Leica today and 100 years ago: the new Leica T and the UR-Leica. (Product images: Leica Camera)
Leica today and 100 years ago: the new Leica T and the UR-Leica. (Product images: Leica Camera)

Leica Camera

Class of 2014

The world is full of distractions. Opportunities to concentrate on the essential are few and far between. An encounter with the new Leica T suddenly changes all that.

Photokina is the trend indicator of the photo industry. “A brilliantly uncertain future” heralded the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung after this year’s show. “There were more than enough new launches to hail technological progress as optimistically as ever,” commented Hans-Heinrich Pardey. Nevertheless, he diagnosed a certain uncertainty due to the fact that only a dwindling proportion of the estimated 500 million photos taken all over the world every day are snapped with photo cameras. An overwhelming majority of people are evidently happy to use smartphones for taking pictures of themselves and their environment. But whether the photo industry will have to warm to, or even bow to the majority opinion that photography as a life form seems to be more interested in life than form is a different story altogether.

Focusing on the essential

Leica’s stand at this year’s photokina was certainly equipped to arm this story with any amount of counter-arguments. Together they are weighty enough to take the wind out of the sails of the “quantity before quality” argument. And together they follow the maxim “focusing on the essential” to which Oskar Barnack was already committed a century ago. “For Barnack, ‘the essential’ meant designing a photographic system that was compact and easy to use and that integrated the technology and optics to deliver superlative pictures. This is what Barnack’s first Leicas and Max Berek’s lenses stand for. And if you take a close look at our new products, you can still see signs of this approach today,” says R&D Manager Oliver Giesenberg.

It is indeed worth taking a close look at and inside the new Leica T, for example. Everything about this entirely new system camera development is essential, nothing superfluous. And the product engineers have really left no elements of the design, technology or optics to chance. The camera body alone is a treat for the eye and hand, milled of anodized aluminum and hand-polished. The back of the Leica T is almost completely missing to make as much room as possible for the touchscreen. On the 3.7 inch TFT LCD screen you can not only scroll through photos you have taken with a few finger swipes, but also set all the important camera parameters. The menu can be customized to users’ preferences, the controls are intuitive – at least for all those who know how to operate a smartphone. And experience indicates that the number of smartphone users is growing apace (see above).

Ideal combination of sensor, software and optics

Here again, the Leica T follows the philosophy of concentrating on the essential. “What are the essential points when taking a photograph? – I have to focus on my subject, I must be able to set the ISO, the shutter speed and of course the aperture, which is one of the key compositional tools today. Those are the main controls I need. The relevant data are displayed immediately, so I always know what the Leica is doing,” explains Oliver Giesenberg.

Inside the camera, there are 16 gigabytes of internal memory for photos or movies in DNG, JPG or MP4 format. The APS-C-CMOS sensor offers a resolution of 16.5 megapixels. But this technical data is only half the imaging performance equation for Peter Karbe, Manager of Optics R&D at Leica: “The real imaging performance results from a combination of sensor, software and optics. Our aim in developing the Leica T was to design the optics of the system to allow the potential of digital photography to be fully exploited. This is what we’ve managed to do. And we can unreservedly say that enlargements of APS-format images are in no way inferior to those of the original 36 mm format.”

R&D work as a type of “modern pentathlon”

Peter Karbe describes this tremendously challenging R&D work as a type of “modern pentathlon” with a final score made up of the points attained in the individual disciplines “top image performance, most compact design, best autofocus, robustness and manufacturability.” It’s no coincidence that he names top imaging performance first. As an optics specialist, he is aware of the excellent reputation enjoyed by Leica lenses all over the world. Equally, he knows that this reputation can only be sustained by fulfilling high expectations every time a new lens generation is launched.

Another new feature is the autofocus in the lenses for the Leica T – a challenge that proved to be quite a headache for the R&D specialists. Accommodating excellent optics in a compact lens and finding room for the autofocus mechatronics at the same time turns the pentathlon into a ‘Games without Frontiers’. “As a result, the new lenses have only one focusing element and a smaller travel to make focusing as fast as possible. The optic elements are smaller in relation to the lens diameter. This does not impair the imaging performance, though,” stresses Peter Karbe. “It’s comparable with the best M lenses, but in a smaller format.”

Highest imaging performance

Peter Karbe knows from his own experience that it’s not only the technical specifications and possibilities that have radically changed but the whole research and development process: “A camera and lens development project used to begin with optical design. Nowadays, electronics are the technology driver, in turn demanding new ideas and adaptations in optics.” This means he and his staff have to keep finding remedies and taking detours, although highest imaging performance is always the ultimate goal.

At the market launch of the Leica T camera system two high-quality compact lenses were presented: The SUMMICRON-T 23mm f/2 ASPH. (equivalent to 35mm fixed focal length) is the smallest APS lens with this focal length and aperture; the all-round zoom lens VARIO-ELMAR-T 18-56 mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH. covers the focal length range from 28 to 85 mm. The recent photokina saw the début of the new generation: the APO-VARIO-ELMAR-T 55-135 mm f/3.5-4.5 ASPH., a high-performance telephoto zoom lens with a focal length range of up to 200 mm and the wide-angle zoom lens SUPER-VARIO-ELMAR-T 11-23 mm f/3.5-4.5 ASPH. (equivalent to 17-35 mm focal length).

A system concept that pays off for customers

To make sure the still relatively small T family doesn’t lose sight of all its relatives, all M lenses can naturally be used on the Leica T via an adapter. The fact that Leica has always been committed to the system concept and has not changed it for decades pays off for customers here, too. “Even in the first weeks and months since the Leica T has been on the market we are already noticing that many customers are just buying the camera body for the time being and using their M lenses on it,” says Oliver Giesenberg. Which definitely suggests that the youngest Leica appeals to the company’s competent and experienced customer base.

But what about the generation of smartphone photographers? Are they a growing majority that will pose a serious problem for Leica sooner or later? Oliver Giesenberg doesn’t think so: “I would say it will have the opposite effect. After all, it’s smartphones that encourage many young people to take up photography in the first place. Some of them enjoy taking photos so much, or want to pursue photography in a more professional way, that the possibilities they have with their integrated smartphone cameras are not enough for them eventually. You can take this step with the Leica T camera system. And I can assure you: as far as the photographic quality is concerned it’s a great step to take!”


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Everything about this entirely new system camera development is essential, nothing superfluous.
Everything about this entirely new system camera development is essential, nothing superfluous.
Leica product engineers Peter Karbe (left) and Oliver Giesenberg. (Image: Michael Agel)
Leica product engineers Peter Karbe (left) and Oliver Giesenberg. (Image: Michael Agel)