10.26.2015

The newest "retro" trend in camera design... Bigger really is better.


Let me be really clear about one thing. I love the mirrorless cameras for the EVFs and all the power and convenience that gives you when shooting but I have often railed against the trend to grow cameras smaller. I'm so happy to see a bit of a move in the other directions. Both Panasonic and Leica have come out with cameras that have more "real estate." More places to put your hands and more places to put full sized, vital plugs. More interior space to wick away heat from sensors and circuit boards. More of everything. 

The whole camera size preference cuts across two intersecting cohorts. On one hand we have professionals and on the other enthusiasts (everyone else is shooting with their cellphone now). As the pros age up they'd love to have lighter and lighter cameras and lenses because it's a shoulder and lower back saver. The smaller weight is also an energy conserver. But even the most physically feeble pros still need certain camera parameters in order to do their jobs correctly. They need to be able to have access to controls, to be able to hold the cameras correctly and to use them with flashes, remotes, plugged in video monitors and also tethered to their computers. As one reader pointed out, when buying a shrunken camera, like the Sony A7 series, you get a nice camera and a bag full of compromises. The A7s do nice video but.... the batteries run down quickly (too small), mini and micro HDMI cables break and get loose at a much higher rate than the full sized HDMI cables (more contact area more torque distribution, etc.), there's insufficient internal space to maximize heat management and, since the cameras have full frame sensors there is absolutely no weight or size savings when it comes to nice, elegant, fast-glass. FF lenses are just always going to be heavier. 

So, you get a mini-camera that's horribly hobbled for pro shooting. I'm sure this is what Leica was considering when they designed the SL. I think it's a sleeper video camera that will break out and be the next step fun the hybridization process between pro stills and videos. Why? Because there's enough room to hang stuff on the camera. And I think most users have issues with the size of the smaller cameras where handling is involved. Too much finger, too little camera. 

Most of the same arguments can be made for the GX8 from Panasonic. The body is bigger and it is more comfortable to hold and use. I'll also bet that it handles heat distribution from video more efficiently than older body designs. If it were all about handling I'd be smiling more about the GX8 but I'm still pissed that they went back to a weird size for the microphone inputs and capriciously elected to not include a headphone jack.

I notice that the cameras the a lot of serious photographers still use are not shrinking in size. The D810 is an ample package, as are the D4s and the Canon 1DX. The Canon 5D line is still a full size camera body style. And the Nikon D750, while measuring smaller still feels like a full grown camera. 

I love the Olympus EM-5.2 but I'd love it even more if was bigger. That's because I love the features. The stuff like killer IBIS, a great EVF and a nice movie mode. But I'd love it even more if it was integrated into a body that had batteries that lasted through whole video interview or half a day shooting stills. And if I'm carrying only one camera and a nice lens I don't really care about the weight. I'd rather have the excellent handling. A nice, good fitting outline to wrap my hands around...

But there is another whole cohort out there that loves the idea of "small" and drives some parts of the market. These are the users whose overriding priority for a camera are whether it fits in the pockets of their tight pants. I guess this group is why Sony is making a killing on the RX100IV.  I think the RX100IV and its ilk are transition cameras. They are cameras for people (who own only one camera and..) who thought at one time that they might want to be real photographers but who have decided it's too much work so they are downscaling from DSLRs to high end compacts on their inevitable transition to being a phone photographer. 

Most styles and designs are like swinging pendulums that overshoot the mark of balance and swing into silly and excessive self-parody. Cameras are no different a fashion statement. The phone is one extreme while the medium format cameras and ultra pro 35mm style bodies like the D4s and 1Dx are the other extreme. Leica is wisely returning to the middle ground. To stasis and to the normal order of things where the tools fit the hand as well as the imaging purpose. 

A couple of analogies about size: While manufacturers could make framing hammers much smaller and lighter the skinny handles wouldn't fit in beefy hands well, would not provide a secure grip; and a smaller, lighter hammer head wouldn't drive a 16 penny nail worth a damn.... 

I'm okay with smaller sensors. That's cost savings and depth of field on the opposite end of the spectrum from full frame dof control. I love eves over optical finders. But I never thought I needed to trade those attributes for body size. Like most pampered North Americans, I want it all just exactly the way I want it. Until I change my mind. Again. 

