It’s a bit early in the day to celebrate a best-of retrospective from Pixii – in the same way the alternative rock band Pixies did after a decade of work together with their Death to the Pixies album. But enough has gone on with this little camera since our earlier review to justify a second look at the French brand’s attempt to shake up a stagnant industry. Time hasn’t stood still at Pixii Central 🙂
Let’s briefly recap, write a quick TLDR; for those who discover this camera here and didn’t read our first impressions of it, some months ago.
Built from scratch by a French engineer, the first Pixii used a low-resolution sensor that produced stunning colours and tonal subtlety and packed it into a (superbly finished) solid metal body equipped with a ranger finder, no rear screen, and a Leica M mount. It produced gorgeous DNG files (yay Pixii, boo proprietary formats) and a shooting experience that eludes most modern competitors and their nuclear-station-control-room-type ergonomics. It also offered an app that could download shots onto the user’s phone more or less on the fly, less more often than more, at least initially. These were early days and the app did need polishing, although it opened up the road to easy online sharing and on the fly editing. Much like Zeiss’s ZX1, but placing responsibility for processing power firmly on the phone’s lap, not on the camera’s. And that was the right choice to make.
It earned very high praise from me, and severe criticism from those who can’t see past a spec sheet and a me-too attitude to “innovation”.
But it wasn’t without its foibles, far from it. In fact, there were plenty. Oblivious to the fact that good pixels matter far more than numerous pixels, many observers poo pooed the 11Mp resolution. Fair enough. It was on the low side if you ever needed to print large or crop tightly.
More problematic in my mind was the electronic internal bottlenecks that throttled performance and led to repeated, intense, buffering, even for non-sports shooters.
Then, there was the divisive – to put it mildly – decision of using a rangefinder in place of the now more traditional EVF. Where you landed on either side of that fence depended purely on your eyesight, experience and retro-aspirations, and still does. This author has no love to spare for rangefinders … They are the only thing that always held me back from buying a Leica camera. And I’ve never successfully shot with one, except for the Mamiya 7, which I still consider the best framing device ever (albeit for a limited range of focal lengths), larger, and easier to use than the smaller device used in this delicate little body. Still, others feel differently and there is a niche market for people wanting to shoot via a rangefinder.
On top of lending us Pixii the camera, Pixii the company had made us privy to a roadmap that we were asked to keep quiet. Although we had mentioned new sensors on the way, the rest of the very impressive projects on the timeline were described on a strict no disclosure basis, and still are.
But we can now describe what has been going on at Pixii during those months and evaluate whether the work and wait have been worth it or not.
Which brings us to today, and the 26Mp APS-C sensor responsible for all the photographs you see on this page 🙂
Being of an animist nature, when David Barth (fournder and tech leader at Pixii) mentioned a replacement sensor from Sony, one with high-pixel density at that, I felt my heart sink. Everyone in the market can boast 26Mp, or more, on an APS-C. It is no longer even cool. But only Pixii, Leica and a very few select companies can claim to produce files as gorgeous as those the early version churned out with regular nonchalance. And my past experiences in shaky colour management (putting it really kindly) with older generation Sony mirrorless cameras certainly didn’t make the idea of the switch very sexy in my mind.
But David assured me he’d be as diligent about colour management LUTs as he had initially and was confident he’d be able to recreate the same palette as in Pixii V1 with the high pixel count successor. Yeah right …
Turns out, he was right. And I was wrong. As you can tell by the largely unprocessed photographs on the top of this page, that dreamy pastel look is still there in abundance. But set White Balance to a standard daylight and hop onto the contrast slider, and those files can be made as neutral as any other.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The Pixii offers shooting profiles, sort of subtle colour presets you can use on the fly and in Lightroom. I hand’t noticed the camera was in Portrait mode, which gives skin tones a warmer tone, which is why some of the orange grasses can look a little pink on some photographs, as below. If you’re interested, I’ll publish some of the photographs below using other profiles in a separate post.
Let’s talk about white balance for a minute. Because the Pixii takes a very liberal approach at setting it, particularly in Portrait profile. Unlike some cameras who like to be warm or like to be cool, in a systematic manner, the Pixii will happily swing on either side of Daylight, but always with pleasing results, in my experience of a few days of ownership.
