When the Leica X Vario (Typ 107) was first announced about a month ago, I honestly didn’t quite know what to make of it – though it seemed like a logical evolution of the X line, and a compliment to the M line, the headline spec left most photographers scratching their heads – including this one. It packs the same 16MP Sony-derived APS-C sensor as the X2, a body somewhere between the X2 and the M Typ 240 and a 28-70 equivalent zoom. Actually, it wasn’t any of that which caused the consternation visible in the comments on this earlier post – rather, it was the modest f3.5-6.3 maximum aperture, and the stiff price. At $2,850, it’s a solid $850 more than the X2, which has a faster fixed lens, and well into second-hand M8 territory – including a lens. The challenge is one of product positioning: the price is high enough to deter serious photographers from taking a second look, perhaps steered away from Leica’s claims that it’s meant to be a mini-M. The X Vario has the body size of the X2 mixed with design cues from the M (top plate step, thumb grip, chrome D-pad, new 3″, 921k-dot LCD). What I found during my week of use (so far) is that they’re both right and wrong.
Note: if some of the sample images appear to be a little flat and warm, it’s because of the 700-API haze blanketing a good chunk of South-East Asia and not a processing choice – thanks to the burning forests in Indonesia. Between that and my packed schedule, I’ve been able to complete the usual array of tests and a couple of quick shooting sessions, but not produce anything personally satisfying on an artistic level; camera reviewing has to take a back seat to paid work in order for me to have time to review cameras… Please note that this is NOT a reflection on the camera in any way – though how it deals with the current skies is a good indication of tonal response. I plan to bring the camera to Singapore next week, and will update the review and sample gallery – here on Flickr – in due course.
Undoubtedly, the X Vario was aimed at the ever-growing segment of the luxury consumer market who are affluent enough to want the best, educated enough not to be satisfied with a half-solution like a rebadged Panasonic, but not quite willing to deal with the fixed lens of the X2, or go the whole hog and actually learn how to use a real M camera properly. To that end, the X Vario has hit the mark perfectly: unlike the Panasonic-derivatives, it feels like a Leica. At first glance, it even looks more like an M-Monochrom than an X2. I’d go so far as to say build quality is a notch above the X2, and at a similar level to the M 240. Interestingly, handling – body size and thickness – are much more like the film Leica Ms than the M 240 is. Leica got all the touchpoints right on this one: there’s solid mass; the wheel detents are positive and tight (the power switch could do with a stiffer detent though, and the aperture/ shutter dials could use a hard stop at either end or a much stiffer detent in the A position); the focusing and zoom rings are smooth and very well damped. Panel fit and overall build quality are befitting of a premium product. Perhaps the only thing that gives the game away are the slightly cheap/ thin feeling plastic buttons and compartment doors, plus the printed rather than engraved markings.
In use, the controls of the camera actually make a lot of sense: it’s one of the few non-interchangeable lens cameras (actually, I can’t think of any others off the top of my head) that allow you to set all critical shooting parameters before you turn the camera on: focal length, focus distance, shutter speed and aperture: assuming you know what ISO you’re in, and have reasonably good ability to guess subject distance and exposure, this is a very, very fast camera for street and reportage work – all you have to do is turn it on, and about a second later, it’s ready to go. You could even leave it in program mode (set both aperture and shutter dials to A) and let the camera decide exposure for you, but still pick focus distance.
Continuing the good news, manual focus implementation is the best I’ve ever seen on a fixed-lens digital camera, and perhaps the one of the best, period: a detent past the infinity point is AF. Anything before that is fixed-distance with hard stops at both ends. (I believe it’s fly by wire and not mechanical, as you can hear a faint motor-noise when the focusing ring is turned.) Simultaneously, a magnifier box pops up in the center of the LCD, making critical focus a breeze. Even without this, it’s easy to see when thing snap into focus because of the high-resolution LCD; setting sharpening to maximum helps even more but affects the JPEGs (though DNGs are of course left alone). Unfortunately, there are no depth of field scales on the lens barrel – perhaps if the focusing ring was thinner, there’d be space to put an abbreviated stepped set (similar to the Tri-Elmars) between the zoom ring and focusing ring; this would be genuinely very useful. Actually, while we’re on the subject of rings, I found myself grabbing the focusing ring frequently instead of the zoom as it’s closer to the camera, larger, and wider in diameter; it’d be nice to have them reversed in position, and the focusing ring a bit smaller. I’d also imagine most of the camera’s target audience wouldn’t use this control very much anyway – surely it would make more sense to make it less prominent?
