Archive | Digitalia RSS for this section

Fuji X100T: Ch-ch-changes (from the X100)

x100t

It would not be a Machine Planet kind of Friday afternoon if we didn’t boot up a 1970s Pioneer SA-9500II, crank up the David Bowie’s Young Americans on the Wheels of Steel, and pray that the protection circuits don’t open prematurely. There is a mild short somewhere. Maybe in a speaker wire, maybe in the brain. But while you’re remembering your President Nixon and the bills you have to pay, remember the Leica sold during that presidency: the M4. For its third (and perhaps final) iteration of Fujifilm’s Kleinerersatzmesssucherkamera (to clumsily and incorrectly coin a German compound), the Japanese company dropped the frame around the viewfinder window – just as Leica dropped that frame from the M3 to the M4 (let’s ignore the M2 because it doesn’t fit with this theory). If Leica had old-man shills instead of effusive wedding photographer shills, someone would have pointed this out sooner. But let’s face it, this entry is highly unlikely to be linked to the enthusiastic Fujirumors.com.

There is a superstition that says to upgrade on the odd numbers for Nikon (F to F3 to F5) and on even-numbered ones for Leica Leicas (M2, M4, M6). If you consider the F2 ugly, the F4 clumsy, and the M5 weird, you might also think about upgrading from the X100 to the X100T.

This piece will concentrate on differences between the original X100 and X100T, on the assumption that people are not considering incremental upgrades between the S and T. Let me know if I succeed in telling you some things that other writers have not. So let’s go point by point.

Design. The X100T is roughly the same dimensions as the X100; however, almost every exterior part has been changed between the two cameras. This is indicative of Japanese consumer product design – things get redesigned even with no apparent purpose, apparently without regards to the costs of tooling all new parts. That said. the X100T oddly has the same rubber plug near the battery door that the original X100 does – despite the fact that Fuji does not officially support AC adapters for this camera. The black version, which I tested, has a speckled finish that is not unlike a finer-grained version of what Nikon uses on its higher-end bodies. The frame around the front window is gone, as is the divot in which the ambient light sensor sits.

Layout. Compared to the original, the layout has changed somewhat.

The top deck is the same, the front its same (with the exception of focusing mode, which has been revised to reorder focusing modes as S-C-M (bottom to top) rather than the accident-prone C-S-M. This brings the camera in line with current DSLRs and eliminates an annoying tendency of the original to end up in continuous or manual by accident. And no one understands quite what continuous is supposed to do on the X100 or X-Pro1.

The rear left button layout is considerably different, and it has not changed for the better. The original X100 had four highly tactile buttons running down the left side, from top to bottom, Play, AE (doubling as zoom-in in playback), AF (zoom-out), and View Mode. The X100T has changed these to View Mode, Play, Trash, and WiFi. The Trash and WiFi buttons are re-programmable, but the cardinal sin lies in moving the play button to a position where in reaching for it, the user constantly cycles view modes: viewfinder, LCD, eye sensor, and many permutations in between (like the strangely useless viewfinder only plus eye sensor, which shuts all views off when not looking through the VF. This causes unexpected problems if shooting and even occasionally checking pictures on the back of the camera. The smaller, lower-profile size of the buttons is even less helpful.

The rear right is similarly a mess. Display mode is in the same place though much smaller. Drive has thankfully been moved to its own button, out of the way of accidental pushes on the scroll wheel (which is not abolished). The problem is that the Drive button is now directly in the path of any accessory thumb rest (like the Thumbs Up). The magnification control has been moved from the left buttons to a full-fledged control wheel (occupying the space of the former rocker switch). But this too is subtended by a thumb rest. AE/AF lock is its own button, smaller than on the X100 and right in line with the button the activates the useless Q menu, a tactile failure just as it is on the X-Pro1.

Fortunately, the X100T has seven re-programmable function buttons:

  • FN (still in the same place on the top deck – default function is to start video recording without any intermediate menus).
  • Up arrow
  • Left Arrow
  • Right Arrow
  • Down Arrow
  • Trash
  • WiFi

Here are some suggested things to program to these buttons:

  • Video (because otherwise you would have to wade through the Drive menu) (FN)
  • Focusing area (Up)
  • Film simulation (Left) – still has a bunch of films whose names most users of this camera would not recognize, plus “Classic Chrome,” a pretty obvious knockoff of Kodachrome, a film Fuji never made.
  • Flash mode (Right)
  • White balance (Down)
  • Face Detection (Trash) – this is new. Face detection (described in more detail in Focusing, below) detects human faces to set focus and exposure.
  • WiFi (WiFi) – this activates the connection memo used to connect the camera to the Camera Remote app.

