Quick hands-on: The 2012 Leica M (Typ 240)

IMG_1958b copy

Update: my full review is here.

I finally had the chance to have some time alone with the new Leica M (2012 Typ 240) this evening at an event held by Leica Malaysia for the 2012 Maybank Photo Awards (you’ve got until the end of October to enter here; I’m serving as head judge). Advanced note: it was a pre-production prototype, with the SD card glued in because the image quality is nowhere near final. I’m told there will be some notable improvements between this version and the production version; it’s mostly to do with the firmware. I won’t be drawing any conclusions on image quality, because it’s simply impossible to tell at this stage. Please excuse the crappy product shots, I was using my old iPhone 4.

IMG_1963b copy

And that brings me to the first point: the LCD is now enormous. And a huge improvement on the old one; it’s now a 3″, VGA unit that’s on par with the rest of the market – it makes an massive difference to the whole experience. You can judge sharpness on it; exposure is still of course best done with blinking highlights and histogram. To go with the new LCD is a new, cleaner menu system with functions grouped into sensible clusters; there are more of them, but the M remains a camera that you pick up and shoot. M9 shooters will of course be at home after they figure out what the extra two buttons do – the one on the front is for focus peaking; the one at the top is to record a movie.

The M now has live view, and a neat focus peaking feature that only activates when you turn the lens, and disappears with a half-press of the shutter or when you leave it for a while. I presume it works based on a sensor interacting with the rangefinder cam. The next thing you notice is the loss of the RF frameline illuminator window; it’s now LED backlit in either red or pale blue-white; both are very visible. I actually miss the old frameline preview lever; perhaps I was one of the few. There isn’t any more information in the finder, though.

IMG_1965b copy

There are four things that make the new M feel much more polished: firstly, the shutter release action has lost the notchiness of the M8 and M9; it’s a light half press to lock exposure, and slightly more pressure with a clean break to exposure. The shutter itself is a lot quieter and lower vibration; it simply feels better damped. Secondly, the whole thing is just faster – shuttling around the large 24MP DNG files was fast, and there was no waiting for the camera to zoom in/ scroll around. It simply felt snappy; easily as fast as my D800E (!). Next up is selectable metering: you now have the old centerweight, but also spot and matrix; I didn’t get a chance to test matrix extensively but it seems a lot less prone than the M9’s meter to drastic underexposure when you have a bright point source in the frame. This is a good thing for night photographers; as is the new sensor. I could only judge off the rear LCD, but it appears that we’ve now gained some significant high ISO performance – 3200 looked pretty good, with 6400 being useable. Once again, without seeing actual files, this is far from conclusive.

Although the body seems larger than the M9, it’s in fact identical in size to the old one. To accommodate that larger LCD and keep the lines intact, the scroll wheel around the d-pad has now moved to the top right corner, partially hiding behind a thumb rest. I was a bit skeptical about the utility of such a small nub, but it does feel much more secure in the hand than a regular M without a ThumbsUp – which is a good thing, because with the hotshoe serving double duty as an EVF port (didn’t get to try this, unfortunately) you won’t be able to attach any grip accessories. The prototype I handled also had the optional handgrip and wrist loop. I didn’t particularly like the feel of the loop because it didn’t feel comfortable – quite possible I had the wrong size installed for my hands – but the grip definitely improves handling. This one was a blank dummy, but I believe the final versions will have functional ports.

The big question of image quality, and utility of other functions like video will have to wait until I have a final production sample to review – I’m told that will be sometime around December. I’m looking forward to a number of things: firstly, shooting wides without having to use an accessory finder; trying out some macro work without the Visoflex and bellows, and finally, putting my favourite Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon on the front in a useable way thanks to a Nikon F-Leica M adaptor I’ve had lying around for some time.

All the signs are extremely positive that the M is a huge step forward from the outgoing model. Feel is an important thing; the M feels a bit more ‘button-ey’ than the M9-P, but also more polished. That said, I do like the simplicity of the M9-P – with the ever increasing number of features, I can now see the sense in keeping the product lines separate; the more features the camera has, the more settings and menus are going to be required to tame it. This does somewhat dilutes the photographic purity of the M – but then again, I’m not a videographer and I’m perfectly happy shooting 28/50 on my rangefinders. Now if only they’d do a Hammertone M-E with the new sensor…MT

____________

Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

appstorebadge

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Photokina 2012 commentary and opinions

The rush of product announcements is over, the collective giddy fanboy-like enthusiasm has died down somewhat, and presumably some serious business is being discussed in the back meeting rooms and dingy service hallways of the exhibition hall in Cologne, or over giant pretzels at the local bierhaus. It’s about the right time for a bit of serious reflection and commentary on some of the more interesting announcements from the last week.

