producing excellent shots well into the future, provided Leica keeps a good stock of spare circuit boards and sensors. There’s no screen to break or need replacing, and that’s a blessing.

It is a simple camera made for simple souls.

  What could possibly go wrong? 1930s Brough Superior and Leica X2 brave the late summer storms
What could possibly go wrong? 1930s Brough Superior and Leica X2 brave the late summer storms

But perhaps we have reached some sort of plateau in digital camera design — a point where cameras are totally fit for purpose and really do not need polishing further.

Ming Thein has pondered the question of where we stand and whether we have now reached a plateau in development. His article makes some good reading, as usual.

What do you think? Have we really reached a sort of golden age in digital camera design? Or do you look forward to ever improving technology? Or, perhaps, you look back to simpler times…..

21 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Mike,

    Totally agree with you, I am going back to the basic and appreciate the process of taking pictures the old fashion way, manual focus and exposure…. The "M" way. I have ordered the M10-D and still waiting for delivery 🙁

    Love your blog, keep going.

  2. Would love to see X’s brought back, and you wondered why I have 4, some bean counter in Leica decided against X and abandoned the line. Has Digital Leica plateaued, don’t know, but what a blast a monochrome X would be, do you still use your MM?

    • Yes, John, you just be the world’s greatest collector of X1s and 2s. Sadly I don’t have a Monochrom any longer — my only digital
      M is the M10-D. But I find myself sticking the X2 in my bag more often than not — unless I have a specific task for the CL or M. The X2 is just so simple and easy to use.

  3. I totally agree with you Mike. I still use and derive huge pleasure from my X1, X Vario and M8. Despite effectively replaced by the CL with standard zoom lens, my X Vario is my handy around home camera I instictively pick up first. In fact, for close-us it is superior to its younger rival; allowing me to use 70mm with its superior stand-off shooting range.

    • I meant to add a note on trade-in values. I believe the dearth of good X Vario and M8 cameras is due to dealers’ reluctance to accept old digital cameras into stock, or the woeful trade-in allowance offered to and rejected by would-be sellers.

  4. Absolutely agree. We hit the plateau quite a while ago as your X2 clearly shows.

    I shoot DSLRs in addition to rangefinders and a few months back bought a brand-new Canon 6D (first generation, introduced in 2012). I use it for advertising videos for my law office and occasionally for low-light event photography. The only lens I own for it is the 50mm f/1.2 L. Newer DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have far more advanced autofocus systems, but since I only use the center point, the only benefit of the latest and greatest is one additional EV of available darkness autofocus, which with an f/1.2 lens and the previously (until last year) class leading EV-3 AF capability of the 6D is kind of overkill.

    Those newer models have more dynamic range, more megapixels and a few of them are better at ISO values above 12,800, but clean color at ISO 6400 and 20 megapixels are more than enough for the 11X14" prints I usually make.

    So as exciting as Nikon and Canon’s new mirrorless, or the current crop of DSLRs like the newish 5D mk 4 may be, that 6-year-old Canon 6D is still cutting edge for the way I use an autofocus camera.

    Back when you reviewed the original Leica M-D (262) you made the same arguments for it being a keeper with a sensor that is more than good enough, and that hasn’t changed. I owned the M-D, then upgraded to the M10, and then after a year downgraded back to the M-D. The new model looks great and if both were placed on a table in front of me I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d take the M10-D over it’s predecessor. But to spend money, even the original list prices, I honestly think I’d take the M-D at $6000 over the M10-D at $8000. I can make the same argument with the M246 Monochrome compared to my M9 Monochrom, and even if Leica releases an M10 Monochrom tomorrow at $8000, I’d have absolutely zero temptation to upgrade from my M9 Monochrom.

    Now to hit eBay and try to find a good X2.

  5. I agree and am reminded of how, in the late 80s, every month seemed to bring a step change improvement in PCs. Then there was a levelling off. To my mind the next big change was with the introduction of the iPhone and iPad.
    Improvements in cameras will always be limited to a large extent by the laws of physics regarding the sizes of the lenses. Does this discussion primarily relate to ‘full frame’ sensors? I wonder how large a manual focus lens for a medium format camera would be. So perhaps medium format will be the playing field of the 2020s.

  6. I totally agree with you Mike. I still wonder why they stopped producing it. Your images are the best compliment to the camera. It seems to me they have lost the simplicity of the camera with the CL. Let’s hope Leica will think of a new X. I enjoy using my X2 so much. It’s straightforward to use and is the best camera I’ve ever had size and quality wise. Thanks for the nice article and as we French would say "c’est dans les vieux tonneaux qu’on fait les meilleures bouteilles"
    Jean

  7. I toatally agree with you, Mike, and with the comments above. My M9 Monochrom is delivering great images, and I upgraded it to a M9 Monochrom-D by adding a screen blocker made from carton and some black insulating tape. Works just fine. My Nikon D300 from 2006, is still going strong – never had the urge to "upgrade" to later models. The Nikon Z6 is tempting though – not because of the new technology, but for the ability to use old Nikkor glass with the FTZ Mount Adapter. I think Leica has made a very wise decision to stick to max 24 MP-sensors – that is more than enough pixels to work with.

