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.
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?
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.
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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