Leica X-Vario Review

First of all, before we get started, I would just like to extend a big thank you to the folks at the Leica Store SoHo (and especially my friend Ulas) who helped arrange for me to be able to have access to this camera for my latest trip to Oregon to put it through its paces. I look forward to working on more reviews in the very near future.

The Leica Store SoHo is located at 460 West Broadway, New York, New York 10012 and is open Monday through Friday 10:00 am to 7:00 pm as well as Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm

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Image taken with the Leica X-Vario in Bend, Oregon

Leica X-Vario @ 70mm – 1/250 – f/8.0 – ISO 100

The Leica X-Vario is a very difficult lens to review. It has a number of good things about it while simultaneously having a number of less good things about it. First, I am going to explain an idea which I have had in my head for a very long time, and which has really been hammered home to me on my latest trip to Oregon. For this trip I left my PhaseOne IQ180 home, and brought a Nikon D800e along with the Nikon PC-E lenses along with the Leica X-Vario;

(Note, if you are only here for the Leica X-Vario review you can skip the next two paragraphs, fair warning.) 

Before the rise of digital, there was a higher degree of delineation between cameras (and when I say camera’s I’m really referring to formats) they all had different attributes, strengths and most importantly limitations. Thought went into equipment choice, because there were advantages to say using 35mm over medium format (or visa versa) or a 6×7 vs a 6×9 and so on. Because the film you were putting through these cameras (especially in the case of medium format) was the same, or at least could be held as a constant, cameras and lenses were chosen for their qualities which helped to create the image a photographer wanted and image quality was a known and relatively constant quality. With the rise of digital, we have lost specialization in cameras. Due to the way that the market has developed cameras are (in the eyes of the majority) meant to do as many things as possible, with less mind paid to their ability to execute a specific task. Convergence between still photography and video as well as consumer and professional models has not helped this yet. At face value, specialization is lost beyond the portability of point and shoots (<35mm full-frame), DSLR’s which offer increased versatility and image quality (~35mm full-frame) and the ultimate quality of medium format. Note, I exclude mirrorless cameras from this evaluation because they straddle the line between point and shoot and DSLR and can fit into either category depending on the situation. From the perspective of a lover of cameras and different formats, this paints a very bleak picture of the camera landscape; personally I would love to see more specialized consumer / professional cameras which are good at one thing and focused on a specific task (it was admirable of Nikon to drop video from the Nikon Df no matter what you think of the rest of the camera). However, lately, especially with some newer camera releases, I have come to a nuanced view of different photographic tools (cameras) across different formats which paints a similar picture to the landscape I have just described in detail of film cameras in a bygone era. Starting from the top down, when you look at the majority of medium format, it’s just CCD’s of various sizes ranging from less then full-frame to full-frame 645. Looking a bit closer at something I have expounded on earlier (see my article from the launch of the PhaseOne IQ250) you can see some very nice specialization in the latest line-up provided by PhaseOne. Across the IQ2 series range they now have the 80mp giant (IQ280), the long-exposure king (IQ260), a black and white masterpiece (IQ260 Achromatic) and now the IQ250 a CMOS MFDB which offers a greater ISO range to MFD shooters, MFD is helped by PhaseOne’s open system adding greater versatility and specialization with the ability to use MFDB’s with Tech Cam’s like those from Cambo, Alpa and Arca-Swiss. Within 35mm your basically stuck to DSLR’s and Leica, but thats okay, and it is great that Leica presents an (in my opinion good) alternative to DSLR’s. The only obvious specialization comes in the form of top of the line models like Nikon’s D4s and Canon’s 1Dx which are differentiated from “lower end” models by their speed and ISO qualities. The Nikon D800(e) shakes this up a bit, ostensibly it is a lower end model to the nikon D4s since it costs less, and on some levels can do less. This last point is where the boundaries get blurry, the Nikon D800 is better then the Nikon D4s…if you need resolution. The Nikon D800 is a bit of a problem child in this model since it can also blur the lines between 35mm and medium format. This is a hot topic, in the past I have been adamantly pro-medium format, however I have recently come to fully appreciate what the Nikon D800 is. To some (I’ll call them “simple folk” or if you prefer you can call them “touched”) the Nikon D800 is as good as a medium format camera, because the Nikon D800 has a 36mp sensor and some medium format cameras have comparable megapixel counts on their sensor. Of course we know that the size of a medium format sensor provides intangible attributes which we will never be able to convince the simple folk of. BUT that is really not the point of the Nikon D800. The point of the Nikon D800 is that you can take a 36mp image with an 800mm lens, or a f/1.4 lens, that you can capture fast moving subjects, and use high-ISO’s. These are things which you cannot do (in the same way) in medium format. THAT is why these cameras are not competing and co-exist within my dystopian (and possibly imaginary) realm of camera specialization.

