DP1 Siphoning Leica M8 Sales?

6 01 2008

Mason Resnick makes an extraordinary statement in his list of photo industry predictions for 2008. In his prediction that “The Leica M8 will have company,” he says:

Sigma will likely introduce its long-awaited DP1, with a 14MP Foveon full-frame sensor (…), zoom lens that starts at 28mm, and likely lower price, and this model will siphon off potential M8 buyers.


Leica M8

Leica M8: top end professional rangefinder.

Let’s put aside the error about the zoom lens (in fact, the DP1 will have a fixed focal length “prime” 28mm lens) and ignore the “likely lower price” bit (it will “likely” cost about one-sixth the price of an M8) and take a closer look at that zinger about it siphoning off M8 buyers.

As you may know, the M8 is Leica’s flagship camera, a very expensive, true rangefinder camera based on Leica’s long line of M-series mechanical cameras that date back to the 1950s. It appeals to photographers who pine for classical mechanical cameras with German engineering, but who want the convenience and workflow of digital. It is a major investment for any photographer, and would be considered by none to be a “backup” or “second” camera.


DP1: point & shoot that looks a bit like a rangefinder.

Contrast that with the DP1, an autofocus pocket camera with few, if any mechanical parts. The DP1, while certainly targeting advanced users, would never be the cornerstone of a professional’s repertoire of gear. It is not a rangefinder camera, and has neither a zoom lens, nor the ability to interchange lenses. Its “manual” exposure settings will be applied via push-buttons, not classic mechanical dials.

The image quality of the DP1 is expected to be very high, perhaps rivaling the M8. But that doesn’t make it a contender for anyone seeking a serious, professional rangefinder camera. The DP1 will appeal to professional street and news photographers who want a backup unit that is small, reliable, and offers outstanding image quality. It will also appeal to advanced amateurs who want to transcend the gimmickery of the majority of point & shoot cameras on the market; people who already understand photography and will gladly sacrifice gizmos like “face recognition” in favor of a camera that provides high image quality and a good hands-on user experience.

But the DP1 will never siphon even a single person away from choosing a Leica M8. Those who want, and can afford, a Leica will buy a Leica. Those who want a rangefinder will buy a rangefinder (and as I said in an earlier post, the DP1 is not a rangefinder).

The Hyundai Sonata (L) borrows design elements from the Jaguar X-Type (R), but nobody who can afford a Jaguar will be “siphoned away” by the Hyundai.

The example above, regarding cars, is parallel to the DP1 vs. M8 question only on the matter of quality and cost. But when you take a closer look at the DP1 and the M8 you realize you’re comparing very different kinds of cameras, and very different kinds of potential buyers. If you’re still not convinced, here is a brief recap:

Leica M8

  • Absurdly expensive (more than $5000 for the body, and another $1000+ for a lens).
  • Leica; the highest pedigree, with a long and distinguished history and a cult-like following.
  • True rangefinder camera, with interchangeable lenses, manual (rangefinder) focus, old-fashioned dials for setting shutter speed and aperture, and a classical, mechanical look and feel.
  • Appeals to Leica fetishists, professional photographers, and wealthy amateurs.

Sigma DP1

  • Relatively inexpensive (compared with M8), but still expensive by “point & shoot” standards. (Expected retail price will be in the range of $1000.)
  • No pedigree. Sigma is known primarily as a lens maker. The fact that the camera is a Sigma means very little to most people; if Nikon or Canon or Olympus had come up with the same design, the appeal would be no different. People like this camera for what it is, not for how it’s branded.
  • Compact and automatic. Make no mistake, this is a point & shoot camera. It will have an optional optical viewfinder (but that does not make it a rangefinder), and it will presumably have well-designed functions for manual overrides of the automatic functions. But it will still always be a push-button electronic camera.
  • Appeals to professional photographers looking for a compact backup camera, advanced amateurs who are tired of the whiz-bang gimmickery so prevalent in contemporary point & shoot camera design, and “pixel peepers” who will go to almost any length to get better image quality (as defined by noise, resolution, and other technical aspects).

Make no mistake, I’m a huge fan of the DP1 even though it isn’t even on the market yet. But there’s no way it is in the same category as the Leica M8.

DP1 “Rangefinder”

20 11 2007

One of the cool things about the Sigma Enigma DP1 is that when you add the optional optical viewfinder and lens hood, it looks a bit like an old 35mm rangefinder camera. And I think it will behave sort of like one too.

Sort of…

Leica M7; a real rangefinder

A true rangefinder uses optics and a beam splitter to let you accurately (and manually) focus the lens while looking through the viewfinder (but not the lens itself). This is different from SLR cameras, as they use a mirror and a prism to allow you to see directly through the camera’s lens in order to compose and focus. The main advantages of a rangefinder setup is that it is significantly smaller and quieter, making for more compact camera designs. On the other hand, the rangefinder focusing takes some getting used to. (Both types are explained rather nicely here.)

It’s that small and compact design that makes some people refer to small digital cameras with optical viewfinders as “rangefinder” cameras. However, this is incorrect, as those cameras invariably use autofocus, not rangefinder focus, so I will try to avoid using the term.

With regard to the DP1, I’m looking forward to its “rangefinder-like” design because I miss using an optical viewfinder. You can be much more discreet when taking photos if you can just slip the camera up to your eye and click the shutter, as opposed to holding it a foot or two in front of your face with two hands and composing in the LCD. This is particularly so in low light situations, where the light from the screen makes you really stand out.

Sigma DP1 with optical viewfinder
and lens hood

But there is a drawback to this kind of removable optical viewfinder (in the case of the DP1, it slips onto the hotshoe); they generally provide no feedback about camera functions and settings, such as ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop. You could argue that those old Leicas didn’t provide that kind of information and it didn’t stop Henri Cartier-Bresson from bagging a few good shots. But HCB could just look at the camera in his hand and see right away what the settings were – because they were done manually, using dials. (And ISO was a function of the film in the camera, not an arbitrary shot-by-shot setting like it is with digital.)

Regardless, I’m really looking forward to the viewfinder; I’m tired of standing there like an idiot with the camera held at arm’s length while I compose in the LCD screen.

Speaking of the LCD screen, this whole fake rangefinder thing is only good if you can turn off the LCD. After all, there’ll be no stealthy shooting if you can’t cut off the glowing screen – which will be particularly irksome when the camera is at eye-level. I’m hoping Sigma has the foresight to add a “screen off” button for exactly that purpose. Ideally it would be a one-click, dedicated switch.