New Leica "CCDgate" Scandal Afoot?

Since as early as 2010, users have reported issues with "spots on the sensor" of their Leica M9 cameras (which only came out the previous year on September 9, 2009 - 9/9/9). While this is nothing new when it comes to digital photography, these "spots" seem to be of a more nefarious origin... So-called "corrosion of the sensor cover glass" as explained by Leica Camera AG marketing person J.J. Viau. There also seems to be some confusion or misinformation regarding the cleaning of these sensors. The impact is far-reaching, affecting the Leica M9, M9-P, M-E and M Monochrom cameras - the former two are now discontinued, but the latter two are still in production - and all use the same sensor, more or less. The message seems to be, whether or not you're wet cleaning your sensors - you could be on your own.


See below for updates to this developing story!

Consider also our informal poll and discussion.

Leica has made their official response!

Past Issues

This is not the first major issue facing Leica. The M9 has had many problems since its introduction, such as the sensor cover glass cracking randomly, delaminating, the low battery issue and SDHC card compatibility. Recall also the Leica M8 issues with sensors and LCDs - even the early Leica M (Type 240) was not immune. The most recent big issue was the APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH debacle.

Is Your Camera Affected?

This issue potentially affects any Leica M9, M9-P, M-E and M Monochrom digital cameras utilizing the (originally Kodak, now On Semiconductor) KAF-18500 sensor. The sensors are essentially all the same when it comes to the Schott S8612 cover glass that is the root of the problem. While the M Monochrom sensor stack is slightly different, it is irrelevant in the context of this issue. By extension, it also affects any special editions based on this sensor, including the M9-P Edition Hermès, M9-P Meisterstück, M9-P White, M9-P Montreux Jazz Festival, M9-P Silver/Red Leather, M Monochrom Ralph Gibson and M Monochrom Silver Anniversary. Worse yet, it also affects the very expensive M9 Titanium and M Monochrom of the Edition 100 set. Even the recently announced and one-off M-E Kinderlachen. Ouch.

This issue does not affect the Leica M8/M8.2 or current M (Type 240) cameras. They both use different sensors.

You can verify if your camera is affected specifically by performing a quick test. One such test is to wait for a nice day, with a clear blue sky so as to have a bright, even "background" that will make the spots stand out. Close the aperture of the lens down; f/11-f/16 should do it - and take a picture of the sky. Then on your computer, examine the image at 100% and look for spots.

Black spots or streaks indicate dust, dirt, oil, etc. on the sensor - this can typically be removed without issue (though removing them could theoretically cause or exacerbate it according to Leica). The actual problem is indicated by white spots or what look like Newton's Rings surrounding spots (indicating what some are calling "delamination" - more likely something between the sensor and cover glass). They cannot be removed (and will likely get worse with time). Here are four examples of what it looks like:

Leica M9 sensor defect exampleLeica M9 sensor defect example
 
 
 
Leica M9 sensor defect exampleLeica M9 sensor defect example

Initial Leica Response

This is the first public response and acknowledgement of the issue coming from Leica, on November 14, 2014:

Based on this thread, we feel the need to clarifying a couple of things about the sensor marks issue you have been experiencing. The issue is linked with corrosion effects on the cover glass of the CCD sensor in Leica M9, M9-P, M Monochrom and M-E cameras. They manifest themselves as marks on images captured at smaller apertures (f/5.6-22). The new Leica M (Type 240) with the CMOS sensor is not affected by this problem. We are truly sorry for the inconvenience encountered and we have set up the following scheme for servicing the sensors of the products affected. Please be aware that a contact-free cleaning of the sensor is essential in preventing the issue.

