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Camera systems come and go. Manufacturers go out of business and technology forces change. Choosing not to adapt is a risky business unless a product occupies or finds a niche that can be exploited. The digital revolution has been one of the biggest shake-ups that the camera industry has endured, particularly if we factor in the rise of the smart phone. Some respectable brands with long pedigrees have ceased to exist, others assimilated into larger names.

the rise and fall of the leica t series 1With its Rangefinder M system, Leica occupies a niche that is still enjoyed by many photographers. With the re-introduction of the M6 it once again caters for film aficionados looking to purchase a new M body. The digital M’s have been very successful and Leica stays true to ‘purity’ of the rangefinder and has yet to include a hybrid or electronic viewfinder on a M model. Whether this will happen, only Leica knows. 

For such a traditional company, Leica blindsided me (as well as a lot of others) when it announced the introduction of the T System in 2014. It heralded in a new lens mount and with it, the first iteration of a camera so far removed from tradition it caused something of a buzz in photo communities. Its design divided opinion and was discussed ad nauseam on many forum threads. Love it or hate it, there was no denying it’s originality. I fell into into the latter category when I first saw pictures of it, but had a complete reverse of opinion when I got to handle one. For someone who has enjoyed SLR’s for decades, the change in my opinion really surprised me. Prior to this I never expected to become such a fan of the design that, 10 years later, I would end up still using three of them.

T (Type 701)

I used the word ‘pure’ earlier to describe the Rangefinder experience. With the first T (Typ701) I believe the same adjective applies, but in a very different way. From a design viewpoint, it is clear that Leica were looking to move in a very different direction from other names in the photographic world. To some degree this included themselves. With input from Audi, they brought to market a glimpse of what the future may hold while at the same time eschewing many of the extraneous options found on many cameras today. Machined from a single block of aluminium and hand polished for 45 minutes (anyone recall the video showing this being done in real time?), this camera is sleek, minimal with very few visible controls. Instead it relies strongly on a large touchscreen that removes the requirement for buttons and switches. In an age when most cameras are bristling with outbreaks of tiny labelled warts, the T couldn’t look more different. Only the top plate concedes to this, having two dials, a dedicated video button (which morphed into a more useful function button on the TL2) and a mandatory on/off/flash button (the latter function removed from the TL2). Smooth to the point of feeling a little slippy in the hand, the body includes a handgrip that helps mitigate the feeling that it may be easily dropped. Some users felt it was not large or grippy enough and several cases were available that improved the feel at the expense of the cool tactile feel of the bare finish.

The touchscreen is the nerve centre of the T, and designed to embrace the technology of current mobile devices. From here, access to photographic parameters are made by means of various icons. As some features are pretty much ‘set and forget’ Leica had the good sense to include a favourites tile that can be used to customise the controls and present the user with just those options they use regularly. The two top dials can be assigned a limited number of functions by way of the touchscreen thus allowing a little more customisation.

It is the collaboration between design and user interface that, to me, makes the T appear ‘pure’.

Being a user of Olympus DSLR’s, I never owned the T when it was initially released. I was going through a period of evaluation after becoming disillusioned with the direction that Olympus were taking regarding their Four Thirds System. As I was not heavily invested in it, I spent more than a year looking at all brands before deciding to commit to a Leica system. I already had their X1 and 113 fixed lens cameras and found the output to my liking. By the time I went with the T it had been around long enough for the lens line to have been filled out from the initial 23mm Summicron and 18-55mm Vario-Elmar lenses. It was when handling the T with a pre-release copy of the 35mm Summilux that I decided to commit to the system. At that point the 11-23 and 55-135 zooms were also available and with the 60mm macro lens announced, I felt that there was sufficient focal length coverage for my needs.

Also by the time I got into the system, much needed firmware had resolved some of the early issues with the camera. Initial adopters of the T found it to be slow to focus, hunted in low light/contrast and the responsiveness of the touchscreen to be poor. The lack of a built in viewfinder also caused something of a commotion, irrespective of the fact that a separate one was available. Consequently it did not receive the most positive welcome into the world. It beats me why products are released in what can be considered ‘Beta’ versions when quick wins via firmware can address some of the issues that await unsuspecting buyers. I feel that early adopters are essentially Beta Testers for the entire camera industry. It does not take long for such problems to hit forums and review sites. And there is the inevitable naysayer amplification that compounds matters. All of this harms brand reputation irrespective of the product. Leica is a premium brand and while it is fair to expect an occasional problem, they also appear to fall into the trap of getting a product out of the door in a less than acceptable state. I believe that as the T was such a maverick design, it would attract criticism for simply daring to be different. It needed to perform pretty flawlessly to get widely accepted. And because it didn’t, it took a beating…a sad start in my opinion.

