The Leica Mini M Continues the Rush

(rumors and commentary)

As with a lot of things on the Internet, Leica's teaser campaign on the Mini M didn't manage to keep the secret for very long. It appears that we'll get another in the X series of cameras (X1 and X2, which the teaser called Micro M). That means that it's a 16mp APS sensor, fixed lens camera. In other words, a large sensor compact. 

Only it's not quite so compact this time. That's because up front is a Vario-Elmar 28-70mm f/3.5-6.4 ASPH lens (focal length equivalent; the real focal length is 18-46mm). The lens doesn't collapse and has reasonably wide focus and zoom rings, so it butts out maybe 3" from the camera. 

I'll have full details and more to say when the camera is announced on June 11th. 

For now let's concentrate on what's happening: we're getting an on-rush of large sensor compacts. Canon has one, Fujifilm has one, Leica now has three (though one is just an update of another), Nikon has one, Ricoh has one, Sigma has three, and Sony has two very different approaches. Basically, everyone's got skin in the game now except for Olympus, Panasonic, and Pentax (the Pentax MX-1 is 1/1.7" sensor, still what would be considered a compact sensor size).

The serious photo enthusiasts have shown—exactly as I predicted from my surveys over five years ago—that they're willing to pay higher than entry DSLR prices for these big sensor compacts, so we've not seen the last of the product introductions, by any stretch of the imagination. 

That said, no one has really defined this market yet. Sigma's approach is just to iterate the same camera with three different lenses. Thus, to have some flexibility I have to buy multiple cameras. That's not likely to be the winning strategy. Heck, might as well make a small mirrorless camera and let the user change between those lenses (and indeed, those same DP lenses are offered by Sigma for other maker's mirrorless cameras; they're just built permanently into the DP Merrills). Apparently Sigma got tired of being beaten up in the interchangeable lens camera game, so just glued their lenses on this time around and pretended they're playing in a different game. I think it's a real stretch to say to potential and existing m4/3 and NEX users "here are three great lenses, use them on your camera" but tell Sigma's own customers "buy three cameras to get the three lenses." 

Sony's strategy is certainly unique: they've tried something on the small consumerish side (RX-100 with 1" sensor but shirt pocket sized) and something on the large near-pro side (RX-1 with full frame sensor and definitely not pocket sized). What's next? Something borrowed and something blue? 

Meanwhile, the prime lens choices being made show no real market definition yet, either, and so far hark seriously back to the 1960's. Using effective focal lengths, we have 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 75mm choices. Yeah, I've used lenses of those focal lengths. All of them. In the 60's, because that was about all that was available to me in my price range. So which one is the one we serious users truly want stuck permanently on our compacts in 2013? No camera maker seems to know; they're completely in recycle mode.

Which brings me back to Leica. While we've got a 28-70mm (equivalent) zoom up front, look at those aperture values. We start out at least a half stop down and at the long end we're giving up two-and-a-half stops. Yeah, I know sensors perform quite well these days, but the reason so many of us wanted large sensor compacts was partly for low light performance and partly for DOF isolation, but Leica seems to be giving a lot of that up.

Leica seems to be executing what I defined as the "consumer large sensor compact" in my compact challenge article back in 2007. Only problem is that it's not likely to be at a consumer price (speculation is over US$3000), and it's not so compact. So, technically, the Canon G1x and Sony RX-100 appear to be the only truly consumer large sensor options, even after the Leica Mini M appears (likely with an X name, since the M in Leica M is an abbreviation for the German word for "rangefinder" ;~). 