  • Customer care will perform sensor cleaning free of charge by prior arrangement.
  • In the case of damage as a result of corrosion, the sensor will be replaced free of charge up to three years following the date of purchase. Leica Camera AG will cover the full costs of replacement, amounting to 1,800 euros plus applicable VAT. This does not apply to sensors damaged by scratching or breakage of the sensor glass.
  • In the fourth and fifth year following the date of purchase, sensors damaged by the corrosion effects described will be replaced for a fixed charge of 600 euros plus applicable VAT. Leica Camera AG will cover the remaining costs of 1,200 euros.
  • In the sixth and seventh year following the date of purchase, sensor replacement will be offered at a fixed charge of 1,200 euros plus applicable VAT. Leica Camera AG will cover the remaining costs of 600 euros.
  • For the eighth and more years following the date of purchase, sensor replacement will be offered at a fixed charge of 1,500 euros plus applicable VAT. Leica Camera AG will cover the remaining costs of 300 euros.
  • The prices stated apply for direct shipment of the camera to Leica Customer Care in Wetzlar or the Customer Care department of a national distributor. Additional costs may arise when the camera is sent to Leica through a dealer.
  • Mandatory warranty conditions will apply after customers have taken advantage of the extended goodwill arrangement.
  • As longer waiting times may otherwise occur, the camera should only be sent to Customer Care after prior arrangement.

We will continue watching this thread so you are welcome to react here.

^JJ with Leica-camera

A follow-up message on November 26, 2014 does not clarify things - in fact, makes the opposite statement regarding sensor cleaning and whether or not it should be done in a dry, contact-free fashion - such as with a blower... Or by wet cleaning, suggesting isopropyl alcohol which is what Leica themselves use.

As promised, we´d like to address a number of questions you have regarding the issue with our CCD sensor and be as clear as possible.

First let us state that we regret any inconveniences you may face and do investigate measures to durably fix the problem while still offering the best possible optical performance.

By a repair, we replace the CCD sensor with a sensor of the same type we use for serial production. We can thus not exclude totally a new case of corrosion after repair. Therefore, the goodwill arrangement also applies for a replaced sensor, which shows signs of corrosion. In these cases we will consider the sensor replacement date the same as the purchasing date.

We think that any potential damages of the sensor surface can occur due to cleaning the sensor and can lead to corrosion. We, therefore, advice to clean the sensor without touching it or in a dust-free environment such as in Leica Customer Care. We don’t want to convey the impression that you are not able to clean the sensor yourselves. If you are confident performing a sensor cleaning yourself, you may do so. But please be aware that the risk, when using wet cleaning solutions in the field, is higher.

At Leica, we use “Isopropanol” (isopropyl alcohol) and the following tools to clean the sensor, in the production as well as by the Customer Care:

Pentax Image Sensor Cleaning Kit, O-ICK1:
Sensor Cleaning Kit

Cleaning swabs made by ‘Visible Dust’:
Camera sensor cleaning — Arctic Butterfly sensor brush, loupe, swabs, liquids

With great care and attention, you may also use these for cleaning the sensor yourselves. Essential for not damaging the sensor is to painstakingly observe the manufacturers’ instructions and only work with new and unsoiled cleaning aids. We kindly ask you for your understanding that sensors showing visible mechanical scratch marks occurring from improper cleaning attempts cannot be covered by the warranty and goodwill arrangement. This is also the reason why we offer to perform cleaning at the Leica Customer Care, free of charge and as often as needs to be.

Should you be considering an upgrade to a Leica M or M-P (Type 240), Customer Care will make you an attractive offer as a part of our goodwill arrangement.

JJ Viau - Digital Marketing with Stefan Daniel - Director Product Management Photo
Leica Camera

So there seems to be a bit of blaming users for cleaning their sensors here; again, this is not an uncommon practice with digital cameras. In closing, there's the suggestion that one solution might be to upgrade to the latest Leica M (Type 240), which does not have this issue. This offer has been extended to M8 users as well, for different reasons. If you're one of the earlier adopters of the M9 as many are... You're going to be very much out of luck - and on the hook for some serious coin to have the issue addressed. Also, the turnaround is some three months currently. First it is suggested that "...contact-free cleaning of the sensor is essential in preventing the issue" yet later back-pedaling with, "At Leica, we use “Isopropanol” (isopropyl alcohol) and the following tools to clean the sensor, in the production as well as by the Customer Care." The latter is backed up by this old "Assembling the M9" video (watch at 16:00).

