Leica has had a good decade. Which is probably more than can be said for most camera makers — with the possible exception of Sony, a company that has almost made the mirrorless full-frame camera its own.
During the past decade, the inexorable rise of the smartphone has completely eradicated the cheap point-and-shoot camera and as a result, mainstream manufacturers have struggled to compensate.
Leica alone was not reliant on entry-level cameras (in particular entry-level DSLRs) and has been able to take advantage of the upmarket moves by other manufacturers. Cameras from Wetzlar are still expensive, but no longer excessively so in relation to premium offerings from other manufacturers.
It is difficult to credit just how far-reaching have been the changes in Leica’s fortunes over the past ten years.
The company’s success is largely down to the enthusiasm, dedication and far-sightedness of one man: Dr Andreas Kaufmann. This former south German school teacher inherited a large fortune when he and his brother became heirs to Frantschach, Austria’s largest pulp and paper company.
Emulating the legendary Victor “Kermit” Kiam, who liked his Remington shaver so much that he bought the company, Andreas Kaufmann — a keen Leica fan — took over the ailing Leica AG in 2004. He was instrumental in pushing the company into the digital age after years of procrastination.
The M8, with its crop-frame APS-H sensor, was the first tangible evidence of resurgence, setting the scene for the subsequent rescue of the rangefinder. Without Kaufmann it is likely that Leica would now be out of business, the rangefinder but a memory.
Paradoxically, however, it is the very success of the digital rangefinder that has enabled the continued production, against all odds, of the current MP and M-A film camera bodies.
But it was the launch of the M9, Leica’s first full-frame digital, in September 2009, which set the scene for the coming decade. Since then the M has gone from strength to strength, with the M240 and, latterly, the M10, redefining the digital rangefinder while still maintaining the traditional form of the 70-year-old M.
With the M10, the digital rangefinder at last shrunk to match in dimensions the M7. It is not much bigger than the original M3 and feels just right in the hands.
Along the way, the rangefinder has diversified and strengthened in ways we could not have envisaged ten years ago. The Monochrom and the niche M-D have both been spawned by the success of the mainstream digital M and both have proved to be unexpectedly successful.
Leica is entering the Twenties with its strongest-ever digital M range. But it has also made impressive progress over the past five years in the mirrorless field. The SL and T arrived in 2015 and both have been successful, the SL especially so.
The SL has defined the full-frame mirrorless camera, despite its class-leading price, and its successor is now a strong competitor in the wider market. As ever, Leica is a premium product, distancing itself from the mainstream, and this is a ploy that has worked in the past and will continue to work. This has benefits in terms of retained value. Canny Leica buyers are aware that whole-life cost is of more importance than initial purchase price.
The germ of the SL concept started as early as 2010. Leica’s engineers understood that the M mount was incapable of taking the company forward into the digital age, other than in the short-term task of developing and maintaining the digital rangefinder.
To be able to create modern, ultra-fast, highest-quality optics with autofocus and, in some cases, stabilisation, Leica needed a bigger mount.
From the outset, a full-frame mirrorless camera was envisaged and it is only chance that saw the new mount appearing first in the T. The L-Mount was engineered from the start for full-frame. In retrospect, for an APS-C camera, it was unnecessarily large. But the arrival of the SL underlined the wisdom of choosing such a large-diameter mount.
Sony did it the other way round, first establishing the E-Mount in its range of APS-C cameras before adopting it for the newer full-frame Alphas.
Arguably, this smallest of full-frame mounts (with the exception of the venerable manual-only M) is too small for comfort and, despite Sony’s great success, is undoubtedly a restriction. If Sony had imagined the success of the Alpha range, the E-mount would have been a few millimetres larger in diameter.
Leica has no such worries. The new mount is good for a decade or two. And the L-Mount Alliance has become the icing on the company’s decade of development. For the first time, Leica is part of a technically advanced consortium which offers a wide range of interchangeable cameras and lenses at all price points. Unique in the full-frame world, it offers a system of several cameras and many lenses. Only micro four-thirds can provide a similar breadth of opportunities.
I remain confident that the Alliance will come to be seen as one of the most significant developments in Leica’s history. It is a game-changer, just as was the introduction of the M mount back in 1953.
The LMA provides a solid foundation for Leica’s mirrorless camera development in the new decade. While other manufacturers continue to plough their own furrow with proprietary mounts, Leica, Panasonic and Sigma are cooperating to create what could become the definitive system for mirrorless enthusiasts.
Without a doubt, the versatility of the L-Mount system is an important selling point. For those who don’t want to be tied to one particular marque, the attractions of the L-Mount are all too apparent.
The second big surprise of the Teens has been the success of the Q and Q2. As was the case with the Monochrom, Leica was taken by surprise by the customer reaction to the Q. It was an instant success and was on backorder for over a year following its introduction in 2015.
