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Is the Leica Look Real?

We get a lot of people asking the question, “Is the Leica Look Real?” These people usually fall into one of two camps. Some are skeptical as to whether a “Leica Look” really exists. They claim that almost any black and white photo with depth of field can be mistaken as a Leica photo. The other camp believes that there is such a thing as a Leica look, but it’s not something that can be recreated unless you are using an actual Leica camera. Let’s investigate.

Incorrect Attribution?

First up is the idea that the Leica Look is just an incorrect attribution to Leica. Maybe it’s just what an unknowing person calls a black and white photo with some depth of field. In that case, there are other factors that account for the Leica Look as well. There’s also the tonal response, lens sharpness and micro-contrast that most Leica images share. That is to say that “the look” is a consequence of these qualities, and therefore are as real as the Lomo Look or Diana Look. The Lomo and Diana looks are obvious, while the Leica Look is difficult to pinpoint. I think that it’s subtlety is part of it’s allure. It can be “felt.” It’s there, it’s just not in you face obvious. If it were obvious, then we wouldn’t be having this big debate about it now would we? So we can probably agree that there is a look, but is it exclusive to Leica?

A Look Exclusive to the Leica Hardware?

Now, for those who think that there is such a thing as a “Leica Look”, but that it’s exclusive to Leica, I ask you the following question: What is it about a Leica that cannot be re-created by another manufacturer? A Leica is not like gold, something that can never be recreated. A Leica is engineered by people and it’s properties can be re-engineered by others. It is completely possible for other camera manufacturers to make a camera with all of the Leica qualities minus the red dot.

Panasonic actually makes Leica branded cameras with it’s LX line. It’s true that Leica optics are top notch although some may argue that Zeiss lenses are actually better. My point is that every design can be replicated. Leica isn’t the only rangefinder manufacturer. They aren’t even the only digital rangefinder manufacturer, see the Epson RD-1. In that case, what differentiates them from the others if not the hardware? Let’s see.

The Real Attribution Error

Before digital cameras were ever invented, all we had were film cameras. Leica’s were known to be the best portable film cameras money could buy. Why? Because they were compact rangefinders with great lenses (primes only). The high cost attracted only the most serious photographers. It’s similar to how Harvard produces successful graduates, but they also only accept the best students.

It’s tough to determine the precise causes of their success. Maybe if Leica’s were inexpensive and if Harvard accepted mediocre students, we might be a step closer to finding out the true factors of success. That will never happen because they don’t want you to know that part of it has to do with their pre-selection process. They want you to assume that their success is because they are the best, not because they only market to the best.

Hardware Differentiation

Now with technology advancing, there are other factors that determine the quality of a camera’s output. Lens manufacturing processes have made making high quality lenses possible for many camera manufacturers. Just look at the inexpensive 20mm F1.7 lens that Panasonic offers. It’s between $300-$400 right now and is plenty sharp. Can spending $5,000 more get you a sharper lens? Sure. But how much sharper? Probably not $5,000 sharper for most users.

So how can Leica differentiate itself if others can easily replicate it’s camera’s output by making hardware that is on-par with theirs? The answer: through software.

Software Differentiation: In-Camera Processing

Let’s take a look at in-camera processing. Many manufacturers are using the same sensors. The Leica X1 shares it’s sensor with the Nikon D300s. The Leica D-Lux and V-Lux series share almost all the same hardware. Now compare the output of a Leica X1 and a Nikon D300s. Compare the output of a Leica D-Lux 5 with a Panasonic LX-5. Why is there a difference?

The answer lies in the firmware. That’s the only thing that distinguishes the D-Lux from the LX. That’s the main thing differentiating the X1 and the D300s, (more so than the body and lens in my opinion.)

JPEG Output: A Brand’s Signature

The firmware controls how JPEG’s are processed. JPEG output is an obvious place for a camera manufacturer like Leica to start. They know that if the JPEG’s look good, people may just keep and share those instead of adjusting the RAW image in post-processing. Maybe that’s why the Leica X1 doesn’t give you an option to shoot exclusively in RAW, it’s either JPEG or JPEG+RAW.

This is great for manufacturers because they can have a signature “look” that can be associated with their brand. All they have to do is tweak their response curves, adjust their in-camera sharpening, contrast and noise reduction, and change their colors profiles slightly.

Every camera manufacturer has a look. There is a “Sony Look,” a “Canon Look,” a “Nikon Look,” an “Olympus Look,” and yes, a “Leica Look.” Sometimes the look can be attributed to the hardware (i.e. sensor size: full-frame vs small-sensor vs. micro-4/3rd’s vs. crop vs. medium format.) A lot of it can be attributed to in-camera processing.

The Truth About RAW

What about RAW? Aren’t RAW files just the raw data that the sensor captures? The images from a Leica’s raw files also have the characteristic Leica Look so doesn’t that mean that it is all because of the hardware? NO! There is a secret thing called “private maker notes”. See this article.

Dcraw, an open source software dedicated to converting RAW files from many camera models, exposes this. If you look at a RAW file from a Leica X1, open it in Lightroom, (the software that it comes bundled with,) you would think that it would look the same as the Dcraw conversion right? Well it doesn’t. Even the RAW file has sharpening and other post-processing applied to it. Read about it more in this article.

It’s obvious that Leica wants it’s photos to have a certain quality, sharpness to be specific. They are known to have the sharpest optics and don’t want to lose that distinction due to some Leica users who decide to apply too much softening to their images in Lightroom. They minimize this by sharpening all of the images, even the DNG’s in the X1.

Microscopes and Medical Equipment

Keep in mind that Leica also manufactures professional microscopes and medical equipment. The science and medical fields require equipment with the best optics. They also require the post-processing of images in order to be able to see things in greater detail. Leica knows a thing or two about sharpening, contrast and overall image enhancement; all while maintaining the accuracy of the subject in focus. Hm, now that sounds useful doesn’t it? I know they are independent companies, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they shared some info with the other divisions.

Conclusion

I think that there is a “Classic Leica Look” and a newer, “Digital Leica Look.” I think the Classic Leica Look can be attributed to the superior sharpness of their lenses. The new digital Leica look can be attributed to their superior optics combined with Leica’s attempts to recreate the classic film look using digital sensors. The new Leica Look requires some post-processing.

So what does this all mean? It means that if you are a good photographer with decent hardware; a good camera with a good sensor, and a good lens, then it’s possible to get a similar “Leica Look” without having a camera with a red dot. It’s possible as long as you can simulate what the Leica does in-camera with it’s processing. Can the LeicaLook software do it perfectly? No, it’s a work in progress. That’s why we give free upgrades to people who purchase our Pro version.

Leica is not going to give away it’s secret recipe anytime soon, maybe when Coca-Cola releases theirs. When that happens, we can stop development of LeicaLook. Until then, we will continue working hard to give you guys that elusive Leica Look.

Here are a few questions for the you guys:

  1. Do you think that the Leica X1 has the Leica Look despite it not being a rangefinder?
  2. Do you think that the JPEG output from the Leica D-Lux is different than the Pansonic LX despite the same hardware? What differences do you see?
  3. Do you think that the Leica’s in-camera processing can be accurately replicated in Lightroom?
  4. Does the fact that the Leica M’s are rangefinders (and most other digital cameras aren’t) make a difference?

It’s open for discussion. I would love to hear your input on this subject. Please leave your comments below.