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Sony A7R II: Is it the Death Knell for Leica M?

Get Sony A7R II at B&H Photo.

Mirrorless is sucking the oxygen of the room for the dinosaur DSLR, but for now I see Sony mirrorless as more of an existential threat to the Leica M system. (Actually, the DSLR CaNikon mount has a bright future, if only there were not a complete lack of imagination over in the land of the rising sun. Moribund, hide-bound thinking at CaNikon).

The pace of Leica innovation is very slow and making me very grumpy and costing me money too: Leica adds no value to the M over time, still has only a low-res toy grade EVF on the M240, no meaningful firmware updates (a few fixes for initial design errors and that’s it), a lens line often poorly suited for a digital sensor, manual focus only, camera lockups even in mid 2015 (MM246 and M240), sensor resolution stuck at 24M, service that is months long for some lenses.

Heck, 80% of the potential customer base that can afford an M (older and wealthy) probably can’t focus an M accurately to save their life—it’s an eyesight thing. I use the EVF at maximum magnification, but the low-res crappy EVF for the M240 makes this a chore. That’s why the new Leica Q is important to Leica, and it’s critical that the EVF and AF tech in it make it into a massively revamped dump-the-anachronism-rangefinder M line, yesterday.

Leica is actively devaluing my M investment not just with its failure to innovate, but along with a longstanding Leica M rebate of 12% along with huge oversupply. Leica M lenses have lost considerable value as has the Leica M240. I used to get 90% or so of the new price for M lenses, now they're hard to sell. When one buys a luxury product, the expectation is that it will retain much of its value. Leica is actively undermining that proposition, violating the longstanding expectations and in effect taking money out of my pocket with its discount policies. It eviscerates one saving grace of choosing M over another system.

Famed Leica M lens performance is inferior to Zeiss Otus, and I’d rate the Zeiss Batis as superior to the equivalent Leica M lenses in most all respects, and with autofocus too. And now with the Sony A7R II, one gets a delicious 42 megapixels of detail on the latest and best sensor on the market, vs an aging 24MP sensor for M. Game over? But wait, there’s more.

Sony A7R II with 35/1.4 Distagon

Sony mirrorless is now the weight leader for full frame

Sony is so aggressive it’s impressive. While I get grumpy over some crappy aspects of Sony physical and software design (and I’m baffled why such crap goes into an otherwise fine product), I have tremendous respect for Sony’s competitive chops vs the zero innovation at CaNikon and Leica (Pentax is doing some innovative stuff in the DSLR realm, but no full frame camera as yet).

The longstanding 'killer' advantage of the M system for light weight vs a DSLR remains, but consider just how low in weight the Sony A7R II system is (a little more bulkd but)

A7R II: 625g with battery and memory card vs 720g for M240 + EVF, before adding a grip
Zeiss Batis 25/2:   335g
Zeiss Loxia 35/2:   340g
Sony 35/2.8:        132g
Zeiss Loxia 50/2:   320g
Sony 55/1.8:        281 g
Zeiss Batis 85/1.8: 475g

Sony camera bodies have been sucky and still are in multiple ways: cheap feeling, poor ergonomics, crapware in the menus, rapid depreciation*, and so on. But the A7R II usability is vastly superior to the Leica M for many purposes: autofocus, high-res EVF, much higher megapixels, 4K video, programmable buttons to suit one’s shooting needs, etc*.

* Leica’s stubborn insistence on no customization is outrageous. As a case in point, only a single setting out of the entire Set button group is useful to me, and the video button is a useless wart with no useful purpose to me. This fundamental arrogance pisses me off to no end when using the camera, having wasted my time for years now (20,000 chimping clicks by now to get to menu items?). Sony has multiple programmable buttons and a much more quickly accessible set of customizable menus, so I can set the camera up to my liking.

Dan writes

Thank you for posting this. I really hope it gets through to the powers that be at Leica. It mirrors my thoughts entirely.

For me though, perhaps it's too late because I am for the first time seriously considering dumping all my Leica M gear.

I, too, am very frustrated with this company that has sucked up a lot of my money with the hope of them delivering a consistently solid performance upgrade with time. One that is, at least, in keeping with the much cheaper opposition.

The M9 was brilliant, the M240 was a side step, who knows when the next will come and I don't expect it to be much better.

I really need 50MP and I have no use or interest in a 24MP camera any more. Unfortunately I don't think it is likely to change for at least another five years. It seems this love affair for me is ending.

