Leica’s DIGITAL-MODUL-R; Powerful, But Pricey Leica SLR Digital Back Arrives Page 2

The DIGITAL-MODUL-R adds some bulk to the R8/R9, which hinders user comfort, but at least Leica kept the strange front-mounted shutter release that's on the R8/R9 motor drive. It's also easier to use than you might think. Sure it's weird, but like I said, it's an acquired taste. Oh yeah, these fabulously fabulous Leica lenses are manual focus and that turns out to be a good thing. Once focused, you can make second, third, and fourth shots without having to wait for autofocus--no matter how quickly it operates--to settle down.

A white balance bracketing feature? I wish. These two images represent a common occurrence when shooting quickly with the DIGITAL-MODUL-R in Auto White Balance mode. Neither image has been retouched and appears as the files came off the Secure Digital card. The funny thing is that with its precise manual focus, the R9 with DIGITAL-MODUL-R screams to be used quickly, but more often than not this is the result.
Photos © 2005, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

We now get to the part of the program where I remove the DIGITAL-MODUL-R from the R9 review unit and attach it to my R8 to see how this metamorphosis occurs, but alas it was not to be. You see, friends, Leica only has two review units and they wanted to keep them in one piece, so this back was decidedly non-removable and I didn't want to start yanking and pulling. (I can hear the sigh of relief over at Leica America now.) Based on this non-experience, I don't know how easily this transformation occurs, but my pal Jason Schneider, a renowned Leica expert, who saw it done, said that if you don't know anything about cameras it could take 10 minutes, but if your bedtime reading is not Digital Imaging for Dummies it should only take 2 minutes.

All the back's digital bits do their job in a decidedly non-fussy way, except for maybe the way Auto White Balance mode sometimes loses its mind and behaves like white balance bracketing when shooting quickly, which the camera encourages you to do. This can be corrected later in Photoshop but is still annoying. Perhaps a firmware update (the current version is 1.1) will fix this, but no updates were available while I was testing the DIGITAL-MODUL-R.

Image quality was excellent, no doubt helped by the incredible Leica lenses. A raw file from the DIGITAL-MODUL-R weighs in at 19.3MB compared to a wimpy 7.2 raw file produced by a Canon EOS-1D Mark II N, but is it all pixels? At ISO settings of 200 or higher, the Leica's files seemed ever so slightly noisier than the Canon's, but the noise is very tight, much like the grain in a really fine-grained, high-speed film. The imaging chip also seems just a bit more than normally sensitive to proper exposure, especially on the overexposure side with contrasty subject matter. Just get used to the funky Exposure Compensation lever on the left of the viewfinder and don't worry about it. Nevertheless, when everything is clicking I've never before seen the Kodachrome II-like image quality digital files that the DIGITAL-MODUL-R can produce.

Like "the little girl with a curl," when the R9/DIGITAL-MODUL-R is good it is very, very good. This image of the 1953 Great Race Packard made at the Adams County Historical Society literally leaps off the screen and I was able to make impeccable 13x19 prints on an Epson R1800 printer that captured the Kodachrome-like color and ambiance of these image files. Exposure in Aperture-Priority mode was 1/250 sec at f/13 at ISO 200. Lens was the spectacular Vario-Elmar-R 21-35mm f/3.5-4.0.
© 2005, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

For Leicaphiles Only?
All this image quality and precision engineering comes with a price tag. The DIGITAL-MODUL-R back is more expensive than a Canon EOS-1D Mark II N and you still have to buy a camera body to put it on. Don't even talk to the salesperson about lenses without a platinum card in your wallet. Does that even matter to the target market? I don't think so.

To paraphrase Tom Hnatiw (www.dreamcargarage.com): Do you need a digital back like this? If you own a Leica R8 or R9 and want to go digital, this is your only route and it's the yellow brick road. Do you want a camera like this? If you own older Leica SLRs with lenses manufactured after 1965, a used R8 body will be a relatively inexpensive upgrade to get you into the DIGITAL-MODUL-R's digital world. If none of this is appealing to you, why are you reading this anyway?

Technical Specifications
Compatible Bodies: R8 and R9
Lenses: All Leica R-lenses as well as all LEICAFLEX SL/SL2 lenses manufactured after 1965
Image Sensor: 3872x2576 pixels (10-megapixel) CCD chip
Active Area: 26.4x17.6mm
Focal Length Factor: 1.37
Sensitivity: ISO 100-1600
Memory Card: Secure Digital card up to 2GB; higher capacities with firmware upgrade
File Formats: Raw, TIFF, two JPEG-compression levels
Color Spaces: Adobe RGB, sRGB
Color Depth: 16 bit
Longest Shutter Speed: 16 seconds
Burst Exposure: 2 fps: max. 10 images in a row
Display: 1.8" color LCD (130,338 pixels)
Interface: FireWire (IEEE 1394)
Size: 6.22x5.51x3.51"
Weight: 3.075 lbs; 49.2 oz
Power Supply: Rechargeable lithium ion battery
Package Includes: Leica DIGITAL-MODUL-R, power unit, battery, charger with car adapter, FireWire cable, CCD cover, case for DIGITAL-MODUL-R, SanDisk 256MB Ultra II Secure Digital card, software, focusing screen with image field marks
Price: $5950

For more information, contact Leica Camera Inc., 1 Pearl Court, Unit A, Allendale, NJ 07401; (800) 222-0118, (201) 995-0051; www.leica-camera.com.