#1037. Meet Pixii, the un-Leica-ly new camera

By philberphoto | Review

Sep 07

David Barth will probably hate this title. That matters, because David Barth is the founding father of Pixii, a new entry to the ailing field of camera manufacturers. David believes that a totally new approach – in this case combining current and old tech- can offer a really different product and experience to the well-heeled photographer.

Note : A full review is now available here.

Pixii’s stairway to heaven…

Pixii is in fact quite different from anything else, in that it is not tech-driven innovation, like the failed but brilliant efforts of Lytro and Light. It is driven by a conceptual approach. In that, David reveals his Frenchness. Interestingly, David’s starting point coincides with the analysis made by DearSusan, and also that of Zeiss, leading to their ZX1 project. Pixii however exists as a product, whereas the ZX1 does not yet ship -will it ever?-, and Pixii’s solution is the very opposite of Zeiss’.

The common thread to all three trains of thought is how poor the present photo workflow is: from camera to memory card, from memory card to computer, from computer to mostly on-line publication. All the while all ‘togs having duplicate hardware capable to doing just that in the form of a smartphone, and the huge ecosystem that goes with it. Zeiss decided to make their camera an all-in-one, essentially making the computer screen, memory, software and processor redundant. In essence making the ZX1 into a giant smartphone sans the phone.

Pixii took a more responsible -in the eco-friendly sense- view: if you have it, don’t duplicate it, use it. You have a smartphone, so Pixii will make use of it, rather than incorporate the same components. So Pixii has no LCD screen, no slot(s) for memory cards. You shoot with the Pixii, and the image shows up, if you want it, on your smartphone. How smart is that? Very, methinks. So the Pixii is really not one but 2 parts. The camera, or what’s left of it sans all the smartphone bits and bobs, and the smartphone app, that is integral to the camera being more than a black box. And that app makes the Pixii part of the ecosystem.

The result makes for such a different product and experience that Pixii is a love-it-or-leave-it product. There are so many parameters that one can like or not in a camera, but there is, for now, only one Pixii. So you can’t quibble about the lack of camera grip, the unusually high minimum ISO (320), or the low battery life. Because, while it is fair to think that most would love improvements in these areas, they won’t matter. That is not how Pixii intends to conquer the hearts, minds and wallets of new customers.

Pixii, while claiming to be state-of-the art in its mating dance with your smartphone, also incorporates a rangefinder. That is where the L-word comes into play. Because only Leica still make a real mechanical rangefinder camera today. The M 10. So Pixii is this paradoxical, counterintuitive combination of a 100-year-old mechanical, all-manual device with a state-of-the-art use of your latest smartphone (iOS and Android). And the sensor used so far by Pixii isn’t exactly the mouth-watering kind: a 11.1Mp APS-C sized CMOS. But, as I said already, love it or leave it. And Pixii get even closer to a Leica M by using a mount that takes M-mount lenses…. which makes total sense because they are ready for a mechanical rangefinder coupling. Think Leica M lenses, Zeiss ZMs and a gaggle of M–mount lenses from Voigtländer. Not cheap, but yummy glass…

Key question then is: how does this play out? Who are the target customers? Does this make sense? Does this make, you know, images? The answer is: I am not in love with the sensor format or resolution, and do not see counterveiling benefits to its small size and low spec. But, because of what we’d written, David Barth decided that DearSusan were actually going to be the first to review the Pixii. Yes, world first! Thanks David! Because we were going to talk about actual images, and shooting experience, rather than mostly lab results. So I got the Pixii at an exciting moment for me as a reviewer, but with no intent whatsoever to move over from my modern Sony to what has the spec sheet of a 14-year-old Leica M8.

The long and the short of it is, after a week of getting to know how to operate it, and liaising with Pixii when I had questions, I told David that, if he forsook this early sensor for a current one, I could actually see myself getting a Pixii. Yes. I actually drank the Kool-Aid. In a word, Pixii makes you work at making pictures. You don’t take pictures, you don’t shoot them, you craft them. And when I crafted one that I was happy with, I had a sense of accomplishment, of bonding with my image, that was far beyond any satisfaction I had with my previous cameras. Not unlike what Leica M users report, as well as Pascal with his Hassy. Not bad company for your first product, David! It is definitely slow photography, and also purposeful. It is photography-with-intent. The very opposite of spray-and-pray.

