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Sony GPS-CS3KA: we’re all seekers

Sometimes you see a photo accessory and wonder, “where the hell were you all this time?” And the answer is, “it was too easy, so Sony canned it.” The GPS-CS3KA (“GPSman?”) is a smallish box, maybe two-thirds the size of a Metz 26AF flash. It only really does two things: (1) keeping a track log from GPS signals it receives and (2) writing them to the JPGs on your SD card.

Note: Flashair – which has a built-in 802.11 transmitter – has much too high a current draw for the 1.5v battery powering the Sony GPS unit.

A reasonable solution to a stupidly common problem?

Wait? What? Most GPS solutions for cameras have been pretty terrible. For reasons that are unclear (perhaps metal covers), high-end cameras have not had built-in GPS. In fact, few cameras period have it – aside from the ubiquitous iPhone or Android. This leaves you with some suboptimal options:

  • Keep a tracklog with a separate device (GPS watch, tracklogger, battery-intensive phone app) and marry the coordinates to the files in Lightroom or Exiftool.
  • Use a separate device with Bluetooth to feed coordinates into your camera’s remote port (a la Red Hen).
  • Use a clunky GPS add-on that takes up both your remote terminal and hot shoe (looking at you, Canon and Nikon).
  • Try to graft an NMEA cable to your DSLR’s accessory port.
  • Use a clunky grip with GPS built-in (Leica Multifunction Grip M)
  • Stick a GPS in some other accessory, like an EVF that you might otherwise not user (Leica EVF-3).

Sony quite possibly solved this problem by accident with the GPS-CS3KA, which takes a reading every 15 seconds into 128mb of memory – and when you insert an SD card will look for the closest matches and tag your JPGs in batches of 60. I say “by accident” because operation is far to simple for a Sony (at least compared to a Bravia TV). There are only three options:

  1. GPS: display GPS screen – hitting enter gives you different permutations of time and GPS coordinates.
  2. Match: automatically counts the number of files to be tagged and only lets you start or cancel. Matching stops the GPS reception.
  3. Tools: set the time zone, undo-ability, and erase internal memory.

How does it work?

  • Stick a single AA battery in one slot.
  • Set your correct GPS plus or minus time zone (as I write this, -400 for Eastern).
  • Turn on the machine.
  • Shoot a bunch of pictures.
  • Put your SD card in the slot.
  • Use the “matching” function to assign locations (use “undo” to clear all of the data you just wrote).
  • Repeat as many times as necessary in batches of 60 files.
  • Done.

Note that when you initiate a card matching session, you may lose the GPS signal – but then again, you won’t be shooting pictures while your card is in the device.

Performance

GPS performance is actually quite good. Cold start will grab coordinates within about a minute; on a warm start, about 10 seconds. Your initial startup will be minutes as the device updates its GPS satellites. The device apparently can read a signal in many indoor settings, which is neat. Or scary.

My performance tests on accuracy landed this within about 15 feet of where I was standing. It does read out in minutes and seconds too. For most purposes, it suffices to see degrees to know that it’s locked on.

Observed battery life with alkaline was about 12 hours. Not terrible, considering how much power this probably draws.

I did not test the Sony software, but I did note that connecting the USB cable does not bring this up as a drive with an easy-to-access GPX log.

Where does it work and not work?

I tried this a Sony A7rii and with cards up to 64gb. The results were better than expected for a device this old.

Cards that work: up to 32gb only, the faster the card, the better (realistically, that’s a Sandisk 95mb/sec card).

To be safe, I would recommend using SDFormat and not opening cards with files on a Mac before encoding. Macs tend to throw indexing files on disks that are invisible to the user but can hang up particularly primitive embedded devices (of which you should assume this is one).

Cards that don’t: 64gb and up; WiFi-enabled cards. I suspect that 64gb is outside of the ability of the device to read cards (even devices that read FAT32 sometimes cannot address an entire card). You get “matching error” as your only clue. As to WiFi, my best guess is that since it works for a couple of frames and then blanks, that the card sees that x files have been read and that it’s time to turn on the WiFi. The problem is that one AA battery doesn’t have enough power to allow that. In my testing, there has been no way to shut off the FlashAir’s desire to start transmitting (unlike EyeFi, which could be set to transmit only images that were write-protected).

Files that get encoded: the spot of bad news is that the current ARW raw format doesn’t get location data with the Sony GPS. But since the device will record location data onto almost any JPG, it will work equally well (or poorly) with many types of cameras.

Assessment

Within the limits of a certain card size, and therefore speed, the Sony GPS does allow a relatively automated geotagging process for JPGs. Like Lex Luthor’s henchmen, it has “one job.” But unlike those people who never succeded at killing Superman, the Sony performs that job well.

Notably, you can generate tracking data usable with multiple cameras, since you can insert SD card after SD card and use the same body of GPS data to code files shot in the same time period. This is a bit more flexible than solutions that would have to be transferred from camera to camera (or just duplicated with good old cash). It does require than your cameras’ clocks be synchronized reasonably closely.

It does not solve the problem of writing geolocation data to RAW files (Lightroom, for example, simply ignores this data if you import both tthe RAW and the JPG), and no one will likely ever solve the mystery of why cameras don’t have inbuilt GPS. But it’s a lot better than trying to marry track logs and files by manual labor.

A new use for Duplo®

Who says Lego bricks are only good for causing foot and back injuries?

Welcome to the world’s crudest 3D camera: four Duplo bricks, two DxO One cameras, and about half a meter of packing tape. With a stereo separation of about 120mm, forget about taking pictures of anything closer than 15 feet. But oh, the scary places you will go.

Surprisingly, with the OLED-frame-assist function on, the cameras don’t have much trouble focusing on exactly the same subject, which solves one weird technical hangup.

The 51.6% solution

This is just a quick note on a technical problem that plagues digital Leica cameras when used with older Nikkors: back focus. It is gratifying to know that Leica has finally recognized that many of its lenses don’t work so well on digital Ms due to “focus errors” that allegedly compound over the years. The real reason is probably more that film planes are actually and unintentionally curved, and a lens that makes the grade at the center there back-focuses elsewhere.

