miércoles, 21 de octubre de 2015

Leica SL 24 x 36 mm: A Turning Point in the Evolution of Professional Photographic Cameras and Lenses in the Digital Era

The presentation of its new 24 x 36 mm mirrorless full frame Leica SL (Typ 601) by Leica makes up a hugely significant event, which is going to greatly mark the future evolution of digital professional cameras and their lenses.

And it is due to some very important factors:

a) It´s a mirrorless professional camera featuring a full frame 24 x 36 mm CMOS sensor and EVF, which adds to the far-reaching trend historically started by Sony with its excellent Sony A7 24.3 MP, Sony A7 II 24.3 MP, Sony A7R 26.8 MP and Sony A7R2 42.4 megapixels.

Therefore, such a future bias towards the design and production of mirrorless full frame cameras with electronic viewfinders is very strengthened by the launching into market of the Leica SL by the German firm and the enormous influence it can exert in the short and medium term as to the photographic industry.

b) Leica increases in a highly meaningful way the speed, accuracy and global performance of its AF, definitely embracing the automatic focusing technology in a camera with interchangeable lenses that it began in 2014 with its Leica T after many deades of manufacturing of manual focusing cameras and lenses.

As a matter of fact, the full frame Leica SL reaches 11 fps in RAW with an exceedingly fast AF that the Wetzlar firm definesd as the quickest in the world in the scope of full frame cameras, though in my opinion it is something that will have to be verified, since this is a sphere in which there are full frame cameras boasting extraordinary quickness and accuracy of AF, as the Nikon D750 with its last generation module Multi-CAM 3500 FX II in sinergy with the dsp EXPEED 4 (which is for practical purposes an optimized version of the also extraordinary and proven 51 points AF system of its high end profesional bodies like the Nikon D4S able to reach 11 fps with its AF dynamic area of 9, 21 and 51 points complemented by its 3D Mode focusing tracking AF), with ther added benefit of a -3 EV added sensibility enabling a superb performance in dim or very low light contexts, and even with tele lenses coupled to 1.4x, 1.7x and 2x converters; or the Canon EOS-1DX with its excellent 61 point AF which is able to reach 12 fps with a great speed and accuracy of AF even in very low light environments.

Nevertheless, evidence clearly suggest that the Leica SL AF system sports impressive speed and accuracy, probably comparable to the Hybrid Dual AF System of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Micro Four Thirds camera — world benchmark regarding quickness and precision of AF with static and slow movement subjects, and featuring a very good predicitive AF — and sporting an exceedingly accurate tracking AF for sports or quickly moving fauna.

This would mean with little room for doubt that the Leica SL is by far the full frame mirrorless camera with fastest autofocus among all the ones currently in existence in the photographic market, particularly under conditions of low or very low luminosity, where the huge quickness and exactness of its AF are really praiseworthy.

But irrespective of which is presently the professional full frame mirrorless camera featuring the fastest AF on earth, in my opinion, what´s truly important is the fact that the Leica SL is able to compete in AF speed and accuracy as well as in a very high rate of RAW consecutive shots — greatly thanks to its new Maestro II dsp boasting a tremendous calculating capacity — with high end professional cameras of very consolidated firms in this side like Canon or Nikon, without forgetting that a key factor when it comes to making action photography is to use the fastest feasible memory cards, which will make a difference on emptying the buffer between bursts in RAW mode.

c) An extraordinary 4.4 megapixel electronic viewfinder, far superior to every EVF available in the scope of professional mirrorless cameras, with a very fast refresh rate of 60 fps, great size and huge resolution, o.8x magnification, exceptional sharpness and barely lag between pressing of the shutter release button and image.

This is one of the stronget traits of the new Leica SL, and with it is born a dream beginning to be true: the development within the professional photographic field of EVFs displaying an image quality and viewing comfort  approaching as much as possible to legendary optical viewfinders of 35 mm format analog reflex cameras like the Leicas R8 and R9, Olympus OM-1 and OM-2 or analog medium format ones like the Pentax 645.