Now, to be honest, the Pixii is still a very young product. No, it did not crash once on me, à la early Hassy X1D, nor did its app fail, but quite a few minor things still need sorting out. For example, exposure correction can be applied on the camera body, but does not appear on the app. This sort of issue is taken care of by software updates, and David is a software engineer. It is also amusing to see the app display the speed at which an image was taken as 1/6757s rather than the more common rounded-off figure. Less amusing when not all images taken by the camera show up correctly on the smartphone. This is one reason why David lent us a camera: to verify in the field that all was well, or what still had to be done to get there.

What about performance and image quality? Well, you decide. The promise, with such a low resolution is modest. But, remember, on the Net very few images go above 1Mo, so, in that sense, Pixii has plenty of pixels, except if you are a resolution hog like yours truly. Then, Pixii does absolutely delightful colours, to the extent that I wondered how they would compare to a Hasselblad (oh, the lèse-majesté!), or one of the older CCDs. Then the sensor, while it has limited dynamic range compared to Sony’s, handles clipped and burned highlights very gracefully, without the image falling apart, and the same with shadow recovery. Pixii tell me that there is a lot one can do -and they obviously do- in both those areas to maximise IQ for any given sensor. And it produces first-class B&W, at least to my taste.

So, in conclusion, what is this Pixii? First, it is a real product that makes real images. Second, in a word, it is the M that Leica should have made [This is lèse-majesté Part 2]. The current, digital M is just a digitized version of the film Ms. And gradually, almost grundgingly, Leica improve sensor and processor to newer standards. But it remains the “good old M” in so many ways. And, if people want something new from Leica, they are offered the SL, now SL2, which is basically nothing more -or less- than the Leica iteration -and in many ways a very classy interation- of the ubiquitous mirrorless full-frame autofocus camera. No rangefinder, no zone focusing, no small form factor and light weight, no light and compact glass. Total surrender, and in my opinion as a consultant, loss of company DNA.

In effect, despite the sensor spec, the true “new-and-modern M” that ought to have been is the Pixii. An imagecrafter’s camera, but not like grandad’s previous-millenium design. More like HCB meets Instagram. David Barth has the same initials as one David Brown, of Aston Martin fame. Yes, Ferraris are faster than Astons, as are Lamborghinis and some other hypercars. But Astons have style and class galore. Let’s say that this Pixii is the DB1, and hope that this DB1 has the same lineage and descendants as its car namesakes! How cool would it be to see Q give James his special Pixii?

How to capture a moving subject with a rangefinder? With zone focusing, of course!

Where is our discovery of Pixii going forward? My loaner camera is back in its father’s lap, where it will presumably already get an update to incorporate some fixes and improvements. Then it goes to Pascal J, who has been impatiently huffing and puffing that this is not fair. He has a long-running love affair with rangefinders, like his Mamiya 7, and not I. He has another with large-pixel sizes and not I. So why should I be having all the fun? That will soon be corrected. Stay tuned.

PS: all pictures in this post were, of course, made with a Pixii, kitted out with a Zeiss ZM 35 f:1.4 (Audrey). But there is no electronic connection, so no EXIF. RAW files are DNG, and incorporate the camera profiles, so they can be instantly and optimally read by any Adobe software. Cool.

PPS: Ming Thein says: it’s time!

Ming Thein is a name, a person, a writing and shooting style that have inhabited my (and many people’s) photography space. And now he says, it’s time for him to move on. There aren’t many people who can speak equally cleverly of corporate strategy, of camera performance and user experience, and of how to approach certain subjects and shooting styles. And now we have to write this in the past tense. Whether he feels he has come full circle, and he is leaving photography after a full house, or whether photography as a business is leaving him as it is so many others, that matters not. Our world, which he made richer, cleverer, more understandable, will no longer enjoy those benefits. Than you, Mister Ming for those enlightening moments. And good luck in your futures ventures, which will be timely….


