A question of orientation
Post-CP+, and in a stunning reversal of recent events, I’ve been given a camera to test. Not just any camera; one that is not even currently available. It is light, portable and sits in a class of its own amongst all cameras I have used. I can’t say yet what this camera is, but I was told I can post a review and images from it so long as I don’t reveal anything about appearance or specifications for the time being. This is obviously a rather unusual state of affairs, but I felt that there were some greater lessons to be learned from such restrictions, so here we go. I’ll start by saying that this is a singular device: it is a professional’s camera ne plus ultra. You must know what you’re doing to get a decent image out of it, and if you do, it’ll reward you in unexpected ways. Read on, if you’re curious.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have been allowed to keep this camera after this review. All images were shot with this camera and processed in Photoshop CC 2014 from JPEG (no raw converter available yet; I’m sure that would increase image quality noticeably).
I am pretty sure none of the usual suspects have used or reviewed this with any degree of seriousness yet, which I suppose probably makes this a world exclusive. But, if they had, we’d have something like this orbiting cyberspace:
Fanboy: This thing is AMAZING! It’s just PRECISELY what we need…even better than last year’s model. Its the right amount of resolution in a really small and lightweight package. It’s so smart I don’t have to think even a little bit! The files don’t need any processing straight from the camera and it has 5x zoom and you can use many different types of batterys. It’s so cheap I’m buying two, so I can always make great photo’s, like these snapshots from the exotic locale the company sent me to at the launch party! I can’t wait for the limited edition version in platinum trimmed with marmoset, it’s gonna be awesome!
Gear snob: It’s not bad, but still not as good as my 50MP Massivflex and f0.95 lenses. And there’s a tiny bit of CA in the corners. It’s too light. It won’t do 15fps. It doesn’t have IBIS or a full frame sensor or 200 PDAF points or 4K video at 240fps. I don’t know how to use any of that and only take photos of my cat and bikini models at launch events, but it doesn’t matter. IT doesn’t have it. The photos I post on Facebook at a tiny portion of the actual size with heavy compression look terrible. I don’t care how it prints, I’m not switching until all my demands are met with a cherry on top.
Reflection of a dream
With those alternative opinions out of the way, let me start by putting all of this into context: a camera is for making photographs, nothing else. Not posing, not winning forum arguments, not advertising your social status. It should therefore be considered and evaluated as such. Secondly, this is not something that any of us would normally consider owning; it comes way out of left field. We are so low down the diminishing returns curve, I don’t even think we’re on it. I was warned not to have any expectations before I was shown the unit, and told to use it with an open mind and give honest feedback thus. Thirdly, an opinion is only as valid as the objectivity and skill in application of its provider. You wouldn’t buy a car based on the proclamations of somebody who cannot drive…
For a change, it is perhaps the first camera I’ve ever used whose specifications are utterly irrelevant. ‘More than sufficient’ is really the best description, and to a surprisingly wide variety of applications – and not just because I cannot reveal too many of the numbers. There is no need to use it on a tripod, though as always, it helps. Perhaps it is best thought of as a box of perspectives: 28-140mm equivalent. I say equivalent because it is of course not FF35. It is built with simplicity of purpose in mind. It is lighter than it looks and quite compact, and works off a variety of power sources. It looks like it would survive a drop and a little moisture without too much trouble. The curves and edges of the body are soft and comfortable in the hand. There are few but well-placed controls and one or two obvious ones missing or not yet implemented (bearing in mind this is probably not the final evolution of this device) – metering mode control is biggest surprise omission, though it makes up for that by having the first matrix meter I’ve encountered that does a very good job behaving as an ETTR device all the time. Surprisingly, it’s also not just cheap, but very cheap for what it is – much in the same way the 645Z really shook up the MF market, it really redefines the price-performance equation.
Large scale Lego
It has a sensible pixel count. The lens is fixed, but it has a sensible zoom range. Maximum aperture is f2.7. It will record HD video. Controls are limited, though: your main photographic one is exposure compensation, which is fine, because the camera’s program mode and matrix meter actually seems to make the right choices most of the time. You could post process the files, but why bother? It’s difficult to make them better than what already comes out of the camera. I believe the sensor is a CCD, which accounts for surprisingly tonally rich B&Ws – assuming you convert from color afterwards, not use the in-camera preset (which is far too heavy-handed and turned up to 11, as are all of the presets – but this is to be expected to satisfy the wider consumer audience*). Color is actually accurate if you set your grey point in ACR afterwards; surprisingly little tweaking required to achieve something both pleasing and plausible.
*I was told during the handover meeting that this was included simply because ‘pro’ cameras are sold to moneyed amateurs than pros these days; that’s just a reflection of the commercial photographic industry and who holds the most buying power. If they didn’t accommodate this market, it’s unlikely they’d ever recover the development costs. At least raw files are full fat and losslessly compressed – though not much use at the moment because there’s no software to open them.
Out of place
There were clearly some optical compromises involved in the lens design – remember we are looking at a 5x moderate-wide to moderate-tele zoom in a very small space – and this is visible at times in the form of chromatic aberration, especially at the wide end of the range (which is also the weaker side of things). There is simply no way you’re going to pack an Otus-grade zoom in here, even if it’s no faster than f4 (nor does such a thing even exist). There is ED glass however to keep the contrast high and maintain color accuracy; you see little evidence of flare. It’s worth noting though that the optical compromises involved have been made in a way that shows some intelligent tradeoffs have been made: the lens is more than adequately matched to the sensor’s resolving power, and the size isn’t silly. Still, it’s worth noting that this lens is resolving somewhere of the order of 300lp/mm in the centre, at least by my estimates. That’s impressive by any stretch of the imagination. Practically, it takes some care to deploy all of this resolving power without encountering camera shake. Still, it’s a testament to the (leaf) shutter design that you can get away with 1/2x most of the time.
