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Having Your Cake & Eating it Too
Leica's Digital-Modul-R - a digital solution for a film camera
Text and Photos by Allan Weitz

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For the longest time we've been hearing rumors of so-and-so bringing out a 'simple solution' for film-lovers who wish to enter the digital fray with the same camera system they have grown to trust over the years. Unfortunately, most every one of these silver bullets remains in the form of yellowed press releases and vaporware. Only one company has been able to bring the real-deal to the marketplace... Leica.

If you currently own a Leica R8 or R9, Leica now offers you the option of becoming a card-carrying member of the DSLR Owner's Society by simply removing the rear film-door and replacing it with the Digital Modul-R, a seemingly simple technological concept that's easier said than done.

The Leica Digital Modul-r on a Leica R9 SLR

The heart of the Leica Digital Modul-R is a 10MP (3872 x 2576, 6.8 micron) Kodak-designed CCD sensor similar in design to the CCD used in Imacon medium-format capture backs. The CCD sensor in the Digital Modul-R is similar in physical size to the sensor found in the 8.3MP Canon 1D Mark II, as well as the late Kodak DCS 760 and has a magnification factor of 1.37x. When used in digital mode a 50mm lens is effectively a 68.5mm, a 19mm is effectively a 26mm, a 100mm is a 137mm, and so on. Included with the Digital Modul-R is a clear, drop-in viewfinder mask with black frame-lines for composing your pictures.

The Leica Digital Modul-R is capable of capturing 16-bit RAW, TIFF, and 2 levels of JPEG compression onto SD cards or directly to your hard-drive via FireWire connector. Image files open up to a wee bit under 30MB. ISO ratings range from 100 to 1600 and images can be recorded in either Adobe RGB or sRGB. As for white balance, you have a choice of Automatic, 6 presets, or dial-up Kelvin settings. Images can be captured at the rate of 2 frames-per-second for a burst of up to 10 frames. Not exactly a screamer, but fast enough for most applications.

The Leica Digital Modul-R has two LCD displays on the aft-deck. A 1.8" color LCD is for image playback, and a smaller monochrome LCD displays current settings for remaining exposures, ISO, exposure compensation, battery status, self timer, image compression, moiré on/off (there's no anti-aliasing filter in this puppy), and white balance. Among menu sections are; image sharpness, color saturation, contrast, color display brightness, auto review duration, histogram on/off, energy conservation settings, card formatting, alarm signals, audio histogram on/off, date, time, user profile, and firmware update. The menus for the above can be viewed in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, and Yiddish. (O.K, we're joking about the Yiddish menu)

Aside from a choice of metering options (Multi-Pattern, Center-weighted, and Selective (7mm) Spot, as well as Selective TTL-Flash), the Leica R9 can be programmed to give visual and/or audio warnings when the exposure levels start clipping the shadows or highlights.

(Click to enlarge - very large file)

Maneuvering around the menu options proved to be a simple chore accomplished by a 4-way toggle surrounded by a circular command dial located on the rear of the camera. For a complex machine, the Leica Modul-R is a rather simple, intuitive imaging tool. Chances are the menus on your $300 point-and-shoot are far more confusing to figure out than the menus on the Digital Modul-R.

Digital issues aside, the original Leica R8 and its subtly-updated replacement, the Leica R9, are quite lovely to use for film or digital imaging. Earlier Leica SLRs were basically pimped Minoltas with red badges. They were OK cameras, but they pale beside the current R-series Leica reflex cameras. The Leica R8/R9 bodies, designed by the Porsche Design team, feel and perform noticeably different from other SLRs, film or otherwise.

For an SLR, the Leica R9 has a rather flat-profile prism housing. Don't let the subtle bump in the top-deck fool you though because the R9 has what is arguably the brightest, most evenly illuminated viewfinder you will ever peek through. The flush-mounted shutter-speed dial is easy to read and use, and the rest of the camera simply melts into your hand. The feel of the camera is rock solid, and the sound of the shutter is enough to make the most jaded of shooters say "Oooooh, that's sweet" the first time they hear it.

Being a 'conventional' camera, the Leica R9 features a large shutter-speed dial that goes from 1/8000th/sec to 16/sec with a top flash sync of 1/250th/sec. Aside from straight manual exposure, users have a choice of Variable Program, Aperture or Shutter priority, and ETT-L flash.

As for lenses, Leica has a rather extensive selection of (manual focus) optics, fixed focal-length and zoom, designed specifically for Leica reflex cameras. Like all Leitz optics, Leica R-series lenses are German to the core and the images they produce are a cut above lenses produced in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Examples of the R9/Digital Modul-r combo in action:

Sharp lenses are easy to produce these days. Truth is there are very few 'iffy' lenses made nowadays, and more than a few can be described as truly outstanding. That said there aren't all that many lenses capable of producing the smooth gradations between highlights and shadows, neutral color renditions, and dead-on contrast levels found in Leica glass. The other guy's optics may be sharp, but they seldom hit the high notes the way most German optics hit them. If you currently own older-style 'pre-cam' Leica-R lenses, they can be modified (for a fee) by Leica to work with the Digital Modul-R.

A particularly big challenge facing the engineers when designing the Modul-R was figuring out how to design a 'snap-on, snap-off' digital back that will place the CCD sensor in the exact plane-of-focus each and every time it is attached to the camera. As mentioned earlier, film is a cake-walk compared to digital when it comes to capturing sharp pictures while the tolerances required to place the sensor in the exact position each and every time the Digital Modul-R is attached to the R9 body are plus-or-minus zip.

The good news is they actually did it. Pictures produced by the Leica Modul-R are tack-sharp. It's worth mentioning the precise tolerances built into the Leica R-series cameras and lenses are about the tightest in the industry. In the case of the Modul-R, these efforts have paid off.

Processing the image files produced by the Leica Digital Modul-R is a rather painless affair. Imacon's Flexcolor software, the same software used with Imacon scanners and medium-format capture backs, is one of the easier applications you will ever use. And if you're not up to installing and learning yet another software application don't worry, be happy- you can open your image files and diddle with them to your heart's content in Photoshop CS2.

The Leica Digital Modul-R sells for $5950. The Leica R9 (body only) sells for $2995. Life is short... enjoy.

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