Why did Leica never implement autofocus in their rangefinders?

Discussion in 'Leica and Rangefinders' started by Colin O, Sep 15, 2019.

  1. I'm currently looking for a new, small, high-quality camera for travel...and also kind of questioning what I actually want/need from a camera. I've never used a rangefinder but I called by the Leica store in Mayfair in London today and tried out two cameras.
    The Leica Q was nice, but it isn't a rangefinder. When manual focusing, you are using an electronic viewfinder and "focus peaking/magnification" to indicate what's in focus. I wondered to myself why I would choose this over a cheaper Fujifilm or Sony body.
    The Leica M-E (Typ 240) was nice, but it has no autofocus. I wondered to myself how many "decisive moments" I would miss by never having autofocus available.

    My question now is just why Leica never implemented autofocus in any of their rangefinders? I was trying to remember if there ever even were any autofocus rangefinders, and I remembered of course the Contax G2 had it.
  2. I wonder how many “decisive moments” Henri Cartier Bresson missed because he did not have autofocus?
  3. Not a very helpful reply if I am honest. I am not Henri Cartier Bresson. I am not used to manual focus only, let alone manual focus with a rangefinder. I suppose, I could make an attempt to get used to it, but I'm not really willing to spend £3500 on a camera (not to mention at least one lens) in the hope that everything just happens to work out perfectly for me.

    Back to my actual question... I wonder why Leica never implemented autofocus in their rangefinders. I guess it's because there just wasn't the demand. Or because the development costs weren't worth the marginal (if any) increase in sales. Leica enthusiasts were probably content with the manual style, and anyone craving autofocus was probably just better served all-round by a SLR. For someone like me who is just not willing to forgo at least the option of autofocus, I guess I will just have to rule Leica out of consideration.

    (As I mentioned in my first post, this is still a little bit of a quest on my part to discover what I am actually looking for in a camera. Most of all I think I just want to enjoy the process of taking photos, and not struggle against something. But there's also a concern around creativity and vision, and having the right tool at hand for that.)
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2019
  5. If you don't like manual focus, don't buy a Leica rangefinder. If you're not sure, you can use practically any camera in manual focus mode.

    There are adapters which add auto focus to Leica M lenses, used on a Sony camera.

    af adapter for leica m | B&H Photo Video

    I also owned an Olympus camera (film), which used a non-reflex optical finder, and used an infrared light beam focusing. It would not focus through the other side of a window, however.
  6. Do you want a rangefinder, as in a camera with a viewfinder with the focus aid of a Leica rangefinder, that is also autofocus? I don’t know if such a thing has ever been made. The Contax G series gets referred to as a rangefinder, but it doesn’t have rangefinder focus. The closest I’ve seen is the Fuji XPro2, where you can overlay a digital close up of the focus point over the corner of the optical viewfinder (with frame lines and parallax correction) to see focus. I’m not sure what would be required to add AF to an M - it’s already a very complex mechanical system and the AF system would add a very complex electronic system that would have to cooperate. I don’t think it would have been possible before the mid 90s, and by then Leica was fully invested in nostalgia with the M line and it probably would have been bad for marketing to make it too electronic.
  7. Vincent Peri

    Vincent Peri Metairie, LA

    "Why did Leica never implement autofocus in their rangefinders?"

    Hmm... probably because
    no one would be able to
    afford it then...
  8. The Contax G series notwithstanding, the nature of a Leica "rangefinder" negates the whole concept of auto-focus as you're not looking through the lens. If Leica were to look at such an idea they would have to come up with a whole new line of auto-focus RF lenses (or a whole new system that accommodates auto-focus through a RF), which I'm not sure would go over well.

    Leica RF = manual focusing; there's no getting around it!

    Leica's response to your question is the SL and the digital CL (auto-focus through an EVF).
  9. Even if Leica had wanted to add autofocus to the M series, doing so would have required a complete redesign of the lens mount, making such a camera incompatible with existing lenses. Or something very clever involving a focusing system in the camera body, as used in some Contax SLRs.

    Leica follow Contax? It has happened before...
  10. They didn't do it because it would have been pointless. For better and worse, Leica's core customer for decades has been classic manual focus RF fans. The mere introduction of AE and electronic shutter to the M (very late in its history) made much of that customer base shudder with revulsion at first. Leica also equals frightfully expensive, exclusive, collectible, etc, etc: none of which is sustainable with anything electronic.

    The firm's continued successful existence this far into the 21st century hinges on offering that classic manual Henri Cartier Bresson experience to those who can afford it. And much of the cachet that sustains their pricing model stems from them being the last purveyor of limited production, electronics-unencumbered, fully manual, jewel-like, small premium lenses. Lenses that are guaranteed not to be disabled by electronics failure (due to EU-mandated lead-free solder rot) 20 years from now. Lenses that justify purchase today for several thousand dollars because they will be worth double that in ten years to some collector in Hong Kong.

