Last week’s announcement of the new L-squared (L²) cooperation created more questions than answers. Does it mean more cooperation on the cross-branding of lenses and cameras? Is it an alliance within an alliance to the exclusion of Sigma, perhaps the most active member of the L-Mount Alliance? Or does it simply signify greater levels of cooperation in the development of technology?
The answer to the Sigma question came yesterday from Panasonic, as reported in DPReview:
‘L² Technology is not the new alliance but the new value created by Leica Camera AG and Panasonic. L-Mount is a lens mount standard developed by Leica Camera AG and it is licensed to the Alliance members by Leica Camera AG. Panasonic is one of the licensed member and we are aiming to have stable product compatibility between the Alliance partners. Therefore, as L-mount alliance member we will keep compatibility also with Sigma products. There is no change on this point. L² Technology is the symbol that Leica camera AG and Panasonic will invest and develop the new value together. This new value will be integrated to our new cameras for Panasonic and Leica and by each company we will have our own marketing story.’
Right? So now we know, but we are perhaps none the wiser. As an exercise in knitting wind, this new announcement vies with last week’s rather vaporous statement from Leica.
The release told us everything and nothing. We are left trying to imagine what is new, what is going to come. Everyone knows that Leica and Panasonic have been cooperating for the past twenty years. The association manifests itself in the successful Leica branding of Panasonic compacts, in the Leica name on high-end micro four-thirds lenses (and the use of Summilux, etc) and similar “Leica Approved” status for premium L-mount Panasonic lenses.
But, of course, it goes much deeper. Leica is dependent on Panasonic for much of the electronics that go into its cameras. The Q and SL both include Panasonic wizardry and even the M probably has a good helping.
The SL is a particularly interesting case since it is mirrored by a range of very similar Panasonics, the S1 and its siblings. Delve under the hood, and there is probably more similarity than difference between the products of both companies. Both ranges are highly competent, with the S1 bodies feeling more SLR-like than the SL which offers a more radical approach to haptics and menus.
On balance, I prefer Leica’s approach, but the Lumix cameras are very strong competitors. The approaches are different, which is good for consumer choice. For many Leica users, the SL has a significant advantage in its lauded greater compatibility with M lenses, something which Panasonic doesn’t need to consider. Use L glass, and the S1 is nearer to the SL in terms of output than Leica fanboys would admit.
Strategic strategic cooperation
Before this week’s announcement, it was clear to industry watchers that Leica already depends heavily on Panasonic electronics. As we’ve discussed already, the SL and S1 were developed simultaneously and have a lot in common. Perhaps the SL would not have been possible had it not been for Panasonic’s work on the S1 and the ability to share technology.
Now, however, we have a more “strategic” level of cooperation. But we are left guessing as to the exact nature of the forthcoming products. Apart from technology, will we see a greater level of cooperation in camera and lens manufacturing? Possibly there will be more “approved by Leica” Panasonic lenses to add to the ever-growing programme of L-mount optics. Conversely, Leica could add to its rather limited menu of L-Mount lenses by rebranding Panasonic’s premium offerings. Leica set the trend with the “budget” Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-70 f/2.8 ASPH. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 DG DN lens. Some think it is the same lens with a different body and a shower of Leica stardust.
Lenses have indeed been one of the great success stories of the L-Mount Alliance. The LMA is one of the best moves Leica has made in the past decade. Without the alliance, I suspect that the SL models would have eventually withered on the vine. Now, at least, they have a sporting chance because of the wide range of lenses at every price point.
With relatively limited sales of Panasonic S1, S5 and Leica SL cameras, however, cynics might wonder why so few cameras are being chased by so many lenses. In the wider market, both Leica and Panasonic’s competitors, in the form of Nikon, Canon and Sony, are way ahead in sales. Yet, thanks to the L-mount Alliance, the few L-mount cameras (including Sigma’s fp) are served by a vast array of lenses.
Sales of L-Mount cameras will need to be stimulated if the massive investment in L-Mount lenses is to be sustained. Yet not a lot seems to be happening on the camera front. Leica has refreshed the SL range, and very successfully at that, but little last been heard from Panasonic. The S1 cameras are due for an update soon, I imagine. And while the underrated S5 with its lighter weight and smaller size, is not a great seller, judging by the level of discounts available, it deserves more attention.
The S5 is actually one of the more interesting L-Mount cameras. It offers a great deal in a small package (no larger than a high-end MFT camera) that comes with a cracking and unusual 20-60mm standard kit lens. This is an excellent budget optic blessed with considerable versatility. Some S5 results can be seen here in Keith James’s article on silhouette photography and in further articles here. In addition, check Jörg-Peter Rau’s informative article on entering the L-mount world with the budget Lumix S5.
Many would like to see the S5 modified and sold under the Leica brand. The C-D-V-Luxes have set the precedent. While the SL2 and SL2-S are both great cameras with a dedicated following there is one area of criticism that keeps on coming up — the size and weight of the bodies. An SL mini, based on the S5 but with improvements, including a higher-resolution viewfinder, would be on the shopping list of many SL fans, probably for use as a second body.
There is virtually no chance of Leica making a smaller SL in Europe, but a rebranded Panasonic could encourage Leica aficionados. However, Leica will be rightly worried about potential cannibalisation. If the SL Mini produces similar results to the SL2-S (both having 24MP sensors), might this deflect buyers to the cheaper model even though they realise it is simply a Panasonic rebadge?
Nevertheless, the L² announcement, if rather nebulous, does indicate that something is happening, that the L-Mount Alliance is alive and kicking. It will be exciting to see what developments come in the next year or two.
What do you think? What would you like to see come out of this new level of L² strategic cooperation? Would you be more likely to buy a Panasonic S5 (with a few tweaks) if it carried the Leica branding?