[HOW MUCH FOR THE BADGE?]

Once in a blue moon a camera comes along that is so rare in its concept, construction and price that critical assessment is made complicated because it has no peers with which to make comparison. After all, who but Leica would dare to create a compact camera with a fixed focal length, non- interchangeable lens, and charge nearly $6000 for it?

This is the Leica Q we are talking about – a 24 megapixel full frame camera with a bolted-on 28mm f1.7 Summilux lens. You can change the angle of view of the lens, just as you do in a phone, by cropping the recorded image. There is a switch on the camera that reframes the image as a 35 or 50mm focal length, but at the 50 mm crop you are getting an 8 megapixel file. Consider it as posh digital zoom which we would normally disparage as a poor substitute for true optical variable focal length lenses. The good news: the lens is optically stabilised, although Leica prefer you to leave it switched off for the teeny bit of extra sharpness.

So, what do you get for your $5900? The cynic might say that you are getting a very expensive red badge, but that would not be entirely fair.

First, let’s consider the lens. We did some not-quite-scientific comparisons (we don’t have a 28mm prime so we used a 20mm prime and a 28mm zoom) and there is no doubt that the Leica is sharper, has better resolution and contrast and produces better colour than our comparison lenses. It is also free of the barrel distortion expected from wide angle lenses.

The viewfinder on the Q is stunning. This is the highest resolution electronic viewfinder that we have used and, as the man from Leica says: “…is as close to an optical viewfinder as an EVF gets.” The touch-sensitive LCD is also brilliant in its brightness, colour and contrast. There is one-finger touch on the LCD to focus and fire the shutter and there is a phone/tablet control app which provides for a greater control of camera functions than we have seen from any other maker. As things stand the Leica is slightly better than the Japanese state-of-the-art in this department, except that the LCD doesn’t swivel.

The construction quality is in a class of its own, with its milled solid metal top plate and the luxurious feel to all its controls. The use of a leaf shutter means that the Leica is silent in operation and yet you feel, by the subtlest feedback, when the picture has been captured. It is hard to find a word to describe the sensation of using the Leica except to say that by comparison all other cameras feel a little crude.

There is an austere purity of form and function in the Q which thumbs its nose at the past few decades of camera development. Where the other companies have laboured to make the camera a device that can be accessorised to bend to the photographer’s intention Leica’s approach is to create a camera that compels conformity to itself. You do it the Q way or you don’t do it at all. The Q does just one thing and it does it perfectly.

 

Now comes the famous bottom line: can any fixed lens compact camera be worth an amount of money that will buy a superb Nikon D810 36 megapixel DSLR with the professional quality 24—70mm lens? For most of us mere mortals the answer is obviously no. But for the photographer with a serious, single-minded commitment to landscape, architectural or (perhaps) street photography the answer is “hmmm…maybe.” Or for the well-heeled, status-conscious person who can afford and appreciate the best (of its type) that money can buy the decision is easy. In other words, if money were no object we would by a Leica Q immediately.

The Q uses Adobe’s universal DNG RAW file format and the camera comes with Adobe Lightroom – look on it as a $200 discount.

One word of warning: when Leica aficionados paid over the odds for their 35mm film cameras they justified the purchase by telling themselves that the camera would last forever and be a valuable heirloom to bequeath to the kiddies. Well, that doesn’t apply to any digital camera. As soon as the 36 megapixel Q2 arrives in the shops the Q will be obsolete. Digital cameras are not good investments – it is unlikely that any digital model will ever become a classic like, say, an M6. It is painful to think of the Q as future landfill.

There is a small gallery of sample images here>

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[NOKIA LUMIA REFOCUS IN ACTION]

I am working on an article about getting out-of-focus backgrounds with smartphone cameras. It’s not easy because of the very wide angle lenses with tiny apertures used in phones, which tend to get everything in focus from here to infinity.

There are both in-camera and software emulations of selective focus, one of which is the Nokia [Windows] Lumia Refocus app for Windows phones. This works by taking a rapid bracket of shots, with the camera adjusting focus from most distant to closest. The individual images are layered in either phone review or, via export, on the computer. As you will see here the plane in focus is selected by clicking on the point in the image that you want to be sharply focused.

The best way to see the effect is to click around in this picture. As you will see, the depth effect is not dramatic, but it is interesting. Incidentally the capture can be done hand-held — the alignment is very good.

Refocus is really a post-capture way of selecting focus rather than a method for blurring backgrounds — still, it’s interesting.

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[WHAT’S ON WHEN THEN DAY IS OFF?]