I was struggling a bit with a 10.5cm f/2.5 Nikkor, which though absolutely lovely aesthetically is one of the worst-engineered Leica lenses ever from a mechanical standpoint. And it back-focused. It back focused more with some Leica M adapters than others, but still.

Strike one with this lens is that the aperture unit rotates along with the entire optical unit. This means that if you adjust the collimation washer (for reasons I don’t fully understand, it’s always 0.05mm needed with any lens – just about the same thickness as Scotch tape), you also then have to reset the aperture ring to read properly. Also not 100% sure that infinity optical focus was really the problem.

Strike two is that the amount of front cell movement needed to compensate for back focus is absurdly great. So here, you’re messing around with focal length, but this the same way the MS-Optical Sonnetar gets calibrated…

Strike 3 is that the RF cam is not adjustable at all, with the tab pushed by a plunger running on a wheel that fits in a spiral track in the helicoid. Guess how this tab was adjusted for infinity at the factory? With a file. It makes sense, in a way. Calibrate the fixed infinity point on the focal plane by shimming the optical unit, calibrate focus at infinity by grinding the RF tab, and fix close focus by shimming the front cell. But it utterly sucks when you find out, 60 years later, that the tolerances that looked good on film with a Leica IIIc look like holy hell on digital.

So when you are dealing with focus errors, you have to imagine that the standard is a 51.6mm lens. At that focal length, if the RF matches the film-plane focus, the focus will always be correct, even if the infinity stop of the lens is beyond “infinity” on the scale.

For a telephoto lens, the rear cam still pretends it moves like a 51.6mm lens, but the actual optical unit moves much further. Hence, in a lot of cases, you can simply use a thinner LTM adapter (I think I’ve written about this before… somewhere). Most cheapo ones are thinner than the 1.0mm they are supposed to be.

But there is a different way to hack this with the 135mm, 105mm, and 85mm Nikkors: simply apply a thin and even coat of clear nail polish to the RF tab on the lens. This is a trick that you could theoretically do with lenses that have a rotating RF coupling ring (not tab), but it works exceptionally well with the Nikkors because the camera’s RF roller simply rests on the tab and doesn’t roll along it. This means that you only need to get the coating thickness right over a very short distance. Materials needed:

  • Sally Hansen clear top coat (not “nail nourishing,” just the hard kind).
  • CVS Beauty360 brand Nail Polish Corrector Pen (essentially a marker full of acetone that you can use to thin or remove extra nail polish).
  • LensAlign focusing target (if you own a Leica, you really want one of these anyway, just to figure out what the devil all your lenses are doing as you stop down).
  • Reading glasses.

So basically all you need to do is put a very thin coat of polish on the polished surface of the tab. Let it dry for 20 minutes. Here is the goal:

  • At f/2.5, your focus should be such that the 0 point is barely focused, with most of the DOF in front.
  • At f/2.8, your focus should be dead-centered around 0. The lens is actually way sharper here than at f/2.5. Doesn’t seem like much of an aperture change, but it is.
  • At f/4, your focus will be such that 0 will barely be in focus, with most of the DOF to the rear.
  • From f/5.6 down, the DOF will grow so that 0 is always in focus.

If it works, you’re done. The focusing errors this might induce further out are subsumed by depth of field increasing. If you need another coat, add one. If you are now front-focusing too much, use the Corrector Pen to remove some of the extra (or use a very fine nail buffer to remove some).

Never file or try to grind down the tab if your lens is front-focusing. Unless you can do it totally square, your lens will behave differently on different cameras. Leave this situation to a pro.

Konica 35/2.0 L/UC Hexanons

uc35f2-1
The above is #0000 of the UC; Fujisawa-Shoukai (which commissioned the lenses) gave me explicit permission, back to 2001, to use this product picture for non-commercial use. This isn’t a commercial site, and F-S is gone from this earth, so here we are!

This is an article originally written in 2001; with a lot of updates.

How did these things get started?

The former Fujisawa-Shoukai had quite a bit of pull over Konica. Recall that by 1992, Konica had made what was seen as its last serious film camera, the Hexar AF, with its legendary 35mm f/2 lens. F-S, as we will call it here, commissioned in 1996 a run of Hexar lenses in Leica thread mound (LTM). This was long before the what people in the U.S. called a “rangefinder renaissance;” in fact at the time, very little in LTM was being produced in Japan, with the exception of the Avenon/Kobalux 21mm and 28mm lenses.

The first product of this program was the 35mm f/2L Hexanon, which looked like this:

IMG_0644_2.jpg

This lens is simply a clone of the Hexar AF lens, right down having the same filter size. The coatings look identical, which is not a surprise. Consistent with some other contemporaneous LTM products, it did not have a focusing tab. On close inspection, the scalloped focusing ring looks like that on a Canon 35mm f/2 rangefinder lens, or more contemporaneously, the 21mm Avenon/Kobalux lens. The chrome finishing on an alloy body is reminiscent of modern-day ZM lenses. None of this, of course, will disabuse you of the notion that the Japanese lens production industry revolves around common suppliers. This lens shipped with a black flared lens hood (no vents) and a bright sandblasted chrome “Hexanon” lens cap that fit over the hood.

F-S would then go on to commission the 50/2.4L (collapsible) and 60/1.2L Hexanon lenses. The latter is famously expensive now; I have an email from F-S where it was 178,000 yen (about $1,400). The 50/2.4 will get its own article here.

In 2000, around the time that Avenon was re-releasing its 21mm and 28mm lenses as “millennium” models, F-S had another run of the 35/2 made. These were at least superficially different from the silver ones:

  • At the time, black paint was all the rage, so the lens was executed in gloss black enamel and brass. The enamel in the engravings is almost exactly the Leica color scheme.
  • The filter size decreased to 43mm, the aperture ring moved back, and the focusing ring thinned out to give the impression of “compactness” and justifying the “ultra compact” – UC designation that was historic to some Konica SLR lenses.
  • The focusing mechanism changed to a tab (which helped justify the thinner focusing ring and lighter action).
  • The coatings changed to a purplish red to help support the notion of “ultra-coating.” As you might know, multicoating can be customized for color.