The beginning of full frame for the masses.
The Nikon D600 and Canon 6D are squarely aimed at the space which the Nikon D70 and Canon 300D battled over nearly eight years ago; enthusiast-level cameras with serious image quality and a reasonably good feature set. Granted, the price point is a bit higher, but then again, inflation has moved things along somewhat, too. I actually think both of these cameras are far more capable than the average user needs, but people will buy them anyway. Commendably, Nikon actually had cameras in stock, and for sale at dealers on the day that was announced; this seems to be a rare exception in days of ‘pre-announcements’ months ahead of actual availability. And there weren’t any shortages, either – my dealer (admittedly one of the largest in Malaysia) got 60 bodies, compared to two(!) D800s. The D600 is an extremely refined camera that has no major issues anywhere – and I’m pleased to see that QC is much better this time, too; even though the camera comes from Nikon’s Thailand plant instead of Sendai. I’ll be doing a full review the D600 in the coming days, so stay tuned.

Breaking away from the traditional fixed limitations to camera software.
Nikon’s S800C is the first attempt by a large, traditionally-camera (I don’t count Samsung) manufacturer at doing quasi-open firmware; I think its success will depend on two things – the ecosystem around apps, and the level of integration with normal photographic functions. I don’t think it makes sense to have a camera that’s touch-screen only, which requires you to navigate some menus before you can even take a picture; instead, perhaps the ‘camera app’ could be loaded and running over the base OS by default, with other functional configurations loaded as required. They’ll need to retain buttons, too. And I have no idea how Android handles image processing, especially for very large files.

Wireless, wireless, wireless
Nikon, Canon and Olympus have gone big on wireless file transfer this year, each taking slightly different approaches. Nikon’s is dongle based, and allows ftp of files to any server, which is great for working professionals; Canon’s is built into camera (why aren’t they all like this?) – I haven’t used one, so I can’t comment on functionality. Olympus is card-based and requires an app on a tablet or smartphone to work, but is very well integrated with social media. I think the strategies actually represent their respective companies quite well; Nikon is still conservative and photographic-focused; Canon is a bit gadgety, and Olympus’ target market is very much the blogger and casual user. I hope that at some point the wireless standards will be sufficiently fast and well-defined enough to allow transfer of any file to any other device, or direct upload from the camera itself; Olympus’ implementation seems to work the best of the lot (as far as speed and multiple users go) – unfortunately there’s no way of having it send anything other than a jpeg to a tablet.

More mirrorless
There were a slew of offerings here: the Fuji X-E1, Panasonic GH3, Sony NEX-6/ NEX-5R, Olympus E-PL5 and E-PM2. It’s clear that smaller sensors are here to stay – remember sufficiency for the masses – and viewfinders are becoming an increasingly rare spec. The X-E1 is probably what the X-Pro should have been in the first place; I honestly found the hybrid finder in the X100 gimmicky after a while, and landed up using the EVF most of the time for more precise framing. If AF is improved as much as they claim, Leica will have competition on its hands, but then again, they probably won’t mind because they’ll just sell more lenses. The GH3 now occupies top spot in the M4/3 pyramid, and appears to be a notch above the OM-D in both spec and price. The asking money – $1299 – isn’t cheap at all. Fortunately, sensor quality in the new M4/3 cameras more than justifies it. Sony is more of the same – a cheaper NEX-7, and an evolution of the NEX-5. The hybrid AF technology with phase detect points in the imaging sensor itself was surprisingly low-key; I would have thought that something this useful would be deserving of more fanfare. Olympus’s lower-end cameras have been updated with the innards of the OM-D (though not the 5-axis gyro stabilizer). The E-P3 remains in the lineup for now, though I don’t see why anybody would buy one given the price and older sensor. I’ve got an E-PL5 here for testing, and it’s a pretty impressive camera – this is what the original E-P1 should have been. It’s fast, responsive, very nicely built, and pocketable with the body cap lens; I’ll have a full review up in the coming days.

Sony A99
Sony’s different approach to mirrorless has meant some unique value propositions at the low and mid range, and a slightly odd product at the high end – the A99 shares a base sensor with the D600, but is positioned at the price point of the D800E. At that level, you get higher fps than either camera, an excellent EVF, but a slightly odd control layout and user interface. General operation is fast enough, but I have no idea whether tracking AF is up to speed with conventional DSLRs or not; this has traditionally been a weak point of Sony cameras. I don’t think the package is compelling enough to attract new photographers to the brand, but videographers might be convinced by the quality of the output; the RX100 is seriously impressive, and that sensor is a fraction of the size of the A99’s. I still don’t think EVF’s are anywhere near good enough for critical applications, though; it’s not so much about resolution as dynamic range. I previously had a hands-on preview here.