There are some quirks in the ointment that are worth mentioning, however. Firstly, the rear command dial – now integrated with the thumb grip as first seen on the M 240 – doesn’t have an option to be set to exposure compensation by default in aperture or shutter priority modes; you have to first hit the up direction on the D pad which slows things down a bit. The same D-pad’s markings are also silver on silver, which is very difficult to see under most lighting conditions. We also have a slightly odd menu control system: you press the right arrow to select an item, enter the submenu and change the options, and MENU/SET to select – it’s this inconsistency that’s confusing when you’re in a hurry. The center button on the D-pad should have doubled as SET in the menus rather than merely INFO in shooting mode only. The right hand strap lug is about 2mm too low: it digs into the web between your index and middle fingers, especially with the supplied strap. Lastly, be sure to use fast cards: I tried a class-6 SDHC initially, which made the camera stutter when writing and lag noticeably if I chose any of the review modes; all was well and positively snappy with a 90mb/s Sandisk Extreme UHS-1 card.
The final quirk is around focusing: you must zoom before you focus, because moving the zoom ring after the camera locks will result in clear blurring. (This of course does not apply if you’re using the manual focus ring.) For the most part, focusing speed is fast enough – I’d say perhaps slightly better than the X2, but not as good as the OM-D or E-P5. It slows down noticeably at the long end of the zoom, and you’re probably better off using manual focus here with anything fast-moving; at the wide end, behaviour is quite similar to the Ricoh GR: very fast when there’s enough light, but prone to hunting the moment things get dark. Before you think that focusing doesn’t matter because everything will be in focus with such a slow lens anyway, think again: it does matter, except the difference is usually between crisp perfection and something slightly off. Trouble is, the relatively slow lens means that these little focusing errors can be quite common if you’re not careful in picking your subject and paying close attention to the focus point. The X Vario has a fairly unusual macro mode: it achieves closest focusing distance at the long end of the zoom, instead of the near end; this is actually far more useful in practice as you get both more working distance as well as more magnification and a natural perspective. (There’s a reason why I don’t shoot watches with a 28mm lens.)
Let’s talk about what is perhaps the most contentious part of the camera: the lens. Though the maximum telephoto aperture of f6.3 is just a third of a stop less than most f5.6 kit zooms, (and probably better in reality when transmission is considered, not just physical aperture) for most people seeing a ’6′ anywhere in the maximum aperture spec is a bit of a turnoff. In practical use, however, it isn’t that much of an issue unless a) you intend to shoot handheld telephoto at night, or b) need subject isolation. In situation a), the camera defaults to being a 28mm/3.5; not great, but not unusable either, given its decent high ISO performance and low-vibration leaf shutter. You could even attach the optional EVF (the same one as the X2 and M 240) and brace it against your face for a bit more stability. (The X Vario does have the same electronic stabiliser as the X2, but like the X2, it’s pretty much useless. An optical stabiliser would have been much appreciated, though.) Though the camera does have auto-ISO capability, for some inexplicable reason the minimum shutter speed is limited to 1/focal length or slower; this is pretty borderline given the pixel density of the sensor, especially if you’re not using the EVF and involved in run-and-gun type work. I’d have preferred 1/1.5x or even 1/2x. In situation b), all you can do is have a very near subject and a very distant background; the lens’ real focal length is 50mm.
Optically, things get interesting: both JPEGs and DNGs are excellent, right into the corners. In much investigation, including engineered situations, CA was quite low – though visible occasionally in the corners – and distortion almost completely absent. There was ample microcontrast, but somehow lacks the same overall impression of crispness given by the A, GR; in that sense, the files feel very much like those of the X2. There is some flare at certain focal lengths, too. It’s a very good but not outstanding optic. One thing I did notice during testing was that the lens was consistently a little bit longer than I expected it to be – perhaps 1-2mm – but 28mm was not quite 28mm; from the exact same tripod position, the GR was recording a bit more at the periphery. I initially put this down to manufacturer variation or focus breathing, but then came upon this post by another blogger: apparently, the X Vario’s perfection isn’t entirely down to the optics: there appears to be some software correction going on that affects both JPEGs and RAWs, but some file converters ignore these instructions and yield ‘full’ files that have more at the edges, which are presumably sacrificed for the geometric corrections. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, but I would like the option to enable or disable. That said, I usually enabled lens corrections in ACR anyway, where they are supported. The good news is that it doesn’t appear to be doing anything to the integrity at the edges of the files.
