#111 The world’s best small camera system?

By philberphoto | News

Jul 04

It is a question that so many gear freaks among us ask themselves. Can I get a small camera that really stands up to the big boys?

I have already partly answered that to my satisfaction. Since purchasing my first Sony NEX (a NEX5, then a 5N, then a 7), I am now able to never leave without a camera, and sometimes 5 minutes are enough do get a very satisfying result, if the opportunity is there.

Here is one such picture. Shot with NEX 7 and the incredible Leica Elmar 24mm f:3.8, mounted on a minute Manfrotto “table” tripod. So small (10cm high) that it can be deployed without bothering anyone or even being noticed or presenting a safety risk.Another such shot, but this time, NEX 7 and Leica R 60mm Makro Elmarit f:2.8, on a “normal size” Gitzo 0541 and 1780QR ballhead.

So many people are wondering, right now, how good can these “small systems” be? The Sony NEX 5N and NEX 7, the Fuji X-100 and X-1 Pro, the Olympus OM-D, the Leica X-2, the just announced Sigma DP2M?

This is a skewed comparison, because some of these cameras shine with their own lenses (Olympus and other Micro 4/3 cameras, Fuji, Leica, Sigma), while others (Sony) shine with third-party lenses, often from specialists of great repute (Leica, Zeiss) and cost…

But, at this time, it is fair to say that the native lenses on smaller systems are not yet the equivalent of the very best primes. As they often cost much less, it is not fair to call them “inferior”, but if one expects to squeeze the utmost out of a small system, and maybe to rival or equal the best DSLRs also with great glass, native lenses are not good enough.

So let’s concentrate on the Sony NEX 7, arguably the most ambitious “small system” out there today, with its 24Mp and ambitious EVF, and its ability to be a platform for just about any lens. How much must one spend to “get the most out of it”, and “how good does it ultimately get?

Which brings us to the first question: does any lens work with it? And the answer has to be “no”. Due to it being extremely compact, the lens pupil sits very close to the sensor, which means that, with a wide angle lens, light rays fall onto the edge of the sensor at a very sharp angle. In the old days of film, this did not matter, because film didn’t mind. Sensors however are much more particular, and you get edges that show a stray magenta shift, also called “colour shift”Now this is a mild case, one that might not even be noticed, except if one knows what to look for. But if you examine the sides of the picture, you will see that the colour of the rocks shifts towards magenta. That is entirely due to the incompatibility of the lens and the sensor. Most lenses desgined for rangefinders, like Leica M, Zeiss ZM, Contax G, Voigtlanders, produce this, or much worse, if they are wider than 35mm.

This the same picture, but corrected with a great piece of free software called Cornerfix.See the difference now?

OK, second chance, with a wider lens, the really excellent Zeiss ZM 18 Distagon. As it is very wide, it ought to give massive problems, but, due to its retrofocus design, it is less troublesome than the also excellent ZM 25, which is a symmetrical Biogon… go figure!

Without CornerfixAnd the same, Cornerfixed:How does Cornerfix work? You first have to shoot a really uniform white target, and then create a profile. This means that Cornerfix analyses your picture, and, because there is colourshift, will detect anything that is non-white, like the magenta strips on either side. It then basically inverts the colour shift, so that, when you run the picture through Cornerfix, it applies the reverse of the unwanted colourshift that the camera added.

This is the workflow I use. Look at my pics in LightRoom, and select the ones I want to process. Maybe one in 5. Those I convert with LR into DNG files, the format that CornerFix reads. Then I run them through Cornerfix, and save them, still in DNG. Then import through LR again, for processing and save them in JPEG for upload to DearSusans. A bit of a pain, yes. But not much, once you get used to it. There is even a batch mode that lets you process a bunch of RAW to DNG in LR, and a batch mode that lets you process that bunch through Cornerfix, but I am too computer-challenged (read stupid and lazy) to try it, so I do them one by one.

Don’t think that Sony are playing dumb and dumber. All cameras that have lenses that sit very close to the sensor have this problem. The Micro- 4/3 cams avoid most of it because their sensor is small, so that avoids the acute angles you get with a larger sensor, like APS/C. Leica, the mighty Leica, have  tons of it. First, they tried to avoid most of it in releasing the M8, which “only” had a smaller sensor, not a FF one, and even that showed definite colour shift. On the M9, it is fixed in-camera with software, which is why you need to “tell” the camera which lens you are using, so that it can correct appropriately. Except there is no free lunch. If you are not using a Leica lens, don’t expect Leica to help with software corrections. And then, it really slows up the processing.