Smelling somewhat of a cover up - or at least trying not to encouraging people to wet clean their sensors, Leica has removed references to wet cleaning sensors from their website over the past few days. Here's what it used to look like:

Leica sensor wet cleaning instructions

The Problem

No other manufacturer blames users for causing corrosion by wet cleaning their sensors. Sure, if you scratch it when trying to clean it - it's obviously on you. But this is different, and there's a clear case of misinformation coming from Leica. Is this a design or manufacturing defect? That is still very much in debate... Though it's worth pointing out that this issue has affected cameras that have never had their sensors cleaned. It seems that even living in a humid environment could cause this, as the Schott S8612 glass is sensitive to it. Wet cleaning then, it seems, can exacerbate the issue. Here is what Schott, manufacturer of the cover glass says in their product catalog about it (see page 24):

Schott glass corrosion warning


Similar warnings appear in the KAF-18500 Sensor Specifications (see page 26). In fact, there are several warnings, including:

The cover glass is highly susceptible to particles and other contamination. Perform all assembly operations in a clean environment.

Improper cleaning of the cover glass may damage these devices. Refer to Application Note Image Sensor Handling Best Practices.

Exposure to excessive humidity may affect device characteristics and may alter device performance and reliability, and therefore should be avoided.

Obviously, if this turns out to be a defect, Leica needs to own up to the problem and seriously consider a product recall or other corrective action. But is it truly a defect? The glass is behaving as Schott said it would (that is, corrode if not protected). As we understand it, there are a lot of cameras coming into customer service with this problem now. Unfortunately, the only fix for this cover glass issue is to replace the entire sensor, circuit board and all, as it's one assembly. The cover glass alone cannot be replaced - at least not without the help of a sensor manufacturer. The original producer, Kodak - has since filed for bankruptcy and sold the sensor assets to Truesense Imaging, who in turn was recently acquired by On Semiconductor. It's a mess.

One solution is to modify the KAF-18500 sensor to utilize Schott's BG18 cover glass in place of the current S8612. It has the same refraction index, is not affected by humidity, has a similar sharp IR cutoff and slightly lower thermal expansion characteristics. However, it is slightly less efficient in transmitting visible light, which would require that camera firmware be updated to change the exposure calibration.

Status

The worst part is, even if you have your sensor replaced, either for free or at cost, there's no guarantee it won't happen again as the parts are all the same - old or new. At least if you have a newer camera, it's fully covered under the warranty, or extended under passport service if you have that.

Either way, whether or not you're wet cleaning your sensors... Take heed. You may just end up out of luck - and out of pocket for some serious coin and without a camera for three months or more.

We'll be reaching out to Leica for further comment and details, and will keep you posted.

Updates

Update (12/04/14):

Our contacts at Leica were expecting us... Rest assured that they are "...working on a proposal to offer a solution to our customers." More updates to follow - stay tuned.

Update (12/05/14):

While the Leica Camera AG staff tries to put together meetings among team members (which is difficult at the moment due to schedules and staff members out sick), we just want to remind folks that even under the best case scenario for sensor replacement there is currently a backlog on sensor availability... Which means that right now you're looking at a three month turnaround. That would also seem to imply that production of the M-E, for the time, is not happening. The M Monochrom uses the same, albeit modified sensor stack - so that model is probably affected as well.

There is a datasheet for the Schott S8612 cover glass available. True to what we already knew, it's 0.8mm thick - blocking IR better than the M8, which utilized Kyocera B-7 glass at 0.5mm thickness (and we all know how that worked out). Interestingly, it too is affected, but nowhere near as much. In fact, it should be a total non-issue. Also interesting is that a lot of cameras use this Schott S8612 glass. But they typically have a low-pass (AA) filter in front of the sensor, and this IR cover glass is not exposed as it is in the affected cameras. In other words, it's not what you wet clean nor is it exposed to humidity.

