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Leaf Valeo 22

Turning Over a New Leaf

This review is part of a larger series of ongoing articles and reviews of medium format digital backs.
If you have not already done so you might wish to begin by reading my Digital Back Survey
and then refer to the other reviews in this series that are linked at the bottom of that page.


Leaf Vaeo 22 and Digital Magazine, mounted on a Mamiya 645 AFD

The Leaf Valeo 22 started shipping in early September, 2003. It is the first 22 Megapixel medium format digital back that is suitable for field use without an attached computer. And, at 22MP it offers the largest sized single shot imaging chip yet seen in a digital back or camera. It has double the pixel count of the 11MP Canon 1Ds and has nearly 40% more photo sites than the Kodak DCS Pro Back 645. (The Sinar 54 and forthcoming Phase One H25 both features equivalent sized chips, but neither is suitable for field use without a tethered computer).

For those not familar with Leaf, it is a part of Creo, a Canadian company that is one of the biggest names in the graphic arts field worldwide.

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The Price? Don't Ask!

Let's get the price issue out of the way first. The old saying goes — If you have to ask the price, you probably can't afford it. But I'll tell you anyhow. Including the 10GB Digital Magazine and an HP iPAQ PDA (used for image review in the field) the back costs approximately $30,000 U.S. This is definately not hobbyist pricing. Nor is it within reach of many professional photographers who could make good use of the stunning image quality and giant files (126MB in 16 bit mode) that this back is able to produce.

But, there are a great many professional photographers for whom this is an investment, and who can make it pay, and payback. There are indeed so many such folks around the globe that the product is likely to be in short supply for some time. So, though this is not a product that any but a handful of readers will ever buy, it is currently the state-of-the-art portable digital back on the market today, and so like reading a review of the latest Ferrari in Car & Driver or CAR magazine, it's fun to fantasize and also to learn what makes it tick.

Of course one has to ask the question — Why is it so damn expensive? There are two factors, and the first is, of course, the size of the chip. At just slightly short of the size of a 645 frame only four of these chips can be made on a standard 6 inch wafer. This is instead of the hundreds of devices that could otherwise be made on the same sized piece of silicon. Put this together and you have a chip that I'm making an informed guess costs about U.S. $5,000 in manufacturer's quantities. And that's without any of the support electronics and other devices needed to make a fully functioning back.

Now add all of the necessary support hardware, firmware and software, figure out the R&D and development costs, and then amortize this over the production of a relatively small number of units. Remember, we're not talking about 30,000 units a month the way Canon is with its digital Rebel D300. It's more likely dozens a month rather than tens of thousands. Yet, the development costs may be comparable.

So what we end up with is a device that costs as much as a premium automobile, or the down payment on a house. Nevertheless, I believe that it's going to be one of the hottest digital backs among fashion, product and advertising photographers, as well of course as anyone with a Platinum credit card and a lust for the best.

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The Evaluation


Ilan Carmi — Leaf's Product Marketing Manager

It needs to be stated from the outset that this is not a full product review. There are only a handful of Valeo 22 backs in the world at the moment, mostly in the hands of Leaf staff and their national distributors around the world. The one I was involved in evaluating was in the hands of Ilan Carmi, Leaf's Product Marketing Manager. He is based in Herzlia, Israel, Leaf's headquarters, and was visiting Toronto for a few days. We spent one of them working together on an evaluation for this site.

Early units that are just becoming available this month (September, '03) are final commercial units from a hardware point of view, but still run with beta software. Also, the versions available right now are for the Mamiya 645 AFD and Hasselblad V series, while my personal medium format camera system is a Contax 645. Therefore the test shots that we were able to do were done with Ilan's Mamiya, while the comparisons that I was doing were with my 16 MP Kodak DCS Pro Back 645 on my Contax. The Contax plus Kodak back are my medium format digital reference system. As I tests more medium format backs in future, for better or worse these will serve as my benchmark. Incidently, the Hasselblad version can be attached to various medium format cameras (Mamiya RZ and RB, Fuji 680 and Bronica) via adapter plates. Both can be attached to any 4x5" camera. The Contax 645 and the Hasselblad H1 versions will be ready before the end of the year.

Immediately below are frames taken with the Valeo 22 on a Mamiya 645 with Mamiya 80mm lens, and with the Kodak DCS Pro Back on a Contax 645 using a Zeiss 80mm lens.

22 MP Leaf Valeo 22
16 MP Kodak DCS Pro Back 645

The first thing to be noted are the relative file sizes. The Leaf produces a file that is nearly 40% larger in surface area. It's like the difference between 645 film and 6X6 film, except in reverse. If you click on the images above you will see larger versions, and below are 100% crops from the center of each frame. I have tried my best to match the gray balance of both images.

22 MP Leaf Valeo 22 — 100% detail
16 MP Kodak DCS Pro Back 645 — 100% detail

Notwithstanding the colour balance differences (the Leaf file definitely did a better job with blues, especially as seen in the sky), the Kodak image appears to have a bit more accutance while the Leaf shows a bit more detail. Because we were shooting with two different lenses on different bodies, there is no way of knowing if what we're seeing is a result of focus and lens quality differences, or resolution differences between the backs. This is one of the reasons why I feel that this test will not be in any way complete until I've had an opportunity to compare these backs by shooting on the same body with the same lens.

