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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Leica Module R Discontinued

Rob Galbraith has reported that the Leica Digital Module R, which transforms the R8 and R9 SLRs into DSLRs, has been discontinued.

This is presumably because [Warning! Snarky comment alert! Incoming!], like everything else having to do with the R line since, maybe, oh, the 1980s, it was selling poorly.

On the good side of the ledger, despite the numerous egregious flaws identified by people who [Incoming! Incoming!] have not had a bowel movement yet this decade, the M8 is proving to be a successful and robust design among those who actually use it to take pictures with; and it, by most accounts, is selling briskly, deservedly so.



Blogger Mike Hess Photography said...

Why is it that the R series was never well received. Considering I have only been shooting for about ten years and am only 26 years old, maybe I missed the boat on R ripping. From what I have seen (having the exceptional experience of playing with one for about ten minutes in a used camera store) they don't seem to be bad bodies. I also don't get why everyone creams all over themselves while talking about Nikon F bodies (again my experience is locked up in having played with an F4 for about ten minutes.) Having migrated to Canon EOS-1 bodies from Pentax all I can say is that for a pro system the Canon is adequate. It is over priced and not especially great. Maybe that is the problem with the R series? Anyways, the best camera system I have ever owned was the Pentax. I had the MZ-S body, which was discontiued by some pencil pusher. Aside from six months of repair problems(not associated with Pentax, but a third party) this was easily the best camera design I have ever come across. In addition, the Pentax lenses were optically superior to anything I have every shot pictures with and less expensive. If only Pentax had the financial clout to take on Canon and Nikon five years ago, maybe everyone would be talking about F bodies like they do Leica's R.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Player said...

Leica Module R = $5999.00

Are there questions?

2:59 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

The "problem" of the R has never entirely been a matter of the cameras, but of acceptance. Early on, Leica made the beautifully crafted Leicaflex SL and SL2, which were late to the SLR party and, in terms of features, obsolescent when new. They were big and heavy (the oppposite of the original Barnack-camera ethos--Barnack had been against adding a rangefinder to the original Leicas because it would make them larger) and very expensive. Then Leica entered into a cooperative agreement with Minolta, and the R3 and R4-R7 were based on Minolta bodies, which was fine in terms of operability but didn't help their status, especially with diehard Leicaphiles.

Later, Leica just got caught in the same switches everybody else did in the mid to late '80s. Some makers opted to follow Minolta into AF, and others didn't—and those who didn't turned out to have simply made the wrong decision, as the market moved decisively to AF and left manual systems behind.

(Ironically, AF probably killed Minolta in the end. The company never quite recovered from the huge and onerous patent-violation judgments leveled against it by U.S. courts on behalf of Honeywell.)

Then in a belated effort to resurrect sales of R lenses and accessories, Leica took the proceeds from its public IPO and sunk it all into a new SLR, the R8. The R8, which I once [snarkily!] dubbed "The Hunchback of Solms," should have been called the Leicaflex SL3, as it was all-Leica, beautifully made, and had the exact same problems the original Leicaflexes did--it was big and heavy, very late to the game, and obsolescent when it was first introduced.

The one thing that none of this has ever been able to quite eclipse is that the R line of lenses is the all-time highest quality lens line ever made for 35mm photography, IMNSHO. Not all the lenses are equally good, not all of them are affordable, not all of them are terribly practical, and isolated lenses by other makers are as good as, or in rare cases slightly better than, their R counterparts; but considering the line as a whole you can't do better purely for optical quality.


3:09 PM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

Mike J's remarks present an excellent, concise history of the Leica R system. Leica has distinguished its photographic brand as highly-crafted nostalgic gear at boutique pricing. That has been effective for their M line cameras but not for the R line.

Having just taken delivery of an M8 during the past week I can say that it provides an intriguing platform for Leica's (and Zeiss') M-mount lenses. Rather like the difference between slr and rangefinder photography since their inceptions, the M8 maintains that interesting difference in the digital world. The M8 is not nearly as reliable or robust as a top-line dslr (ex: don't even think about shooting in the rain or snow) but it's an enjoyable experience comparable to, and better in many ways than, its film M predecessors.