This superb EVF of the Leica Sl, called EyeRes, is a milestone in the sphere of professional digital cameras, means the introduction in the civil photographic domain of a technology which was firstly used in the military scope in early nineties and will probably give rise to the reaction of the largest firms of the sector, who will strive after improving this aspect of their cameras as soon as possible, which will benefit the users, who will have available a wide assortment of EVFs featuring a mind-boggling performance deemed to be unimaginable only five years ago.

d) The adoption by the Leica SL of the same mount as the Leica T, which undoubtedly proves that aside from its superb design, the Leica T has been, is and will go on being an influential camera in the future of digital photography and it isn´t a mere whim at all, but an utterly professional camera featuring a very beautiful timeless design and a new and fairly versatile with big diameter T mount, which makes up the greatest achievement in this aspect by Leica since the patent of Leica M bayonet mount for interchangeable lenses developed by Hugo Wehrenfenning in Wetzlar in 1950, along with the first prottypes of Leica M lenses.

In the same way as the design of the M bayonet mount by Wehrenfenning enabled the Leica M3 and subsequent both analog and digital models a stunning versatility, making it able to hold not only M series lenses, but also M39 screw ones through a reduction in 1 mm of the flange distance, using adapters,

the bayonet mount of the Leica SL — which is the same as the Leica T, the only difference being that it features a 24 x 36 mm sensor — will make possible the coupling of not only the new AF lenses announced (Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90 mm f/2.8-4 ASPH, Apo-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280 mm f/2.8-4 ASPH and Summilux-SL 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH) and the Leica M lenses — whose 6-bit coding preserves all functions such as exposure metering, aperture priority and manual choice — , but also the superb Leica R lenses — thanks to the Leica R-Adapter L — , with the added possibility of connecting the camera to the Leica Summicron-C and Leica Summilux-C by means of a specific PL-SL adapter.

e) The constructive qualitative level is extraordinary, because the Leica SL is manufactured with state-of-the-art CNC machines from a solid aluminium block which is milled with amazing accuracy.

This provides the camera body with a great sturdiness and resilience even under the hardest working conditions.

f) It features a very efficient sealing to prevent dust, drops of water and dirtiness entering the camera, complemented by an advanced system of sensor self cleaning through ultrasounds.

g) It records 4K UHD Video at 30 fps and mp4 at 120 fps. If the Leica T already records very high quality Full HD Video — specially with the Summicron-T 23 mm f/2 ASPH and the ultraluminous Leica M lenses coupled through the T-M adaptor — , the chance of recording 4K UHD Video of the Leica SL in sinergy with the Leica T-L objectives and the Leica R ones is a very significant qualitative leap in this regard.

h) 24 megapixel CMOS sensor. This has been for many one of the biggest surprises, before the presence in the market of professional full frame cameras sporting 50 megapixel sensors like the Canon EOS 5DS and EOS 5DSR or 42 megapixel ones like the Sony A7RII.

But it has got an explanation, since there is still abundant confusion, lack of rigour and misunderstanding related to the concept of image quality, which encompasses a number of important factors, not only the sensor resolution.

It has brought about the belief by some persons that the bigger the number of megapixels featured by a camera sensor, the better will be the image quality obtained, which is not true.

There are other very important and decisive factors as to image quality to be considered: dynamic range, acutance, optical quality of the coupled lenses and sinergy of their optical formula with the digital sensor and the image dsp, the contrast, the faithful capture of atmospheres, the viewing distance, the size images will be printed, etc.

Some year ago, Carl Merkin, a professional photographer featuring a lot of decades of experienced and who has worked with cameras of very different formats (4 x 5 large format, 8 x 10 large format, medium format Hasselblad 2 1/4 x 2 1/4, 24 x 36 mm format and others) commented me with great conviction after getting a picture of a praying mantis with a 5 megapixel camera sporting a very good lens, that the quantity of megapixels isn´t at all the decisive factor when it comes to obtaining the best possible image quality with a digital camera, because the most crucial aspect is the optical quality of the coupled lens. 

Sincerely, I do believe that he was and goes on being right, without forgetting the also apparent significance of the sensor quality and the image dsp.