If you have a moment, please let us know if your camera has white spots or not. Perhaps we can get a handle on just how big this issue is.

Update (12/06/14):

There are over a dozen lengthy forum threads and stories discussing and reporting this issue across the Leicasphere currently, and our own informal poll isn't looking too good either - with nearly half of those responding reporting the issue. There are several "maybes" sitting on the fence. We'll keep you updated as we hear back from Leica and the story develops, and serve as a central location to find concise information and status. If anyone has anything they'd like to tell us about - please contact us!

Here is the growing list of discussions and stories (several pointing back here):

Some people are pointing out the following snippet, which comes from the Leica M9 brochure on page four... As to what they were promised and expecting from their cameras.



This did not start because of any particular thread on a forum somewhere, contrary to some beliefs. The earliest signs of this development were in 2010, with some users getting their sensors replaced by Leica when sent in for service - even though they were sent in for an unrelated issue. Others, obviously were replaced due to sensor issues. It's been snowballing ever since... It's just now that the bigger picture is coming together, indicating a pattern as to how widespread and far-reaching this problem really is. Especially as the original cameras age.

Update (12/07/14):

Back in August of 2011, we came up with the calculation that Leica had, at that time, sold 40 M9 bodies per day - amounting to some 30,000 cameras since its introduction on September 9, 2009. So just kind of winging it and assuming steady but flat sales (a big assumption), that's 15,000 cameras per year - potentially 75,000 cameras to date out there (we can include the M9-P and M-E and any special/limited editions for good measure). We also know the M Monochrom has been a good seller for Leica, so there's those too. So let's just say roughly 70-80,000 cameras.

Take the next logical step further, and assuming the percentages of the poll are on target - that's potentially 36,000 sensors (based on the current 45% answering "yes") that are or have exhibited this problem. Dang. But let's be honest here, it's probably way, way (way) less than that. Consider that only people online, that are aware of this issue are voting. That not everyone lives or shoots in a "humid environment." That fewer still would even realize there's an issue or even shoot their special or limited editions. So let's say there's 10,000 affected cameras (and we think that number's still rather high). That's quite a lot of cameras one way or the other.

Update (12/08/14):

We've added four examples of the phenomenon above, under "Is Your Camera Affected?" and slightly re-arranged the main article to be clearer.

We also heard from a trusted source what the real source of the problem is... Remember the issue of the M9 sensor cover glass cracking early on for a large number of people? Apparently that problem - and the one that exists now - are one in the same (sort of). That is the optical glue that binds the cover glass to the sensor. To fix the cracking problem, the glue was changed - but apparently created other problems... Namely, corrosion of the cover glass.

As we understand it, the original glue was too rigid; the sensor behind it and the (thin) cover glass in front of it - had different thermal expansion characteristics - thus causing the cracking. We assume the new glue was more flexible.

“Glass, China, and Reputation, are easily cracked, and never well mended.”

― Benjamin Franklin

So on one hand, this is looking more like the fault of Kodak, Truesense Imaging or On Semiconductor (rather than Leica) depending on where on the timeline these events fall. This would give Leica some extra leverage in a fix for the situation; putting the onus on the manufacturer of the sensor stack. Of course, the other side to this scenario is that Leica has known about this problem since the early days of the M9 (read: all along).

Update (12/09/14):

Leica tells us that they will issue an official response tomorrow...

It's already written in German and is being translated currently. From what we're told, they will try to do right by customers, and be taking a hit on this one. Stay tuned! We'll post their statement here as soon as we get it.

Rest assured that Leica is keenly aware of the issue, and eager to resolve it as amicably and quickly as possible. There is a lot riding on their response.

They're watching us, too. :)



The site Digital Photography Review (DPReview) has posted our story, under "Leica M9 users report sensor corrosion issue." Huzzah!



