Canon EOS 5D: a camera in transition
Introduction: the true function of camera reviews
Thanks to the internet we have now camera reviews in three flavours. We have the personal impressions on individual sites, we have the comparisons in features and results in dpreview-style and we have the number fetishism, based on the idea that what can be measured must be relevant and summarized in a merit figure. The feature comparisons assume that the camera with the most features wins and the number crunching approach assumes that a calculated merit figure of 54.2 represents a better camera than one that gets a mere 53.7. These flavours are popular because it is very difficult to make a good choice in the current proliferation of camera models. It is indeed reassuring to know that thousands of personal websites favour camera model A or that camera model B has the most features with the most advanced specifications. Then we cannot be wrong in our choice, can we?
We find an extreme example of this approach is the message from a person in one of the usergroups who on one occasion had a Leica around his neck and was very proud that his camera was spotted by a number of photographers all working with DSLR's. This is an example of what has been classically described as conspicuous consumption. You own products to show status or to indicate that you belong to a group.
I do not object to this attitude as we are all free do buy whatever we can afford and with whatever arguments we motivate this act.
The danger of the types of reviews described above is however a strong growth in dogmatism: a camera with a top shutter speed of 1/1000 cannot be counted as 'professional' because other models boast a speed of 1/8000; a lens with a maximum aperture of f/4 cannot be mounted on a Leica M because that camera is stigmatized as an available light tool and then by necessity you need an aperture of f/1; a camera with a sensor of 5Mb (example E-1) cannot be serious because most models now have at least 8 Mb and so on.
The camera reviews of Geoffrey Crawley are famous because he refused to jump on that bandwagon and treated every camera as a separate entity that has to be evaluated on its own specifications. He approaches a camera review as a character study and that a camera has a personality that should be described as accurately as possible. In that way a prospective buyer could relate the camera to the photographic needs and goals and choose a camera based on that reflection. A camera after all is a tool for producing photographs of whatever content and style.
There is another dimension on which to categorize camera models and that is popular among many journalists. One could rank cameras in a continuum starting with amateur models, then prosumer models, then advanced amateurs, semi-professionals and finally the ultimate professional camera. This is a very popular classification, because buying a camera designated as professional implies professional aspirations and capabilities. This classification is not a good one.
When does a camera carry the designation of 'professional'?
We have to realize that in the period 1930 to 1980 a professional photographer was not the cult figure of the fashion photographer or the photo reporter but the applied photographer in the scientific, medical and reproduction professions. For these people a system camera with interchangeable backs, finders and screens was important as the demands of the profession were related to an universal deployment in several fields. The F-1 was designed to be as flexible as possible and also was geared to withstand heavy-duty usage. Reliability, durability and accuracy were the buzzwords to characterize a professional camera, in addition to a system approach to components and accessories. The Leica system was of course the role model for this approach, but its system of components was quite cumbersome, but of undeniable engineering beauty.
Cameras were customary designed for two types of users: reportage and candid work and scientific and applied photography. The Pentax as a generic type appealed to the reportage style of photography, where the Contarex excelled in the scientific field. The Nikon F was a reportage type camera with a strong hold in the applied photographic market and the Canon F-1 was a camera that covered both types equally well, but lacked the imago of the Nikon as a role model. In this context a professional camera is one that has the characteristics and design elements to operate in the professional reportage and applied photography for a long period of time.
This description is the classical one and was useful when photographers were employed in a wide field of professional activities and when cameras were seen as instruments that were required to operate during a long period of time without service intervals.
But there is a second definition that is equally valuable.
Professionals need an instrument to earn their living and they choose accordingly, with the sole purpose of selling pictures that are demanded in the market. When a well-known fashion photographer adopts a camera phone as his tool for getting the images he wants, that humble cell phone is a professional tool. And when current art photographers use wooden cameras to create pictures based on old emulsion techniques, these cameras are professional tools.
Given the confusion what constitutes a camera that may be designated as 'professional' I am wary of using that word. I would stay on the safe side and describe the mechanical characteristics of a camera and leave it to others to judge. The current Leica cameras are engineered to withstand long-term (ab)use by photographers, but many Leica cameras are handled with silken gloves by amateurs and collectors. Actual use and inherent characteristics dare not always in synchronization. Or to refer to examples from the not so distant past: the Canon FT and the Nikon Nikkormat were designated as amateur products, but were used by many professionals.