The original T turned out to be a hard sell, thanks to internet naysayers who melded negative myth along with true maladies, often citing the camera as ‘unusable’ or praising the brave design only then to prefix a barrage of negativity with a detracting ‘but’. Many reviews and comments stated that it was ‘fun’ to use along with implying that it was not a ‘serious’ camera, leaving the reader with a feeling that it was lacking on many fronts. It did bring an element of fun to the table as this was symbiotic with the innovative changes introduced in camera handling. But to imply that it could not be used seriously displays nothing more than a reviewers lack of photographic skills, institutionalised entrenchment and unwillingness to embrace something a little different. Criticism also surrounded the lenses, particularly the zooms, for being too slow. These and a couple of primes not being manufactured at Wetzlar also came in for criticism. The two primes that did originate from Wetzlar were cited as being too big or too heavy. There was also the whole APSC format under delivering… if internet guff was to be solely believed, the T system had no redeeming values.

Of course the reality was that very little of this could have been further from the truth. What we saw with the original 2014 launch was the first step into a brave new lens mount. Early adopters would have noticed that the T mount was enormous compared to the sensor size. It didn’t take more than a few synaptic firings to work out that the mount would easily accommodate a larger, 36mm x 24mm sensor. Agreed, the initial launch of the system was small, but in its defence it had to start somewhere. The fact that a lens roadmap was also announced showed Leica’s commitment to the system.

This article is not written to celebrate the T’s ultimate failure, but to praise its origins and what it eventually evolved into. Personally I am a big supporter of the T cameras, using one of each iteration of the series on a regular basis. So setting aside the Internet hogwash lets take a look at the many positive aspects.

Picking up a T, TL or TL2 it is hard not to be impressed by the tactile cool feeling of the unibody design. The handgrip, while much smaller than a typical interchangeable lens camera, feels good even in larger hands like my own. I recall some comments about it feeling slippy which I never really understood. True there is no grippy material present, but in 10 years of usage, I have never has one slip from my hands. The elegance of the chassis makes me want to pick it it up and hold it, even if I do not wish to take a picture.

the rise and fall of the leica t series 2As many functions are driven by the touchscreen, buttons and dials are distinctly lacking. It is often cited that was done to attract a generation of smartphone users as they would feel an affinity to this kind of interface. While there may be some truth in this, consider my own personal background. I come from an age of analogue photography having used many different brands since the 1970’s. You could say I am pretty accustomed to buttons, dials, switches etc. The first time I picked up a T my thoughts were along the lines of wondering why an immersive touchscreen had not been used before, and why one of the Japanese players has not run with the idea sooner. With a swipe and a tap, the nodule infested external appearance of nearly all other cameras looked outdated and cluttered. With the exception of command dials and a dedicated video button on the T’s top plate, there is nothing to detract from its streamlined aesthetics. The command dials functionality could be customised, albeit in a limited manner. But as the camera allowed a ‘favourites’ view to be built from the screen I never really used it. One simple tap of the screen presented me with my most used settings. Operationally, the camera appealed to my own sense of logic in a way few other have.

Looking closer at the camera, there are additional features that enhance its overall streamlined looks which were clearly important to the designers. Maybe the T was chosen to ‘pilot’ these ideas with view to rolling them out more widely across Leica’s product suite. One of these is a different way of attaching a strap. Gone are the fixed in place strap lugs found on most other camera bodies. What we have are two small blanking plates that can be removed by pushing a small supplied pin into each ones corresponding ‘eject’ port. When removed the strap provided can be clicked into place, or a third party strap connected by purchasing optional connecting pins. In my opinion, a couple of pairs of these pins should have been included with the camera as the default rubberised strap is not to everyone’s taste and the pins used on it cannot be reused. This makes for a much tidier approach  and does not risk strap rings damaging the camera finish. Additionally, if the user decides not to attach a strap, the external good looks of the body are not compromised. I am surprised that no other manufacturer, or indeed Leica, embraced further this method of attaching a strap, as it seems to have died along with the TL2.

