Saturday, September 3, 2016

LEICA’S FIRST MIRRORLESS CAMERA






With the introduction of the new Leica SL, Leica has entered the mirrorless digital camera age with a vengeance.  It currently is the only fully professional camera of that type on the market.  But it is not the fists mirrorless digital camera with an electronic viewfinder from Leica.

For that we have to go back over 12 years to 2004, when Leica introduced the Leica Digilux 2.  It pointed solidly into the future, what digital cameras eventually would become.  No mirror to flip up for each picture taken, no complicated view finder relying on that mirror combined with prisms.  Just an electronic viewfinder.

One might argue that the Leica M with its many variants is a mirrorless camera as well,  but most will agree that the true meaning of a mirrorless, digital camera is not only centered on the camera being digital, but digital with an electronic viewfinder.

As such, the Leica Digilux 2 was the first mirrorless camera from Leica.  It was first introduced in February of 2004, over twelve years ago.  As a mirrorless design, the camera featured an electronic viewfinder besides the standard LCD screen in back of the camera.  A great part of the rather good performance of this camera is, of course, the lens.  The Leica DC Vario-Summicron ASPH 7-22.5 mm f/2.0-2.4 lens is a gem, a definite Leica lens.  Because of the relatively small sensor of the Digilux 2, the lens could be designed as a 7 – 22.5 mm lens which corresponds to a full frame equivalent of 28 – 90 mm.  Here is actually an example where a smaller sensor does have some definite advantages.  To have a 28 – 90 mm lens with a full frame sensor at a maximum aperture of f/2 would make that lens gigantic in size and weight and, and with the same performance level, extremely expensive.  The sensor has a resolution of 5 megapixels which, by today’s standards, is relatively low.  But the low resolution belies the actual performance of this camera.  Even by today’s standards, the camera is capable of delivering results that easily point to a substantially higher resolution.  This goes to the credit of the amazing Vario Summicron lens.   It can easily be said that the Leica Digilux 2 is by far the best 5 megapixel camera ever to appear on the market.  Unfortunately, the camera has long since been discontinued, but it still has a large following of people that refuse to give it up.

Besides the outstanding performance, the camera was obviously designed for former manual camera users. Thus it should come as no surprise that the entire layout of the camera is reminiscent of a Leica M camera. The Digilux 2 features a conventional shutter speed dial as well as standard f stop and focusing rings on the lens.  Especially for Leica rangefinder users, the camera is immediately familiar.  Even the feel of the camera is very similar and does not require any much getting used to.

Of course there are a few modern concessions like autofocus, but manual focus ability is maintained.  As a matter of fact, it is possible to activate a magnifying feature which will give a greatly magnified view of the subject matter the moment the manual focusing ring is moved.  After focusing, the image quickly returns to its normal magnification for viewing and composing  This greatly facilitates the overall accuracy of manual focusing.

The camera also has a built-in flash.  When activated, it pops up out of the top of the camera.  A very unique feature is the two positions of the flash.  Initially the reflector stops at a 45 degree angle to allow for bounce flash, a feature that was not to be found anywhere else until the introduction of the Digilux 3.  Pushing the flash release button a second time will move the reflector into a standard, forward facing position.

The ISO range of the camera runs from 100 to 400.  That might seem inadequate by today’s standards, but considering the rather fast f/2 lens, a camera with an f/4 lens would need ISO 1600 to equal the Digilux 2.

In practice the camera has proven to be a very handy, relatively light camera capable of tackling just about any subject matter.  It is no wonder that the camera still enjoys a rather loyal following. 

Full frame image at ISO 100

 
Left eye cropped from the original above

 
ISO 100

 
ISO 100

 
Vice President Walter Mondale and wife Joan
ISO 100

 
Burg Braunfels, Germany
ISO 100

 
Weilburg, Germany
ISO 400

 
Children's Day Minneapolis Institute of Arts
ISO 400

 
Minneapolis Institute of Art
ISO 400

I entered the digital age with a Leica Digilux 2 in 2006, a time when I was still very skeptical of digital photography.  But it had become obvious that traditional film photography was quickly becoming a thing of the past.  Besides, the idea of not having to buy film and pay for processing did appeal to me.  After all, lowering overhead is always a good thing when running a business.