Cameras can be best positioned within two dimensions.
A simple classification of cameras can be based on the aspects of reliability, durability and accuracy and will generate a three-tier classification in grades, from low-grade to highest-grade models. In the car industry we have an analogous classification in A, B and C models, A being used for small compact cars and C being used for the big limousines. A Leica M, a Nikon F6 or a Canon 1Ds are undoubtedly high grade cameras with respect to durability, longevity and accuracy. And it may be that users with heavy-duty demands prefer these models, but that is irrelevant for the classification.
The other dimension is based on user intentions: a person can buy a camera for money earning purposes or for pleasure-seeking purposes (the true meaning of the word 'amateur'). Money earning photographers choose whatever tool is right for the job, even if that happens to be a camera phone or a wooden field camera.
Pleasure-seeking photographers (including art photographers) select a camera that gives them enjoyment whatever the grade of the camera. A Canon EOS 30 can be as joyful to own or use as a Leica MP 3 or an E-1.
The Canon camera line.
The EOS film-based line can be grouped in the three-tier level identified above: the 1 and 3 are the top-grade cameras with durable and weatherproof bodies. Then we have the 5 and 30 models that offer high-grade accuracy and features in a body that is less durable in its engineering. At the bottom we have the 300 and 3000 type of bodies that are mass-produced for low cost.
The EOS DSLR line follows the same grouping: the top-grade camera is the 1 series, then we have the high-grade models 5D and 30D and differing mainly in the sensor size and at the bottom we have the 300D/350D.
The anomaly here as in the film-based line is the '5'. It would be logical to have one-digit designation for the high-grade cameras, two-digit designation for the not so heavy-duty bodies and a three-digit notation for the mass-market bodies. The original EOS 5 for film-loading was also in the second-tier. It shared components with the high-grade 3 and 1 bodies, but the use of plastic film guide rails put it definitely in the lower-grade class. Also the incorporation of the on-board flashgun characterized the camera as second-tier. The EOS 5 had eye-control and the focus points could be coupled to the partial spot metering, elevating its status. These aspects are lacking in the 5D, presumably because the processing power had to be dedicated to the Digic-II programs and because exposure metering is good enough. The EOS 5 had dimensions of 154 x 120.5 x 74.2 mm and a weight of 665 gr. The EOS 5D has dimensions of 152 x 113 x 75mm and a weight of 810 gr. Finder accuracy of the 5D is 96% (close to the EOS 3) and better than the EOS 5 (93%).
It is evident that Canon is a master of the Lego system of component mixing and can fine-tune a camera to whatever specifications, price level and user group the model should appeal.
While the 5D feels and handles like a second-tier camera, the quality of the images is first rate and after taking more than 10.000 pictures over a period of less than half a year, the camera did not fail once. The shutter is good for 150.000 cycles and thus will still function reliable after 5 years of this use. Then the camera is surely ripe for retirement.
Milestone or icon or both?
The EOS 5D can than be classified as a high-grade camera with a range of specifications and features that appeals to pleasure-seeking and money-earning photographers. It is a highly functional camera with lost of cleverly thought-out features, but also with an annoying range of quirks. Every manufacturer wishes to produce a camera that gains cult status, like the Apple iPod or the Sony Walkman. Such iconic products are scarce, but they are needed because of brand recognition. Sony, nor Panasonic, nor Samsung really need Zeiss, Leica or Schneider to improve their products, but these brand names add status to the products of the electronic giants, thus producing a kind of semi-iconic products.
An iconic product is a product that reshapes the entire industry and serves as an icon for a generation. A milestone on the other hand is a product that marks a significant point in development. Staying within the realm of photography, we might point to the Canon new F-1 as a milestone camera because it represents the highest possible functionality and flexibility in a mechanical precision 35mm camera. The original Nikon F on the other hand quickly gained cult-status and became an icon for its generation. The Leica M3 has the unique property of being a milestone and an icon, because it represented the highest quality of mechanical engineering and its rangefinder concept allowed it to become the preferred tool for a whole new style of photography. So strong is this combination that the Leica Company still thrives on that status, although it is now wearing a bit thin.
The Canon EOS 5D is to say the least a watershed model, as it brings traditional 35mm photography seamlessly into the realm of solid-state image capture.
