By now I'm sure most (if not all) community members on SeriousCompacts.com (SC) have heard about the Leica X1 compact camera (indeed several of you may own this camera). The X1 made a huge splash when it became available in 2009. Here was a compact camera that could fit easily into a coat pocket or small camera bag, made and designed by Leica which included a Leica lens, retro control dials and settings reminiscent of the Leica M-line of cameras, and most importantly a medium-sized APS-C CMOS sensor. The camera didn't just look good, but it should also take good pictures, very good pictures in fact.
The camera was released with much fanfare and long wait-lists and backorders. As the reviews started to come out, some people added themselves to the wait-lists and others took themselves off. The reviews were a mixed bag. Slow focusing problems, quirky electronic interface issues, and some minor quality-control problems (e.g. the faux-leather reportedly coming off some cameras after a few weeks of use) tainted the camera for some. Leica responded by dealing with the complaints as they came in and by making some iterative improvements to the firmware to fix some problems. The image quality, as it turned out, was stunning by most standards and helped to alleviate many of the problems that were coming up in reviews.
Now there are rumors of an X2 successor being planned by Leica and I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this camera not from the viewpoint of a full-blown specifications review but rather from the viewpoint of someone using the camera in much the same way they use their day-to-day camera. But first, some basics . . .
The X1 is a compact camera that has a high quality 35mm equivalent F2.8 fixed lens (no zoom), a rear LCD panel for menu access and composition (an optional optical viewfinder can be used on the hot shoe for composition as well), and a 12.2 megapixel medium-sized (APS-C) CMOS sensor (commonly found in many digital SLR cameras at the consumer and prosumer level). The camera comes with the requisite manual, lens cap, battery charger (with plugs for multiple countries), battery, neck strap, and USB cord. The street price for the X1 is still approximately $2,000 USD after three years on the market. I upgraded the X1 to the latest firmware (v2.0) available from Leica at the time of this writing.
I found the camera itself feels solid in my hands, but it is surprisingly light. While there isn't a hump on the front of the camera for my right-hand fingers to wrap around, the faux-leather provides enough grip and I just squeeze my fingers a bit for extra grip when carrying the camera by my side (I used my own wrist strap as Leica only provides a neck strap which I don't like to use in general). My other initial impression is that there is a lot of plastic here for $2K, and indeed there is plastic (particularly the outlet door and the battery/memory card door), but the top and bottom plates are solid metal, and I suspect the core frame of the camera itself is very solid. This isn't a Leica M9, but neither is it a delicate butterfly of a camera.
The two dials on the top of the camera (in combination) allow you to set your shooting priority (Aperture or Shutter) or your can go entirely automatic. In practice, I find the dials, while solidly affixed to the body, move too easily (particularly when I take the camera in and out of my camera bag). I frequently missed photos because the wheels had turned and I did not notice it until after I made the photo.
The X1 also has a pop-up flash in the form of a cylinder on the left top of the camera that pops up by pressing the cylinder down and then releasing the cylinder which extrudes a bit. It retracts the same way. I never use flash but when holding the camera, my fingers were always resting on the flash and I had to be careful not to press too hard or else it would pop-up when I didn't want it. Likewise when pulling it out of my camera bag. Not a big issue but still something that took my mind off of the photographic moment at hand at times.
Power-up and power-down was very fast with the lens extending or retracting very quickly as the case may be. The X1 uses a plastic lens cap which must be removed before the lens will extend (a warning will tell you to remove the cap if it is on when powering up). I found the cap to be a real pain in practice. The lens cap lock (two buttons opposite each other on the cap) worked fine, but there is nothing to really hold on to once you press the buttons in and pull the cap away. I found myself dropping (more like popping) the cap more than once.
The rear of the camera (where the LCD panel is located) contains two control dials and various buttons for setting things like ISO, white balance, exposure compensation, focus mode, etc. The only thing missing in my opinion is a AEL (or exposure lock) button to lock exposure on a single point and then recompose the shot. This is a feature that most (if not all) DSLRs and many advanced compacts have, and I sorely missed it here. I know that you can set exposure in others ways, but AEL is so convenient and quick to set when you have a dedicated button for such a purpose. Other than this one issue, I felt the layout of the buttons to be well done.
In the Field
In general, the X1 feels natural to hold and make photos with. It is small enough to fit in a coat pocket or to "palm" the camera so that it is always ready. The controls are generally easy to access and use and the camera feels comfortable in my hand. The real problem with the X1 had to do with focus speed and write speeds to the memory card.
Even with the firmware upgrade (which supposedly mitigated the focusing speed issue) the camera is still very slow to focus in autofocus mode. So much so, that I gave up trying to use it for street photography in autofocus mode with good light, etc. The camera takes about 2-3 seconds to indicate a lock and it didn't matter whether I was making photos of another subject in the same focal plane between photos. In essence, the camera in autofocus mode is just not useful for moving subjects (and I'm not talking about sports photography here, just normal movement on the street). The result was a lot of missed photos or photos that looked okay on the LCD at first but later turned out to be blurry when viewing on the computer which brings me to the subject of the LCD panel . . .
I found the LCD quality to be rather poor for a $2K camera (230,000 screen dots) when compared to my $500 USD Ricoh GRD 3 at 920,000 dots (many other compact cameras have LCD resolutions in this range). What this meant in practical terms is that the X1's LCD was really only good at evaluating composition and accessing the menus and such, that is, "Did I get my subject or didn't I?" As for any other aesthetic quality in reviewing images, the X1 was really lacking. I don't chimp my photos much, but you have realize that, unless I'm using the optical viewfinder (which I don't normally like using), the LCD is my only way to compose my photos, so the LCD should at least be of a quality to help me determine whether I got the photo I was after. A quality LCD is key to the photographic process when using any camera like this without an optical viewfinder.
