Leica X1

The Leica X1 is an exciting yet controversial compact camera possessing the most important of all attributes - superb imaging quality. It is exciting because it is the first truly digital compact camera designed and made by Leica in Germany, albeit with outsourced components. It is controversial because some critics feel that it should be more richly endowed with digital features. While understandably desirable, I don't share that view. It is not a camera for sports or fast action photography although it is possible to pre-focus manually for quicker shooting situations.

Many photographers feel lost without a zoom lens, forgetting that Leica photographers generally use a single prime lens for their work. Against that background, the X1 is superb for the highest quality imaging using a most useful 36mm equivalent fixed wide-angle lens. In film terms, the 35mm lens is regarded as the most useful general purpose focal length. (The X1 has a 24mm Elmarit lens which equates to 36mm after taking account of the cropping factor)

Auto-focusing speed is not the quickest available, but is generally faster than manual focusing. For my type of travel photography, I have been perfectly satisfied with the X1's general handling. In fact, it is a versatile camera with manually set shutter speeds and lens apertures. For shots in a hurry, exposure controls can be set to automatic, shutter priority or aperture priority. Auto-ISO proves useful for indoor available light work. Furthermore, digital noise is very well controlled at the higher ISO settings, indeed rather better than my Leica M8.

Compared to some small sensor cameras the X1 has a limited macro capability. For that specialist field I tend to use a DSLR although I am contemplating adding the unusual 90mm Macro-M lens to my M8 so as to able to cover close subjects when travelling light. The X1 may not be able to focus extremely close, but can usefully cover slightly smaller than A4. For example, the black and white plate picture is only about 10 inches diameter.

Invariably my files are captured in Raw DNG format which are processed in Adobe Lightroom software. Only about 10% of subsequent work is done in Adobe Photoshop CS4. The latest version of Lightroom (LR3) is a further huge improvement, rendering X1 files even better than before.

I wish that the X1 had the option for capturing only DNG as opposed to DNG combined with JPEG format. Serious photographers are unlikely to use the JPEG format by default.

Update - February 2011

It is one year since I received my new Leica X1 camera and time to review my experiences with it. In brief, I still enjoy using the camera very much indeed and it is likely to remain one of my active in-use cameras.

First, I have no doubts about my decision to buy the camera. The image quality is simply amazing for its size. The irksome relatively slow auto-focusing remains the main negative issue, but it has not caused me any lost pictures. That is the acid test. Use of pre-set manual distance settings ensures perfect focusing in many difficult situations.

Secondly, apart from slight lifting of the plastic body covering at the edges, a known fault which I have chosen to fix and accept, (not wanting to lose possession of the camera for minor servicing), the camera has proved very reliable, both mechanically and optically.

Thirdly, the X1 continues its dual role as a stand-alone precision compact camera and as a companion to my M8 or M9. In effect I arrange to have a complementary lens on the digital-M body, thus giving instant access to two different focal lengths. For prolonged travel I take several alternative lenses for the M camera, depending on planned or anticipated subjects. It is surprising, however, how often even during several continuous days of travel, that the X1 comes into use when a bag-full of kit is inappropriate; such as during meals or leisurely evenings with friends on tour. However, a D-Lux 5 has rather taken over the personal photography side from its higher resolution brethren!

Although Leicas are essentially 'available light' cameras, I have successfully experimented with subdued use of the tiny in-built flash unit. The skill is to control the output (via EV flash adjustments), so that its use is not evident in the resulting pictures. It is most useful for shadow control in portraiture outdoors. It works very well with back lighting situations. Although I also successfully trialled the use of attached external flash units, I do not consider this to be a solution relevant to a small portable compact camera, working in isolation from bigger kit.

[Amended] On 29th March 2011 Leica released an important and eagerly-awaited firmware update for the compact Leica X1. Most significantly it improves the performance of manual focusing and, to a lesser extent, auto-focusing. Image quality is also improved, particularly out-of-camera jpegs.

The camera now remembers the last manual focus setting, even after switching the power off. This is most useful for 'street' photography or sequence shooting.

My initial tests confirm these very welcome operational enhancements to an already superb compact camera.

Finally, I wish to thank those of you who have left comments or queries for me. Some I have answered privately while others appear in the Guest Book.

Update - December 2011

Sharpness with the Leica X1

I am occasionally asked for tips for getting consistently sharp results with a new X1 camera. First, let me stress that the X1 is capable of yielding truly excellent digital pictures when handled and processed correctly. Any degradation is due to a variety of reasons; some will be discussed below.

Most criticism stems from using the camera in low available light, where auto-focus takes longer and sometimes errs. Add to that the problem of camera shake and you have the ingredients for dissatisfaction. So what are the remedies?

Set Image Stabilisation. It is a simple remedy which only works when exposure is set at f/2.8 and that requires a shutter speed of 1/30 second or longer. Read the instruction manual and try it to see if it works for you.

