Can this unique compact digital camera deliver the classic Leica experience and, more importantly, pro DSLR image quality? Our resident Leica expert puts the X1 through its paces.
- Compact camera with 12.2MP APS-C sensor
- Outstanding Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 ASPH lens
- Manual exposure and focus control
- External optical viewfinder
- Solid Magnesium chassis
- 1-zone and 11-zone AF
- Outstanding resolution
- Very low grain even at ISO 3200
- Small and light—10 oz.
- Quiet shutter release
- Macro AF only to 1 foot
- 230K dot LCD insufficient resolution
- Low battery capacity
- High price
Any experienced shooter who picks up the Leica X1 for the first time cannot fail to be impressed by its visual and tactile similarity to M-series and screw-mount Leica rangefinder cameras of the past and present.
Its slim, ergonomic body contours and rounded ends take you back to the Leica IIIf of the early to mid ‘50s, and its dimensions—4.85 inches wide, 2.5 inches high, and 1.98 inches deep (including lens)—are nearly identical to the older model. The knurled aperture and shutter-speed dials on top, asymmetrically placed and affixed with elegant slotted screws, and the round recessed pop-up flash are reminiscent of the venerable Leica M3 and its numerous offspring.
The beautifully finished body is built on a magnesium chassis with aluminum top and bottom plates and dials, all clearly aimed at durability, lightness, and finesse. The camera feels substantial even though it weighs only a bit over 10 ounces ready to go. Not surprisingly, some of its key components come from Japan, but the preponderance of hardware and assembly in the X1 is German, so the camera is proudly engraved “Leica Camera Germany” on the back.
In keeping with its noble heritage, the Leica X1 is a minimalist design utterly devoid of bells and whistles, but with first class components where it really counts—the lens and sensor. The non-interchangeable lens is a genuine Leica Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 ASPH, an advanced 8-element, 6-group design incorporating an aspherical surface. When coupled to the DSLR-sized, 12.2-megapixel, APS-C-format, 3:2 aspect ratio CMOS sensor, it provides a 36mm equivalent in the 35mm format, a focal length considered ideal by most photojournalists as a “walking around” lens for street photography.
It has been widely rumored that the 23.6x15.7mm sensor in the Leica X1 is a virtual dead ringer for the Sony-made 12.2MP sensor in the Nikon D300/D300S. If so, this would certainly account for its outstanding performance at high ISOs up to 3200—we’ll get into the specifics in the image quality evaluation section.
In The Hands
Functionally the Leica X1 could hardly be more traditional and straightforward. With battery charged, SD or SDHC card installed, and picture parameters set, move the milled lever around the shutter release from OFF to S (single frame) or C (continuous at 2fps, or 3fps in high-speed mode) and you’re ready to go.
To select the de facto Program mode, set both top-mounted aperture and shutter speed dials to A. For aperture priority-mode, set the shutter speed dial to A and choose a manual aperture (f/2.8 to 16) by turning the aperture dial, and for shutter-priority, set the aperture dial to A and choose a manual shutter speed (1 sec to 1/2000 sec) using the shutter-speed dial. Set both dials to numbered settings, and presto, you’re in manual exposure mode and you can meter manually with reference with the +/-2 EV exposure scale that automatically appears on the LCD screen.
Taken in Hudson NY in the early evening. f/2.8 at 1/15 sec hand-held, P mode, ISO 400. Definition across the field is superb, a tribute to the X1's superb lens and the smoothness of its shutter release.
Now press the very smooth, predictable shutter button partway in to focus (AF is confirmed when a green LED lights and a beep, if enabled), and take the picture. This “three auto mode plus manual” exposure system provides fastidious shooters with as much or as little automation as they may wish. It’s hardly a new idea—it dates back to a handful of Japanese and German 35mm cameras of the early ‘60s—but it is eminently intuitive and logical.
Since the X1 is a digital camera there are also ten clearly labeled pushbuttons on the back to complement the analog-style dials on top, providing an intuitive control system that obviates the need to navigate through elaborate sub-menus.