  8. Simple is, as simple does. Most cameras today are over specced and only need a fraction of their features to take photos. The rest is down to the photographer, who should ignore any unnecessary features. Online camera sites glory in having deep and serious discussions on what are essentially non issues, usually with a lot of mysterious and unexplained acronyms thrown in. If I can take photos with a 90+ years old Leica I Model A why do I need all the other stuff and if the camera is pre-loaded, wound on and pre-set I can take good photos quicker than with any autofocus camera. Also with a coupled rangefinder (such a luxury compared to the I A) I can get more photos in focus than with using autofocus, despite the fact that I have eye-sight issues. As for digital image quality, it is already as good as we need and close to perfect according to some people. All that being said, I would not trade my M10 for an M10-D (it is a digital user experience thing for me). If I want the ‘no hands’ experience I can use any of my film Leicas without any meters or other fancy stuff, like rangefinders in many cases. As for Leica FOTOS, it remains unused and unloved and unworkable on my smartphone.

    William

    PS. The X1, M8 and M9 are not old cameras compared to most of what what I have in my cabinet

    • “..If I can take photos with a 90+ years old Leica I Model A why do I need all the other stuff..”

      ..Because the “other stuff” doesn’t involve splashing your film through messy chemicals, the “other stuff” gives instant results ..even faster than Polaroid, which is why Polaroid died a death.. and the “other stuff” takes photos in light which film can hardly register. (..I’m thinking of pictures I took hand-held by moonlight with a Sony A7S ..and its top sensitivity setting of ISO 409,600.)

      Kodachrome was great in its day (..at ASA/ISO 25 and then 64..) but how many Cartier-Bresson photos were taken INDOORS? ..not many, because although there was sufficient light for his – and everyone else’s – slow-ish black-and-white film only out in the street, and there wasn’t really sufficient light, much of the time, indoors.

      So our “heritage” of historic analogue photos tends to be only of things and people photographed outdoors.

      Looking at my “Eyes Wide Open – 100 Years of Leica Photography” book, and the exhibition, I see that almost every one of the photos was taken during the day, outdoors, except Christer Strömholm’s (..in the late ’50s, early 60’s..) and a couple of Fred Herzong’s (ditto) and I’d say that 99.5% of all those 100 years of photographs were taken outdoors ..where there was sufficient light to make pictures.

      I’m looking at a century’s worth of photos taken by Monsieur Lartigue, and I think about five dozen of them were taken indoors.

      What digital photography does – the “other stuff” – is to let us reclaim that other 49.5% of photo possibilities ..and allows us to take photos in dim light and indoors. That’s where I take about half my photos.

      I cannot “..take good photos quicker than with any autofocus camera..” unless I zone-focus at small apertures: I certainly can’t with an f1.2 or f1.4 lens, unless it’s a deep depth-of-field 24mm or 21mm. (..I definitely can’t with a 90mm lens or longer!..)

      And if I zone-focus at, say, f5.6 or f8 to get deep-ish depth-of-field, then all my photos begin to simply look alike. I like to use ‘differential focus’, with some things in focus and others not.

      I’m really astonished, William, that you can “..get more photos in focus [with a rangefinder] than with using autofocus..” ..but perhaps you use autofocus differently from how I do: I use the smallest possible autofocus square or rectangle (..on whichever camera..), so I know exactly which teeny area the camera’s focusing on ..and it works every time for me – with Sony, Nikon, Canon, and anything else. So perhaps it’s a matter of autofocus technique which separates us.

      I don’t use a wide autofocus area to let the camera decide what to focus on: I use one small, central spot – just like a rangefinder’s focusing patch, or an SLR’s central split-image spot – and then I half-squeeze the shutter-button to lock focus, compose my photo how I want it, and squeeze the shutter the rest of the way. Or if I want to shoot really quickly, I just point and squeeze all the way!

      I find the “other stuff” really liberating.

  9. I think personally that sensor technology in its current technological format is in the end of its development envelope – and many new camera’s regardless of sensor format are much of a muchness. In my humblest of opinions we need a game changer development at the moment, and I honestly cannot see where that will come from, or which company will achieve it.

    I have a large degree of agreement with the comments of William below, in that the constant production of new models on ever shorter development cycles essentially makes my X tip 113 redundant, no longer in production and unloved by many, but actually still a decently specced camera today. The same goes for the X1, and the X2 they stand the test of modern time.

    I believe Leica missed a trick not pursuing a new X, and have poured marketing money and time pointing out the CL can be an X with the 23mm lens, but that doesn’t cover those people who want to have a fixed lens system – This was essentially why I turned the CL over – X price new was around £1600, and the CL with 23mm lens at release date was nearer £3700. More than a Q, and technically a non-starter for those of us who use an X, and want the X ecosystem. If it helps folk, I had a figure in my head around 2k, that I would have paid for an X typ 113 with a viewfinder (perhaps the CL one).