The close-focus distance (what would be the third leg of a UC designation) and focusing rate of the helicoid (0.9m to ∞ in about 1/4 turn) and overall length did not change. The new lens was priced at 144,000 yen, which in dollars would have put it at just under the cost of a clean used 35/2 Summicron v.4 (at the time, these ran from about $700-1,200) and about half of what a Leica 35mm Summicron-M ASPH would cost.

Handling versus Leica lenses

Since both of these are optically identical, it might make more sense to discuss the ways in which these are similar to, or different from, the vaunted Summicron v4 King of Bokeh License to Print Money®. They are both like the Leica version but in different ways.

The UC has the same smooth tab-based focusing as the Summicron. It is very smooth and fluid. That said, the aperture ring is very “frictiony.”

The original L has a focusing feel a lot like a Canon RF lens, owing to the similar focusing ring, which has more drag and no tab. The aperture ring, however, has the same “ball-bearing-detent” feel as the Leica.

The overall length of all three lenses is similar, though as noted above, there is something of an illusion that the Leica and UC are smaller than the L.

Optics

The Konica lens, like the Hexar lens it was based on, is a clone of the 3.5cm f/1.8 Nikkor rangefinder lens, but for all practical purposes, the Hexanon is the same lens as the Summicron 4. As you can see, there is a very smooth falloff from center-to-edge wide open and pretty much eye burning sharpness at f/5.6,

Whoah. That looks familiar! Below is the Leica 35/2 v4 as shown in Puts, Leica M-Lenses, their soul and secrets (official Leica publication). Except the Summicron’s optimum aperture is a stop slower.

On interchangeable-lens bodies, all three lenses have the same focus shift behavior, requiring a slight intentional back-focus at f/2 and front focus up to f/5.6. It’s not like on a 50 Sonnar, but it’s there.

Should I?

The original chrome version is a lovely lens and a nice match for chrome Leicas, at about 1/3 the price of a chrome Summicron v4 (yes, they exist…). If you like Canon lenses, you’ll be right at home with it. On the other hand, the UC version is smooth and sexy but getting to be as expensive as a 35/2 Summicron ASPH, which is actually a better lens.

DxO One: Liberté, egalité, insanité

2001composite

My first DxO One (version 1, $125 new on clearance) bricked when I upgraded the firmware. Left with an inert toy while Amazon dug up another one to send me, I could not help but play with the dead one. I flew it up to the water/ice dispenser on the refrigerator. “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.” Nothing.  The DxO One rotated 180 degrees so that it could eject the micro SD card into the…

“Dad, what are you doing?”

“Uh… nothing.”

But seriously, the DxO One is one of strangest and most wonderful cameras to come out of France, or anywhere. Here’s why.

Sensor. The camera uses a 20Mp,  1″ Backside Illuminated (BSI) sensor (3x or so crop factor) made by Sony, the same one as on the RX100III. Two things make this a standout here: first, BSI sensors are quite good – meaning this returns results almost on par with the Sony a6300’s copper-wire conventional sensor. Second, almost all sensors perform equally at base ISO. In the software design, DxO biases the camera toward lower ISOs and wider apertures (which makes sense, since a 1″ sensor starts diffracting at f/5.6).

How does this compare to an iPhone XS sensor? Well, it’s almost 70% more resolution and 6.7x times the surface area (116mm² x 17.30mm²). Do the math. All the computations in the Apple world can’t make up for this type of difference in displacement. This does expose the genius of portrait mode, though – because not even a 1″ sensor is big enough to have easy-to-achieve subject isolation.

The sensor is used for contrast-detect AF (with face priority).

Lens. 32mm equivalent, f/1.8-11 aperture, six groups, six elements, with some of the weirdest aspherical shapes imaginable. It’s very tough to find a lens on a compact camera that approximates a 35/1.8. But here you are.

Shot with DXO ONE Camera

Far from being telecentric with an expected “folded optics” path, the DxO One uses the cellphone method with almost zero distance between the rearmost element  and the sensor. The rearmost element looks like a brassiere. Like this:

one-design-technology.png

The lens is happiest at larger apertures (f/2-f/4).

Storage. The DxO One accepts standard MicroSD cards. I was able to test up to 128Gb cards  (Samsung EVO Plus), and it is able to read and write to them with no issues.

Power. Power comes from an internal battery but can also be fed directly from a micro USB cable. The battery takes about two hours to charge and does about 200 shots. Version 2 of the camera has a removable back door to accommodate an external battery pack DxO no longer sells. You also lose the free software (see below).

Viewfinder. Your choice of two. You can plug the camera into your iPhone, where you can use the DxO One application and the phone screen as a viewfinder. Alternatively, version 3.3 of the camera firmware turns the little OLED screen on the back into a square contour viewfinder, good enough at least to frame the middle square of the picture – and surprisingly good at estimating a level angle for the camera. You could also split the difference with a Lightning extension cord.

Connectivity. The camera was originally designed to connect via the Lightning port, but DxO enabled the onboard WiFi so that now you can use the application on the phone and control the camera (including view-finding) without a physical connection. The DxO One can also connect to your phone via your home wireless network. WiFi operation – no matter what the camera or phone – is not as much fun as it first sounds – which is why the DxO product is more flexible than Sony’s wireless-only solutions.

Shot with DXO ONE Camera

Software. In terms of the camera’s software, all the magic is under the hood. The camera switches on by sliding open the front cover (slide it all the way, and the Lightning connector will erect itself). There is a two-stage shutter button on the top and you can swipe up and down on the OLED to switch between controls and viewfinder and left and right to toggle photo and video. The camera stays on the exposure mode last selected from the DxO software on the iPhone.

The DxO One phone app is well-done and responsive. You can use it to frame, shoot the picture, and control what you want. Features include:

  • JPG, Raw, and Super Raw (stacked) exposure modes.
  • Single-shot, timer, and time-lapse settings
  • Flash settings
  • Subject modes and the usual PSAM modes.
  • Program shift (between equivalent exposures with different shutter speeds or apertures).
  • Single AF, Continuous AF, On-Demand AF, and Manual focus (manual includes an automatic hyperfocal calculation if desired).
  • Matrix, centerweighted, or spot metering.
  • Grid compositional overlay.
  • “Lighting,” which is like a mini HDR compressor for JPGs.

