PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux


A tale of two 18MP cameras

In this first half of September 2009 we’re looking at two important new cameras, each vying for the position of standard-bearer for their categories. Both are built around high-tech 18MP sensors, but that’s where the similarities end because the two cameras could not be more different. One is a fast-action do-it-all reflex camera and the other is a more reflexive camera that will do all that you can make it do.

The 7D

Could we be looking at the end of the road for the xxD series as the standard advanced-amateur camera? The series surely isn’t dead but I’m not sure if the advanced-amateur will be the target from here on. There is one clear message from Canon though: if you were considering buying a D300s, please consider buying a 7D instead.

This said, the rest of the message from Canon is hard to hear because there is little 21st century communication coming out of Canon. There isn’t a 30-page PDF loaded with professional images shot by this year’s coolest photogs. There isn’t a flash website to take you through the features and the philosophy of the camera. There isn’t an interactive learning center where you can poke at a fake 7D or watch people shoot a 7D through its paces.

At face value the 7D has (perhaps simply is) more of everything. Lots of pixels per frame, lots of frames per second, good HD video.  There isn’t much to say because really it looks great at everything.

The only problem the 7D is facing is lens starvation. The meaning of starvation is either that you have no lenses to choose from, or the lenses don't feed your sensor to satiety.  I looked at the image samples from Dpreview, Rob Galbraith and others, and few of them have managed pictures to show off the 18MP sensor. The Dpreview samples simply aren’t good and they were (most/all?) using Canon’s topoftheline EF-S 17-55 lens.  Rob Galbraith's were all flat and muddy.  The resolution chart from Imagine-Resource is the only one I found that was detailed. These soft images aren’t caused by the AA filter either, because the resolution charts manage to generate moiré.

A 7D owner who’s planning on actually getting 18MP images is going to need really excellent lenses.  I mean forget 90% of the Canon lens portfolio because they’re not good enough.  This is going to be a very serious undertaking for those who are minded to harness the resolution that’s included. You will need primes, and they need to be modern, like from the last 2-3 years tops.  Look at Zeiss ZE's if you think you can use them.

The M9

Forget the last 3 years, this is the first digital M camera. The M8? It's going the way of the M5. The M series goes M4 to M6, M7 to M9, and so say we all.

No I am not putting a yet-unannounced product on a high pedestal. The M9 is probably still going to have variously-important flaws.

It probably doesn’t make any concessions for eyeglasses. It probably doesn't eclipse the M8 for memory interface performance. Weather resistance probably isn't on a higher level than the M8’s. It probably is still susceptible to accidental button presses. The battery and SD card are probably still hidden under an awkward metal plate. There probably is nothing surprising included either, so for example your dream of image stabilization probably probably isn’t being realized.

We’ll find out the details over the coming weeks, I’m sure David Farkas and Erwin Puts will have lots of meaty details for us to read, among others.  I'm looking forward to the Dpreview preview.

All of these probable flaws are irrelevant however, because more likely than not the M9 is now a good enough digital platform to be viable in the long term. The M8’s imaging pipeline plagued it with infrared contamination or cyan drift (take your pick), took away your high-speed wide-angle lens options and gave you few reasons to want to use it over a high-end Canon or Nikon camera. These issues we can expect have all been fixed with the M9 and that's why it's not an M8.3.

This is all that we really wanted: an M camera that does what it needs to, with little fanfare, and delivers richly detailed images that meet the current state of the art. Compared to the 7D, this camera will have no problem finding the right lenses to match. From day one the M9 will meet with the best lens portfolio there is, ready to crank out images to Leica’s signature.

It’s interesting to note that the M9 probably still leaves open plenty of ways to compete against it. A slightly larger body (à la Zeiss Ikon) with a larger viewfinder, weather seals and a well-positioned CF card slot at a lower price could compete successfully against the camera with a red dot.  Any kind of body with a motion-stabilized Sony backlit sensor could compete too, at any price. A Contax G style autofocus rangefinder is also an easy competition option.  Combine all three ideas and maybe you even have an M9 killer (oops, let's hope not)(oh no, wait... let's hope so).

