“Serious” photographers have often tended to look down their noses at digital crops, maintaining that optical zooms (or longer primes) are the only answer if you want to get closer. They make an exception for walk-to-zoom, or “zoom with your feet”. That has always been perfectly acceptable, of course, and in the early days it was the only option.
But times they are a changing. Lens technology is improving and sensor densities seem to double every year. So much so, that digital cropping — given the right tools to play with — is almost becoming respectable. At least Leica seems wedded to the idea.
Crop to zoom
Leica’s chief lens designer, Peter Karbe, believes that with today’s high-performance lenses and superior sensors, crop to zoom is definitely a viable proposition. He made the point forcefully during his presentation to the LHSA 50th anniversary meeting in Wetzlar last October. He demonstrated it effectively with a shot taken on the SL with (if my memory serves), the 50mm Summilux-SL mounted. A brilliant lens, a 24MP sensor and a 100mm-equivalent image. And a superb resulting image, crop or no crop. A 47.3MP sensor can only add icing to the cake.
The images below compare the Q2 and D-Lux 7 at 28mm and 75mm equivalence. But look closer at the 75mm images and you find that the D-Lux 7, with its optical zoom, produces more detail despite having the smaller sensor (click to enlarge).
Even in the past six months, things have moved on. There has been a push towards bigger sensors, led by Sony, Canon and Nikon. Panasonic is poised with the S1R and Leica will undoubtedly follow them into the roaring forties for all its full-frame cameras. We have seen the first example in the Q2 with its 50MP sensor and 47.3M effective pixels. This is the sensor we will see later this year in the SL2.
All the image below
are 75mm crops (left-hand column, Q2) or 75mm optical images (right-hand column, D-Lux 7). Click to enlage
In the Q2, this hugely capable sensor is married to a fixed prime, the 28mm Summilux which is optically identical to the lens of the first-generation Q from 2015. It is one of the finest fast primes in Leica’s arsenal and, when taken as a whole with the camera, makes the Q2 look something of a bargain.
Buy a similar 28mm Summilux-M for your rangefinder and it will set you back over £5,000, body not included. It may be half a stop faster than the Summilux in the Q2, but with the Q
75mm is the new 50mm
The Q2’s prime was always a cracker of a lens and is perfectly capable of servicing the higher-density sensor in the new camera. The combination has opened up even greater digital crop opportunities as Peter Karbe will point out, I am sure.
While the performance of the original Q at a 50mm-equivalent crop was acceptable, it was not outstanding. Now, however, a 50mm crop on the Q2 produces great results. With the Q2, in effect, we have a built-in, but much faster Tri-Elmar — with superb image quality at 28mm, 35mm and 50mm.
The Q2 sports an even bigger crop, to 75mm. It’s useful, but with only 6.6M effective pixels, this level of crop is likely to be “acceptable” in the same way that 50mm was on the Q1.
This brings me to the main subject of this article. Can we compare the performance of the Q2 and its optical 28-75mm zoom with that of the latest D-Lux 7 over the same range? On the one hand, we have a digital zoom with a huge sensor; on the other hand, an optical zoom (in a wonderful Summilux lens) on a relatively modest four-thirds sensor.
There is no prize for guessing that the Q2 will vastly outperform the D-Lux 7 at 28mm (note, incidentally, the D-Lux also offers the useful wider 24mm view). But how does it compare at 35mm, 50mm and 75mm?
Note that the D-Lux 7 sports a cropped four-thirds sensor. It is the same 20.3MP sensor found in the Panasonic GX8 and G9 but cropped to 17MP to facilitate the D-Lux’s trademark aspect ratio switching (1:1, 3:2, 4:3, 16:9). In contrast to micro four-thirds sensors which have a crop ratio of 2 (in relation to a full-frame sensor), the D-Lux 7 has a crop of 2.2.
As you see from the chart, the sensor of the D-Lux 7 may be an old tortoise, but it keeps plodding on while the lithe young 47.3MP chip in the Q2 soon tails off — faster than you might think because it isn’t a linear progression.
David Babsky addressed this in his erudite response to our article on the Olympus OM-D E-M1X and it is worth a second read.
On paper, then, the Q2 betters the D-Lux at 28mm, 35mm and (almost) at 50mm. This digital zoom gathers far more pixels at the wider angles and is only marginally inferior at 50mm. At 75mm, however, there is a marked fall-off. 6.6MP doesn’t sound much these days. Nevertheless, my initial test shots from the Q2 have been encouraging. Only when blowing up to ridiculous levels is the detail seen to be better with the optical zoom and the 17MP sensor.
While this 75mm digital zoom option may be marginal, especially if you are planning on producing a print to fit the side of a bus, at more modest levels — such as images for a blog or for display on your iPad — it is perfectly acceptable. It is never going to equal the performance of a 75mm prime on an equivalent sensor. But we all know that, and it isn’t really the point. It’s a case of working with what you have, that is if you decide to make the Q2 your travel camera of choice.
Aversion to crop
Once you overcome your inbuilt aversion to crop-to-zoom, the use of a very high-performance prime on a camera with one of the latest 40-50MP sensors can offer a practical solution. Such a set up is capable of out-performing a camera with a smaller sensor and an optical zoom lens. But only up to a certain point.
This applies not only to the Q2 but to any equivalent camera and prime lens. For instance, the new 35mm Apo-Summicron-SL is said to be Leica’s finest design and, coupled with the upcoming SL2 or a Panasonic S1R, will offer good results in comparison with, say, a 35-90mm optical zoom. It is certainly a lighter proposition than a high-performance zoom covering the equivalent range.
Back to the D-Lux 7: There are probably better examples of digital versus optical zoom. Without a doubt, it would be interesting to compare the Q2’s digital crops with images from a comparable full-frame camera and a high-performance zoom lens. The conclusion is pretty foregone. The optical zoom would outperform the digital zoom at larger magnifications, everything else being equal.
But what has fascinated me is the comparison between the D-Lux 7 and the Q2 as a go-to, carry-everywhere camera. As it happens, I now own both these cameras, so I will be faced with the choice of which one to take out for the day.
While the Q2 is bigger and heavier (760g compared with 410g) it doesn’t feel that much larger in the hand. It’s also not going to fit in a coat pocket. But it is comfortable to hold and easy to use. It fits the bill as a competent one-camera-one-lens alternative. And for most of the time, in the 28-50mm range I am assured of better image quality.
As a general
I was curious to discover whether the powerful Q2 with its top-level prime would make a better travel camera than the D-Lux 7 equipped with an equally impressive zoom lens.
While the Q2 can’t match the 24mm wide angle available on the D-Lux, it can hold its own over much of the range thanks to the larger sensor and fine prime lens.
For most purposes, too, I am happy with the 75mm-equivalent crop from the Q2. I know a 75mm optical zoom or prime would produce better results, but I can ignore that because the Q2 feels so right and most of my work will be done at wider angles.
It is a remarkable achievement for Leica and I believe the Q2 will repeat the success of the original Q. Plaudits are also due to the D-Lux 7 which performed extraordinarily well in these comparisons. When you remember that it costs less than a quarter of the price of the Q2, it makes a lot of sense.
What do you think about all this? Do you warm to the idea of a camera with a first-rate prime lens and built-in encouragement to crop zoom? Or is the only answer a bagful of primes or a top-class zoom?
It’s another case of horses for courses. But which horse, which course?