Sunday, July 7, 2013

Review: Leica X Vario. Who is it really for?

1/1000 sec F/6.4 ISO 800 at 70mm equiv

















Let me start off with a story. Imagine someone offered you a chance to test the new Porsche 911 Turbo S. As a German car fan, you're pretty excited. However, when the day arrived, they deliver a Porsche Boxster S instead. I mean, a Porsche is a Porsche, you wouldn't complain; but you can't help but be a bit disappointed. Back to my story. I was told I was going to get the Leica M 240 to review, and my anticipation and excitement was almost unbearable. When I was handed the X Vario instead, I was slightly disappointed. But a Leica is a Leica right? It's still made in Germany, and it's a brand new camera, and its the first in its class to be built. So with a smile I started my review. 



Build Quality

The first thing I noticed is that this camera is built like a tank! I had both the Ricoh GR V and the Fuji X-100S to test as well, and both are very well built cameras. But handling these three at the same time, the Leica is definitely in a different class. In fact, the other two felt a bit cheap compared to the Leica, although compared on their own, I would never of thought that.  As mentioned on my first impression, all the mechanical controls on the X Vario is first class: the dials, zoom ring, and manual focus ring. Everything feels solid and firm. The buttons and the silver control dial on the back, it's about the same quality as everyone else. It's not exquisite, but adequate. You won't get shivers when pressing buttons on the X Vario, but you will when using the well damped manual zoom and focus ring, especially those who are use to using manual focus lenses.


1/1000 F/6.3 ISO 800 at 28mm equiv






Handling

The control of this "Mini M" is why I think Leica is marketing the X Vario as such. I know many are disappointed that it's not a ILC, nor does it have an OVF or an EVF, but let me explain why Leica labels it a small M. Besides the M build quality (made in Germany factory), another characteristic of the M is the ability to see and set your main settings from the outside of the camera. You can set your preferred zoom, focus, aperture and shutter speed setting even before you turn the camera on. No need to look at a menu on screen. This is important for M shooters, and you won't be disappointed with the X Vario.

If I can make a suggestion to Leica about one control feature that would be awesome as a physical dial: ISO control. I know it's a dedicated button on the back (unlike many popular cameras), but to physically see and adjust your ISO setting on a dial is much better. Then you could set all your main camera settings before you turn the camera on, like an old school manual film camera! Wouldn't that be awesome? Where could Leica put this wishful dial? How about getting rid of the pop up flash and put the ISO dial in its place. I don't think anyone is going to miss the flash. I didn't use it once. Another suggestion is displaying the ISO on screen, especially while in Auto ISO mode. It's nice to know what ISO the camera is choosing for you. This is an easy firmware update issue, so it's not really a big deal...


Shooting

This camera has average auto focus speed. It doesn't hunt too much, and in bright daylight, it's adequate. Also, there's no need to go into macro mode when shooting up close, which makes sense since it has a proper manual focus ring that focuses from minimum focus to infinity in one smooth turn of the barrel. The exposure system is also very accurate and dependable. 

However, if you're planning to shoot sports or pets or children with this camera, depending on the focusing system to get the shot for you, don't bother. That's not what this camera is designed for. Neither is the entire M range of cameras. Some would say this camera was designed for slower, more thoughtful shooting, like landscapes and architectural photography, and it's true, it would be great for that type of shooting as well.

What I found is that this camera is surprisingly good for street photography. If you are competent at zone focusing and manual adjusting of exposure, you'll love this camera. On my previous post I mentioned how the lay-out of the entire camera seems to work for street photographers who shoot blind (not looking at the screen to compose). Since all the exposure controls are external (both aperture and shutter speed dial is on the top and easy to see) and the manual focus ring has an actual distance scale, you can change your settings quickly to adapt the changing environment faster than having to look through menus. 

If you need to check for your exposure value, you can quickly look down at the screen and use the easy-to-see horizontal scale, adjust your settings, and get back to shooting. What happens when the camera goes into sleep mode? It comes back to life once you tap the shutter button half way, less than a second; unlike the Fuji X-100S which seems to get stuck in sleep mode (up to 5 seconds to wake up), often missing the shot. 