You can also look through the exposures on the camera/card and move them to your phone as desired. As noted above, though, you do need to initiate wireless connections with the camera connected.

If you get a version 1 camera, new, it also comes with DxO Optics Pro 10 Elite (now Photo Lab 1 Elite) and DxO Filmpack Elite. But you have to be able to document that you are the original owner of the camera. Both of these can run as standalones or can be external editors for Lightroom. Photo Lab 1 is also capable of replacing Lightroom.

If you get version 2, you’re out of luck. But you do get a 4gb SD card and the detachable back door for that battery pack.

And either way, you do get DxO OpticsPro 10 for DxO One, which gives you a nice imaging/digital asset manager that can composite SuperRaw files. SuperRaw is a stack of four successive (and extremely rapid) exposures that cancel out high ISO noise.

And if you don’t like any of that, the DxO One outputs normal DNG files that you can simply edit to taste in Lightroom. There is a Lightroom profile for the camera’s minimal residual distortion.

Ergonomics. This is the one place where things are sketchy. It’s hard to hold onto a small ovoid object, especially one with a button on the top. I would highly recommend a wrist strap.

Upshot. Maybe not the most compelling camera at $700 plus when it came out, but now that it is a sixth of that and still a lot of fun to shoot, go for it!

Shot with DXO ONE Camera

 

Take a stress pill: dual memory cards

nkz7.jpg

The Nikon Z7 is undoubtedly a quantum leap in Nikon’s camera evolution, essentially putting the best features of the Dxx series into a mirrorless body. Yet there is the inevitable complaint: “No dual card slot? Only one? No pro camera is like that!”

Pardon me, but plenty of pro cameras have been like that – and not just pro digital cameras in some benighted past (n.b., an era ending maybe 4 years ago). Consider the D2x and D700. Anyone want to call those “not pro” cameras? How about the flagships of the EOS fleet for a stretch?

In an era where film ruled the waves, it’s not like you could put two films into the same camera simultaneously for “backup.” And back then, pictures were scarcer and more valuable, and your chances of losing a shot due to a light leak, film defect, or development failure were astronomically high compared to anything that could befall a digital outfit.

So let’s move to digital. What is the measured malfunction rate of properly kept, brand-named CF, SD, or XQD cards? Hint: it’s astronomically low compared to the failure rate of the cameras that use them (SanDisk posts an MTBF of 1 million hours, or 114 years). Here are things that are far more likely to happen:

  • Dying (which is all but guaranteed within the MTBF cited)
  • Being killed in a car crash
  • Being hit by lightning
  • Finding a lost cousin on some genealogy site
  • Winning Powerball

The threat of a bad flash card bringing down the system is simply not a real thing for most people. Dropping a camera, having a battery burn out, or suffering some physical mishap is far more likely. Even being in a car accident is more likely. And for that matter, why wouldn’t “any responsible pro” bring an extra car? An extra photographer?

I suspect that many of the people complaining about this issue — if not simply fronting to front — are semi-pros who scraped up every last dime to buy one really good camera to shoot wedding pictures. Fair enough. Maybe they had a bad experience with a counterfeit card once. Abused a good one. Ran one into the ground. It’s also possible to screw up the file system of a card by failing to respect buffers that are still clearing or repeatedly using without ever doing an in-camera format.

But this group is not positioned to speak for all pros (i.e., make the statement that “no pro would…”). Real pros in every field use redundancy – and it’s not limited to using two cards in the same camera (which does nothing if your camera is the single point of failure). Redundancy could include:

  • Using smaller cards to reduce the “all eggs in one basket” effect. 32Gb is fine. Smaller media is one of the reasons that film was safe; 36 frames on a roll of film is small.
  • Rotating between cards over the course of the shoot (the nice thing about EXIF is that Lightroom can combine shots from multiple cards into exactly the right order).
  • Using two cameras and two cards, which means you will never be high and dry.
  • Beaming your images in real time using wireless (a Toshiba Flashair is great for this, though there is no XQD version yet).
  • Downloading one card to your laptop while shooting a second card.

When you consider the other options, thinking that two cards in a camera would get you off the hook seems a little odd, does it not?

Maybe the whole “multiple card slot” thing is a product of general societal economic insecurity. Or a “mine is bigger than yours” mindset. But any way you slice it, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense for most people.

Take a stress pill: shutter actuations

What is the maximum shutter actuations for the Nikon D700 [or Leica M9 or whatever]?

There is nothing such as “maximum shutter actuations.” People act as if there were some magic number. People freak out about this. The rated number is unlikely to be reached for most amateur photographers. It’s unlikely to be reached by two amateurs using a camera back to back. Maybe even three or four, unless one used the camera at the beach or somewhere gritty.

  • The rating itself is the MTBF, or Mean Time Between Failures. That means that on average, Nikon’s rated shutters last 150,000 cycles. You don’t know whether that means most last to 250,000 and relatively few go 50,000 or whether all of them are somewhere around 150k.
  • There is no warranty that a shutter will get to 150,000. Your two year factory warranty will expire one day, and it could be at 18,000 exposures or 180,000. Doesn’t matter. Nikon is not fixing it for you for free.
  • Inside the factory warranty, Nikon does fix it for free, shutter count notwithstanding.
  • Likewise, Nikon is not fixing your used camera, even its original sale was within 2 years ago, or even if the shutter failed at 8,000.

It’s all marketing.

By the way, when Nikon was coming up with its 150,000 exposure MTBF, that was 4,166 rolls of film, which was more than most people shot in their lifetime. For a pro, a new shutter (which in those days was a $250 repair) cost nothing compared to the cost $12,000 in film you shot before you got there!

Leica M: that distinct feeling of ennui

Smithers: “They’re fighting like Iran and Iraq!”
Mr. Burns: “What?!”
Smithers: “Persia and Mesopotamia.”

