Whether you’re a fan of photography or just MTV’s Catfish, you’ve heard of Leica’s M line of cameras. These 35mm rangefinders have been in production for 60 years, survived through the industry’s transition from film to digital thanks to a design many would call iconic.
But their newest digital product, the Leica M Edition 60, does something bold: It ditches the back LCD screen and all onboard menus. One cannot even review their photos. It leaves photographers with physical controls of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. And it forces them to look through the viewfinder again.
I happen to appreciate the approach, but our news editor Adrian Covert doesn’t quite feel the same way. At Co.Design, the only way to settle this is with a debate…
Mark: So, Adrian, I’ve been mulling over the Leica 60 all morning (yes, I took the liberty of abbreviating the obnoxious name). And I’ve been going back and forth. Is it actually a good design, or is it just the artifice of good design?
Adrian: On paper this sounds great. It forces photographers to really think about what they’re shooting and how they’re shooting it. And while I’m all for designs that address issues with faulty user behavior, this is coming at the expense of another feature which has unquestionably helped improve the photographic process: the LCD. That’s a problem.
Mark: Right, the LCD offers you the chance to learn from your mistakes instantly. It’s a digital Polaroid. You take a bad photo, you see that it’s bad, and you make some tweaks. Hopefully your next photo is better because of that. The LCD is a great feedback loop.
But while the LCD may make my photos better, I feel like it makes me a worse photographer. Stay with me here.
On a vacation in Scotland, I picked up an old medium format bellowing lens camera. It’s a lot like the old Leica M line, in a way, in that it’s a rangefinder. You turn a dial to signify the camera’s distance from the object, and with any luck, that ensures your photo is in focus. It holds enough film for 12 exposures of 60mm film. And after those were out, I’d find myself kneeling on a mossy rock, huddled underneath my windbreaker in protest of the perpetual drizzle, attempting a sterile dissection of my camera to pull and replace the film without exposing it.
There was no feedback loop beyond the prints I’d get weeks later. There was no preview screen but my viewfinder and my eyeballs. And all of that meant that I really gave a shit every time I pulled the shutter. Rather than carrying the automatic machine gun that is the modern DSLR with spray-and-pray burst mode and auto exposure, I was a sniper, forced to really inspect the ever-shifting light and the nuance of the panorama around me. I’d photographed things tens of thousands of times. I’d shot and edited video professionally for a while. And I never felt more in-tune with myself as photographer than I did right then.
You could call that “experience design,” I guess. And that’s what I think the Leica 60 gets right.
Adrian: So by getting the experience design right, you’re really saying that it makes you feel like a better photographer. But will it actually make the photos better?
Like Leica says, the main purpose of this camera is to strip away as many distractions as possible so that photographers can focus on the framing and composition of a shot in the name of artistic freedom. But this isn’t a camera for lightweights. This is for the advanced hobbyist, who probably still uses the viewfinder to compose and frame shots with their LCD-equipped cameras.
And sure, there are those types who check their LCD after every snap of the shutter; who then tweak their settings, hung up on trying to get the “perfect shot.” Yes this camera can force those people to slow down, but so could better training and more discipline. What this camera design does is deprive the skilled photographer of making sure there aren’t any unexpected abnormalities in the shot until it’s already too late.
Here’s the other thing: even if you don’t have a screen, you still have a virtually unlimited number of exposures. A lack of instant feedback isn’t what made people more thoughtful. The time and money wasted on bad shots was what made people really care about every exposure. The cameras of yore attached a price tag to every exposure on a roll of film. Beyond the initial expense of buying an SD card, there’s no financial consequence to taking a bad photo with today’s cameras. Even with this screen-free Leica, you can capture shots under various combinations of settings “just to be safe.”
Mark: So more or less, what you’re saying is that the camera shouldn’t slow down the creative process at the expense of losing modern convenience. And that’s a fair critique. I can’t help but wonder if Leica could have really benefitted from making the 60 beam the latest shot you took to your iPhone–to give you a glimpse of your work for a bit of insurance–but make that glimpse just inconvenient enough that you won’t be tempted to reference it every single time you press the shutter.
I imagine this glimpse would become a gesture akin to “checking the gate” in the film industry. That’s what happens when a director knows intrinsically that he nailed the shot, so he wraps the scene. But before everybody walks off set, he peeks into the camera’s guts to make sure that some stray hair isn’t sitting in the path of the film the entire time.
Checking the gate is a gesture of confirmation, but most of us use that omnipresent LCD for something more. It’s become a nervous tick, or even a crutch, that pulls us from the experience of being a photographer. And call me hokey, but I don’t think people will drop $20,000 on this Leica just to take objectively sharper or properly exposed photos. I think people will drop $20,000 to feel like a photographer, and to infuse their photography with that feeling, however ephemeral (or even placebic) it may be.
Adrian: That’s valid, but only in the most twee of ways. To circle back to your initial question of whether this is a good design, or simply an artifice of good design, I think that at the end of the day, good design solves problems without creating bigger ones. For 99.9% of photographers, stripping away the LCD makes the Leica 60 a bad design of considerably limited utility.
But like anything, context is key. For that 0.1% photographers–ones less concerned with discovering new heights in technical excellence, and more interested in embracing serendipity as part of their creative process–I can see the appeal.
Should every camera lack an LCD? No. Do I think every company should offer one as part of a niche category? Even then I’m not sold. (And if they all cost $20,000, definitely not!) But I’ll concede this is a design that will ultimately work for a very narrow swath of photographers, even if the same end could be reached by just overcoming one’s own neuroses.