The buttons are arranged in two groups of five, a vertical array along the left-hand edge of the back, and another cluster encircled by the a Setting Dial near the lower right-hand corner of the 2.7-inch LCD screen. The first group is labeled (from the top) PLAY (to activate the review mode and return it to full 1:1 display), DELETE/FOCUS (to delete displayed or all images in PLAY mode, and select the AF pattern in shooting mode) WB (it displays white balance selections including AWB and two personal WB settings, and it provides and custom WB capability) ISO (which displays ISO settings of 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and 3200), and INFO (it selects full shooting info with live histogram, a “rule of thirds” grid line display, or no info in both record and review modes).
Press the central button in the right-hand cluster labeled MENU/SET to display the Main Menu, which lets you scroll through basic parameters that control resolution, compression (DNG RAW, and a range JPEG sizes, or DNG plus JPEG), continuous shooting speed, metering mode (center-weighted, multi-zone, or spot), sharpening, saturation, saturation and contrast of captured JPEG images, appearance of the LCD display and lots more. Above the central button is the EV +/- button that controls exposure and flash compensation, exposure bracketing, and scrolling through and enlarging review images.
You can also use the Control Dial to enlarge review images in steps to assess critical details. To the right is the flash button for calling up the flash mode menu, accessing submenus, and scrolling forward though the review images, and to the left is the Self-timer Direction button for calling up the self-timer menu, exiting sub-menus without saving the settings, and moving the AF metering area frame. The bottom button lets you set full-range AF, AF Macro, and MF (manual focus). In MF mode, a magnified view of the subject appears in the center of the LCD when you turn the manual focus dial that’s conveniently placed about an inch above the right-hand control cluster on the back.
Casual portrait of road crew workmen on a break in Catskill, NY. Image exhibits excellent sharpness and depth of field. f/4.5 in P mode at ISO 400.
A few fascinating functions
Now that you have a basic idea of the functions and settings, let’s highlight a few of the more fascinating ones. Pressing the DELETE/FOCUS button in shooting mode displays the AF menu, which provides a choice of 1-zone or 11-zone AF at either H (high speed AF) or standard (no H) settings, spot AF (which reduces the size of central AF zone display to about half its original size and narrows the focusing point accordingly) and Face Detection. The 1-point and 11-point H autofocus modes do indeed deliver faster AF, and are therefore preferable when shooting moving subjects. The downside: They prioritize focusing speed at the expense of what Leica aptly calls a “less fluent viewing image,” meaning that moving subjects may look streaky on the LCD as you shoot.
Another interesting menu option is Image Stabilization, which can be set to On or Off. When enabled, the X1 shoots three images of the same scene at different shutter speeds—the fastest to capture edge details, the slowest to capture full color and density. Through the magic of electronic image processing, it then combines them into one well-exposed image that should, theoretically, look sharper than a comparable image shot handheld without image stabilization. Does it work? Yes, but it only helps minimize the effects of camera shake, not subject motion, and based on my seat-of-the-pants observations it’s not quite as effective as optical image stabilization that uses a moving optical group within the lens to compensate for camera shake. Perhaps Leica wanted to rely on a more traditional non-IS lens design to achieve their main image quality objectives, and this may also explain why Leica doesn’t promote IS as a major X1 feature.
Finally there’s a unique menu option that’s useful when you’re shooting in “photojournalist mode” with the accessory Leica 36mm external optical viewfinder in place in the X1’s hot shoe. In such cases the LCD monitor image can be distracting. To prevent this, you can switch the monitor off altogether by going to the menu, selecting Ext. Viewfinder, and choosing On in the simple sub-menu. You will still be able to see the green AF confirmation LED while looking through the optical viewfinder so focusing won’t be a problem. To turn on the LCD, go back into the menu and select Off, which seems slightly counter-intuitive.
An example of creative use of depth of field at a wide aperture. Note: focus point is on central pretzel. Shot hand-held in P mode at f/3.2 ISO 400.
The lens alone is worth the price
After shooting extensively with the Leica X1 for nearly two weeks under a wide variety of conditions it is clear that this camera is designed to do one thing supremely well—deliver outstanding image quality on a par with a high-end DSLR, surpassing any other compact digital camera on the market, including those with large sensors. The Leica Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 ASPH is a superb lens that performs as well as comparable M-series 35mm lenses on the Leica M9, and that’s really saying something. It yields crisp images at the point of focus across the entire image field, even in the extreme corners when shot wide open at its maximum aperture of f/2.8 aperture, and this exemplary performance is maintained at all succeeding apertures down to f/16.
