Leica in Black and White: Recapping Our Time in Berlin With Leica’s Latest Cameras and Lenses

May 14, 2012

By Dan Havlik

We met with Leica in Berlin, Germany last week to get some hands-on time with the company’s latest crop of photo products including the 18-megapixel Leica M Monochrom, a digital rangefinder with a Kodak-built CCD sensor, designed to shoot in black and white.

The Leica M Monochrom was unveiled at a special event at C/O Berlin, a photo gallery in a massive, former post office in the Mitte section of Berlin. Along with the M Monochrom ($7,950), Leica debuted a new APO-Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 ASPH ($7,195) lens; and its 16.2MP X2 ($1,995), a pocket-sized camera with an APS-C sensor and a built-in Leica Elmarit 24 mm f/2.8 ASPH lens.

But no less noteworthy to pros were the new Leica S-Adapter H ($1,950), which lets you mount a Hasselblad H-system medium-format lenses onto the 37.2MP S2; and Leica’s announcement it will begin selling five new central shutter lenses for the S2 starting in October 2012.

And finally, while it’s strictly for (very) rich collectors, we also got some hands-on time with the beautiful Leica M9-P Hermès Edition ($25,000), which was created in conjunction with the famous French fashion house in Paris. The Leica M9-P Hermès Edition is being produced in a limited edition package of just 300 units.

Leica M Monochrom
We hit most of the high points when this black-and-white shooting digital rangefinder was launched in Berlin last week, but here are a few more impressions after we met with Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, chairman of Leica’s Supervisory Board; Alfred Schopf, Leica’s CEO and Stefan Daniel, Leica’s Product Manager to discuss the Leica M Monochrom.

According to Kaufmann, the Leica M Monochrom was actually not created to meet any particular demand of the market.

“If we had done the typical market research we probably wouldn’t have made this camera,” Kaufmann told PDN. “But as a great guy in Cupertino (Apple’s Steve Jobs) once said, you should develop the products that you really want to buy. And I think the Leica M Monochrom is a product that makes a lot of sense.”

Schopf said he also, initially, wasn’t sure about creating such an expensive camera that only shoots in black and white.

“At the beginning, we were quite skeptical about the idea,” Schopf noted. “But we were talking to friends of the (Leica) brand and they were very enthusiastic so we thought there must be some sense it it. It’s all about iconic photography in the end which, when we thought about it, has always been in black and white.”

As for the design of the M Monochrom, it’s essentially the same as the M9 and M9-P digital rangefinders that have come before it. The Kodak sensor in the M Monochrom, however, is entirely new.

“To make a digital camera that sees colors, you need filters in front of each pixel, which are then interpolated to create single colors,” Daniel explained. “In every case you will lose resolution compared to a sensor that shoots black and white natively. So the images taken with this sensor (in the M Monochrom) have more resolution and are sharper than those taken with the M-9 in color.”

As to whether this camera will signal the death of black and white film, Daniel was more circumspect.

“We don’t know that yet,” he said. “In some ways, it’s an experiment. But I can say this: on a purely technical level, there’s no reason to use black-and-white film anymore.”

What’s in Store for Leica at Photokina?
As is to be expected, no one we interviewed would say whether releasing the Leica M Monochrom this month means a new Leica M10 “color” rangerfinder might debut at the photokina show in Cologne, Germany in September.

“What you will definitely see is we’re working on our lens line,” Kaufmann said of photokina, while noting that the new Summicron-M 50mm f/2 is part of “an architecture” for Leica that photographers will see more of. “There will definitely be some improvements (to our products) and this (lens architecture) is in the pipeline. We also might be sticking to this monochrome (idea) because it makes sense.”

While calling Leica’s S-System “sort of a statement,” Kaufmann would not say whether the company would be releasing an S3 follow-up to the S2 at photokina.

Schopf noted that Leica will be taking over an entire hall at photokina to display its new products along with photos captured with Leica gear, suggesting that some major camera announcements were in store.

“Photokina is a big event and the entire hall is ours. A lot of high-end photography products will be there,” Schopf said, coyly.

Leica and Hasselblad, Joined at the Mount
One of the more interesting but lower profile announcements in Berlin last week was the Leica S-Adapter H, which is designed to attract Hasselblad photographers to the S2 system by letting them use their H-series lenses on Leica’s premium medium-format/DSLR hybrid camera.

“This is for Hasselblad users who would like to switch to the S2 but can’t afford to give up all their lenses and start over,” said Stephan Schultz, Leica’s product manager for the S-System.

The Leica S-Adapter H is a follow-up to the Leica S-Adapter V from last year, which let you mount Hasselblad’s V-Series lenses on the S2. Leica also offers an S-Adapter P67 to mount Pentax 67 system lenses on the Leica S2 and the Leica S-Adapter M645 for Mamiya 645 lenses.

“It’s not only mechanical, it has an electronic translator as well,” Daniel said about the Leica S-Adapter H. “It lets you control autofocus, aperture, central shutter and gives you all the lens profiles for Adobe Lightroom.”

(UPDATE: According to a Leica spokesperson we communicated with after we returned from Germany, the S-Adapter H was created internally by Leica and does not use technology licensed from Hasselblad.)

Days after the S-Adapter H announcement, Hasselblad released the following statement from its chairman and CEO Dr. Larry Hansen.

“We are delighted with Leica’s decision to launch an adapter that provides their customers with a compelling opportunity to embrace the acknowledged ultimate superiority of our medium format H System lenses,” Hansen said. “Every Hasselblad lens has been designed and produced to the most exacting and meticulous standards and discerning photographers worldwide are well aware that the image quality of any camera is only as good as the lens that forms the image.”

Leica X2
We liked the concept of the compact Leica X1 when it was announced back in 2009 but were not particularly pleased with its performance, finding it very slow to use overall, particularly its glacial autofocus system. The camera also had a jittery Live View function on its rear LCD screen and image playback was annoyingly slow.

Leica hopes to rectify those some of those problems with the 16.2MP X2, which also uses an APS-C size sensor and is selling now the same price at around $2,000.

The X2 looks somewhat similar to the X1, with a choice of a black, soft leather exterior or a silver anodized finish but according Maike Harberts, product manager for the X-System, “the inside is completely new.”

“The X1 seems slow compared to the X2,” Harberts said. “Because of the new sensor and processor, the autofocus is faster.”

The refresh rate on the X2’s 2.7-inch LCD screen on back has also been ramped up, so the image preview on the rear screen won’t look shaky and smeared as before.

The camera’s 24mm f/2.8 converts to an approximately 36mm lens because of the 1.5x magnification factor of the X2’s APS-C sensor. However, there is no way to optically zoom this fixed focal length lens except with your feet.