The Pentax 645D medium format camera
At the Photokina trade show this autumn, the press conferences given by rivals Samsung and Sony revealed an unexpected change of attitude from the Japanese company, which contrasted with its Korean competitor. Both were presenting their mirrorless interchangeable- lens camera systems.
Samsung’s big news was the development of the i-Fn (for intelligent function) lens range. Without changing the physical mount or the number of electronic contacts, Samsung’s tech team had realised that the fly-by-wire manual-override focusing ring on its NX system lenses, which all use internal focus motors, is just another electronic controller. Like a wheel on the camera, it could just as easily be used to change aperture, ISO or white balance as it could be to change focus. So it added a button to the new i-Fn lenses that steps through a range of these options with each successive press, the most popular choice likely to be to turn the focus ring into an aperture control. The camera body communicates through the data interface that exists on the lens.
This month, new firmware was due to be issued for NX10 cameras (launched at the beginning of 2010) to make them compatible with these lenses, which will appear with the new NX100. existing “dumb” lenses can be used on the new body too, though without the same functions.
It’s a great idea. Then someone asked, would Samsung be releasing details of the protocols, so that third-party lens makers could offer products for the NX system? The translated response was an emphatic no. Samsung would, thank you, prefer to sell only its own lenses to buyers of its camera system, so it has no intention of encouraging competition.
Sony’s conference, given the company’s long history of proprietary formats and closely protected compatibility, didn’t even need a question to be asked from the floor. Right in the heart of the presentation dealing with the success of the NeX e-mount system, up on the screen went pictures of all kinds of alien equipment connected to the little rangefinder- shaped body. Toru Katsumoto looked delighted as he enthused about how this camera had created a whole industry, manufacturing adapters to fit lenses old and new, from vintage Leicas to languished Contax G glass. He announced that Sony had decided to make the specification and protocols for the e-mount available to other makers, and would be working not only with adapter engineers, but lens makers too. In fact, the words left no doubt that other makes of camera with the 18mm back focus e-mount might appear.
This spirit of collaboration, to create something bigger than one manufacturer can achieve, originally drove the Praktica- Pentax screw thread to popularity, when Nikon protected its mount (only Ricoh, briefly, made a Nikon F-compatible body), and Leica, in 1958, made minolta withdraw a planned m-mount rangefinder system. Pentax learnt from this and made its K-mount bayonet freely available as a new industry standard. Olympus, Panasonic, Leica and Sigma shared the original Four Thirds mount development and the smaller mirrorless micro Four Thirds successor.
At Photokina, Cosina announced it had joined the consortium and will be making MFT lenses. The odd one out in this line-up must be Panasonic. While its lenses fit Olympus and vice versa, Panasonic’s Lumix G-series bodies incorporate software correction at raw file level. This approach is similar to Hasselblad. It tends to lock users into matching Panasonic lenses with Panasonic bodies.
Sony’s initial NeX partners are likely to be Novoflex and Voigtländer, the first for adapters of premium quality, the second being a brand of cosina with both body and lens potential. carl Zeiss had a fascinating Photokina stand on which Zeiss lenses of every type were paired with all kinds of camera bodies. It is already a partner with Sony (as Schneider- Kreuznach is with Samsung, and with Phase One). It will be interesting to see which philosophy wins – the closed grip on the system buyer proposed by Samsung, or the controlled expansion of choice envisaged by Sony.
At the other end of the spectrum, a similar opposition of philosophies can be found between Hasselblad and Phase One, the latter of which now owns Leaf and holds a controlling stake in Mamiya, and has fast-tracked the Mamiya camera brand to a new level. Plastic has been replaced by magnesium alloy, and new lens-making partners have virtually replaced the entire existing Mamiya range. These optical partners have included Hartblei (custom- made Zeiss dresden glass) and now Schneider (the new Sekors). You can buy Mamiya branded as Mamiya, for film; with a Leaf back; with a Phase One back; or as a Phase One camera.
It seems that Phase One encourages co-operation with as many partners as possible, along with an open-system concept where lenses are designed to deliver the required results without software correction. They work as well on film as on digital. You can buy a wide range of new or refurbished digital backs and trade in your back for a higher specification on very favourable terms – your old back then goes to denmark to be rebuilt for another customer.
Hasselblad, in contrast, has aimed for a closed system where the specific Hasselblad products are integrated with special autofocus and software-correction functions. Though the H4D body is modular – accepting a range of backs – the onboard lens correction of some key lenses such as the 28mm super- wide rules out rollfilm third-party digital backs if you want optimum performance.
Not only that, Hasselblad bodies and backs are serial-number paired; you can’t swap backs between bodies, and if you do a part- exchange upgrade, then the entire camera and back assembly must be traded in.
Phase One’s outgoing approach with capture One Pro software, adding compatibility and colour profiling for as many dSLR raw file types as possible, has been a success. In may, Hasselblad announced dSLR raw file compatibility for its free-to-downoad Phocus 2.5 software, and support for current Leaf digital backs. While Leaf backs have been paired often enough with Hasselblads of all ages, they are most often found on Mamiya (through calumet in the UK), and Hasselblad’s stated intention was to introduce users of other systems to their software.
Capture One Pro reached its present state by a different route, starting out as a custom converter for Nikon files and only later becoming the engine that powers Phase One digital back image quality.
Against this background, Leica’s S2 system is the supreme example of chasing the captive buyer. It’s unlikely that any third-party accessories will appear for S2, though you can imagine Schneider’s huge 120mm perspective control tilt-shift designed for Mamiya mount getting a Leica S version (especially as Leica seems to take the view that tilt-shift is better employed with large format, telling BJP it would now concentrate on top-quality wide-angles).
And now Pentax has arrived back on the medium-format scene with the 40-megapixel 645D, which has been selling in Japan for the past few months, and should be available in the UK as you read this. Priced around £9000 for the body only, or £10,000 with a 55mm f/2.8 lens (substantially more than its Japanese price of around £7600), the camera is lightweight but solid, has ultrasonic focus motor lenses and a very fast 11-point SAFOX AF sensor. It is not upgradeable (no removable back) and buyers will be just as locked into the Pentax lens system as Hasselblad H4D buyers are into theirs.
The big difference is that lenses may just cost half or a third the price of Hasselblad H glass, or Phase One’s Schneider-designed Sekors. Watch this space.
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