[Written April 16, 2012] All over the world, there are provincial towns believed by their residents to be equal to New York City, Tokyo, or Paris. In a way, Leica M might be such a town. Leica (the company) is not so myopic in terms of technology, but for whatever reason, digital M arguably has become both a technological and a cultural backwater. As Carlo Levi would have put it, Cristo si è fermato a Solms.

The duality of Leica
As this author has observed it over a 15-year period, M culture is basically drawn from two groups (a) people who put up with Leica’s quirks and price due to a belief (often justified) that the resulting image quality is better and (b) a group of photographers cool to modern technology and suspicious of the idea that in spending tens of thousands of dollars on a system, someone might want features that make an M look more like a practical “only” camera. We can call the first group the Opportunists and the second group the True Believers.

Surmising what you can surmise about them, the Opportunists are fairly mobile between camera systems. In fact, given Leica’s cyclical appeal, this group largely abandoned Leica’s system in the early 1970s and abandoned it again when Leica was dragging on a digital body in the early 2000s (recall how lens prices fell back then). Despite claims that demand for M9 cameras and lenses outstrips the ability to produce them, production is small – and even so, the market price for used M9s has now drifted to 60% of new prices. Even new cameras are being discounted by designation as “demos” (no camera that was really used as a demo has five or fewer exposures on it). We know from this that there are definitely fair-weather fans and that they are starting to head for the doors again. When things change precipitously, we know the Opportunists are on the march. And some Opportunists march by keeping their M8s and simply supplementing their missing capabilities with D700s and X100s. The effect, however, is the same – that they stop buying brand L and begin experiencing the forbidden fruits of other manufacturers.

The True Believers – a smaller group but more influential with Leica’s management – hold that the world stopped producing useful new camera features in about 1986 (or, alternatively, in 2002 with the M7). For that reason, they believe, Leica M must be locked into a world of vestigial and functionally-useless removable baseplates, frameline preview levers, and ergonomics lazily whittled from a bar of Ivory soap. The True Believers deny that any feature a Leica M currently lacks is significant, desirable, or valid. Their faith is strong despite the fact that Leica itself has proven them wrong by introducing the very things True Believers claimed were nonessential to the M system: film backs that opened, lever winding, combined rangefinder/viewfinders, TTL metering, electronic shutters/autoexposure, TTL flash, and ultimately, digial imaging. For this group, the M9 – which emerged years behind technologically – is “enough.” In fact, it is already too much (one dares not speak of the D-Lux, the Digilux, the S1, the S2, or the DMR – all of which were actually cutting edge when released). [One would note that since this article was written, that this faction won and got the M10 into production, omitting some features that had been included in the intervening M typ 240/246.

When things run their commercial course, we can call them effectively obsolescent. Obviously, nothing actually stops taking pictures (or anything else) when it is superseded by newer, flashier products – or even products with better specs. But new products often do the same thing with more speed, better efficiency, or fewer avoidable annoyances. The world is littered with well-built, well-designed items that should have lasted forever in the market but were passed up by things that were simpler, cheaper, or more appealing to the masses. Fountain pens, for example, a durable, perfected designs that are largely ignored for cheaper, less messy Bic Biro ballpoints.

When it comes to cameras (or anything), this author would take it a step further and point out that that is not fair to judge an older product for lacking features that had not been invented when it came out (and this is being charitable where Leica did not, for whatever reason, implement technology that was available at the time). So talking about digital M, let’s leave aside things like live view and video. Let’s even forget about DSP speed, screen density, and frame rate. But it is fair to compare apples to apples: to take the core features (or selling points) of an old product and examine their uniqueness in the marketplace and whether they are necessary or desirable solutions to problems.

The five points of Leicas

Leica cameras have five big selling points: high sensor quality; high lens quality, a great synergism between the two, a superb optical viewfinder and a superlative mechanical rangefinder. Take them in turn:

1. Sensor image quality.

Image quality is really the reason why serious photographers buy Leicas. The Leica magic (at least at the body level) comes from two things: (1) lack of an antialiasing filter, which gives a perception of an additional 25% in resolving power (or the ability to up-res by a like amount) and (2) image processing algorithms that build a unique look. These huge determinants of quality do not depend on the overall build quality of the camera body; they reside entirely in a CCD sensor and a couple of hundreds dollars in electronic parts. As long as the same glass formula were put in front of this sensor, the end result would be identical, even if the body were ABS plastic and even if the lenses operated by autofocus.

A lot of things have happened in the 7 years since the basic digital M technology arrived. First, other manufacturers have caught up to the filter-free sensor (Kodak actually preceded Leica with many models in which the AA filter was absent or removable). Sigma has the Foveon sensor, which omits it. Fuji has the X-Trans CMOS sensor – which in addition to lacking an AA sensor, has a randomized color pattern that obviates the anti-moire processing that bogs down Leica’s cameras. Nikon put a weak filter in the D3 and D700, and the D800E effectively has none (as well as twice the pixel density and much better low-light performance than current Leica sensors). Ricoh is making GXR modules that take Leica lenses and have no AA filters. And the Leica “look,” while challenging to replicate, can indeed be achieved in relatively cheap software like Lightroom.

But backing up a little, the world has also moved away from CCD in favor of CMOS chips for lower power consumption, higher sensitivity, and live view capability. Sticking with CCDs constrains Leica’s sensor choices for any future digital M (unless Leica changes the imager completely) and puts Leicas at a long-running disadvantage in higher ISO performance. CCD chips do have great color, but so do a lot of CMOS chips. In the end analysis, slipping behind the sensor speed curve is a big issue; the number of megapixels, not so much.

2. Lens image quality.

Leica was an early participant in the Lens Speed Wars that started in the 1920s and 1930s. Back then, you needed superspeed lenses because film was rated at a blistering ISO 12. And let’s be clear here: from about the 1960s onward, Leica was pretty much unchallenged in terms of lenses, in the build, quality control and resolving departments (and in many ways still is). But a few funny things happened on the way to the 21st century.