What do you think? It was early morning, with a grazing warm sun. But nowhere near as warm as the second photograph makes it look. Both work, but the first is closer to what it looked like at the time, brain-corrected.
Below, just a few minutes later, the exact opposite happened. The Pixii made the shot look warmer than the Daylight setting in Lightroom. But, here again, it works, and it requires a click to alter, with no breakup of the file. And here again, that’s how the scene looked to me. While most of the garden/horse scene was in the shadows and quite cool, the scene below was bathed in bright summery morning light, that felt warmer than it actually was.
Is the Pixii’s WB setting flaky and my experience of it too narrow to witness faults? Or has the team done a surprising job of setting WB at psychologically good point? I’ve no idea and will try to ask David. But so far, so nice.
If you’re familiar with audio and HiFi, you’ll understand the impact of a good DAC (digital to analogue converter) in converting bits from your streamer or CD into an analogue signal that actually produces sound through a loudspeaker.
And most people sum up the sound quality of a DAC by looking at the conversion chip inside it. Burr Brown, Sabre, ESS, FPGA … But a DAC is far more than a chip. Its power supply and its output stage have much more of an impact on sound quality than the flavour inherited from the conversion chip itself.
And the same goes with camera sensors. I should have known better than to expect 2010 Sony colours from a Sony sensor in a 2021 camera, since so much happens to the signal after it “leaves the pixels”. And just like great DAC companies can make any chip sing, Pixii sure know how to make that sensor sing. Colours are bold by default, in a pastel, yet believable way. And files are clean and robust enough to be altered to anyone’s taste.
The good news doesn’t stop there.
In my musical and photographic tastes, “naturalness” takes precedence over any other consideration. And one major stumbling block of mainstream cameras (even far more expensive ones than the Pixii) is highlight roll-off. Nothing screams digital louder than abrupt transitions from pale grey to pure white. It’s vile to look at and a cardinal sin, in my biased book of photography. Might as well use a phone.
The best target for detecting highlight breakup is an illuminated cloud edge. How often have we seen lovely landscapes underneath plastic clouds with pure white edges? And 5 grand cameras are routinely guilty of this. In my mind, you can just shove those pics right down the bin, whatever their pixel count or (pseudo) dynamic range. Here? Judge for yourself. As I said in my first review, the Pixii is better than my X1D in some respects. And highligh roll-off is one of them. Abfab.
Recreating an atmosphere is what matters most to me in colour photographs. And I’ve not yet used a camera that does this better than my old and cheap Nikon D80, in the right light. My digital memories of it in the hazy lake region of Northern Italy are simply unparalleled in my production to this day.
And I don’t think the Pixii beats it. But it sure comes close. Look at the shadows projected below the clouds, look at the clouds themselves, look at the gradual change in green colour as the hills recede. And this has been damaged slightly by wordpress … This is a camera that trained painters would adore.
It’s not neutral in this Portrait profile (again, my bad). I certainly don’t care. It looks gorgeous straight out of the box. And it can be altered to anyone’s taste if the standard dreamy look isn’t what’s desired. This is the road behind my house and it looks exactly like that (except for slightly more orange straw).
Bring on the milk then. Milk is where cookies crumble. And, sadly, there’s a fair deal of crumbling to be done.
I’ll start with the rangefinder. It’s not bad. But, to my eyes (literally), it’s not on par with the rest of the camera. And it’s certainly not for the aging reviewer whose otherwise extraordinary gene pool doesn’t include 20/20 vision. This chap, below, might be offended that I focused on his crotch, but his eyes were my target. And mine were the problem. Or could it be a focus and recompose issue imposed by rangefinders and which can be problematic with lenses with weird focal surfaces.
Again, that’s a personal thing. And photographers who like rangefinders are usually better at using them than me. It’s just something I can’t not mention in a review.
Then’s there’s buffering. Have any of you watched James “Captain Slow” May repeatedly moan “buffeting, buffeting” on one of his high-speed runs in a high-performance car? If so, you’ll have been prepared for the Pixii moaning “Buffering, Buffering” as soon as a rapid sequence of more than 6-7 shots is made (say, for a big pano).
