Review – Leica X1

This review was published in Photo Pro magazine in November 2010.

Intro: Murray Laidlaw took the Leica X1 to Paris for a few days to discover whether this is the camera you should never leave home without.

The Leica X1 is one of a range of new compact cameras being introduced by Leica this year and to anyone familiar with the M series it will immediately look and feel familiar, if a little reduced in size. It is reassuringly solid due to the all metal construction with clean lines and curved edges, it feels like a proper camera and is presented in a smart “Steel Grey” and black leatherette finish. The big difference from other compacts is the 24 mm fixed focal length lens, equivalent to 36 mm on a 35 mm camera, so no optical or digital zoom, and no option for changing the lens. Leica point out that many of the greatest images of the 20th century were taken with a 35 mm lens, they could have added invariably on a Leica. They could have made a list, perhaps modesty prevented them.

I’m inclined to believe that the Leica M is a bit like Marmite, you either love it or … as a former M6 owner the rangefinders were a joy to use, produced great images but often frustrating when compared to the flexibility of an SLR so how would a compact designed in the style of the M series with a fixed focal length lens fare? Apparently the waiting list at the Mayfair store is measured in months rather than weeks so there is clearly a demand and I noticed a small queue forming when I was there looking at it before the review sample arrived in mid May.

Exploring the layout the top plate has just three controls and the pop up flash – a large shutter speed dial, a smaller version for the aperture and the shutter settings ring around the release button comprising off, single shot, multiple shot and a timer delay position. All three move smoothly between settings and the f stops can be set in 1⁄3 EV steps. These do not lock at the different settings but this was not an issue during the test period. The flash has to be depressed to release it and pushed back in after use. It is an elegant solution and the curved nature of the housing probably provides a better reflector than other flat faced surface mounted options. Image of – top plate & front view with flash up

IThe rear of the camera is well laid out with a row of clearly marked buttons down the left hand side of the 2.7” TFT LCD monitor. This is the largest size possible in this body profile and all information and images are clearly displayed including histograms if required. The buttons from the top are, play (review shots), delete / focus settings, white balance, ISO and info (information displayed on the LCD). To the right are a thumb wheel at the top for scrolling through the images and the now familiar circular dial comprising five small buttons; menu in the centre, EV (top), flash (rhs) AF/MF (bottom) and self timer duration (lhs) and a ring around the edge to adjust magnification when reviewing images. In Play mode when reviewing an enlarged section of the image changing to another image will retain the enlarged setting enabling a quick comparison of similar shots. This doesn’t sound much but proved to be a really useful feature.

The base plate has the tripod mounting and a door covering the battery and memory card slots. This is opened by moving a small recessed lever, the card is sprung loaded and the battery retained by a clip. Even the lever is nicely engineered. This is a well thought out camera engineered for people who appreciate craftsmanship, design and quality.

The camera is very simple to operate with all the controls and settings being self explanatory, so much so that I only read the manual after I’d taken several shots and wanted to play, sorry experiment. The display provides comprehensive information on the options available and on the images you have taken. The first decision will be the resolution, most users will probably opt for the full 12.2M. Next up will be the compression or format of the images, both JPEG and DNG are options, JPEG in fine or super fine and DNG + JPEG although it is not possible to select DNG only. Leica has chosen the DNG raw format as it means the files are ‘future- proofed’, so all compatible software can be used to open them now, and, being an Adobe standard, it will be supported in the future.

For the review DNG and JPEG superfine were chosen and examples are shown below. As you might expect there is a marked difference between the two sets of images. The quality of the JPEG files is excellent at around 5.5Mb and could probably be used without any further processing.

You also have the option of using predetermined white balance settings or you can set your own. Other options are ISO, AF or manual and whether the camera is fully automatic (shutter speed and aperture) or whether you wish to retain some control over either option. I used ISO 200 and tried both auto shutter speed selection and auto aperture selection depending on the subject and it is good to have the choice together with the option of manually setting both. The range is from 30s to 1/2000s and A (auto), aperture f2.8 to f16 and A (auto). There are so many options on this camera, including the ability to silence the shutter, that it would take too long to list them all but you can start taking great pictures straight out the box. If you want to have total control then it’s available very easily.

In practice the camera is quite small to hold so I would recommend the add on hand grip (£90) for better control and stability. Unfortunately the protruding lens barrel makes it is a bit too big for the pocket unless you’re wearing a coat or jacket so ideally you need a case. Naturally Leica has a solution, three options are available, a leather slip-in, an “ever ready” and a small system case. Of the two smaller cases only the ever ready at £160 will accept the camera with the hand grip in place. As you would expect the leather and finish are of a very high standard. You might also want to consider the external viewfinder, this mounts in the flash hot-shoe and provides an excellent optical image but adds £250 to the overall cost. If you are using the external viewfinder you can switch off the screen thereby saving battery power. I found the LCD screen difficult to see in bright sunshine and without the viewfinder it was almost impossible to know what the results might be. With practice you could probably estimate the field of coverage although this is not the answer. In lower light levels it provides an excellent image making the most of the 230,000 pixels.

A filter to protect the lens would be a welcome addition, this may not be viable as the lens barrel retracts into the body of the camera but I don’t see the detachable lens cap staying with the camera too long. It’s probably a lot to ask but I’d like to see an optional polarising filter.

Where the Leica really scores is in having a large APCS format sensor, to put this in perspective the popular Canon G11 has a 1/1.7 size sensor, typically the size for a compact camera. The larger sensor makes a huge difference to the quality of the images because it allows larger pixels, which means more light-gathering capability – a major benefit of this is lower noise at higher ISOs. It also means the pixels are not as close together, therefore less chance of an overspill of light.

Despite the restrictions of the fixed lens this is an enjoyable camera to use, it is comfortable to hold, with the additional hand grip, easy to operate and takes great pictures. You will probably miss the zoom facility initially but it does make you think about composition. Leica say that image quality was the priority for the X1 and therefore decided that a fixed lens would produce the best images. The absence of a movie mode is probably an omission, Leica’s response is to point to their desire to create a compact camera of classic design and straightforward to operate. It’s difficult to see how adding a movie option would detract from this aspiration. The autofocus can be slow, attempting to capture people walking in the street and waiting for the autofocus to lock resulted in several potentially good shots being missed. The solution of course would be to set the shutter speed and aperture manually and then focus, like we used to do before the introduction of autofocus. How quickly we come to rely on technology.

Conclusion The Leica X1 is an excellent camera, if you can accept the limitations of the focal length and the absence of movie mode. It is priced at £1395 with the option to buy the camera and ever ready case together for £1500 saving £55. Add in the viewfinder at £250 and the hand grip at £90 and it starts to become expensive. Leica set out to “create a very high quality ‘pure’ product that delivered the best image quality”. They have achieved their goal. There are excellent alternatives available at lower cost, the Canon G11 and Olympus P2 are two

examples, but this is a Leica, worthy of the name. There is just one more factor to consider; the recent announcement by Getty that the Leica X1 “meets their images submission requirements”. This is the first compact camera to be approved and is testament to the very high quality of the images. I’ve rated this camera at 81⁄2, if Leica can improve the speed of the autofocus it would be a straight 10 add in a movie mode and I’d never leave home without it. Prices include VAT @ 17.5%

For:

Exceptional image quality Build & handling Approved by Getty

Against:

Slow autofocus No movie mode Price

Rating: 81⁄2 : 10

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