Leica's Record sales in 2023 is Exceptionally Good News for Pentax

Pentax's "workingman's Leica" strategy

By cjfeola in Columns on Jan 1, 2024

2023 was “the best year in Leica’s history,” Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, majority shareholder and chairman of the supervisory board of Leica Camera AG, told the French magazine Phototrend.

Those results are driven by the sale of more than 11,000 M11s and M11 Monochroms, said Kaufmann, plus an explosion in demand for film cameras. Leica is producing almost 5,000 M6 and MP 35mm cameras this year, up from just 500 in 2015; a number previously so low that the company considered disposing of the production equipment. And the compact Leica Q3 has taken off like a rocket, according to Leica officials.

All of this is great news for Ricoh Imaging, which has staked out a strategy that mirrors Leica’s, albeit at a much lower price point, and then some.

Consider:

  1. Both companies have flagship product lines that stubbornly cling to systems “outmoded” by mirrorless designs: Leica’s M Series still uses the coupled-rangefinders it perfected half a century ago, while Pentax stands fast with the Single Lens Reflexes (SLRs) that dethroned those rangefinder decades ago, led by, ironically, the Pentax Spotmatic.
  2. Both now offer unique black-and-white only models that sell for more than their color counterparts:
    • The Leica M11 Monochrom, the only black-and-white rangefinder
    • The Leica Q2 Monochrom, the only black-and-white fixed-lens compact
    • The Pentax K-3 III Monochrome, the only production black-and-white DSLR
  3. Both offer compacts that are so wildly popular that they are often on backorder: The Q3 for Leica, and the GRIII for Ricoh Imaging
  4. Both companies use special editions to drive sales: Leica’s Q series, for example, has offered James Bond and Reporter special editions, along with the Monochrom. Pentax takes it even further. Not only does the flagship K-3 III have special editions such as the Jet Black and the Monochrome, the latter has special editions of its own, such as the Monochrome Matte Black edition.
  5. Both companies have made public commitments to film. Lecia, as noted above, is selling M6s as fast as it can make them. Pentax hasn’t shipped any new film cameras yet, but it has been publicly promoting The Pentax Film Project and documenting the development of new film cameras. Pentax officials remain coy, but rumor has it that the company will ship a new compact 35mm film camera with a fixed lens in the first half of 2024.

Leica and Pentax Monochromes-rear view

Both companies are pursuing a blue-ocean strategy. While Canon, Fuji, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Sony et al churn the mirrorless ocean red as they battle for supremacy, Leica sails alone with rangefinders and Pentax is now just as alone with DSLRs.

Blue Ocean Strategy is a business approach made famous by the Japanese company Nintendo. It’s named for the way the water turns red with blood during a shark feeding frenzy. The blood means that sharks have definitely found fish to eat. But unless you’re a giant shark yourself, you’ll have difficulty fighting your way to the food; and you may end up as someone else’s meal. Instead, head away from the red water and out into the blue ocean. You’ll have to work to find dinner, but once you do, you’ll have it to yourself.

Nintendo was a distant third in consoles behind the Sony Playstation and the Microsoft Xbox, which were in a race to provide gamers the most spectacular graphics. Nintendo executives realized they simply could not compete.

So they didn’t even try. Instead, they focused on changing the way the gamers played, and shipped the Nintendo Wii with its motion controllers. The Wii still had crappy graphics, but it outsold the Playstation and Xbox... combined.

That’s the strategy Leica has followed so successfully. If you want a new rangefinder, digital or film, Leica is pretty much your only choice. (There are a few kickstarter-ish competitors.)

And then there’s the Monochrom. Take the current M. Strip the Bayer array off the sensor. Charge even more for the resulting machine. Sell all you can make.

In some ways Pentax is being even more clever. There is no question that the K-3 III Monochrome was a big risk for the company.

But it wasn’t the sort of risk Leica took with the M Monochrom. That machine was the first production black-and-white digital camera. (There’s a pretty lively business in aftermarket conversions, and some studio rigs that cost more than...well, a studio.) Would such a machine sell in any sort of volume, or would it just be a money-losing curiosity?

The Pentax K-3 III Monochrome was certainly a bigger risk than if those same resources, say, were put to use bringing out a K-1 III this year. But by the time the Monochrome came out Leica had sold a series of wildly successful Monochrom M models, followed by the Q Monochrom. So Pentax execs knew there was a market for $10,000 and $6,000 Monochroms.

A $2,200 Monochrome seemed like a good bet. And it’s an even better bet, business-wise. The saying in business is that if you are not growing, you are dying. The camera market has been tough for the last decade. Where could Pentax find growth?

If Pentax had invested that money into a K-1 III, how much better would it have to be to get photographers to abandon large investments in Canon or Nikon or Sony systems with complete sets of lenses? Especially when the latest and greatest in any system is liable to be leapfrogged by someone else’s latest and greatest in a matter of months?

The Monochromes, however, change that calculation completely. If you want an interchangeable lens digital black and white camera, you have two choices: the $9,195 Leica M11 Monochrom Digital, or the $2,196.95 Pentax K-3 III Monochrome. And if you are the type of photographer who buys one of them, chances are very high you’re also the type to buy a bag full of lenses to use with it.

And if you have a Monochrome and a bag full of lenses, it probably makes sense to buy a K-1 II or the regular K-3 III (color) in case you happen across a scene that cries out for color.

Who wants to carry two bags of lenses for two systems?

And Pentax continues following its Workingman’s Leica strategy:

  1. Let Leica go first and prove the market
  2. Follow with a product that’s premium for Pentax, but a quarter the price of the Leica. For example, while B&H Photo Video has the Leica M11 Monochrom for $9,195, they list the Pentax K-3 III Monochrome for $2,196, while the color K-3 III is $1,596...with a memory card and camera bag thrown in.

Leica relaunched the M6 35mm film camera in October 2022. In December 2022 Pentax announced the Pentax Film Project – a special team working to relaunch the Pentax film camera line. There have been a number of updates and displays this year. Then Pentax Europe gave an interview saying that compact film cameras were coming in the first half of 2024, and interchangeable lens cameras after that; an interview that was quickly walked back.

But here’s my prediction: with Leica M6 sales continuing to boom, look for The Pentax Film Project to ship compact 35mm film cameras in 2024 for much less than a quarter of the price of the $5,695 Leica M6. And if those sell as expected, look for Pentax to join Leica as the only companies offering a single interchangeable lens system that can be used on digital color, digital monochrome and 35mm film bodies.

Now imagine a 2025 where you are carrying a bag filled with your Pentax Limited lenses, with a K-1, a K-3 III Monochrome and a K-35mm film SLR...

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