This might not be an issue for you. Buffering never got in the way except when I tried to shoot two large panoramas, one immediately after the other. It’s something that needs to be mentioned here for the sake of honesty, though it will only irk a fraction of photographers. In Pixii’s defence, this will soon get upgraded, and Pixii’s great retrofit-upgrade policy future proofs early purchases in such situations, so that shouldn’t keep you away, if you require “fast shooting” capabilities (it is a manual focus rangefinder camera, please look elsewhere for 30fps 😉 )
So, brilliant imaging capabilities, up to snuff sensor, shaky (for now) internals. It can’t be all black and white, right?
Speaking of which … (see what I did, there 😉 )
Black and white conversions are the harsh arbiter of file quality. Blown highlights, muddy shadows, flaky tonal steps … all that may be able to vaguely hide undetected in a pretty colour file, but will come back to haunt the shooter as soon as heavily edited mono conversions come in to play.
And, boy, is this camera good …
This, above, is a torture test for real-life dynamic range. To get enough contrast for that 3D pop and enough tonal richness for a continuous tone from the shadow edge to the sun-drenched edge is spectacular indeed. I’ve no doubt some lab rat will test this camera in his grandma’s basement and will declare “oh it only has 12 stops of DR”. Please remember this photograph when you read/view that.
I’m not suggesting lab results lie. They only tell part of the story. As in my DAC analogy, some low bit count DACs leave high bit count DACs for dead after just seconds of listening.
The tone curve of film is far more gentle at the shoulders than what most digital cameras offer, so film often looks more natural than digital. I believe what Pixii have achieved through a well adjusted tone curve is a filmic look, without the pains of film processing. If you miss the grain, it can be added fairly convincingly in Lightroom. But no amount of massaging will recover a harsh file.
And yes, out of the box, those files can look unimpressive. Flat, even, to the initiated. But a tiny nudge of the contrast slider or the colour luminance sliders soon get you the look you want.
When Leica released their first Monochrome M jewel, it was met with some puzzlement because files looked flat straight out of the camera. But they contained impressive information and allowed extraordinary prints for the resolution.
If you’ve been waiting for a more affordable version of those lovely cameras and feel fearful of a full B&W workflow, I urge you to consider the Pixii as your monochrome steed. It really is wonderful for that application.
Above, contrast and clarity were pushed to bring detail into the shadows. Below, the same wall, under the same lighting condition was left more natural.
When a camera can do that, buffering and rangefinders are soon forgotten.
This, to me is the Litmus test. The question is simple: “Can my camera do that?” Trust me, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the answer will be a deafening NO.
The small development team at Pixii has prioritized this aspect of appeal over the usual quantitative nonsense. That’s as it should be.
Whether the camera, as it stands today, is for you depends on how much this image quality makes you drool. Memory makers will not care one bit, and they will miss the fast AF and high frame rates that guarantee the eye in focus when the 3 year old takes her first dive in the pool 🙂 And that’s how it should be as well.
It’s no secret that I love niche products far more than do-it-all plastic offerings. My vision of the world favours small companies of high expertise over behemoths that make us all fit into predefined slots to generate their billions. Of course, we’d be nowhere near this level of quality if Sony hadn’t revolutionised photography to sell millions of sensors and fund R&D, so I’m not being critical. I’m just happy that smaller companies are offering us a choice of how those great sensors get to be used.
I’m also impressed at the boldness of the Pixii approach to camera design, whether or not the rangefinder appeals to me.
When most people think of high-precision watches, Switzerland immediately comes to their mind. And yet, a town in Germany (Glashutte) has for decades knocked huge holes into that hegemony and companies such as A. Langhe & Söhne routinely produce some of the planet’s most stunning timekeepers.
Likewise, when you evoke luxury rangefinder cameras, the default location that comes to mind is Wetzlar. But Pixii is doing a sterling job of turning the world’s eyes Westward to Besançon, a Fench city rich in horological history and high-skill metal working.
The Pixii is easily one of the best built cameras I have ever owned or reviewed, Linhof, Leica and Zeiss included. The packaging is lovely, ensuring unboxing pleasure to new owners too.
