I can't believe they pulled this off.
I was struck by a comment on TOP on Saturday: "Why all the fuss about a brand with such a miniscule market share?" Well, Sir, because in all the chatter about leaks and rumors and NDAs and prices, it's easy to lose sight of what an amazing feat the most storied brand in photography has accomplished: Leica has created the world's most compact full-frame digital system camera.
Many young/digital photographers may not be familiar with just how small M cameras and lenses are, which is why I created these two camera size comparison illustrations. They're made from pictures found on the web, but are strictly to scale. Anyone who's been clamoring for "the largest possible sensor in the smallest possible body" can't ignore the relative sizes of the three cameras in Comparison 1, at least in light of the relative sensor sizes (shown in blue and green on the left).
Left to right: 4/3 sensor (green) and 24x36mm sensor (blue), shown at the same scale as the cameras; Panasonic GF1 (20/1.7 lens); Leica M9 (50/1.4 lens in bottom photo, 35/1.4 in top photo); Olympus E-P1 (14–42 zoom).
It may not be quite as universal a mount as Micro 4/3, but the M-mount still allows photographers to use a huge range of old and new lenses. One can switch from 60-year-old screwmounts (a digital James Ravilious "glow," anyone?) to great modern lenses like the semi-pancake (1.2" long) Nokton 40/1.4 that costs less than the new Panasonic 20/1.7. My own favorite is the 35/1.2 aspherical Nokton, a gem for under $900.
Granted, all of those lenses will also fit on 4/3 cameras (which can also accommodate many other lenses). But on a 24x36mm Leica body—film or digital, we can say now—all of that great glass out there works at its "traditional" field of view rather than with a 2x multiplier as with 4/3. That $1200 Nokton 50/1.1(!) doesn't limit you to a 100mm field of view.
Comparison 2 shows the three smallest 24x36mm-sensor digital cameras on the market today. (Note especially the bottom row. All three cameras are shown from the right side, the side from which you grip them. All three have optical viewfinders, but consider the size penalty for the ones in the SLRs. You can click on the image to see it larger.)
(Photographers who argue endlessly about the "radical differences" between the D700 and the 5DII should ponder that photo, because those SLRs look like two peas in a pod compared to the M9.)
As always, it's striking how petite the Leica and other M-mount ƒ/1.4 lenses are. Below is a size comparison between the Canon EF 35mm ƒ/1.4 and the Voigtländer Nokton 35mm ƒ/1.4; the size difference is almost comical when one considers that both cover a 24x36mm frame.
(Images to scale. The Canon ($1,350) is 3.1" diameter x 3.4" long; the Nokton ($560) is 2.2" diameter x 1.1" long. Weight: Canon, 1.28 lbs. / 580 g; Voigtländer, 7 oz. / 200 g.)
Yes, the M9 is unquestionably expensive (you could buy five or ten of the 4/3 models or three or four of the SLRs, etc., etc.), but Leica is indeed a small company with a "minuscule market share." That underlines Leica's accomplishment rather than negates it. By showing just how compact a full-frame camera can be, it's hard not to think the M9 will serve for years to come as a benchmark in "large sensor/small camera" discussions.
And, once the Japanese digest what Leica has accomplished, might another company or two develop a cheaper 24x36mm-sensored "camera for many lenses" along the lines of what Christopher Lane wrote about re Micro 4/3 the other day?
Photographers can hope; time will tell.
"A." is a friend of the site "prominent in another field," as they say, who prefers to remain unidentified. My thanks to A., as always. —Ed.