Leica has got nowadays world class experts on digital image like Maike Harberts, Jesko von Oeynhausen, Markus Limberger and others, but the Wetzlar firm also confers a lot of weightiness to photography in paper as an entity of haptic nature and to the feedback of professional photographers, beyond MTF curves of the lenses, the megapixels of the sensor or the image on a computer screen.
This emphasis in the haptic concept of photography at its highest level has remained intact both in XX and XXI centuries, with noteworthy examples like Eugene Smith´s Pittsburgh exhibition or Genesis by Sebastiao Salgado.

A 24 x 36 mm sensor featuring 24 megapixels can give more quality than a 50 megapixels one — much more difficult to interact with the lenses to be able to get excellent results — .
And 24 megapixels are more than enough for any professional or advanced photographer in vast majority of photographic assignments of the most varied nature that don´t need bigger than 1 meter enlargements on paper.

On the other hand, an APS-C sensor can also get better image quality than a full frame sensor. It will depend on many factors. 

In this respect, what Fuji has attained with cameras like the Fuji XT-1 featuring " only " 16 megapixels with its Xtrans II sensor and EXR II dsp is commendable, since it can often beat (thanks to its special architecture and the full integration of lens, sensor and image dsp in symbiosis with the technology of lens modulation optimization) some cameras from different brands sporting full frame sensors in image quality in paper sizes up to 50 x 70 cm and even larger.

Whatever it may be, I´ve got the firm conviction that the Wetzlar firm has chosen the most suitable and balanced sensor resolution  for the Leica SL to get a maximum sinergy with its lenses and Maestro II image dsp, so the Leica SL will render an exceptional image quality, typical of medium format, with impressive resolution and contrast at every diaphragm and focusing distance, but above all with a very wide tonal range that will turn it into one of the benchmarks of his kind of cameras or more probably into its flagship, as well as being fostered by the fact that in spite of its CMOS sensor featuring "only" 24 megapixels, it has been designed and made under very stringent Leica specifications, without low pass filter and specially with a painstakingly studied pixel architecture optimizing to the utmost that the biggest quantity of possible light incides on each photodiode, so noiseless images are obtained even under the dimmest luminic conditions, along with a spectacular dynamic range, a top-notch contrast and exceptional values of sharpness and capturing of detail.

This means to reach an extraordinary level of luminic uniformity with superb optical performance in center, borders and corners of the image in the professional mirrorless full frame without rangefinder scope and the evolutive apex applied to a mirrorless 24 x 36 mm format camera with EVF of the concept started by Hugo Wehrenfenning when in 1948 conceived the M mount bayonet of four components of the 1954 mirrorless with rangefinder Leica M3, whose design enabled that the maximum quantity of light coming from the optical system of each lens reached the image corners.

i) The present existence of two lines of high-end professional full frame cameras (the dslr one featuring optical viewfinders and embodied by the Nikon D4, D4S, D750, Canon EOS 5d Mark III, Canon EOS 6D, Canon EOS-1D X, Canon EOS 5DS, Canon EOS 5DSR, to which must be added the recently announced full frame Pentax; and the mirrorless full frame one sporting EVFs and represented by the Sony A7, Sony A7 II, Sony A7R and Sony A7R2, along with the just introduced Leica SL) clearly indicate a more than probable opting of the professional sector of professional photographic digital cameras and their lenses for the 24 x 36 mm format, without meaning any underestimation regarding the rest of formats (APS-C, Micro 4/3, etc), which have generated excellent cameras having pioneered a number of breakthrough technologies and will go on providing remarkable interest to the photographic industry.

As a matter of fact, full-fledged technological tours de force like the APS-C format Fuji XT-1, APS-C format Fuji X-pro 1, APS-C format Samsung NX1, Micro 4/3 format Olympus OM-D E-M5 II, Micro 4/3 format Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 4K, Micro 4/3 format Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7KS 4K, Micro 4/3 format Panasonic GX-8 Micro 4/3 and other ones are undoubtedly excellent products with a very good quality/price ratio, and it´s very interesting and important that cameras with different philosophies, dimensions, weights and sensor sizes coexist in the market.