Go Manual. At f/2.8 and standard camera settings, examine the likely shutter speed for hand-holding. If it suggests longer than 1/30 second (ideally 1/60th), reset the ISO to a higher value. Repeat until you find a satisfactory combination. Next, hold the camera very steady and gently squeeze the release, avoiding any other movement of the camera. Try shooting a short burst of three pictures (Set mode to ‘C’). Often the first will be worst because of initial shake. Some suggest using the delayed action set at two seconds. See which works best for you. Practise using manual exposure settings.

Optimum ISO settings. Normally I use the base or lowest ISO setting available for highest quality. When circumstances demand, however, I am not afraid of selecting a higher ISO. Noise is not a problem until the highest settings are reached (rarely used). With Lightroom 3 or 4 or a Photoshop plugin such as Noise Ninja, even noticeable noise can be tamed quite successfully.

Focusing can suffer problems in low light, particularly if the auto-focus is not allowed time to find the correct focusing point. Always check the result after a shot because sometimes the green light will give you false confidence when the system fails to lock on to the desired focus point. Generally I have very few problems with focusing accuracy but tend to use the spot focus field for fine control. (Zone focusing often picks the nearest object which is not what I always want!)

With experience you discover the situations where focusing manually is beneficial. Rather than waiting until a need arises, practice on dummy subjects in difficult conditions until you gain expertise and confidence. Make sure you have the latest firmware (see earlier notes above) which has improved the operational ergonomics of manual focusing.

Tripods. With a Leica camera I rarely use a tripod. However there are times when a tripod is essential. While I have several, one of my most used with the X1 is the superb small Leica Table Tripod (Code: 14100) and Ball-head (14110). It can be set up on a table for small still-life photos or for taking self-portraits of family indoors; or it can be held against a wall for interior shots of buildings etc. Use of the delayed action is sometimes beneficial. Remember, when using a tripod you can use the highest quality settings on the X1 and smaller lens apertures unless you have some daring action close to the camera! You can take advantage of deliberate blur, such as a human being moving in the scene. It depends on the purpose of your picture.

To summarise, develop good techniques for focusing and shutter releasing by practising frequently. That is the real secret. I always work for optimum results and only depart from that high standard in extreme lighting conditions. So practise, practise and practise! Your dedication will be rewarded.

Update - November 2012

A lot has happened since writing the above notes on the original Leica X1 camera. First, rival quality APC size sensor cameras have been launched on the market. The Fuji X100 tempted many Leica waverers with its advanced electronic viewfinder and faster lens. Second, Leica partially responded with an upgraded model called the X2. While it is essentially the same body and lens as the X1, it does claim to have faster response times and minor mechanical improvements, such as firmer click-stops on the top plate control dials and a redesigned pop-up flash. Also the body covering has improved tactility. For me, the new model does not offer sufficient improvements to tempt me to upgrade; so my X1 continues in almost daily use, giving me stunning results for its specification.

Update - February 2014

I now have an X Vario camera which carries my Leica X-photography into a new league. To the surprise of many, I have kept my older X1 for reasons I will now explain.

From my early experience with the X Vario (or XV for these notes), I have discovered that I have been too cautious with the X1 when light is low. I tend to turn to my M9 with faster prime lenses given a choice or use a small tripod when travelling light. The XV requires mastery of higher ISO settings to compensate for its relatively slow zoom lens (F/6.4 when zoom set to 70mm). The results with the XV are surprisingly good with ISO speeds up to 6400. So I applied the lessons learned with the XV to my X1.

I found that, despite the X1 having an older sensor, it can become even more flexible than hitherto in poor available light. I just wouldn’t believe it pre-XV. There are limits of course before noise degrades image quality unacceptably; but whereas I rarely went beyond ISO 640 with the X1, I now stray one or two settings higher, occasionally to ISO 1600. The main reason for this success lies in the way Lightroom now processes the X1 files and is able to suppress noise. Operationally, this new freedom is quite liberating. It applies not only indoors, but in dawn and twilight conditions outdoors; even on gloomy winter days. Just try it and see how it works for you.

As always, there is a trade-off between optimum and acceptable image quality when sensor sensitivity is forced towards its natural design limits. Each one of us will experiment with our cameras and determine new parameters for working.

How Useful is the OVF on the Leica X1?

Questions often arise from new owners of the popular X1 camera regarding the need for an external viewfinder. There is no provision for coupling an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) such as those designed for later X cameras, so the only option is to consider an optical viewfinder (OVF).

Leica produced a Bright Line Finder matched optically to the 36mm equivalent focal length of the Elmarit lens on the camera. (18707) Despite having a plastic body, the finder gives a bright and clear view for framing a subject. There are lines marked to allow parallax correction at close ranges. It cannot match an EVF or LCD for framing accuracy. So it rewards the user to practise often and adapt your technique for optimum results. I rarely use it at close ranges.

I have always found an OVF useful when shooting outdoors in bright sunlight. It also encourages steadier use of the camera by using the forehead as extra support to damp movement at time of exposure. Camera shake is minimized with this technique. It is certainly steadier than holding the camera at arms length when framing with the LCD monitor.

The OVF can be stored safely in your camera bag when not needed or ultimate compactness is a priority. On balance, it is a valuable accessory which should not be disregarded without reason.
(To be continued)

(Last updated May 26th, 2015)
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