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Leica X1
The audacity of Leica

“Those who claim that something is impossible are often interrupted by someone else doing it.”

Imagine a car company squeezing a humongous 8-litre V12 engine into a small car like the Mini Cooper, delivering 600 bhp in a compact chassis and a blistering performance like no other. Everyone said it was impossible to fit such a huge engine in a small chassis, but someone managed to do it and the results were astounding. The only problem is that the price is equally breath taking.

Say hello to the Leica X1.
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Back in the days where unwieldy large-format and medium-format cameras ruled the roost, Leica pioneered the use of the 24x36mm film camera (now known as the familiar 135mm film in a cassette). The Leica cameras were very innovative when they were launched, making it finally possible to take photos discreetly with a camera that fits in your coat pocket. A whole lot of people were skeptical that a small film size like that could deliver anything usable, but the Leica cameras proved them wrong. With improving film emulsions, the Leica quickly won hearts with its compactness, and captured images in situations where the larger cameras were too bulky. Leica’s petite size was its main appeal, and soon the Leica Ms were capturing everything from social documentary to war journalism photos.

Fast forward to 2010, and the scene has somewhat evolved, but there’s something vaguely familiar about it. In the fast few decades, Leica’s rangefinder has lost its favour with the public. People started switching in doves to single-lens reflex cameras, which offered snazzy features such as auto-focus, auto-exposure, auto-flash, image-stabilization etc. More importantly, SLRs allowed users to pick from a wide-range of lenses from wide-angles to super-telephotos, and even macro lenses. These choices are sorely lacking from the rangefinder camp, which practically restricts users to 28mm at the wide-angle to 135mm at the telephoto end. Sales of rangefinders dived to almost obscure figures, and even the launch of the digital rangefinders failed to peak interest much among the general public.
There was a stirring in the photographic community though. Like a flashback to the past, history shows sign of repeating itself. In recent years, people have grown tired of lugging around heavy single-lens reflex systems, and longed for a light companion compact camera that delivered high quality images. And an entire generation of compact cameras mushroomed out of nowhere to meet that need. High end compact cameras such as the Panasonic LX-3 and Canon G11 or S90 delivered great quality in a compact size, but had miniscule sensors that failed to match the quality of APS-C sensors in DSLRs. Sigma opened the first salvo with a compact that was fitted a large size sensor, but the camera was disappointing in terms of resolution and auto focus speed.

A new genre of compact cameras known as the Micro Four-Thirds family was born to meet this challenge of a high-quality compact, and they have developed a very unique niche in the photography world. With a sensor significantly larger than most compact cameras but yet much smaller than a APS-C sensor of a DSLR, these cameras featured compact bodies with interchangeable lenses. The quality was promising, but higher ISO performance could not match DSLRs and focusing was slower as well. Nevertheless, the Micro Four-Thirds cameras such as the Panasonic GF-1 delivered great performance (lower ISO and brighter lighting conditions), in a compact body and yet offered a wide range of interchangeable lenses. That was a huge victory for photographers looking for a premium quality compact system.
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Viva Revolucion!

In September 2009, Leica announced the launch of what is the equivalent of a V12 Mini Cooper – the Leica X1. Packed with a 12MP APS-C sensor and a 24mm f/2.8 Leica Elmarit lens, the Leica X1 is a compact camera with dimensions approximating that of a Canon G11.

Huge DSLR-sized sensor? Check.
High quality Leica lens? Check.
Compact dimensions? Check.

Looks like we have a winner? Not yet.

You see - the Leica X1 is not for everyone. With a retail price of US$2000, you can get a lot of camera for that dough. That’s serious camera territory, and we’re talking Nikon D700 and Canon EOS 5D Mk II here. For a camera that someone is considering as a secondary camera, or a walk-around camera, paying the same price as a primary system is simply as mad as a hatter. Leica engineers and marketing people must have hailed from Wonderland then, living in their own dream world.

Or is the Leica X1 more like Alice, having all that same goodness but shrunk to a smaller size after drinking that magical potion? Perhaps. The truth is, the Leica X1 is different things to different people, depending on your point of view.
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If you consider the Leica X1 to be a just compact camera (albeit one with a large sensor), then it’d appear to be an exorbitantly priced luxury item, much like a Hermes handbag.

If you perceive the Leica X1 to be having DSLR quality in a compact chassis, then the price tag seems to be much more palatable, given that the Leica X1 can arguably deliver the quality of a mid-range DSLR. Thus the price is fair then, since it is about the same price as that of a mid-range DSLR.