I strongly suspect that the latest new management at Leica realized that the R line, and DMR, represented also-ran entries that had no chance of becoming profitable lines. I salute them for apparently devoting their scarce resources toward more profitable and popular ventures. Perhaps Leica has some tricks up its sleeve for tomorrow but what they really need now is today.

4:35 PM  
Blogger BayAreafilmguy said...

I honestly have no idea how Leica even stays in business. Don't get me wrong, they have beautiful well engineered products, but exactly how many people today will drop 3K on a film based range finder?

Yes there now is the M8 on the market, but again how many will spend 4K + on this? And then drop another 2K per lens (manual focus)? How do salesman talk the average joe into one of these?

I'm guessing their sales are dropping just as fast as Hasselblads, who have already started to pare down the line they offer. In five years time I think they'll both be near death (and yes, I do have a Hasselblad that I love!)

4:42 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"I honestly have no idea how Leica even stays in business."

It almost hasn't. It's been on the brink several times in the past few years. Leica has been kept alive not necessarily because it makes hardnosed business sense, but because it DESERVES to be kept alive.

One hopes that the eventual model will mimic important historical marque that nearly went bankrupt and eventually came back strong based on lifestyle- and brand-marketing as welll as good products. There is no other Leica, and there never can be. It is worth keeping alive, worth saving when it has been saved, and one hopes it will prosper permanently in the end. It is not helped by the unreasonable snobbishness of some of its boosters, but perhaps it can overcome that too.


6:17 PM  
Blogger Colin [] said...

The M8 is not nearly as reliable or robust as a top-line dslr (ex: don't even think about shooting in the rain or snow)

Whilst the basic statement is probably true, you are allowed to get an M8 wet you know. If my M8 wasn't used in the rain, it would never get used.

It also comes with a one year accidental damage 'waterproofing' guarantee.

4:03 AM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

Leica DESERVES to be kept alive? I'm sure many camera buffs share the same hope, but who will maintain the life support if not paying customers? Unfortunately, it's the market, not sentiment, that makes the determination of which companies live or die. Leica is learning the cold, hard facts of business that film manufacturers are facing: it takes customers and profits to remain viable in the market place.

4:54 AM  
Blogger Player said...

Thinking about it further, I guess the cost of the Leica Module R isn't that big of an issue insofar as it's for photographers who already own the R system, and want to take advantage of their Leica lenses in the digital medium.

It seems the M system has survived, sort of like a great white shark, because it doesn't have predators/competition to worry about. It seems pretty difficult to reconcile the purchase of an R system because of predators like Nikon and Canon that pretty much offer just as much for much less cash, so the R system sort of swims around like a big fat yellow tuna. :)

6:59 AM  
Blogger Hank said...

With the M line now in the digital domain perhaps Leica can take its mastery of all things optical and leverage the expertise of other manufacturers through the embrace of an open platform for it's DSLR development. If the next Olympus 4/3 pro camera is a success, then 4/3 may survive to offer a development environment for Leica to produce a truly modern Pro SLR without having to shoulder the cost of a proprietary system.

7:56 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Unfortunately, it's the market, not sentiment, that makes the determination of which companies live or die."

Spoken like a textbook conservative (and that's not meant as an insult unless you're disposed to take it that way), but that's not exactly true. Businesses can be kept alive for all kinds of reasons, and some of them can be sentimental. I know of commrcial galleries kept alive by fond husbands so their wives have something to do, divisions of larger companies kept alive because their products were the foundation of the original company, publications kept alive by families so the publisher can have a job, corporations that endure "loss leaders" for the sake of prestige--I'm sure the list of examples could be as long as your arm, if you had the patience to research it. I'm not a Leica insider and I don't know the whole scoop about that company's various brushes with bankruptcy over the past decade, but I'd be very surprised if sentimentality (and the desire to preserve the marque) played no role in the decision of any of its investors to invest in it.


12:24 PM  
Blogger Hank said...

"it takes customers and profits to remain viable in the market place."