Look for a PetaPixel story tomorrow. ;)

Update (12/10/14):

This story has gone mainstream, with more sites (globally) picking up on the story in the past 24 hours:

Update (01/05/15):

In a third-party conversation with Alfred Schopf (CEO of Leica Camera AG), several points were made. They are working on finding or developing a new cover glass for the sensor - in fact, they worked throughout December on this issue. However, they will not spend a long time on this as it will compete against obsolescence of the sensor and cameras. He talked about the problems of how to glue the glass to the sensor*, mentioning the edges and how to make them weather proof. He also affirmed Leica's customer service offer to replace the defective sensor free of charge and that this also applies to secondhand cameras. Finally, when a Leica camera is sent in for repair, Leica offers rental cameras until the camera gets repaired.

* Recall that we had mentioned the glue as a contributing cause of this issue up above in the update from 12/08/14. Of course, some didn't believe us... When will they learn?

Update (06/30/15):

Leica has apparently posted an update on #CCDgate on their website...

Here's the text:

Latest information on the CCD sensors of the Leica M9 / M9-P / M Monochrom and M-E camera models

Since the recognition of a corrosion-related problem on the cover glass of the sensors of the above-mentioned camera models (see information from 10.12.2014), we have been working with our sensor supplier on a long-term technical solution.

The development phase of a new generation of sensors has now nearly been completed. In the next phase, independent users will be testing the new sensor in practical situations to guarantee that the imaging characteristics of the cameras remain unaltered.

After completion and evaluation of this testing phase, we will begin the replacement of corroded sensors by the new-generation sensor.

As the goodwill arrangement for the replacement of affected sensors applies irrespective of the age of the camera, and also to sensors already replaced in the above-mentioned camera models, repairs will continue without interruption until the new sensors are available.

Please understand that sensor replacement can only be offered for cameras affected by the concrete problem and that preventive replacement is not possible.

Update (08/31/15):

We received an update from reader Denny Mac on the status of the replacement M9-class sensor:

The new M9 sensor is finished testing. Sensors expected to be available for upgrade in 4-5 weeks.

Update (09/01/15):

Leica has announced that sensor replacements with the new stack will begin:

Update CCD Sensor of the Leica M9/M9-P/M Monochrom and M-E camera models

We are very pleased to inform you that we have successfully completed development on our new generation of CCD sensors and conducted subsequent quality assurance testing under practical conditions. As a result, Leica Camera AG can now begin replacing the sensors in the M9, M9-P and M-E models that were affected by corrosion with sensors from the new generation.

Sensor replacement for M Monochrom models will also begin shortly. We will inform you of the precise date of this as soon as possible.

On this note, we would like to remind our customers that we can only offer replacements for CCD sensors for cameras affected by this particular problem; prophylactic replacement is not possible.

We thank you for your patience and for your loyalty to the Leica brand.

Update (09/23/15):

We've been informed that Leica NJ (New Jersey) will not be receiving the new sensors for another four weeks - so any cameras sent in before then will still receive the old/original sensor as a replacement.

Official Leica Response

Leica has made their official response today (12/10/14):

Important Information Concerning the CCD Sensors of the Leica M9 / M9-P / M Monochrom / M-E

In some cases, particularly when using the camera models Leica M9, M9-P, M Monochrom or M-E with smaller apertures (5.6-22), effects caused by corrosion of the sensor glass may be encountered. Leica offers a free replacement service for the CCD sensors of cameras affected by this problem as a goodwill arrangement. This goodwill arrangement applies regardless of the age of the camera and also covers sensors that have already been replaced in the past. Customers who have already been charged for the replacement of a sensor affected by this problem will receive a refund.

We have now identified the problem and are currently concentrating our efforts on finding a permanent technical solution. The marks on images mentioned earlier are related to the properties of the CCD sensor. The sensors are equipped with a specially coated IR filter cover glass to ensure optimum imaging performance. Should this coating layer be damaged, corrosion effects that alter the filter surface may begin to appear after several years.