I think the lens-sensor combination is resolving about as much as we can reasonably expect; Leica have confirmed that the camera still retains its anti-aliasing filter, which makes sense as for the most part I simply don’t see the same level of pixel acuity as the Coolpix A or GR at comparable focal lengths and apertures. That said, moire presents itself occasionally on fabrics; we must therefore conclude it’s a fairly weak one. Frankly, the camera can really use all the resolving power help it can get; at this pixel pitch, we’re already diffraction limited from f8. Stopping down beyond that may yield extra depth of field, but at the further expense of acuity.
Low ISO comparison to Ricoh GR. All shot at 28mm; note the difference in pixel level resolution/ acuity due in the 100% version.
High ISO comparison to Ricoh GR. Click here for 100%.
On the subject of the X Vario’s sensor, there actually isn’t that much to say that hasn’t already been said before: it’s a similar base design to many other existing cameras – the X2, the D5100/ D7000, Pentax K5 family, Coolpix A and Ricoh GR. Bottom line is that I think it’s probably one of the best all-rounders in the DX size, offering a good balance between dynamic range and noise (related to pixel size) and resolution; anything more isn’t so forgiving to handle in a live-view form factor. There are some slight differences between the different manufacturers’ processing algorithms and color preferences – the X Vario is quite similar to the X2, and noticeably different to the GR and A. As you can also see, the tonal output is also suitable for some excellent black and white conversions. At the basic level, we’ve got a sensor that’s good for 12-13 stops of dynamic range in RAW at base ISO and usable ISOs to 3200 for color, or 6400 for black and white. I wouldn’t go beyond that unless you really had no choice; noise becomes quite objectionable. The X Vario doesn’t seem to handle chroma noise quite as well as the GR; as a result, you see it creeping in about a stop earlier. Coupled with slightly lower resolving power (note the fine text in the 100% crops), I’d reduce those limits by a half a stop to a stop, depending on your end application. Bottom line: image quality is very good to excellent – as expected – and more than sufficient for most uses.
Reading between the lines, what I think would be really interesting is to equip this camera with an interchangeable AF mount: the body design is mature and well thought out; clearly it shares a good portion of the internals with the X2, and new lenses had to be developed anyway for these two cameras. It would make a lot of sense to extend that to a couple more primes, and add a mount somewhere in the middle of the lens. Of course, compatibility with M lenses would be a given; price it right and Leica could probably claw back a lot of the market from the Fuji X users, as well as attracting new ones. Perhaps such a camera might prove as threat to M sales, but then again, a rangefinder is a different beast anyway, aimed at a very different audience. At any rate, Leica would still make money from lens sales. Then again, I’m just a photographer. I’m sure industry professionals who have been in this business for decades know what they’re doing.
Plenty of natural competition for this camera comes to mind – the X-E1 (or recently announced X-M1) and kit zoom (and a prime or two, to match the price), Olympus OM-D and kit zoom (or at this price, 12-35/2.8 and a prime or two); and appealing to the same crowd as the Leica, the Hasselblad Lunar. I haven’t used the X-E1 seriously, and personally don’t like the build-feel or lack of responsiveness so I won’t comment; the OM-D is undoubtedly much more responsive, and very nearly matches the Leica on feel. Neither the Fuji nor the Olympus let you set up the camera instantaneously, though, and that’s a Big Deal from a readiness perspective; even though the Leica is slower in every way than the OM-D, power-off-to-shot time was about the same – simply because I could set up faster. Both of the alternatives of course offer interchangeable lenses, which the X Vario does not.
I’m going to conclude by going back to contemplating the question I originally asked in the post-announcement post – who is this camera really for? Undoubtedly the St-Tropez crowd will buy one to be seen with the latest and greatest; but I can see a lot of street photographers going for it too: the ease of setup/ use, excellent manual focus implementation and convenient variety of focal lengths make a very attractive package; maximum aperture isn’t that much of an issue since a lot of this work is done at f8 or hyperfocal anyway. I don’t know if M owners would buy it as a backup or second body; perhaps; unlike the Panasonic rebadges, this one really does feel like and carry the DNA of a Leica. Though the price is stiff, it’s about the same as another M lens. It would probably also serve as a good all-in-one solution for travel photographers, though you’d need to carry a tripod for lower light situations. As we increasingly move past the point of sufficiency, manufacturers will continue to try filling ever-smaller niches. It becomes more about something you like/ want to use – read my article on haptics and tactility – more than something you need. Is there room for one in your arsenal? Only you can answer that. MT
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