This is the full menu of things that can be mapped to the seven function buttons:

  1. Advanced filter (the “artsy” effect filters). For those who can’t wait for Photoshop, you can do all of your fakey selective color, cross-processed, toy camera, and tilt-shift effects. Also soft focus.
  2. Multiple exposure
  3. Macro
  4. Preview depth of field
  5. Iso – this now includes the option to program up to three different auto-ISO presets. And they don’t work with flash unless you use a Fuji unit.
  6. Self-Timer
  7. Image size
  8. Image quality
  9. Dynamic range
  10. Film Simulation
  11. White balance
  12. ND filter
  13. Photometry (i.e., “Metering Mode”)
  14. AF mode (area/spot)
  15. Corrected AF frame
  16. Flash compensation
  17. Select custom setting
  18. Preview Pic. Effect
  19. High performance this makes everything go faster, including your batteries.
  20. Raw
  21. Conversion Lens – this is for the TCL-X100 and WCL-X100, the 28mm and 43mm conversion lenses.
  22. Shutter Type – you can use this to trigger the new electronic shutter, which goes up to 1/32,000 second. This is a teats-on-a-bull proposition, because to need that shutter speed, you would need to have the camera at 3200 ISO and f/2, on the surface of the sun. The super-fast shutter does not work with flash, nor does it capture action well.
  23. None (mercifully)

Operation. Assuming you can keep your fingers in the right places, the camera is snappy, responsive and quick to take pictures. And that’s all you can really ask. All controls have much more solid clicks (particularly the top dials). The 1/3 aperture stops are actually annoying.

Focusing. The X100S and -T introduced phase-detect focus to the X100. This is supposed to speed up focusing, which it does in very bright light (as in EV 11 and over); contrast does not seem to enter into the picture. Focusing is very, very quick in this mode. But note that this mode does not cover the entire frame and does not operate at all when faces are detected in frame. You can tell when phase-detect is working because the focusing reticle just goes green with no hunting. Phase-detect is used to support the “split image” focusing aid that is available in M mode (and in the “tab”). The contrast-detect focus is faster than on the X100. There are two things that are actually exciting about the X100T if you are used to the X100.

  • Face detection. Although not perfect and often arbitrarily selecting between faces in a shot, this feature eliminates a lot of focus-and-recompose shooting. Exposure then adjusts for the face. When no face is detected, the camera reverts to the chosen focus point and either phase-detect or contrast-detect as necessary. Note that face detection requires that (1) the camera be focused enough to pick out some face at least vaguely and (2) that the face be larger than the focusing reticle. Face-detection does not work in OVF mode, though with the “tab” (see below), it should be possible.
  • Focus tracking during continuous shooting. Focus continues through continuous shots. It might fall behind the subject, but it is a considerable step up from the locked focus that the X100 exhibited wile in continuous. Continuous focus locks out face detection in multiple-shot sequences.

There is a “pre” focus setting that seems to mirror the “continuous” function on the X100. But here it is actually useful because it facilitates face detection. The “real time” parallax correction operates only in manual focus. Why is this a marquis feature of the X100T?

Imaging. See any review of any camera with any 16MP X-Trans sensor. The face detection tends to up the sharpness of faces (compared to focusing and re-composing). Your subjects will hate you.The X100T has a lens modulation optimizer (LMO), which is designed to combat diffraction. In general, versus the X100 sensor, this picks up about a stop of low light capability, four extra megapixels, and a bit more decoding time on Lightroom.

Viewfinder. Two major observations here. First, there are more megapixels, and the menu text does look finer. Second, this is not the revelation that some people seem to suggest. The pixelation during contrast-detect focusing is much smaller, but that’s about it. There is a new “Daylight” mode that makes the screen incredibly bright – but makes everything look overexposed snd washed-out indoors. Finally, the fast refresh rate causes strange interactions with fluorescent lights. The fonts and arrangements for the in-viewfinder displays have changed. They are more comprehensive but also less legible. A helpful feature in EVF is an indicator that – even when you are in photo mode – tells you how much recording time you would have if you hit the instant-on button for video (internal memory holds a whopping 8 seconds).

The “tab.” As if switching between EVF and OVF were not enough to lose track of, pushing repeatedly to the right toggles the  “tab,” which is a small semi reflective mirror in the lower right corner in OVF mode. In autofocus modes, this operates to show what is actually in focus. In manual focus, it can show your choice of focus peaking or a split image view. Pressing the control wheel gives you a choice between actual and 5x magnification; holding it switches between focus peaking and split image. The tab is dangerously close to the long-fantasized “digital rangefinder” that Leica users have begged for: it is an electronic superimposition in an optical finder. It is brilliant. The unfortunate thing is that it cannot be put in the center of the frame. The problem appears to be that the finder itself does not have enough contrast in bright light to mask ambient light and replace it with a usable split image. That can be fixed in the corner, but in the center frame, it would require a permanent silvered square.