I use the 5D in combination with my Leica MP 3 and I do not experience any troubles in moving from one to the other. The size of the finder image is familiar as are the dimensions and proportions, I have the same perspective and magnification when using lenses with the same focal length, depth of field gradients are identical when using the same apertures and so on. The main reason for me to switch from E-1 to 5D (with a small interlude with the 20D) is this common heritage. The E-1 functions in the same league as the EOS 5D, but you have to cross a mental bridge when looking at the small finder and the 4/3 dimensions, switching from the Leica camera.
To get a better feeling for the position of the 5D in the current photographic landscape, let us briefly review some camera history.
The solid-state revolution
The current digital capture technology has its roots in the development of the picture tube in the domain of the television techniques that evolved around 1950 of the previous century. Already in 1952 technical books described the necessary techniques and theories. Basically a television camera consists of a lens that produces a radiant image having specified values of radiant flux, detail and perspective. The next step is the translation of the radiant energy falling on the photosensitive plate into a corresponding distribution of the electrical charge. The physical basis of this translation is the photoelectric effect, well known to photographers who once worked with handheld exposure meters of the selenium-cell type.
The camera generates voltages proportional to the lights and shadows of the scenes before it. The picture tube (cathode ray tube) multiplies the photoelectric current for easier amplification, but this also increases the signal-to-noise ratio.
This reads almost as a description of the current CCD or CMOS sensor technology. Indeed is the picture tube only one of several types of imaging detectors, or even more general, signal detectors. Image tubes and charged-coupled devices are all solid-state sensors designed for optical input. The photographic film is another type of imaging detector.
The television engineers of that period used the picture quality of the then popular 8mm movie cameras as the reference point. Television pictures on the screen should offer the same quality as the familiar 8mm picture screens.
As a sideline it is interesting to note that a new technique always uses the established technique as a reference point. Barnack developed the Leica format to compete with the popular 6x9cm prints of the day. His Leica camera should produce picture quality that was as good as that of a direct contact print of a medium format camera.
The Olympus engineers who developed the 4/3 system used the quality of the 35mm frame as their reference. The 4/3 size with the original 5 Mb sensor area of the E-1 is indeed able to compete with the quality offered by current 35mm emulsions. It is amazing that a 5 MB sensor can deliver the same image quality as a film emulsion with a theoretical pixel count of 35 Mb. The secret is of course the degradation effects of the magnification of the emulsion-based picture and the amplification effects of the solid-state picture.
The Canon EOS 5D has a sensor area that is identical to that of the 35mm film negative, but offers medium format quality. That is the wolf in sheep's cloth aspect of the 5D. Now photographers accustomed to the speed and facilities of the classical 35mm camera can deliver medium format quality at much lower cost and with much greater ease.
The image sensor as we know it, has been invented in 1964 and has been employed since then widely in camcorders, video and broadcasting systems.
The CCD sensors had sizes that are comparable to what was used in the picture tube domain, demonstrating the close relationship between sensors and television systems. Not only the size is related to television technology, but also the active area has often the same aspect ratio (4:3). Again Olympus tried to depart from traditional sizes by adopting this 4/3 format for its professional photographic camera. The classical 2:3 format of the Barnack negative area is related to the Golden Rule Standard, but to get a good composition within the 2:3 format is not easy. Photographers are used to the format and here we see another characteristic of the EOS 5D that may be significant in rating this camera: its sensor area allows for seamless transmigration form film based photography to solid-state sensor photography. Even the classical depth of field rules hold and selective focus with high-speed lenses can be done as usual. CCD image sensors employed formats from 1 inch to _ inch and it may be said quite safely that these small formats of Minox dimensions delivered good quality for the ubiquitous 10x15cm print format (remember the Barnack claim?), but could not compete with the excellent quality of photographic film that allowed high definition imagery up to A3 format.
Some users complain that the smooth grainless representation of current solid-state imagery is too flat and lifeless to give the impression of realistic images, but we should not forget that the quest for grainless imagery is one of the goals of the emulsion technologists and the current ISO100 films do indeed offer grain-free pictures up to A4 and slightly larger from 35mm negatives.
One aspect is undoubtedly true: the 3-D effect of classical baryta prints is lost in digital prints and it is still puzzling what is the real reason for this.
