The interview that sacked Leica CEO Steven K Lee gave Amateur Photographer magazine during the PMA show, in which he ?hinted strongly? that Leica was planning a full frame version of the M8 rangefinder, left news editor Chris Cheesman in a state of shock. Lee had told him the information was being given exclusively to Amateur Photographer, a magazine with a large Leica following within its readership.
Although the information came out of the blue, I had discussed full frame options with Leica?s M product manager, Stefan Daniel, right before the launch of the M8 in 2006. At the time Daniel explained the technical difficulties of producing a full frame sensor in a rangefinder body where the rear lens element sits so close to the camera?s digital sensor. The answer, Stefan told me, was to compromise on the sensor size to ensure the M8 would produce the best quality results possible. It seemed the perfect explanation, but I got a sense that Leica had really wanted to launch with a full frame body.
Steven K Lee?s comments to AP on 1 February this year suggested that Leica had discovered a way to overcome the issue of short back focus and the difficulties faced by digital sensors when light approaches from narrow angles. To announce this in February, when the product would not be shown to the rest of the world until September ? some eight months later ? seemed extraordinary.
Eight months is a very long time for the refinement of a technological break-through, and my immediate thoughts were that Lee was taking a massive risk. Why announce this now, when surely there would be so much to do in the meantime to finalise the product?
I don?t think Leica has ever NOT been planning a full-framed M series camera, but whether that product will be ready to show in September is a completely different matter. Judging by the size of the other full frame cameras on the market, the smallest of which is Canon?s 5D, I?d think Leica has more to worry about than angles of incidence when fitting a 35mm sized imager into an M body. It might be that the current sensor size is much more appropriate for the body size, and will deliver much more reliable quality for less effort. And how likely is it that a current M8 could be upgraded to accommodate a larger sensor? There?d be a lot more involved than a straight switch of chips.
It would perhaps make more sense for Leica to look to its R system if it wants to introduce a full frame model, and to leave the M bodies small and discrete.
What will happen next is anyone?s guess, but it seems Lee rather jumped the gun. There might be a full frame M camera to show at photokina in September, but I wouldn?t hold my breath. It?s not that I think Leica is incapable of producing one, but that the company?s size, portability and image quality ethos mean to make one will be extremely challenging ? and in the end M may simply not be the best carrier.
Damien Demolder. Editor
More exclusive news on this story will follow in Amateur Photographer magazine 8th March issue, on sale Tuesday 4th March.