Carl Zeiss
It seems that they’ve come back with a vengeance: first the 2/135 APO, and then the 55/1.4 Distagon, not to mention AF lenses for the X-Pro and E mount – a 12/2.8, 32/1.8 and 50/2.8 macro. It seems odd that they would skip over the much larger M4/3 market at first, though the relationship with Sony might have something to do with it. On the SLR front, although most of the lenses are capable of excellent results on even the D800E, the 50/1.4 Planar and 85/1.4 Planar have left much to be desired. It’s interesting to see that the 55/1.4 adopts their wide-angle Distagon formula; I suspect this is going to be an outstandingly good lens – it had better be, given the size (82mm filter!) and likely price. It’s apparently the first in a range of very high resolution DSLR lenses that will sit above the current ZF.2/ ZE line.

More M4/3 lenses
Olympus 60/2.8 Macro, 15/8 body cap lens and 17/1.8 announcement; Schneider’s 14, 30 and 60mm primes and Panasonic’s 35-100/2.8 were all announced. Serious glass is a good sign for system maturity. Whilst I won’t be buying the 17, Schneider 30/ 60 or Panasonic 35-100, the Olympus 60/2.8 macro has proven to be one of, if not the best lens I’ve used on M4/3, and one of the best macro lenses ever, period. I’ve acquired one for myself, along with the 15/8 body cap – it’s a fun toy, makes my E-PM1 an interesting pocket option, and is a very good street shooter thanks to huge DOF and a mechanical focus lever. Being a 28mm lover, the Schneider 14mm is definitely on my list, though the expected price tag is eye-watering. I think they will have to lower prices for this range of optics to be a success; I simply can’t see any quantity of people willing to pay this much for lenses relative to the cost of the rest of the system.

Enthusiast compacts with small sensors are still going strong
There were several announcements in this category: the Olympus XZ-2, Canon S110/ G15, Nikon P7700, Panasonic LX7, and Fuji XF1. All were evolutionary rather than revolutionary; the most exciting thing was the mechanical lens on the rather compact (and surprisingly large 2/3″ sensored) XF1. I think for this category of camera to survive, they’re going to have to get smaller and more versatile with lenses, or cheaper; Sony’s RX100 makes for stiff competition given its much larger sensor and reasonably fast lens – and it’s compact. I see the Canon S110 and Fuji XF1 doing reasonably well because of their size; the LX7 has that f1.4 lens; the rest are probably going to wither.

Leica
Aside from the new, confusing naming, Leica did what we expected them to do (and probably should have done quite some time ago) – brought live view to the M, along with a much improved LCD. Although I’m sure they’ll sell in droves anyway, what will make or break this camera as a professional tool won’t be price – rather, the quality of the sensor from the new Belgian supplier, as well as the reliability of the electronics and other parts. At least we don’t have to worry so much about rangefinder alignment; however the EVF makes things somewhat ungainly and also impossible to use flash or a thumb grip (not that that will work anyway, with the ergonomic modification and extra control dial). The M also loses one of its windows – frame lines are now LED illuminated, which is a big deal because it means much easier viewing under difficult light conditions. The M-E is a stripped down M9; I suppose there were a lot of leftover components to use up. I’m curious about the color, but that’s about it. The S has received a supposedly new sensor, though the pixel count remains the same; let us hope image quality is improved, then.

The wildcards: Sony RX1 and ‘that Hasselblad’
Perhaps this section should have been called ‘the good, the bad and the ugly'; or ‘beauty and the beast’. The RX1 appears to be a masterpiece of innovation, even though the camera isn’t as small as it appears to be, and the price is rather high. I think it’s now only a matter of time before we see great compact full frame cameras in the vein of the older Ricoh GR1v and Olympus Mju II. That can only be a good thing for those of us who don’t always want or need to carry around a D600. The Hasselblad Lunar, on the other hand, is either a masterpiece of capitalistic genius which will make them a boatload of money from the taste-challenged Middle Eastern and Chinese markets, or the beginning of the end for the brand. I suppose this is what happens when a bunch of financiers who don’t understand photography take over a camera company; for shame. Granted, Leica is doing the same thing with its rebranded Panasonics, but at least they look better than the original versions. The Lunar is so hideously ugly that it appears to have been designed by a five-year-old, rendered by a fifth form graphics design student, and then posted on April 1st. Except, it wasn’t, and it seems that nobody within Hasselblad can see that the emperor’s new clothes are missing. Having said that, a technology partnership with Sony makes perfect sense: look at the technical prowess required to create the RX100 and RX1. If anything, they could breathe new life into medium format. However, rebranding the company’s existing cameras is definitely NOT the way to go.