Where the French challenger departs from its German inspiration is that it seems to have turned a more eager eye to the future.
It would be remiss of me to limit my coverage of Pixii V2 to this sensor upgrade, because the R&D has been hard at work on other topics that migh interest less ludditish populations 😉
OPTICAL NOTE: Up to above the sleepy cat, all photographs were made using the Voightländer 35/1.4. From sleepy Toffee down, they were all made using the Voigtländer 21/4. This was my first shoot with this lens. It is as remarkable as it is tiny. Very very very highly recommended !!!!
I’ll do my best to keep the rest of the presentation organised, but will be compelled to jump in with excited commentary about image quality here and there. My apologies in advance. But hey, this is about making images more than anything else, right? 😉
In the new A1571 (that’s the camera’s current official version name, I’ll call it V2) documentation features this AR viewfinder overlay feature. Essentially, Pixii have built the first rangefinder with dynamic info overlay. So, as you half-press the shutter release, you’ll see info such as exposure speed, ISO, focal length, space left (see below), exposure correction, a bit like a head-up display in a car. Or a military jet. I mean … that’s got to put a smile on your face, right?
One man and his passion 🙂 Predictably, David is a Porsche 911 enthusiast. Here’s a car that started life with the engine in the wrong place and, through sheer obstination of the design team, became one of the best sports cars on the road ever. On the right track, with Walter Rohrl at the wheel, I’m not sure Lewis Hamilton would fancy his chances, even given a wide choice of alternative challenger supercars.
So the Pixii is born with a rangefinder, which would never have been my choice, but David is making it more usable and pleasurable at every step of the road. Kudos, man! Stick to your guns and bring your vision to life.
Image quality interlude. Same scene, back lit and front lit. Are words even needed? (well, they are to explain why the second is blurred. I actually sneezed because of the sun, when taking it 😉 )
Another quirk inherited from Pixii V1 is internal storage of images. Here again, David could have backtracked under pressure but chose to double down instead.
So, as you shoot, an internal memory fills up. Initially, this memory was small (4Gb) and was all you had. Making the camera miserably impractical away from a computer. Now, though, two changes make it more interesting: first the internal memory can now be extended to 32Gb (and older cameras retrofitted), giving you 650 images in 16-bit uncompressed RAW, and 820 in compressed.
Secondly, the upgraded USB port (another novelty) now accepts a tiny USB 3 accessory that carries micro SD cards on which you can download / backup your images. That’s probably not the workflow busy pros will want, but it works beautifully and ensures you can leave home with a tiny and high quality kit. That pocketable self-sufficiency is furthered by the same multi purpose USB port which can be used to charge batteries (although those standard Sony items can obviously be charged on their dedicated external support). Battery life is … let’s say adequate (250 frames ?) but those batteries are cheap and tiny and this isn’t a camera for 2000-frames-a-day types anyway.
These include faster electronics. In particular white balance and exposure refresh rates. And a new compressed DNG format that’s compatible with Lightroom, the recommended PP tool for this camera.
There’s also a new battery lock mechanism which greatly improves on the previous one that relied on a coin to twist open. Very romantic, very impractical. No more 😉
And the architecture has been designed for future sensor upgrades! This first example has convinced me that this is indeed a realistic possibility. And not one to be sneezed at. When you change your $3k camera after 2 years, its value has dropped by at least half. Here, dish out a few hundred bucks and you have new sensor, new internals … That’s potential savings right there. And it’s environmentally sound. It should also ensure there are fewer used Pixiis on the market, thereby helping them keep their value? Just guessing, here, but it would add to the financial positives – and the image of luxury – of such an investment.
Some of you have been waiting for news from Sigma. You might want to look this way for an alternative proposition of equally qualitative priorities. You’ll likely love what you see.
For a more generic qualifier of the target audience, let me turn to the French word flâneur. This translates to strolling (stroller) with more elegant and poetic connotations. A collector of images.
Imagine the photographer with a beret if that helps mental focus 😉 But, more seriously, the build quality, the elegance of the image aesthetics, the self-sufficient body and minute lenses of stunning quality, the unhurried-but-efficient flow of image-making this magical little box of metal plunges you into … this all evokes artistic grabbing more than planned workshop with backpacks and sherpa. It is all effortless, soothing and gratifying rather than goal-oriented.
