Interview: Leica at PPE 2011

Away from the hustle and bustle of Leica's stand, we sat down to chat with Christian Erhardt - Vice President of Marketing in Leica's photographic division, Jesko von Oeynhausen - Product Manager for the Leica M system, and Justin Stailey - product Specialist for the Leica M-System.

Christian Erhardt - Vice President of Marketing in Leica's photographic
division - shows off the Leica M9-P, X1 and medium-format S2 after an
exclusive interview with dpreview.com at the PPE show in New York.

We started by asking the group what sort of feedback M9 and M9-P owners were giving Leica. According to von Oeynhausen, 'in general the feedback is that the M9 is exactly what they expected - the really appreciate that the M9 is a 'real' Leica M product.' He went on: 'people like the full-frame sensor because it's like real 35mm photography - there really aren't a lot of requests for additional features'. Also like the classic M series cameras of old, Erhardt insists 'the shutter lag on the M9 is extremely short'.

'We've been making mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras since the 1920s'

We asked the group what they thought of the current energy in, and growing popularity of the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera market.

Erhardt explained 'when it comes to interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras we have the M system. The M system is perfect'. 'Leica has been making mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras since the 1920s' Stailey pointed out - 'it's our history, it's our heritage'.  

Erhardt went on: 'Leica has always been at the forefront of putting big sensors into small cameras. We were one of the first manufacturers to put an APS-C format sensor into a compact camera (the Leica X1, introduced in 2009), and to this day we still have trouble catching up on demand.' 

Von Oeynhausen went on - 'we see a lot of young customers, infected by the Leica virus and their dream is to own an M9 but they're price-conscious so the X1 is a great opportunity to get into Leica. It's like a small Leica M'.

Speaking of young customers, we pushed Erhardt on how Leica was planning on growing its user-base in such a tough financial climate, and he pointed to the ready availability of M8 and M8.2s on the second-hand market - 'we had a very successful run with the M9, and as a consequence a lot of users put their M8s and M8.2s up for sale, and they retail for about $2800 used, which is allowing a lot of people, including students, to enter the M system'.

'We don't add features for the sake of adding features'

We asked whether Leica had considered adding live view functionality to the M9, given its ubiquity in the market, and the fact that even Leica's first M-mount camera, the M3, offered direct film-plane viewing (via a ground glass screen). Von Oeynhausen told us 'taking pictures with live view, it's not really the style of photography that you use M system products for'.

Ultimately though, the reasons seem to be technical,at least in part. As Stailey told us, 'live view would be impractical with the M9's sensor. It's a full-frame CCD, and we looked into [adding live view] in development, but if we offer a function, it has to be perfect'. One of the challenges of full-frame (which in this context isn't a reference to size, but to a specific sensor technology) CCD sensors is that they require mechanical shutters. Unlike interline CCDs and CMOS sensors, they cannot be electronically shuttered.

Erhardt went on: 'for the future, of course we monitor every new technology that appears and we always wany to make innovative products. If we think of [a new feature] that would fit the M system we're happy to implement it'. But, added Stailey, 'we don't add features just for the sake of adding features'.

'When you buy a Leica you become part of a family'

We asked the group how Leica aimed to distinguish itself from other manufacturers in the consumer digital imaging market. 'When you buy a Leica you become part of a family' explained Erhardt. Even if you come in at the bottom, with a V-Lux compact, 'the customer service, the personalized service, the technical advice […] you might not get that from another manufacturer'. He went on; 'our cameras don't just come with a 90-day warrantee, they come with a minimum of 2 years'. 

Von Oeynhausen explained 'its a decision of design and taste. A Leica is a desirable object'. Unlike buying and owning products from another brand, added Erhardt, 'it's a worry-free experience. We are there for you, and we will be there for you in the future'.

'If you stand still, someone will take your spot'

Speaking of the future, we asked the group what the next few years held for Leica. Erhardt stressed that he doesn't have any cause to worry: 'the Leica brand is very popular - we still can't build M9s fast enough, although we're catching up.' We asked the group whether Leica was encouraged by the popularity of 'classic'  styled cameras like Fujifilm's X100 among today's enthusiasts - 'it's a good sign for us that the market reacted [with excitement]' said von Oeynhausen, 'but we're not a 'retro' brand - we make premium products'. 

One of these products of course is the medium format S2 - Leica's 37.5MP flagship. According to Erhardt, the S2 has received a lot of interest from 'working professionals' and gave the example of Annie Liebowitz - 'she used to use M7s and she wAs one of our first customers for an S2'. Von Oeyenhausen went on: 'we're in the same position now as we were in the 1980s when we brought out the M6 - the potential to grow is huge'.

We asked Erhardt whether he saw the Leica brand changing significantly in the medium-term: 'of course you have to reinvent yourself' he said, adding 'it's just a question of how you do it. if you stand still, someone will take your spot, and we have no intention of letting that happen'.