Leica and Bauhausian Simplicity of Design
Last updated May 9, 2014
We've noticed a growing trend in the Leicasphere, or rather from those outside of it. While we won't go so far as to call them "haters" there is a certain amount of animosity leveled at the brand because of the perceived notion that Leica is "turning into a luxury brand." To some degree, we will admit - they're not wrong. Thankfully Leica still has, at its core, their most important cameras and what really defines the Leica camera as a beloved tool... The M, S and now T systems.
In this article, we'll take a brief look at what it is about Leica cameras that appeal to us, as Leica photographers. You could think of this as a sister piece to our other articles, Why Buy a Leica? and The Rangefinder Difference. Sort of an in-between article - whereas the former is more logical, the latter more technical - this one is more emotional in spirit.
It's hard to talk about even a digital Leica M and call it a modern design, because the design of the M itself dates back to 1954 with the release of the first M, the M3. Now 60 years old, the design still feels modern - almost timeless. Say what you want about the brand, but as far as the M design is concerned - it has changed very little over the decades. Granted, there's not much to the design; but its simplicity is the key. Even Leica's latest camera system, the T - embraces this German Modernism, or Bauhaus design gestalt. Leica calls this, "das Westenliche" or "the essence." A minimalist design that not everyone seems to understand.
Why did Leica design the T the way they did? Because it follows the proven design ideals of the M and yet embraces the Applesque approach to modern technology - which also favors simplicity and clean design. We doubt that the T system will look dated any time soon. Sure, some will draw a comparison to recent Sony NEX (e.g. NEX 6) cameras which do bear some resemblance to the T camera's design. Why is this a bad thing? It's a good design. Apple did the same thing with many of their products, which borrow heavily from Dieter Rams' designs for Braun. As they say, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." There's also the fact that good designs continue to look good and work well many years later.
The clean design is also directly related to its simplicity. The elimination of superfluous elements and clutter. Speaking from a photographic standpoint, this clearly appeals to many - or Leica wouldn't be as successful as they are today. Granted, things looked grim in 2004, but Leica has rebounded in many ways - and are more popular now than they have been in a long, long time - if ever. Simplicity appeals to both purists and futurists. Both old school analog shooters and the technologically savvy new school photographers.
As with any camera, the photographer must bond with it, mesh with it. If you have to fight with a camera, it makes the entire experience of shooting frustrating. Clearly Leica doesn't have any particular awesome sauce or pixie dust that makes their cameras better than others - but for those that appreciate simplicity, that's all that is necessary. And this is really what makes the M, S and T systems shine. It is said that you can't please everyone all of the time and this is certainly true. That's what makes the variety of cameras available to the modern photographer a beautiful thing - finding a camera (and even an entire system) that they can get on with. One therefore cannot bemoan the "lack of features" inherent in Leica camera designs. If it's all sorts of whizz-bang features you want, perhaps a Leica isn't the camera for you? And that's okay.
There are precisely five controls a camera needs, at its minimum:
Granted, ISO sensitivity is somewhat arguable... But everything besides this, from a purely basic, photographic standpoint - is "fluff." No surprise, then - that the purists among us appreciate a camera that leaves everything up to us. We, as shooters, are the computers - the "features" of the camera. Success or failure is totally up to us and in our hands. One cannot blame the hardware for the shot that was missed (to a point) for if we do our job, the Leica will deliver The Goods. With practice, that is years of shooting - muscle memory will make you fast and proficient with a Leica.
That's not to say you can't do the same with other types of cameras, such as Canon or Nikon DSLRs. All those dials, buttons and joysticks serve a purpose. They're highly configurable and give direct, immediate access to important functions and controls. Take for example, the Nikon D4 pictured below; a sweet camera in its own right. Though the opposite of "simple." Doesn't make it right or wrong - just a different tool. We only show it here to illustrate a difference in design (and product) goals:
We're not arguing that the Leica design is the best or the only way to shoot. Not at all. What it is about however, is the right tool for the job (or photographer). Not everyone appreciates the simple, "featureless" approach. Others swear by it. Live and let live, we say. If you shoot fast-action sports, kids or animals... Of course, a DSLR with a long lens and fast autofocus and frame rate is obviously the better tool. But if you tend to take a more considered approach to shooting, in genres such as fine art, landscapes, portraits, etc. then there's a lot to be said of the simple approach.
