A sound investment?

Pssst! Buddy…. you wanna buy a digital Leica?
Every now and again a product comes along that you just know is a waste of time and money, but it presents a small fascination, and you are just itching to give it a try.
Just the other day, I was presented with such an opportunity. On my counter sat a tiny digital camera proudly wearing the Leica logo on top. On the front, however, the lens was marked “Minox”. Huh?
Right, this was one of those series of tiny little cameras made for collectors. I remember the first ones around used Minox film cassettes, and really had some cool factor going for them. I remember marvelling at a little replica of a Nikon F. But unlike a real Minox subminiature, there was no adjusting for exposure. I don’t recall if you could even focus the lens.
When digital arrived, it didn’t take long for someone to realize you could stuff a small digital sensor in there instead, and appeal to a much wider, and more gullible, market. The first had 1.3 megapixel sensors, and were later increased to 3.0 MP. This one I’m looking at here is supposedly 4.0 megapixel, but a close reading of the instruction manual makes it apparent they are simply interpolating a 3.2 MP sensor. The last model (introduced 2006) had a 5.0 MP spec, but again it was interpolated up from 3.2. But at least that last model had a screen on the back for preview and review, and it took a regular memory card.
This one here only has a digital display for showing the number of shots remaining, and for the cryptic setting of various functions.
If it seems to bear some similarity to those little cheap $19.99 keychain digital cameras sold at discount stores, I think you’re on the right track.
But this little devil isn’t flimsy plastic. It’s actually got some genuine metal parts to make it look the part of a miniature Leica M3. You want to love this thing. The wind lever moves and springs back, as does the self timer. Unfortunately, that’s just for show because they don’t do anything. However, the focusing ring does work and is marked for infinity and one metre. Officially, this is a “Minox DCC” for Digital Classic Camera. They did sell for well over 200 bucks.
In the bottom you stuff the CR2 lithium battery and push the button on the back cover to fire it up. If you ignore it for 30 seconds, it automatically shuts off.
The setup menu is ridiculously goofy. For instance, if the LCD shows “Lr” you’re actually in high resolution mode. Pushing the shutter button would set “low resolution”. Who thinks up these things?
Is this actually a made-in-Germany Minox? No, of course not. In discreet tiny lettering on the baseplate protector (which you could probably peel off) is marked “Manufactured in China for Minox GMbH Germany”. The embedded camera data says it is a “Zoran Corporation” product. The specs even suggest it has a 5-element lens, but if they’re counting the plain lens protector up front and possibly the low pass filter over the sensor as elements, that might just fly.
It’s certainly fun to hold and behold, which no doubt explains why collectors did succumb to their charms. But are they any good for making pictures?

Of course, I had to give it a try. I eventually figured out that the  “Fn” and “Hr” settings were the way to go (Fine, Hi-res.) because there was no interpolation and compression was least. There’s enough room in the 32MB built-in memory to take 40 shots. You plug the camera directly into your USB port to do the viewing and transfer.
So I shot with it. Nothing important, thank goodness, because the results were predictably mediocre – sometimes even dreadful. Digital camera technology may have advanced a bit since the days this little thing was introduced, but there was never a time when this image quality was really acceptable.
The webcam type CMOS sensor inside is essentially “scanned” for exposure, rather than using a shutter. Scan lines appear in the images, and any camera movement stretches or squashes the image. Still, I managed a few interesting images. If the light is strong and behind you, it’s not so dreadful (see the lampost shot, for instance). But if there’s backlight, flare is hard to ignore. It’s a shame that Minox were led into putting their good name on a cheap Chinese optic.
And, without image review, this camera lacks that main feature people loved about digital cameras in the first place.
So while it looks pretty fancy, and is fun to tote around and aim at oddball subjects in the hope of getting something good, it falls pretty short of the mark. If I have to work this hard to get an acceptable image, I’d rather suffer with a genuine Minox subminiature. True subminiature photography was a whole hobby in itself. It took a lot of skill and sweat to make that 8x11mm film format work. I’ve only tried it in black and white. Unfortunately, small digital cameras made the subminiature world irrelevant, which is probably why Minox started marketing products like this little “Leica”.
I wasn’t much of a fan of the 3 megapixel CCD type cameras that were around 10 years ago, but they fairly blew away what I was getting out of this little gadget.
The verdict – leave this one for the collectors who like to point to a tiny shiny replica on their shelf and say “yep, that’s a real camera. It takes pictures.”
I know, you’re going to tell me some crazy artist type has used one of these and blown the images up to gallery size and done a whole exhibition, no doubt revelling in the warts and artificacts of this sub-par device. Who knows, maybe these little things, along with those $19.99 keychain digitals are going to be the Holgas and Dianas of tomorrow.

Start stocking up. You heard it here first.

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~ by windsorphotooutfitters on May 23, 2012.

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