Leica X Vario
There was a storm of controversy and much confusion when Leica introduced their X Vario a couple of weeks ago. After all it costs $2850 and only has a f3.5 to f6.4 lens. “What were those crazy people at Leica thinking?”, people seem to say.
My assumption is that the people at Leica are reasonably smart and they know their customer base. I really didn’t pay attention to the camera until Kirk Tuck, my photographer friend in Austin blogged about the X Vario. After all, none of the Leica cameras are reasonably priced* and I’m a reasonable person, so why would I get a Leica? But Kirk’s post piqued my curiosity. And reports from the web indicated that the slowish lens did indeed have great image quality. Great lenses are Leica’s specialty.
To analyze this camera by specifications is to miss the point. This camera must be felt, held in the hand, to be appreciated. I stop by Precision Camera, here in Austin to experience some tactile pleasure. The camera is mostly metal, as you can imagine. The built-in lens and body seamlessly integrated in a beautiful matt black. The camera is heavy and solid but not annoyingly so. You get the feel of a product that is rarely made in this world of disposable and flimsy electronics. It’s timeless in appearance and would look great at MOMA.
People mention the Sony RX1 when talking about the Leica X Vario. Perhaps because the Sony is also a well made metal camera with a similar price tag. Technically, the two are very different, but they both do share a certain similarity in aesthetic and philosophy. They are both premium products designed for a select group. But I’m hear to tell you that the Sony RX1 looks and feels cheap compared to the Leica. I looked and handled both side by side at Precision. I’m not making any statement about the image quality, just about the feel of both cameras. The RX1 is very nice to be sure but it lacks the clean, minimal German feel. It has distracting and busy elements. The black surface is a bit shinier and lacks the refinement of the Leica.
I shot some JPEGS with the Leica. The inside of Precision, as nice as it is for a camera store, is not the best place to test the image capabilities of a camera. Even so, I can make some preliminary observations regarding image quality. First, the camera underexposes quite a bit, though my tastes tend to run on the brighter side. I wasn’t happy with the exposure unless I added at least 2/3 stop, at least in the backlit conditions prevalent in the store. The colors and white balance in this mixed light environment seems reasonable. Lens sharpness looks good corner to corner though I would need to shoot it more to see if it had any mythical Leica lens goodness. Focusing speed is reasonable and usable. Not as fast as the Olympus Pens but not completely useless like the Canon G1 X.
The problem of course is the slow lens, which makes shooting indoors more of a challenge. Even inside Precision Camera, which is fairly bright, the ISO jumped to 1600 when zoomed in. And at ISO 1600, full screen on my 27″ monitor, the X Vario photos look clean. Viewed at 100% though, the JPEGS have what looks like compression artifacts or a slightly strange noise pattern. Not a deal killer but nothing special these days, even compared to micro 4/3. Despite the big APS-C sensor, the slow lens makes this an outdoor, day light camera. If you want to shoot in dim conditions, in the evening or indoors, you will need a tripod, especially since the camera lacks image stabilization.
So who would buy this camera? Certainly to a Leica owner, the price is not surprising. It might be a down right bargain compared to a Leica M body and lenses. I see a well manicured gentlemen as the target audience. Somebody who likes to get expensive, high quality items with the taste for brand name goods. The actual performance of the camera is secondary to the way it looks, feels and makes him feel. I can easily see a Leica M owner getting this camera as a lighter weight, easier alternative. From my limited experience, I see many modern Leica owners as posers — people who either have too much or spend too much money and show off.
These are not the same hard-working street photographers in Carlier-Bresson era that carried expensive but well made film Leicas. They are kind of like that Lamborghini owner stuck in rush hour traffic. All that great looks and powerful engine constrained by the realities of the world. How many doctors are going to take the time to manually focus lenses and figure out the quirks of a traditional Leica M interface? Not too many, is my guess. The M probably sits at home and collects dust but at least it makes for a nice trophy. But unlike the M, the X Vario will actually be used. That is its value proposition. A super well made, beautiful Leica that is usable by most people.
You can guess that I won’t be buying this camera. Not unless I see it used, many years from now, and I decide to get it just for its fit and beauty. Leica has an outsized influence in the camera industry, even though their sales are puny. Back during the film era, when camera lifespans were measured in decades, a carefully crafted body made more sense, even for mere photo enthusiasts. Now, Leicas have become collector’s items and playthings for the rich.
And yet, there is a certain attraction. I talked about getting rid of my Rebel XT, my first DSLR, and how I had no sentimental attachment to it. It was just a lump of functional plastic that no longer met the modern standards. It had no value. It was not a beautifully crafted machine. I could guarantee that if I had the X Vario, my relationship to it will be entirely different. Yeah, the X Vario takes pictures, but more importantly, it would be a functional piece of art that would begged to be used and look good as a display piece decades from now.
The Leica X Vario. It’s the most exquisitely crafted digital mirrorless camera I’ve ever seen.
*The Leica point and shoots are basically rebranded Panasonic cameras with much higher prices so I still don’t consider those reasonable. The Leica X Vario is designed by Leica and made in Germany. It is not a rebranded Panasonic.