At that time I was doing a lot of architectural photography, mostly with a Rolleiflex SL66.  Could this relatively small digital camera really be considered a replacement for the medium format Rollei?  There was no doubt that the Rolleiflex was a superior camera in the final analysis.  But I also had to consider that many of my clients began to ask for digital files, and I was more and more in need of having the negs from the Rollei scanned to accommodate them.

I shot my first assignment with the Digilux 2 on a cold, Minnesota January day and evening.  It was about 10 degrees and I was wondering of this all electronic piece of equipment was even able to function properly under those conditions.

 ISO 100

Well, it did, not only did it function properly; it rendered results which I had no hesitation to give to my client.  From that day on I did most of my professional work with that camera.  The Rolleiflex has long been sold.  As a matter of fact, I don’t recall when I shot my last roll of film, but I am sure it was around the time of the appearance of the Leica Digilux 2 as part of my camera outfit.  I still have that camera and yes, I still use it.  It still is a fun and extremely well working camera.

ISO 100

ISO 100

ISO 100

One aspect that drew me to this particular camera was the fact that it operated very much like my Leica M6 at that time.  The layout was very similar, and most of the controls were very much the same.  No need to punch a bunch of buttons and to look at LCD displays to set shutter speeds and apertures, this was all done in a very familiar manner.

Of course there was a bit of a learning curve.  Instead of turning a dial for the film speed, I now had to go into the camera menu to set ISO speed and a number of other, formerly unnecessary things like white balance, for instance.  But this was done on the display screen in back of the camera. 

I was actually a bit concerned about that screen.  I had seen a lot of such screens that became difficult to use in bright light.  Not so with the Digilux 2.  To my surprise, It functioned every bit as good, even in direct sunlight, as it did in a darkened environment.  To this day, I consider the Digilux 2 screen one of the best I have ever used, better than even the screen on my Leica M8.

Another aspect of the camera that did require some getting used to was the viewfinder.  Even though it looked outwardly very similar to the viewfinder on my Leica M6, it proved to be entirely different.  The viewfinder on the Leica Digilux 2 was one of the first electronic viewfinders ever used.  It has a bit of a lag when used with rapid camera movements and it is difficult to use under very dark lighting conditions.  But I have never felt that I was missing out on shots because of it.  Once used to it, I was able to use it like most any other viewfinder as well.

Of course there is no rangefinder, but the automatic focusing makes up for that in most situations.  The camera also has manual focusing.  I found it difficult to focus the lens manually at first, which is until I discovered the magnifying feature.  Once activated, it switches the standard viewfinder image to a greatly magnified portion of it.  The moment you are done focusing, the viewfinder image switches back to the full viewing field.  That proved to be highly accurate, with the result that I have never experienced any focusing problems to speak of.

But there is another, hidden advantage to the small sensor combination with this lens.  Being of a design that entered the market in 2004, the high ISO sensitivity of the sensor is limited to just ISO 400.  Even so, going beyond the standard ISO 100, the camera does display considerable noise, especially in the dark areas of the image.  This might be considered a definite handicap, but we must not forget that ISO 100 at f/2 is the equivalent of ISO 400 at f/4 or ISO 800 at f/5.6, all aperture setting that are displayed by many of the slower zoom lenses we see in cameras today.  With other words, one would have to go to much more recent and more expensive cameras to gain any advantage.

The camera does have a built-in flash which pops up at the press of a button.  But unlike most other cameras, this is a two position flash with the first position being for bounce flash.  Here the flash is pointing upwards in about a 45 degree angle.  A second push of the button will position the flash with the reflector facing forward.  There have been numerous instances where the bounce flash enabled me to get very naturally looking results which in no way revealed that on-camera flash was actually used.

  
The two flash positions

Unfortunately, the camera does not have a PC outlet.  Instead I use a hot shoe adapter to be able to use the Digilux 2 with studio flash, or I use a wireless connector in the hot shoe to trigger the flash.

So Far I have had no reason to eliminate the Digilux 2 from my list of cameras.  I still use it and I still like to use it.  There definitely is little chance that I will ever get rid of it.  Besides, my wife has been using it for a while now, and she likes it just the same.  I guess that makes it her camera now, but I still borrow it from time to time.

More sample images taken with the Lewica Digilux 2:

 
 Frankfurt, Germany
ISO 100

 
ISO 100

 ISO 100

 
At "Josephs Ristorante" Weilburg, Germany
ISO 400

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27 comments:

  1. These results are astonishing for a 5 megapixel camera.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes indeed. The Digilux 2 is a great example that shows that a low pixel count (by today's standards) does not automatically mean poor results. But the general public has been brainwashed into thinking that more pixels automatically means better pictures.