When the world went digital and addressed low-light situations by upping sensor capabilities, Leica instead focused on simply making faster lenses. Although this technically gets to a correct exposure in a lot of situations without upping sensor performance, it also locks users into what could be called the “Noctilux Aesthetic,” shorthand for pictures where there is a razor-thin plane of focus and often heavy shading of the corners. Some people prefer to do things with higher ISO sensitivity (rather than wider apertures) so as to have more things in focus. And if it’s the aesthetic that appeals, there is always Instagram.

Leica’s drive to make faster lenses made lenses for a compact system heavy, large, and insanely expensive (a 24mm f/1.4 Summilux, for example, costs $7,000). An M9-P and a 24/1.4 will run you approximately $14,000. A D800E with a 24/1.4 Nikkor runs about $5,500 – and can either shoot in a quarter of the light with the same noise or the same light with four times the depth of field. Sometimes it is nice to have the luxury of choosing the method of taking low-light pictures. Although the expense is typically met with the refrain of, “it’s expensive because it’s good,” or “it’s not for everyone,” it is worth pointing out that many of the nouveau riche who buy things like Leicas did not get there by spending money just to spend money- cost/utility analyses go on all the time (albeit among much more expensive products). In units produced annually, Leica M9 production is about equal to the M6 – though the number of eligible buyers in the world has increased radically. Leica’s sales are up in China, but with flat overall volume, that means that they are diminishing in other parts of the world.

Leica M lenses have very limited options for addressing focus shift [with the exception of partial corrections like the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M FLE]. All lenses exhibit focus shift when stopped down, and this can make rangefinder focusing more inaccurate than it should be. Digital has less tolerance for error, and the only ways to mitigate focus shift in fast lenses is to use floating elements and aspherics, both of which – when executed to Leica standards – cost a mint. Closed-loop focusing (in the guise of contrast-detection AF) allows things like the $600 35/1.4 Fuji X lens (for the X-Pro1) to perform comparably to the $3,500 35 Summilux ASPH. But even before that, the lowly Hexar AF was able to keep up with the legendary 35mm Summicron ASPH by adjusting its focus to account for the selected aperture.

Leica’s 20th-century lenses hold the digital M system back. Users often fixate on speed, but older, high-speed lenses are not world beaters (though many people pay those types of prices for them). The 75mm Summilux command prices that are more driven by rarity than its relatively humdrum performance on a flat sensor (or the somewhat provincial appeal of shooting a portrait with just the eyelashes in focus). Even some of Leica’s more innovative designs like the 28-50-35 Tri-Elmar are fairly unremarkable performers on a Leica digital. The standards required to make a good digital lens are far more exacting than what made superlative film lenses in the past. There are always third-party lenses, but sometimes it seems silly to attach a $300 lens to a $7,000 body.
None of these are show-stoppers, but they tend to paint Leica M into the corner of being a very specific solution to any given problem. And getting to the place where a Leica M optically outperforms the competition requires very expensive gear.

3. The synergy.

One thing about Leica M was that for a long time, you had to use a Leica body to get the Leica M lenses. This was due in part to patents on the lens mount. Even where other manufacturers made M-mount cameras (like the Minolta CLE, Hexar RF, Bessa R, Zeiss-Ikons, and Rolleis), Leica always had a little bit of an edge due to its huge and wide pressure plate. Today, though, the entire synergistic advantage of using a Leica lens with a Leica body lies in the microlens pattern on the Leica sensor glass. It is not a perfect solution, but it is currently the only way to get the Leica resolution all across the board – and on a 24x36mm sensor. All of that said, the synergy between Leica lenses and bodies really only matters if you assume a Leica M lens to be an essential part of the equation. Where other cameras are built as a cohesive unit (lens and sensor), the 80/20 rule kicks in (80% of the performance at 20% of the price). Only here, Leica’s pricing now pushes that toward a 90/10 proposition.

4. The optical viewfinder.

One of the big points of excitement about the Leica M is its big, clear viewfinder. Though Leica fields the brightest and least-distorted finders in the industry, those finders are expensive to produce and, given the mechanical nature of the framelines, are incapable of showing accurate framing except at one arbitrary distance. This tends to make shots frame looser than they should be, thereby wasting real estate on the sensor. Japanese manufacturers have not surpassed the Leica clarity, but they have managed to produce close equivalents for much less money. But the bigger issue came with the rise of hybrid viewfinders that use LED overlay displays to (a) show instant playback; (b) project a digital level and composition gridlines; (c) display a computation of the depth of field based on focal length, aperture, and focused distance; and (d) show field-corrected framelines appropriate to any focal length. This is to say nothing of allowing an instant TTL lens view as well. These features – which can universally be shut off – add a considerable amount of utility for people who want them. They don’t take away from the beauty of the Leica version, but one line of 8-segment LEDs provides no warning about running through an SD card or a battery, two conditions that did not really exist when the viewfinder was last redesigned, 10 years ago. In the end, the major compelling feature of that Leica view is…

5. The rangefinder

Part of what makes the Leica M is the rangefinder. Leica Ms will always have rangefinders, because the “M” actually stands for Messsucher (rangefinder). When the Leica II was developed, there were no small SLRs. Leica and Zeiss based their competing 35mm cameras on coupled prism rangefinders. This was, at the time, the only technology that allowed a compact camera to focus accurately, particularly with high-speed lenses.

Even when 35mm SLRs came into the mainstream in the 1950s and 1960s, rangefinders persisted. Rangefinders were smaller in general, and it was easier to make wide-angle lenses for them. Back then – and now – rangefinders also did a better job of focusing those wide-angle lenses. Where a rangefinder system has a constant magnification and starts running into problems with longer lenses, SLRs benefit from assuming the magnification of telephoto lenses they use.

Many competitors have made runs at matching the Leica rangefinder, and the common vendor to Fuji, Mamiya, and Konica almost managed to do it. The Leica mechanism is a wonder of precision and high-end manufacturing. Today, though, it seems like a precisely engineered, laser-engraved, CNC machined, hand-honed … typewriter. The rangefinder’s competence is in focusing wideangle-to-normal lenses – but run-of-the-mill autofocus is just as good at doing that.

