The X1 is, of course, at heart a live view camera like any other modern compact. There's no built-in optical viewfinder, and while you can fit an accessory optical finder to the hot-shoe, you'll then lose sight of much of your key shooting information (although with those top-plate dials, you can still easily keep an eye on your shutter speed and aperture settings).
If you do decide to use an external finder, Leica has added that useful focus confirmation lamp just below the hot shoe, and has also included the option of turning the rear LCD off completely during shooting (enabled through the 'Ext. Viewfinder' setting in the menu). In this mode, pressing any of the control buttons brings up the requisite menu (overlaid on the live view image) - a half-press of the shutter release both confirms any change and switches the display off again. This works well and makes shooting with an optical viewfinder more fluid than on most of the X1's competitors.
The X1 is a true 'shooting priority' camera; no matter what else you're doing with it at the time (browsing images or changing menu settings, for example), a quick half-press of the shutter button will always switch it back into record mode ready to take a picture. This is always welcome to see; it's amazing how many cameras still get this wrong.
Live View Display Modes
There's a choice of three levels of viewfinder information available when shooting with the X1. The simplest one shows basic exposure information in the blank space below the image preview (although unfortunately this doesn't include the ISO), and overlays on the image the positions of the autofocus point(s) used to acquire focus. The next level adds 'rule of thirds' gridlines, and the third is a detailed display which shows exposure mode, battery status, ISO and the like. There's no magnified view available, although there is a manual focus 'loupe' (which can be called up by simply pressing the 'focus' button in MF mode).
One serious omission, though, is that if you set the camera Auto ISO, it won't show what setting it has chosen to use - in fact you can only find this out when playing back the image (at which point you'll also find the camera can use intermediate ISOs, in the usual one-third stop increments). In general we'd much rather see ISO permanently displayed alongside the shutter speed and aperture in all display modes (maybe in a future firmware update, please?).
|In the basic display mode the camera shows the shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation and flash exposure compensation, plus the active AF point (which lights up green when focus is confirmed). We'd much prefer to see ISO permanently displayed here.
The preview brightness adjusts roughly in line with any exposure compensation set, to simulate the final image.
|The next level of display adds these rule-of-thirds gridlines for composition assistance, and optionally a small live histogram, which is luminance only (not RGB). Again, no ISO.|
|The most detailed display shows a wide range of information - finally adding ISO, plus exposure mode, battery status, focus mode, shots remaining on card, autobracketing and metering pattern. Other information may also be displayed such as flash mode, self-timer, etc.
All these settings are displayed as opaque black-and-white blocks, so the more information that's shown, the less of the underlying image you can see.
On-screen settings adjustment
|Pressing any of the direct-access buttons on the back of the camera will bring up the corresponding menu, overlaid on the live preview image. Settings are changed using the four-way controller, and confirmed by the 'Set' button (or simply a half-press of the shutter release).
The selected item is 'highlighted' in black: this is fine until you reach a menu with only two choices, at which point it suddenly becomes deeply unintuitive.
The X1 is necessarily dependent upon contrast-detect autofocus, which has been honed to a fine art on small sensor compacts but suffered something of a chequered history on larger sensor systems. The X1, in truth, isn't going to set the world alight with its focus speed - it's not terrible, but Panasonic has set the bar extremely high with its G series cameras and the X1 just can't keep up. It simply can't focus quickly enough to lock on to a subject that won't stay still for long, and this sluggishness does limit the camera's flexibility to some extent (it's just not as suitable for grabbing quick shots as a DSLR, or the GF1).
| The X1 features a well thought-out array of autofocus modes (including the all-important face-detection mode), which should take care of every occasion.
The 'H' modes are 'High Speed', which focus faster but at the expense of a momentary freeze of the live view display.
|In single point mode, pressing and holding the focus mode button brings up this display, which allows you to move the autofocus point fairly freely around the frame (although not right to the very edges). The frame lights up in green when focus is achieved.|
|Spot AF works in exactly the same way, just with a much finer autofocus point.|
|Eleven-point AF, slightly confusingly, never uses all eleven points at the same time. Instead it does something a bit more intelligent, and allows you to choose groups of points depending on where in the frame your subject will be; left, right, top, bottom or center. Again this is set by pressing and holding the focus button - by default the camera uses the central nine points.|
|Manual focus uses the thumb dial which sits under your thumb at the top right of the camera. When you turn it a focus scale is displayed, and optionally a magnified 'loupe' at the center of the frame. This can be moved around the frame using the arrow keys, which (in principle at least) is useful for tripod work.
