The ‘Post-Digital’ Leica MPi: A Leica M2 With a Raspberry Pi Camera
Photographer Michael Suguitan decided to take the “gear acquisition syndrome” bull by the horns and build a customized camera using a Leica M2 analog rangefinder and a 12-megapixel Raspberry Pi camera module.
Suguitan calls his creation the Leica MPi, a portmanteau of Leica M and Raspberry Pi.
“The MPi preserves the key affordances of the base Leica M2, specifically its rangefinder focusing and mechanical shutter,” explains Suguitan.
Further, not only does the MPi not bypass some of the M2’s distinct characteristics, but it also doesn’t destroy the original camera. Suguitan explains that the system is non-destructive.
“The digital back swaps in place of the existing film door and pressure plate, enabling reversibility,” he says.
Assuming someone has access to a Leica M2, the components needed to digitize it and make a Leica MPi cost around $100.
Suguitan isn’t the first to undertake a project like this. He notes that others like Becca Farsace and Malcolm-Jay have combined film camera bodies and Raspberry Pi internals.
In Suguitan’s case, he used a Raspberry Pi Zero W computer, a Raspberry Pi HQ camera module, and WaveShare 1.3-inch LCD module with three buttons and a four-way directional pad. These parts add up to about $80.
He also designed a 3D-printed enclosure, although the project has presented challenges. “Due to tight tolerances and mechanical interference with the Leica’s shutter curtain, I removed the module’s C-mount attachment and anti-aliasing filter and filed down the top edge of the sensor board,” Suguitan explains.
Compared to some of the projects that inspired him, Suguitan’s Leica MPi is special thanks to its rangefinder focusing system. The sensor position matches the original film plane, and the digital sensor is mounted in spring-adjusted screws to ensure correct calibration.
Suguitan also built a custom circuit that electronically connects the camera’s shutter mechanism to the Raspberry Pi’s electronic shutter.
“The mechanical shutter is coupled to the Pi’s electronic shutter. Pressing the shutter button closes the circuit between the flash sync socket center pin and ground (e.g., any bare metal on the body; I used the cold shoe as a contact point). The mechanical shutter acts as a button input to one of the Pi’s GPIO pins and sends a software signal to begin an exposure with the electronic shutter,” Suguitan says, describing his clever shutter solution.
“Due to software-induced lag between the opening of the mechanical shutter and triggering of the electronic shutter, the mechanical shutter stays open in ‘Bulb’ mode while the electronic shutter controls exposure. The four-way directional pad on the LCD screen module selects the shutter speed in two-stop increments: 1/1000s, 1/250s, 1/60s, and 1/15s clockwise from the right.”
A micro-USB power supply powers the camera, and the requisite software is a refined version of the control framework that Suguitan wrote for Blossom, a robot he designed during his Ph.D. program.
Suguitan first tested the Leica MPi on a trip last month to Japan. He used a Voigtlander 12mm f/5.6 lens, which equates to a 60mm prime lens thanks to the 5.5 times crop factor of the Raspberry Pi HQ camera module. A software bug caused some issues with the shutter speed, but the photos are still impressive.
When considering “why” he built the Leica MPi, Suguitan admits he was partially motivated by “making for making’s sake.” However, he also wanted to work with the idea of a “post-digital” camera. Post-digital is an aesthetic or artistic practice that blends digital and analog technology to explore the evolving relationship between humanity and digital technology.
“By designing a post-digital system that integrates a digital recording medium within a completely analog mechanical film camera, I wanted to critique the unsustainability of both film and digital photographic practice,” explains Suguitan.
He also notes that while analog photography is experiencing a revival, film stocks are under constant risk of discontinuation. Economic and environmental concerns threaten film’s long-term survivability.
While film may not be around forever, some film cameras, like the Leica M2, are sustainable because they don’t have built-in electronics that wear down and corrode over time. Even when parts break, they aren’t complicated to fix.
“The Leica MPi combines the maintainability of the analog Leica M2 with the convenience of a digital recording medium. The system is post-digital in not just its apparent combination of analog and digital elements but also in its promotion of agency over its constituent technologies. Similar to the Right to Repair and Maker movements, this design philosophy appeals to a desire to be ‘master of one’s own stuff,'” concludes Suguitan.
He plans to develop his project further, with the goal of creating an open-source design that will allow fellow photographers and makers to preserve analog cameras through collaborative projects.
Additional images Suguitan captured using his Leica MPi camera are available on his website. He’s also active on Instagram.
Image credits: All images © Michael Suguitan