The weight

Aside from struggles with relevance to Opportunists at a core technology level – i.e., creeping effective obsolescence – Leica M carries a lot of baggage. The weight (all apologies to Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson) goes beyond simulating the size and weight of a camera of 1953 (the weight is, in fact, simulated – the brass covers of a digital M account for almost 25% of ite weight). It goes beyond doing things they way they have always been done – in the name of tradition. It goes beyond being accosted in public by weirdos who recognize your M8 as “an M4.” To this author, the most perfidious part of it is the cognitive dissonance that arises when one carries $10,000 in gear around his neck but fancies himself to be a photographic Zen Buddhist.

Leica used to think outside the box – not only did it popularize 35mm film photography, it also invented things like phase-detect AF, made innovative cameras like the M3, and otherwise kept up with the world (even Leica’s current S2 is technological light-years ahead of the M). Had this progressive philosophy carried over into the M series (or an updated successor), the M8/M9 would not have slavishly copied film cameras in looks, live view would have been added to stand in for the Visoflex, and it would have been Leica to introduce hybrid viewfinders. Maybe this will change on May 10, 2012 with some huge product announcement [it did not, but the M typ 240 did introduce the use of electronic viewfinders – EVFs – to Leicas].

But in our hearts, we know it won’t. The world of Leica is somewhat frustrating. The products are high quality, the resulting images are excellent, and the general solidity of the system makes all of us keep our lenses as we repetitively upgrade digital bodies (and upgraded film bodies before that). We always want to think that some vastly improved new M is around the corner, yet ultimately, we just end up settling for something that is behind the curve, for a lot of money. One could get the sense – reinforced by the rapid pace of the rest of the photographic world – that this bubble of IR filters, color vingetting, bottom-plate loading, and black paint is going to burst.When you look at things like the Fuji X-Pro1, you begin to think that perhaps it already has. Maybe the better thing would be for Leica to declare victory in 2013 after 60 years of M – after all, it outlasted Contax, Alpa, and everyone elese’s film rangefinders (and even outlasted Polaroid, Kodak, Agfa, and Ilford…) – and reboot with something as earthshaking as the M3 was in 1953.

Disclosure: the author has been a Leica user for the better part of two decades and was an early adopter of the M8 [and M240, and M246].

Toshiba FlashAir W-04 vs Eyefi Mobi Pro

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Life has many existential questions and then some simple annoyances: why is the built-in WiFi in so many cameras so terrible? My Sony a6300 requires QR codes, wireless connections, and clunky built-in applications (as well has having the even more kludgy Sony PlayMemories application on the receiving device). Sometimes the simplest solution is not proprietary, and that is where we come to wireless SD (actually SDXC) cards.

Eyefi

Eyefi was a Finnish company that pioneered the idea of the wifi-enabled SD card. The idea was to make a small card that had a short-range 802.11 connection that could interface to a computer. Before long, the focus became transmitting to handheld devices.

In theory, all wireless cards count on the tolerance of a camera for staying powered up until disk operations are finished. In practical terms, this means that the wifi component in the card is activated by reading or writing a certain amount of data to the card, and the camera does not go to sleep until the transmission is complete (or some number of minutes passes, and the camera says “enough is enough!”).

Eyefi was not a tremendously easy system to set up on a handheld because it installs a WiFi profile (ID and password). This required you to enter a code on the back of the box into the handheld application, have your phone install the profile, go to WiFi settings, connect to the Eyefi card (assuming it is powered on) and then activate the Eyefi Mobi application.

From there, and assuming you were out in the wild, and your handheld could not see any other networks to which it could auto-connect, it would automatically connect to the Eyefi card. You would have to launch the Eyefi app to get transfers to start.

In general, the Eyefi setup worked (and works), except for a few caveats:

  • It is difficult to reconfigure the cards for a new device if you lose the activation code, and it is not straightforward to recover them (you used to have to email Eyefi customer service).
  • The configuration on the pro cards (transmit raw files and video or neither) required work with the hellishly ungainly Eyefi desktop application, which was a solution looking for a problem (if you are at your computer, why would you need to wirelessly transmit data to it?)
  • Eyefi cards were (and are) pretty hard on camera batteries.
  • Eyefi cards never got fast enough for intolerant cameras like Leica Digital Ms, especially the Typ 240 and its siblings, which really don’t like cards that can’t do at least 60mb/sec write speed (which generally means a 90mb/sec read speed – what they show on the box as the “speed”).

The Eyefi Mobi and Mobi Pro cards were a bit easier. The orange Mobi only transmits JPGs (you need to plug it into an SD reader to get RAW), and the black Mobi Pro would transmit both. But the speed still maxed out at Class 10, still not fast enough for a Leica, where sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, and when they don’t, they lock up the camera until you remove the battery.

Eyefi’s reorg, Toshiba, and Keenai

The Eyefi situation, oddly, changed for the better with the reorganization of the company. The technology end (the patents) went to Toshiba. Keenai took over the software end and designed a (free) mobile application that far more reliably connected to the card and downloaded pictures far faster. While on paper, the deal between the companies was cross-licensing, the reality is that Eyefi cards are out of print.

Toshiba

Toshiba took over with its FlashAir series where Eyefi left off. True to Japanese corporate form, it put out its own clunky (and frankly indecipherable) handheld application. FlashAir. To its credit, the application allows you to see thumbnails (JPG and pink boxes for RAW) that allow you to selectively pull (as opposed to having the card push) files. This avoids the usual wait for the good shots while the card pushes all of your bloopers to your handheld.

The FlashAir W-04 (the current model, for some reason only available in Asia – in the U.S., you get the W-03 – but you can buy the W-04 all day on Ebay…) is in many ways better than the Eyefi Mobi Pro.

First, it skips the activation codes and profiles and lets you just punch in an 8-digit password (which you can change via the handheld app) when you connect to its wireless signal. I would not recommend changing this password because the risk of someone in your immediate proximity stealing your images is far smaller than the risk of forgetting the password and bricking the card.

Second, on Keenai, it is zero-configuration. It sees the phone is connected to a FlashAir card, and then it goes to town downloading everything (JPG and RAW). I think the assumption is that your phone will only be connected to one card at a time.