Yes but how do you get customers and profits? Successful businesses have a vision, the profits are a by product. Focus on profits and you are not likely to have any. The brand equity that Leica has built over the years has a real monetary value and it has probably kept them aflost despite some less then stellar management decisions. People buy products primarily for emotional reasons, who needs an 4WD truck to go to the mall or a gas guzzling V8 in a 55 MPH world. If reason ruled we would all be driving Toyota Corollas.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Sentimentality is important to all of us, indeed. I don't think I'll ever own an Aston Martin, but I'd hate to see those disappear. I think brands like Leica give the photographic world glamour, even for those who don't own one. Sort of the thing you can dream about having when you finally make it, as so much nice and expensive stuff I don't own.
An artist has style, by definition. Once you've evolved, accepting you are happier using a stylish and functional tool rather than just a functional one is wise, in my opinion.

2:02 PM  
Blogger BayAreafilmguy said...

Well let's hope Leica, much like Ferrari, will live even though it only commands a very small market share (I have no idea, less than 1% ?) Unfortunately in my area, San Francisco, I don't know of a single dealer that has Leica in a retail showroom (and no Hasselblads either). This tells me that surviving as a company under those conditions has to be difficult. There are only so many old timers who will buy M7's as collectables, and a limited market even for the M8's. As far as companies that "deserve" to be kept alive, well that's another question.

2:16 PM  
Blogger robert e said...

Lest people get the wrong idea, the M's are not fragile hothouse flowers. By all accounts and evidence, they are very capable tools, still standing up to extreme professional abuse. On the contrary, I think the robustness of their cameras may have been at times detrimental to Leica's bottom line. Why buy a new M when a used M does all you want for as long as you'd want for half the price, and will depreciate little, if at all?

The price of admission may be relatively high, but from what I've heard, it would seem that with the M's at least, you either get your money's worth or get your money back, and sometimes both.

If anyone knows different, I'd like to know...before I do something foolish.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

robert e,
It's true...and I'd even go a little further. I think Leica's modern reputation is founded on the fact that in the 1960s and '70s, there were all those nice 1950s M3's and M2's sitting on photo dealers' used shelves. A whole generation of wannabe art-photographer/photojournalists grew up using old cast-off 1950s rangefinders because they were cool and affordable and had their own distinctive ethos. And not all of them stayed wannabees...they became in many cases the defining photographers of their generation. It's not too different from what happened in the 1970s when art photographers, looking for ways to work that were distinctive, noticed that there were all sorts of no-longer-needed but still very useful 8x10 Deardorffs sitting on used shelves and going for cheap. It caused a mini-renaissance in LF art photography.

You've put the case very nicely when it comes to film M's: "you either get your money's worth or get your money back." So long as you're talking about film cameras, and as long as you buy used to begin with. I doubt the same thing is going to be true of many digital cameras, Leicas or not.


5:34 PM  
Blogger Nemo said...

I have a simpler explanation for the end of the DMR: Imacon/Hasselblad had problems with Leica and the agreement has finished. Leica had hard times trying to catch the demand. It wasn't a failure at all.
Leica is working on a R10, a full digital version of the R9 cameras. I hope and wish it would be a 35mm full frame camera with focus confirmation, to be presented in 2007.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

"Lest people get the wrong idea, the M's are not fragile hothouse flowers. By all accounts and evidence, they are very capable tools, still standing up to extreme professional abuse."

Very true of the old film M cameras, Robert, such as the all-analog models earlier than the M7. (I suspect that my M7 could take a little bit of abuse but since it features some electronics, its lack of environmental sealing puts it at greater hazard to weather.)

In fairness, however, film cameras are little more than light-tight boxes. Granted the M's rangefinder is quite mechanically complex and the shutter mechanism must be precise. So relatively little could go bad with the old all-analog M cameras.

The M8 is a different story. It has the same sturdy made-of-brass feeling as its predecessors. But its lack of environmental sealing leaves the camera's extensive electronics in jeopardy. The owners' manual even features a warning not to use the camera in the rain.