Batteries. Alleged improved battery life is not a big deal. There is only so much power in a battery the size of an NP-95, and the chemistry has not changed. What is a big deal is that you can now charge the batteries via the USB 3.0 port on the camera – meaning that you can plug it into your computer, your car, that dodgy 15,000 MaH battery pack you bought on Ebay, etc. It is nice that Fuji has decided to continue to use the matchbook-sized NP-95 battery. Although it doesn’t have the greatest capacity, you can reuse your old batteries and chargers and interchange them between cameras as needed. Video. Aside from the ability to trigger video instantly (welcome to 2009!), the video has been upgraded to 1080p, 60fps (not obviously car whether -p or -i). A variable-level mic jack has been added (it also operates as a remote release), manual focus is available for video, and ISO is adjustable for video.

Wireless. The camera has a built-in wireless function that allows remote focusing and shooting of the camera and viewing what the lens sees via an iPhone app (note: Camera Remote, not the other three Fuji apps on the App Store). It can be somewhat slow. The camera can geotag (allegedly) by picking up WiFi signals. Transfers work well, though it is still far easier to use a WiFi Mobi card. The camera does thoughtfully have a 3Mp down-sample mode for social media. Dumb things that won’t go away. Although we keep hearing the word “Kaizen” in connection with Fuji, heaven help the things that Fuji won’t let go:

  1. Making people buy the AR-X100 adapter to use 49mm filters. Come on. This is a $5 part that most people buy for $5 from Chinese eBay sellers. And the one Fuji makes ($49) doesn’t really match the black cameras.
  2. Not allowing the use of flash in continuous shooting, and holding up shooting while slow flashes recharge.
  3. Not making a small flash that shoots off the lens axis.
  4. Finishing the shutter release and flash shoe in quick-weaning black paint.
  5. Leaving the diopter wheel open to the elements. How often is this really adjusted that it needs to be prone to contamination and bumping off the setting.
  6. Continuing to recess the eye sensor so that it doesn’t work well with sunglasses or eyeglasses.
  7. Continuing to disaggregate in the menus the selection of composition grids and the setting that actually shows them in the viewfinder.
  8. Poor strap rings. The new steel inserts are nice, but loop lugs (such as on older Fujis like the GA645) would be better.

Conclusions. The X100T is indeed a serious step up from the X100. Although its sensor is nothing new (and indeed, neither is its lens), the X-Trans sensor gets more out of the lens, and the more sophisticated focusing system in turn gets more out of the X-trans sensor. The general responsiveness boost is welcome, and the improved power options are making it easier to carry this camera about anywhere. Fuji does need to cut the ADD when it comes to changing physical controls.

Advertisements

Fisher-Price W1458 Kid-Tough Digital Camera

W1459-kid-tough-digital-camera-d-1

 

Children interact poorly with adult cameras. At best, an adult camera is confusing and annoying to a child – and at worst, your expensive camera ends up with impact damage, liquid incursion, or the ever-familiar fingerprint(s) on the nano-coated front element. Unless your child is good at reading menus (and some adults are not), your old point-and-shoot becomes a throwaway. It is highly more likely that your iPhone will become a target.

Santa Claus brought a Fisher-Price W1458 this year. Prior to its unwrapping, we had no idea that something like this existed. In our day, a toy camera was either a 110-style wooden box with a rotating “flashcube,” or at best, a Tomy Snappy Shots that simulated instant pictures – it had six plastic pictures that when wet, revealed pictures. In an odd bow to coater-style Polaroid film, the camera had sponge inside. Children of today fare much better, apparently.

The Fisher-Price is, oddly, a real camera. And by real, one means, “takes digital pictures.” The imager is a SQ Tech SQ907B, a basic VGA (640×400; 0.3 Mp; 100kb files, 1,000 fit in memory) camera that has a fixed-focus f/2,8 meniscus lens (sitting in a very recessed cone, with an entrance pupil that small fingers will have trouble entering). The camera appears to have a sole ISO of 60, a fixed aperture, fixed focus (4 feet to ∞), and shutter speeds running from 1/10 to at least 1/600 sec. For what it is worth, this imager is used in other things, like about 20 other brands of child cameras and some deer-hunting cameras. There are implementations with and without flash, and it appears that Fisher-Price dropped the flash feature (although intuitively, you would think you would want flash, small children could misuse it at close range).

In terms of handling, the camera a solid brick of plastic (as thick as and slightly taller than an Argus C3). The end caps and bottom are rubberized. The viewfinder is an interesting binocular design with the two oculars at about the spacing of a toddler’s eyes, and they are in a projecting binnacle that allows an adult nose to fit underneath (grown-up digital camera manufacturers, note…). The screen is a 1.5″ square LCD. The controls are quite simple: an on/off button, up and down arrows for digital zoom; left and right arrows for navigating past pictures (there is no model “play/review” switch – hitting these triggers playback, and touching the shutter button puts the camera back in shooting mode), a red “X” button for deleting (press twice), and a shutter release. There is close to zero shutter lag (in no small part due to the fact that it does not focus).

