Friday, March 30, 2007

What's in a name?

I hate to get into conversations about equipment, particularly conversations about camera brands, because equipment has the least impact on a photographer's work. That said, many photographers have recently been debating the quality of cameras and lenses from some of photography's best-known companies. For example, there are numerous Leica owners who are flooding photography-related websites complaining that the Leica-branded lenses used on digital cameras from Leica and Panasonic are not "real" Leica lenses.

Let's think about that for a second.

For years, the only Leica lenses were lenses manufactured in Germany by Leitz/Leica for the Leica rangefinders (first screwmount followed by the M-mount).

By the 1970s and 1980s Leica (and just about every company that cares about profit) realized that outsourcing to countries with cheaper labor/production was more cost effective. A great example of this was the Leitz Leica CL (also known as the Leica Minolta CL) and the Minolta CLE.

The lenses for the CL were manufactured by Minolta under Leitz Leica supervision and carried the Leitz/Leica logo. The Minolta CLE lenses manufactured at the same Minolta factory carried the Minolta logo.

That said, the "Minolta" branded CLE lenses use the exact same traditional Leitz parallel focusing cams ... while the "Leitz/Leica" branded CL lenses have angular focusing cams (not a very "Leica" design at the time).

In late 1990s through 2000 Leica teamed up with Fujifilm to release a series of "Leica" Digilux cameras such as the "Leica Digilux 4.3" which was actually just a relabeled Fujifilm FinePix 4700Z. That's right. The "Leica" Digilux 4.3 was manufactured by Fujifilm in the same factory using the same parts, just with the Leica logo stuck on the camera. It was NOT manufactured under the supervision of Leica beyond some superficial oversight.

A couple of years later Leica teamed up with Panasonic and Leica engineers began working with Panasonic to design and manufacture lenses and cameras (which would be manufactured by Panasonic under more direct supervision of Leica personnel). These lenses carried the Leica name.

But really, I'm going past my point. How do you define a "Leica" lens? Heck, I'm sure there are some "Canon L" lens owners who say that the Canon L lens on the Canon Powershot Pro1 isn't a "real" Canon L lens.

Likewise, I'm sure there are many Nikon SLR/DSLR owners using "Nikkor" lenses who don't think the Nikkor lenses on Nikon compact cameras are "real" Nikkor lenses.

You're talking about a brand as much as you're talking about lens design. What works in terms of lens design for a 35mm film camera doesn't always work for a APS-sized digital image sensor. Likewise, what works in terms of lens design for a 35mm rangefinder camera doesn't always work in terms of lens deign for a 1/1.8" digital image sensor.

In fact, I'm reasonably certain that if you removed the "Leica DC Vario-Elmarit" lens from the Panasonic Lumix FZ50 and replaced it with the amazing "Leica 50mm f/1.0 Noctilux M" that you would end up with horrible image quality ... because that "real" Leica lens just isn't deigned to work with a 1/1.8" sensor.

Bottom line, sometimes manufacturers have to change lens designs in order to evolve with modern technology. Likewise, sometime manufacturing is outsourced so companies save on expenses and consumers can have cheaper prices. That doesn't always make the new product any less of a quality product ... it just makes it different.

When a company sticks their brand on a product it means they're willing to put their reputation on the line for that product. That's enough to make it a "real" whatever the brand is.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Dust, dust, and more dust.

I usually hate technical/equipment reviews when it comes to photography, but since moving from film Single-Lens-Reflex (SLR) cameras to Digital SLRs several years ago I discovered a common problem that many digital photographers face.


Photographers rarely worried about dust ruining an image back in film days because the frame of film was only exposed to the open air inside the camera for a moment before the film was wound/advanced to the next frame. With Digital SLRs, the image sensor that sits inside the camera is exposed to air (and dust) at all times. This means that dust particles can settle on the image sensor and create ugly dark spots on your images where the light is being blocked by the dust.

A few brave photographers use sensor swabs and sometimes even cleaning fluids to remove dust particles from the image sensor. Most photographers use handheld air blowers to blow dust off the image sensor. Some camera makers have even developed complex anti-dust systems that literally "shake" the image sensor inside the camera to knock dust away. Of course, cameras with this feature usually cost more than cameras without this feature.

The staff at recently published a review of several cameras equipped with anti-dust systems and made some interesting findings.

Long story short: dust on DSLR sensors is unavoidable without "serious" cleaning using sensor swab-type cleaning tools or slightly less effective air blowers. Anti-dust sensor shake methods don't do anything.