The other issue I had with the camera had to do with the write-speed to the memory card after each photo. I like to use RAW format (DNG with the X1) and to also have a JPEG sidecar photo made too so that I can set the JPEG to black and white or some color process to better review my images while in the field as they relate to what I envision the end product/print will be. The problem is that the write times took around 3 to 5 seconds on average. This is slow when you think about it. Now I know a lot has to do with several factors including your memory card speed but I was using standard 4gb 30mb/s cards (considered to be at the upper end in 2009 when the X1 came out) so not the fastest but not the slowest either. The result was that I sometimes had to wait for the camera between shots to become ready again. Continuous shooting worked a bit better but I don't make photos that way so it was not a real option for me.
Where the camera really camera shines though is with manual focus. Setting and using manual focus was pretty easy and intuitive (this is where many LCD-composition cameras fall flat in my opinion). Once in MF mode, a small distance scale appears at the bottom of the screen and an enlarged focus area becomes available. Both of these features have been improved through firmware upgrades and the camera no longer stops down (basically making the focus area too dim to work with) and the distance scale now has more markings on it. In practice, manual focusing worked well for both stationary objects and people on the street. I typically like to zone focus my cameras, that is I set the focus to a particular distance and work at that distance changing the setting as the distance from my subject changes (particularly useful when out doing street photography for example). The ease of setting and changing the distance setting made my use of the camera for street photography possible (forget about it when in autofocus mode though).
All of the issues I listed above aside, the X1 really does produce some wonderful photos when everything regarding the capture of the image goes right. As I mentioned before, autofocus with the X1 is problematic. I discovered this when trying to make photos where my subject was at three feet or so from the lens (the specs say normal focusing distance is 24 inches at the close range). Try as I might, it was difficult to get the focus to lock where I wanted it to (I was using spot focus with the focus-box in the center of the LCD). This resulted in a lot of missed shots. You have to remember that for most street photographers, three feet is actually not an unusual distance-to-subject range so the X1 would be a problem unless manual focus is employed.
I also would have been pretty upset if I had been using the camera with the optical viewfinder on as I tend not to chimp my photos when using a viewfinder and would have found many of my photos out of focus only after the fact (a reason to use zone focusing and set the focus manually for such situations). Here is an example where focus kept locking past my subject:
Also, forget about anything moving using autofocus. No matter what I did to recompose this shot, the X1 kept locking focus on the collar of my niece’s dog (although the focus-box in the LCD indicated a lock on the dog):
The image quality (which includes noise level, dynamic range, etc.) are really superb though. I worked directly with the RAW files (DNG) in Lightroom 3 and the resulting images could go head-to-head with mid-level (and even some full-frame) cameras out there. Although I don't usually make very large prints, I have no doubt these files can take some serious interpolating up should I ever need to print really big. This is a function of the superb lens in combination with the processing engine and quality RAW files that the X1 can output.
There is a tendency for photos straight out of the X1 to lean more towards yellow in appearance when auto white balance is used. This is easily corrected later when converting the RAW file (using Lightroom, Photoshop or whatever your preference) but you can save time by simply setting the white balance in camera for the condition in which you will be making photos. Here is a photo straight out of the camera and one after some minor adjustments:
The thing with the X1 is when the stars align, it can be a great camera and when I spent some time working with the camera, I could coax decent photos out of it:
I consider the Leica X1 to be a very good camera and for some, this camera might work out very well if the focusing and some other minor issues do not present a problem with the kinds of photographs one might want to make. It's also important to remember that this is a first generation camera for the X-series from Leica and the forthcoming X2 may make all of the issues I had with the camera a moot point (one can hope). Leica now has some serious competition in this area and they will have to jump over some extra hurdles to stand out from the rest (particularly if the price point for the new X2 is still at $2K which I suspect it will be).
It's hard not to make comparisons between the X1 and the increasing competition in the compact medium-sized sensor field (the Fuji X100 comes to mind as does the Ricoh GXR). The Sigma DP line of cameras were the first to incorporate a medium-sized sensor into a compact body but Leica really threw down the gauntlet by adding the X1 to it’s current production line of cameras (shared only by the M9) and thus turning some heads in the industry. Now the field is growing quickly as evidenced by the current competition:
- Sigma DP2 line
- Fuji Finepix X100
- Ricoh GXR (particularly with the 28mm module)
- Sony NEX line
All of these cameras utilize a medium-sized sensor (although the Sigma DP2 is a strange bird but more on that in a future review). Style and features aside, all of these cameras should be able to deliver image quality that is equivalent to any DSLR camera with a similar sensor. Indeed, cameras like the X100 were designed I think to go head-to-head with the X1.
In 2009, the X1 was the only compact medium-sized sensor camera on the market. It caused a stir and got some companies thinking about their own camera line and what photographers might want as they move from small-sensor compacts to something larger or DSLR owners looking for a backup camera (or even a replacement) for their big camera body and lens set-up. Now we have choices to make and I see no end to the quest to pack bigger sensors into compact bodies.
Paul Giguere is a photographer based in the United States. His current focus is on social documentary photographic projects that show the positive aspects of society and community. He is the host of the podcast Thoughts on Photography (www.thoughtsonphotography.com) and you can also visit his personal web site at: www.paulgiguere.com. -Amin
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