1/1000 sec F/4.5 ISO 1600 at 28mm equiv






  
Put all these features together, and you have an awesome street photography camera. How good? I would say of all the cameras I've owned and tested, the X Vario had the highest percentage of good images. Why? It's probably because I'm less focused on fiddling with controls, and more focused on people and my environment. All these street shots were taken without auto focus and using manual exposure mode only. I had so many good shots in such a short period of time, I posted my extra images on this post here.

In addition to street photographers, landscape and architectural photographers would appreciate the X Vario's ability to easily set the exposure and focus distance manually, and because the image quality out of this camera is top notch...


Image Quality

Another major plus for the Leica X Vario is the image quality. It all starts with a super sharp 28-70m equiv zoom lens. Yes the lens is not very bright at F/3.5 to F/6.4, so don't try shooting at night. During the day, and even when its cloudy, no problem. Also remember that the Ricoh GR V and the Nikon Coolpix A are both F/2.8, which is only 1/2 stop faster, so F/3.5 in real world shooting is negligible  However, at the long end of the lens, you're at F/6.4, so forget about BOKEH, unless you're really close to your subject, and the background is really far away. For street use during the day, I didn't find the small apertures prohibitive in most of my shots, since I shoot at F/5.6-8 most of the time anyway. However, if you decide to shoot at night, I would stick with shooting at 28mm and F/3.5.


1/500 F/5.1 ISO 3200 at 50mm equiv

























Another point is that this is a real Leica lens, not a 3rd party rebadged lens by Panasonic or Olympus. This lens is sharp, sharp, sharp! For its size this lens performs very well (remember, this lens only zooms out 1/2", so it is a complex designed, compact zoom for it's class), and its definitely Leica quality. Could it have been faster? Perhaps, but I would assume either the quality of the image wide open would have suffered, or the lens diameter would have to be increased significantly. 

Could it at least have been image stabilized? Technically it has software based stabilization, but you can't really notice the difference. You're better off having steady hands. I don't think Leica has ever image stabilized a lens before, except via a rebadged Panasonic camera, and that's with much smaller lenses with smaller sensors. I think if this camera was to have IS, it would be sensor based, not lens based, so as not to mess with Leica's lens design. This is something that most would like to see in the future on the X line of cameras. 


1/250th sec F/5.1 ISO 1600 at 50mm equiv

  
How are the cameras files? The images out of camera are awesome. Very nice indeed. I shot some RAW images, but I see no need to. For my use, JPEGs are good enough. If I'm doing a job for a client, I always shoot RAW; but shooting for myself, 99% of the time I can get what I want out of JPEGs. The Leica JPEGs are very nice. With the help of the Leica lens, the JPEGS have a nice overall feel, nice colour, good sharpness. The Leica can handle bright colours as well, handling the brightest yellows and reds, and still balances it with nice, natural skin tones. How high can you go before the images are unusable? If you're not printing the images, I wouldn't go above ISO 3200. The best compromise for quality versus usability would be to shoot between ISO 800 and 1600.  


1/320 F/4.0 ISO 100 at 30mm equiv


























Operation

The operation control of the Leica is pretty good, and is similar to the M240. It's simple, and the X Vario has the right amount of dedicated external controls and buttons. As soon as I picked it up, I didn't have to hunt for any of the main features. Even when you dive into the on screen menu, the lay-out is very German-like, simple and to the point. However, like many things German, us North American's are confused about certain control ergonomics. The first time I drove a BMW, I couldn't open the windows (center console) or the trunk (bottom left drivers side, near foot). 

The first time I turned on the X Vario, I didn't know how to input a selection! I had to pick a language, and after choosing English by navigating via the main silver control button,I hit the center of the button for enter (like almost all cameras)...but it didn't work. After 15 minutes, I finally figured out the input button for all menu item selections is the lower far left button labeled "menu/set", while the center button is the "info" button. I guess Leica has a reason for this, but I think it would make more sense to switch the buttons. This would be an easy change on the next version, or a firmware update option for those who wish to change the button control. 