W1459-kid-tough-digital-camera-d-2

 

In operation, it is simple enough for a child – and the entire reason why this review appears here is to make a point: that user interface is very, very important on consumer cameras, and Fisher-Price has nailed it without going to the absurd lengths of the Leica M typ 60. There is no date setting, no manual ISO, nothing to get in the way of youthful glee. There is, however, a spring-loaded door to protect the mini-USB connector (this camera does not use SD cards, and you have to supply your own USB cable) and a screw-protected battery compartment to load three AA batteries.

As to image quality, let’s put it this way: on an iMac Retina 5K, the thumbnail in Photoshop is pretty close to the same size as the whole picture. With a base ISO of 60, you can expect tons of motion blur – and noise when the light drops too low. But just like consumer digital cameras of the early 2000s, if you can work carefully, it actually works. You can see the digital zoom in one of the pictures. Not pretty. But considering that this a toy designed for children, it does the job. This type of camera may be the next PXL2000 when it comes to the low-fidelity cult.

IMG_0001 IMG_0037 IMG_0060  IMG_0034 IMG_0039 IMG_0049 IMG_0054IMG_0036

The terrorists have not won

LeicaM60

There is a tasteless joke whose punchline is, “well, we’ve established what kind of girl you are; now we’re just trying to establish the price.” It goes back to a newspaper column by the Hereditary Peer and reformed Canadian Lord Beaverbrook, it is probably fictional in origin, and it has been twisted around in a number of ways. Nevertheless, the quip is a great counterpoint to people who make a point of maintaining their photographic “integrity” by using some “less automated” form of digital.

Every technical aspect of digital photography (or as film snobs would call it, digital imaging) is nontraditional and somewhat automated. Light does not write an image on anything (we have the φωτός part; we have no γραφή). Instead, light hits an electronic sensing surface that translates light into analog measurements automatically, those measurements are converted to numbers automatically, and a computer in the camera bakes those numbers into a RAW image file automatically. That file is in turn transformed into something visible to humans, either in the camera or on a computer – and it is only in this final stage that human control returns, and it is a totally different type of control than chemical development and optical printing. The physics and chemistry of film photography are actually simple compared to the computational power required for digital photography. Put it this way: the oxidation-reduction reactions used in film photography are taught in high-school chemistry; the mathematical transformations needed to convert Bayer sensor measurements into recognizable images are almost graduate-school math. Or to put it bluntly: men went to the moon in vehicles with computers less sophisticated than what we now use to replicate the 1960s Hasselblad film cameras they took.

Functionally, digital imaging is like film photography in that you ultimately get an image on paper — but only similar in the way that a Selectric typewriter and a laser printer can both put crisp Courier text on a piece of white office bond. In both instances, you start with a keyboard and end with clean text, but the intervening operations are completely different. And with photography, both film and digital begin with a using camera and end with a physical image. But nothing in the middle is the same. That makes two things immediately suspect: (1) claims by manufacturers that their digital cameras build on their film competencies; and (2) claims by photographers that people should avoid using some of the possibilities that digital technologies provide. Leica culture is guilty on both counts. The easy part to identify is the design ethos of the digital M line: a digital M is designed to look like a film camera and not like a ground-up digital camera. This is understandable in light of the other part: the hard core of Leica culture thinks like Hesiod: there was a golden age (the M3), a silver age (the M2), and a progression of lesser ages that run up to and include the current product line (iron age is especially appropriate given Leica’s late penchant for stainless steel). Even among apostates who keep buying new Leicas (scribe, prepare the interdict!), technological resistance has historically expressed itself in apologetics. Leica zealots denounced autofocus — or autoexposure, or auto-advance, or digital, or whatever at the time of the denouncement Leica’s R&D budget had not yet allowed Solms/Wetzlar to implement. With autofocus, it was not entirely Pharisaic; even today, the only truly competent AF seems to come from larger, heavier DSLRs. But just as Paleo diets have captured the imagination of some, there is a set of rangefinder users who would like to go back to the days of the Kodak DCS line, when men were men and “chimping” referred to primates at play. Or better yet, they would like to return to the metaphor of the M3.

The Leica „M Edition 60” is simultaneously the fantasy and horror of Leica traditionalists. One group seeks continuity: an ersatz film camera suggests an unbroken line. Where that is not compelling, another craves “simplicity.” And yet others believe that omitting things like a screen would make a camera less expensive. A $20,000 camera package that is no lighter or smaller than a Typ 240 is going to sorely disappoint two out of these three groups. The acrimony is understandable. The remaining group might find suspension of disbelief easier. After all, Byzantine emperors still thought of themselves as Romans.