The development of manufacturing technology.
Around 1950 (when television engineers laid the foundations for the current digital revolution), Leitz and Canon had a product line that was closely comparable. Both focussed on the CRF miniature and precision camera, that was then in its golden age. The Leica III-series and the Canon Models III en IV were competing products and many, including myself, would rate the Canon products as being of higher quality than the Leitz camera. (Leitz was aware of this fact and countered in 1953 with the redoubtable M3). Canon evolved the CRF line into the Canon 7S, but terminated production in September 1968, producing 150.000 units of the 7 and 7S.
The great success of the Pentax and Nikon SLR and its own reflecting spurred the Canon engineers to develop their own version of the SLR and to abandon the CRF as having a too limited flexibility and development potential for the demands of future photographers.
The Canon FT series of SLR cameras established the Canon company as one of the main manufacturers of mainstream cameras. It took Canon some time to enter the more prestigious professional market, but the F-1 (around 1970) signalled the Canon dedication to become a world leader.
The F-1 was a fully mechanical camera with the incorporation of some electrical components (the exposure system). The mechanical linkages needed to offer more automation and more flexibility were too complicated to manufacture, if they could be made at all and in 1981 Canon introduced the new F-1, with a much larger proportion of electro-mechanical components. The camera represented the pinnacle of high precision camera manufacture, but signalled at the same time that is was the end of the line.
All precision cameras were made within the framework of the Leica production technique that relied on the assembly of many separate components by skilled personnel and a high proportion of manual product inspection to ensure quality control. The production capability depended on the use of more skilled workers as one worker had a limited capacity for control and assembly. Leitz could increase production only by employing more workers and in its heyday had a payroll of over 7000 persons. This craftsmanship model is a direct derivative of the production methods introduced during the Industrial Revolution. In order to expand production without employing more people and to ensure good product quality, the Japanese companies experimented with great success with the improvement of all organizational processes during manufacture to control quality, rather than concentrating on inspection as Leitz continued to do and does today. Statistical analysis of manufacturing parameters replaced the human inspection method.
Parallel to this change in production technology, the photographic community adopted widespread automation with auto focus and auto exposure and demanded camera systems that could be personalized to individual tastes and demands.
Micro chips and micro circuitry provided the necessary components and the concept of the new F-1 (providing one camera for many different groups of users) could be expanded into new directions.
The normal silhouette of the camera body was not only based on the traditional shapes, but also on the fact that metal cannot be shaped in any form without the danger of losing structural integrity. But new materials allowed the introduction of more ergonomic designs and the new F-1 was accompanied by the T90, a camera that pointed to the future.
Canon was quite aware of the developments in the television world (they made movie cameras and camcorders in large quantities) and where Leica looked to the past for inspiration, Canon quickly adopted the new technology to advance the concept of photography to a new height with the EOS series in 1987. The great ease with which the solid-sate sensor can be incorporated into the EOS body must be a sign that Canon, hen designing the EOS already knew that a digital image sensor would be the next step.
In 1998 the Digital EOS D2000 (in a EOS 1 body shell) was equipped with a 2MB sensor of 22.5 x 15.1 mm size in a 2:3 format. For some time Canon produced sensors with smaller (APS) sizes, but as soon as production technique made it economically feasible, the 35mm format sensor was a fact. Here again, we might see the dawn of a new era. As is known, EOS stands for Electro Optical System, but refers to the Greek goddess of the dawn, Eos too. Autofocus technology required a totally different type of internal engineering and type of lens mounts than was needed for manual focusing. One of the reasons Leica did not adopt an autofocus mechanism in the R8 was this change of internal engineering, which they could not accomplish within their engineering culture and not the often cited limits of the heavy mechanical mount.
The classical 24x36mm frame has many virtues, even when the compositional aspects are difficult to master intuitively.
It is only a question of time before the EOS 50 low-grade 24x36mm sized sensor camera (already rumoured) will appear on the market and even Nikon is said to work on a 24x36 sized sensor.