But I do sincerely believe that reality is that the advantages provided by the big 24 x 36 mm sensors are too significant as to image quality in a number of sides (specially in level of detail, dynamic range, lack of noise at high isos, together with a superior control of the depth of field and creative possibilities with out of focus backgrounds) to be dodged, and if the sinergy between the full frame sensors of professional full frame digital cameras — whether they are reflex ones with optical viewfinders or mirrorless with electronic viewfinders — with their top-notch quality lenses and their image dsps are the suitable, they are unmatched, in addition to the fact that the APS-C format and Micro 4/3 format cameras heve been delivering for some years an image quality inherent to the 35 mm of the analog era, while the 24 x 36 mm full frame ones get an image quality pertaining to the medium format realm, with the immense possibilities it brings about.

Nikon, Canon, Sony, Leica and Pentax are five very important and firmly rooted brands of the digital market that have bet very strongly on the 24 x 36 mm format, a standard which exerted a huge influence within the photographic industry during XX Century and whose amazingly continuity and prominence — because of a number of factors which go far beyond the photographic scope and are related with the 2:3 golden ratio — almost unnaltered throughout XXI Century, confirms once more the greatness of a genius and visionary named Oskar Barnack, creator of the Ur-Leica from 1914 and its 24 x 36 mm format.

j) The size of the Leica SL is big, with 147 x 104 x 39 mm dimensions and a weight of 900 g, clearly larger and heavier than the Sony A7, A7R and A7RII, the Leica M Typ 240 (139 x 80 x 42 mm and 680 g) and any 24 x 36 mm Leica M camera.

This is another of the factors which has raised a certain surprise, since many had been waiting for a kind of Leica Q with interchangeable lenses or a camera featuring so exceedingly reduced dimensions like the Sony A7, A7R and A7RII, and the Leica SL is really a sort of little Leica S with a slightly smaller than a Canon EOS DS or DRS size.

But it has got an explanation, which results from four main reasons:

1) Leica has wanted to greatly follow the philosophy of its 35 mm format analog reflex cameras, which — though some of them were really superb like the Leica R6.2, the Leica R8 and Leica R9 — mainly due to the lack of autofocus, couldn´t compete in the market with the top-of-the-line 35 mm format cameras from Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Olympus, who also offered a very difficult to beat quality/price ratio.

2) When it comes to conceive a 24 x 36 mm format mirrorless camera with EVF like the Leica SL, there isn´t an intrinsec need of maximum feasible miniaturization of both camera and lenses as happens with the line of Leica M cameras, whose objectives feature not only great luminosity, but very short length, exceedingly light weight and a fairly reduced lens front diameter to get as much compacity and transport convenience as possible — apart from the fact that it is necessary to prevent the lenses from interfering with the viewfinder featuring a coupled rangefinder — .

Albeit as a consequence of the inevitable media stress and enormous speed ruling a lot of contexts, some persons have proclaimed that the Leica SL is nothing short of a copy of the Sony A7, A7R and A7RII and even some of them suggest alleged disputes between Leica and Sony, in my opinion, there´s nothing further from the truth.

To begin with, the Sony A7 (416 g), A7R (465 g) and A7RII (625 g) and 126.9 x 94.4 x 48.2 mm are much smaller and lighter than the Leica SL (147 x 104 x 39 mm and a weight of 900 g).

On the other hand, the body of the Sony A7, A7R and A7RII is made with magnesium alloy, a good material of more than enough quality for those three excellent 35 mm EVF mirrorless cameras, but the Leica SL is manufactured in aluminium unibody, a far superior quality material than magnesium alloys, and it largely ensures a huge resistance to the hardest professional use for many years, but the unit by unit milling with several mostly handcrafted stages through state-of-the-art CNC machines increases substantially the production cost. 

3) The Sony A7, A7R and A7RII are extraordinary cameras featuring first rate sensors able to deliver very good image quality at stratospheric sensibilities, a field in which the Japanese giant, one of the world benchmarks in electronics and probably the flagship within that sphere, is virtually unbeatable.