DIGLLOYD: Dangerous sentiments for the future of Leica. My advice to Leica is to abandon all the goofy collector kits (living off past glory IMO), dump the S line, and move all resources into a bad-ass new M-compatible platform while also extending the Q lineup.

Roy P writes

At this point, the game is already over. It is way too late for Leica to come out with the bad ass new M-compatible mirrorless digital platform. That window was open in 2010 or 2011. Instead of the greedy M9-P, the utterly idiotic T system (yet another mount and a system of lenses?!), the rather pointless M9 Mono, etc., they should have come out with a digital M, and started transitioning out of the RF.

But they squandered the opportunity, and I think it’s now too late. Leica has no choice but to stay within the Rangefinder well, and hope the frogs that live in that well will continue to stay in the well, and continue to be wealthy, status-conscious, and clueless. Venturing out into the general mirrorless market would get Leica slaughtered by Sony, Ricoh, Fuji, Olympus, etc.

The Q actually does make sense for Leica. As a “reportage” camera, a euphemism for point and click, IMHO, it is at least consistent with the Leica M DNA. They should take up your advice and do more variations of the Q.

I also agree they should dump all the idiot collector kits, although that might buy them some brand equity in the Oil countries and with the neuvo riche. But I’d like to see them develop the S system into a more usable and serious medium format camera, with a 60-80MP CMOS sensor and better firmware.

DIGLLOYD: Agreed on the T system, and too many products too ordinary with extraordinary prices. But the game is not over if Leica gets ther sh*t together and innovates. Leica will do just fine selling $5K or $7K autofocus super high performance lenses, which can be designed not for the archaic rangefinder system but for super performance on mirrorless. I have nothing against the S system (I love the lenses nothing can touch them in the MF realm), but the body needs work and a big price drop. As for the Q, the compromised lens with massive distortion relying on software correction really makes it a 20MP camera at best which is mediocre at best in the corners and at the edges. I find it unacceptable in a camera that expensive. But Leica should add a 21mm and 50mm model to round out the line because at its core, the Q is a very nice little shooter in spite of the compromises.

Knut writes:

What about Pentax/Ricoh:

- They fork out a digital medium format (considered amazing compared to it's pricy‎ competition)
- They will add full frame very soon
- 4k time lapse is a standard in all their lines‎ (from APSC, full frame to medium format)
- IBIS availlable in their APSC (Pentax first!) and
- and full-frame line (in contrast to Canikon)
- In camera GPS astrotracer for long exposures of celestrial bodies (unavailable in any other mount)
- water resistant body and lenses since ages
- low battery consumption (especially helpful outdoors)
- all lines safe to use at minus10 degrees C‎elsius
- ‎Pixel shift in their APSC and coming full-frame line
- much more extensive line of lenses available than Sony (many new, but especially a slew of very good used ones. [some need hunting])
- Ricoh GR best value for money APSC ‎compact
- most flexible in camera‎ jpg engine
- one of the most flexible in camera white balances
(I HATE post processing ‎on a computer at home. A huge waste of time)
- one of the fastest frame rates in their respective category (8- 9 fps APSC, 3fps medium format)
- flexible moire filter through variable sensor shake
- 3mm shift with all their lenses through sensor shift (not extensive, but quite appreciable‎ when needed. I often have it on when photographing in the mountains or in town)
- very reasonable ergonomics
- above average build quality

DIGLLOYD: Yes, among all the other manufacturers besides Sony, Pentax is the only other innovated. That said, much of the above is not innovation; I take it as a given/requirement ( ergonomics, build quality, etc).

Medium format is hugely expensive, bulky and heavy, and in a realm of its own. Does the Pentax 645Z innovate ? Not much. It’s just another medium format camera, albeit a very well done one. Does it have pixel shift or IBIS or the other real innovationes noted above? No.

I’ve praised the Ricoh GR extensively. Love it. But it is APS-C with a fixed lens.

The Pentax full frame camera to my knowledge lacks a formal spec list and feature set from Pentax. When and if it appears, I expect it will carry at least the features of the K3-II, some of which are terrific and some of which drove me bananas in the field. Pixel shift on full frame should rock, but zero of my Zeiss lenses will work on it, and the Pentax FF lens line is very sparse, having no truly high performance lenses designed for digital, though possibly I am mistaken and there are one or two—doesn’t matter really, point is made. The Pentax medium format lenses have a few good ones (very few), but these are heavy and awkward.

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