From the Archives: X-Pectations

From the Archives is a series of posts written some time in the past, although still relevant for photographers. This post was originally published on 13 June 2013 at How to Democracy in the wake of the launch of the Leica X Vario. I have resisted the urge to change any of the content, except for improvement of puns.

After two weeks of rumours and leaks, Leica Camera AG has announced the latest addition to their photographic family: the Leica X Vario. The camera builds on Leica’s previous X models by taking an APS-C sensor and pairing it with a zoom lens. As Leica’s marketing guff is quick to highlight, this makes the X Vario the “world’s only compact camera of its kind”, combining a large sensor with a zoom lens. Will semantic wonders never cease?

Das Comeback Kind 
Leica has enjoyed a financial and popular resurgence over the past few years. With the launch of the M9 in 2009, the company truly made the transition into the digital era with a modern reimagining of a photographic classic. The full-frame rangefinder was a runaway success, leading to the release of a successor rangefinder, known simply as the “Leica M” in 2012. The first to use this new nomenclature was designated the Leica M Typ 240. Along with the large-format S-series cameras, Leica has emerged from the failures of the late 1990s – failures which threatened to end the company altogether – to become an internationally successful luxury brand.

“X never, ever marks the spot”

Somewhat overlooked in the fanfare of the M9’s release was the Leica X1. It was one of the first  cameras on the market with a large imaging sensor in a relatively compact body. Unfortunately for Leica, it would not be the last. Within 18 months, the X1 would be competing with the Fujifilm X100, ever-improving Sigma and Micro Four Thirds cameras, the Canon Powershot G1 X and a resurgent Sony (“X” being the seemingly popular designator). 

The Leica X1 was a good camera with an excellent lens let down by sub-par electronics. While Leica’s premium compact was not alone in being cursed with slow autofocus, its premium price tag made it an easy target for criticism. Still, the X1 remained an excellent, albeit expensive, choice for a quality compact at a time of limited alternatives.

By the time of the Leica X2’s arrival at Photokina 2012, the market was awash with large sensors in compact bodies. Fujifilm targeted their retro-syled X100 at the Leica base, developing new technologies, such as a hybrid electronic/optical viewfinder, that the conservative Leica had been unable or unwilling to include in their camera offerings. For many Leica users (or prospective buyers), it was the camera they had been asking for (and at a third the price of Leica’s premium compact).

While the X2 corrected many of the deficiencies of the X1, it was a camera that was already behind the times. Where the X100 featured an innovative viewfinder (which many photographers, including this hackneyed writer, love), the X2 had provision only for an expensive external electronic viewfinder, which is in fact a rebranded Olympus product.

Leica EVF2 – USD $499
Olympus VF-2 – USD $199

While it may seem unfair to compare the “luxury” Leica marque with Japanese mass-produced consumer goods, it was a comparison that many prospective customers made. 

But Leica doesn’t compete. It never has. 

Heard the Rumours? Get the truth.
The first leaked specifications of the X Vario were treated as a joke. A dismally slow f/3.56.4 lens, no viewfinder with a price tag of 2,450€? Lols. Nice one, Leica. And they say the Germans don’t have a sense of humour.

But as the days went by, more and more images emerged of the camera, matching the specifications of the first leak. The forum-trawlers battered their keyboards and went back to their porn sites as Leica announced the camera that nobody asked for. Across the internets, forum posts complained of an overpriced camera that no one would buy.

“…cause it says Lieca are people that ignorant ??”
Oh dear. The luxury camera manufacturer didn’t make a camera for them. For the internet forums. Garnering over 600 comments on the news article announcing the Leica on DPReivew, the vibe was one of overwhelming negativity towards Leica, Leica users, the X Vario and (for some reason) horse racing. No positive comment on DPReview goes un-trolled.

Sure, it’s an expensive camera and sure, there are similar cameras out there for far less money. But this group of anonymised avatars forgets that Leica does not make products for them. It never has and never will. Simples. Leica today is making a play for the wealthy markets of the developing world, making products that ooze luxury far more than photography. It is in this world where Leica is making its real money.