It is fair to guess that a camera made in an edition of 600 and packaged with white handling gloves will never sully its sensor with photons nor flush it with electrons. If it did, there would be legitimate questions of whether a digital camera, particularly a Leica one, is viable without a LCD screen and shooting only RAW:

  • Shooting in DNG (i.e., RAW) is a poor substitute for proper exposure – and the Leica M meter has a tendency to produce results outside an easy adjustment range under a variety of circumstances: sunrise, sunset, flash. If the metering were more sophisticated on this camera, it might provoke less concern. But it’s fair to say that in tricky light, shooting the M architecture blind is not unlike exposing Kodachrome by guess. That, one assumes, is why the Typ 240 has auto-bracketing available.
  • Lack of JPG capability can severely cabin on-the-road productivity and completely inhibits the use of Eye-Fi.
  • Certain mixed lighting conditions that are relatively invisible to the eye (such as incandescent and daylight in the same frame) are detectable with an LCD, are correctable on-site at the time of shooting, and are extremely difficult to fix afterward.
  • It would be a bitter pill to have a malfunction throughout a shoot that ruined the shots and was not detected until it was too late to make corrections. Think: rangefinder misalignment, a spot on the sensor, travel use.

In addition, some normal digital camera functions are completely dependent on the use of an LCD:

  • Sensor cleaning is a stab-in-the-dark exercise without being able to look at stopped-down exposures quickly. And in any event, one would lose the dust detection capability of the camera.
  • Lens profile selection becomes entirely dependent on Leica 6-bit coding.
  • Filename/folder arrangements, formatting SD cards, and other “disk maintenance” functions make it hard to clear space if needed.
  • Firmware updates would be difficult to implement.

And then there are some other things (normal features of digital and even many film cameras) that go away with the M Edition 60:

  • Strap lugs
  • Video (this is explicit)
  • Liveview
  • Histograms
  • Self-timer settings
  • Exposure bracketing
  • Slow sync controls
  • Auto ISO
  • Frameline color
  • Focus peaking
  • Histograms
  • Clipping detection
  • USB mode controls
  • Date/time setting
  • User (settings profiles)
  • Anything that has to do with JPEG generation (white balance, resolution, compression, film modes, color space)

There is no EVF workaround because the camera lacks an EVF port. So yes, as a digital camera, it is quite limited. These limitations may not have much effect on individuals shooting for pleasure. Theirs is no worse than the experience of shooting film, though the foibles of electronics inject a new element of risk. Photographers working in high-pressure contexts will not use something like this for the same reason they do not use medium format digital cameras: it is not the absolute disadvantage; it is the competitive disadvantage.

Functionality is a non-issue. Though a few perverse people will actually use the M Edition 60 to take pictures (just as one could use a silver dollar as currency), it is far from likely to be common. Leica’s replacement for the M Typ 240/M-P will undoubtedly have more technology, not less, and the superb industrial design of the „M Edition 60” will become a footnote like the M9 Titanium designed by Porsche or the M6J. Features of these special models may reappear (just as the high-magnification finder of the M6J and the LED-lit framelines of the M9 Titanium), but the whole package will not. The terrorists have not won; we can go back to screens and JPGs and video.

Leica, ultimately, wins here. It does not win on profit – a product in this low of a run barely pays for its own tooling. It wins in media exposure. Google “M Edition 60” and you will see that this device has put Leica on Engadget, DPReview, Wired, Forbes, CNET, and Petapixel. This puts the Leica line in front of a lot of people who previously did not know what Leica is – and more importantly, it puts the Leica brand in front of many people with disposable income. Not only does this represent a lot of free advertising for a niche brand, it is also likely aimed at selling more $7,000 M Typ 240s to people who don’t have $20,000 to drop on an M Edition 60 package.

Well played, Leica.

Cameras, proles and animals are free

25444_D700_front

On paper, digital photo equipment goes down in value very quickly. Whether it’s devaluation or the more accounting-oriented depreciation, a camera will drop in secondary market (used) value over time. But what does it really cost to own one?

When you consider a pro-level camera that costs $5,000 (and that is not the subject to a waiting list to buy), you can assume that it will lose about 1/3 of its value when it’s opened. But on average, it will down in dollar value (on the private secondary market) an average of $1,000 per year for its ownership period (2-5 years). That’s just under $2.74 per day. You can’t rent a camera that cheaply. You can’t even buy a Starbucks coffee for that kind of money. The only real inhibitor is having the cash flow to shell out the $5,000.*

* Financing it on a credit card would make it cost a bit more per year.