Due to extreme humidity, I doubt that I'll even try to use mine in a "hot house". It's very much a fair-weather / indoor camera.

7:58 PM  
Blogger JackMacD said...

As far as build quality:
I dropped a 1Ds on a climb, the metal housing dented, and tilted the flash shoe and knocked out the ability to see the red focus spots. But it has kept shooting.
I smashed a M8 into bricks on a fall and there was no noticeable scratch much less a dent. The rangefinder went out of alignment but I kept shooting until off assignment. I wish I could day the same about my shoulder, I'm still under treatment. I have shot both in the snow. I do prefer the EOS in the rain, but I now use the M8 for all but sports and architecture.
As a by the book conservative and sentimental I think the M8 is rescuing the company. They can't keep up with demand yet, and I agree that their resources should move to the future with a full digital R just for those who have already invested in the R lenses. However, I await a smaller lighter 1DsIII with better lenses, or Leica making SLR lenses for a Canon mount.

9:30 PM  
Blogger robert e said...

Mike and Ken, thanks for clarifying the M talk, and for sharing your thoughts and experiences. About the only M kit I could put together today would likely involve some beat up old M3...though I expect it would serve this photo-luddite just fine, thank you.

But I take it the question in the air for Lieca watchers is whether the next R body will be a digital Leica...or a "retro" film Cosina.

10:39 PM  
Blogger Nemo said...

It is very simple: Canon didn't allow Leica to make lenses for the EOS mount.
In any case, Canon lenses are very, very good, and Leica lenses too expensive. Only in a few cases (maybe ultrawides) Leica (or Zeiss) lenses would be competitive. That is not the way to follow.
The R10 with a 35mm full frame sensor and focus confirmation, at a reasonable price (take the M8 as a reference) is all that is needed now, and it is not so difficult to do. I am sure Leica is working (at the design stage) on it from a long time ago, and they know very well what to do and how to do it. The only problem is where to find the resources for that project. They need to make profits this year.
I hope they can present the R10 this year, even if it effectively ships next year. 20 additional months of developement is too much for the R line at this moment if no information is provided to actual and potential owners of R lenses.

4:27 AM  
Blogger JRA said...

"Businesses can be kept alive for all kinds of reasons, and some of them can be sentimental."

Mike, all your reasons have one common component: they all rely upon another area of the business for money. The gallery owner has a husband making good profits elsewhere; large companies have other products and/or brands making profit which can be used to support the sentimental, foundation product; the publishing family probably has a small fortune saved from the profitable past; loss leaders are meant to draw in customers in the hopes they spend money on the other, (usually highly) profitable products. Supermarkets create a loss leader, like putting milk on sale, in order to draw people into the store to spend money on other items which make the supermarket a profit. That's why milk is also in the back of the store, so you are forced to walk by everything else and that may spur you to buy something on a whim. Supermarkets aren't thinking about helping the American dairy farmer, but about attracting customers to make a profit.

All this means that if Leica does not have another arm of the business with profits (and willing shareholders) to support the nostalgic/losing business, then it cannot help but go out of business. Another option is Leica being owned by a profitable company that will keep them in business in order to exploit the nostalgia for marketing purposes. Eg. if Nikon owned Leica, they can say, "Look, we saved this venerable brand," plus they can push profits from the Nikon brand side of the business into the Leica brand side.

As it stands, are sales of the M8 enough to have provided support for the SLR side of Leica? Who knows? I think John Roberts was talking about Leica as a whole company and not the SLR side alone. In the case of Leica the company, they cannot afford to stay afloat if they are not profitable as a whole. Unless all the shareholders are camera buffs, the shareholders/debt issuers would shut down Leica if the future did not look profitable. I believe most debt issuers and shareholders are financial institutions who want to make a profit and, unfortunately, they could care less about Leica's history (other than how it relates to future profits). I would argue that Woolworth was a nostalgic brand, but when it came down to them being unprofitable and defaulting on debt, they were finally closed for good because debt holders knew they would never get 100% of their money back and wanted to escape with something. It stinks, but that's business, especially if you go public or issue debt.

