Photoessay: Electric trees

For reasons I can’t fathom, this entirely man-made artificial construct on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur draws huge numbers of visitors – mostly young Malay couples on dates looking for somewhere dark that they can get away with holding hands in a very conservative country – in the evening. During daytime, it looks terrible. But at night, the shadows hide the artifice and provide a counterpoint to the multicolored bulbs. I went more out of curiosity than anything, and to see if the X1 could hold its own in a low light situation. MT

Series shot with a Leica X1.

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Suicide bear at the adjoining funfair

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Review: The Leica X1

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Why write about this camera now? The X1 may not be a new camera by any means, but curiously I think if anything it has become relevant again, now that large sensor compacts are all the rage (I can only hope for a digital full frame Ricoh GR1v or Olympus Mju II). I owned one of these for the second half of 2010 and into early 2011, before swapping it for the much-vaunted (and somewhat disappointing) Fuji X100 – to be the subject of another review.

What is interesting is that X1s are popping up used here and there at quite reasonable prices – though like most Leicas, they seem to resist extreme depreciation quite well. At the time, I couldn’t resist, and I was getting impatient waiting for the X100, so I traded in my Sony NEX-5 and bit the bullet.

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A little background: early attempts at mirrorless cameras seemed like a great idea to me – but also somewhat half-baked; here was a camera large enough to be inconvenient, but not large enough to do the job properly. And slow enough to make you want to tear your hair out. But yes, the image quality was definitely better than a small sensor compact. So I persevered. Early micro four thirds attempts weren’t just terrible, they were utterly dire. The Olympus E-P1 was so slow as to be unusable. And the control layout from the Panasonic G1 somehow just didn’t work well – despite being just fine on the LX3. Hmmm. The Sony NEX-5 was next; decently fast, getting smaller, but oh boy the interface was utterly horrible. And none of them had a good EVF, let alone a nice optical finder. Like every other equipment fanboy, the X100 seemed to be the perfect fix – EVF, OVF, manual controls, nice fast lens.

But the X1 got in the way.

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First impressions: whoa, it’s light. There really isn’t that much inside the camera – although it’s metal, it gives the impression of being hollow rather than solidly packed like the Ms. It’s also nice and simple: the limited menu from the M8/9 made it over, keeping the important things and not adding anything superfluous. Shutter speed and aperture control dials are nicely obvious and pleasantly tactile, although they could perhaps be a bit stiffer to prevent accidental knocking. I’d ask for a lock button, but that isn’t part of the Leica gestalt. In fact, it looks and feels like nothing so much as a Barnack camera – especially if you put a compact finder on top. I like the Ricoh GV-2 28mm bright line – yes, it’s a 36mm equivalent lens, but if you use the insides of the 28mm bright line, it actually provides more accurate framing than a dedicated 35/36mm finder, which tends to be a bit too conservative for my liking. (I’m one of those people who composes their shots with the outside of their M’s frame lines.)

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KLPAC. Leica X1

So, a digital Barnack – that’s a good thing, right? Well, yes and no. Let’s get the bad out of the way first: it’s slow; not in the control/ UI interface, but AF and MF were positively glacial. MF required too many turns of the little wheel to use accurately for zone focus; AF was just slow, period – even with the fastest ‘single point HI’ setting chosen. And it doesn’t focus closer than 30cm, though at times it seems even that’s a little generous. A firmware update improved things somewhat, but still doesn’t bring this camera into ‘this feels fast’ territory. I’m faster with an M9. And let’s not even talk about the Olympus Pen Mini. While I’m griping, I want to bring up two more issues: the battery life is abysmal – I mean I can exhaust a battery in an hour or two of shooting. Perhaps 300 frames and it’s flashing at me. Finally, in low light, the LCD doesn’t gain up enough; maybe it can’t without being grainy and unusable. It also doesn’t have enough pixels to manual focus easily. There are a few other niggles too – like peeling leatherette, which I was told is a tropical climate + glue compatibility issue and has been fixed on newer cameras; the flash sometimes not popping up…a bigger buffer would be nice, too.

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Corporate sponsored roaring 40s party. Leica X1

With that done, let’s talk about the good things.