There is no visible illumination or sharpness falloff in the corners at any aperture, nor is there any observable degradation in sharpness or contrast attributable to diffraction, even in images shot at f/16. Bokeh (the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of the image) was equally impressive, with beautifully smooth transitions from sharp to soft, and the shape of out of focus objects clearly maintained.
After perusing the X1 images at high magnification, an old ad slogan coined by the late, great marketing guru Henry Froelich came to mind: “The lens alone is worth the price.” No one-lens camera can provide the versatility of a DSLR or even a compact zoom-lens camera, but few cameras of any kind can equal, much less surpass the image quality delivered by the X1’s 36mm-equivalent Leica Elmarit lens.
Image quality samples, low and high ISO: Cute portraits of 8-month-old Nathaniel in highchair was taken at f/5.6 at ISO 3200 in P mode (right) and f/4 at ISO 200 in P mode (left).
Let's take a closer look at each of these shots...
ISO 200 detail at 100% enlargement shows outstanding sharpness and color saturation comparable to what you'd expect from a mid- or upper-tier DSLR. It also really demonstrates the lens's outstanding optical quality.
ISO 3200 detail above demonstrates the X1's fine performance at elevated ISO settings. It's just a tad less sharp, has lower color contrast than ISO 200 version.
A superior sensor
Of course, what enables the lens to deliver all this phenomenal performance is a first-rate sensor and image-processing system. We’ve already mentioned the likely provenance of the sensor, but our images confirm that imaging performance at all ISO settings is on a par with what you’d expect from a late-model high-end DSLR, and that’s partially attributable to high-performance image-processing. Not surprisingly, color saturation, sharpness, and freedom from “digital grain” are pretty spectacular at ISO settings from 100 to 400, but this is a camera that performs so well at ISO 800 and 1600 that you need not refrain from using these settings for critical work.
The difference in a side-by-side comparison between same-subject images shot at ISO 200 and ISO 800 is truly minuscule, and only at ISO 1600 does one begin to notice a very slight “graininess” (strangely enough, it’s appearance is reminiscent of film) and slightly lower color saturation. Even ISO 3200 is a perfectly usable setting, and comparison images look remarkably similar to those shot at ISO 1600, with perhaps a tad less color saturation. All in all, this is pro-caliber performance from a compact camera.
Picking nits large and small
There are a few areas where the performance of the X1 is merely good or very good rather than cutting-edge. While its focusing accuracy is commendable, its focusing speed does not quite equal some of its Japanese competitors, and every once in a while (usually in very low light and/or at close distances) autofocus cannot be achieved. Fortunately, the camera’s manual focusing system, selectable via the AF/MF button, is very good indeed, and it’s quite easy to focus precisely where you want using the magnified central viewing image in conjunction with the well-placed focusing wheel. I found the focusing scale on the screen pretty sparse, and it’s sometimes easier to move the camera back and forth to focus precisely on crucial details.
Autofocus is certainly faster at the H settings, and you can shoot full-res bursts at 2fps and 3fps, but the X1 is still not the ideal choice for covering, say, high-speed sports action. It’s just fine for shooting more typical moving subjects like hikers in the woods or active kids in a playground. When you set the X1 for normal AF, it will only autofocus down to 0.6m (2 feet), which is not close enough for a head-and-shoulders portrait given its 36mm-equivalent semi-wide lens.
Select Macro AF and you can get down to 0.3m (1 foot) which is OK for a frame-filling head shot of the average adult, but not close enough to do the same with kids. Many digital compacts can get a lot closer than that, and fill the frame with a coin or your fingernail, but of course they don't have large sensors and semi-wide-angle prime lenses of surpassing quality.
Then there’s the X1’s 2.7-inch, 230,000-dot LCD, which is also good, but hardly outstanding. The LCD’s size is undoubtedly dictated by the size of the camera and the key components built into it. It certainly provides a nice clear, bright, detailed viewing/reviewing image, but it is not as large or as hi-res as several or its competitors, which sport 3-inch or larger LCDs with 460,000-dot resolution. On the plus side, the X1 provides Live View and can shoot really lovely 720p HD movies.