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  • Andreas says:

    Just looked through the Pixii webpage.
    The price is set to 3.500 € !
    That’s the current ‘buy it now’ price of a Hassy X1D on ebay…
    just sayin’…

  • Frank Field says:

    Hats off to David Barth for having the courage and, I’m sure, tenacity, to develop and bring this new idea to market. While he has gone against the marketing grain, I think David has the pixel density about right at 5.5 micron pixel pitch and about 11 MPix total on an APS-C sensor. That is about the pixel density of a 24 MPix full-frame sensor. This allows shooting at f/8 with no loss of texture and at f/11 with only a very modest impact. Couple that with the increased depth of field from an APS-C sized sensor and I think you have a very nice walkabout camera. (Full disclosure: I believe Nyquist’s sampling theorem holds and I admit to being at least slightly fanatical about lens (actually iris) diffraction.) Glad to see Pixii uses the open specification dng format for camera RAW images. Lastly, he has an interesting idea in handing image development and upload to the internet to a third party with a lot of investment in this area (the smart phone). Having become so accustomed to quikly checking the histogram on the rear monitor, I would surely miss that feature. I truly hope David finds success and wish him the very best.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Frank, you obviously know far more than I do about the technical issues involved in this. While I do understand “diffraction” and how it affects the various lenses I use, I was lost when you say “(actually iris)”. Is that the same thing as what idiots like me know as “lens” diffraction? – or is there something more to it?

      • pascaljappy says:

        Jean-Pierre, the Iris is the (physical) location of smaller diameter, thus of greatest impact on diffraction. The shape of the iris also determines the “shape” of diffraction. But, yes, it is what we refer to as lens diffraction, just the more accurate term.

  • miguel martinez says:

    OK, may be a good idea, but the price is wrong !

  • Rube says:

    Do not have, and never will, a digital phone, smart phone or anything resembling it. So ‘everyone has one’ is not actually true. So no Pixii for me.

  • Alan says:

    Looks nice but, alas, you lost me at ‘well-heeled’.

  • Jean-Claude Louis says:

    Thanks, Philippe, for this interesting post. It’s important to feature the efforts of independent entrepreneurs, who try to bring new ideas and designs to market (and even more so when they are French 🙂

    I can see this camera appealing to people who want – or need – to have instant access to processing and image transfer (news professionals, instagram users…), with the image quality of a good sensor/lens combo. I like the choice of the rangefinder design – I’m a Leica M and Fuji X-pro2 rangefinder user; it’s an acquired taste, but it works well for me.

    One concern, in particular for the use when traveling, is storage space (32 GB max in camera – 256 GB max for high-end smartphones). That would not be enough, and not safe enough, for my needs. I like to travel light and do not schlepp a laptop when traveling; I store my images on duplicate SD cards.

    Not having seen or used the camera, I can’t express a meaningful opinion. I don’t think, though, that it would meet my needs. I don’t process on my iPhone, I don’t post online, I don’t need instant transfer, and when sharing images with family and friends, the iPhone does the job. Plus, in the rare cases I need to send images from my X-pro2 to my iPhone (or any compatible device), I use a wifi-enabled Toshiba FlashAir 4th gen SD card (requires wifi connection, but the hotspot function of smartphones will do the job).

    I will definitely follow David’s adventure and wish him success.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Jean-Claude, the internal space issue is also a consideration that would worry me. Files are relatively small (16Mb, I think), so 32Gb would go a long way. But still, the safety issue is very real.

      It’s good that you bring this up and David is one to pick up on all such comments and correct course very swiftly.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Philippe, it is not very often these days that I find myself “gawking” at a selection of photos. I found myself not paying attention – losing the text, as I focused on the pictures that you chose to illustrate it. Thanks for sharing them, and your experiences.

    I am a passionate enthusiast of better highlights & shadows, of rangefinders, of chasing fractions of a second to get the “correct” exposure instead of something either side of it, of innovation instead of imitation, of delightful colours. Pixii ticks a lot of boxes for me.