1. The sensor’s image quality is really excellent. For a 12MP camera using a last generation sensor. I understand it’s a derivative of the Sony sensor used in the Nikon D90, which was excellent but very much a first generation product for large sensor live view and video, and certainly without a fast enough refresh rate to be used for contrast detect autofocus – which is what the X1 does. ISO 3200 is definitely useable, and produces crisp results – with compromised dynamic range, of course; but the grain is nice and random, and mostly in the luminance channels. The tonal response of the sensor makes it excel at black and white work, even at higher ISOs. I believe the X1 also has a very weak (or possibly no) AA filter – and it shows.

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Shadow of the photographer. Leica X1

2. The lens’ image quality is also excellent. I was told that the optics are identical to the discontinued but highly regarded 24/2.8 Elmarit-M ASPH – except in a collapsible, autofocus version with an extended helicoid to allow focusing to 30cm instead of 70cm. It’s sharp corner to corner, and at every aperture. The lens clearly out resolves the sensor – aperture control is for depth of field control only, not improving optical performance. Microcontrast structure, flare resistance and chromatic aberration performance are all exemplary. Moreso when you remember that the lens is collapsible, with all of the various small potential alignment errors introduced by moving tubes and the like.

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Redhead. Leica X1

3. The camera seemingly never fails to focus. Wait a minute, didn’t I say before that AF was terrible? I said slow: not inaccurate. It might take several seconds, but the camera will find focus. And that will be on the money. It doesn’t seem to get confused by point light sources, unlike most other compact system cameras I’ve used.

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The mysterious oval in the mountains. Very, very low contrast – but no focusing problems. Leica X1

4. Flash sync speed is…1/2000s! Really? Yes, really. Say thank you to the leaf shutter. That means you can do a lot of creative work with it because you can sync at outdoor daylight speeds, as well as freeze motion very well. Oh, and there’s that handy built in flash: it’s quite useless for social work and as a primary, but as an optical slave trigger when manually set to minimum power, it’s great. One other benefit of the leaf shutter is that it’s an incredibly low-vibration camera – the release is just a smooth, quiet ‘snick’. I wish the Ms had a shutter like this – and the nice-feeling shutter button to go with it.

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Hair flick. Leica X1, 1/2000s, Nikon SB900s in umbrellas.

Does it deliver the ‘Leica look’? Yes and no. These days, with enough processing, you can make a image shot from any camera look like it was shot using another one; however, there are some subtle differences like tonal accuracy and dynamic range that you can’t easily fake. The X1 feels to me like a half-Leica: the sensor is a CMOS, which by definition will have a very different – much more linear in the shadows and highlights – tonal response to a CCD, which is what is used in the M8/M9/S2 (and responds much more similarly to film, i.e. non-linearly). However, the lens definitely imparts some Leica DNA; you can see it in the way the images ‘pop’, but the color and palette might not be quite what you expect – that’s the sensor.

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Looking down. Leica X1

The bottom line is that this camera delivers what it’s supposed to: image quality. Ease of use is there, but speed could be seriously improved. And I’d like to see either a short zoom version (a 28-35-50 Tri-Elmar style lens arrangement could be interesting too) or a telephoto – say an 85/2 – which would be great for studio work.

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More building color. Leica X1. I actually really liked this camera for architectural work; more than my Ms because of the precise framing afforded by the LCD. Wider would be nice, though.

I’m still trying to figure out who this camera is aimed at, though: it’s not automatic enough for a novice-who-wants-a-Leica to use and appreciate without feeling frustrated; you do need to know something about photography to get the most out of it by working around its limitations. (Hint: pre focusing is your friend). I think it’d make a good backup camera for an M user – if they sorted out manual focus; the wheel should be a bit more responsive, and it needs virtual DOF scales, I think – or an upgrade camera for a D-Lux 5 owner; but they might still want to keep the D-Lux around for the added focal length flexibility. It might also make the perfect weekend toy for the jaded SLR owner who wants to try something different.

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Ferrari 430. Leica X1

One final word: as with all of the large sensor compacts I’ve used so far, don’t expect to shoot it the same way you shoot your SLR – it’s not designed for that. Instead, think of it more as an introduction to M-style photography – slower, more contemplative and more anticipative – and I believe the results will come. MT

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Lamborghini Gallardo. Leica X1