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    2. These results are definitely very impressive. Especially the cropped eye shows what this camera is capable of. That quality compares very favorably with cameras of substantially larger sensors and much higher resolution.

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    3. I just took a closer look at the cropped eye. The detail is amazing, you can even make out some detail in the reflection of the umbrella light. Are you sure this was not taken with another camera?

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    4. Yes, I can assure you that all pictures in this article (except the product shots) were taken with the Leica Digilux 2

      Delete
  2. What other Leicas besides the Digilux 2 do you have?

    ReplyDelete
  3. I also have a Digilux 3 which I use primarily with long lenses and a Leica M8. In addition, there is also a Leica III, a IIIf and a Russian Leica II copy, but I don't shoot film any longer. For the M8 I have a 15mm Voidtländer, a 28mm Elmarit, a 50mm Summicron, and a 90mm and 135mm Elmarit.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry, pushed send to fast.
      The Digilux 2 is obviously limited to its 28 - 90 mm zoom since it has no interchangeable lenses. Besides the standard 28 - 100 mm Zoom on the Digilux 3, i also have a 200 mm and a 400 mm Novoflex and a 55 mm and 105 mm Micro Nikkor. I also have a 250 mm Meyer Tele Megor that would fit the Digilux 3, but I rarely use it. For the Leica M8 I have a 15mm f/4.5 Voigtländer, a 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit, a 50mm f/2 Summicron and a 50mm f/2.8 Elmar, a 90mm f/4 Elmar, a 90mm f/2.8 Elmarit and a 135mm f/2.8 Elmarit.

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    2. Any other cameras that you use or own?

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    3. Yes, I have a Plaubel Makina with wide angle, normal and tele lenses and also a 5x7 Plaubel Peco Universal. In addition there are a variety of other cameras in my collection, too many to mention.

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  4. I purchased the Panasonic version of this camera earlier this year after reading many positive reviews over the years. I agree that the files are most impressive, but I disliked using the camera and especially disliked the viewfinder. I sold it shortly afterwards and went back to my M3 and Nikon digital system.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What about using the camera didn't you like and what Nikon digital camera are you using instead?

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    2. I disliked the shutter release but mostly disliked the EVF. I infinitely prefer an optical viewfinder. I still use a Nikon D2h, so I know how well a camera with a limited number of pixels can perform.

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    3. You are certainly not the only one that disliked the viewfinder of the Digilux 2. It took me a while too to get used to it. Obviously, I agree with your assessment of the performance potential of a limited number of pixels. As a matter of fact, I think the pixel race is not happening out of necessity, but for advertising-saleability reasons.

      Delete
  5. Damn you, now you made me feel bad for having sold my Digilux 2.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh come on, you don't really mean that.

      Delete
    2. Yes I do, the feel bad part anyway, but not the damn you one. Even though I have owned this camera, I am amazed by the results you are showing here.

      Delete
  6. The Leica M isn't really a mirrorless camera.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is a rangefinder camera.

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    2. Okay, that it certainly is. Please define what in your opinion a mirrorless camera is.

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    3. A mnirrorless camera is a camera with interchangeable lenses and an electronic viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras generally have the same features as a DSLR, but without the mirror and prism for the viewfinder

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    4. I agree, although interchangeable lenses are not necessarily a prerequisite. There are certainly mirrorless cameras without interchangeable lenses, like the Leica Digilux 2. By your definition, the Leica M is definitely a mirrorless camera. It offers all the aspects mentioned in your response, and, in addition, it has also a rangefinder.

      Delete
    5. But the Leica M does not offer autofocus. All mirrorless cameras do have autofocus.

      Delete
    6. Aren't you defining the camera's viewfinder system with unrelated features and by the offerings of other manufacturers? Basically, mirrorless is simply referring to a viewfinder system that employs an electronic viewfinder instead of a conventional SLR type viewfinder, therefore, mirrorless. All other features are unrelated. That makes the Leica M one of the most sophisticated mirrorless cameras on the market.

      Delete
    7. The Leica T is mirrorless and a year older.

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    8. You are mistaken. The Leica T was introduced at the 100th anniversary of Leica cameras in 2014, the Leica Digilux 2 was introduced in 2004, making it 10 years older than the Leica T

      Delete