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Saturday
May282011

Review - Leica X1

 

The Leica X1 looks and feels like the precision instrument that you would expect it to be. It is a Leica after all. For over 100 years Leica has engineered and crafted state-of-the-art optical instruments, and the Leica X1 is no exception - it continues the tradition.

What is the Leica X1? Simply put it is a large sensor, small body digital camera. By large sensor Elvis means much bigger than the sensors found in pocket sized point and shoot cameras. In fact, the sensor in the X1 is almost as large as the sensors found in digital SLR cameras. Larger sensor usually means higher image quality (more on that in a moment). By small body Elvis means much smaller than digital SLR cameras. Smaller body means easier to carry and have with you (and easier to hide for you secret agent types).

What does all of this mean? Essentially it means that you can have image quality almost as high as an SLR camera in a package almost as small as a point and shoot camera. These are both very good things.

 

You can note that the Leica X1 is not a do everything camera and be disappointed. It does not have lots of menus filled with shooting options, post processing options or an array of fancy shooting gimmicks and tricks. It doesn't have (gasp!) video. You're stuck with a 35mm field of view lens. Or you can take the alternative view as Elvis does and look at the Leica X1 as a do one thing very well camera and be happy.

The Leica X1 is simple to operate. You won't miss shots because you left your menu settings on some silly option. You won't waste time over-thinking which shooting option or which lens to use. You won't be disappointed with the shaky video that you get with most SLR cameras. You will be amazed at the image quality. And you'll be tickled with the famous Leica "look" that you can only get with genuine Leica lenses.

Top 5 Reasons to Love the Leica X1

  1. The Leica lens and the Leica lens "look"
  2. It compliments your digital SLR
  3. Ease of use
  4. Image Quality
  5. Image Quality

NOTE: Elvis' reviews are based on equipment that Elvis purchased with his own, hard-earned money. This means that Elvis went through some sort of justification in buying the piece of equipment and/or that it was likely to fill some need. Elvis doesn't buy stuff just to review it. Therefore, if you're looking for reasons not to like the Leica X1 you'll need to look elsewhere. Elvis is a lover, not a hater. The intent of this review is to show you what the X1 can and cannot do, how it works in actual operation and what you can expect in end results. The intent is not to nit pick the X1 or to compare it to a variety of other cameras in some sort of contest.

The Leica Lens & The Leica "Look"

The Leica lens included with each X1 is a valid reason to purchase the X1. It's a 24mm f/2.8 Elmarit. Leica aficionados recognize that to be a world class lens. To those new to Leica, allow Elvis to assure you that the lens quality is of the highest order. The "look" of a lens, or family of lenses is difficult to describe. Ineffable, really. It won't stop Elvis from trying though. Elvis' two favorite lenses ever are the Leica 35 f/2 Summicron aspherical and the Nikon 85 f/1.4. These two lenses are bright, sharp, have a remarkable flatness of field and when used correctly produce very pleasing out of focus ( bokeh ) areas. These attributes make for great landscapes and stunning portraits. Elvis argues that these two lenses are so good that you can justify buying a good camera body on which to attach them. They really are that good.

What does that have to do with the lens on the X1? The 24mm on the X1 produces photographs that give a "look" that is similar to Elvis' two favorite lenses described above. Bright, sharp, flat field and pleasing out-of-focus areas. And don't let the 24mm moniker concern you. As an APS-C sensor camera there is a multiplication factor to consider: 1.5. That 24mm on the X1 gives you a 35mm field of view, which is just about the most versatile field of view there is.

Take a close look at the sample images provided by Elvis. Click on each image to view the images in their full-file glory. And click on More Images to see, well, More Images.

It Compliments Your Digital SLR

The X1 is the perfect (and Elvis means perfect) camera with which to compliment your digital SLR. Your SLR gives you lots of shooting options, lots of lens choices, video and all kinds of fun tricks to play around with. That's your main camera. The Leica X1 compliments this by being small and pocketable with high image quality. Going on vacation? Use your SLR at Disney World, on the vehicle trip to the mountaintop lookout and on photography specific excursions. Pack the X1 for street shooting, at the beach, hiking and when out to dinner. Shooting a sporting event? The SLR is great for action shots during the game. The X1 is great for shooting the team during pre-game pep talks, players on the sidelines and after game celebrations and team activities. Weddings? SLR is great for formals and receptions. Leica X1 is great for during the ceremony since it is silent in operation. You get the idea. With an SLR and an X1 you are well equipped for any photographic opportunity.

Ease of Use

In use the Leica X1 is terrific. Take a few minutes to understand the few shooting options that the X1 offers, set your favorites and you are now ready to shoot at a moment's notice. There is nothing to the X1 that will slow you down. It's a photographic machine - plain and simple.

Is it the fastest focusing camera ever? No it isn't. In dim light it can take a few seconds to focus. But keep in mind that the Leica lens is sharp and what you want is precise focusing to take advantage of that sharp lens. Just like a manually focused lens it can take a moment to get it critically correct. And in medium to bright light it's fast. (See Elvis' test of the improved focusing speed with new firmware HERE).

The battery and charger are both small and portable. The SD cards used in the X1 are universally accepted, fast and durable (and inexpensive). The DNG files can be opened with almost any photo editing software and are claimed to be future-proof.

The small size and light weight of the Leica X1 cannot be overstated. The camera is incredibly easy to handle, use and pocket. But don't let the size and weight fool you - it is built to exacting standards and is jewel-like and elegant to hold.

It may very well be the camera with the highest image quality that you could hand to a stranger to take your picture in front of (name landmark here) and not need to explain to the stranger how to use it. It's simplicity belies it's strength.