    I paid considerably less than the quoted figure for my Df, another maligned camera, with its 50mm kit lens. Again this camera is still capable of producing stunning results, and has a broad usage range given its high ISO performance. Its sensor still holds up against the new cameras when you study them. But it is much unloved by the tech chasing fan boys of their chosen brand.

    I suspect that in time we will see a narrowing of the margins between DSLR’s, Mirrorless and the rangefinder – maybe the next advance will be the company that finds a way of merging concepts into new ideas, and new systems that find a way to engage us all in doing what is important – taking photos.

    Dave S

  10. We have not reached a plateau in haptics. My Leica Q-P is the best autofocus camera I have owned. It is perfectly sized and I can glance at it and know what it is set at or quickly intuitively adjust setting and capture the moment without delay (due to aperture ring on lens, shutter speed dial, Af/mf selection on focus ring(brilliant). The Af point does not get moved as on my Leica SL by the joystick. Leica has the best haptics that allow me to get into the zone and see and capture images. I do not know why they screw up on things like the joystick on the SL when they got it right on the Q.

    I have the Hasselblad X1D and it has gorgeous image quality and is beautiful BUT no aperture ring and no shutter speed dial. I have to look at the touch screen and then adjust things – great on a tripod but …what were they thinking?

    The problem with most cameras is they have too many buttons and complicated menus and features that promote the pray and machine gun mode instead of intelligently capturing the scene using the correct combination of ISO, f/stop, shutter speed and focus point for the subject. Leica is the only manufacturer that best masters this but even they drop the ball on purity of the tool in cases such as the joystick on the SL.
    Most cameras are closer to computers that can do anything but are masters of nothing with their complexity. Please give me a camera with no video ..and it’s cost in heat sinking and so on.
    As for technology, we have plateaued some time ago and most “improvements” including sensors are minor in practical terms.
    The real issue remains in the haptics and does the camera entice you to get capturing images or improving as a photography. The big problem with photography is people focus on generally irrelevant technical specs versus rendering of image aesthetics and haptics.

    Anyway, if Leica made an interchangeable lens Q, I would be more than delighted.

    • I entirely agree: the joy of using a camera lies in whether it gives you the right haptics or just nerve-tics! But of course this varies from hand to hand, and so there cannot be a general recipe for all. I never buy a camera without having the particular model in my hand first. Weight, shape and balance all have to convince me against which the most glowing specifications and review are powerless, but in shunt with which I have a winner.

    • Brian,

      I should have mentioned the Q. In terms of controls and general convenience is IS the new X2. But it isn’t as pocketable as an APS-C camera could be, and that’s where there is room for an X3. It could follow the Q slavishly, including the use of a lens-mounted aperture control. But it’s probably wishful thinking…

  11. I give Leica a lot of credit for being innovative and withstanding the hurricane of nonsense they have to endure on the web. It is a better machine. (But, they missed badly against the X100. I don’t like shooting off the back.)

    It’s important to add the oft omitted, "to what purpose?" Most of my pictures today are sports and I prefer to shoot my old Nikon D3s. Comparatively, it’s obsolete, but 12mp is enough and for sports, focusing and operation is fast and it still sees in the dark. It gets the job done. Why replace it? Ming shoots mostly in an architectural style and uses contrast and sharpness to separate and layer objects in his images — taking advantage of today’s lenses and post processing capabilities. He wouldn’t be happy with my old camera and lenses.

    This site is targeted toward travel and street type photography. To that end, compactness and operating simplicity matter.
    The CL punches all the tickets* and is closest to the modern IIIf that I’d like to have. No camera is perfect, but the fact is you are a spoiled brat if you complain about your CL.

    What is obvious is that no technical barriers to ‘better cameras’ exist – it is about packaging and build.

    -TR

    If only we had a modern retractable 50mm TL Elmar and the world will be perfect.

    • My Ideal Travel Camera (AKA digital IIIf):
    • Pocketable
    • Built in viewfinder
    • Discrete Shutter/Aperture/ISO dials
    • Clear, logical operation and haptics
    • Regarding your ideal travel camera Tuco.

      I agree, the CL comes very close, it just needs a manual focus 35/40 or 50mm equivalent lens, preferably 40mm, but I accept that others like slightly wider or longer.

      The Leica APS-C range is only let down by Leica’s insistence on AF, when for a pocket camera, size is far more pertinent than making do with hyperfocus or taking a little longer.

  12. Have to say I do agree with you Mike, technology is overtaking need. I am happy with my M9s but also love the convenience of my D-Lux (Typ 109). I don’t however think my opinion will change things because there are millions out there who hang on every new "improvement" and are happy to chase the latest and greatest new improvement. I think it is known on the internet as GAS.

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