At the time, although only for a brief time, it was cheaper than its only other competitor, the then Sony RX1. It has been a tremendous success for Leica and I would be surprised if it has not been Leica’s single most successful digital camera. The new Q2 is shaping up to be even more successful.
At the outset of the Twenties, therefore, Leica is in a much stronger position than it was at the start of the last decade. With the entire industry being forced to move upmarket, away from the bread-and-butter entry-level camera, Leica is in a unique position to cater to an affluent band of new enthusiasts, many of them in the Far East.
Leica, as a small niche manufacturer, is fleet of foot when it comes to adapting to trends and developing relatively specialised and targeted short-run projects such as the M10-D and the many special editions.
This can work in both ways, however, and sometimes capacity is limited. While companies such as Sony can continue to run older models alongside newer iterations (the RX100 family being a good example), Leica often has to make a choice. So, for instance, the Q2 replaced the Q when some enthusiasts felt that both could have sold alongside one another.
The rise of the smartphone has ensured that almost everyone now carries a camera. It is no longer an optional purchase, as was the point-and-shoot, and it has become mainstream. Hundreds of millions are now experimenting with photography without feeling the need for separate investment and a degree of dedication.
If only a small proportion of this army of budding photographers turns to a “proper” camera, the newly focused mainstream manufacturers may well have a good future after all. And Leica stands proud from the scrum with its higher prices, legendary red dot and its proliferation of Leica Stores throughout the world.
Andreas Kaufmann, a well-known admirer of Apple and Steve Jobs, would say that Leica’s stores are there to do the same job as Apple Stores — to raise and maintain interest in the brand.
The next ten years will undoubtedly bring just as many surprises as we have seen over the past decade. In the short term, a new M10-based Monochrom is imminent, probably later this month, and it will feature a 41MP sensor. It would be a pity if this were not followed by a colour version to provide an effective mid-life fillip to the M10.
If this transpired, it would give a nod to my theory that the rangefinder has reached optimum physical dimensions and weight and that the existing control system is worth keeping. The M11 could be further away than we think.
Both the SL2 and Q2 have a lot of life left in them. But there have been persistent rumours of a monochrome Q, something which could be another surprise hit for Leica. It would, however, be based on the current Q2/SL2 47.3MP sensor rather than the new sensor in the M10 Monochrom.
As mentioned earlier, the only real question in my mind is the future of the Leica’s APS-C range. During the past ten years new ideas have come and gone, from the X1 and X2, though the various X models and the X Vario. Many of us still think the X1 and X2 were pretty good and still acquit themselves well after ten years. Further development of this model (as Fuji has continued to update the X100) could have been a sensible course for Leica. Instead, the company has hopped around and tarried with some pretty unusual designs.
The APS-C range, spearheaded by the radical T but kept alive by the CL, has not been a roaring success. Sales are steady, but the APS-C competition for Leica in the form of Fujis X-series gains strength all the time. Many owners love the CL but it is undoubtedly a Marmite camera — you either love it or hate it. There is, however, one thing that can never be taken away from the CL: Its three-button rear control layout has become standard Leica fare, first on the Q, then on the M10 and now on the SL2.
None the less, more than a few Leica fans have moved over to Fuji from the T and CL because the Japanese manufacturer’s cameras often exhibit more Leica DNA than Leica’s own offerings. In addition, the TL lens range is stuck in a 2015 time-warp and lacks the showroom appeal of the competition.
The decision not to equip the TL zooms with stabilisation was logical. Peter Karbe, the designer, has made it clear that the aim was superb optical performance combined with compact dimensions and low weight. You can’t have everything, and stabilisation was sidelined for that reason. Unfortunately, for better or for worse, stabilisation is now seen as an important box to tick. Perhaps the best route for Leica to follow is to update the CL with IBIS, thus putting new life into the existing lens range.
Sigma could put some new ingredients into the mix but there are no signs of this so far. Leica needs to do something new if it wants to retain APS-C buyers, otherwise the CL and TL will simply wither on the vine.
Finally, the lenses. Leica is primarily a manufacturer of optics and much effort has been expended by Peter Karbe and his design team over the past decade.
They have continued to develop the range of M lenses, certainly with more focus and attention than has given to the TL range. Throughout the past ten years, we have seen impressive new additions such as the 50mm Apo-Summicron and the 75mm Noctilux.
The SL lenses are rightly seen as being the best in their class, with prices to match, and will still be in demand among those who want the best. They are now facing competition from both Sigma and Panasonic but I suspect this will not worry Leica overmuch. Many Leica fans are purists and they are prepared to spend whatever is necessary to own what they consider to be the best and to maintain brand uniformity. For some, adding a Sigma to an SL2 is nothing short of sacrilege.
As we enter the Twenties, the remarkable thing is that Leica has not only survived the turmoil of the Teens but has become a much stronger company as a result of the increased competition from the smartphone.