Then we have the circle squared. The change from mechanical and manual focusing cameras to the electronic and autofocus cameras occurred during 1990 till 2000 and was quite slow. The true professional camera with interchangeable finders and bulk load film magazines disappeared from the market, but high-grade 35mm cameras, not being 'professional' in the old sense of the word, were in daily use by most professional photographers. The current change from film-based cameras to solid-state sensor-based cameras is already under way and will presumably be finalized by 2010, again occupying a time span of a decade. The first change brought the working photographer the pleasures and possibilities of automation, fine ergonomics (soft feel, hand friendly style) and customization of the camera features needed. The current change will give the 35mm worker the image qualities of the medium format. The EOS 5D must get the credit for providing these capabilities at an affordable price. At least relatively speaking, because a photographer would be chocked to have to pay Euro 3000.00 for a simple camera body that just fails to be in the high-grade league as defined above.
The 5D then may be granted milestone status because it makes the 35mm frame size affordable and practical.
It fails to become an iconic product: it functions without flaw and quite efficiently, but it really lacks character. It is just too smooth and well balanced to be outstanding in any one of its characteristics. There is however one aspect that is outstanding: the image quality. Theoretically the pixel size of 8 micron allows a maximum resolution of 'only' 60 lp/mm (cycles/mm). That is not breathtaking when compared to the theoretical maximum of 120 to 140 cycles/mm on the best film/lens combination. But as I have discussed several times, resolution figures beyond 60 to 80 c/mm are not gettable in normal photographic practice. We may recall that large format cameras restrict themselves to 20 to 30 c/mm and bring stupendously good imagery, as the combination of large capture area and good contrast at medium resolution performs better than a small capture area and high resolution lens. The comparison Minox and Sinar might be serve as an example. This demonstration of the potency of the 35mm format in digital capture I,s for me at least, one of the main attraction points of the 5D. I have to confess that there is a certain amount of masochism involved. The direct comparison between the 5D pictures and Leica pictures (same subject, aperture, focal length and subject distance) show invariably the Canon supremacy. That is indeed frustrating, as the Leica equipment is top as regards optical performance and film performance (Delta100 and Velvia 100).
Some of my readers commented that there is more under the sun that definition alone and that the feeling and atmosphere of Leica pictures can offset the small loss in resolution. That is true, and I have no intention to stop taking pictures on film, but we have to admit that if medium format quality is required at A3 format prints, then the 5D does the better job. At A4 size the film-based pictures/prints can compare quite favourable with the digitally processed prints. In the past it was possible to test a film-loading camera without discussing the quality of the film itself. This aspect is now almost forgotten and testing a camera is now also assessing the capabilities of the image sensor. In that past we could assume that a camera would always be upgradeable to the best possible image quality without any additional cost. The new F-1 was not only modular it its construction and design, it had to be designed in such a way that future improvements in film technology could be used. A high level of precision was built into the camera for that reason.
The current 5D is a monolithically designed camera. It is a closed system. You accept the image performance is it is and you will never be able to upgrade without high investment. If and when an EOS 3D arrives with a 16 Mb sensor or a 1D superplus with a 22 MB sensor and I want that performance I have to buy a new camera for a substantial amount of money.
In my Leica MP and M7 I can drop every film made today and even the most sophisticated microfilms can be used.
One could argue that this is a phoney argument. The performance of the 5D is already above that of the best films one can get from a Leica camera and apart from sentimental reasons or subtle differences in image definition, there is no good reason to stay with film and therefore the flexibility of film-loading is not a major issue. Different style of photography might be cited as an additional argument for the continued use of the film and that is a good point.
Aspects of mage quality.
It is a common dogma that large size sensors have to suffer from vignetting at the corners because of the steep angle that the incoming rays of light make with the microlenses on the individual pixels. This was the main argument for Olympus to promote their E-1 camera and freshly designed lenses with telecentric characteristics. As always there is a substantial difference between theory and practice. The Canon 24-105 lens is credited with hefty vignetting at the edges ( + 3 stops) at the wide-angle settings and this is attributed to the large sensor area. So I first made a number of pictures with the 24-105 fitted on my EOS 30 film-based camera and noted that there is no vignetting to speak of. Therefore the vignetting must be generated by the sensor characteristics? Yes and no! Pictures at close range showed the darkening at the corners, but at medium distances (around 2 to 3 meter) the vignetting was largely gone. I do remember an article by Kodak stating that up to angles of 20 degrees the microlenses can cope quite well and only above 20 degrees the effect of darkening is visible. Here we may observe that it is now customary to take test pictures of test charts at quite close range, where vignetting is more visible due to the longer extension of the mount. And most lenses do not work at optimum range when used in close range. Test results should be accompanied by this type of warnings and not be presented as the last word of wisdom.