Amazingly, the Leica X1 can be an absolute bargain too, and I’m dead serious about this. If you compare to a Leica M8.2 (around US$3200 at time of writing) with a 35mm f/2.8 Elmarit lens (US$1500), which totals around US$4700, the Leica X1 which retails at US$2000 starts to look like a smashing great deal. It even has a built-in flash and auto-focus too! Judging from the fact that the Leica X1 has been out of stocks at many retailers, my guess is that many photography enthusiasts agree that it is a bargain for what it does.
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So what does it do? It is a purpose built tool – it’s designed to excel in what it’s designed for, and nothing else. It’s like a surgeon’s scalpel, a modern marvel of cutting tool. Exorbitantly expensive for what it does, and you can’t use it for anything else other than surgical purposes. But for what it is supposed to do, it’s the best in its field. Simply put, the Leica X1 delivers the best picture quality of ANY compact digital camera out there – period.

When it was announced in Sept 2009, the pundits were all betting against the Leica X1. Has Leica lost its mind, charging US$2000 for a compact camera? It doesn’t even have video mode, the lens didn’t cover the popular 28mm field-of-view, and it’s only f/2.8 max aperture (Leica fans always had high expectations I guess). Compared to its existing competitors, the Leica X1 looked doomed even before it hit the stores.
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But the tide slowly turned for the Leica X1, as samples of its astounding photo quality started streaming online from the early adopters (or suckers depending on how you see them). Photography enthusiasts were stunned by the incredible level of resolution and great tonality from the APS-C sensors, as well as the incredible colour and details that the Leica lens delivered. Plainly this little Leica camera delivered way beyond what its paper specifications suggested, and reviews from the early adopters were more than favourable.

The Leica X1 quickly gained acceptance among the photography community, even with its hefty price tag. The success of the camera surprised even Leica themselves, who could not churn out enough units to satisfy the market. As a result, many markets around the world saw waiting list of two to three months, with stocks being snapped up by dealers as soon as they reach the ports. Together with the Leica M9 and the breathtakingly expensive Leica S2, the German camera manufacturer started facing a huge backlog on its key products.
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Using the Leica X1

The Leica X1 packs a 12 megapixel APS-C sized sensor, which may not look like a lot in today’s market with entry-level DSLRs featuring 18 megapixel or more. But because the Leica X1’s sensor does not integrate an anti-aliasing filter, images from the camera look sharper than most DSLRs. The lower pixel count also contributed to larger pixel pitch, which gave the X1 more opportunity to deliver better quality pixels for better images.

Complementing the Leica X1’s sensor is a fixed-focal 24mm f/2.8 Leica Elmarit lens, which delivers a 35mm equivalent field of view. Many photographers were initially disappointed with the lens, since a 28mm equivalent will be more appealing to photographers today. And with Leica’s fame for great lenses with a wide aperture, it was understandably disappointing to hear that the attached lens was “only” f/2.8 instead of f/2. But the results have shown that the Leica’s X1 lens is capable of delivering stellar quality, and the complaints were muted with time.
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The Lecia’s X1 body is compact, rivaling Canon’s G11 somewhat but certainly bulkier than the Panasonic LX-3. However, it is weighted nicely at just 320g, without being too heavy for a walk-about camera. The Leica X1 borrows heavily from the Leica design ethos, and the retro look is certainly a talking point whenever you whip out the X1 from your bag. The flash unit is equally retro as well, requiring a manual push for it to pop up from the body! It’s quite a pain to do so repeatedly if you’re at taking photos at a dinner function, but otherwise it means that the flash will not surprise you and fire off in a street photography session unless you deliberately pop it up.

While the design of the Leica X1 is wonderfully appealing with its retro look, some aspects of the ergonomics are woefully appalling. Take for example the lens cap, which is easily lost without a string to hold it when the lens is extended. And while we’re on the topic of lens caps and lens extension, you should note that you couldn’t review the images unless you take off the lens and allow the lens to be extended. Why? That’s insane!
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Finally, the biggest design disaster of all is the ease with which the dials on top of the camera rotate. Unlike those of its M-series brethrens, the Leica X1’s dials spin with the slightest provocation, and it’s your prerogative to check the settings every time before you shoot, lest you end up with some nasty surprises. For a camera designed for proper photo taking, this is quite unacceptable. Leica should really consider tightening up their act.

Things don’t look any better when you start using the camera. The macro photography capability of the Leica X1 ranks alongside the Leica M-series cameras – virtually none. Thanks to its large APS-C sensor, it is impossible to focus on any subject closer than 30cm. Couple that with a 35mm field-of-view, you can effectively forget about using the Leica X1 for any macro photography. And oh… there’s no video mode as well. I know Leica is about serious photography, and that’s why (people say) video is such a frivolous function on such a serious camera. I have a nagging suspicion though, that it has much to do with the battery life (read on).
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And if you haven’t already heard, the focusing speed of the camera is atrocious. Based on my pinky’s instinct, it takes slightly less than one second to focus in good lighting conditions, or two seconds to focus in darker situations. That is terrible, compared to a DSLR. But of course, that’s unfair as well. Compared to many compact cameras, the focusing speed is pretty similar. But then Canon and Panasonic have shown that it’s possible to incorporate fast auto focusing in a compact, so it’s not really excusable to face such run-of-the-mill auto focus performance in such an expensive compact, especially since it’s a wide-angle lens that is much faster to focus!

