Technology and the Luxury User Experience.
“These waltzes sound better when played on a period piano. You know why, right?” the music critic asked me upon listening to a classic recording of Chopin’s waltzes? “Chopin composed on a piano of the period called Érard. It was the high tech of its day.” Apparently, Érard piano innovations are still found on modern pianos. For example, Sebastian Érard was the first piano maker to fit pedals on the piano, and his instrument had several pedals. It was these innovations that helped Chopin express his virtuosity through the use of a modern instrument.
When Leica announced the new Leica M-D in April, I was reminded of the story. Photography is a personal hobby that I approach passionately. This new Leica intrigued me as a photographic tool as much as a luxury object. It sought to redefine digital behavior while remaining fiercely authentic to the brand’s heritage.
As a company continually at the edges of technical innovation, Leica created a digital camera that claimed to be closer to the experience of shooting film than any other digital camera. The M-D offers the latest technology in the firm’s arsenal with one important omission: no video screen in the camera to preview/review the digital files.
This totally unorthodox digital camera would not have come to fruition had it not been for two things: Leica’s confidence in the technology that enables them to produce the highest grade cameras possible and the brand’s history of creating products that generate fervent desire by their users. In fact, Leica’s user base extends beyond photographers to include collectors and design cognoscenti who relish the ownership of beautifully made objects.
With the M-D the photographer is able to fully concentrate on creating images without having the modern urge to “chimp” - the action of looking at the back screen after each shot. It requires a skilled photographer to coax the best performance out of the camera, especially since digital cameras now offer such a plethora of data at the user’s disposal. With the M-D, like driving a classic Porsche 911, only experienced users need apply.
The M-D forces you to become a more deliberate photographer. With the M-D the photographer is made to wait until the photographs can be viewed on an actual computer, a virtual darkroom, extending the pleasure of the practice of photography to the processing of the images. Additionally, the M-D only records in a file format called DNG. This Raw-type of file cannot be processed by iOS mobile devices, so for mobile users there are processing options only for Android devices. This is due to change next fall when iOS 10 is released. The M-D photographer must return to the computer where the file can be manipulated to the user’s taste, producing a photograph closer to the artist’s vision.
While the M-D is daringly different technologically, it is also a luxury product. The material and every detail are, unsurprisingly, of the highest possible quality. The camera invites curiosity by anyone who approaches it, at first because of its classic looks then by the uniqueness that a modern digital camera can exist without a back screen.
The packaging for the camera is luxuriously conceived. It takes one slight nudge of the tab for the carton to open up like a flower to reveal a beautiful inner box. The box is solidly made and magnets keep it firmly closed. This little design detail reminded me of boxes for products by Apple. Did Apple borrow that detail from Leica or the other way around. I am not sure. When opened, the inner box reveals the camera compartment and two discreet drawers that open contain and the necessary accessories of the camera, a leather strap, a battery and a cable to enable the user to charge the battery in a car.
The tactile feel of the M-D is as thoughtfully conceived as the technology within it. The large rotary ISO dial at the back seems oversized for such a basic function until the user begins taking photos with the camera. This dial is a design detail that is also used in film Leica cameras, and the reference to the film era extends to that as well. The ISO dial can be moved with one or two fingers in 1/3 steps. All other buttons and dials are reassuringly “stiff” which means the photographer won’t accidentally change an important setting.
The M-D is calibrated to perfection, or close to it. What is making it miss its goal of achieving utmost luxurious simplicity are two small technological additions. As great as the DNG files are out of the camera, a high resolution Tiff file for mobile processing would be a feature that would not deter from the overall minimalist user experience. Also, for a camera at that price range, a sensor cleaning feature upon power-up is essential. Dust can accumulate on the sensor, especially when changing lenses, and only a professional cleaning would remove it.
It takes a tremendous amount of confidence to approach the creation of a new product with a philosophy of redefining the luxury user experience, especially from a technological perspective. Many luxury firms are understandably conservative with their approach to innovation because it is hard enough to maintain healthy sales margins, let alone willing to do so along new parameters.
What Leica has accomplished with the M-D is a luxury product where the user experience is customized by the actual user. The technology does not impede the photographer’s task of capturing images; in fact, it seeks to prevent the user from being a slave to the functions of the equipment, allowing a better immersion to the environment.
The M-D will ensure Leica’s crossover brand appeal as a high end photographic tool and as a luxury object. It continues to build upon the company’s legacy as a marque that creates collectible products of the highest order often by going against the status quo. At the crossroads of twin goals that blend technological innovation and luxury, Leica remains a member of a very small group of prestige firms.
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