If you are reading this very first line, I am guessing that you are interested in the title of this very blog.
Yes, this blog is rather unusual. Why? First, I am testing cameras from two brands with different form factors. Second, the two camera manufacturers each has different photography philosophy.
First, let me explain the reason behind this special comparison. With very much interest and love towards the renowned German camera brand, Leica, I am indeed considering switching from my very established Japanese camera system. The ‘L’ or more appropriately, the M cameras, have always been some kind of fascinating objects to me. The heritage, the attention to detail craftsmanship, the perfect optical designs… the list can go on and you get the idea. And they are all hand made! The Far East alternatives, likes of Nikon, Canon, Olympus and Minolta (now Sony), were all commercialized manufacturing products. All of these Japanese products are very well designed and executed, so don’t get me wrong. I’ve been using Canon for the best part of my past decade so it’s as good as gold. But Leica is different. Something that you cannot put a price to it (and indeed they are expensive).
I am not going to dig into details about the two different systems or the pros and cons about each form factors or designs. I rather concentrate on what matters most – picture quality.
What I am fascinated about is just how good is modern digital Leica camera is against some professional Japanese offerings. If I am going to switch, I don’t want to put my hard earn money to just the heritage and brand, I also want to make money from it. Having used my film Leica M6 for a couple of years, I know it’s a great camera system to use and Leica’s small metal lenses are all great for sure.
Film is different. It’s more of a level playing field to compare lenses and its image quality. But on digital, that’s a whole new level. Sensor quality and image processing chips are what dictate the ultimate output. So here I am.
A few weeks ago, I walked into my local Leica dealer and had a play around the latest M Type 240 and the Monochrom. I brought along with my memory card and my Canon. I know there aren’t many shops that will let you take your memory card these days because they simply don’t want people blog about the products and got a free test drive. But my reason is of course very genuine. I do want to try out the new M and the MM to see if it’s suitable for my type of photography, mainly weddings, portraits and travel.
There wasn’t any point to compare low ISO settings because any camera can product decent image at base ISOs so I jumped straight into the border territory, ISO 6400!
Ok, why do I choose ISO 6400? Well in theory, these are all kind of the native maximum for each camera, not exactly but close. Secondly, I shoot mostly at ISO 3200 indoor and churches so 6400 is the ultimate setting I would use if I needed so if any of these cameras is good at 6400, then I am all good to go!
My test wasn’t too scientific and I did use slightly different aperture settings for each shots but because I was ‘playing’ around with the cameras and lenses, so I didn’t bother too much about depth of field or ultimate lens quality test. I wanted to look at the file with one thing in mind, noise. (Please forgive me for not doing being able to test this more accurately and all shots were handheld and there could be a little focusing errors and I could be in a slightly different place everytime I changed body).
Therefore, the following shots were all done with the same focal length and at ISO 6400, processed with Adobe Lightroom 5 and 100% crops can be enlarged by clicking on the photos.
I did some rough research on each of the sensors on DXO’s site and clearly the latest Leica sensor scores pretty high, much higher than Canon’s. MM sensor is not there however. Well, here’s the big surprise!
I never would have expected this. The 5-year-old Canon EOS 5D Mark II actually performed quite well here. Especially when I was comparing with the latest 2013 Leica! You will have to take my words for it, Leica does look quite a bit better at low ISOs that I’d tried but in real world use, the differences were subtle. But at ISO 6400, M Type 240 suffered from colour noise and a little bit of banding. Canon did perform better, which was to my surprise. Noise was evident but quite acceptable for further processing.
Despite the slightly denser pixels in the Leica, at this ISO setting, it failed to capture more details due to colour noise level. I would say Leica’s noise was a little ‘patchy’.
I may be overly critical but the noise in Canon was more uniform than those in Leica.
I haven’t mentioned the M Monochrom. Well, I was so relieve to see that the MM stood on its own ground. It’s in a different league all together. Because there was no colour noise, luminance noise was more like film grain. Unlike the patchy M Type 240 noise, it’s uniform (like the Canon), but finer. This results in a much crispier picture. So Leica’s claim for MM having upto 100% sharper was very true. To me, this file quality is more like ISO 800 in ANY modern cameras. If I may say, it looks better than ISO 200 in black and white film (as least scanned ones).
Last but not least, here’s an interesting final take. I converted these crops into monochrome by desaturating the file. The result was rather… fascinating. Canon’s file was very close to Leica’s MM but even at 18Mp, the MM still outperforms 21MP’s file. Leica’s M Type 240 was the least pleasing, even with no colour noise. The shadow area still looked patchy so it still looked coarser than others.
I was a little disappointing to find out that at ISO 6400, the latest Leica still lagged behind a 5-year-old Canon. Yes, it’s much better than the M9 for sure but boy I would have thought Leica’s sensor would at least be as good if not better than my Canon.
Well, I guess this test may anger some Leica die hards but I love Leica myself. I am just disappointed. As an Apple fan, I just feel like Apple’s photo software is lagging behind Adobe’s (see my test here). But looking at the bright side, Leica’s latest M installment is by far the best M camera in terms of features and flexibility (live view, focus peaking and R compatibility with adaptor). In digital word, with the right post processing technique, Leica’s file is definitely up to scratch and worth professional use. In real world use and for printing, the differences are much less noticeable. In fact, I doubt that any ‘normal’ eyes would notice anything. But I guess the MM is the clear winner here. To me, apart from the restriction of being just black and white, it has the best and natural looking files at whatever ISO setting, period. Even at that crazy ISO 10000, the files still look ok, more like ISO 3200 film! That’s cool.
I hope you enjoy this comparison and now more for me to think about. My journey to digital Leica is still on course but Type 240 or MM? That’s the question. If I am to go with the MM, then I will keep my 5D for colour work, which I can use an adaptor to use M lenses anyway. Umm… tough choice. Watch this space! Salut!!!
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