What do you get the photography enthusiast who has everything? A tiny 1/3rd scale reproduction of a classic Leica camera – that is functional and produced by a firm that has a concrete reputation in the field of subminiature photography? Possibly. What if that camera is also digital and can be used right out of the box to take pictures without the hassle of messing with 8 x 11 film…
Minox are an established name in the miniature camera and scope market, having famously produced the “spy camera” 8 x 11 film cameras used by film-spies like Bond, and their real life counterparts during WWII and the cold war era – with a reputation for quality engineering and good optics (essential when shooting on such a small area), they expanded to produce the rather lovely Minox 35 in the 70s before 1995 saw them become part of Leica, and a new range of mass-market Chinese-made 35mm compacts joined the range of classic 8×11 models.
Minox returned to independence in 2001 via management buyout, and now exist primarily making spotting scopes and miniature cameras for the collector market – including a range (produced with a Japanese firm) of 1/3rd (approx.) scale 8×11 reproductions of classic cameras like the Hasselblad SWC, Leica IIIf and Contax I.
These cameras, made of metal and again offering decent performance, are very sought after by collectors, and were soon joined by a pair of digital models – the Leica M3 (4Mp) and RolleiFlex MiniDigi TLR replica. The latter model is unusual in that it goes so far as to mimic the 6×6 square format and top viewfinder via LCD inside the hood – being a Japanese product marketed by Rollei themselves in Japan, the new 5.0Mp (interpolated) version is now available from some online sources, but Minox have yet to release a version for Europe.
Photokina 2006 saw the DCC M3 model updated to offer 5.0Mp interpolated (3.1Mp actual sensor size) and a rear colour LCD viewfinder, plus SD-card storage. With 32MB internal and up to 2GB on SD, the little Minox can store rather a lot of images, but crucially, what are the images like?
First of all, to give Minox credit, the DCC M3 is not being actively marketed as a serious digital camera. With a UK RRP of £219 it is already snapping at – if not already chewing – the heels of serious cameras like the Nikon P60 or Canon PowerShot G9, or even quirky models like the Ricoh digitals, and to add the flash officially costs £89, making it something of an expensive choice.
It does, however, come in a wooden display box (not pictured as my review unit was in the German “airline” packaging of a metal tin with clear top) and you almost suspect Minox are thinking that people may never even take a picture with it.
Despite the legacy of the Classic 8 x 11 range, the DCC M3 is not a partially metal-bodied replica, but almost entirely plastic and made in China – it has some metal “accents”, such as the non-functional dials and self-timer lever, and the hotshoe (again, non-functional – the flash connector is a proprietary two-contact affair on the base of the unit inherited from the Classic range).
As a scale replica it pulls off looking like a Leica M3 reasonably well given that the film models also had the disruptive bulge on the rear, but this is not “highly skilled miniaturization” – for the hardware provided, it would have been perfectly feasible to make it an actual scale miniature – just look at a modern mobile phone. As a comparison, the depth of my Nokia N73 is within the dimensions of the top plate, and it incorporates a tolerable 3.2Mp camera, a large, bright and good quality LCD, a MicroSDHC slot… and a bluetooth equipped 3.5G handset.
Unusually the camera is equipped with a manual focus lens, from 0.5m to infinity, f3 aperture 8.7mm. This claims to be a Minoctar digital lens, but with no real evidence to suggest Minox had any input on the camera’s optics, it is probably just “whatever the OEM designed” – and it’s perfectly adequate for the sensor’s capability.
In absolutely ideal conditions – blue skies, well-lit medium tone subjects with no excessive highlights – the DCC M3 can deliver an acceptable image. Brought indoors it is essentially useless, delivering noisy, grainy results without the flash, or terrifyingly overexposed results with.
There is no communication between the flash and camera besides triggering, and the software has not been designed with this flash in mind. Even using the optimistic “EV correction”, there really is no way of salvaging the images produced by the M3 with flash or in bright sunlight, and one can’t help wondering if Minox’s efforts would have been better spent embracing the manual nature of the camera’s aspirations and shoving some sort of mechanical aperture control in the lens.
I make no excuses for the harsh opinion I formed of the camera. I wanted one when I saw it, I was impressed with the concept, and really did not think that it was unfair to expect quality comparable to a “freely included” phone camera from a firm with Minox’s history. I was exceptionally disappointed, partly in the finish of the camera and software, but these were aspects I had seen before.
That it produced such poor results, rather than making up for the crude menus and poor quality materials (for the price), merely added to the impression that rather than being an exquisite 1/3rd replica of a classic Leica camera, it was a cynical marketing gimmick rebranded from a Chinese production line – and there really is no reason for it to be as expensive as it is for the material and technology provided.
If it were a £100 camera, it would still be up against seriously stiff competition like the Nikon L18 “as a camera”, but would also be acceptable as a “trinket”. People pay £85 or more for pointless replicas of Lightsabres or model cars, so £100 for a replica of a camera that actually works is perfectly fair.
Even another £50 or so for a wooden box and a plastic replica flashgun that again, really flashes, is quite reasonable. At £309 for the combination it is something of a disappointment that it cannot deliver images that I would consider fair for the cost – given that a Nikon D40x kit costs less…
Even so, I felt a little sad packing it away and returning it post review. It’s almost unique (certainly the line of products is unique and it’s the only one currently marketed in the UK) and it is passable as a miniature replica if you don’t look too hard. Nice touches like the thin leather neckstrap conspire to give the little camera character – just not quite enough to forgive the fact that I really couldn’t “impress” my friends with it by delivering a decent image.
What it comes down to ultimately is what you expect for your money. If you want to have the model DCC M3 camera, then you can see for yourself what quality the replica is. If you want a small digital camera, then I have to say that there are much better options out there – even secondhand, given the low native resolution. 1/3 scale Leica model it may be, but it’s still only a fraction smaller – and a similar amount deeper – than the original Minolta dImage Xt, for example. My criticisms don’t stem from the low resolution, either – until last year, my primary DSLR produced an output file not that much larger.
Rollei’s MiniDigi – previously sold as a Minox in the earlier form – has just been revamped, and it shows promise with a still 3.0Mp sensor, but in a quirky square format (1536 x 1536; they’re claiming 5.0Mp again, interpolated) and a rather better scaling down and detail work. It also now features autofocus, definite progress that should yield useful improvements in image quality. Hopefully Minox and Newpro will bring this new Minidigi to Europe in the near future.
The Minox DCC M3 is sold in the UK by Newpro UK, and it’s worth noting that their pricing compares very favourably with the Japanese RRP of the camera – at current exchange rates, around £225 excluding taxes.
Minox’s R&D people could do a lot worse than to put a little effort into working with their OEM partner on a new design of DCC M3 or similar scale camera. Some repurposed technology from areas like mobile phone LCDs and sensors would allow the device to be a true scale model in all proportions which would go a long way to making up for the inadequate imaging – MicroSD would save space and sizing for media access – and it wouldn’t hurt just to have an exposed USB port on the baseplate (a display plinth could even be devised for charging/transfer). Then a £300 pricetag would feel justified, as if some real effort had gone into producing the replica.