A second glance: two takes on the Leica X
Leica has built up a significant reputation since it created its first 35mm film camera 100 years ago. That reputation means different things to different people, and hangs over every new model its name is applied to. The Leica X (Typ 113) is the company's latest fixed-lens APS-C camera. Designed, developed and built by the German company, it commands a substantial price tag. So what's it like to shoot with and what do you get for your money? We handed the camera to two photographers to see what they thought.
The Professional's perspective:
By David Wentworth
|David Wentworth is a commercial and editorial photographer, and owner of FLUTTER Studios in Seattle|
When asked if I would test out the new Leica, I jumped at the opportunity. I haven't ever owned a Leica, nor used anything from their digital line, but I have shot with an M3 and it was a beautiful experience. Regrettably, the accountant in me has not yet allowed this photographer to purchase one of these hallowed pieces of engineering for day-to-day use. So, when asked if I would try out their more affordable, fixed-lens model for the day, I was really looking forward to it.
Like everyone, I have expectations about what a ‘Leica' should be like. To me, the name still implies the highest quality of craftsmanship, intuitive technology and style.
The Leica X is a stylish looking camera, of course: it has that unmistakable look from across the room. Its magnesium and aluminum body is extremely light-weight, which will be a big plus for travelers and over-the-shoulder shooters (as well as b-list celebrities). But it also made the camera seem a little delicate, and fragile. My tendency is to be somewhat hard on my cameras, and those with similar habits might be wise changing them before they hit the streets with the X and leave the back-breaker at home.
I primarily shoot commercial fashion and editorial images, and my work tends include a lot of movement, and often unpredictable lighting scenarios. This type of shooting requires an extremely responsive camera for when the perfect moment comes and that's not exactly what the Leica X is designed for. The AF system seemed faster than other cameras I've used of this type but, as expected, fairly sluggish compared to the (bulk/ugly) DSLRs I'd usually use. I felt like I was fighting with the camera somewhat to keep moving subjects in focus.
Another slight annoyance came from the behavior of the lens: a 35 mm equivalent f/1.7. The camera would not allow me shoot at f/1.7 when within a certain distance to a subject. Instead, the aperture would automatically "correct" to f/2.2 or f/2.8, even when in full manual mode. I understand Leica's position of wanting its camera to always produce the best images, but I'd prefer it if they let me make that decision, rather than limiting the camera's behavior on my behalf.
My biggest concern, though, was the image quality. While I wouldn't expect the X to match my DSLRs for autofocus, I do expect decent images and found the camera's DNG files to be inadequate. I often like to shoot subjects when back-lit or in high contrast lighting situations and have come to expect Raw files with enough latitude to work with, even in difficult lighting.
With the X, I had trouble with some too easily blown highlights in high-contrast scenarios, especially in the red channel, and found deep shadows turned a bit grainy at ISO 400 when pushed more than a stop or two in post. The Auto-white balance was overly magenta for my taste, and needed a good amount of post adjustments as well to get tones close to where I wanted them.
It wasn't all bad, though. I did like the low-profile appearance of the camera, the near silent shutter, and found the menu system intuitive and easy to navigate. Having to compose through the LCD screen could be somewhat awkward (Call me old-fashion, but I still prefer a viewfinder) but there were times it was a benefit, too: it was nice to use the LCD screen to compose from above eye level and low to the ground without the usual side-effect of getting my clothes dirty.
Overall, the Leica X clearly wants to seem attractive to the serious amateur or pro on the street, as well as those who just want something a bit more stylish to sling over their jacket. And sure enough, you can pull it out at the café and have people come up and admire it. However, I'm not sure whether the X's images always live up to its looks, or the Leica name. This doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to the day my inner accountant says it's ok to buy an M series, though.
The enthusiast's perspective
By Samuel Spencer
|Sam Spencer is studio photographer and writer at DPReview.com as well as being a keen enthusiast photographer|
The Leica X gets a lot of things right. So, for a moment, let's forget its price and take a look at the things that other manufacturers need to take note of.
