Well, I have to say, this has got my spirits perked up quite a bit. Not only do we have the first products from the new Micro 4/3 system—plus some glimmerings of more to come—but apparently, sometime around now, Leica will introduce a whole new system called the S-System, comprising a new camera, the S2, and nine new purpose-built lenses, all centering around a "larger than full-frame" 30x45mm sensor.
Years ago, when I got back into writing about photography after leaving Photo Techniques, I wrote a column for the Luminous-Landscape called "Oldthink." The point was that digital was still in its horseless carriage era, with form-factors carried over from the last days of film (just like early automobiles had not yet discovered what automobiles would come to look like, but took their cues from the then-current design of horse-drawn vehicles).
Since then, I've written about what it a disappointment it's been that the early flurry of creativity in camera design shown in various bridge cameras and inventive styles of digicams had largely given way to the 1985 film model of camera design—cookie-cutter point-and-shoots on the one hand and digital SLRs based on film SLRs on the other. Not unworkable, but definitely not newthink.
Meanwhile, ages ago—eons, really—I wrote an article on a form-factor for cameras that I felt was so logical that it had to be imminent. I called it the "DMD," for "decisive-moment digital." Well, it was not imminent. As year upon year passed, I grew progressively more discouraged that no DMD ever materialized.
Except that now—rather unexpectedly at this late date, I must say—it apparently has. The new Micro 4/3 prototypes being shown by Olympus at Photokina (assuming it meets certain performance criteria, chiefly in terms of single-shot responsiveness—that is, to be a decisive moment digital it's got to be decisive)—appears very close to what I envisioned years ago as the "DMD." (Except for that yellow.)
The DMD at last? Mr. Ogawa from Olympus with the Oly Micro 4/3 prototype (Photo: Photographyblog.com)
...Now going back even farther in time, to 1996. As Editor of PT, I wrote an "Open Letter" to Eastman Kodak following the advent of the then-new Advanced Photo System. I made the case that for APS to really succeed, 35mm needed to be killed off—but that it wouldn't be defeated unless it were attacked from two fronts rather than one. That is, what was needed in addition to a more highly rationalized smaller-than-35mm format was a more highly rationalized larger-than-35mm format, to replace the antiquated, awkward 120 and 220 films. I postulated a horizontally-running, cassette-loaded film with sprocket holes on only one side and an image area that was 51mm in the long dimension. (Reminding you of anything yet?) The idea was simple and logical. It's that if you have a smaller format that's almost as good as the larger current standard in terms of quality and better in terms of convenience, you also need a higher-level counterpart that's almost as good in terms of convenience and distinctly better in terms of quality. Both together might be able to set a new standard, whereas either one alone couldn't.
Kodak wasn't interested in that, and rightly so, as it turned out, because it was already too late for film by then (and APS never took off). But I've revived that basic argument on several occasions by questioning the inevitability of "full-frame" or 24 x 36mm format for digital. Why stop there? Why continue to allow anachronistic 35mm systems to dictate all the parameters of our digital formats?
The upshot of all this is that I am delighted to see real innovation from Leica. I believe the S-System is not really "just another" medium-format camera, but rather a competitor for the "full-frame" 35mm-style cameras we're beginning to see now. The S-System could be a logical new standard for commercial studio, fine-art, and high-quality photographic work—that is, a logical "big camera" standard to complement a DMD-like small-camera standard. If digital has to boil down to two format sizes, I'd much rather they be Four-Thirds/APS-C on the one hand and Leica-S on the other than our current split system with tiny fingernail-sized sensors in all our pocket cameras and our "big" cameras relegated to 35mm-legacy horseless carriages, with all their "legacy" lenses and their legacy flange-back distances and their flippin' mirrors.
The Leica S2 won't do this alone, of course. It'll be too expensive for ordinary people to buy—a professional system from out of the gate, made for those who earn good money from studio work and can depreciate their equipment. Nothing wrong with that; that's life. And, as usual, success depends on implementation. That's always true. But here's what this camera and system is in terms of its concept: it's newthink.
And I like that.
Mike (Thanks to Amin Sabet, Eolake, Antonis R., and phule)
Ctein adds: I can argue it both ways (all crystal balls are bistable).
Arguing on your side, I could make an arbitrary case for something we could call 35mm format quality and something we could call medium format quality, as being relatively stable points in market demand. Currently, digital image quality is about twice as good as film got circa the millennium. That is, you can hold your own against a 35mm camera with a digital sensor that's about half that size, and full-frame digital can hold its own pretty well against medium format.
At the same time, there are aspects of image quality that we observed with film that really do seem to be sensitive to absolute size, regardless of the quality of lenses and films. It was hard to get the "clarity" in 35mm that one saw in medium format, even when objective measures of grain and resolution told you the 35mm should be as good or better. I suspect those factors still come into play in the digital realm. Bigger looks better, and the fact that most bench tests don't reflect that indicates a limitation of the bench tests.
All of this argues for you.
Arguing against it is that "decisive moment" may not be definable because both the arrow and the target are rapidly moving. I don't know how much sensors can theoretically shrink and still match film quality. I can say with complete confidence that it could go by another factor of two, no problem. In other words, no special technical breakthroughs, just already-known product evolution get you to the point where quarter scale sensors match 35mm film (more or less), and full-frame sensors start to rival 4x5 sheet film. There is absolutely no doubt we will get there, and fairly quickly (within a decade). And it's not even close to the theoretical limit. Declaring that we've hit the right size, market wise, may be rather premature.
Conversely, buyers expectations constantly increase. That was true with film quality as much as it is with digital. Putting aside the mysterious bigger is better factor, medium format image quality was worse when I started professional photography than 35mm was at the millennium. Yet 35mm and medium formats persisted in part because photographers expectations had been raised.
We see that happening in digital photography around issues like noise levels and color accuracy. Whether folks are being silly or not in their extreme demands, they are raising the bar.
Consequently, I think the whole business may still be in such flux that it's premature to declare that we've hit a sweet spot. Or...maybe not.