Another factor affected by building a lot of tech into a compact, large-sensor camera is battery capacity, which is directly correlated to battery size. The bottom line: The X1’s petite battery provides a capacity of 260 exposures (CIPA Standard), half using the cool built-in flash. Speaking of the flash, we feel this distinctively round, manually activated, push-in-to-pop-up unit is very much in keeping with the character and styling of the X1. It produces bright, reasonably diffuse illumination, is powerful enough to get out to 15 feet at high ISO settings, and it provides second curtain sync, red-dye-reduction, and flash compensation. Since it won't fire automatically when needed, we set it to “forced flash” mode so it would always fire when deployed.
Impromptu portrait was shot seconds after Heidi sampled her Birthday Cake. Technical quality of image is first rate. f/3.5 in P mode, ISO 400.
Conclusion and recommendation
The Leica X1 is a unique digital compact camera that combines the beloved traditional Leica form factor with a lens, sensor, and image processing capable of delivering astounding image quality. Like the venerable Leica Ms, it is superbly balanced, contours perfectly your hands (with or without the accessory grip), is a great walking-around camera, and it’s perfect for general shooting, street photography, and art photography of the highest technical caliber. It is not the fastest gun in the West, it has a few endearing quirks, won’t match your DSLR or long zoom point-and-shoot in terms of optical flexibility or close focusing, and it costs nearly 2 grand.
Is it worth it? You betcha! There’s simply nothing else remotely like it, either in terms of what it is or what it does, and that alone justifies the price of admission.
Leica X1 Technical Specifications:
Sensor APS-C-size (23.6x15.7mm) CMOS Sensor with 12.9 Megapixels, aspect ratio 3:2
Resolution Selectable for JPEG format: 4272 x 2856 pixels (12.2M), 3264 x 2160 pixels (7M), 2144 x 1424 pixels (3M), 1632 x 1080 pixels (1.8M), DNG: 4288 x 2862 pixels.
Lens LEICA ELMARIT 1:2.8/24mm ASPH. (corresponds to 36mm with35mm-format), 8 lens elements in 6 groups, 1 aspherical surface.
Aperture settings From f/2.8 to f/16 in 1/3EV increments.
Smallest object field approx. 18 x 27cm/7 7/8” x 10 5/8” (from a distance of 30cm—about 1 foot).
Image data file formats/compression rates Selectable: JPG Super Fine,JPG Fine, DNG + JPG Super Fine, DNG + JPG Fine.
Storage media SD/SDHC Memory Cards, MultiMedia Cards.
Internal buffer memory approx. 50MB.
ISO Sensitivity setting Automatic, optionally with shutter and/or ISO sensitivity limits, ISO 100, ISO 200, ISO 400, ISO 800, ISO 1600, ISO 3200.
White balance Selectable modes: Automatic, presets for daylight, cloud, halogen lighting, shade, electronic flash, 2 manual settings, manual color temperature setting, optionally fine tuning for all settings.
Color settings Selectable: Standard, vivid, natural, B&W natural, B&W high contrast.
Autofocus system Contrast-based system using the image sensor, optional AF assist lamp for low light conditions.
Focusing range Automatic focusing from 60cm/30cm to infinity (AF/AF Macro). Manual focusing from 30cm to infinity with setting wheel on back of camera body, optionally magnification function as focusing aid.
Autofocus metering modes 1 field, 1 field high speed, 11 field, 11 field high speed, spot, face detection.
Exposure modes Programmed automatic exposure mode (P), program shift option, aperture priority (A), shutter speed priority (T) and manual setting (M).
Exposure metering Multi-field, center-weighted, spot, optionally with histogram display to analyze brightness distribution.
Exposure compensation ±3EV in 1/3EV increments.
Automatic exposure bracketing 3 pictures with intervals up to 3EV settable in 1/3EV increments.
Shutter speed range 30s to 1/2000s.
Series exposures Selectable: 2 fps or 3 fps, max. 6 pictures.