That obviously suits my style of shooting to a T and if my eyesight didn’t make your average mole pass for Hawkeye, it would be my camera of choice. When an EVF comes along, it might just become that.
And of course, those of a more frantic go-getter disposition will diss the camera with all their misinformed might. It’s not targeted at them. Does anyone look at beautiful Emma Watson in her tapis rouge dress at Cannes and comment how badly the fabric would fare in thorns on a hike in the lake district? Duh …
The fact is this camera’s arrival caught me at a busy time (what else is new?) and I used it for no more than 4 hours. In terribly difficult light. And I have many keepers to show for it.
That’s all the pudding a proof of concept needs.
In fact, if wonderful Emma and talented David agree, I’d like to push that dress analogy one step further. Switzerland is known for haute horlogerie. Paris for haute couture. I’d like to suggest that Besançon has now become a worthy center of haute photographie.
This update is meaningful. It gave us the the much needed increase in pixel count that the market expects and demands these days. More importantly to me, it brings proof that Pixii are serious about their extremely ambitious product timeline and retrofit upgrade scheme!
If this took the camera’s crowd-pulling abilities from the ground to the top of a high building, the next step in in the timeline is … the moon. This will draw a different type of folk and I hope to see it mature (and review it 🙂 ) soon. But this current iteration is now one many photographers could call home. Well done Pixii!
I was the first DSer to play with a Pixii. It incorporated plenty for me not to like. But, to my great surprise, it was (also) a revelation. The shooting experience was outstanding, demanding, yet so gratifying. Like the mastering of a thoroughbred sports car (more on that later).
But chief Pixii evangelist David Barth made a promise. What is not (yet) right, I will make right, and, not only that, I will offer an upgrade path to existing owners. I snarked, yeah, sure! And promptly thought about flying pigs. An upgrade path with retrofits. Not just firmware updates, but actual key bits of hardware. Pshaw! It had never been done, and, if true, it would be HUGE. An end to rapid obsolescence. An end to rapid loss in value. So huge that it might force others to match that. Including the premium-luxo brand that prides itself on its hold on that end of the world market. Pixii could change the market forever, if it delivered on its promise. Nah, it wasn’t about to happen. Pigs don’t have wings….
Ooops. This Pixii shows that, sometimes, the unexpected happens. Pixii delivered a vastly improved model (see above), AND AN UPGRADE PATH for existing cameras, AND a promise of more upgrades to come. Did I just see a flock of flying
And, for those in the know of Pixii’s plans, the future could hold more world firsts. But what is the point of buying a camera before it is a mature product, and a world-beater at that? Well, that is the second sea-change between the two Pixii. The first one was, at worst an oddball, at best a promise. This one is not. It is a product. Not yet perfect for most customers, but then neither was it designed to be. Not with manual focus and a rangefinder. But for some, as Pascal points out, very definitely a contender, and, in many ways, a unique one.
And that, for me is the major breakthrough Pixii have achieved. And here I will avail myself of the thoroughbred sports car metaphor once again. It used to be epitomized by Ferrari. Incredible V12 engines, gorgeous styling by Pininfarina, blistering speed for those who could master them. Wonderfully desirable, definitely unreasonable, very exclusive and hard to get. Fast forward to now. Ferrari make many more cars. They still dominate the category, but are no longer the most exclusive. For, beyond the “major” players in the category (along with Lamborghini, Aston Martin, McLaren), there are now smaller, even more exclusive hypercar brands, for those who want something different. Think Pagani, or Koeniggsegg, or the new Gordon Murray. Well, that is what Pixii have done. Created something different, and more exclusive than you know who….
And if you think that the Pixii with its APS/C and 26Mp isn’t exactly a performance demon (it is an IQ demon, though), pick your version of “classy, different, exclusive, that makes you work for satisfaction”. It could be a Donkervoort or Caterham, or, in a different market segment, a Grenadier as opposed to the perennial Land Rover…
My hat off to you, Monsieur Barth!
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