When compared to other focus-by-wire systems, this camera does things well. The focus ring has hard stops at minimum focus and infinity within less than one 360-degree revolution (something Olympus has also got right on a handful of its Micro Four Thirds lenses). This solves two major problems with focus-by-wire systems. First, it means minimum and infinity are always where you left them. There aren't any sort of algorithms calculating how fast the focus mechanism should move based on how quickly the ring was turned, and it means that infinity isn't going to be anywhere from 1 to 16 turns away: it will always be within one turn of the wrist. Plus, this system enables Leica to paint on a pretty distance scale instead of forcing you to stare at a screen to estimate focus distance. Combine this easy to use manual focusing with focus peaking and finally there is a compact camera with fast, simple manual focusing.
|The Leica X is capable of taking some really nice images, even in JPEG mode, as demonstrated here.
The lens has more virtues than just a short focus throw and a fancy distance scale. This is, as expected, a high quality bit of optics. Especially in close distances, sharpness is exceptional. This shows through despite the absolute sharpness of the sensor being hindered slightly by the presence of an anti-aliasing filter. Combine the optical quality with the exceptional build quality and classic looks that the Leica name leads you to expect, and this camera should be a winner. However, even before we reintroduce the price tag, the 'X' does come with a set of faults.
One of the big selling points of this camera is its fastest-in-class Summilux 23mm f/1.7 lens. Yes, it does open up to f/1.7, but in the interest of sharpness, the camera decides for you whether f/1.7 is appropriate, without any option to override. At closest focus the lens is limited to f/2.8, and gradually opens up until f/1.7 is hit at roughly five feet (1.5m). What we have here is the world's first 23mm f/1.7-2.8 lens. In Leica's defense, it's making a device that must produce the highest quality images possible no matter who is using it. However, it does seem a bit blasphemous to put the revered 'Summilux' name on a lens that isn't an f/1.4, and sometimes is closer to the brightness of an Elmarit than anything else. Fewer pitchforks would have been raised if Leica used one of their other classic, but slightly more appropriate names, such as Summarit, or Elmar.
|The camera will automatically stop the aperture down at close focus distances but the does ensure very good levels of sharpness.
Speaking of blasphemy, it is difficult to feel right about shooting a Leica while holding it at arm's length looking through a fixed rear LCD display. Leica built its entire legacy on the simplicity of a rangefinder, and straining to see the image while struggling to capture it in focus just kills the entire meaning of the Red Dot on the front of this camera. A Leica needs to have a rangefinder to be considered a Leica, in my opinion, and using one without one does not feel like using a genuine product. Adding the 'Visioflex' electronic finder to the hot shoe doesn't help much either. Our test camera came in the gorgeous silver body with brown leather. The ugly black viewfinder completely clashed with the color pallet and killed the looks: one of the X's most endearing features. Plus, it isn't any higher of resolution than the screen and it sometimes feels like the color is off.
ISO performance, as well, is average. The camera can shoot up to ISO 12,800, but continues its bossy ways and will only use that highest setting if it is absolutely necessary. While shooting our test scene we tried everything we could to trick the camera in to letting us shoot at 12,800. We turned the lights down all the way and closed the aperture to f/16, but the camera would override that decision and shoot at f/9 at ISO 6400, to ensure we could not use its lowest-quality ISO setting. Leica was the king of analog, so having a camera that makes decisions instead of the photographer is the antithesis of what I expect shooting a Leica should feel like.
What hurts the Leica X the most, though, is its price. It costs $2,300, with an additional $500 required for the Visioflex viewfinder if one cannot stand taking a picture without bringing something up to the eye. It many respects it keeps with the name, offering high levels of build and optical quality at a high price point. Lens performance is definitely near the top of its class, but for half the price its competitors offer twice the usability. The funny thing is, the Fujifilm X100T with its fancy new 'digital rangefinder' puts forth more of an effort to imitate the rangefinder shooting experience than Leica does. The Leica X typ 113 would be a great camera if it carried a different name (Panasonic, perhaps?) and different price tag, but is undone by its own heritage.