Someone (a pro, if any still exist) who can take depreciation on that camera could potentially deduct $1,000 per year from income, which at a 15% effective rate, would lead to annual tax savings making the cost of ownership per day closer to $2.33 a day. Expensing the camera would lead to a one-time tax savings.**

** Consult your tax professional, not photo websites like this one.

And for all but shelf queens, the equipment produces pictures. For pros, it is a source of income. For everyone else, it is a source of satisfaction or record keeping. It’s not fair to say that an amateur’s 10,000 frames year of digital saves that many frames of film (because someone paying for film would never shoot like that), but if the average rate on film was a roll a week, one can manage to save, in film and processing, the $1,000 per year paid for the camera. It certainly can overcome the effective spend on a less expensive model costing $2,500 (consider the Nikon D700, which four years ago sold for $2,500 new and generally sells for about $1,250 now).

All of that said, there still is a psychological blow to non-professional buyers when they see what they might perceives to be “investments” steadily losing value. Some manufacturers (like Nikon, Canon and Leica) avoid pouring salt on the wound by avoiding changes to MSRP. Others, like Fujifilm, will swing away at the primary market price (as much as 55%), thus creating an artificially low ceiling for resale.

# # # # #

Leica M typ 240 firmware 2.0.1.5: the end of the beginning

M-SYSTEM-M-DETAIL-WINDOW-TEASER_teaser-1200x470

About a week ago, Leica Camera AG finally released the most recent version of firmware for the M digital camera. This, of course, provoked many angry comments from non-Leica users about how backward Leicas are. It could be said, though that people who buy on specifications, technology, and making reasonable and difficult-to-question choices will buy something like a Lexus. People who are gunning for a different feel and are less risk-adverse might go for Jaguars.

The functional differences between a Leica M and, say, any other 24mp camera are fairly minimal. The sensors, imaging process and electronics are very similar. The big difference is in metering and focusing systems. There no way, whether by firmware or otherwise, to make a rangefinder-equipped camera emulate a DSLR with its own equally primitive mirror and phase-detect system or a mirrorless with its contrast-detect focus. And although one could always make the argument that 1,000-segment metering is very accurate, it is not the experience of this writer that it is appreciably more accurate than five segments. And that is not, in itself markedly superior to centerweighted averaging and a modicum of human intervention.

In the past, it seemed that firmware changes could only radically improve cameras that were mostly electronic, like the Fuji X series. For the M, Firmware 2.0.1.5 illustrates that the M typ 240 is much more flexible from an electronics standpoint than the M8 or M9 – and that the future of the system probably will lie in more and more adaptability through software.

The changes in this firmware can be divided into novelties, corrections, and instances where things have gone backwards a little bit.

1. Novelties: where the M pulls ahead of other cameras.

  • Digital 2-axis level: Here, the M pulls well ahead of most digital cameras. Many cameras have a one-axis digital level to account for rotation around the lens axis. Fewer have a two-dimensional sensor that can measure pitch (which is really the thing that creates converging verticals). And pretty much none manages to effectively show both in a viewfinder picture at the same time (the best Nikon could do, for example, is two strips of LEDs running on the bottom and right of the focusing screen – and a very obtrusive overlay in Live View). The M manages to draw a digital level of thin lines in the EVF, with a vernier function in the center for even more OCD precise leveling. Not unlike a Seculine Action Level Cross LED 2-axis level ($70), the M’s level also works in “portrait” orientation, which makes it more flexible and useful than your average liquid bullseye bubble level. In the picture below, the vernier adjustment (3 big pixels) allows a high degree of accuracy. You can’t see this at the same time as the variable-aspect framelines, but since most people aren’t using a digital level with 4:3 or 1×1 shooting, this isn’t an issue. In the picture below, you can see the reticle.

20140701_230905

  • Variable framelines in EVF: Many cameras can overlay different types of framelines (1×1, 4:3, 6×7, 16:9) over a normal-sized viewfinder picture. The Fuji X-Pro1, in fact, can overlay this in an optical finder. But the M is the only one that can rotate through framing guidelines without accessing a menu. You just press up (or down) on the controller pad to cycle through the choices. This is amazingly convenient when you want to see how the composition would change with various print (or web display) proportions. It also avoids the X-Pro1 problem, which is that selecting guidelines creates a RAW file in those proportions that can only be changed via subsequent in-camera JPG generation or going to Silkypix (with LR 4.4 at least, the RAF files appear as cut down). Here are the 6×7 (i.e., 8×10) framelines:

20140701_230852

  • Auto ISO focal length multipliers: The conventional rule for 35mm film is that you should use a shutter speed that is at least as fast as the reciprocal of the lens focal length. So for a 90mm lens, you would want to use 1/90 or faster.  This often leads to unsatisfying results with a 24mp digital camera, where the circle of confusion is much smaller than with 35mm film and motion blur is more apparent. The M now allows — and this seems to be unique among cameras — the use of an alternative minimum shutter speed that is 2x or 4x the focal length of the lens (which with coded lenses you must key in by hand). This is a better setup than most cameras, which allow only a fixed minimum or a vague “lens dependent” setting.

Corrections: where the M is catching up to the M8/M9 or other cameras.