But where do point and shoots and mirrorless cameras fit into this you ask? Mirrorless cameras are, as I have said, a bit difficult, but lets just say that they have benefits like portability and the advantage of limitless lens choices at the cost of features and image quality (in some cases). Point-and-shoots are currently an interesting market because, well, they are struggling. Point and shoots are for many people difficult for many people to justify now since they have smartphones which have increasingly great cameras in them. Consequently the sector has languished on the low end. Interestingly it has flourished on the high-end. Camera’s like Fujifilm’s robust X100 which offers a hybrid viewfinder/rangefinder like shooting experience or Sony’s RX1r offer different shooting experiences only possible in their formats which make them specialized. These cameras are particular standouts. This is also where the Leica X-Vario fits into the equation offering strengths and limitations which will make it ideal for some applications while not a good option for others, namely it is a specialized camera.

(Note, if your here for the Leica X-Vario review, you’re now in the correct place.)

L8900188

Leica X-Vario @ 22.6mm – 1/500 – f/4.3 – ISO 100

Okay, anyway, back to the camera at hand the Leica X-Vario a $2,800.00 non-interchangable lens camera with a 16.1mp APS-C sensor and Leica Vario-Elmar 18-46mm f/3.5-6.4 Lens (equivalent to a 28-70mm lens on 35mm full-frame). Now, lets be honest, at first glance that does not sound very good…well, thats okay, it does in fact get better as you delve deeper (that’s not withering sarcasm, its true it has some good qualities to it).

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Let’s get the general aesthetics out of the way first, this is a very very well made camera. It is on par with Leica’s other German bred offering in most regards. It is in no way compact, but it is a very light package which you would have no problems toting around with you all day on your adventures, its high-quality metal body is a joy to hold and and largely to use. My sample was provided with the extra-grip option which vastly increases shooting comfort on this camera, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in this camera. From a tactile perspective this camera offers nothing but delight, the buttons on the rear can be a little bit finicky but this is not a major issue and doesn’t detract from the camera.

Image taken with the Leica X-Vario in Bend, Oregon

Sahalie Falls, Oregon

Leica X-Vario on tripod @ 25.3mm – 1/25 – f/16.0 – ISO 100

A number of this camera’s problems stem from it’s lens. First of all, let’s all agree that this camera is just begging to be mirrorless and judging by what we have seen leaked of the upcoming Leica Type-T, it is rather perplexing why it isn’t. Leica’s claim is that they chose to pair this lens and sensor together because they are optimized to be together (similar to the tune they sung with the Leica X2′s fixed prime lens, and similar to arguments made more compellingly by Fujifilm) and that is actually okay. I accept this in theory and understand the merits of a fixed lens which is designed to match a specific sensor. Leica is world renowned for their optical prowess and high-quality lenses are their thing. Optically the Leica Vario-Elmar 18-46mm f/3.5-6.4 preforms very nicely resolving details nicely, and displaying what I believe to be some nice micro-contrast which helps to bolster the performance of the sensor. Of course optical performance must come at the sacrifice of something, here it is aperture in a big way. Leica said that they chose the aperture of this lens because they believe that it allowed them to design a lens with the best image quality possible. Off the record, I have also been told (a la PDN 2014) by a Leica rep that if they had chosen to make this lens a constant aperture, or even a wider aperture at the long end that “it would have become to large”. Well lets be real about this, it’s already very large, so I question how much larger it would’ve had to have been to either let it be f/2.8 on the wide end or a constant say f/4 aperture throughout the zoom range. If you are shooting in any sort of challenging light, well then you better have a tripod with you and hope that you can shoot it since you don’t have a very large usable ISO range, though for most users this probably will not be an option since you won’t think to, or want to carry a tripod with you to the places you would be taking this camera generally. Also, focal length range provided by this camera is not very long, I always found myself wishing that it could go wider and longer in almost every situation where I was using it at one of it’s extremes. In fact, I put the camera down and didn’t take many pictures because of this. 28-70 is very similar to the 24-70 I usually keep on my Nikon’s so this wasn’t a major let down for me, the most limiting factor of this lens is its aperture which I believe Leica could have done a better job with. Personally I would have accepted larger aperture and slightly less sharpness from this lens.