So is the auto focus usable? In short, yes. Even though it takes a second or so to focus, it is much faster than I can ever manage with a Leica M-camera and a 35mm lens. The Leica X1 captures most of the situation reasonably well, although it stumbles when the action speeds up (think kids running around). For most of the work you’d probably do, the Leica X1 should remain competent enough in terms of focusing speed.
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And have I ranted about the battery life? Most of today’s compact cameras can deliver an impressive shutter count per battery pack, but someone at Leica didn’t get the memo. So the Leica says the X1 can only manage 260 shots per battery pack. That’s quite of crummy for a modern compact digital camera! But most of the compact cameras do not have to power an APS-C sensor, so we can probably cut Leica some slack. However, I did manage to shoot 390 images out of a single charge of battery! I was shooting over a period of 6 days, turning the camera on and off for ad hoc shooting, while reviewing each image for an average of about 3 seconds. The camera was recording in both RAW and JPEG mode simultaneously, so that draws a fair bit of power more. The Leica folks could be erring on the cautious side when stating the capacity of the battery. Nonetheless, buy an additional battery if you intend to travel with the Lecia X1.
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Image quality and conclusion

At this point, you might probably think I hate the camera. But in fact, I’m actually quite enamored with the Leica X1 because it is strongly positioned to do its job – delivering quality images in a compact chassis.

The image quality of the Leica X1 is phenomenal for a camera this size, and there’s nothing in the market today that can dethrone the Leica X1 as the king of compact digital cameras. Great sharpness, excellent tonality and fantastic colours – you’re getting the best of everything with this camera. The ISO runs from ISO 100-3200, and while you might imagine the ISO 3200 to be pretty much unusable (as with the case of many compacts and micro four-thirds systems), the results are actually quite good. But the Leica X1 truly shines when you use the camera with care in good lighting, and the final images that end up on your computer will be absolutely gob smacking!

I’m not a fan of Leica’s JPG mode, and I’d very much prefer to shoot in the RAW mode. Leica has chosen to pick the universal DNG format for it’s RAW mode, which means less headache in looking for a RAW conversion software. The Leica colours are great, even though I feel there’s more contrast and saturation compared to the images from Leica M8.2 or M9. There’s something strangely disturbing about the Leica X1 images though – it looks “digital” compared to say, the images from the Leica M8.2. It looks a tad too brutally harsh and sharp, even when I’m looking at the RAW files. And it’s not because the Leica X1 lacks the anti-aliasing filter too, because I’m only too familiar with the M8.2 and M9 which I own. The two rangefinders do not feature anti-aliasing filers, and they deliver images which are razor sharp without looking too digital like the Leica X1.There’s just something about the way the Leica X1 processor’s handling of the images that bug me…
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It’s possible to induce flare with the right conditions…
Like most high-end compact cameras, the Leica X1 offer a variety of exposure modes, including program, shutter priority, aperture priority and manual exposure mode. You can set exposure bracketing in 1/3 stops for up to +/- 3 EV, and there’s even a option for spot metering, which can come in useful since you can’t zoom with the fixed focal length. Speaking of metering, the Leica X1 delivers excellent results with its default metering option, and it’s not easily tricked even with huge expanse of white dominating the image.
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At the end of the day, the Leica X1 is competing in a small but growing category of cameras that slot nicely between larger DSLRs and the really slim compact cameras. This new class of cameras aim to deliver quality that are much superior than the typical compact cameras, using sensors which are significantly larger than the sleek counterparts. At the same time, by forgoing a reflex mirror the new class of cameras is much smaller than even the smallest DSLR, which makes them attractive to photographers looking for a compact alternative without giving up total control and quality.

The most notable rivals to the Leica X1 in terms of intention (quality in a compact size) are no pushovers, and they include the Panasonic GF-1, Sony NEX-series and the Canon G11. In terms of functions and lenses, the Panasonic GF-1 and Sony NEX cameras have a huge advantage, especially the Sony NEX sporting a APS-C sensor as well. The Canon G11 sports a powerful 28-140mm zoom, but Leica X1’s sensor is significantly larger (9x bigger in fact).
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There’re many reasons why you should buy a Panasonic GF-1 or Sony NEX over a Leica X1, and only a handful of reasons why you should buy a Leica X1. Those handful of reasons reside on my hard disk drives, and every time I view the images shot with the Leica X1, I’m convinced I made the right choice.
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