A question of sensor size

The contenders.

Conventional wisdom states that the bigger the sensor, the better. The bigger the pixels, the better. All things equal, that’s true; however, 10-micron pixels would mean very low resolution compacts, and medium format digital doesn’t sell in sufficient volumes to justify the same sort of R&D spend that consumer or even midrange pro gear would get. I admit I’d always been curious to see just how much the technological improvements from generation to generation offset pixel pitch etc.; some time ago, I did a comparison of the Leica S2 against the then-new Nikon D800E. Today, we go one step further to see exactly what kind of gap exists between the various grades of equipment. Spoiler: it’s not as wide as you might imagine in some areas.

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Exclusive premiere: The full Leica X2 review

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This morning has seen a flurry of news: the M9 Monochrom first (with a useable ISO 10,000 apparently!), then the Hermes M9-P, the 50/2 APO-Summicron-ASPH (ouch what a price tag), and trailing, the X2 and V-Lux 40. I wasn’t lucky enough to go to Berlin, so reviews of the first items will have to wait a bit. But I did manage to get a final production X2 in advance. The full review follows. Note that you can click through all images to larger versions on my Flickr page – the link takes you to the image landing page, and then the magnifying glass icon or ‘all sizes’ will take you to the larger images.

Leica’s 2009 X1 (my review is here) was a modern throwback to the Barnack era in many ways – fixed focal length lens, very simple controls, and that ‘elongated cylinder’ look. In short, it was a handsome camera that was, and still is, capable of delivering outstandingly good images; the sensor actually outperforms the M9 at ISO 1600 and above, deliver lower noise. I owned one of these for several months and used it as my daily camera, until I was lured by the siren song of the (flawed) X100.

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X marks the spot.

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The new flash mechanism

However, it was crippled in a number of ways – the moderate f2.8 lens speed being one, but focusing speed being by far the main one. A firmware update improved things somewhat, and brought a much improved manual focus mode (driven off the rear thumb wheel) which showed both distance and an in-focus scale that varied with the aperture selected.

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Work in progress from above. Leica X2

The Leica X2 was officially launched in Berlin yesterday, along with a number of other products (which I hope to get my hands on soon); I’ve had a final production model for several days now, courtesy of Leica. It’s been enough time to shoot several hundred frames with the camera, get to know its quirks, and probe the elasticity of its files with every tool known to ACR and a Wacom tablet.**

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Lagerfeld-style cool. Leica X2

**A note and advance disclaimer on processing: I ran the X2’s DNG files through ACR 6.7 and CS5.5, using my normal workflow. I process every file as though it was a final client delivery or exhibition piece, and that means two things: firstly, I’ll use every trick in the book I know to maximize image quality, but I do that with every camera I shoot, so that’s consistent; secondly, I shoot with the end in mind, especially once I get used to the tonal response of the sensor. For this reason, please don’t ask for out of camera JPEGS or RAW files, that’s not the way I work because it isn’t representative of the end use of the equipment. Some tests – the noise comparisons, for instance – are direct conversions via ACR with no additional work done on them. Where this is the case, it’s stated. One final thing: after the D800E vs S2 review, I think it’s necessary to also add the caveat that my observations are based on looking at full size 16 bit uncompressed files on a calibrated monitor, which will necessarily give rise to different conclusions than if you just see the compressed web size JPEGs in the article.

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Taxi drivers (and dynamic range torture test). Leica X2

The first thing that strikes you is that it somehow feels better than the X1 – I am aware that this is a dangerously subjective comment to make – but the choice of materials seems a bit more solid; in fact, it seems like the camera has a bit more ‘stuff’ inside it. According to Leica, it’s about 30g heavier, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but you can feel it. It also seems like the body shells are a bit thicker, which contributes to the impression of solidity; the Leica X2 feels much closer to a mini-M than the X1 did. Perhaps it’s the black chrome and leather covers mine had. (I’m told it’ll also be available in silver).

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Fitting the frame. Leica X2

Now would be a good time to talk about improvements. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s what you’d notice and appreciate as a serious photographer:
– AF speed is a LOT faster
– The top plate dials are much stiffer, and now don’t rotate accidentally
– Greatly improved LCD; supposedly still the same number of dots, but side by side with the old X1, it seems a lot clearer and more fluid.
– EVF shoe, and matching tiltable EVF which has great resolution.
– Battery life is significantly better
– Burst mode is faster.

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Lazy observation. Leica X2

Let’s work down that list.

AF on the X1 was so slow that I’d use it only for static subjects, and zone focus the rest of the time. Not so here – it’s fine for casual snapshots, but like every contrast detect system, AF-C is best avoided. Even the best of the mirrorless cameras falls flat on its face (I’m looking at you, OM-D) – perhaps with the exception of the Nikon 1 system, but that’s cheating because it has phase detect photosites on its sensor. Subjectively, I’d say it’s definitely faster than my X100 was; about the same as my NEX-5 (sorry, haven’t used as 5N to compare) and similar to most of the Panasonic M4/3 cameras. Not as fast as the Olympus M4/3s, though. But just fast enough to stop you from feeling like you’re waiting for the camera.

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Clouds and angles. Leica X2

The best news, however, is that it doesn’t slow down much in low light; so long as there’s a decent amount of contrast, focus acquisition speed remains about the same. And unlike the X-Pro1 and X10, it doesn’t freeze the image when focusing – the view remains live, so you can see what’s going on in your frame. Interestingly, the ‘H’ (high speed settings that did freeze the image) options for AF and macro focus settings are gone; the camera is faster than the H options now, and it will automatically switch to it if required. Sadly 30cm remains the near limit, however.

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Images convert well to B&W, too. Leica X2

The X1’s LCD was pretty coarse; the X2’s is a significant improvement, but I don’t think it’s as good as say the Ricoh GRD IV – which has an amazing 1 million+ dot screen. Nevertheless, it’s now much easier to judge focus. Refresh rate seems to be a lot faster too; I’d say 60Hz instead of 30Hz. You can still use the optical finder if you want, but you’re still going to miss knowing exactly what the camera is focusing on; for the price and bulk, I’d much rather have the EVF, which is excellent. The fonts look grainy, but that’s only because it seems the UI designer didn’t specify enough DPI when encoding; the image itself is very, very fine indeed – you can’t really see individual pixels. It gains up well in low light, and isn’t too grainy.

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I did an experiment with the EVF out of curiosity – the plug looked like any one of the existing EVF plugs. Expecting it to fit my D-Lux 5 Titanium, I was surprised when it didn’t; but it did fit my Olympus OM-D and Pen Mini. Even more interestingly, it worked! Draw whatever conclusion you wish; it’s a very nice EVF all the same, and my preferred way of working with the camera. Oh, and it tilts, too, and locks securely in the down position (something not all tiltable EVFs seem to manage.)

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Through the keyhole. Leica X2

During the last few days, I shot over 500 frames with the Leica X2. With the X1, this would have meant two battery changes; I actually had three spares for mine, which would leave me with one left over after a heavy day of shooting. (I’m the kind of person who can finish off an entire EN-EL4a on a day’s assignment and add a five figure mileage to a camera in short order). The X2 showed half – that’s a pretty darn impressive performance, considering either the LCD or EVF were on the whole time, and I was using it frequently enough that it didn’t have time to slip into power save mode. It could be the effect of a more efficient sensor (the previous sensor was a relative of the one in the D90, which was notoriously power hungry in live view) or processing internals. This is on par with my current mirrorless long-life battery champ, the Pen Mini – which will easily hit a thousand frames per charge if used carefully.

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Artificial everything. Leica X2

Finally, if you’re a flash shooter, good news! The leaf shutter remains, which means 1/2000s sync speeds (unheard of for most cameras) and the popup mechanism has been redesigned. It looks a lot more complicated, but I suspect that this is actually going to be more robust than the old press-to-raise-and-lower design – I’ve heard a lot of complaints about it being easy to break.

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Untitled. Leica X2

You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about the sensor up til this point; that’s because you’re not going to notice it immediately upon shooting (duh). But what you will notice is an ISO 12,500 (no idea why it isn’t 12,800, i.e. double 6400) setting. It’s APS-C, so I didn’t expect it to be useable. What’s nice to report is that the new 16.5 MP CMOS used is class leading in every way. It even manages 5fps continuous shooting for eight frames, but the penalty is that you have to wait while the camera writes the files – it doesn’t seem to buffer in parallel. This is true whether you shoot one or eight frames. As for the sensor, I suspect we may actually have seen a relative of it before in other products, most notably one with three zeroes or an N in its name. This is a good thing.

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Obligatory night test shot. ISO 3200. Leica X2

Let’s get noise out of the way: it’s all luminance. Shooting DNG, with zero noise reduction, I’d happily use ISO 3200 with a bit of work; there’s a big jump in noise to ISO 6400, which renders that and the top 12500 setting strictly for those shots of the Loch Ness Monster assassinating JFK. Or perhaps they might work well for you if you like extremely grainy B&W conversions. Even with NR zeroed out in ACR, I’m seeing some smearing at 3200 and up, but it’s less obvious at the two highest settings because of the overriding luminance noise. You might be able to retain more acuity by shooting 1600 and underexposing a stop, then bringing it up again in the raw converter afterwards. It isn’t too bad, but you’ll notice it’s there. All in all, the Leica X2 is up there with the best of the APS-C cameras, and frankly feels like it would give my D700 a run for its money on luminance noise, but loses out on dynamic range. Pixel level acuity remains excellent, though some files seem to require an extra sharpening pass – it may be the effects of diffraction starting to creep in at f8 and up.

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Some noise crops follow below. Click on the links for 100% versions.
Crop one
Crop two
Crop three

The X2 seems to have its own color signature that is different enough from the X1 that my initial experiment to use the same ACR profiles was unsuccessful. It’s tonal map also doesn’t match the Ms; dynamic range seems to be somewhat bunched in the shadows (which I don’t see on the more linear-response CCD sensors in the M and S cameras) and the relatively low noise floor responds well to shadow recovery. If anything, the color is much closer to being ‘accurate’ than any Leica to date – the skin tones are great, at least in RAW. White balance is similarly excellent – I made very, very few corrections to color; this is highly unusual for my workflow. Have to watch the red channel closely though, it doesn’t take much to hit saturation. Note that neither display gives an accurate idea of exposure or color, though. Using the histograms is highly recommended.

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Pudu Plaza. Any photographer in KL will recognize this place. They’ll also recognize that the reds are both accurate and not accurate; they’re a little hot but the tone is mostly right. Leica X2

Although I’d never personally shoot JPEG with any camera, given the option – especially something whose files have as lot of processing latitude, like the Leica X2 – I know a lot of potential buyers might well do so, so I also had a close look at the native JPEG image quality. I’m pleased to report that it produces crisp, detailed files with very few artifacts; there are some customization parameters if you have a particular preference for how your files look. However, by default, the output is best described as neutral. Skin tones are still definitely better in DNG; there’s something about skin color that just seems out of gamut for most in-camera JPEG conversions.

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Yellow men. This color is accurate, and identical to the scene. Leica X2

A comment on file formats, and a gripe I had with the original X1 – I don’t know why the camera can’t write DNG only – you have to do DNG+JPEG, which seems like a waste of space and buffer. Still, for single frame shooting (I can’t actually think why you’d use bursts on this camera) there isn’t any noticeable penalty in operation.

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The fountain. Leica X2

There are a few other minor things that could be improved – as always. We can never have AF that’s too fast, or too continuous; in all fairness, this is a comment leveled at every camera, and the latter to mirrorless cameras in particular. The rear control dial is now far too loose and difficult to turn in single increments – especially when trying to apply exposure compensation. What would be nice is that when shooting, exposure compensation is the default setting like on the M9; but we’d definitely need a stiffer dial for that. The odd electronic stabilization ‘feature’ remains; I’d avoid it because it just gives me double images. A proper optical stabilizer would be nice, but at least we have the option not to use it.

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Yawn; just another camera? Certainly a very stealthy one; nobody once gave me a second look when I was shooting them. Especially if using the finder flipped up at 90 degrees. Leica X2.

I have a little beef with the top plate dials. On every other Leica, all exposure adjustments move in half stop increments/ detents. On the X1 and X2, you get whole stops for shutter speeds, and third stops for aperture – what’s up here? Size of the shutter dial can’t be a reason, because the M9 has more speeds and is the same size – and still gives half stop detents. I like the increased dial tension, but can we please have consistency in exposure increments?

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‘Hi, I’m doing a survey. Let me probe your brain for a moment.’ Leica X2

Finally, there’s the lens. It gives me mixed feelings. On one hand, it’s an excellent optic; the biting sharpness, excellent corner performance (it was after all, supposedly designed for full frame originally) microcontrast structure and general transparency which was one of the image quality hallmarks of the X1 is still there. On the other hand, it’s relatively slow at f2.8 – not a problem given the newfound low-light capabilities of the sensor; however, it doesn’t really allow isolation, and that’s one of the things people seem to expect from a Leica. Another stop – or even two – might make for some beautiful bokeh (I know I’ve seen it from the 24/1.4 Summilux-ASPH M, but then again that’s also a physically enormous and hugely expensive lens).

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Reflections. Some of you might recognize this building. Leica X2

Whilst the lens delivered almost perfect results from wide open on the X1, the X2’s slightly higher density sensor seems to be pushing the resolving power a little – images shot at f2.8 are definitely a little softer than f4; it’s almost as though there’s a slight AA-filter effect at f2.8. This is easily solvable with a second sharpening pass, and doesn’t seem to materially affect the microcontrast structure of the image. Thereafter everything is good until you run into diffraction, a hint of which is visible at f8 and obvious by f11.

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Yes? Yes? Not today. Leica X2

Technical improvements are all well and good for the spec sheet and marketing people, but where does this leave us in terms of real-world usability? The X concept was almost certainly conceived by a photographer; it’s a combination of M and point and shoot that should in theory allow anybody to create images with that ‘Leica look’ (which I think most lay people mistake for bokeh, but is actually a combination of that, color transmission, sharpness, focus transition and microcontrast – but let’s not get started here) with minimal fuss. It failed fundamentally because it was too slow to be useable. However, it did have one overriding redeeming quality – the image quality was truly outstanding.

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Untitled. Leica X2

The X2 takes the image quality even further, but more importantly now feels like a mature product. It’s a better distillation of the M gestalt, and definitely easier to use for the simple reason that it’s more responsive to shoot with. During the course of testing, I never felt like I lost a shot because the camera was too slow; I definitely did with the X1 and X100. There’s no single feature or area that makes you go WOW, but the combination of improvements makes it a very compelling little camera that just does its thing and delivers the most important thing – image quality – in spades. Here’s an interesting thought: if you shoot in low light a lot, you’ll probably want to get one of these instead of an M9 – the sensor is that good.

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The escape route. Leica X2

What does the future hold for the X system? Purely speculating, I think it’s unlikely we’ll ever see interchangeable lenses – it doesn’t make sense to develop new lenses given there’s already M mount, and M mount has a digital solution; the cost of developing an all-new mount and AF lens lineup is going to be pretty staggering, which would price the camera in M territory. Rather, that would make sense as a future evolution of the M line – something compatible with new autofocus lenses, as well as the older manual focus lenses. I can’t see how a rangefinder fits into this, though – the end product would probably be very Fuji X-Pro like, which overly complicates things and is far from the Leica design philosophy. But at the very least, I think the X2 needs a telephoto or long normal companion – this would be a killer studio camera due to the leaf shutter and high speed sync. And a pair of those would cover most travel photographers’ needs, without sacrificing image quality.

Time will tell. In the meantime, deciding which mirrorless camera to augment your primary system just got a lot tougher for us photographers. MT

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Review complete; happy hour. Leica X2

Addendum, 10.30am 11 May 2012: My sleep-depreived brain has just remembered there’s one thing I forgot to mention: movie mode, or the lack of it. Whilst this sensor must clearly be video capable to produce the live feed, Leica has chosen not to implement a movie mode of any sort; I personally don’t see this as as huge issue as I don’t do video anyway. In any case, the inability to easily follow focus is probably a bigger impediment for moviemaking than the fixed focal length. I’d see video capability here as a nice to have, but not critical. Besides, the V-Lux 3 and D-Lux 5 are much easier to use for video, if you must have a Leica. I’ll be sticking to my D800E for the few times I do need video. MT

The Leica X2 is available in both black and silver here from B&H and Amazon.


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Long term review postponed: The Nikon D800

I was originally going to post a long term review of the Nikon D800 today, but seeing as my camera has been autofocus-crippled and I’ve only used it under studio conditions with manual focus, it wouldn’t be fair. Instead I’ll roll my conclusions into the D800 vs D800E review which will go up later this month, once my camera arrives – I’m told later this week.

But what I can say is that the sensor is absolutely stunning, and remains one of the best, if not the best I’ve ever used – at least in 35mm format (sorry, I haven’t had a chance to shoot with the H4D-50MS or IQ180 backs). And it definitely provides more flexibility than anything larger; you can use the high ISOs, you can shoot faster than 1fps with it, it can do video…and I’ve not run out of useable dynamic range yet. Yes, the product definitely has some early teething troubles – and I’m not for one minute saying that we should let Nikon off the hook, because it is a lot of money – but if you stop for a minute and think about what we’re actually getting, it’s pretty amazing. Ten years ago, the same money got you a D100: the output from that camera was so soft that you wouldn’t even know if you were having edge AF issues or not; in fact, nobody would think to use the edge AF points for anything other than viewfinder decoration because they were that inaccurate.

I don’t know how many more large leaps in technology we’re going to see at the advanced consumer/ pro level – look at the incremental changes to the flagship Nikon and Canons – but I honestly feel the D800 is a game changer in the sense that it’s now truly made the next step in image quality accessible at a much lower price point than before; forget the Pentax 645D. But the same caveat always remains: just because you can afford the tool, doesn’t mean you know how to use it properly. And no amount of money can replace dedication and hard work in achieving photographic results. Then again, I suppose you could just buy a large print. MT