One of the things that was immediately apparent is that the Leaf file needed considerably more USM than did the Kodak. This is neither here nor there when it comes to the final result, but I wonder whether this is due in part to differences between the Kodak chip and the Philips Dalsa chip. (Incidentally, the other two current 22 MP backs, the Sinar 54 and the Phase One H25 both use a 22MP Kodak chip that is the same design as Kodak's 16MP chip, just enlarged in one dimension). And, since the images above are of course sharpened (nothing could be determined from the unsharpened files) it may well be that small USM setting differences may be behind the small difference seen in accutance and resolution. Or, it could have been the lenses. Or.....

22 MP Leaf Valeo 22
16 MP Kodak DCS Pro Back 645

The frame immediately above shows your humble reviewer holding a Macbeth colour chart. The descriptions that I provide here are of what I see on a calibrated and profiled monitor. The comparisons are against the Macbeth colour chart as viewed under an Ott-Light True-Color daylight-balanced fixture. (These sRGB JPGs may or may not show you what I describe, depending as well on the adjustment of your particular monitor. Go by what I say, not by what you see above).

Though not part of the colour chart itself, the life-ring behind me is an intense orange colour and the Leaf back did a much better job of reproducing it properly than did the Kodak. I also find the skin tone of the Leaf to be superior.

The Leaf back appears to be deficient in the greens. This can be seen not just in the green chart chips but also in the way that it reproduces the background foliage. Both backs do a comparable job on the reds but neither do a good job on yellows. The Leaf yellow is peach and the Kodak yellow is not as bright as it should be.

The Leaf back is definitely superior in reproducing blues, mauve and purples. The first brown square is better on the Leaf but the flesh-coloured square next to it is wrong on both backs.

Overall both cameras did reasonably well, and I wouldn't choose one over the other on the basis of colour reproduction. If one was doing critical colour work, such as product or fashion photography, I would recommend generating and using a custom profile, just as with any digital back or DSLR.

Once I can have a Contax mount Valeo 22 for at least a week, and can do comparisons with the Kodak back on the same body with the same lens, and with the final production Leaf profiles, then the comparisons will be valid. Until then regard the above just as a first pass approximation.

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The Back

There isn't much remarkable about the back itself, other than that on the business end it contains a 4,056 x 5,356 pixel imaging chip, the largest size currently available in the world. There is a small built-in fan (which I found to be quite a bit noisier than the fan in the Imacon Ixpress back), which helps dissipate the heat produced by the back's electronics. On the base of the unit there are standard Firewire connectors which allow the camera to connect directly to a Mac for studio work or to Leaf's Digital Magazine for portable use.

Depending on the camera to which it is attached, the Valeo 22 is capable of about 1 FPS and has a built-in 500MB buffer, holding up to nine 44MB RAW 16 bit images before data needs to be written to disk. It also features an orientation sensor to identify whether the frame shot is vertical or horizontal.

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The Digital Magazine & DP 67 iPAQ


Digital Magazine and DP-67 iPAQ

Seen above on the base of the camera body is the Leaf Digital Magazine. This is a 10 GB hard disk and battery holder. It attaches to the base of the camera with a special quick-release mounting plate and then attaches to the Valeo 22 back with a provided short custom Firewire cable. The magazine thus provides both image storage and power to the back. The 10GB version (there is also a 5GB version available) all-in with an iPAQ costs approximately $2,000 and can hold some 215 16 bit RAW files. This is competitive with the cost of CF cards, and is much faster. Note that the magazine itself costs $1,400 and comes with many accessories: two batteries, dual battery charger, AC adapter, car-lighter charge cable, DP-67 s/w on a memory card plus USB card reader, a soft pouch for the iPAQ, cables and a tripod-bracket with quick release for the camera with the Digital Magazine.

Power is supplied by two 6 volt rechargeable Lithium Ion batteries. These are standard Sony batteries available at any AV retailer.

The magazine is supplied with Leaf's DP 67 software, which is designed to run an an HP iPAQ handheld PC. (Not supplied). When plugged into the Digital Magazine the iPAQ provides many of the functions that a built-in screen would on a back such as the Kodak DCS Pro or a DSLR. The advantage is that the screen is huge by comparison, but the downside is that this is yet another separate device to be carried.

Leaf provides a very nifty soft pouch for the iPAQ that clips to ones belt and that features a couple of quick-release tabs. This greatly improves accessibility, but attaching it to the camera directly would be preferable. I suggested a bracket that would hold the iPAQ next to the right side of the camera body, and that folded the unit flush with the body for packing. Ilan thought that this was a good suggestion. Let's see if it ever makes it into production.