A note on marketing strategy
For whatever reason, companies seem to choose to announce all of their products at the same time – this is stupid. As a result, none of the products individually get the attention they could otherwise have managed if the announcements were spread throughout the year; Photokina should be an industry show where things are on display and the reps are there to answer questions and do business. I’d consider myself a fairly avid follower of the industry in general, and yet I keep finding things that I simply overlooked in the deluge of announcements – the Nikon P7700 was something I wasn’t even aware of until today, for instance. And the Zeiss and Schneider announcements got lost against the noise against the Hasselblad Lunar. Fifteen minutes of fame, yes – it just doesn’t make sense to fight with your competitors for the same fifteen minutes so that everybody at best gets five seconds each. Leica did it right with their May 10 event; I suspect the impact was much stronger than at Photokina, and they certainly got more attention in the blogosphere.

Overall, the theme for this year has been evolution and lenses; there are a lot of solidly interesting products out there, some of which I’ll review, some of those in turn which I’ll buy – but the list isn’t that long, probably just the Schneider 14/2, Zeiss 1.4/55 Distagon and 2/135 APO. I don’t see anything dramatically different or improved over what we’re currently using, but better lenses are always worth lusting after. MT

____________

Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

appstorebadge

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Hands-on-preview: Sony A99, NEX-6, NEX-5R

_RX100_DSC1277b copy

I was invited by Sony Malaysia to have a hands-on session with some of the new products announced yesterday; the full-fram Alpha SLT-A99 and grip, NEX-5R, NEX-6 and 16-50 pancake zoom were all present – though unfortunately not the RX1, which is said to be in final beta at the moment. All products were still non-final in firmware and image quality, so I wasn’t allowed to keep any of the files. But what I can do is offer some subjective assessments and opinions on usability, handling and perceived file quality (off the LCD, at least).

_RX100_DSC1279b copy

The Sony Alpha A99
Highlights:

  • 24MP full frame CMOS, full HD video, 6fps, 14 bit RAW files
  • 2.7MP OLED VF
  • Translucent mirror; pentaprism phase detect AF with 19 points (11 cross type), sensor contrast detect AF with 102 points
  • Tilting 3″, 1.2-million dot LCD
  • Sensor shift stabilizer
  • Built-in GPS
  • New ISO-standard hotshoe
  • Dual SD slots

_RX100_DSC1290b copy

First impressions are of a solid but relatively lightweight camera; subjectively it’s in the Nikon D800E weight category – noticeably lighter than the D700, 5DIII and A900, but not as light as the APS-C cameras. The body is a matte-finish magnesium alloy with a nicely sculpted and very ergonomic grip; there’s only one workable hand position because of the finger detents, but it’s a comfortable one. Major buttons all fall to hand easily, which is good, because there are lots of them – a number of which are customizable through the menus. One thing I do like with all of the new Sony cameras (including the NEX-6, NEX-5R and A99) is the fact that the power switch is around the shutter button – easy to turn on and shoot, and equally easy to turn off in between to prolong your battery life.

_RX100_DSC1299b copy

For a non-Sony shooter, the learning curve was fairly steep, but the majority of camera functions were easy to figure out. I’m told that the A99 is aimed at the professional end of the market, and features a 200k shutter life along with environmental sealing. For the most part, it seems that the external control compliment was well chosen, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find any way to change metering other than via the menu. The focus points were also all clustered around the center of the frame in a square – odd, considering the camera also uses the imaging sensor to focus (and there should be no restrictions with live view CDAF). I suspect it has something to do with the phase detect cell in the ‘pentaprism’ (the A99, like all translucent-mirror Sonys does not have a pentaprism but rather an EVF) and correlating results with contrast detect AF. I didn’t see any AF fine tune adjustments (what if the PDAF sensor is misaligned?) but then again I also didn’t have time to go through the menus in great detail.

Overall though, while the camera felt a bit too menu-centric in operation, responsiveness, speed and general usability felt top-notch. Focusing is as fast as any of the traditional DSLRs I’ve used, though I didn’t have an opportunity to try tracking focus. The focus range limiter works well, though requires a bit of practice to become intuitive in use. The EVF felt a notch above that used in the NEX-7 (and NEX-6) – there just seems to be less tearing and an even finer pixel mask than the already excellent units used in those two cameras. Other than the dynamic range and generous information overlay, it’s not immediately obvious that you’re looking through an EVF based solely on resolution alone.

