Jesko von Oeynhausen, product manager of Leica's M-series rangefinders, pictured here after an exclusive interview with dpreview in Cologne during the Photokina 2012 trade show. (Photo: Barnaby Britton)

Photokina 2012 is proving a busy show for Leica, with two new M models, the 'M', which succeeds the M9, and offers live view and movie mode, among other refinements, and the ME - a cut-down model, which offers the same functionality as the M9 at a more affordable price. Barnaby Britton caught up with M product manager Jesko von Oeynhausen at the Leica stand.

Jesko, there is a perception among some photographers that the M-series has up to now been a deliberately old-fashioned product line. The new Leica M features live view and movie mode - what has changed since the M9 was released?

The new M is a camera that extends the possibilities of the M system. With live view you can do things that you couldn't do on an M9-P or on any other M camera. The rangefinder is great for photography with wide-angle or standard tele lenses but it is limited to 135mm, so you cannot use large tele lenses, and to get accurate focus takes experience. These limitations are overcome now that we have live view and an electronic viewfinder option. Also zoom lenses are not possible on a classic M model because you're always dependent on the frame lines, but with live view, now you can use zooms, and macro lenses, too.

This is really a revolution for the M system - you can do everything now.

Are these changes that your customers were asking for?

Yes, they were asking for these functions. But at the same time our customers are asking us not to change the essence and keep M as a pure rangefinder system. This is what we have done with the new M - you can do pure rangefinder photography, you don't need to use the live view or video or anything if you don't want to. But if you need it, it's very easy to access. The design of the camera hasn't changed, basically. Only minor things.

How did you achieve the goal of maintaining a traditional purity but adding features?

In the same way as we always do, when making decisions regarding operation - we always want to have everything available directly, and easy to understand, and we added [the new functionality] in an easy way - we just added two buttons: the live view button, which is very simple, on/off, and the movie button. If you don't use [them] everything is like an M9. You have the same buttons, they might look a little different but they have the same functionality, so if you're used to using an M9 you will immediately find what you're looking for.

If there is something that we think is very nice to have for every customer, like focusing with live view, we add a button. We have a dedicated focusing button now, so if you're in live view, you press this button and you can zoom [for accurate manual focus].

The new M features a movie mode - is this something your customers were asking for, too?

Yes, not every customer, but we know that this function will be very attractive amongst some professional and professional users who want to use M lenses for video. This is such a compact solution, you can remain unobtrusive, shooting video with the M, but maintain professional quality. I think the M is the only solution for people who want to use M lenses for shooting video on a full-frame camera. So if you want to film wide-open on a Noctilux, without a crop factor, the M is the solution.

The new Leica M features a 24MP CMOS sensor, live view, and movie mode. The screen has been upgraded to 920k-dots, and you can also attach an EVF to the hotshoe (which can also accommodate a microphone adapter for video) 

Can you explain the nomenclature change, from M8, M9 to 'M'?

We don't want to give our customers the feeling that when the M10 comes out, for instance, that the M9 is suddenly the 'old' model and they have to buy the new one because the old one isn't good enough anymore. We decided that the continuous numbering concept is not the right thing for us in the long term. The Porsche 911 for instance has always been the Porsche 911. The Leica M is a timeless product, and this is what the naming should express.

What are your biggest challenges in the market now, for M?

To produce enough cameras to meet demand! Also, we know that we have two kinds of professional customers [now]. Most of our customers will love the new features, and love live view and video, and everything else that the new M can do, but there are also customers that really want a camera that is reduced to the essentials of rangefinder photography. Maybe they are critical of [features like] live view and video. So we wanted to have a solution for them, which is the ME. It's a great camera, the M9 has proven that it's a great camera.

So the ME is basically an M9?

Technically yes, it's based on the M9, that's no secret, and because we've produced the M9 for three years, all the tools and jigs exist, and they're paid for. So for that reason we can offer the camera at a lower price - 4800 Euros. The only differences are that it does not have a USB socket, and also not the frame line lever on the front. This is the same as the new M.

Why not just sell the M9 at a lower price?

If we had continued the M9 people would have thought 'OK, that's the old camera, I don't want the old one, I want the new one because the new one is the best' but we want to make a statement that there is room for two [new] models. If you're a purist, you can take the ME, and if you're open to new applications, you can have the new M.

Are your customers changing?

Yes, we have observed this, and since the M9 was released we have seen a lot of new customers stepping into the M system. This is the case in every country but especially in Asia, we've reached a lot of new, young customers. The M system is just very popular. You can see that in fashion, for example, too. Last week I was in London, and I found a fashion store that had Leica T-shirts in the window, with old Leicas. Leica cameras are very popular among young people.

These new customers - how do their expectations differ from those of your existing customer base?

It's the new features - they don't understand why any camera wouldn't have live view - they don't see a reason why a camera would omit that function. Older customers know rangefinders and have always been satisfied [by them] and accept the limitations. But new customers find it hard to understand rangefinder photography and what's so popular about it. The M system is more accessible now that we have these features. But I'm also sure that the new customers, once they've learned how to use the rangefinder they will love it and they will appreciate pure rangefinder photography.

So the new customers are excited about the features of the flagship model, but the enthusiast model, the ME, which is more affordable, lacks these features…

Ah, well now you've got me! Maybe we'll get more new customers with the new M than the ME. We cannot offer M at an entry-level price. We want people to understand that the M system is a family. The M, the ME, and the Monochrom. Three parallel models.

Let's talk about the Monochrom quickly. The obvious question is why did you do it?

Why make the Monochrom? Because it just makes sense. In terms of image quality, we always knew that there would be an advantage and we're very pleased that the increase is so easily visible. You really get such crisp images and fine grain and good noise characteristics. People understand that if you have a monochrome sensor you don't need interpolation, the images are more real - more pure. There are real advantages.

 The Leica Monochrom features the same 18MP CCD as the M9/M9-P but without a color filter array, giving 'true' monochrome images.

How many of your customers shoot exclusively in black and white?

I don't have a precise figure of course, but my perception is that a lot of people set their M cameras to black and white.

Could you quickly summarize the difference between converting color images to black and white in this way, and using the Monochrom?

The characteristics of the detail, and the noise. Regarding the noise, it's not just that the Monochrom has a lower level of noise, but if you have a color camera, each noisy pixel is interpolated and blurred, and with the Monochrom this doesn't happen. So you always have the full sharpness. It just looks better.

Older film Leicas have lifespans stretching into the decades - do you think the same is true of the new digital M models? If someone buys an M today, will they still be using it in 60 years time?

I hope so, yes. It's harder than it was with fully mechanical cameras, but this is a unique selling point, I hope, of Leica cameras, that they are an investment, a product that you can have for your lifetime. I don't know how difficult it might be in twenty years to find batteries for these cameras, for example, but we will do everything possible. It's very important for us. For example, we had a problem with M8 displays, that we couldn't repair or replace anymore. In that case, we exchanged those customers' cameras for M9s. Even after the end of the guarantee period, we do not leave you alone if something like that happens.

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