As soon as the Leica M was introduced, the question was, “what’s next?” Besides the usual criticism, one point that was made over and over again was in regard to autofocus. Of course, many questioned the need for autofocus on a rangefinder camera. That opinion was especially strong among the so called Leica purists. However, the Leica M has to be looked upon as a lot more than just a rangefinder camera. It is definitely a complete system camera that also incorporates a rangefinder. The Leica M is also the answer to previous Leica R owners who for years have been looking at a viable digital solution to make use of their lenses. With the new R adapter, the Leica M is capable to utilize any of the previous R lenses and it is also capable to do unlimited close up photography. The only thing lacking is autofocus capability.
Could autofocus be incorporated in the Leica M camera? Prior to the introduction of the camera I consulted my crystal ball. As it turned out, my predictions were virtually spot on. So I hope I was not too far off with my previous claim that autofocus might be the next big step with the Leica M camera.
How could this be achieved? As I see it, autofocus offerings will be initially with the M lenses, not the ones that are currently offered by Leica Camera, but the same optics with an autofocus mount. That would require the removal of the standard focusing mount and the rangefinder coupling. These would be replaced with an autofocus mount with built-in servo motors to make the autofocus movements independent of the camera body. The lenses would receive the focus information via electronic contacts from the camera.
Just today Leica News & Rumors reported of the Chinese company Camera MX (deo-tech.com) that modified a Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron for autofocus. They removed the focus mount of the Summicron and fitted it into the body of a Contax Biogon 28mm f/2.8 body. This configuration will work with the ContaxG – NEZ AF adapter on the Sony NEX cameras.
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In principle this is very much the same as I have suggested, an autofocus mount for the optics of the standard Leica M lenses. Adding this to the line of Leica M cameras, the new camera (Leica M AF?) would leave little on a wish list of additional capabilities. Of course, not everyone needs all of these features. For those there are always the Leica M Monochrom and the Leica ME.
Of course the next question is regarding the Leica R lenses. It is doubtful that Leitz will reissue these with autofocus capabilities, although it is conceivable that a few of the longer lenses and macro lenses might find their way into the lineup of autofocus lenses.
But there is another possible solution. At the 1980 annual LHSA meeting in Minneapolis, Leica showed a prototype Leica R camera with autofocus. The unit utilized a standard R lens, a 50mm f 1.4 Summilux R. Autofocus was achieved via a servo motor which was attached to the lens and which moved the actual focusing ring of the lens via a small gear. A similar servo motor is available for the Leica cine lenses to offer motorized focusing.
Such a servo motor could be used to convert current R lenses to autofocus use on a Leica M camera. It would receive its focusing information via the same electronic contacts in the camera as the autofocus M lenses would. Will this ever happen? This is where my crystal ball gets very cloudy. Time will tell.