We're going to see much more experimentation in the coming year or two, as the camera makers continue to try to find the market center by feel and iteration. A few things are starting to become clear, though: 

  • APS sensor is the most common sensor target. I'd argue the sweet spot is slightly down from that, something from 1" to m4/3 sized. Why? Because it makes the lens designs smaller, and we don't want to forget that these are supposed to be compact cameras. If the result is as big as a small mirrorless or DSLR camera, most people would rather have the lens flexibility version than the fixed lens version.
  • Focus still isn't there. The Fujifilm X100s is the only large sensor compact so far with phase detect autofocus, and while it isn't a perfect speed demon, it definitely is the one to beat in terms of focus. The Nikon S1/J1/J2/J3 would be awesome and highly competitive cameras with a fully retracting 28-100mm lens and no lens mount (at the right price). On the flip side, any large sensor compact needs to be as small as those Nikon 1 cameras and as capable in focus, otherwise Nikon was right to make the S1/J1/J2/J3 interchangeable lens cameras. The one problem with the Sony RX-100 is exactly that: focus speed. Basically, the potential purchaser of a 1" "compact" can choose between focus speed with interchangeable lenses, or shirt-pocket size with fixed lens. Both sides are giving up customers to the other, basically splitting the market instead of gobbling it up.
  • The finders still aren't there. Other than the Fujifilm X100s (again), right now the best other case is a hot shoe wart that's either the most expensive piece of small glass you've ever bought, or a laggy, grainy, under-pixeled EVF that drains your compact's compact battery faster than you can charge a new one. 

The Fujifilm X100s is probably the most well-rounded of the bunch at present. Nice large sensor with good low light performance. Reasonably fast focus. A nice finder. A lens choice that attempts to be Goldilocks-like (e.g. wide angle closest to normal). Compare that to the Coolpix A and the Ricoh GR, both of which can match the Fujifilm in terms of sensor and lens quality, but neither of which has the focus and finder performance. Plus they both choose 28mm, which is definitely not the Goldilocks focal length for most people (it isn't for me, either, but my choice would be 24mm, the opposite direction of most people).

So we'll going to get more iteration experiments from the camera makers as they try to figure out the real sweet spot: sales, profit, and competitive. Frankly, I don't think the definition of "perfect large sensor compact" has changed since I first attempted to make it. My current thinking is basically this:

  • 1" to APS sensor. It's a tradeoff between lens size and low light performance. Remember, we're trying to invent the perfect "compact" camera, not make a mirrorless or DSLR that has a permanently bolted on lens.
  • Phase detect focus with good manual or snap focus controls. Nikon and Fujifilm have shown the first part is possible. Others have shown that the second part is. Still others (hey, Canon, what's up?) don't seem to think either is necessary. 
  • 24-70mm and fast maximum aperture. So little creativity is being shown in lenses. I originally proposed a trifocal lens, but even a 24/35 or 28/50 bifocal would prove much more useful than the monofocal primes we've gotten, or Leica's slow zoom. Sony's RX-100 at 28-100mm (equivalent) f/1.8-4.9 is the closest thing we've gotten to truly useful (the Canon's 28-112mm f/2.8-5.8 would be second).
  • Get serious about grips. A small camera is difficult to hold without design support for that. It's even more important if the camera is to be operated like a traditional compact, with two arms in front of you. We shouldn't have to accessorize our compacts to make them work for us.
  • Options. An EVF, the ability to work with the maker's mirrorless/DSLR flash units, wireless and wired remotes. Not much else is needed. We are using these cameras in lieu of a more sophisticated mirrorless/DSLR, so they don't have to do everything those systems do. But they shouldn't be dead ends, either. Play well with your other gear, and give us an "at eye" option are the basic points here.
  • Traditional. Give us (reasonably) traditional controls and a full set of them. When you're menu diving you're not making photographs. We want these cameras because we want to make photographs all the time, and not just snapshots for Facebook use, but images that we can do things like make large prints with. 
  • Price is not a primary consideration. Some of you will object to this, but I'd argue that the "perfect large sensor compact" done right is not a price-sensitive purchase. The Coolpix A is overpriced because it's not the perfect compact design, not because US$1100 is too much to pay for a compact camera.
  • Never forget the "compact" part. These are cameras that live in shirt pockets, jacket pockets, glove compartments, very small bags or purses, get stuffed into small backpacks or laptop bags; just about anything other than hang via a neck strap or require a big protective bag. That has implications on build quality, too. These cameras get exposed to abuse due to the way they're carried. So don't skimp on the materials or durability.         


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