  • Dual-mode EVF brightness: A user can now select between a mode where the EVF is as bright as possible (for low-light use) until a half-press of the shutter and a second mode where the EVF simulates the actual exposure all the time (leading to some interestingly dark framing). Many cameras do the first one. The second one is a little unusual.
  • Auto ISO in manual mode: Leica got this right on the M8/M9 (and it does have some relevance to TTL flash work). On those cameras, if the aperture and shutter speed did not yield a valid exposure, the camera would adjust the ISO to suit. The M typ 240, for some reason, eliminated this. The new firmware brings it back.
  • Flash ISO in Auto ISO mode: Now, when you use a flash that triggers a ready-light on the M (so the Leica SF 58 or any Nikon TTL flash) you get a choice of whether you want an arbitrary ISO or an automatic one. On the previous firmware, your only choice for flash was a reversion to the last ISO manually set. This was not easy to reset and could lead to some real surprises. On the other hand, if you could get that “manual” setting to stay at ISO 800, you could cover pretty much any flash situation.
  • Exposure compensation without the button: Apparently, many Leica users have short, stubby fingers that prevent the pressing of the front button and turning of the rear wheel simultaneously. This has been corrected so that, depending on your view, either (i) manual bracketing is easier or (ii) it is now just as easy to knock the EV compensation off center on a M as it is on other cameras. This functionality is not perfect; occasionally, the camera does not recognize that the wheel is being rotated.
  • Reduced lockups: We won’t say “eliminated” yet (let’s give it some time to burn in before declaring victory), but the use of an EVF does not seem to tax the camera as much as it did. In serveral hundred shots so afr, no lockups.
  • 50hz-compatible video: With a new video frame rate, flickering from artificial light sources supposedly has been reduced. This is helpful in Soccer Countries. Baseball Countries use 60hz. Do you think we’re joking? The USA, Canada, Japan, Korea, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Puerto Rico and Taiwan – all places where baseball is trained or farmed – use 60hz.

The Luddite terrorists have won: where the M has been pushed backward by its cantankerous arrière-garde.

  • Locking out the (M)ovie mode: Some people hated the video function on the Leica. Some people couldn’t stop pushing the button. And all of their wishes have come true because now you can wish the M button away to a cornfield. This would have been better as an assignable button, but the main thing is placating those who are eternally angry that Leica took another baby step into the 21st century.
  • Locking out Live-View: it’s really hard to say whether this is a “correction” or “terrorists have won” moment. But we needed a third item for this section, so here it is. One of the biggest nightmares about M handling (first world problems… right?) was that the easily bumped Live View button (at the top left of the buttons on the back) was easy to engage by accident (in fact, it occupies the same position as the “play” button on many cameras). It also made operations with EVF somewhat awkward, since the EVF has its own Live View button, and it is very easy to lose track of where one is between the three modes (OVF, rear screen, EVF). By locking out Live View (on the rear screen), the EVF’s button now toggles between just two modes: (i) the EVF  for shooting and playback and (ii) the OVF for shooting and rear screen for playback. This makes a lit more sense.
  • Locking out advanced metering: Advanced metering is only operative in Live View mode, and it’s not that easy to activate to begin with. But in the event that you fiddle with the menus of an M camera in your sleep, Leica has you covered. But the real problem here is that diabling this feature and disabling Live view are coupled; so in the shooting style where you want to use the OVF and the EVF (but not the rear screen), you just can’t get advanced metering.

There are other changes in this firmware (changes to ISO range, different colors for focus peaking, better lens detection, and persistent bracketing settings), but the ones discussed in detail above are going to be very compelling to M owners and will start chipping away at the resistance of the hard core of M9 enthusiasts. Well played, Leica.

Fuji X100: Into darkness with the B+W 093 filter

We have been in dark places with an infrared-converted X100. Sometimes these dark places have been in bright sunlight; it’s just that what the camera sees is another world, defined by light humans can’t see. The Marche du Nain Rouge, a parade through some of the world’s most non-gentrified areas, is an excellent place to demonstrate the capabilities of this fully operational battle station device.

The B+W 093 passes an insignificant amount of visible light and creates monochrome infrared; at this wavelength, light pretty much slices through the RGB filter array (and we have been able to test this using a beta of Accuraw Monochrome). With a converted camera, sensitivity is a couple of stops less than with visible light (and about 8 stops higher than trying to use an IR filter on an unconverted camera). We have noted this before but are noting it again: the 1/4 wave multicoating used on modern cameras is completely ineffective against flare and ghosting from infrared frequencies. This makes lens hoods important and imparts a little bit of glow to everything. It is not the hazy, slightly out-of-focus effect you get with DSLRs that can’t focus IR and older IR film. It is more the look of an old Tessar on Plus-X. That said, with no color information, there is no color-specific tonal correction or false color work.