Leica's hope is what they are doing: make it a luxury brand like swiss watches.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

I take your points, but I think your conclusions are not right in this case. I believe Leica has operated at a loss at various times and I'm quite sure that several of the major stockholders are committed, passionate Leicaphiles deliberately trying to help preserve the company.


11:03 AM  
Blogger JRA said...

"I'm quite sure that several of the major stockholders are committed, passionate Leicaphiles deliberately trying to help preserve the company."

Well, that makes for a very unique case. I tend to be a purist about many things and so it's good to see there are others willing to preserve something they love.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Hank said...

Leica can't survive indefinitely as a luxury prestige brand only, it didn't acquire it's brand equity that way. I believe it's customer base is getting on in years so it needs to reach a new audience for it's future.

RF photography will never again dominate the 35mm space as it once did but it still could be a healthy sized niche - and not just for collectors and retro nostalgia buffs. For certain types of wide angle and intimate/documentary photography it still is a very viable professional alternative.

As some one else pointed out Leica's DSLR offering doesn't enjoy any of the unique advantages of it's RF system. There they are exposed to direct competition from the big boys. If they are going to play in that space in the digital age Leica will have to be more nimble and learn how to leverage the skills of partners. Leica glass alone will not provide enough value added to sustain an expensive and technically behind the times SLR platform.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Karl Ivan Froestad Nes said...

Photographers have got a hangup on the technical specifications of cameras. You find them devoting more time to discussing camera bodies than lenses, actually you seldom hear them speaking of lenses, which is strange considering that it is the lens that makes the images; not the camera! (Digital partly exluded, but then we might aswell talk about diffrent films). All in all what is the camera but merely a wind mechanism for the film, or a container of image files, with a more or less accurate lightmeter which is nowhere near as good as a separate one. So, the choosing of a camera comes down to three simple things: Firstly your personal prefference in lenses. Secondly the lightmeter (the Pentax LX is sensitive down to -9EV wins this, closely followed by the Olympus OM3 & OM4 which is sensitive down to -7EV, followed by Leica R8 and R9, though the lightmeter in the Leicas has a faster respons than the two above. Canon and Nikon cameras barely dips below the zero, Nikons are usually sensitive to +4, in case you did not know. The third thing in chosing a camera body is how funktional and comfortable it has been laid out and how efficient it is to work on. This Leica has done exactly correct, the R8 and R9 is to my experience the fastest camerabodies to work on of all to date. For professionals this should be an essensial thing. Spend some time in -15 degrees unable to shoot of your Nikon camera because you are wearing gloves and you get an idea about the importance of ergonomics. Waste half an hour on a job trying to find out how to switch your Canon over to all-manual, because doesn't manage the lighting conditions and its too dark for the auto focus to work, and you have had your first glimps into the importance of funktionality. Like the supporters of football teams, humans tend to get hangups on particular brands, not to speak of camera specifications; that they will never use, and didn't need in the first place. In the end it is just down to a sheer lack of reflectation and really see (which is a photographers jobb) what they in fact are observing. That the Leica R8 and R9 does not have the sales figures of the top of the range Canons and Nikon is near commical in its tragedy especially when considerering that the cameraman who did the Canon commercials did them on a Leica R9.

7:01 AM  
Blogger tommytommy said...

The ONLY feature the R8 and R9 lack is autofocus. In every other way they are copletely up to date. The handling is second to none, though you you have to use one for a while (and have sufffered with other SLRs) to properly appreciate it. Most noticeable is the amazing solid feel, and impeccable and precision and finish. To hold one is to want one.

They were expensive new, but second-hand they can be had for relative peanuts. The lenses remain expensive, but that just encourages you to buy only what you really NEED and ;learn to use them properly.

I admit they are heavy, but they are so lovely to use that can be forbidden. If you need an SLR, and don't need AF an R8 or R9 has to be a serious contender.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"The ONLY feature the R8 and R9 lack is autofocus"

...That, and they shoot film. If the Nikon F6 is anachronistic--and it is--then so is the R9.


9:01 AM  

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