One of the claimed advantages of the solid-state sensor technology is the extended contrast range. Digital sensors are claimed to cope with a contrast range of 10 stops or more. A comparison with pictures made on slide film or bw film do not substantiate that claim. The slide film with a normal contrast range of 5 stops captured the same range of luminance as the digital camera did. And I found it most disappointing that shadow areas in the 5D pictures (even when made with ISO 100) produced a high level of noise, especially when a small amount of sharpening was involved.
One of the intriguing aspects that the camera manufactures fail to mention is the basic ISO rating of the sensor. As with film, a sensor has a basic sensitivity level and we may decide to over- or underexpose as is needed. But we have to know the base line. With the 5D camera we only know that we can expose from ISO 50 tot ISO 3200. But what is basic value? ISO 100 or ISO 400? In fact, we get bad highlights when overexposing too much. When using Raw pictures it is recommended by most experts to err on the over exposure side as the 12 bit dynamic range can cope better with over exposure than under exposure. In a sense this is true, but I had to discard a large proportion of my over exposed pictures and now I follow the time honoured rule of film-based photography: expose correctly or suffer the consequences and be aware of the basics of the Zone System. When in doubt bracket copiously! Digitally captured pictures cost nothing to save and process (except valuable time).
I know Photoshop very well since version 2.5. I even have given courses in Photoshop, but I do not like the program. To photoshop or not to photoshop, seems the current dilemma. I am firmly positioned in the tradition of straight photography, solid-state or silver-halide-based. I want my pictures to show as they were taken, without manipulation, beyond some changes in gradation, as is the rule in the wet darkroom.
The 5D helps to reach that goal. Pictures go direct from iView selection to Aperture Raw development and printing. If your pictures are framed as intended and exposed properly, the 5D does an excellent job in fuss-free processing, saving valuable time for honing picture-taking skills.
One of the main problems of the Olympus E-1 is the noise level at higher ISO speeds. The 5D with its larger pixel area should offer improved performance. It does indeed. Up till ISO400 the noise is quite low, but at ISO1600 it is quite visible and at ISO3200 it is objectionable. With Image Stabilisation and a useful ISO400 we wonder why we should need high-speed lenses at all. Obviously for compositional reasons and selective focus is only possible with wide aperture lenses.
The 5D does not have the sturdy feel and solid functioning of the 1Ds and siblings or the Leica MP and M7 series. Movements of doors, knobs, wheels and the buttons lack the definite snap of a well-engineered part. It does work without problems and that may be what most users want to get. The body contours and layout can by default not be optimized for every human hand, but for most persons the layout and shape will be good enough. The one complaint that I would consider as a serious point is the overload of buttons on the back and especially the use of the quick control dial or the multi-controller for selecting the AF points induces instability in the holding of the camera.
The frame rate of three images per second is good enough for me, but some would like to complain, just because other cameras offer a higher speed. The buffer capacity for 17 Raw pictures is OK for me: if you cannot get the picture you want during a time interval of 5 seconds at three frames/second, you never will! The large LCD display shows the pictures in commendably large size, but contrast is quite low and especially dark parts are almost invisible. From a functional point of view, the camera is difficult to fault. The EOS body is now on the market for almost twenty years and the current shape and layout is well received by most users.
The camera is not designed as a constant companion when walking or traveling. The camera with attached battery holder (two batteries have capacity for 1500 pictures) and 24-105 lens is huge and heavy. On tripod there is o problem, but using the camera handheld over a longer period is not a joy. Here the nimble Leica can score points. Even if I reduce the Canon to the body and a standard lens, it still is a sizable piece of hardware.
The EOS 5D is a well handling, smooth functioning camera, offering a very high image quality on medium format level. The main advantage of the 5D is its full 24x36mm sensor area and large sized viewfinder, allowing this camera to work seamlessly in combination with 35mm film-based cameras. Its character as a transition camera predestines the camera as a first choice for users who want the advantages of solid-state capture in a traditional mind established in the context of film-based photography. The 5D can be used and operated as a tool that generates digital negatives as simple, direct and fuss-free as can be done with film. The Canon EOS 5D is, based on these characteristics and features a true milestone camera. It lacks the iconic qualities of the Leica M, used in comparison during the same six-month period of photographing with both products. For now the pairing of both instruments constitutes the best of both worlds.