Another sublime feature is the battery release. The chamber it sits in does not have a cover but uses the outward facing side of the battery as an integral part of the camera base (which is the reason it came in matching black or silver finishes). To remove the battery, the adjacent switch activates a spring mechanism that partially ejects the battery. It then has to be pushed back in a little way to fully release it. This really is a genius design as it prevents the battery from accidentally falling out. It was heartening to see this design carried over to the SL camera series where it has remained throughout all iterations of the SL family, up to and including the latest SL3 release.

The BP-DC13 cell used is typically Leica and does not win any awards for longevity and like all other Leica cameras I own, I have a few spares. Having written that, we have to remember that interaction with a T series camera is mostly via the sumptuous touchscreen therefore there is little wonder they do not last for more than a couple of hundred shots. 

One of the things that modern digital cameras have had me scratching my head over for several years is the lack of integral storage. SSD technology matured a long time ago but there is still a reluctance to include it alongside more traditional card options. In my opinion Leica really got this right with the T series, albeit a little underwhelming in terms of capacity. The T gave us 16GB internal storage which was doubled with the TL, but not increased further with the TL2. A recent article I read showed that the internal storage was nothing more than a micro SD card that could, with a little dexterity, be swapped out for a larger one. Given that the M11 included internal storage (64GB) and M11-P (256GB), there was no reason that the TL2 could not have been future proofed with a similar capacity to the M11-P. Furthermore I am really surprised that the SL3 did not include this feature, particularly as Hasselblad have embraced the concept by adding a whopping 1TB SSD to the X2D 100C.

Firmware was produced until late 2018 when the final version (1.9) was made available. As its successor had been on the market for around two years, it was great to know that those customers who hung on to their original T were not forgotten about or forced to upgrade their camera. The various releases had improved responsiveness, ironed out inevitable bugs and added support for later TL and SL lenses.

TL

the rise and fall of the leica t series 3This model arrived in November 2016 and offered little in the way of updates to the original version. I saw it more a renaming and alignment exercise for the future of the lens mount. The previous year had seen the launch of the 35mm frame SL Type 601, which took greater advantage of the large diameter mount. Around this time the mount was renamed from the T to the L mount. A camera line designator prefixed this, so now we had a TL (APSC format) and SL (36mm x 24mm format) product lines, both of which share the same mount. 

Apart from the internal memory being increased from 16GB to 32GB in the TL, very little else changed from a technical perspective. Both used the same size sensor and processing engine. 

Cosmetically a new colour was introduced along with the black and silver versions. This came in the form of a beautiful titanium finish that, in my opinion is the best of them all. In fact this finish was the only reason I squandered money and brought one - a definite GAS attack! The titanium version also had its edges slightly chamfered which made is a little more comfortable to handle. It was a nice attention to detail that was carried over into the final model. With a black lens and the the Visoflex 020 attached, the TL titanium looks sublime and makes me want to pick it up and use it even more than the standard two finishes. There is something about the metallic dark grey colour that really appeals to me; I loved my Olympus OM3Ti because of this, and Ethan’s Pentax K3 Prestige looks equally stunning. When a limited edition titanium Leica Q was announced several years ago, I came within a whisper of getting one. The high cost was the only justifying factor that prevented me doing this on looks alone. Now that the SL3 has arrived my hope is that at some point through it’s life cycle a titanium version appears.

If I am being truly honest there was no point in moving from a T to a TL as it could not be considered an upgrade. The new colour may have attracted new users to the platform but I feel that many who purchased the T were waiting for something more substantial.

TL2

Rumours swirled around in the weeks leading up to the launch of the final T series model, the TL2. In July 2017 it made its debut to mixed reviews and a fair amount of disappointment regarding not having a built in viewfinder. However, unlike the release of the TL, there were substantial other changes that many considered made the TL2 a worthy update.

Cosmetically, the changes have been minimal. The chamfered edges, taken from the titanium TL, were now standard on both the black and silver versions. The titanium colour was dropped. The pop-up flash too, was gone as it was deemed not too useful. The top plate button once dedicated to video, lost its red ‘record’ dot and became a function button that could be programmed from a limited number of other options. Other than this, the TL2 retained the good looks of its predecessors.

Internally, things were very different. The sensor was 24 megapixels which also improved higher iso noise levels. The processor and autofocus speed was significantly improved. The touchscreen was more responsive and gestures became more fluid. Changes were also made to the menu icons, my particular favourite being that I could now shoot DNG only. Previous models would only allow DNG and JPG which, if you are not a fan of the built in JPG engine (as I am not), is a waste of space. I also welcomed the USB Type C 3.0 update and the already mentioned 32GB internal memory expansion.