Other than this quirk, everything else was laid out logically and was a breeze to set up the camera exactly the way I wanted. The almost 1 million pixel screen was nice to use (I know the previous M's  and X's were 230K screens) and easy to check for sharpness after shooting an image. The overall operational experience of the X Vario was enjoyable.



Conclusion

In the end, who is this camera really for? Is it for someone who depends on auto focus? No.
In fact, most non-interchangeable lens cameras aren't great when it comes to auto focus, including the Fuji X-100S and Ricoh GR V. In bright daylight, all these cameras are pretty good, but as soon as the light levels drop, the auto focus slows down significantly. The X Vario did outperform both the Ricoh and Fuji in low light conditions, rarely hunting, and even locked on confidently in low light and close focus setting. However, this camera isn't about auto focus. It's about almost everything else though: build quality, ergonomics and handling, lens quality, image file quality.

As a street photographer, I can say with a definite yes that I would shoot with the Leica X Vario. As you can see by my other street images taken with the Leica, I had the highest percentage of sharp and well exposed images over any other camera I've shot with, even more than the Ricoh GR's. By zone focusing and manually setting my aperture and shutter speeds, I rarely missed a shot that I wanted. Having a zoom was just a bonus in this type of camera. Leica X1, X2, Ricoh GR's, Fuji X-100's, none of these APS-C all-in-one cameras have a zoom lens. 

As for image quality, I would say that this camera is very good. Good lens, good sensor, good JPEG algorithms make for solid images for printing or viewing on screen. How does it compare to the Ricoh GR and the Fuji X-100S, both very popular and high performing APS-C sensored point and shoots? I would say that overall the Leica performed the best, but in certain situations, it comes down to taste. The Fuji and Ricoh JPEGs have a certain look, and same as the Leica. I think Leica does colours best, Ricoh does B&W slightly better, and Fuji's unique X-Trans sensor has a overall unique look. If you already own a Leica or like the Leica look, then the X Vario won't disappoint. Especially if you shoot landscape photography with bright colours, there's something special about the Leica image files.

I know there's been a lot of harsh criticism about this camera on different forums. It's too expensive, the lens is too slow, no IS, the camera is too big, there's no OVF or an EVF. All legitimate complaints. I heard similar complains about the Ricoh GR before anyone actually shot with it, minus the price issue. However, anyone who actually shot with the Ricoh will tell you, it's an amazing camera. The same goes for the X Vario. Perhaps on paper, the X Vario doesn't make a lot of sense. You can buy the GR, X-100S, and still have enough money to buy almost every accessory available, and still be under the price of just the X Vario. 

However, after shooting with it for a week, I can tell you that this new Leica camera is an amazing camera. The proof is in the pudding. I got really amazing images out of this camera. The learning curve was short, and I was able to shoot without thinking too much about the controls or how I would do this or that. I just picked the camera up and started shooting. It's that simple.



1/500th sec F/5.6 ISO 800 at 28mm equiv.

Is this camera for everyone? No, it's a premium camera. Is a Rolls Royce for everyone? Of course not. You can buy a Lexus that can do the same thing, and sometimes better than the Rolls, but that's not why people buy an exotic car. The Leica is a premium brand selling premium products. This is a very well made camera that can perform as well. It's not perfect, but it's the first version of this camera. The X-100 wasn't perfect when it first came out, and Ricoh had 4 other GR versions before creating the latest APS-C sensored version. This camera does have room for improvement. I would like to see some changes, but the overall concept works, especially for my style of shooting.

Back to my original story about wanting to test the M 240 but ending up testing the X Vario first. Yes, I was initially a bit disappointed I wasn't testing the top of the line Leica camera. However, after a week with the X Vario, I became a believer. I enjoyed it more than I thought. After seeing how many great images I was getting from the X Vario, I realized the importance of manual control and how it helped me improve my shooting style, which led to better overall images. I tried using the same style of shooting with the Fuji X-100S, and it didn't work. I was frustrated trying to zone focus and manually setting my exposure. So there is something special about the Leica X Vario. If you can afford it, get it. If you can't, don't knock it unless you try it. Take a look at the posted images and judge for yourself.