Canon high end strategy goes for 35mm format
In my original article about the Canon 5D I reflected on the technical and more philosophical aspects of the barnack-format for digital cameras. I noted that the 5D was a milestone camera because of feasibility of a large sensor at an affordable price. It was and it is my view that the 35mm format and the matched optics to create classical viewing angles and classical depth of field gradients, in addition to the artistic aspects of using the 2:3 format that has to be mastered before you can compose interesting pictures.
Olympus went for the easy way with the 4:3 format, that is much easier to use and conforms to the ubiquitous TV screen format that is a constant visual companion on today's culture.
In the current issue of AP, Geoffrey Crawley looks at the aspects of image quality that is attainable with the full format (35mm) and the APS-C format that is roughly equivalent to half frame, and retains the 2:3 relation. He concludes that image wise there is a draw: both sensor areas deliver the same imagery. He compares two systems that have about the same pixel size and then it is not surprising that theoretically and with test charts the same image quality is possible. But there is much more to analyse here. In my comparison of the M8 with the 5D, the Canon gave somewhat better resolution despite having a larger pixel size. It is the software stupid! You can hear Bill Clinton shouting. And my Siemens star results indicated that the MTF values in the region from 30% to 10% of the Nyquist maximum are critical for effective image quality.
Presumably the debate will go on for a while and that is fine. We simply do not know that much about digital capture and digital processing as we know about chemical processing the silver halide grain. Here we have an history of 100 years of cumulative experience, but in the digital arena our knowledge spans hardly a decade. And myths are already all over the place!
You can like or hate Canon, but one theme is obvious: here we have a company that has a very steady course and a very clearly defined goal for the next ten years. Some cameras that were introduced over the last thirty years might draw negative comments and did not become world beaters. The main fault in retrospect has been to focus too long on the amateur market and leaving Nikon alone in the professional pond. But since the EOS body emerged around 1985, the company exhibits a singular drive.
The new D1 packs the sensor of the 5D in a really robust body, the film-loading 1V (end to that era?). The capture speed is very high and there is that mysterious comment that the 1D has no memory buffer, presumably wring directly to the flash card. The new 1Ds shares the same body and brings the pixel count to 22 million on a 24x36mm area. The most intriguing remark is Canons statement that from now on there will be no more 1.3 crop sensors. The strategy then is clear: the amateur market will be served by APS-C with 1.5/1.6 crop factor and a new range of lenses. The professional high-end market will be exclusively served by full-format sensors allowing all Canon lenses to operate at the true computed focal length and viewing angle. Canon seems to be quite confident that the problems with the 35mm format can be addressed and overcome. There is now also an ISO 6400 value available. The new cameras will be formidable instruments, the 1D attacking the professional market for mobile photography and the 1Ds (with 22 M pixels) attacking the medium format stationary (studio) photography. There is a risk here: many professional reportage photographers do not want nor need that huge amount of pixels. Is Nikon smarter in this respect and listening more closely to the market?
Nikon continues to state that they will not embark on that route and stay faithful to the APS format derivatives. For how long we may ask? We know now that Nikon is a strong player in the so-called full-frame market segment.
The 1D will retail for 4500 dollars and will be cheaper than the Leica M8. This is not a clash of civilizations, but a minor clash of belief. The M8 couples a mechanical film-loading body to a solid state sensor and retains as much of the classical values as can be done within the technological constraints.
The 1D couples a fully electronic film-loading body to a full 35mm format solid state sensor and skips as much of the classical values as can be accomplished within operational constraints. There is no doubt in what direction the mainstream buyer will move. Canon is shaping the market and the others are more or less responding to market trends as they are perceived by the gurus.
Leica has been troubled over the last decade by a most erratic decision making process by a series of CEO's and this decision making is reflected in the current stable of products. One really hopes that there will be now a steady developing strategy with a clearly defined future vision for the product range to be developed.
The Canon strategy is very consistent and very profitable. Their choice for the classical 35mm format for the high-end camera system is somewhat surprising, given the fact that they are alone in this choice, but then the market power of Canon is quite strong.Now the competition must react.