I prefer bigger cameras, up to a point. In fact, I hope the makers of cameras don't overreact to the swinging pendulums of camera fashion and start making giant cameras. But they might be able to sell them for higher dollars. We like big packages and still believe that bigger is better. I saw that this weekend at the Formula One races in Austin. The parking lots were filled with big Suburban SUVs and pick-up trucks. Big cars for big people. hmmmm. Any camera makers paying attention?

Besides Leica and Panasonic I mean....

My Thoughts on the Leica SL.


Many reviewers at many photo-oriented sites and blogs have rushed to breathlessly discuss the newly announced Leica SL. The problem with their assessments is they are mostly photographic neophytes who don't understand the Leica value equation. They obsess about camera features that real photographers will find unimportant while ignoring the one dominant attribute a true Leica should possess; absolute image quality. And that absolute image quality comes from the design and manufacturing precision of the lenses and the necessary tight tolerances of the camera and sensor integration with the lenses. That's it. No other magic beans. No vampire killing, secret silver bullets. 

Being a member of an extreme, mercantile culture here in the U.S.A. we need to talk first about the value proposition of the whole package from Leica. The legions of bean counters have trained us as consumers to salivate in reaction to shiny new gear with newly enhanced specifications (not necessarily enhanced performance) and, when they couldn't sell product on merit alone, to follow Dell Computer's many examples and race to the bottom of the pricing ladder. Camera makers are rebating and having sales left and right these days as they try to move low and mid-priced product in today's fragmented and confused markets. But, Leicas are relatively expensive and have never, ever been cheap. They are not traditional bargains. Their real products (M series rangefinders, the MF cameras and now, the SL) are not aimed at casual users or tentative hobbyists. They have traditionally been aimed (excluding "collectable" versions) at working photo-journalists (now almost extinct) and serious, committed image makers. The bodies (with the exception of the Ms during their nascent period) are never breakthroughs or platforms for experimentation. They are, instead, good, solid platforms for what many experts feel are the best lenses on the planet. 

I'll repeat what I wrote in a review of M cameras in 2001, "Everyone seems to have an opinion about the Leica M series rangefinder cameras, yet so few people have actually picked one up and used it for enough time to understand the unique features and benefits that make it one of the finest tools for certain kinds of photography."
(Go read the review here: Photo.net leica m6 review )

It's the same now. People see the fun, relatively cheaper Leicas, based on Panasonic bodies, and dismiss them out of hand. They see that they can buy the same lens, sensor and body from Panasonic for half price. And they extend this logic forward into the more professional tools Leica makes. But the difference is that no one else makes products that are like the top Leica products. 

I started shooting with Leica R and M cameras early on in my career. Up until the late 1990's I never owned a brand new body from Leica, all of them were purchased used. I owned the original Leicaflex which was their very first single lens reflex camera. As budget and supply allowed I moved on to the more efficient Leica SLs and SL2s. These were the most solid cameras I ever worked with until I moved on to the last, real generation of Leica SLR cameras, the Leicaflex SL2. It had a reputation as the toughest SLR ever built. After these hefty, wonderful cameras came a host of cameras based on Minolta camera body designs. Some were quite good because Minolta was not a poor camera company but it was early days for the incorporation of electronics of all sorts in cameras and reliability was an issue for almost every generation of these cameras, right up until the introduction of the R8 cameras. Those cameras were perfect. But they came to market too late. Digital imaging was gathering steam and people began directing their camera buying resources at shiny new product with sensors. Leica dabbled in digital with the R9 but it was half hearted and they could never implement new sensors at the rate required to serve the whims of the market. 

That led to a number of years in which the only professional Leica imaging product for photographers was the M series. No DSLRs. And while M cameras are wonderful platforms for wide and normal focal length lenses they were never conceived or designed to work well (viewing and focusing accuracy) with long lenses. And certainly not with zoom lenses. That has always been the primary reason for owning and using DSLRs. 

I used the Leica R cameras because many jobs require longer lenses and precision framing. I also used them because the lenses I liked (80mm Summilux, 90mm Summicron, 100 Elmarit Makro, 180mm f2.0 apo, etc. were demonstrably better than anything else I could buy and worked well with the types of film and the styles in which I shot.