And don’t think that it is only colour shift that this problem can generate, and that Cornerfix can cure 100% of it 100% of the time. Colour shift is only the beginning. If the combination of focal length and lens construction is too “aggressive”, then the corners and even the sides get totally mushy to the point that no information can be retrieved. Such is my experience with the fantastic Contax G Biogon 21mm. Arguably the best Zeiss glass ever to pass through my hands. But I couldn’t get a single shot that was problem-free out of it, so I sold it. And don’t think that I am a corner-sharpness ayatollah, because I hold 35mm shots to be clean without need to re-process them, but others are more demanding than I.

Now why do I tell you this? Because, without Cornerfix, you can’t use the best small glass on the NEX7, if it happens to be wide, and less expensive than the Leica Tri-Elmar (3500€ used, a not insignificant price for a lens, and it is not as good as the later Leica WAs), which is problem free even at 16mm. Go figure!

Of course, you can use DSLR wides, and they work great, but they are large, so what’s the point of a small system with large glass? There is small DSLR wide glass, like the Leica R, or some Pentax and Minolta, but they are still laughably large compared to Leica M, Contax G, Zeiss ZM and other  rangefinder lenses, such as Voigtländer.

Stay away from NEX 7? And for what? The NEX 5N is a very good camera in its own right, but the 7 is simply better. Better colours, better definition, better dynamic range, better ergonomics. That’s a lot of better. The Fuji X-1 Pro? I tried one, and it has nice, reasonably priced native AF lenses. But detail? Where is the detail? DPReview showed picture comparisons, and they are shockingly bad. It seems that, in order to avoid the AA filter that eats up detail, Fuji did something “clever” with demosaicing, and that doesn’t exactly work too well. The Olympus OM-D? Nice camera, except the sensor is too small for my taste, and Pascal demonstrated that it doesn’t really like M-mount glass.

So, now that we have a NEX 7, and are duly kitted out with Cornerfix, here is a lens which a find shockingly good, the Leica Elmar 24mm f:3.8.

Colours, the parameter I find most important in a lens, are both natural and beautiful. Just ask Pascal what tears he shed when he compared colours from his beloved Zeiss ZM 25 and the Elmar’s.

And it is sharp. And hugely detailed. And….

It is just wonderful. And at 24mm, it gives me 36mm effective focal length on my NEX, a favorite FL of mine. Please, have some more:and another example:

So, am I prepared to call the NEX7+Elmar 24 the world’s best small-system camera? Indeed I am. Of course, other top glass will also produce fantastic images, because the 7 is such a great image-maker. Think Contax G 45, Leica Summicron M 28, Leica Elmarit 60 Makro, Voigtländer 125mm Makro, among others.

Is it “perfect”? Definitely not. For one, having to Cornefix the shots shouldn’t be necessary, and probably won’t be in the next generation of Sony bodies. Then, the lens, at f:3.8, is ridiculously slow for the money, or ridiculously expensive for the speed. And, because the camera is not a low-light demon either (good enough, but not great), and neither camera body nor lens incorporate a stabilizer, low light shots require some kind of support (shooting off a tripod is always a god idea, though, even when you don’t absolutely need one. It focuses the mind as well as the picture).

I also haven’t tried a Leica X2, although early indications are that it produces nice pics indeed, but not class-leading. As it incorporates the Sony 5N sensor and a f:2.8 Elmarit 24mm, that is not altogether unexpected.

Then there is the odd-one out. Sigma have released the DP2M at only 999$, with the same Foveon sensor that once graced the SD1, which briefly tried to see the light of day for 7.000$. Boris likes the concept enough, and the memories of his two unreliable DP1, that he ordered one. More on that soon. Oh, and he ordered the new Leica Summicron M 50mm f:2.0 at 6000€…and, yes, the early pics look absolutely spectacular…

Until then, here is my favorite babyand this last one. Definitely not my most interesting shot, but one which, in my opinion, shows the amazing quality delivered by the system. Sharpness is extraordinary, matched by detail, dynamic range and colours. Oh, and it is a 10-second exposure….

  • pascaljappy says:

    Not fair ! I want one too 😉 It has to be said that the Elmar 24 on the NEX-7 sends shivers up my spine and brings back fond memories of the Mamiya-7. It’s the only system I’ve used so far that comes close to the experience … Not fair 😉

    Thanks a lot Philippe. That insight into cornerfix is great info to determine whether to stick with the OM-D or … 😉

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