Staying with the lens and moving to functionality there are a couple of big problems with this lens. Firstly, for anyone shooting most normal cameras (for me Nikon’s) we are used to our zoom lenses offering a zoom ring closest to the body and then manual focus as the next option down the lens barrel. On the Leica X-Vario this is not the case and is very confusing to get used to (I’m not sure I ever really did in my short time with the camera), if nothing else it is jarring. If you want to make the argument that Leica has established the focus in rear, zoom in front functionality from Leica M Vario-Elmar lenses thats fine, until I offer my next point. This lens has no hard stops on different focal lengths. Personally, I would have preferred to have hard stops at the different focal lengths instead of the smooth zoom range. This would have lead to much more thoughtful choice of focal length when composing and been a very “Leica” quality to the design of the function of this lens. Since your really not going to be catching any action with this lens where a smooth zoom range might have been helpful, even soft stops would have been appreciated. A third and bridge issue between lens design and camera design here is the aperture dial. The aperture dial of the Leica X-Vario is the furthest dial to the right on the top plate of the camera. Okay, this is strange. It is a physical dial, on the top of the camera, that selects the aperture for the lens. As a Leica M user and someone who appreciates the tactile nature of manually setting things on cameras, I would have loved to see an aperture dial on the lens itself. I assume Leica chose the easy route of putting it on the top of the camera because an aperture ring on a zoom lens with a variable aperture could have been a bit difficult to pull of (maybe as you zoomed out and were forced to stop down the mechanics of the lens could have moved and limited the aperture ring to the widest possible aperture for the focal length, this could have been even easier if the lens had hard stops). Frankly, the dial is weird and it would have been a lot nicer to have a multi-function dial like on DSLR’s and selected the aperture via this in conjunction with the rear screen of the camera. In the pro column, I will say that the manual focus feel of this lens is very nice and completely in line with the pleasures of using manual focus on Leica M lenses (though less comparable for many other reasons).

Image taken with the Leica X-Vario in Bend, Oregon

Perspective digitally corrected

Leica X-Vario @ 18mm – 1/400 – f/5.6 – ISO 100

 Okay, lets look at some other things about this camera. Battery life on this camera if fine, I used it fairly intensively and left the camera running a lot and was never left wanting for battery, that said if I bought this camera I would carry a spare battery just in case. While I was shooting the camera (at Sahalie Falls) I wanted to shoot at a small aperture and a long exposure to get the waterfall to become silky smooth. While out in the field with the camera however, I could not find any way to make the camera shoot longer then 1 second, though apparently it can shoot up to 30 seconds long exposure, this would have been nice, but oh well apparently it does it, it must have been hidden in the menu’s. The menu’s are, well, very…Leica…which means simple and dated. On a model like the Leica M where there are not that many extra-features and most things have buttons assigned to them anyway this is not a problem. It gets a bit more annoying here but it is not a major issue. What is a majorly ANNOYING issue is that you cannot just shoot this camera in RAW mode, you can only shoot it in RAW + JPEG mode which eats up memory card space and is just annoying, theres no reason why you shouldn’t be able to shoot just RAW, and I couldn’t find any way not to. Because I wound up using this camera on a tripod a lot, it would have been nice to have the option to add a cable release (which would’ve helped with that whole long exposure thing). It certainly couldn’t have been too much to put a threaded cable release into the shutter of this camera, like Leica does on the M, and Fuji as well as Sony have done on their cameras which are equivalently or even lower priced. There are a number of areas (I won’t overtly name them, but I have mentioned them) where Leica seems to have skimped, which is not something you want when your spending almost $3,000.00 USD on a point and shoot camera. And don’t get me wrong this is a point and shoot, its gussied up and has a number of nice qualities which make it better then many point and shoots but where it counts, this is a point and shoot camera. One area where this is shown is in the cameras AF which is actually just fine, I’m not going to knock it, its not the fastest but its not the slowest, it works and generally finds its target. BUT it does behave in a very point and shoot manor and clearly there wasn’t much time spent on it as a feature, which is kind of a big deal in a point and shoot.

 Image taken with the Leica X-Vario in SoHo, NYC.

28mm is a great focal length for stuff like this, faster aperture would’ve been nice. 