_RX100_DSC1297b copy

On image quality – not knowing how final the image processing in the camera is, and not being able to view files on a computer – i.e. judging off the LCD only, for JPEGs, with whatever processing the camera has chosen to apply – the files look pretty clean. Very subjectively, on a pixel level, I think they’d probably be on par with the Nikon D700, and possibly close to the D3s. It seems that after a generation of evolution in sensor technology, pixels have been allowed to shrink again without too much detrimental effect on noise performance. Side by side with the RX100 I was also carrying (which has the same LCD, and a similar processing engine to the A99) – the A99 appeared a full 2-2.5 stops cleaner, with ISO 12,800 looking quite similar to ISO 3200. This of course bodes well for other cameras that may use the same sensor as a base – the RX1 and newly announced Nikon D600 come to mind. I don’t know if I’ll get around to doing a full review of this camera – it may be meaningless as I don’t have the lenses to use it in my normal course of work, and probably not enough time either – but I definitely think it bears further investigation.

_RX100_DSC1267b copy

The Sony NEX-6
Highlights:

  • 16MP APS-C CMOS, full HD video, 10fps, 14 bit RAW files
  • 2.4MP OLED VF
  • Hybrid contrast and phase-detect AF (99 sites)
  • Tilting 3″, 921k-dot LCD
  • New ISO-standard hotshoe

_RX100_DSC1271b copy

The NEX-6 feels much like a NEX-7 light – I was told that the market liked the NEX-7, but didn’t like the price point; so Sony went out and filled the gap between. It’s very much a mix of the two cameras on either side of it – it has the same 16MP sensor as the NEX-5R, complete with phase detect points for faster AF, and the body style and EVF of the NEX-7. It’s also a bit thinner than the NEX-7, and has an ISo-standard hotshoe. This new hotshoe – shared with the A99 – has the usual trigger pin in the center, but its electronic communication contacts are in the front portion of the shoe; let’s hope the design of the corresponding accessory shoes on the flashes etc is sufficiently robust, because some of those pins looked rather small and delicate.

This camera actually has two control dials – there’s another one concentrically nestled under the base of the mode dial, along with the familiar one on the back – not the three of the NEX-7. One again, the softkeys are programmable, along with the function button next to the shutter. Overall, the shooting experience was much like the NEX-7, but with the simplicity of the NEX-5 – I actually like this camera better than the other two because it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to do too much. (Curiously the scalloping on the top plate before the mode dial and grip shape remind me very much of the Sony V3 prosumer camera from around 2005 or so, which I also owned.)

The one thing you’re all probably wondering about is AF speed, especially with those extra phase-detect photosites on the sensor. Subjectively, it’s pretty quick under moderately low light (indoor) conditions; there’s no hunting, but perhaps the lens could be driven a bit faster. Maybe the newer lenses will allow this – the only functional lens we had was the 16/2.8. I’d say it felt about the same as the Olympus OM-D and 12/2 under similar conditions.

Not much to say about perceived image quality for this one – the files definitely didn’t look as clean on the LCD as those from the A99; I’d say it’s probably on par with existing cameras that use the predecessor to this sensor (D7000, NEX-5N etc).

_RX100_DSC1265b copy

The final camera I’ll quickly mention is the NEX-5R – it shares the same new 16MP sensor with phase detect points with the NEX-6; performance felt almost identical in terms of AF speed, and one presumes image quality would be similar, too. It does gain a touch screen which flips through 180 degrees for the narcissistic photographer. Effectively, it’s the same camera as the NEX-6 minus one the EVF and mode dial. Also present was the new 16-50 pancake zoom, but I didn’t have a chance to shoot with it because it was a non-functional prototype. The size is a little thicker than the 16/2.8 (but not much) – similar to the Panasonic 14-42 X – and like that lens, it uses a rocker switch on the side to zoom. I’m told it will also be available as a kit lens to go with the NEX-6.

_RX100_DSC1254b copy

Now that Photokina is officially just around the corner, not only are the announcements coming thick and fast, but the rumor mill is going into overdrive. Many of the big boys in the industry – notably Canon, Leica, Zeiss, Hasselblad and Olympus – have yet to make their announcements; I’m anticipating a busy month ahead. And lets just say there are some very interesting products in the pipeline which will come from far left field. As usual, I’ll be reviewing products of interest to me professionally first, but if something else catches my eye, I’ll do what I can to squeeze it in. MT

A big thank you to Sony Malaysia for the invitation.

____________

Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

appstorebadge

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 28,377 other followers