It was a sad day when I realized that clients were never going to go backwards and accommodate a film workflow again. I traded in many good Leica lenses and bodies for not much money in order to re-tool as a digital shooter with Nikon gear. I have never gotten over the visible difference in lens performance between my Leica R series primes and just about anything else on the market, although I am sure that 50% of my dissonance is due strictly to nostalgia. But if you had ever shot a 90mm Summicron R on a Leica R8....

So now Leica launches a new, non-rangefinder body. A "mirror-free" body. A camera for the well heeled AND serious photographer. What is it? Simply put it's a platform for a line of R series lenses. Lenses we can't buy from other vendors. Apochromatically corrected 90mm, 180mm, 280mm primes that are wicked sharp, and contrasty and possessed of true nano-acuity (sufficient even for my stringent requires for my patent pending HYPER-PRINTS) that deliver really wonderful quality in a field dominated by the compromise of zoom lenses. There's no reason you can't use the R lenses with adapters on Canon bodies but newer Leica lenses will work well, one supposes, on their native cameras. 

Given the size of the lenses shown at introduction with the new SL it makes sense that the body is bigger. One needs true purchase on the camera body to use it effectively. But the bigger, heavier lenses are always the price one pays for the best performance. 

In a nutshell the body offers four things: Tight integration with new and older Leica R series lenses. An absolutely state of the art EVF (shot over the bows of Nikon and Canon -- for sure!). A sensor and software combination that is certain to be tweaked for Leica color and tonality (color purity and depth instead of the passing obsession with high ISO noise - if the MF camera is an example of their POV). 
A totally different way of looking at high end work tools; EVF and mirrorless versus flipping mirror and optical finder (with all of the EVFs efficient shooting features) and, finally, great 4K video in the body.  Those are the selling points in a nutshell. 

If you make professional videos for people the selling price of the system is in line with what you'll pay to get an entry level, state of the art, video camera like the Sony FS7 (the current, under $10,000 darling). But the FS7 is a super 35mm sensor instead of a full frame sensor so the Leica offers more depth of field control (in one direction). And consider that Leica makes very, very good and much coveted "cine" lenses for big time productions.  If the look of the files is wonderful then no one in that industry will bat and eye at the price of the body. Or the lenses. Does the 28-90mm zoom look expensive? Compared to a similar product by Nikon or Canon --- then yes. Compared to a $35,000 cine prime? Or a $40,000 Angenieux zoom? Not very. 

For me, if I were a risk taking fan of new technology, the single feature that would tip the scales for me between something like a Nikon D5 (coming soon, I am sure) and the Leica SL would most certainly be the integrated, 4.4 megapixel EVF and all of its associated optical parts (eyepiece magnifier, etc.). For a couple thousand more dollars over the Nikon I'd have the finder I want (and predicted five years ago) and all the video advantages of a mirrorless implementations as well (focus peaking, punch in, zebras, WYSIWYG real time color, tone and exposure evaluation. 

Just looking at the specs, the images and talking to dedicated Leica fans who have been privileged to use the new body I can say that Leica got most everything I was interested in just right. If I did not have a child at a private college I would already be in line for the camera body and the current lens, with the announced, longer zoom on order. But life isn't always logical, easy or straightforward. I worked with a D750 for most of the weekend and it work just fine. Can I justify the Leica on more than nostalgia and the IDEA of "ultimate image quality"? Naw. 

But I am certain that a group of working pros who value the fluid back and forth between video and stills, who relish the best image quality, who want the look and feel of their images to differentiate from they competitors and rivals, will embrace the camera and they system. And, for the most part they will be correct. For them. It's not a toy but a tool for creativity, and in that regard visual design of the product is a part of the mix. To some a very important part of the mix. And the cohort that admires and respects this will like this camera. 

A final note. Leica understands the shift in the market. I conjecture that they've given up the middle and bottom of the markets; written it off as deceased for serious camera makers. What other company is better positioned to go after the remaining high end photographers and photo enthusiast with unfettered budgets? The others have already screwed up their reputations by trying to embrace every step of the demographic ladder with some sort of product. They've damaged their brands in the eyes of the last, remaining consumers with money. They'll pay for that...