This being the fourth Thursday in the month there is no Imaging in Livewire or the other Fairfax publications, but this does not mean I am sleeping in! I have stuff for testing. And right now I am up to my bottom in doodads under review.

Two new Apple products are demanding attention – the 27” 5K iMac and the unimaginatively named New Macbook, the 12” laptop with the Retina display.

Neither is new and I have had them on the test bench before, but only for a week because units were in short supply at the time of their release. Now I have them for a longer review period and they are both spectacular devices.

The tiny New Macbook is so slim and light that it occupies a place between the iPad and the Macbook Pro. It really is the go-anywhere laptop. Its one defect is that it has only one port [unless you count the audio socket] for everything, and that means you need adapters for things like memory card or USB stick connection. I can live with that.

The big 5K iMac is the best photo editing computer that I have ever seen. The screen resolution is such that the pixel grid is invisible and images appear for all the world as continuous tone. Compared with my 18 month old iMac, which I have always enjoyed using, this is chalk and cheese.

 

All of which set me thinking about the Apple mystique and what it is that has made the brand dominant in the field of display-centric devices. I think I know the answer.

Apple makes only one product. The difference between iPhone, iPad, iMac and Macbook is size. There is no difference in quality or functionality. Apple make only premium products and they charge accordingly. Shopping for an Apple product is easy – you decide on the device and how much you are prepared to pay and go into the shop and buy it.

Contrast this with the shopper’s dilemma when buying a Windows-based device. There are many brands and they carry many different prices. The specifications vary widely, and they don’t mean much to the average shopper anyway. What is the difference between a $399 Lenovo and a $1999 HP laptop? How will I judge the display for resolution and colour/tonal accuracy? Does the display show true whites and blacks? Are the keyboard and trackpad any good? Apple answers all these queries in the factory where initial calibration of the displays is as near as dammit to perfect every time, and you can take it straight from the box confident that colour and tone are right.

I have been running the Windows 10 review betas for a couple of months and would like to be able to say that it promises to challenge the Apple operating system. After all we need competition to improve products and control prices. But so far Windows 10 has failed to impress. It has one big advantage over Apple OS and that is in file management, which is simpler, more logical and intuitive, but apart from that it is not looking like much of a challenge to Apple’s dominance. And as things stand, a few weeks before the final release, Windows 10 is ugly. It is hard to believe that the awful aesthetics of the new operating system will persist into the release version, but right now it is looking like it will.

Having been a loyal Windows chap for decades it pains me to see Microsoft failing. I haven’t been able to get hold of a review unit of any of the Microsoft Slate devices so I can’t say if they are a serious challenge to the iPad. I have not seen a Windows laptop that challenges any of the Apple portables.

One furphy needs to be dealt with – Apple computers are not more intuitive and easier to use than Windows computers. All the big programs from Microsoft [Office] and Adobe [Photoshop, Lightroom, InDesign etc] are exactly the same on both systems. It’s just that the Apple OS is a more congenial and pleasant environment in which to use them.

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[REVIEW–PANASONIC LUMIX G7]

Price: $880 w 14–42mm kit lens (street price)
The best of both

THE LOW-DOWN: This 16 megapixel micro four thirds mirrorless interchangeable lens camera brings many of the features of the $2500 GH4 to a more affordable form. The G7 incorporates the 4K ultra high definition video mode of the more expensive camera. There is a 4K stills mode that takes a sort of stop motion video of individual 8 megapixel frames to capture action. And the camera can anticipate the decisive moment – it has a “PreBurst” short buffer that begins recording before the shutter is released. You need to see it to understand it. The viewfinder is very high resolution and the LCD is touch sensitive. Panasonic’s WiFi control from phone or tablet is the best in the business. The camera is light and small.

LIKE: The 4K video output is stunning. We were able to edit and display the UHD video on the new 5K iMac, even displaying the 4K picture at the iMac’s full screen mode, and the results are amazing. There is a microphone socket so that the audio quality can match the video.

DISLIKE: Such a refined camera should not have the memory card slot in the battery compartment where it cannot be accessed when the camera is on a tripod.

VERDICT: Some years ago we reviewed one of the first hybrid stills/video cameras – also from Panasonic – and confidently predicted that it was a fiasco that would never fly. It was impossible, we said, to combine the two functions in a single camera without compromising both. OK. We were wrong. It is possible. And it has been done. With the Panasonic G7 you get the best of both at a remarkably reasonable price. And the Australian price is the same as in the US – buy locally!

 

[Panasonic G7 sample photos, somewhat “treated”>click here]
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