Leica X-Vario @ 18mm (28mm equiv.) – 1/50 – f/3.5 – ISO 800

Image quality with this camera is very strange. It has some very strong attributes and some very weak ones. Starting off simple, the ISO range is fine, its very usable up to ISO 800 and for certain applications it can be used above this. Of course because of the slow lens your going to be leaning on the ISO a lot and the 16.1mp APS-C sensor just doesn’t deliver the goods to back up the slow lens. If you can keep it under 800 the files are very clean and very usable, not something to be discounted thats for sure. Resolution is good at 16.1mp and the sharpness from these files is also very good. Unfortunately this APS-C exhibits very “point-and-shoot-like” characteristics, it’s sort of difficult to describe really, but in my experience point and shoot files have this magenta hue to them which comes through in the mid-to darker tones of the image which you can see exhibited in the lead in image for this article which I don’t think there is any way to fix. Maybe spending a bunch of time in photoshop with the color replacement tool you could find a way to reduce this, but thats a lot of work and I would expect more from a camera in this price range. Also, sometimes at edges, especially in things like tree branches, things get sort of muddled and edges go kinda weird. I really don’t have a better way to describe this, but you can look at the image above for reference. There might be some CA, but I don’t really think that is it because the lens does do a very good job of reducing CA (Oh, side note, I didn’t have the lens hood for this lens and never needed it in my testing, the lens is well coated to reduce flare), but it is something that I have noticed in point and shoots before. When all the stars align however you can take some very nice images and when you process your RAW’s you will be pleased by the dynamic range provided by this camera which can yield some files with nice tonality if well exposed (even if there is high contrast in a scene). So, in some ways the image quality of this sensor is good, and in other ways it’s lacking. Its difficult to draw a firm conclusion on the image quality because the “bad” elements are only present some of the time, and sometimes the image quality can be really quite good. As we head towards the conclusion though, I would expect more out of the sensor of this camera based on it’s priced and given the limitations of it’s lens….but considering the fact that it is the same somewhat old sensor as in the Leica X2 it still holds it’s own and is relatively robust, you won’t be disappointed when you use this camera correctly.

Image taken with the Leica X-Vario in ESB, NYC.

 Leica X-Vario @ 46mm – 1/250 – f/6.4 – ISO 100

With a camera like the Leica X-Vario it is very important to understand it’s limitations going in if you are going to use it to get the best images possible from it. When you do, it can produce some great image quality. However, there is a long list of things that you cannot shoot with this camera which might leave you asking “well then what CAN you do with it?”. The answer to this question is a bit difficult, but when given the correct lighting conditions and good shooting practices, images from this camera can be very nice. You won’t be shooting anything thats fast moving, you won’t be using it for bokeh, what you will be using it for is extremely-high image quality in well lit situations. While this might sound a bit limiting, and it is, there are still many situations where you can use this camera. The best way that I can come up with to think about this cameras is as “a thinking mans point and shoot”. I think this accurately describes this camera within the Leica universe and within the context of cameras as a whole.

Now, the biggest hang up is the price. At $2,800.00 I want more from this camera and it does not deliver. It has a number of very nice qualities to it, but it does not live up to it’s price which is a major issue. It is a very good camera which can make some nice images, but when you consider comparably priced cameras, you can get the Sony RX1r a 36mp full-frame fixed 35mm Ziess lens, or for the same amount you could get a number of different mirrorless camera’s with premium lenses that will most likely out class this camera. The Leica X2, which features the same sensor and comes in at around $2,000.00 presents a better value proposition to me sporting an equivalent  24mm f/2.8 lens with the same lens this could be a very nice walk around / travel point and shoot package if that is what you are looking for from a Leica. This camera is a bit of a strange decision for Leica, and I am not really sure where they plan to go with it; but if you are looking for a camera which can make some great images in good lighting in a compact package, this could be your camera.

2 Responses to Leica X-Vario Review

  • Pingback: Leica T-Type – First Look and Overview | Brian Hirschfeld Photography

  • Richard Paul says:

    It’s like you’re describing an entirely different camera from the X Vario I own.

    I can shoot at ISO 1600 and get really superb IQ. Rich not only in detail, but exhibiting superb color rendition.

    B&w shoots look even better.

    So this slow lens hasn’t been a problem.

    I sometimes use a Leica SF 58 strobe flash set to bounce off the ceiling. Photos taken with that strobe a breathtaking.

    I have never seen a problem with too much magenta showing up.

    And no image quality lacking by use of this sensor. Files are incredible.

    Having the aperture selector on the lens would have been preferred. But I find no difficulty with it placed on a dial at the far right of the top of the camera.

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