Besides, Leica has never been a consumer camera company. While the early 35mm M rangefinders developed a passionate following and great reputation over many decades, they were always premium, expensive items. In the 1980s, a Leica M4-P body cost between USD$800–900; a Nikon F3 between USD$400–500 with 50mm lens. Today, a Leica M Typ 240 body is around USD$7,000; a Nikon D4 body around USD$6,000. Either digital SLRs have become more expensive or Leicas have become cheaper.

What has changed is the quality of compact cameras. Where the physicality of 35mm photography required large lenses and hardware to be “professional”, the electronics in modern mirrorless cameras allow for comparable quality in smaller bodies. Where film transport and autofocus mechanisms were limiting factors decades ago, a compact camera can today be as quick and efficient as a pro-level SLR.

X2 Vario EX-1 XE-1 PRO 1 X100s RX100 Typ X
In the “compact camera, large sensor” market, Leica now finds itself up against a plethora of alternatives. The similarly-named “X” series from Fuji has developed a large following with their quality lenses and bodies at a lower price. Similarly, Sony’s NEX range and their unique full-frame RX1 camera have demonstrated premium image quality can be attained in compact bodies.

But Leica never has competed against these brands and never will. For all the clamouring of the internets for Leica to release a compact “M” rangefinder, it is easy to ignore the simple fact that Leica sees itself as a luxury brand. As far as the company is concerned, the cheaper Leica M-E at USD$5,500 serves this purpose. Why would they possibly want to cannibalise their own success?

Don’t shoot the Messsucher.

The argument from some internet warriors is that if Leica released a cheaper M body – a digital Leica CL – the company would see an increase in lens sales. Perhaps. But do you really think the same people who scoff at spending $5,500 on a Leica M camera body would be willing to part with $3,200 for a new 35mm lens? Unlikely. The only beneficiaries in this situation would be eBay and as the prices of used M lenses continued ever skyward.

From a business perspective, Leica have no reason to release a smaller M. It would serve only to snatch sales from their flagship M. Leica would therefore have to strongly differentiate the two, leading to a entry-level camera that might be too spartan for prospective buyers. It would likely not offer much above the already popular Fuji and Sony mirrorless products, leading to a critical mass of negative forum posts that would destroy* the internet.

*Maybe. Perhaps.

From the reports of those who have tested the X Vario, the camera is another quality offering from Leica. Although the lens is comparatively slow, the quality of the few available images looks very pleasant. Given Leica employs some of the best lens designers in the business, I’m sure the decision to use such a slow lens was not an easy one to reach, but just one of the many considerations in meeting the product brief. A faster lens would no doubt have necessitated a much larger body and/or lens assembly.

Let’s face it. Digital photography is no longer about image quality. While there were clear divisions between brands and sensors in the early years of digital photography, the latest offerings from Canon, Nikon, Fuji, Sony, Olympus et al. are all capable of delivering stunning results. In the case of Fuji, for instance, a kit with similar specifications to the X Vario with a built in viewfinder can be had for only USD$1,200.

But it’s not solely about specifications. The Leica brand has a global mystique which the company has been keen to exploit. By opening Leica-branded stores all across the world – with a special focus on Asia – Leica has used a “boutique” branding and retail model more akin to high-end fashion than photography. 

The Leica X Vario will find its place, although it’s unlikely to be considered by those looking for an enthusiast camera. I suspect it’ll sell well to captains of industry in China and India, oligarchs (and Prime Ministers) in Russia and golf-playing dentists in the United States. 

Leica will continue to make what they consider to be premium products. The Apo-Summicron-M 50mm lens is a case in point. This USD$7,200 lens is a product made without compromise. It is, hands down, technically the best 50mm lens the world has ever seen. It has been made to prove an almost perfect lens can be made. Of course there are cheaper options, even within Leica’s own product catalogue, but to compare a Leica to a Canon is not a comparison.

Once Leica’s new headquarters in Wetzlar is completed, I expect we’ll see a slight diversification of  Leica’s product range. Until then, for those who scour the interwebs looking for the perfect camera, I would recommend they not look at Leica, because Leica sure isn’t looking at them.

I’ll let DPReview user AbrasiveReducer have the last word, remaking on the quantity and content of comments below the announcement story of the X Vario, he posted:

“600+ comments; spectacular for a company with limited resources to do their own promotion.”

Too right, Abrasive. Tell your friends to keep on posting.

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