Can’t afford an M9? Here are two Leica alternatives
When I took the Leica X1 and D-Lux 5 to the streets of Manhattan last week to run a joint Street Photo Stress Test, I was in for several interesting surprises.
I must admit, before I took a single shot, I expected the Leica X1 to be the ultimate compact Leica, the new camera for street photographers who couldn't afford the M9 but still demanded ultimate image quality. I also expected the D-Lux 5 to perform OK, but that, due to its smaller sensor, image quality would suffer too much for it to be considered as a serious street cameras.
On both counts, what I discovered was not so clear-cut. Both cameras have major strengths that make them worthy of consideration for street photography. But both also have weaknesses.
What complicates my subjective findings is that I’ve used the Leica M9, which is, simply, the best digital street camera money can buy. (Read my Street Photo Stress Test of the Leica M9.) So, I’m spoiled.
But there’s a lot of monetary daylight between the more expensive of the two cameras I tested, the X1, and the M9. The X1 costs just shy of $2,000—not including the optical finder and hand grip, which add nearly $500 more to the cost. That may sound steep, but when compared to the M9’s $7,000 price tag (not including a lens) it seems like a bargain. And the D-Lux 5, at $800, seems like a steal by comparison.
That’s enough about cost. Let’s hit the streets.
Controls and ergonomics
If you’re a Leica shooter, the control layout is familiar and comfortable, and a cinch for those who prefer manual everything. There are two dials on the top plate to control shutter speed and aperture. The shutter speed dial has full-stop click detents, while the aperture dial clicks in 1/3-stop increments. Move the aperture dial to “A” and you have shutter priority auto. Move the shutter dial to “A” to get aperture priority. Both dials in “A” gets you to full autoexposure.
I wish the 36mm (35mm equivalent) lens had the classic Leica focus control tab for manual focusing, but instead you focus the lens by adjusting a thumb-controlled knob on the back of the camera. It takes many full “strokes” of the focus control to move from closest to farthest distance, and I found myself relying on hyperfocal distance to achieve reasonable focus when focusing manually. To check focus, the camera enlarges the center of the image, requiring the user to confirm by looking at the LCD monitor rather than through the viewfinder.
The Bright Line 36mm optical viewfinder produced a clear image and easy framing, and is an add-on that I strongly recommend. I could see edge to edge even when wearing glasses. The hand grip provided a more comfortable grip, but it’s not absolutely necessary; besides, you have to remove it to get to the battery/memory card compartment, a minor inconvenience that is reminiscent of the removable camera bottoms on the M rangefinders.
As Jason Schneider reported in his review of the X1, the image quality this camera produces is astounding. At ISO 800, there is no noise to speak of; in fact, as far as grain is concerned, I think at ISO 800 X1 surpasses the kind of quality you could get using Fuji Press 800, a film that in recent years has become a staple for many street shooters. That’s good news when you are shooting in open shade but still want the fastest shutter speed possible.
In addition to sharp focus, the quality of the out-of-focus areas of the image was very smooth and natural. However, I did note some flare when shooting towards the sun.
Even at ISO 1600, I was very impressed with image quality. At 100% enlargement, you can see a tight noise patter that is very well controlled. I was able to make 11x14-inch prints with excellent results.
Above: Full-frame shot at ISO 1600 looks pretty good, but the 100% blow-up detail, below, shows the remarkable image quality for such a high ISO.
The X1 may produce outstanding images, but its lag time was frustratingly slow. In situations where instantaneous reaction is required, it paused so often that I had to discard nearly 50 of the 227 images I shot with this camera because it was too slow. While the shutter reacted instantly in some cases, it was not consistent; shutter lag lasted more than a second in some cases! This is something Leica has to address for this camera to be seriously considered for street photography.
Autofocus was moderately fast, but it was not fast enough when walking the sidewalks of New York trying to photograph people waking towards me, so I did most of my shooting in manual focus.
Sometimes the shutter release reacted instantly, as it did here. Other times, it was frustratingly slow.