Moreover, they are highly capable cameras in contexts in which it´s not necessary high speed or tracking of moving subjects and in low and very low luminic environments, thanks to the stunningly operative isos they can rerach and their exceptional 24 x 36 mm sensors, and in my viewpoint, it is with the last generation aspherical Leica M lenses (above all the Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH - 335 g, 52.3 x 53.5 mm- , Summicron-M 35 mm f/1.4 ASPH, Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 ASPH and Summicron-M 28 mm f/2 ASPH), the Summicron-M 28 mm f/2 ASPH), the Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Versions 4 and 5 (Double Gauss benchmark without aspherics, fabulous degree of miniaturization with 43.5 x 53 mm and 240 g which renders impressive results with the Sony A/R and A7II), the Asahi Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50 mm f/1.4 from 1971 and Asahi SMC takumar 50 mm f/1.4 from 1972 (featuring 7 elements in 6 groups and 8 diaphragm blades with very nice bokeh, both of them also sporting very small dimensions and an exceedingly light weight of 250 g) coupled by means of adaptor, and to less extent with other excellent lenses like the Carl Zeiss Sonnar FE 55 mm f/1.8 ZA, with which they reach not only the greatest levels in image quality but also their maximum compacity and authentic ultraluminous lenses / camera body symbiosis, while the synergy is much lesser with other lenses, both regarding image quality and balance of size of the camera body / lens tandem.

Therefore, in my viewpoint, Leica doesn´t dislike at all the presence of superb EVF mirrorless full frame Sony cameras in the photographic market, because both firms can mutually benefit from the active and passive interactions in sales between a Japanese giant of electronics and the Wetzlar firm which keeps on being the opto/mechanical qualitative yardstick in design and production of photographic lenses.

As a matter of fact, since November 2013 when units of the Sony A7 and A7R cameras began to be sold, many professional photographers from all over the world craving for obtaining the maximum image quality possible, have been using them coupled to lenses like the Summicron-M 28 mm f/2 ASPH, Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 ASPH, Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4 ASPH, Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH, Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 non aspherical, Apo-Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 ASPH, etc.
4) Although the Leica SL enhances even more the future trend of professional EVF full frame mirrorless cameras started by Sony in 2013 with the Sony A7 and A7R and confirmed by its launching into market of the Sony AR7II in 2015, the Leica SL follows a completely different path to the praiseworthy miniaturization of those Sony cameras, offering a camera and zoom lenses featuring bigger dimensions, not excessive whatsoever, but evidently larger than usual in the scope of EVF mirrorless cameras.

And it stems from a fundamental reason: however incredible it may seem, the Leica SL doesn´t try to compete with the Sony A7, A7R and A7R II.

The Leica SL raison d´être is based on a core aspect: the speed, and it tries to compete on equal terms with the dslr Canon and Nikon full frame flagships as an all-around performer in AF quickness, rate of bursts in RAW mode, focusing accuracy and fulfillment of photographic assignments not only in controlled contexts like studio, fashion, architecture, etc, but also in sports and fast moving fauna, something which had been hitherto out of the possibilities of the EVF mirrorless full frame cameras.

k) Leica bets very strongly not only on its 24 x 36 m format mirrorless EVF camera sporting a speed of global response, AF quickness and precision and RAW bursts far superior to everything existing in this scope, but also on its two announced zooms: the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90 mm f/2.8-4 ASPH boasting the most awesome optical formula made until now with a professional standard zoom: nothing less than 18 elements — of which four are aspherical ones and eleven are made with special partial anomalous dispersion glasses for the correction of chromatic aberrations — in 6 moving groups.

The MTF curves of this really dreaming zoom leave no room for doubt: it is the variable focal length lens deleivering the highest image quality in resolution and contrast manufactured in the world till now, with an awesome resolution and contrast in center, borders and corners, at every diaphragm and focusing distance.

On its turn, the Leica Apo-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280 mm f/2.8-4 promises to likewise be fabulous, with an also exceedingly defining optical scheme: 23 elements — seven of them manufactured with partial anomalous dispersion glass to minimize chromatic aberrations — in seven moving groups.
This way, for the first time in a professional 24 x 36 mm digital professional camera, it has been possible to cover the focal range between 24 mm and 280 mm through the design and production of the two mentioned extraordinary professional zooms, getting an image quality comparable to the cream of the crop of primes in every single focal length they encompass: 24 mm, 28 mm, 35 mm, 50 mm, 75 mm, 90 mm, 100 mm, 135 mm, 180 mm, 200 mm, 250 mm and 280 mm.

José Manuel Serrano Esparza