A tweak here, and a tweak there equal a major upgrade
On May 10, Leica introduced the second generation of its X series, the X2. And like its predecessor, the Leica X2 offers outstanding image quality, but has Leica improved its performance?
The Leica X2's goal is to claim the middle ground between the no-compromis M9 and small-sensor cameras, offering DSLR image quality and rangerfinder-like dexterity. Priced at $2,000 (same price as the X1), it is a bargain compared to the M9. The X1 was built around a 12MP viewfinder and that camera was greeted as a lower-cost street photography camera. While the lens and image quality were outstanding, it was somewhat pokey in the performance department. The Leica X2 was announced in mid-May and I was fortunate to get my hands on a production model days after it was announced. I immediately took it out on the streets of New York and a suburban street fair to see, among other things if it is a worthy street photography camera.
Related: What's a "Street Photography Stress Test" and Why Shoud You Care?
As with previous street photo stress tests, I looked for that elusive combination of image quality, split-second, no-lag performance, and intuitive control layout so the technology doesn't get in the way of the picture-taking process. Does the $2,000 Leica X2, which is available in Silver or Black, succeed where the X1 fell short? Let's find out!
The Leica X2 bears many similarities to its predecessor, the Leica X1—including its price. You may want to read Jason Schneider's review of the X1, in which he praises Leica for keeping to its heritage minimalist design and using first-class where it counts. In that review, Schneider said the camera's lens alone was worth its pricey $2,000 cost. The X2's control layout is nearly identical (there's a flash pop-up switch on the X2, the camera features the same superior 24mm f/2.8 Leica Elmarit ASPH lens (36mm equivalent on a 35mm sensor camera) and the flash head has a different shape, but otherwise the externals are essentially the same).
Leica X2 Street Photo Stress Test: Black & White Slideshow
(Click on lower right box to view full screen)
As with the X1, the X2 is small and light, and comfortable to hold with the most commonly-used controls all within easy reach. With its rounded corners and textured surfaces, it has a reassuringly familiar feel for anyone who has handled a Leica M camera. The Leica X2's operation is basically the same as the X1's (again, see the Jason Schneider review). So what's changed?
The sensor: The Leica X2's 16MP sensor offers greater resolution than the X1, and top ISO range has increased from 3200 to 6400. As with its predecessor, image quality remained very good. I was able to get excellent results through ISO 1600.
The Viewfinder: Yes, the same Leica X1 Bright Line Optical Viewfinder ($349) is available, but the X2 also offers a data port, and with that, a new, optional Leica X2 EVF2 Electronic Viewfinder ($524.95). With 1.4 million dot resolution, it is one of the highest-resolution EVFs currently available. It is big enough for easy viewing by eyeglass wearers; in fact, the image is superior to that of the camera's 230k resolution 2.7-inch LCD monitor.
Autofocus: This is where I saw the most dramatic improvement. Where the X1 was frustratingly hesitant, the X2's autofocus was quick and decisive.
Manual Focus: The X2 also improved over the X1 in this area, although it could use a bit more tweaking. When shooting in manual everything (my preference when doing street photography) the camera had virtually no lag time in most instances. The only delay was if I forgot to press the shutter release partway down before exposure; it takes a split second for the aperture blades to close, the only major delay but it certainly didn't hold me up in a major way.
Depth of field indicator: While I still think it would make sense to put a focus tab and depth-of-field indicator on the lens itself, I found the on-screen depth of field indicator bar (which shrank and expanded over the focus range as the aperture changed) to be very helpful. If you own an X1, a firmware update will add this useful feature.
Buffer: The only area where I didn't see a significant improvement was in the time it took for images to clear the buffer. Even with a Class 10 SDHC card onboard, I found a momentary delay even for a single JPEG shot; this was less of a problem in C mode if you held the shutter release down—you could shoot up to 7 shots in a row before the buffer choked—but for individual shots plan on about half a second for the buffer to clear before you can take the next shot.
Control Layout: Identical, but the aperture dial now click-stops at 1/3-stop increments, and both the shutter speed and aperture dials click with greater authority to avoid accidental slips.
Leica X2 Street Photo Stress Test: Color Slideshow
(Click on lower right box to view full screen)
On the Street
The Leica X2 was faster and more responsive than its predecessor. If you press the shutter release part-way down before taking the picture, there is virtually no lag time because the aperture ring has been locked in place, along with the focus and exposure if you are shooting either in auto. Focus acquisition is noticeably faster.
The simple control layout—one dial for shutter speed, another for aperture, and a thumb dial for focus—I never felt the technology forced me to have to think through my next step. It was as easy to operate manually as, well, a Leica.
The Leica X2's image quality is equal to if not better than the X1. Although we don't have lab test results yet from our testing partner, DxOLabs, I found image quality at ISO 800 to be excellent and very good at 1600. Image quality only started to obviously degrade by ISO 3200. At its native ISO (100), images were tack sharp.
A second opinion
I asked fellow street shooter Sandy Ramirez to try the X2 and share his thoughts. Here they are:
While Mason was writing his review of the Leica X2, we decided to go out shooting side by side in Union Square in New York City, me trying out the X2 and Mason using my Fujifilm X100 with the current firmware to see how the two compared. I wasn’t expecting much from the X2. The X1, while having wonderful IQ, was about as painful as my old Sigma DP2 to use. Very slow AF was the main issue with the X1. So how does the X2 compare? The AF is well improved. Though not as snappy nor as quick as the current firmware on the X100 (which is light years ahead of what the X100 had before) it definitely was fast enough for the way I shoot reportage/documentary. The image quality seems quite good, what one would expect for the price one pays at this level.
About the only thing I really disliked was the EVF. Though the design is much like the one manufactured by Olympus or Ricoh, the implementation annoyed me a bit. Specifically, the image freezes when the focus locks, and that threw me out of sync when shooting. If I were to actually purchase one I would go with an optical viewfinder on the hot shoe over the EVF like the Voigtlander 35mm VF. Overall, the Leica X2 from my short time with it shooting in Union Square seemed a quite serviceable camera for street shooting in the way I shoot.
Do I like it over my X100? No. The Hybrid VF on the X100 definitely trumps in this area, also the revised firmware on the X100 has turned that camera into a wickedly fast and responsive street shooter. Still the X2 is no slouch in this area. The AF is vastly improved over the X1, the optics and IQ superb. The X2 is what the X1 should have been, and finally a compact worthy of the name Leica. The X100 is the modern Hexar, the X2 the modern Minilux.
Conclusion and recommendation
The Leica X2 successfully addresses the most critical issues that plagued the X1 while adding a boost in resolution and the ability to add an EVF, a very welcome addition. Of course you don't need to get the EVF; if you prefer an optical finder, you can still purchase the Leica X1 Bright Line Optical Viewfinder, but then you would lack the eye-level focus confirmation that the EVF can provide. But with a super-sharp lens and a sensor that does it justice, the Leica X2 is a marvel for its image quality. With the tweaks made to its focusing system it is now also much faster; along with its near-silent shutter, it is a fine camera for most street photography and other candid work, second only to the Leica M9 (which costs some $5,000 more) in overall quality and performance.