    That whole model falls apart with electronics, which is why the excellent R reflex Leica system is worth a fraction of used Leica M RF gear. Until the fairly recent introduction of non-Leica digital wonder bodies that could easily take R lenses, even the R lenses were severely undervalued. People covet the M rangefinder system because its an experience they can't get from any other vendor. Its not as if Leica has no clue about autofocus: they were one of the first out of the gate with their prototype "Correfot" electronic focus confirmation concept for the R reflex system. After some internal debate, they tabled it (and it was never for a moment considered a development for the M).

    Others above have mentioned the tremendous difficulty of integrating AF capability while maintaining the traditional manual optical RF mechanism: while theoretically possible, realistically it cannot be done without drastically altering the M body design and/or putting electronic motors in the lenses. As it is, a significant number of M fans were indignant that the first iterations of digital-sensor M bodies were a millimeter or two thicker than the film bodies they adore. Now imagine those bodies even fatter, to accommodate film or sensor plane in-body AF, or screw drive motor for lens-based AF: the result would be riots.

    Contax G took as good a shot at the "RF form factor with AF" idea as possible, and it wasn't a world beater or top seller. Small, with great lenses- but noisy, slow, and prioritized for AF with no traditional manual focus rangefinder. Nobody bought it for the camera experience: they bought it for the smaller than SLR body size and small fabulous lenses, at affordable budget price vs Leica. Buyers tolerated the body, but few loved it. The superb G lenses are a pain to adapt to digital systems today due to their inherent AF compromises.

    All of which explains why Leica shunts AF over to non-M side projects like the S, SL, CL, and various compacts. Those systems can get away with compromises like digital overlaid viewfinders or simple EVF. The M system is sacrosanct: it barely pulled off the transition from film to digital, beyond that Leica is not going to tinker with success.
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2019
    robert_bowring and Jochen like this.
  11. colino: maybe try an olympus trip 35 [or similar zone-focus camera] - you're automatically-focused, so long as you have a half-decent perception of distance!
    robert_bowring likes this.
  12. SCL


    There are lots of point & shooters out there which are autofocus. They aren't true rangefinders in that you can't manually focus them nor do they have interchangeable lenses, but often have a zoom lens and a viewfinder, not rangefinder, window. Many of these also have autoexposure. I had a Canon one years ago and have to admit that it did a great job in a project documenting old wooden barns...exposure was always on the button, as was focus, and sharpness was on a par with any of my Leicas; of course it wasn't shooting at f/1.4 or 2.0 though...but for that project it didn't matter. Cost
    was $4 at a charity shop. later sold it for $25. You might want to consider something similar, especially if you're a street or casual shooter

    Canon Sure Shot 1.jpg
  13. It comes down to what a "Range Finder" is in the photography world. Though we've come to think of a range finder as a type of camera, range finders were originally separate devices that photographers used to determine the distance between themselves and the subject, - a focus aid. They were typically the dual window, mirror, and split image system we see on range finder cameras today. The photographer would read the distance off the range finder and then set the distance on the lens of the camera.

    Sometimes these devices would be mounted on a camera via flash shoe or other means. Later cameras had range finders built in but still required the distance to be set on the lens independently.

    Eventually cameras were made with "coupled" range finders, meaning that there was a linkage between the lens and the range finder that set the proper distance on the lens based on the distance found when the photographer matched the images in the viewfinder.

    Now when we talk about "range finders" we are usually talking about cameras with built in range finders rather than the range finders themselves. And I believe that some people when they think of a "range finder" are thinking of a certain style of camera rather than whether or not the camera has an actual range finder. That's where the confusion lies.

    Anyway, Leica doesn't make an auto-focus range finder because if it has autofocus, it wouldn't be using the type of range finder that we associate with range finder cameras. In other words, it wouldn't be a range finder anymore.

    There are already plenty of autofocus cameras that look like classic ranger finders if that's what you're interested in.
  14. I've missed tons of photos due to AF. (And have missed photos from manual focus as well.) But I prefer manual focus for the most part. Leica would be nothing if it was not the only simplified manual camera on the market. Leica perfected what was needed in a reports cam eons ago. Hopefully they don't listen to the people that say put touch screen, program dial to replace shutter speeds and AF on their cams or dummy down the lenses.
    AJG and robert_bowring like this.
  15. Thanks for all replies so far, very interesting reading.