First up: your standard foliage picture, taken just before local noon. Yawn. You know what might spice this up? A pale “art nude.” Oh wait, that’s been done like a million times already.

This is your standard 930nm foliage shot. Yawn. This would be better if it had some pale nudes in it. Wait, that's been done only one million times.

Next: dragons. Yes, large mechanical dragons that travel on wheels and belch huge orange flames. Check out the reflectivity of average winter wear. Architectural details are rendered mostly normally, though red objects show up white.

20140323_130458

And now the Nain Rouge addresses his attackers:

20140323_140000

Whose winter coats are dazzling:

 

All of this happens in the shadow of the world’s largest Masonic temple..

20140323_142215

…which is located in a neighborhood that may be completely mowed down for a new hockey stadium and entertainment zone.

20140323_142634

This is the kitty-corner, limestone.

20140323_14274620140323_142905

Up the street is the old Chinatown.

20140323_143008 20140323_143208 20140323_143220 20140323_143314 20140323_143437 20140323_143508 20140323_143553 20140323_143622 20140323_143635

Leica T: chi comanda?

leicacomp

Is that Sony’s red-bullseye movie button?

April 24th has come and gone, and Leica has once again dazzled and/or disappointed close to 100% of its owner and/or fan base. As usual, there are four faces to the old kabuki:

Felicitations. The Leica T (Typ 701) has finally satisfied the Leica-vangelists who have, for years, suffered gut-wrenching doubts about whether their ownership of a Sony NEX or a Samsung NX would damn them to spending all eternity in some fiery place. It has also cheered up the long-suffering M tribe, which was no doubt relieved to find out that the April 24 product release was not a new M body that was somehow better, had more exotic finishes, or omitted the Leica bindi. A third group wants back into the fold, but it does not want to drop $10K for an M body and lens or to suffer 1950s focusing techniques. A fourth (which may overlap the other three) has already put its orders in.

Indifference. When the dust clears, the dispassionate observer sees that Leica has again devoted millions of Euros to creating a product that, if only on the numbers, has little to differentiate it from competition running down to 1/4 the price: sixteen megapixels, arm’s-length shooting, and a baby built-in flash. Although some True Believers insist that one should keep an open mind before damning a camera like this, hundreds of thousands of people already own very close antecedents of this camera, which in 2011 was called the Sony NEX-5N. The real question for the open-minded is whether undoubted optical supremacy can overcome the handling limitations of a viewfinder-free body with contrast-detect AF.

One larger challenge is that the market today is awash with similar camera bodies, some of which have extra features like stabilized lenses (important for video), tilt screens (also good for video), electronic viewfinders (for more stability), advanced split-image focusing with legacy lenses, and fast primes right out of the box.  For functionality, it is hard to beat a Fuji XE-2; for video, the NEX/Alpha cameras reign supreme (HD video poses no challenge to APS-C lenses – it just doesn’t require very high resolution). The similarities between the Leica product and its substitutes are not just visible in the specifications: the control layout is derivative of the NEX-7 (see photo at top), and the overall design looks like a sharper-edged version of a Samsung NX200. To be fair, a mirrorless body has a set of irreducible components and a limited set of design alternatives – but Leica’s choice of a “minimalist” design is hardly unconventional in the photo industry (in fact, it lowers manufacturing costs, leading to wide adoption), and it gives the T an unintentional resemblance to low-end product.

And query whether those who already adapted M lenses to mirrorless bodies will take on a $400 M adapter that does the same thing for the T that $25 M adapters do on cheaper mirrorless bodies: cropping wide lenses and giving awkward and slow manual focus. There is a reason why manufacturers of mirrorless bodies make autofocus, electronic-aperture lenses: these systems perform best with optical and electronic systems actually designed mirrorless bodies.

Bitterness. Some M owners no doubt will grouse about the fact that every design innovation at Leica is on some kind of perverse “trickle up” design program: better strap lugs, batteries that don’t require baseplate removal, better electronic viewfinders, bigger screens, touch controls. Only things never actually trickle up due to what seems like a complete disconnect between the compact camera team and the M design team. This has been long time running; Leica’s M line has always been pitched on craftsmanship; its 4/3 and compact lines (and now APS-C lines) have been pitched on technology and design. But sadly, M cameras are not allowed to evolve, and enthusiast cameras are not allowed to succeed.

Entertainment. At the end of the day, the Leica T has one undeniable merit: it brings out the spectacle of Leica factions turning on each other: (i) M users dismissing T users as tyros, (ii) T intenders talking about the demise of M, (iii) T reviewers trying to say nice things to continue the pipeline of loaner items from Leica, (iv) old-school Leica commentators talking about change; and (v) M3 users talking about the nouveau riche. But the deeper (and possibly more interesting) question it raises is this: at what level in the Leica corporate structure are long-term strategies discussed?