Unfortunately, though, the X1's implementation of manual focus has a couple of problems. Most importantly, in anything other than dim light the lens stops down uncontrollably, and doesn't open up again to F2.8 for focusing. This makes really accurate manual focus impossible, especially if you're aiming for selective focus at F2.8.
For those who like to use scale focusing, the X1's distance scale is also really too coarse - there are just 4 distances marked apart from infinity. There's no attempt to indicate depth of field based on your selected aperture either, which ought to be straightforward for the camera to calculate and display. The camera will reset the focus distance on auto power off too.
|The X1 features image stabilization, but it's not based on lens or sensor movement. Instead it's a form of electronic stabilization which combines color information from a correct exposure with luminance data from a second, shorter exposure to produce the final image. Its Achilles Heel is that this only works in JPEG - if you're recording DNGs it won't do anything, even when set to 'On' in the menu. The camera doesn't warn you to switch to JPEG either.|
Live Histogram and Exposure Compensation
The X1 has a live histogram, which is always welcome. The problem is, though, that it just doesn't function in a very useful way. The whole point of a live histogram is it that it should help you determine whether the camera will expose the image correctly, and if not, guide you in setting the exposure compensation to achieve the result you want. Unfortunately this isn't what happens on the X1.
|The big problem with the X1's histogram is that it is quite clearly based on the screen display. And after a while, you come to realize that this doesn't necessarily reflect the final exposure.|
|Unfortunately, the histogram also disappears when you press the exposure compensation button, so you can't tweak exposure while watching the effect on the histogram. Instead you have to guess, and see what you get.
In this instance, though, the live histogram is clearly predicting that at +1 EV, the highlights won't be clipped.
|When you then half-press and hold the shutter button for focus / exposure lock, the display finally attempts to set its brightness to truly reflect the exposure. Bizarrely, though, the histogram also dismisses itself at this point, just when it might actually be accurate...|
|...so when you do finally take the picture, you can easily find it doesn't match the live histogram after all, and is sometimes substantially overexposed in comparison. In this case, that +1 EV compensation has resulted in quite significant highlight clipping.
All-in-all, this behavior is not very helpful, and needs to be fixed.
Overall handling and operation comments
The X1 is on the whole a very successful attempt to apply traditional styling and controls to the modern compact digicam. We always prefer cameras which use dials rather than buttons or menus to change major shooting settings, and the X1 scores extremely highly with no fewer than four dials arrayed around its petite body. Throw in direct access buttons for frequently-changed functions such as ISO and white balance, and all of the major settings can be easily changed with no need to enter the menu during normal shooting. This is a camera which doesn't just look good, it handles well too. The X1's lens shutter design also means it is exceptionally quiet - especially in comparison to its Micro Four Thirds competitors with their focal-plane shutters.
Of course how you take to this camera may well depend on what you've used previously. Photographers who pine for the good old-fashioned metal-bodied, mechanical-shutter manual focus compact rangefinders of the 1960s and 1970s will doubtless love it, whereas those whose experience has been wholly with modern digicams will perhaps find it less easy to warm to a camera without the familiar exposure mode dial. Existing Leica users will undoubtedly feel right at home.
It's not all a bed of roses though, and the X1 has its fair share of quirks and irritations. It's let down mainly by its speed of operation, and never feels quite as alert and responsive as its more refined peers. The autofocus isn't terribly fast, and certainly no match for the best CDAF systems (such as that on the Panasonic GF1); once light levels fall, it gets very slow indeed. Also, in low light the screen refresh rate slows to a painful crawl, and can end up resembling a bad stopped-motion movie. So while in principle one of the attractions of a large sensor compact is the ability to get good results at high ISOs without having to cart around the bulk of a DSLR, the X1's relatively poor low-light operability (especially compared to the likes of the E-P1 and GF1) somewhat negates this advantage.
Many other aspects of operation, especially those related to card throughput (e.g. buffer clearance and playback) are also much slower than we'd expect from a modern camera - for example merely entering play mode takes a couple of seconds, and browsing through your images is glacially slow. Overall this makes for a user experience which doesn't really match the premium aspirations of the camera's design.