I won’t lie: this device has some serious limitations, and a lot of them. (This is one of the reasons there are no documentary images in this review; the other reason is that I’m simply tired of photographing that.) The limitations are no more than a very special-purpose tool has, though – think Sigma Merrill/Quattro or the last generation of medium format. The shooting envelope is very narrow, but that shouldn’t really be an obstacle if you are aware of it and work around its limitations. Again, much like the Quattro, the price point for this thing redefines the cost-to-image-quality equation to the point where you’re willing to take a chance and put up with it to reap the benefits. But in the interests of objectivity, here we go
- You can really only work in good light. It’s very noisy to the point of being unusable above ISO 400 or so, which rules out low light and indoors most of the time. But remember: 300lp/mm! It is a specific tool, not a Swiss Army Knife.
- Focusing is slow. Very slow. At least it’s also very precise, though.
- The LCD panel isn’t the best; it doesn’t reflect the captured information well, and isn’t so much limited in resolution or size as gamut and dynamic range (surprisingly). This makes it very difficult to tell if something is clipped.
- Battery life is not great. Not Sigma-bad, but not far off. Fortunately you do get a choice of power sources/ capacities, and spares are very cheap, so this is mitigable to some extent. There are even two batteries included in the box.
The spec-chasers will complain. True photographers will just get on with it. It’s a camera, and we know the limitations of its shooting envelope. Granted, we are left with an envelope too small for an address once the stamp is affixed, but it’s better than nothing. I honestly think the shooting envelope is no smaller than 35mm slide film; the results are not much worse, either. Limitations force you to think; they force you to get creative, and getting creative means better images. Not being able to judge exposure is not a problem – this trains your own internal eye-meter. If you can only work in bright sunshine, it’s sunny 16 all the way anyway, and this takes care of noise above base ISO. If focusing is slow, prefocus or work with static subjects. If the monitor is bad, there’s no need to chimp. If power consumption is poor, carry spares or spend more time visualising the composition and less time messing around with the LCD. Lightness of weight and the slight notchiness of the shutter button are going to challenge your shooting discipline.
I think this camera is best thought of as the ultimate training device; if you can get a compositionally/ aesthetically satisfying image out of this, anything better should be a breeze. Make no mistake: this is not a beginner’s camera; in fact, it’s a murderously unforgiving one. But the attitude to take is not one of limitation, it’s the opposite: ask yourself what it does do well (accurate color in good light, pleasing contrast across the 4-5 principal stops, render everything in focus) and what types of images would benefit from these properties (graphic ones, for starters). And the satisfaction level when you see the results on a good monitor is really quite high; more so because your expectations are kept in check by the cost.
The camera has rendered these waxy-looking leaves very realistically; they really were wax, I think.
I can’t honestly say I enjoyed shooting with the camera, because from a haptic point of view – this thing really needs some work. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but the hand-feel isn’t quite there yet. It could use some more sticky rubber on the grip, for starters. But I did appreciate the enforced constraints that forced me to get creative and sharpened my focus on light, subject, form, and previsualisation – the latter being especially important because there’s no room for error. This is perhaps the most important part of being a photographer: it is about making images, which in turn boils down to seeing and imagining first, and capture a very distant second. The sharper your vision, the better the image – the rest of it fades away. And as the kind of tool that really forces you to get out of your usual comfort zone, think more, and escape that slight reliance on technology to pick up the slack, this thing is unparalleled. Images that work are entirely on your own merit, and that gives a level of satisfaction that I’ve very rarely experienced from any piece of hardware – perhaps with the exception of mechanical/manual/meterless film cameras.
Flame surfacing and all that
Carry one of these and nobody will mistake you for being a mere amateur photographer, which is just fine by me: it means I can concentrate on composing and shooting and being creative to work around the limitations of this thing rather than answering questions about my equipment or what people should buy. I suspect in fact its appearance is going to put a lot of people off; think of it as ‘functionally ugly’ – much like the 645Z or R9. In the unlikely event you happen to encounter another person using one of these, it was either an accident or they really know what they’re doing and will at most nod, smile and leave you alone. Perhaps you’ll even have an interesting conversation about the philosophy of photography. Accessibility and supply, not price, are going to be the limiting factors to obtaining one. From now on, if anybody claims they are a photographer, I’m going to hand them this thing to prove it, which makes it a good thing I don’t have to return the review unit. I’ve been instructed to keep it and use it as I please. Free camera aside, the combination of retail price, an independence from status-seekers and most importantly, the camera forcing me to really up my game are enough reasons enough for me to give it a highly, highly recommended rating, and an unconventional prize: this is probably going to be my Camera Of The Year, and will likely remain so even after the year’s releases are all said and done. MT
Coda: I’m a bit bothered by the guessing games that are going on, and it’s probably best if I don’t reply to any of these. I have no idea why everybody seems to think I used a Leica here, either – I’ll say it once and for all: it wasn’t. Final note: don’t judge image quality on web JPEGs. A first generation phone and medium format digital look little different by the time you’ve compressed and downsized to 800 pixels on the long side.
Red window and overflow
Images from this article are available as prints on request here
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