There's one thing that one can simply not understand when reading about cameras on the Internet. And it's one of the big reasons that many enjoy a Leica camera. The build quality, along with fit-and-finish. The recent "Most Boring Ad" went viral when it came out alongside the new Leica T. For two very different reasons... Those that appreciated the effort and attention paid to something seemingly so irrelevant - and those that used it as ammunition against Leica's "luxury tax" in pricing. Nevertheless, each side had their day and in the end, guess what? The ad worked! They say, "even bad publicity is good publicity" and if the goal was to get Leica on everyone's mind... Mission accomplished.
But back to the build. Unless you've ever picked up and handled the typical (true) Leica camera, you really can't understand what many of us enjoy. The solidity of the camera. Even the T, which is made of aluminum - is still surprisingly solid and dense. The lenses, regardless of system, are also surprisingly dense - especially lenses like the Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH! You can seriously hurt yourself if you dropped one on your toes. In this world of plasticky, creaky cameras that shoot off of a conveyer belt in a massive factory - there is a lot to be said about Leica's approach.
Some raised a valid point about putting this much effort into a digital camera, which by rights would be obsolete in a couple of years. No doubt. These aren't like an M3, which will still be a usable heirloom decades later. But photography gear shouldn't be about resale value. It's a tool, it's for the here and now - and the shooter's enjoyment of a passion that we all share... Photography. If it makes the photographer happy now, then who cares? Nothing else should matter, let alone to anyone else.
There's another angle in this simplicity of camera design and it's becoming more important by the day. That is technology. Digital cameras for the most part just need to capture a scene. What can be done in post-processing these days is simply amazing compared to what had to be done years ago in a darkroom. Rather than dodging and burning a print, today's cameras capture a wide dynamic range and through careful use of a RAW converter - can further extend that range. Taking multiple shots with staggered exposures, combined in post, result in HDR (High Dynamic Range) images that defy belief. Retouching photos has never been easier or more precise. Color correction, hand coloring, modifying saturation and contrast are all easily accomplished with a few clicks of the mouse.
There's no going back - digital photography is here and it's here to stay. Obviously people will continue to shoot film for as long as it's available and there are cameras that can use it. But modern cameras are all about this digital technology - which is why the Leica T is such a natural design. Of course there's a bit of a marketing angle to Leica's description of the T (what company's products don't?) in being called "the essential." But it merely applies today's technology (digital sensor, touchscreen controls, etc.) to the tried-and-true simple design of the M that came before it.
The M, with its deep roots in analog controls and mechanical heart still works today in the digital world. Precious few cameras today have a clear, optical viewfinder such as that found on the M. Or the absolutely precise feel of the aperture or focus rings of the lenses. Today's cameras more often than not use an EVF (Electronic ViewFinder) and fly-by-wire focus rings. Many have no aperture rings. And that's okay too. Again, we use what we like. Options are good.
Of course, we must mention that one cannot rely on technology alone... Even an Instagram filter can't make an artist out of a monkey (though enough of them can supposedly write Shakespeare). One polarizing topic regarding Leica cameras is the notion that "it will make you a better photographer" with the implied notion that you have to spend so much to get into the system. Missing. The. Point. If you can't operate the simple controls of an M, all the technology in the world won't make you a better photographer - not without work and practice. So in that context, a Leica actually will make you a better photographer! Not because it cost a fortune or because "it's the best" - but because it's the simplest. It removes all distractions and places the onus squarely on you as the photographer.
No, the simple and clean design of the Leica M, S and T systems won't appeal to everyone. They don't have to. But don't knock them, either. There are a lot of shooters that enjoy the simplicity; whether it's because of some old school reasoning, a love for all things analog - or a disdain for a sea of buttons and level upon level of nested menus to navigate on the back of the camera. In the end, the only thing that matters is that the photographer - the actual user of the camera - is comfortable with the tool they're using. The choice they made in gear is the same as the choice you made in yours... A highly personal thing.
One should also not forget the culture that begat the Leica; Germany. To understand a Leica, look at the culture that produced it. Throw in a few generalizations about engineering, manufacturing and craftsmanship prowess and sprinkle with modernism inherent in many German pursuits (e.g. art, construction). If you're German, or at least understand a bit about Germany - the Leica suddenly makes a lot more sense. While one could compare the Leica against the likes of cars such as Porsche, BMW, Audi... Admittedly also "luxury brands" - until you've driven either the cars or the cameras, you may not understand the subtle details that make them so nice.
We hope that Leica continues with the current systems well into the future. Clean, simple design is a breath of fresh air in a crowded market of me-too cameras bristling with specifications and knobs. This article isn't meant to be any sort of justification or rationalizing about why "Leica is the best" or why we should happily pay whatever they ask. Merely a point of view, an opinion (ours) on what makes shooting a Leica such an enjoyable experience for US.