Thanks to Eric Kerwin of Leica Canada for loaning me the X Vario. I really enjoyed my time with it. Hopefully I'll have a chance to review of the M240 or the M Monochrom in the near future! Happy shooting...

P.S. Don't forget to follow me on Twitter, Instagram, or email me at take@bigheadtaco.com if you have any questions or post comments below. 

8 comments:

  1. bruno.giacomarosaJuly 11, 2013 at 10:34 PM

    very interesting and helpful review....
    many thanks

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Bruno. the X Vario is a very unique camera. I didn't think I would like it as much as I did, and it really did help me take better street pics. It's expensive, but if you can afford it, I say go for it!

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  2. Thanks for the review. I noticed most of the images you posted look like they were taken in overcast or defused lighting conditions. One on my main concerns is Dynamic Range. The last image on your post showed a family group with a slightly brighter background and I noticed the street was burned out and displayed no detail even though the sun did not appear to be very bright.

    How would you rate the camera's Dynamic Range performance?

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    Replies
    1. I prefer shooting when overcast and even lighting. The image of family group was difficult because they were standing in the shadow of a building, but the background was the street in direct sunlight. This was an extreme lighting situation that couldn't be helped, and no camera with DR assistance could capture both foreground and background evenly. I purposely exposed for the little girl, knowing that I would blow out the background, which was 3-4 stops brighter.

      As for DR on the Leica, it does have a DR feature, 100-400% range. I usually turn off DR on most of my cameras, as I don't like how most software renders the shadows...looks fake to me. I control it post production. The APS-C sensor handles DR much better than point and shoot cameras, but not as well as full frame sensored cameras. Between brands, it's a matter of software, not hardware, as many brands use the same sensor. The best DR image is usually the ones that combine 2 images of different exposures into a single JPEG. Fuji does DR the best, but looks the most fake to me. Leica's DR software manipulation looks very natural to me, but not as aggressive as Fuji. I hope this helps.

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  3. A splendid review! Thanks, Bigheadtaco. The only thing I don't like is your pseudonym - I am sure that your real name is far more pleasant.
    I love the way you treat the X Vario so fairly, unlike so many other idiot reviewers who are anti-Leica before they start, and review accordingly.
    I have had my X Vario for about six weeks now and love it to bits. The lens is by far the best lens I have ever had and gives splendid results. My eyesight being what it is allows for only autofocus and the X Vario excels in this department.
    Thanks for an excellent - and most importantly - fair, review.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Anonymous,

      You're the first person who hasn't laughed after hearing or reading my on-line name! I just didn't want to use my real name, although its not a secret (if you Google Bigheadtaco, eventually you'll find my real name).

      As for the X-Vario, yes I really enjoyed shooting with it. I'll actually try and borrow it for an extra week sometime in the future, as I was getting so many great images from it. The camera is very well thought out, at least the most important aspects of it. I don't know why people are so fixed on the price and the lens aperture. If you can't afford it, then don't buy it. Also, as a street shooter, even if the lens was F/2.8, I would almost never shoot it wide open. And seeing how sharp the lens is wide open (The Fuji X-100S is soft wide open, and isn't really sharpt across the field until F/4.0), I think F/3.5 is a good compromise of size and light gathering ability. Thanks for you comment!!

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  4. Very enjoyable review. Every camera has a place & a reviewers role is to find what that place is.
    The Leica X Vario is great for what it was intended.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Anonymous for your comment. I never thought of my role that way, but it's true to a certain point. There are some cameras I don't like and I don't review them, but I guess that's my limitation, not the cameras. But it's safe to say for the X Vario, I didn't have to try very hard to like it. Seriously, it's easy to criticize a camera from a far and by reading specs only. When you shoot with it, you'll be blown away by the pictures you get back. The highest percentage of good shots I've ever got on any digital camera ever. Thanks!!

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