A Classic Goes Digital; The Leica M Mount

In the first noteworthy change to the Leica M mount since its introduction back in 1954, all Leica M lenses delivered to dealers starting on July 1, 2006, will have a 6-bit digital black and white code applied to the bayonet ring. The physical dimensions and mechanical specs of the venerable M mount will remain exactly the same, so both coded and non-coded lenses can be used on all M-series Leicas, including the forthcoming digital Leica M slated to debut in the second half of 2006. According to Leica, the 6-bit digital code will allow the focal length, maximum aperture, and other characteristics of coded lenses to be read-out and input by a six-sensor optical system built into the digital M body. Once the lens is identified, the data is added to the EXIF header and the camera uses this information for "optimal processing of the image data." The claimed result is "enhanced digital imaging performance that is automatically adjusted for each coded lens."

Precisely what types of enhancement can be achieved with the 6-bit code and details on how the system works are at this point "proprietary information." However, as a Leica spokesman was quick to point out, "It is possible to use uncoded lenses with good results on the digital Leica M and all coded lenses can be used on analog Leica M cameras without any restrictions." To accommodate the coding upgrade the suggested retail prices of all Leica M lenses raised as of July 1, 2006, but M lenses delivered to dealers during May and June will be upgraded free of charge.

Existing Leica M lenses, including many discontinued lenses going back to '63, can be upgraded by adding the 6-bit code at a fixed cost of $125 to the end user, irrespective of lens type. Which M lenses can be upgraded? The long list includes 21 current lenses, ranging from 21-90mm (plus the Macro-Adapter-M), and 24 discontinued lenses--go to www.leica-camera.com for complete details. There will also be a promotional program providing free coding upgrades of two existing M lenses with the purchase of a new Leica M lens. All new Leica M lenses with the 6-bit code will be identified with a new label on the box depicting a prominent logo of the 6-bit bayonet ring, and the word "6-bit" inscribed inside it. Catalog order numbers will remain the same.

It is worth noting that, at the age of 52, the Leica M mount is the longest lived bayonet mount in continuous production in the history of 35mm photography, beating out the famed Nikon F mount introduced in '59 by five years. While the Contax rangefinder mount, that debuted on the Contax I of '32, and its close cousin the Nikon rangefinder mount, that arrived with the Nikon I of '48, have recently been resurrected on a couple of Cosina-made Voigtländer rangefinder models, these are really limited-production collector's pieces. At any rate, it's great news for Leica fans that Leica regards system compatibility as a prime virtue of the Leica M system, and has managed to upgrade the digital potential performance parameters of past and present Leica M lenses as seamlessly as possible.