Even with these changes it appeared that the TL2’s Achilles Heel remained the lack of a built in viewfinder. The Visoflex 020 was still the answer to this this and is a pretty useful device due to the ability for it to tilt and act in a similar way to waist level finders of bygone days. However, for a Leica product, I found the build quality to be be pretty grim and while I still use one, treat it with kid gloves in fear of it falling apart. I expected much better for the cost and was equally surprised that it only came in bland black - there was no silver version to match the silver body and lenses. Very poor attention to detail in my opinion.

I would like to know if Leica ever created designs for a viewfinder version of the TL2. The space saved from removing the pop up flash and associated circuitry could, with a rejig of the camera’s internals, have made sufficient room for what appeared when the CL was introduced. A couple of millimetres increase to the body dimensions would have also helped facilitate this.

With the evolution of the SL system we have seen some pretty spectacular lenses introduced. One of the things I love about the L mount is that they can be used on either APSC or 35mm format bodies, albeit at different focal lengths. Only seven lenses were every created by Leica for their APSC line of cameras, although most M mount lenses could be used with an adaptor.

Discontinuation

By mid 2022, internet rumours were afoot of a CL2 being readied for release, indicating continued support for the platform. There were also rumours of new lenses. What actually happened could not have been more different -  Leica decided to discontinue the production of the TL2, CL and APSC line of lenses. This was cited as due to the business realigning itself with market changes…specifically the growth in demand for 35mm size sensor camera bodies. The user base for the TL2 and CL found itself suddenly orphaned, with no future upgrade path other than to either a) change system or b) embrace the 35mm size sensor models, all of which came with an increased dimensions and weight, irrespective of the brands in the L mount consortium.

Over the years, the T and CL series of cameras had gained a loyal following, myself included. Thankfully, so long as batteries are produced, the bodies should last several years - maybe more. I quietly hope that Leica see the error of their ways and reintroduce the system, as not everyone needs large sensor cameras. And the T series made excellent travel companions which continue to serve me well on many journeys. In fact I choose them over my SL-2s, Q and CL quite a lot when travelling abroad.

Legacy

the rise and fall of the leica t series 4Where they continue to really shine is their use as a teleconverter. Leica’s SL lenses are something special, particularly the Summicron APO prime series. Adding a 1.5x conversion factor to any of the SL lenses opens up a very interesting ‘hidden’ bunch of focal lengths when attached to a T or CL body. Consider the 90-280 zoom; Speaking from personal experience it is a pretty wonderful lens used natively on my SL2-s. The same lens is transformed into a 135-420mm zoom when put onto my T or CL bodies. It is a really useful (if a little unwieldy) combination. I recently brought the Summicron APO 28mm lens, but not with my SL2-s in mind. It becomes a 42mm lens when screwed to my APCS bodies which is close to the prime 40mm focal length I have been wanting to explore for many years.

The TL lens legacy lives on too. With the introduction of the SL3 and its 60 megapixel sensor, the camera outputs excellent sized 26 megapixel images - plenty big enough for many applications. So even though I have three T type bodies, 1 CL body and four lenses, they are far from redundant and will be seeing regular use for the foreseeable future.

I would love to see a 35mm sensor version of a TL3, made a little larger to allow for an electronic viewfinder and image stabilisation to be built in. Weather sealing does not bother me too much as I was caught in tornado style weather bomb with my T and 60mm lens. The camera had no protection and was pummelled with driving rain but survived. For a full write up on this event check it out here. Also, please bring back the titanium finish as a third colour choice. As I do not care for shooting video (which is why it is seldom mentioned in this article), I would also make the brave move to not include any video features. Hasselblad have done this with their X2D 100C to produce a fully dedicated stills camera that I imagine has not cost them any sales.

I doubt I am alone in my sadness for the discontinuation of the TL system. At the same time I am heartened to see that not all of the ideas it brought to the table have died. The battery eject mechanism lives on in all SL cameras. The SL3 makes more use of the touchscreen while also supporting a library of ‘Leicons’ that remind me instantly of the model T. Having used all of Leica’s digital camera systems with the exception of the medium format S, picking up and using a T remains my favourite experience of them all. I really appreciate the M and SL systems, but the T’s originality and outside of the box thinking is appealing.  A true ‘one off’ style that gained a loyal following while simultaneously freaking out the immutable hordes to the point of appearing on the metathesiophobia spectrum…I doubt any camera maker will dare to be this different again.