I don’t see any threat to the M9 from micro-4/3. It’s not even close. The M9 is all about wide-angle journalism and micro-4/3, fitting in coat pockets. Except in fantasy the two systems do not meet.

In closing

The 7D is a nice camera, one which I think will feel most at home with an array of Zeiss lenses. I think many amateurs will have a blast with this camera, even if most of them will never know what 18MP really looks like. Either way they will love their camera and their pictures, and this is all that matters. Good job Canon!

The M9 should restore Leica’s place in the world, assuming that the price is right. Since the M8 makes no apparition in the new M system brochure (i.e. it is not shown as a low-end substitute) I will presume the plan is a strict replacement at a similar price. I can’t wait to get mine when my number comes up. Welcome back Leica!

For me personally, there is no discussion to have over the 7D and M9.  I have no stake in Canon and don't see the 7D as a historic milestone worthy of a cross-system leap.  The M9 however might well set my path for me - I think it shows the way I have to go, I feel compelled by it.  Unless some disastrous flaw is revealed in the M9's sensor then I will eventually get one even if I have to skip all other of life's luxuries.

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  1. “Unless some disastrous flaw is revealed in the M9’s sensor then I will eventually get one even if I have to skip all other of life’s luxuries.”

    Sounds like a catastrophy! But I feel almost the same:

    Unless some disastrous flaw is revealed in the M9’s sensor then I will eventually get one even if I have to skip ALMOST all other of life’s luxuries.

    I am really in love with my Hexar RF and R4m. If there is a RFC that is expensive yet affordable for me I will buy it! Just like you….

    And eh… about the Zeiss lenses.
    I posess and tried quite a few on my D300. And I must say: using these lenses is like having an all new sensor in the camera. Forget about the Nikon primes and zooms….Zeiss rules!

    • I remember putting Zeisses on the D80 and seeing the camera basically turn in a Canon 5D (Mk-I) in terms of depth of color and impression of volume.

      Just this week I got some color film back from processing and I saw the same colors on Portra 400VC with the Zeiss Biogon 35mm ZM. This color signature is really the Zeiss promise.

      I’m debating whether my M9 will be used mostly with Zeiss ZMs or mostly with Leica ASPHs. It’s a tough call. I think I would be happy with Zeisses but the call of the ASPHs is hard to deny – the 24mm Elmarit is really superb and I must say of better physical build quality than all the Zeisses too.

      • ‘I will presume the plan is a strict replacement at a similar price’

        I hope that we will not be disappointed in this respect, but I think we will.

  2. I’ve seen it quoted at 5500 Euros with the 19% German VAT included, so just short of $7000 at the current exchange. That puts it somewhere between the M8 and the D3X or 1Ds Mk-III. This is my latest expectation.

    • Have you checked out the examples that DPReview posted from the M9?

      Now, granted they are JPEG’s, but am I crazy to say that the IQ seems… Disappointing? I think a good part of it appears to be the photographer, but overall the images look muddy and ill-defined with a distinct lack of dynamic range – I would hope that the RAW images would look better!

      But of course, it is a Beta product, so I will of course reserve personal judgement until I see production RAWs. But I don’t like what I’m currently seeing.

      Just like Olivier I seem to have been bitten by the M9 bug; after thinking about it a bit, it seems that the M9 is going to be around a fair bit longer than the M8.2 or any other manufacturers DSLR’s. As such perhaps it isn’t such a bad long term investment… But in terms of IQ I’ll be doing a lot more research before I subscribe fully to the M9.

      • Lately I’ve been very disappointed by the image samples I’ve seen from Dpreview and other “early review” sites.

        I haven’t yet seen a sharp image from the new Canon 7D. All were muddy and flat. I seriously doubt that the 7D is this bad of a camera.

        Ditto with the M9 now.

        I think these guys are going numb with the number of cameras thrown their way, and they just aren’t finding the drive to go and use the cameras well enough.

  3. Chris Weeks was given an M9 to use, as such he has various photographs posted on his site. Nothing big to ‘pixel-peep’ at, but perhaps the camera was used in a better spirit than with the DPR guys. Link below…

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