Nov 162017

I glanced at the photography announcements and noticed that Leica has introduced a silver version of Leica Q.   It is just a styling change.  Aside from the cosmetics, the camera is the same.

As some of you may recall, I used Leica Q for about a year and took some of the best pictures I have ever taken with it.  More importantly, from the standpoint of user interfaces, Leica Q is the best camera I have ever used.  It also came with the best lens I have ever used.  The optical quality of that lens was just stunning.  The image sensor was a step behind the best of Sony, but very serviceable.  The lens, however, was beyond reproach.

Still, after using it for a year, I sold it.  Primary reason for that was that with my kids doing more sports, I need some more telephoto reach.  I do not need a whole lot, but I do need some.  Hence, the Q with its spectacular 28mm F/1.7 lens headed toward Ebay.

Since then, I have been looking at getting another camera, this time with an interchangeable lens and a full frame sensor.  I am picky about image quality, so the cameras I am considering are the new Nikon D850 and Sony A7R III.  Nikon has decent handling.  Sony still has ways to go.  However, the user interface on both of them is, to me, just atrocious.   It is full of long nested menus and a veritable army of re-programmable external buttons that are only used when I press them by accident.  Leica Q gave me all the control I needed with a couple of dials and a couple of buttons.   The only camera company that does something similar to Leica Q in terms of user interfaces is Fuji, so I am always keeping my eye on them as well.

While I am experiencing this “paralysis by analysis”, I decided to step back and hypothesize a little: “if I could go to a camera manufacturer and ask them for the ideal camera for my purposes, what would I ask for?”

The answer is not as obvious as it would seem up front, especially if I try to put my usual techno-snobbery aside.  While I find cameras interesting from a technology standpoint, from a photography standpoint, what I care about are image quality, responsiveness, user interface and portability.

In terms of image quality, while it can get tricky in some challenging conditions, I have to admit that I my standards are getting a little relaxed.  However, if I am dropping some serious coin for a standalone camera, it better be able to take high quality images in any lighting condition.  If I can see it with the naked eye, the camera has to be able to capture it with good detail and natural tones no mater how dark it is.

Responsiveness is quite good on most modern cameras, so it is difficult to make a choice based on this.  I consider autofocus speed and accuracy a part of the responsiveness which complicates things a bit.  However, for the range of cameras I am looking at, it is likely a wash.

User interface is where things start getting tricky since I consider most traditional camera user interfaces sub-optimal.  We are spoiled by how good the UI is on our phones and tablets.  Traditional camera companies have sorta figured out where to put the dials and buttons, but the rest of the UI is difficult for them (and it seems that Japanese camera companies are really behind the curve as far as software is concerned).  Weirdly, Leica is the only one that is embracing modern user interfaces for cameras.  Outside of that, I like how Olympus, Nikon and Pentax position their dials and shape their grips.  Canon does it a bit differently and it does not work with my hands.  Newer Panasonic cameras seem to be mimicking the way Canon does this, so they do not work for me either.  Fuji embraces the classic approach with several rotary dials and it is the most natural user interface for me outside of what Leica offers.

Portability is where things get even trickier.  I am really spoiled by always having my  phone with me and by how good, comparatively speaking, the camera in my Pixel phone is.  Since I sold my Leica Q, I have been experimenting with using an external lenses from Moment and I have to admit that in decent lighting you can get very reasonable image quality at a couple of additional focal lengths.  I mostly use the telephoto lens for portraits,


but I am generally very impressed with what can be done with the tiny camera module in the cellphone and a couple of easily pocketable Moment lenses.  I will freely admit, that the image quality is nowhere near a proper full frame camera, but my cell phone is always with me and add-on lenses help with composition.

With that in mind, what kind of a camera would I want to have in an ideal world?  Well, I would like to have the image quality of a full frame DSLR in my cell phone, but it does not look like I am going to get it just yet.

If we ever get there, computational imaging will be how it happens and the first harbinger of that is a camera called Light L16.  It has a cellphone form factor and it takes pictures via 16 cell phone style camera modules of varying focal lengths, from 28mm to 150mm.  Those images are fused together in software.  I will not go into too much detail, but fundamentally, they get to have a cellphone formfactor by using a bunch of small imagers instead of one large one.  Stitching all this data together is not straightforward, but the results are promising.  It took all my willpower to abstain from pre-ordering one, but I am still on the fence.  On one hand, I do not like to be an early adopter.  On the other hand, it is already lookign kinda decent and will likely get much better with firmware.  Most critically, carrying this device with you is kinda like having a second smartphone.  That means I can have it with me almost all the time.

As far as traditional cameras go, I would really like to see something like “Leica Q Duo” with a more modern image sensor and dual focal length lens.  With the amount of cropping you can do with today’s 40+ megapixel sensors, I am do not really need a continuous zoom lens with all its complexity.  A lens with a built in doubler would be perfectly sufficient and would probably be much easier to optimize, since there are only two focal lengths to worry about.  For example, if I could get a camera with the user interface and overall image quality of Leica Q, except with a lens that switches between 28mm f/1.7 and 56mm f/2.5, I would be overjoyed and it would be sufficient for almost everything I do.

I do not think I am going to see something like that out any time soon, so I will occupy myself with keeping tabs on how Light L16 does in the field.  Perhaps, computational imaging has truly arrived.

 Posted by at 12:19 am