Leica M9 - Is this medium-format quality? Thoughts on the Sigma SD1.

Leica M9 Zeiss T* Planar 50m f/2

In the light of Sigma's claims that the SD1 produces medium-format quality, probably to justify its ridiculous price, can the Leica M9 be considered to do the same?

Well the simple answer is no. Medium-Format is really a definition of size and not quality, which is what makes the Sigma claims so bogus. In the days of film MF meant images of 6x4.5 cms, 6x6 cms, 6x7 cms, 6x8 cms, and 6x9cms. While the larger size negative or transparency usually meant that the image would reproduce better, that was not always the case. There were a few cheap alternatives that weren't especially good.

However they certainly were bigger, and meant that cropping was possible, while still producing a good quality image.

Leica M9 Zeiss T* Planar 50m f/2

Medium-format digital images are generated by a larger sensor, which again gives the possibility of cropping without loosing quality and certainly the Leica S2, Hassleblads and Phase One backs generate seriously impressive files, both in terms of resolution and, with the right lens, sharpness. Some like the Pentax 645D produce high resolution files, but from the samples I've seen, not biting sharpness.

So where does the Leica M9 fit into this. Yes it produces very sharp images. And yes the images are capable of being interpolated or blown up to larger sizes. I regularly turn mine into 25MP files before I send them off to picture libraries. But then genuine MF files are capable of the same, so in many ways its a pointless comparison.

The M9 is capable of many things.

Leica M9 Zeiss T* Planar 50m f/2

In the above example just look at the shades of green in the enlarged section that the camera is able to record.

Leica M9 Zeiss T* Planar 50m f/2

Leica M9 Zeiss T* Planar 50m f/2

Again, if you click through to the larger examples on flickr, you'll see just what the images are capable of.

It really doesn't matter whether the M9 is comparible with medium-format, as it simply produces very good images capable of large-scale reproduction. Comparing the samples I've downloaded from the Sigma website taken on the SD1, I prefer the Leica in almost every way. Sharpness, colour, depth etc. I still like the SD1 images, they are very attractive, but they are hardly likely to make the owners of M9's, D3X's etc. consign their cameras to the S/H market and rush to buy the Sigma. 

I wrote this for a post on serious compacts, and it sums up my thoughts about the SD1.

"I was a fan too. Had an SD14. I think its pretty much a convention that the MP figure relates to resolution, and virtually anyone who's in the market for a Sigma camera knows what they are getting, and its not 45MP. To me the real advantage has been the lack of an Anti-Aliasing filter. I've used several AA-less cameras, Kodaks, Sigma and now M9. To me it makes far more difference than anything to do with Foveon technology. Thats what makes the images look sharp. I remember seeing some images from a Nikon D3 with its AA filter removed, and it was a different camera.

I've had a look at all of the Sigma samples, and while they did look initially attractive, on close examination I got the impression that there is a lot of luminance smoothing and edge sharpening going on, which gives a very odd look. I don't find that particularly a problem, but others might.

With the improvements in Bayer sensors over the years since Sigma first started with this, I believe much of the perceived Foveon advantage has been eroded. The Leica M9 uses a Kodak Bayer sensor with no AA filter and the results from that are sharper and have better colour to my eyes. This in a camera that has a RRP lower than the Sigma!

As I say I like the look from the Foveon sensor. However I don't think its "better" than a Bayer sensor, and I don't think it can be in any way compared to genuine medium-format because it just doesn't have the resolution. Yes you can upsize the files, but then you can upsize files from an M9, S2 or Hassleblad just the same. I bought my M9 because I interpolated some sample raw files up to the same size as those from my D3X and felt they looked sharper. Cameras like the D3X and Sony a900 etc. do use fairly strong AA filters, because of what they will get used for. No one who shoots fashion for example is prepared to tolerate any moire at all. Interpolating these Sigma samples up to 24MP gave me results somewhat inferior to those from my M9. So it doesn't look like medium Format quality to me.

I'd have loved to try an SD1, and at £1000-1500 I would have. Anything over that and I'll pass. What has possessed Sigma to price it as they have is a mystery to me. Most users of SD14's and 15's simply can't afford it, so thats destroying their primary market. I can't see "Pro's" rushing out to buy it either. Firstly they are concerned about price as well, and Secondly its an untried system. Sure M9's and D3X's are expensive, but Leica and Nikon have a reputation and the cameras are re-sellable at decent prices. Look at what S/H Sigma DSLR's go for.

I think we all probably realise that the 3-layer sensor is going to be more difficult to produce and more expensive, and those of us who were interested in the camera would be prepared to pay a little more. However it seems Sigma are attempting to pass on all the costs to us. They have now put themselves in an almost impossible situation. If they reduce the price then nobody is going to trust them anymore. This on top of the fact that they announced some time ago that it would be priced the same as a Canon 7D, which has really angered current Sigma owners who feel cheated, and who can blame them. If they keep it at its current price, or something similar then I think its pretty certain that they will sell very few cameras.

There's a story here and at some point in the future we may get some idea of what's gone on. To me, and virtually the whole on-line photographic community, it looks like some huge self-destruct and the beginning of the end for Sigma as a camera manufacturer. I can't see any other alternative. If they think that somehow this camera is going to turn them into a small volume, high quality specialist camera manufacturer, then I think they are wrong. I must be pretty much in their target market. I'm professional, I shoot mainly landscape for stock and I make a good enough living to be able to afford it (Though this would probably require selling my M9) However I think the results I've seen so far don't justify it, the lack of a good enough reputation for re-selling the camera don't justify it, my previous experiences with Sigma and the Foveon sensor don't justify it and finally my lack of trust in the company because of how they have misled people doesn't justify it."

So in the end, I'm not that concerned about "Medium-format" quality. I don't have to pretend that my camera(s) are something they are not. Sigma obviously feel the need to do just that. That is a real shame, since this whole SD1 disaster is probably going to result in a very innovative technology being consigned to history, and a genuine alternative being used by very few people. If Sigma, who can't be unaware of the reaction, rethink and come up with a realistic price then they might still salvage something from this, though with a tarnished reputation. If they don't then I'm not personally not going to loose sleep over it. However, there are many current Sigma camera owners who will. They have been cheated, misled and taken for granted. From their reactions and comments they are not pleased, and are angry and disappointed. I for one fully understand their frustration and unhappiness, it remains to be seen whether Sigma do. 

Leica M9 Zeiss T* Planar 50m f/2

Leica M9 Zeiss T* Planar 50m f/2