The DP 67 software that runs on the iPAQ is very impressive. It provides almost instantious image review after shooting, and also comprehensive control of all of the camera's functions. It is a far more convenient solution than having to have a tethered laptop computer along, particularly Mac laptops which can't run with their screen lid closed. The iPAQ's relatively large screen is superior to any ever built into a digital back or camera, though of course not as large as one on a laptop. As with all things there are trade-offs to be made and I feel that the iPAQ solution is a good one.

I didn't have enough time with the DP 67 software to do more than a cursory evaluation, but what I saw was impressive.

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The Software


Capture V8 Menu Palette

Leaf's supplied Leaf Capture V8 software is an archetype for what digital camera image processing should be like. Leaf has been in this business a long time, and it shows. The software is comprehensive, extremely well designed, and powerful. I am very familiar with most of the top-tier RAW conversion software on the market, including those from Phase One and Imacon. From what I've been able to see Leaf's Capture V8 has equal or greater functionality to any other company's software.

My major criticism is that the Leaf support software is only available for Macintosh. Not having PC / Windows support is, I believe, a serious flaw in an otherwise extremely well conceived product offering. Yes, Mac's are popular among photographers and in the publishing industry, but PCs are the 800 pound gorilla of the computing industry with more than 90% market share. Leaf says that they have a PC version of Capture V8 under development, but I'm told that they've been saying this for a while. Until this becomes available photographers who are PC owners and who want to use the Valeo 22, or any Leaf back for that matter, will be forced to either spend additional money on a Mac or will have to look to another company for their digital imaging solution.

My other criticism is that conversion speed is very slow. On a dual processor 533Mhz Mac G4 with 1GB of RAM it took about 2.5 minutes to produce a 16 bit TIFF. This is an unacceptably long time. I am told that on a new dual processor Mac G5 this would be reduced to about 1 minute. I'll have to see that for myself. In the meantime, especially of you're using a slower and older desktop Mac or a laptop, be prepared to drink a lot of coffee.


Exposure & Tone Curve Adjustment

These criticisms aside, there is a great deal to like about Capture V8. For example, above is one of the control palettes for Exposure, Gray Balance and also the Tone Curve. As you can see there is a user adjustable curves tool for controlling the linear Tone Curve, something I've not yet seen in any RAW conversion software.

Though I didn't have an opportunity to test it the Leaf Capture V8 software includes Leaf Batch Processor. It can automatically batch process files via a hot folder mechanism, in the background, while the user can keep working on other applications (or shoot tethered) in the foreground.

A full review of Capture V8 will have to wait for when I have a review sample for an extended period.

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Preliminary Conclusion

Based on every factor that I was able to evaluate during a single day of use the Leaf Valeo 22 is a most impressive product, albeit at a most breathtaking price. What I was not able to evaluate in any critical manner was image quality. We did some side-by-side shooting with the Contax 645 and Kodak DCS Pro Back but the Valeo 22 didn't have its final software installed and we were shooting with two different cameras and lenses, so Ilan and I agreed that a more detailed comparison would not be appropriate at this time.

I have been promised a Valeo 22 with a Contax fitting for extended testing as soon as one becomes available, which should be before the end of 2003. At that time I hope to be able to provide an in-depth evaluation of image quality and a comparison with other medium format digital backs as well as high-end DSLRs.

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Update

In early November, 2003 I was visited again by Leaf's Product Marketing Manager Ilan Carmi, who had with him a Contax version of the Valeo 22. We spent the better part of a day doing a comprehensive comparison . My revisited review of the Valeo 22 is now online.

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Issue #9 (Dec. '03) of The Luminous Landscape Video Journal will contain
an in-depth interview with Illan Carmi, the Leaf Valeo Product Marketing Manager.
In it we discuss a range of digital imaging topics including the future of high-end digital imaging chips.

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This review is part of a larger series of ongoing articles and reviews of medium format digital backs.
If you have not already done so you might wish to begin by reading my Digital Back Survey
and then refer to the other reviews in this series that are linked at the bottom of that page.
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Filed Under:  

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Concepts: Medium format, Camera, Hasselblad, Digital photography, Single-lens reflex camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Digital camera, Large format

Entities: Herzlia, Toronto, Kodak, a Mac, Canon, HP, Mamiya, Hasselblad, Phase One, Sony, Philips, U.S., headquarters, iPAQ, USM, Macintosh, image processing, Windows, Michael Reichmann, Leaf, Illan Carmi, Ilan, Leaf Digital Magazine, Leaf's Digital Magazine, 10GB Digital Magazine, CAR magazine, Leaf Batch Processor, Hasselblad H1, RAM

Tags: Leaf, digital back, medium format, cameras, Valeo, Kodak, chips, Kodak DCS, reviews, image, Digital Magazine, iPAQ, software, Contax, Leaf Valeo, format digital backs, 16 bit, DP 67 software, Product Marketing Manager, Digital Back Survey, Phase One, Leaf Capture, Leaf file, medium format cameras, digital imaging, Macbeth colour chart, Valeo 22 backs, Capture V8 software, image quality, Leaf Valeo Product, Leaf Digital Magazine, RAW conversion software, HP iPAQ, Kodak chip, contax mount valeo, Ilan Carmi, final production leaf, Mamiya, camera body, Leaf Batch Processor