The B-52s

Image Quality

If you are familiar with Leica imaging you will immediately recognize that pedigree in the X1 photographs. If you are new to Leica you are in for a treat. The X1, like the Leica M series of cameras and lenses, produces sparkling, clear and crisp photographs with smooth and pleasing out of focus areas. Lack of flare and lack of field curvature are other traits in the world of Leica.

You needn't look hard to discern Leica photographs. It's immediately apparent. Elvis is particularly fond of the crispness of Leica photographs. It's not exactly sharpness and it's not exactly contrast - it's crispness (Elvis warned you at the outset of this review that these are difficult things to define). Just look at the samples and see if you can note these things.

Point and shoot cameras and 4/3rds cameras are no match for the Leica X1 when it comes to image quality. Some DSLRs can have a slight edge but at a size and weight cost. The Fuji X100 is a close match in a different (not as simple) body, and should be a camera that you consider (see Elvis' comparison of the Leica X1 and Fuji X100 HERE), but it won't give you the Leica "look", ease of use or pocket ability.

When it comes to image quality, engineering matters. Leica excels at engineering. Some primary keys are; sensor quality, lens (glass, not plastic) quality, lens-to-sensor distance, lens element positioning and consistency, lens element coatings, use of aspherical surfaces, durability of materials used. All of these areas are strengths of the Leica company and have been for generations.

Superior lens glass is more important than a high resolution image monitor. A superior sensor is more important than a video mode. A clean and simple but highly technical light path is more important than page after page of shooting and post processing options. You get the idea here. Leica focused on the image path and little else.

A larger image sensor is a very good thing.  All things being equal, a larger sensor captures images with a greater dynamic range than a smaller sensor.  Essentially, greater dynamic range means more detail in dark areas, medium areas and light areas of the scene.  Higher image quality.  As a bonus, larger image sensors produce a smaller depth of field for any given aperture setting, allowing for superior out of focus areas and image "pop".

Leica managed to mount a large image sensor into a small camera and for the first time we have a pocketable camera that can generate high image quality.  Some thought that the so-called four thirds system cameras were going to be the solution.  The sensor in the Leica X1 is roughly 60% larger than the four thirds sensors and in Elvis' estimation the resulting image quality is at least double.  There's nothing wrong with the four thirds cameras but the X1 image quality is higher.  The image sensor in the X1 is 8 to 10 times larger than the sensors in typical point and shoot cameras.  You don't need Elvis to do that math for you.

In a world of do-it-all cameras with options too numerous to mention (let alone fully understand) one could say that Leica took a flyer with the X1. Ignoring video, not being tempted with gimmicks and gadgets could be considered a risk. But that would be a complete misunderstanding of what Leica is. Leica has always been about stripping photography down to it's bare essence. Focus on the image. Let other companies throw out dozens of options to see what sticks. Leica should be applauded for putting a superior, large sensor behind a true Leica lens and stuffing both into an elegant and portable body.

The result of all of this engineering is that you can get a high image quality producing machine in a small and elegant package. A true industry leading product, the Leica X1.

For the full set of sample photographs go HERE, and be sure to hit the "O" button above each image to see them in their Original, full size.

Saturday
May142011

Review: Leica X1 and FujiFilm X100 

The Leica X1 and FujiFilm X100 cameras represent the state-of-the-art in large sensor, small body cameras.  You could spend hours delving into the owner's manuals to pick out all of the various (and minor) differences.  Or you could do what Elvis did and focus on the things these two cameras have in common.  Turns out, and this is good news, that the things the X1 and X100 have in common are some of the most important aspects when selecting a camera.  Image quality, size, weight, ease of use.

Cameras are compromises.  Get this feature or function but give up some size and weight.  Give up this feature or function but gain some ease of use.  The challenge is finding the right balance.  Elvis thinks Leica and Fuji have hit homeruns with the X1 and the X100.  They are both very fine examples of thoughtful design and construction.  They are different to be sure, but in the important things they are very similar.

The experience out shooting with these cameras is simply terrific.  Small, quiet and unobtrusive.  Easy to pull out of a pocket, take a photograph and slip back into the pocket.  They both exude that quality feeling.  It's a pure tactile, audible and optical pleasure to work with either the X1 or the X100.

The X1 is elegant.  The X100 is robust.

The Leica X1 easy and intuitive and does one thing very well - it takes high quality photographs.  The Fuji X100 has many more features but requires more time and attention to get high quality photographs.

The X1 will take you about 10 minutes to set up and understand.  30 minutes of trying different settings and you'll have it mastered.  Stop over-thinking and worrying about the device and just go out and photograph.  Day after day, year after year.  Your reward will be threefold;

  1. It's small enough to have with you all of the time, no more excuses about size and weight. 
  2. It's ready and set whenever you are. 
  3. The image quality will be of the highest standard.

The X100 will take you about an hour to set up and understand - and perhaps 30 days of tinkering with the numerous settings to master.  You'll need to be thoughtful whenever you head out to shoot because there are many settings that you may have changed the last time you were out.  Your reward will be threefold;

  1. It's small enough to take with you everywhere, no more excuses about size and weight. 
  2. The variety of shooting options plus a video mode will have you ready for any situation. 
  3. The image quality will be of the highest standard.

The choice is really very simple: If you want a small, easy and elegant camera that is big on image quality, and that's it, get yourself a Leica X1.  If you want a small, robust camera that is big on image quality and has lots of features, including video, but requires more time and attention, get yourself an X100.  See, it's simple!