    As I said, I did think the M-E that I tried in the shop was very nice indeed, but it just doesn't tick enough boxes for me I suppose. The reality is that no camera would tick all the boxes, but then I question buying/carrying more than one camera. Is it just GAS? Maybe less is more, and it's good to be "constrained" to a degree. Then, I also wonder (and sorry for the heresy) if the camera in my phone wouldn't just serve me best for photographing my short trips away. I mean, the point is to enjoy the destination, not to load a daypack down with multiple bodies and accessories for every photographic eventuality.
  16. For many photographic situations you are really trying to set the camera at the correct hyperfocal distance and so you use the scale rather than focussing on some particular object.
  17. SCL


    IMHO the phone works for some people and has much to commend it, such as nearly always being with you. Its images are increasingly coming closer to what one can produce on film or other digital cameras. What it lacks, IMHO, is permancy unless you have multiple backups renewed periodically to ensure they aren't lost to technological advances in image handling and viewing...but this is true of all digital photography. With film you have a tangible item which may last much longer, and if properly processed and stored may last far longer..I've been able to process photos taken by my ancestors over a century ago (a few from film, many from prints). The other feature I think phones could improve upon is creating images which can be blown up to large sizes, with good resolution, such that you don't need to be 5 feet away from them for them to appear to be really good. So, in the end it is really up to you to decide what best fulfills your needs. I choose film and high quality digital, my daughter chooses phone.
  18. Leica did "develop" a passive AF system. They apparently sold it to Minolta for the Maxxum, but the latter found out that the Leica device was just a rip-off from Honeywell.
    Minolta had to pay huge damages.....

    Maybe getting caught with their hand in the cookie jar made Leitz shy.
  19. I was at harbor on Lake Superior yesterday morning. My wife was still sleeping so I decided to go for a walk and get some pictures since I like nautical things. My wife woke up before I left so I asked if she wanted to come with and she joined me. After we came back she noted that I hadn't taken many pictures.

    I didn't because I was focused more on her and enjoying our walk rather than using the camera, - which is the way it should be.

    My phone does a pretty good job of taking snap shots though it has its limitations. A small camera with a zoom lens provides a lot of versatility without taking up much space. I figure I'm more likely to lose a camera while traveling than any other time. I'd be so nervous about an expensive camera getting lost, damaged, or stolen while traveling that it would have a negative impact on how much I enjoyed the trip.
  20. The original 1976 implementation of the Leitz Correfot was notably different from the Honeywell TCL of 1978 (which became the basis for AF SLRs as we know them since the Minolta Maxxum of 1985). While there may have been some similarities, and Minolta may have obtained some moribund AF tech from Leitz, it does appear Minolta primarily "derived" Maxxum from the Honeywell design, which is what got them killed in a later patent lawsuit. I'm fairly sure Leitz did not get dragged into that melee: Honeywell was not playing around, they demanded and won massive damages from Minolta (which directly resulted in Konica/Minolta not having the resources to keep up when digital cameras supplanted film). If Leitz was remotely involved (even accidentally) with violating Honeywell's patents, Honeywell would have gone for their jugular, and the company would have vanished into utter bankruptcy long ago.

    The Honeywell system, from the start, used multiple microlensed phase detectors fed by semi-silvered mirror in the base of an SLR mirrorbox, the basic AF premise still in use today's DSLRs.. For most of its brief life as Photokina publicity bait, the Leitz Correfot relied on two simple CdS exposure meter cells in the prism housing, measuring contrast at the center of the focus screen thru a vibrating optical grate. Initially it wasn't intended for AF at all, but an "electronic rangefinder". Later, Leitz demonstrated an AF motor housing that would engage the serrated focus ring of a standard 50/1.4 Summilux-R, turning it in response to the two-light Correfot display (extremely similar to how Nikon added shutter-priority AE to the Nikon F2S via an external motor that rotated the actual aperture ring in response to the two-light DP2 meter display).

    The Correfot was surprisingly sensitive and accurate in low light, significantly better than the early Honeywell. But it had a few practical drawbacks that led Leitz to abandon it after it lost its Photokina novelty appeal around 1980. The biggest limitation, as far as Leitz was concerned, was that fully implementing it for practical autofocus would require a complete redesign of R lens line from superb brass construction (that could hold a focus point with micrometer precision), to the sloppy lightweight screwdrive construction that would become standard AF optics from Nikon, Minolta and Pentax. The final prototype Correfot AF would never have been practical: it required a huge heavy battery pack (converted from an SL2-MOT housing), and the cumbersome external motor/lens coupling drew so much power that battery pack drained in within 50 mins of continuous operation.

    Leitz felt their primary appeal was to photographers who valued portability, fast glass, precision manual focus, premium construction and tactile lens operation: adopting practical AF (with then-current technology limitations) would trash nearly all those traditional Leica virtues. If the sloppier flimsier AF concept failed to attract many new customers it would leave Leitz with yet another black eye. Given how much money Leitz was hemorrhaging in that era due to the M5 vs CL vs M4 fiasco and the unprofitable Leicaflex SL/SL2 bodies, they couldn't afford such a development gamble, so took the conservative approach of walking away from AF altogether (despite being the first to realize AF potential in a prototype).
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2019

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