We often get carried away with gear, the latest must have cameras and how last years equipment is no longer good enough. I thought I’d test 3 cameras from very different price points. The D3100 (around £200 body only) the D800 (around £2,000 body only) and the Leica Type 240 (around £5,000 body only) and see if anyone can actually tell the difference between the pictures they produce at the size we usually view them at (Facebook/web etc). I matched lenses of the type you would use with a camera of that price point, the D800 had the 70-200 f/2.8, the Leica a 135mm and the D3100 an 80mm f/1.8.
John Knight was kind enough to bring his Leica along for the test, and also many big bags full of other Leica/Nikon goodies. For this test I was only interested in the Type 240, it’s a full frame camera and one of Leica’s finest.
To keep the test repeatable, simple and fair I thought I’d shoot portrait in the studio, our model Eden was the subject and we used a few different lighting setups. The pictures were given minimum processing, Eden was given a professional makeover by Shanine.
The first thing I found difficult was the Leica being manual focus, there was a time not so long ago when all cameras were manual focus but we are spoiled with todays fantastic autofocus cameras. 5K and no auto focus, -1 point for the Leica I thought, but wait, using a camera that is slows you down is not a problem, how often do people in the digital age get carried away and take hundreds and hundreds of pictures, many of which never escape the depths of the computers hard drive? One of the first things I teach people on courses is to put your camera down and use your eyes to start with. Look for the good light, it’s harder to see when you have one eye closed and are looking thorough a viewfinder.
As the Leica is a rangefinder (you don’t see through the lens like an SLR camera) it’s easy to have your finger block the viewfinder and this is a bit of a pain to start with. As it hasn’t got the mirror and big prism like an SLR it’s also very small, I’m used to a bigger camera and changed to Nikon years ago because I like the way the larger ones (D3) fit my hand. Many people wouldn’t be fussed but I spend hundreds of hours with it in my hand at weddings, portrait shoots, commercial shoots and events so it’s one of the most important factors for me.
The D3100 handled well, it has far fewer autofocus points than the D800 (11 compared with 51 on the 800) which means more work to get the eye in focus. The way I work is by moving the focus point myself and then composing/taking the picture. The D800 was easily the best of the three cameras to take sharp pictures quickly. This is important to me at weddings, I don’t want to be manually focussing or lacking focus points at crucial times of the day. I have heard of reportage wedding photographers using this and shooting like mad to ensure they don’t miss focus a shot (which kind of defeats the idea of slowing down).
Have a look at the three pictures below, can you tell which was taken by what? Before you say it’s impossible, two Leica owners instantly picked out the Leica shot. They didn’t even ask if they were correct, merely stated which was the Leica.
The cameras were all shot in Raw and I wanted to see how they handled highlights and bright colours. The below pictures show differences, A is the D800 and you can see it has captured the red and green highlights far better than B and C. The D3100 would not have the dynamic range of the B is the Leica and Eden’s eyes are not completely sharp in the picture, this was taken from far back using the 135mm lens and I didn’t manage to get it sharp. User error? Maybe but the autofocus of the other two nailed the picture every time. The D800 has the best dynamic range of the three cameras by far.
The third test was detail. Again I took a 100% crop of Eden’s Eye/Nose to see what the differences are close up. The most detail here is no surprise, the D800 has the most pixels, 36 million compared to 24 million of the Leica and 14 million of the 3100. The Leica does a great job here, the 135mm lens is a beauty and I’d say the Leica lenses are the best on this test. In Lightroom I put the lens correction filter on the three pictures, both Nikons showed small adjustments but the Leica showed none. The lens was already perfect. You would probably never need anything sharper than the Leica/Nikon lenses, these are extreme crops which you would never normally do.
To sum up, these are very different cameras aimed at very different users, the 3100 a beginner camera, 800 a professional camera and the Leica….. It’s not a beginner camera and as a professional I’d not use one due to the manual focus. I’m sure not many pro’s would use it day to day. It’s more of a “look at my camera” than “look at my pictures” A fine piece of craftsmanship but the price (£7,000 with a decent lens) and handling would relegate it to more of a personal projects camera.
I could have tested these cameras in different ways, sport for example would have showed up the Leica with it’s limited lens range and manual focus. A night shot at High ISO, again this would have showed the 3100 and Leica to be lacking compared to the D800. We could have shot landscape but would you take your Ferrari down to the beach I wanted the test to be as fair as I could make it.
Of all these cameras I’d definitely pick the D800 because it is comfortable, fast and has huge files with great detail, saying that I enjoyed using the other two and if it was not a paid professional job, I’d use either. In order of importance to me it’s, idea, subject matter, light, composition and finally camera. We are doing a fine job without the cameras that haven’t been invented yet. David Bailey did just fine in the 60’s
On the top A,B and C, A is the D3100, B the Leica and C the D800
If anyone has a Hasselblad they want to lend me for another test it would be interesting, we could test a camera phone too.