The effect described does not affect the CMOS sensor of the Leica M (Typ 240). Should you be considering an upgrade from your camera to a Leica M or M-P (Typ 240), Customer Care would be pleased to make you an attractive offer following a check of your camera and under consideration of the model and its age.

If the imaging quality of your camera gives cause for complaint in this respect, we recommend that you send it directly to Leica Customer Care or the authorized Customer Care department of your country’s Leica distributor. As longer waiting times may otherwise occur, the camera should only be sent to Customer Care after prior arrangement.

Contact: Web site: http://en.leica-camera.com/Service-Support/Repair-Maintenance. E-mail: Customer.Care@leica-camera.com. Telephone: +49-6441-2080-189.

For us, it is important that we offer only technically faultless products. We are therefore particularly sorry if the imaging quality of your camera should be adversely affected in any way. We hope that the goodwill arrangement we have decided upon will allow us to remedy the problem as soon as possible and rebuild and maintain the trust you have always placed in our brand.

Stefan Daniels, Director of Product Management - additionally stated the following:

Dear Forum Members,

We have been closely following debates on the CCD sensor issue in forums and blogs and take the opinions and criticism we read very seriously. For us, it is important that we offer only technically faultless products. We are therefore particularly sorry if the imaging quality of your camera should be adversely affected by corrosion effects on the IR filter cover glass. We would also like to express our sincerest regrets to all customers who may have encountered this problem.

We have now identified the problem and are currently concentrating our efforts on finding a permanent technical solution. Our response to this problem is a full goodwill arrangement offering free replacement of affected CCD sensors. This goodwill arrangement applies regardless of the age of the camera and also covers sensors that have already been replaced in the past. Customers who have already been charged for the replacement of a sensor affected by this problem will receive a refund.

The effect does not affect the CMOS sensor of the Leica M (Typ 240). Should you, as an M customer, be considering an upgrade from your camera to a Leica M or M-P (Typ 240), Customer Care would be pleased to make you an attractive offer following a check of your camera and under consideration of the model and its age.

We have posted the details of the problem and the terms and conditions of our goodwill arrangement in the News section of our corporate Web site at Important Information Concerning the CCD Sensors // Global // About Leica News // Leica News // World of Leica - Leica Camera AG an have provided a link to the currently available Leica M Monochrom and M-E models. We will also be notifying our distributors regarding the new terms and conditions.

We are aware that Leica’s reputation for superior quality and endurance was the driving factor for your decision for Leica. We profoundly regret that we have been unable to completely fulfil our promise to you and our own standards from the outset. We are now making every effort to find a permanent and satisfactory technical solution for this problem and hope that our goodwill arrangement is able to rebuild and maintain your trust in the Leica brand!

Best regards,

Stefan Daniel
Director
Product Management Photo

Analysis

From a user standpoint, it doesn't get much better than this - though it is somewhat unfortunate... As the replacement sensor is subject to the exact same problem (you're just buying yourself some time). While they are working on a permanent solution, it begs the question - is it better to wait for that to arrive? What happens to those that have already had this issue "fixed?" As we read it, they'll replace the replaced sensor, for free - regardless of the age or warranty status of the camera. Just remember, it will take at least three months currently - this will surely increase soon.

We heartily applaud Leica for offering to refund people that have had their sensors repaired for this issue already - and not charging for any such repairs going forward! Well done.

This really is the best solution currently possible.

The response across the Leicasphere to today's official response has been overwhelmingly good. Those nervous about their camera's future - and indeed that with the brand - are no longer so. Those with affected cameras are at ease, knowing a free solution to the problem is available, regardless of camera age or warranty. The only downside, people say - will be the turnaround time. If Leica could do something to improve that, that would just be icing on the cake. We'll of course keep you updated on future events, such as updates to the turnaround time, additional details and of course news of the permanent solution, once found. Stay tuned, friends - and thanks for following us on this.

Coverage

We'd really like to thank the over 30 sites worldwide that covered or linked to our story. An impressive list indeed. A combined list of those sites, for easy reference, in alphabetical order: