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My new Leica Q

in Product reviews , Thursday, April 28, 2016

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New camera! Well, sort of. It isn’t mine, but LFI in Hamburg kindly lent it to me for a weekend. As unlikely as it sounds, up until last weekend I had survived without ever using a Leica.
In camera forum land, Leicas are general the subject of scorn, being reviled as expensive, “under-specified” neck jewellery for poseurs and millionaires. I’ve never much cared for these debates, although there is a certain fascination in observing them. I’ve never given a lot of thought to owning a Leica, first because I can’t afford them, and second because there isn’t actually a model that particularly appeals to me. However the Q does, marginally, so given the opportunity I was happy to try it out.

So, the Leica Q is a fairly compact fixed focal 28mm camera, with built-in viewfinder. The lens is a fast f1.7 summisomethingortheother. I’d seen one once in a shop window, and it struck me as being pretty big, but in fact it feels quite compact, similar to an Olympus Pen, but of course a lot bigger than the Ricoh GR which could be considered to be a rival.

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The Q feels very, very solid in the hand, and personally I find it very comfortable to hold, with the recessed thumb grip being a very astute piece of design. I guess some might describe the feel as luxury, but to be honest I’d go more with very well built precision engineering, and a good example of form following function. When you pick it up, it simply demands to be used. A bit like the GR, in fact.

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It’s certainly an enjoyable camera to use, and the results are pretty good, too. Are they €4000 good ? Well, that rather depends just how wedded you are to a 28mm field of view, and how much disposable income you have. I could stretch to €600 or so for a Ricoh GR, but €4000 for a Leica Q isn’t realistic in this household. Please note, I’m not saying you don’t get value for money - by and large I’d say you do: apart from the flawless construction, you get a fabulous electronic viewfinder, by far the best manual focus system I’ve seen on a digital camera, and of course a lens which apparently is practically worth €4000 on its own.

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The Leica Q isn’t perfect though, and the weak spots in my opinion are in the electronics. There are some weird handling glitches, for example the digital horizon vanishes when you half press the shutter button - just when you need it most. And also with the shutter button half-pressed, when you rotate the aperture ring the aperture display in the viewfinder doesn’t update. The menu could do with a little bit of categorisation, and I could not find a way to configure playback to show the image only, free of distracting icons and clutter.  I expect a touch more refinement in that department at that price. Nevertheless, I was sorry to have to give it back. Not so sorry to be truly tempted to buy one, although a 35mm version could conceivably push me over the edge.

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For a moment I could pretend to be William Eggleston...  bet he could afford a Q. And put it to good use, too.

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(All photos - except the first - by Leica Q. Somehow I had the ISO stuck on 800 all weekend. I could have sworn I had it on Auto)

Posted in category "Product reviews" on Thursday, April 28, 2016 at 11:14 PM

The Digital XPan, by Sigma

in Sigma , Wednesday, March 09, 2016

I bought my first Hasselblad XPan in 2000, and in the following 15+ years, I’ve accumulated a large shelf full of binders of negatives and (mainly) slides. I bought it because I liked the widescreen format, and I still do. Although a niche camera, the XPan was pretty popular, initially principally with landscape photographers, many of whom used one alongside an SLR. For me, it was the other way around - the SLR was the “second camera”. The XPan started to fade from view with the advent of DSLRs, and Hasselblad/Fuji stopped producing it in 2006, citing some story about a circuit board not being compliant with some convenient European regulations on lead content.

In recent years it has seen something of a revival, and secondhand prices for good copies have risen higher than the original retail. It seems to be riding a lot on the “back to film” movement, and the accompanying mystique. But there do not seem to be many people around who, like me, bought one back near the release date and never stopped using it.  And even fewer people who shoot slide film (still). It seems to be quite popular nowadays for “street” photography, where the unusual frame gives a novelty effect that compensates for many a shortcoming in the photograph. However, with the lenses having a maximum aperture of f/4, and rangefinder focusing, I’m not personally convinced it is that ideal for street. But I’m no authority on the matter.

For me the biggest frustration with the XPan has nothing directly to do with the camera, but with the rapidly shrinking availability of slide film.  My favourites, Kodak E100G and Fuji Velvia 100F (nothing like the infamous Velvia 50 by the way) have long since departed, Fuji Provia 400X is more or less gone, and the only serious choice left is Fuji Provia 100F, which I never much liked. The revival of Ferrania Film is, so far, inconclusive - initial batches of new film are close to a year overdue. Of course the choices in negative film are a little wider. I like Kodak Porta 400, but it only really suits brightly lit urban scenes. Kodak Ektar 100 is ghastly. And I’m a colour photographer by instinct, not black & white. On top of all of this, the bottom has fallen out of both semi-pro E6 processing, and of the semi-pro film scanner market.  So not only is the writing on the wall, but it’s on every wall in every direction.

So, there’s been a lot of calls, directed mainly at Fuji and Hasselblad, to produce a “Digital XPan”. There’s a snag there, though, because a digital sensor covering the full 65x24 XPan format - two “full frame” sensors side by side -  would be horrendously expensive, even though this seems to be what people want. So the question arises, what do we actually mean by “Digital XPan” ? What are the key features ? Would everybody agree? The answer to the last question is obviously a resounding “no”.

The key features of the XPan, technical and otherwise, are:

  • Native “panoramic” double-frame format
  • On-the-fly selectable standard 35mm frame format
  • Rangefinder manual focussing
  • TTL electronic metering
  • Offbeat, unusual camera
  • Built like a tank
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Very high quality - and expensive - glass
  • Oh yeah… film

Personally, the key feature is the first: a camera which records what-you-see-is-what-you-get panoramic format with a dedicated panoramic viewfinder. In-camera composition is very important to my way of doing and enjoying photography, and for me cropping in Photoshop as some kind of afterthought rarely produces a strong, satisfying image. I emphasise, for me: clearly other people have different opinions. As for film, I’ll fall back again on a quote from one of my heroes of panoramic photography, Stuart Klipper, who when asked why he (still) uses film, replied “because that’s what the Linhof takes”.

So, yes, you can certainly obtain a panoramic frame from any digital camera through post-processing. Many compact cameras also have a 16:9 framing option which you can squint at while holding the camera at arms length in front of your face. But this is simply not the “XPan experience” for me. It doesn’t inspire me, and it doesn’t give me the thrill that seeing the world through the XPan rangefinder does.

And that’s a good time to introduce you to the other camera on the stage here, the Sigma DP0.

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Sigma DP0 with viewfinder, and Hasselblad XPan

I’ve been using Sigma cameras with their unique Foveon sensor since the 50mm-equivalent DP2 Merrill. As I, and many others have written, when these cameras get their ducks in a row, they are truly fabulous. The rest of the time they’re a disaster area. A while back, Sigma introduced a new lineup, using the revised Quattro sensor. They also introduced what would be politely described as an unusual body design. A lot of people were aghast at this. I thought it was fantastic. But I didn’t buy one at the time, as the DP2M & DP3M I already owned were quite enough.  But then came the announcement of the DP0 ultra wide (21mm equivalent), and buried deep down in the specification, the 21:9 framing option. It seemed that somebody in Japan was thinking along the same lines as me.

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The DP0 21:9 aspect ratio

So eventually, after a lot of indecision, I got one, along with the hood viewfinder attachment which allows eye-level composition, which as I have said is a must-have for me, and has the additional benefit of making an already strange looking device look downright weird. It’s certainly a conversation starter.

The 21:9 aspect ratio is a bit deeper than the XPan. It is about halfway between the standard 6x12 and 6x17 ratios - the XPan is slightly taller than 6x17. This is actually fine by me. I often found the XPan format a smidgen too wide, and I’ve always pined for a 612 camera. The resolution of the 21:9 DP0 image (5424 x 2324) is approximately half that of an XPan frame scanned at 4000dpi (around 12200 x 4700), but of course the two are not directly comparable. The actual information content is very similar. Of course, the DP0 has a fixed lens, whereas the XPan has three native lenses to choose from (as well as some other fairly dodgy choices via adaptor). The DP0’s 21mm equivalent lens gives a field of view roughly equivalent to the XPan 45mm lens. And they’re both f/4. And both extremely good quality lenses.

Anyway, that’s an awful lot of babble before getting on to the core of the matter: how do they actually compare ? Well, I don’t do “tests” as such, I really cannot be bothered. But recently I took the DP0 to make a few photos in the nearby Golle della Breggia, in a location I remembered shooting with the XPan a few years back.

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XPan, 45mm lens, Kodak E100G, scanned on Minolta Dimage Scan Multi Pro

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Sigma DP0, processed in Sigma Photo Pro v6.3.2

Of course, these photos are taken at different times of the year, different times of the day, and with different framing, never mind with completely different technology. The only common factor was the photographer. Given that, to my eyes at least they have a quite remarkably similar rendering of colour and tonality. The Minolta scanner, which I have now replaced, also developed a tendency to exaggerate red in the midtowns, which I clearly did not sufficiently correct here. I could certainly get the two photos to look very close in rendition with a few minutes work, but that isn’t the point: what I’m looking to decide is if the DP0 can assume the role of the XPan for me, and I’m tending to believe it can, so far.

It is also interesting to compare resolution. Here again, there is a degree of subjectivity, as the scan is not necessarily optimum, and here no sharpening has been applied (although Sigma Photo Pro allegedly always applies some sharpening). I’ve tried to match two roughly similar areas of the photos, with the DP0 crop at 1:1, and the XPan reduced more or less to match.

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Sigma DP0

XPAN

XPan

So, very, very subjective, but it does look like the Sigma’s Quattro sensor is a match for 4000dpi scanned 35mm Kodak E100G. Not actually a big surprise, although it is probable that with a bit of work I could extract a little more detail from the film.

The XPan still has at least two advantages - the 30mm and 90mm lenses. But in terms of overall end to end user experience, there is a remarkable similarity between the two cameras. Indeed, it can be as time consuming to extract a processed file from Sigma Photo Pro as it is to make a good film scan…

One are where the DP0 wins outright, however, is low light photography. You can do long exposures on film, but dealing with reciprocity failure is painful, especially with slide film. The DP0, on the other hand, will cheerfully make an exposure up to 30 seconds (but no more, let’s not carried away here).  Also, I really like the way the Foveon sensors (both Merrill and Quattro) render tungsten lighting. So to wrap up here are a few shots from my first major outing with the DP0 in Venice.

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It is tempting to draw a conclusion from the fact that since I’ve owned the DP0, the XPan has sat on the shelf. But it is early days yet, and there haven’t really been many opportunities to use it recently. I certainly wasn’t going to take it to Colombia. There are also some situations in which I don’t really trust the Sigmas, in particular snow and ice.  And although the Quattro has much better battery life than the Merrill, it’s still pushing it to reach 100 shots.  Then again, processing 100 shots in Sigma Photo Pro takes roughly a decade, so perhaps it’s just as well.

But I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: the Sigma DP0, with the LCD viewfinder, set at 21:9, is the closest digital camera I’ve found so far in terms of handling and user experience to the Hasselblad XPan. And it’s a great camera in its own right, fun to use and with devastatingly high quality output.

 

 

Posted in category "Sigma" on Wednesday, March 09, 2016 at 12:23 PM

Cameras or Photography?

in General Rants , Saturday, March 05, 2016

Cameras get in the way of photography. That sounds like a fairly ridiculous statement, but I think it is difficult to argue against. I’d like to think I’m interested in photography, but of the far too many hours I spend browsing the web, I spend far more reading about cameras than I do about photography and photographers. But what is very noticeable is that the more engaging photographers just don’t talk about cameras at all (and usually have dull websites, but that’s another matter). Maybe they feel a stigma attached to such discussion, or maybe they’re just not interested. But anyway, when the discussion veers towards cameras, as it usually does, something is lost. Of course, ten seconds on this site shows quite clearly which camp I’m in. It’s not exactly a gear site - and after all, these do encompass quite a wide spectrum - but it hardly ignores cameras or other paraphernalia of photography-as-hobby. So I’m in no position to judge, even if I were judging, which I’m not - just observing. But coming back to the original statement, I do find that the more I think about cameras, the less interested I am in photography, and the less interesting my photography gets.  Fortunately I have by and large stayed with the same principal brand and gear over a very long period, and I’ve never been afflicted by the more extreme cases of the malady which involve switching brand every 6 months. But nevertheless, if there is one thing that separates photography as art from photography as hobby, it’s the susceptibility to Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

The cycle of endless new, improved, must-have cameras has slowed down a bit, but it hasn’t stopped. It has changed tack a bit, and now we’re seeing design becoming much more prevalent in the marketing push, especially retro design sparking nostalgia for the alleged romance of the mechanical heyday of the film era.

So, what bought this on? Well, a new camera on the market, basically. Namely, the new Olympus Pen-F. It’s a nice looking piece of metal, and it is getting mainly rave reviews everywhere (although this review, from an actual Olympus employee, is strikingly lukewarm). Amongst Olympus owners, of which I’m one, there is a discernible of peer pressure to buy one. Well, yes, it’s a nice camera, but I’ve already got an Olympus Pen, an E-P5, and that took me long enough to decide to buy. The Pen-F, apart from the striking design, has 4 Megapixels more (not terribly significant), a fixed built-in EVF, and lots of new modes aimed at doing everything in camera, outputting JPEG, when for the last decade we’ve had it piled on us that we should be shooting Raw. What the Pen-F does not have, but what the E-P5 does, at least as an accessory, is a tilting EVF which allows you to hold the camera at chest level, and affords a different way of shooting and different perspectives.  For some this is uninteresting, for me it’s a big plus. Also the E-P5 EVF is the same as the one on the top of the range E-M1, and superior to that on the Pen-F.  Add into that an eye-wateringly high price, and well, for now at least I think I’ll pass.

This leads on nicely to the previous “upgrade” cycle, when the E-P5 replaced the E-P3. There again I dragged my feet, as I was used to the E-P3, and Olympus had moved the controls around disturbing my reflexes. But there were a couple of compelling arguments that time, so eventually, I switched.  But I didn’t just abandon the E-P3. Instead I had it converted to infrared, which gives me a good excuse to water down this gear-obsessed post with some photography, a selection of infrared shots from Venice, taken back in December.

I can’t keep away from the gear, but it really is a relief to get back to photography.

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Posted in category "General Rants" on Saturday, March 05, 2016 at 07:20 PM

The Digital XPan ?

in Sigma , Thursday, December 03, 2015

Well, it’s here. The (maybe, possibly) “Digital XPan”. As I mentioned yesterday, I found that Amazon Germany was selling the Sigma DP0 Viewfinder kit for €780, if I followed an advertising link on an external site.  Going direct to Amazon, it was listed at €1000. Very strange, but I grabbed the opportunity, and they delivered. And it arrived this afternoon, and as soon as I could charge up the battery, I managed to escape from work for 15 minutes and took a couple of test shots, using the 21:9 aspect ratio.

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The camera has a very unusual shape, but I find it quite nice to hold. It’s built like a tank, like the Merrills, but perhaps with a touch more elegance. The manual is totally unnecessary: the controls and menu on the Sigma are second to none, and the QS “Quick Select” button brings up a page which is even improved on the Merrill version.  I accidentally shot at ISO800, which would have been a disaster on the Merrills, but it’s ok here. The Foveon colours are as delicate and realistic as ever.

So, is it an approximation to a digital XPan? My very, very, first impression is that it might just be.

Posted in category "Sigma" on Thursday, December 03, 2015 at 06:32 PM

The Margin

in Sigma , Thursday, November 19, 2015

This is a bit of a geeky post, but whatever. I’ve always been attracted to the more marginal aspects of whatever topic I pursue. Probably because the margins are less crowded, and I don’t have to talk to people. Photography is no exception. I’ve never owned a Nikon or Canon DSLR, although my earliest film SLRs were Canons, initially “borrowed” from my father. In the digital world I backed the Olympus horse early on, and have only ever owned Olympus interchangeable lens cameras. These days they’re getting uncomfortably popular, but I found the solution to that by settling on the black sheep PEN E-P5 rather than the much more popular (rightly so) OM-D series. Oh, I can rationalise my choices, no problem.

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But my choice of the less popular range of what is still a marginal brand is totally overshadowed by what could really be my favourite cameras ever - and due to a eccentric decision by an eccentric, loss making wing of an eccentric company, it is cameras, plural - the Sigma Merrills. I’ve got two of these fantastic (in every sense of the word) devices, the DP2M and DP3M, with, respectively, equivalent 50mm and 75mm lenses. These cameras are the essence of the best in Japanese culture, but they also exhibit some of the weaknesses of small companies. Sigma is a private company run by enthusiasts for the love of photography and fine optical craftsmanship. They manage to turn a profit, too, and recently some of their lenses have been favourably compared to the best of Zeiss, and under a quarter of the price.  The lenses which are bolted on the front of these strange little “Merrill” boxes are exquisite. As, in my opinion, are the boxes.

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The Merrill cameras (there are 3, but I don’t own the 28mm DP1) produce absolutely stunning output. The colour, the liquidity, the depth, the detail all remind me of the very best of slide film, only without the ultra narrow dynamic range and total lack of exposure latitude. Unfortunately, they also share the dislike of slide film of anything over 400 ASA (on a good day).

The handling is a mix of excellent and appalling. The excellent part is the electronic and physical control: the buttons, dials and menu work together to produce the smoothest, most intuitive user interface I’ve ever encountered on a camera, or indeed any other device. But then comes the rest: the camera itself is basically a rectangular box with a lens bolted on the front. It’s a very solidly constructed box, but it’s not terribly comfortable to hold. In particular the DP3M feels very unbalanced, with its relatively large, heavy lens. But the worst part is the viewfinder, or rather the lack of one. Sigma do sell optical viewfinders. I have one on the DP2M, and a Voigtlander viewfinder on the DP3M. But both offer approximate framing, and of course no readout or preview of any kind. The focus acquisition light is visible while looking through the viewfinder, but you have no idea what it has locked on to. But anyway, since there are only 9 AF points, all quite closely clustered in the middle of the frame, so actually it doesn’t much matter.

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The LCD is ok, quite good actually, but my eyesight, while ok, is no longer good enough at close range to use a screen for focussing without glasses, and since I only use glasses for reading, it gets really, really awkward. Fine on a tripod, of course, but otherwise a total pain. Also, for me accurate framing is important - composition is maybe one thing I’m not too bad at, and for me it’s a very instinctive thing. Getting the framing right in camera is a major contribution to my enjoyment of photography - it’s a subconscious thing, I don’t make a big deal out of it, but when I can’t quite get connected in that way it’s very frustrating. And the Merrills really, really get in my way in that respect.

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Which, ultimately, is why they spend a lot of time on the shelf.  But when I do decide to take them out, and they get all their many, chaotic ducks in a row, and they don’t decide to produce totally haywire, irrecoverable white balance interpretations, they astonish and delight me every time.  When the time finally comes to drop film, they’ll be waiting.

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All photos from a wander last weekend around the area of the Lucomagno Pass, Ticino.

Posted in category "Sigma" on Thursday, November 19, 2015 at 08:53 PM

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