    I have an aversion to cellphones, full stop – one of the unavoidable burdens of living in a modern society, an “unpleasant necessity” – but not something I’m anxious to turn into a camera. So I’ll sit out the first dance, keeping shooting with my current gear, and wait for another few months to see whether or, if so, when SIGMA will finally deliver its full frame Foveon. I’ve been waiting for that for so long, my thoughts on new gear have new set hard, on the Foveon. I’d just love to find out what I can do with it, and it seemed silly to buy one of the current ones when there’s a full frame one standing in the shadows, waiting for a launch release date.

    But life is not all about being “the same”. And an article like this one brings enormous pleasure to my life. The photos are stunning. The mandatory bicycle shot is included! The sample B&W ones, to feed the appetites of the B&W afficionados! The colours really ARE gorgeous. Even the composition, and the curation of the images to illustrate the text!

    The PS at the foot of the article is a sad moment, for me. I’ve turned into a devout fan of Ming. He has an extraordinary knowledge of photography (among other things). He seems incapable of anything but an objective approach. He manages to explain highly technical & intellectual concepts in terms that even I can follow and understand. And I love digging around in his archive – not just reading his latest posts.

    I was much relieved when he said he was offering to keep the blog alive for people who, like me, do read his archive. It is an incredible treasure trove of photography, in theory and in practice. A wonderful source, for learning more.

  • Sean says:

    Undoubtably the article is about the new Pixii, but It’s these words that have really resonated with me “…You don’t take pictures, you don’t shoot them, you craft them. And when I crafted one that I was happy with, I had a sense of accomplishment, of bonding …”. In sum, that one word ‘craft’ – so well chosen, it speaks volumes. By way of example, I get a huge level of crafting satisfaction from using my 15 year old Canon 5D Classic and Leica M8. Both allow that word ‘craft’ for come to the forefront through the challenges unique to each camera’s limitations, and how one works with them – just like the Pixii will, in due course. The images in this article certainly show a high decree of ability to craft very good images, with a system that has limitations and requires a considered approach. Well done.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hear hear. I think one of the greatest sins of the current manufacturers is depriving us of that crafting, of any sense of accomplishment. The do it all camera that you can basically use with your eyes closed was their undoing. The complete lack of understanding of human psychology of their marketing departments has always baffled me. Human beings – particularly those interested in a creative hobby – crave that feeling of achievement.

      Can you imagine a piano company that sells a machine that will “play it for you” ?????? Only camera companies are stupid enough to think there’s durable joy in removing practise from the equation. Utterly baffling.

      It’s not hard to see parallels in society …

      • Sean says:

        Hi pascal,
        Your response is certainly appreciated, and is definitely not feckless in the character and meaning of it’s intended message. Yes, it’s not hard to see parallels in contemporary society. I concur, as do many other ‘creatives’ that their individual and collective itches are satiated when they “… crave that feeling of achievement …” is scratched both in general and context-specific terms, from rewards when involved their craft of interest and passion. My wife’s side of the family all learnt piano during their school years – their skills are retained and exercised on the piano at their parent’s home – there’s simply no substitute.

        • pascaljappy says:

          True. I suppose we could argue the photo industry is much larger than the piano industry. But, by basing growth on a false truth, my feeling is chickens are coming home to roost …

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    Sorry I have to say it, I will sit this one out and rather spend the money on chocolate – definitely better value and 100% more practical 🙂

  • Richard says:

    Great post, thank you.

  • Adrian says:

    I’m not sure what to think of this. On the one hand, the integration of the camera with the smartphone via an App is good – although other brands already support the automatic transfer of pictures to your phone if you want it. In an industry in decline, it’s good to see new companies trying something new. On the other hand, I don’t like rangefinders and it seems a solution to a problem that is 100 years out of date. I also like the instant feedback loop of being able to check focus, exposure, highlights, composition etc in the viewfinder or the rear screen.

    Unfortunately, no matter how clever the idea, the price, lens mount (with associated mostly expensive lenses), and the modest sensor will probably confine it to the seriously curious niche end of the market – which in some ways is a shame.

    Does anyone else remember the Ricoh GXR with the interchangeable sensor modules? That came with an APS-C M mount module which had similar spec to the Pixii but was really rather cheaper…. and look what happened to the GXR?

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