Third, the Toshiba cards seem to eat batteries less, although the effective range seems shorter. I am still testing this, but that kind of tradeoff would not at all be surprising.

 

Finally, the W-04 transfers about twice as fast as the Eyefi over WiFi, and its card write speed (UHS-3, which I measure at 63.3Mb/sec write speed) is high enough even to be reliable with the finicky Leica Ms. This actually makes them useful even when you don’t need WiFi connectivity. Speeds (as tested by me through the iMac 5K’s built-in card reader)

  • Flashair W-04 (64mb/sec write, 88mb/sec read)
  • Eyefi Mobi Pro 32 (17mb/sec write, 19 mb/sec read)
  • Eyefi Mobi 32 (18mb/sec write, 19mb/sec read)
  • For reference, a Samsung Pro non wireless card (rated 80/90) runs at 64/88.

…so as you can see, “Class 10” covers a lot of territory (basically 10mb/sec and up)

Unsolved problems

There are two last annoyances.

One is that iOS devices are hostile to the idea of strict priority lists for wireless. At home or work – where your handheld would be connected to a permanent network, you would want EyeFi or FlashAir cards to trump the local Wifi when they are active (since they are only active for shooting or file transfer). This is not a problem inherent to the cards themselves, but it makes using them less fun.

Second, wireless host programs like to store downloaded images in their own purgatory rather than dumping them all directly into your iOS photos storage. This means that you end up storing two copies of some (or all) pictures, eating into onboard storage. This actually is within the province of Keenai to fix.

Conclusion

With the maturation of wirelsss SD card card technology and of editing programs like Lightroom CC mobile, you can now actually get more done in more places. And yes, they even work with Sony cameras.

 

 

No love for the Empire? Leica Multifunction Handgrip M 14495

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The Multifunction Handgrip M (14495), $895, is a depressing piece of hardware. It’s not the price or the alleged GPS slowness. It’s the depressing feeling that like a lot of things, the M camera reached its highest point of elaboration and now is on the path of decontenting that hit a lot of other types of consumer electronics.

Hello and goodbye. The story of this product is wrapped up with the M typ 240 (and its cousins the M-E 262 and Monochrom 246). The 240 was a watershed moment for Leica – the first time the M had actually become functional like other people’s cameras. It signaled a few firsts:

  • Video. Not the best HD video ever, but with the new EVF(!) it was passable.
  • Audio input. Plus it actually had a way to get audio into the camera! But no EVF and mic adapter at the same time. In every life, some rain must fall.
  • A digital horizon that operated in 3 dimensions (so it could detect pitch and roll).
  • A high capacity battery.
  • A function button on the front that could trigger exposure compensation adjustments or viewfinder magnification.

How many of these features made it to the M10? The front button. Now let’s see where the Multifunction Handgrip takes you:

  • GPS. Every want to auto-tag your photos with the location?
  • SCA flash connector. Now you can connect to a flash via a metal plugged-cord or a standard PC outlet.
  • AC connector. Now you can run your camera on video for the allotted 29 minutes at a time (before the auto shut off).
  • USB port for tethered operation (likely why the AC connector is so important).

But then there came the M10, thin like a 90s shoulder pad. No more video. No more need-to-keep-it-level landscape photography (apparently…). Smaller batteries, as if the thrill of living had gone.

Weight? The 14495 adds surprisingly little weight to the M. That’s because everything but the baseplate part is plastic. Naturally, the light grip does not change the balance of the camera, so you need to use brute strength (and grip) to keep big lenses level.

Grip? The ergonomics of this are something that grow on you. At first, you feel like it could be a centimeter taller to accommodate your index finger. But wait – that’s the one you need to press the shutter. It doesn’t take long to adapt to this grip, and it greatly enhances the handling of the camera with huge lenses like the 75/1.4. Every little bit counts, and an M is pretty slippery, even with the little nub grip built into its case.

GPS? It works. Just put your camera in standby, and within a few minutes, it will get a fix. Once it’s running, it seems to be pretty accurate.  A lot of people seem to complain that when it loses a signal, it continues to log its last known location. That’s actually beneficial when you go indoors (since you don’t want it to revert to a location in the center of the earth, for example).

“Near-field” communication. You always wanted this on a digital camera, but you didn’t want Android. Well, here you go. To get a wifi signal out of a card (like the Toshiba Flashair, which will be treated in a future installment), you basically need to have your handheld touching the top plate of the camera (which apparently is the most porous surface for radio waves.

Flash. Flash. Flash. So you want to know how well the 14498 SCA setup (another bazillion dollars) works? It consists of a bracket and an extension shoe. The idea of this product is to allow you to move the flash off camera both to enhance balance and to free up the hot shoe for an optical or electronic viewfinder.

 

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The disappointing thing is that there is no vertical grip piece, meaning that your flash head is much closer to the lens axis in landscape mode than you might like. So this works better out of the box with taller flashes like the SF 58 or 64.

The weird thing is the SCA plug, which is both unusual and insanely well built. It probably requires 200 different machining operations. But like the EVF connector, it’s proprietary, meaning that you have exactly one choice for off-camera work. The exit of the cord near the body of the camera body seems weird at first, but after you use it a bit, you wonder why Nikon screwed up so badly with the SC hot-shoe adapters, which have huge cords that on an M camera either end up blocking the viewfinder or getting in your face, literally.

But the good thing with the 14498 is that you can get and use your favorite old Vivitar handgrip – because the extension shoe detaches from the bracket. And can be used without the bracket.

Flash operation is unremarkable (as it should be). You do not get a flash-ready indication in the EVF if you have it attached, and shot to shot lag time is not affected.

Conclusion. The Multifunction Grip M, if you can score one used for under $400, is a pretty good item. At that price, it’s not quite as outrageously expensive as list, and it helps tremendously with heavy lenses. As to the SCA set, it’s a tougher call, unless you can get one for under $200. Where the grip gives you a standard PC connector, you can use any handle-mount auto flash you want (such as a Metz 45 series). Flash may or may not be in your personal program, but I would remind you that the higher-end Leica flashes do high-speed synch very well.