The X1’s image quality shines, the lens’s Bokeh is extremely pleasing, and the amount of detail you can capture at lower ISOs is stunning. You can crank up the ISO as high as 1600 and capture candids in the deep shadows of the canyons of New York without worries about any obtrusive digital noise. In fact, between its optics and sensor, and its virtually silent shutter, this is one of the best subdued-light shoot-on-the-sly cameras around. And I was able to capture some really good street shots with it. However, due to its buffer issues, which limits this camera's utility in fast-evolving situations, let’s hope whoever or whatever you photograph isn’t moving around too much.
Leica D-Lux 5
Controls and ergonomics
As with the X1, I wanted to try out the D-Lux 5 in manual exposure and focus modes. While these are accessed differently on the D-Lux 5, they were not difficult to find. Turn the top-plate dial to M for manual exposure, and hit the “Focus” button on the back of the camera to select manual focus mode. A thumb dial near the top of the camera back controls focus, aperture, and shutter speed. Press the dial in to toggle among the three; the activated mode will turn orange. Spin the dial to change the respective settings.
A feature that I really like is the AF indicator bar. As you change the aperture or focal length and focus, you can see the green “in focus” area indicator getting wider or narrower, a very simple, visual way of showing the range of distances that will be in focus at any setting, also called hyperfocal distance.
Although the control buttons on the back of the camera are very small, they have decisive clicks when pressed, so you have instant tactile confirmation that your adjustment has been applied. I found the aspect ratio switch to be oddly placed atop the lens barrel, and accidentally changed it a few times. I would have kept that control in the menus rather than as a separate physical switch.
Because I wanted to shoot at eye level, I borrowed the 36mm finder from the X1 and attached it via the hot shoe, zoomed until the coverage matched the optical finder, and shot away. There is an 24mm view optical and an electronic finder available for the D-Lux 5.
I was floored by the D-Lux 5's performance on the streets. Unlike the X1, it was quick and very responsive. Shutter lag is minimal, very possibly the fastest reaction time I've found in any small digital camera not named the Leica M9. Buffer capacity didn't seem to be a major problem; I was able to shoot 2-3 images in a row before it slowed down. I wish the X1 had the kind of speedy shutter release that the D-Lux 5 had.
I expected the D-Lux 5 to produce decent images, but because of its smaller sensor, I also did not expect it to be a high-speed marvel. And while I was right—even with noise suppression, it delivered subpar images at ISO 800—I was pleasantly surprised at how well it did perform at ISO 400. Typically small sensor compacts crap out above ISO 200. Although the smoothing effects of noise reduction can be seen at ISO 400, and I was able to make usable 8x10-inch prints from JPEGs shot at 400.
Lens flare was well controlled, as demonstrated above. In the 100% detail (below), digital noise artifacts are evident in this photo, which was shot at ISO 400. Fortunately, noise supression is also clearly at work here, making this shot usable. No such luck at ISO 800.
I was very impressed with the D-Lux 5's overall performance and felt its image quality, while not anywhere near that of the X1, exceeded my expectations. For someone who is just learning street photography and doesn't want to spend over a grand to learn, this camera is a reasonable option although I highly recommend an optical viewfinder so you can shoot at eye level. Also consider the Panasonic Lumix LX5 if you wish to save nearly $400!
Conclusion: X1 or D-Lux 5 for Street Photography?
For street photography, I think the D-Lux 5 is the clear winner here. On the street, where split-second timing is essential, you need a camera that will take the picture when you press the shutter release. The D-Lux 5 did it every time. The X1 often did, and its shutter was incredibly quiet and well-suited for candid shooting, but one time out of four, the camera hesitated for over a second. On the other hand, when the X1 got the shot, the resulting image had amazing clarity, even at ISO 800, and sharpness while the D-Lux 5 image quality was, at best, passable at ISO 400 and unusable by ISO 800.
The bottom line? $2,000 is a lot of money for a camera with shutter lag problems, but if you are shooting slower moving subject matter or in low light, the X1 may be worth it for the virtually silent shutter, spectacular optics, and image quality. The D-Lux 5 at $800 is more reasonable for a camera that you can use to learn street photography.