Leica D-Lux6 (G-Star Raw edition) digital camera user review
Notes: This review covers the new Leica G-Star Raw edition camera for general-purpose use, shooting JPEG images only. The G-Star camera is in fact the Leica D-Lux6, with a special finish and additional accessories not included in the D-Lux6 package. It's generally known that Panasonic produces the D-Lux6 as a variant of its own LX7 camera, but whether Panasonic makes the complete D-Lux6 package in its own production facility or sends the mostly-completed units to Leica for finishing touches is not clear, and will probably always be in flux depending on whether Leica's finalizing of each unit requires transfer to a Leica facility or not. Whatever the case, Leica's demand on Panasonic for the LX7 is only to certify the Leica lens that goes into each of the Panasonic cameras, whereas Leica requires adherence to Leica specifications for the entire D-Lux6 camera and its special editions.
Having owned both Leica cameras and Panasonic cameras with Leica lenses, I have a pretty good idea of what the differences are between Lenses made by Leica for the 'M' series cameras and Leica lenses made by Panasonic. My impression (just that - I don't have insider secrets on these things) of most of the Panasonic Leica lenses for regular consumer cameras like the TZ5, ZS7 etc. is that they're a fairly economical lens meeting minimum Leica requirements for those cameras. On the other hand, the Leica lenses Panasonic has made for the "Enthusiast Compact" cameras like the LX3, LX5 and LX7 are more professional from what I've surmised, and the remarkable f1.4 Summilux lens that's part of the D-Lux6 series is one of those more professional lenses, and is a big step up from the lenses that come with the lower priced cameras.
Since the G-Star Raw camera costs approximately $390 USD more than the D-Lux6, and the camera itself is the same except for the finish, some customers might find the price a bit shocking. Actually, the larger part of that difference is in the extras: The standard no.18727 carrycase for the D-Lux6 is $160, and so the similar G-Star edition case with the custom appointments has at least that value. The very heavy-duty wrist strap sells for $70 in the standard edition, and the extra neck strap in G-Star style would sell for about $90 separately. I feel comfortable paying the remaining $70 for the special edition camera, partly because the finish is the best thing I've seen since my brief time with a Leica Safari edition camera 25 years ago, and partly because of the collectible value. I should mention as well that Leica cameras, particularly the 'M' series and special editions, tend to have a very high resale value. It will be interesting to see how the G-Star edition fares in that regard.
The G-Star Raw lens is a Leica 'Summilux' design with 135-effective focal lengths ranging from 24 to 90 mm. Most importantly, the widest aperture is f1.4 at 24 mm, and f2.3 at the 90 mm focal length. Much mention is made these days about improved sensors for low-light shooting, but there's no substitute for good glass, and the G-Star's lens is probably the best available in a camera this size. Zooming is available the normal way with a stepless (smooth) action, and using a camera setting you can step from 24 to 28, 35, 50, 70, and 90 mm. The lens cap is a separate piece and comes with a lens-cap "string" that can attach it to the camera body so it doesn't get lost. I've seen complaints about this lens cap design, but I like it and don't find it particularly inconvenient.
One of the great features of the G-Star Raw is the aspect selector switch on top of the lens barrel. What's important here is that the G-Star doesn't just chop off the top and bottom of the image when changing from the 4x3 to 3x2 format - it maintains the same angle of view. The G-Star uses 10 megapixels (mp) with 4x3 aspect and slightly less in 3x2 and 16x9, but the wider aspects also use more pixels on the wider dimension since the sensor captures nearly 13 mp total. Almost needless to say, this requires a visual chart to explain - just google the words Leica Multi-Aspect Sensor. On the side of the lens barrel is the selector for Manual, Auto, and Macro focus. Macro focus goes down to one(1) centimeter, but when getting that close to a subject, the large lens is blocking much of the direct light, which might require a wider aperture resulting in a shallow depth of field (DOF). It may be necessary in such a case to put additional light on the macro subject, or shoot from a tripod.
The G-Star Raw has a video button on the top panel at the right side, which I've seen described as redundant since there's a video (motion picture) selection on the mode dial. It's not redundant. Until those separate buttons became common on digital cameras, I lost important beginning seconds in many video opportunities because the mode dial was set (usually) to Program mode. The monitor screen on the rear is typical of small cameras - it's clear and detailed and bright enough for nearly any shooting conditions. I've seen many comments about holding small digital cameras at arm's length to see the screen, presumably because older people don't focus close enough to hold the camera close. Being nearsighted, I mostly view the screen from 8 to 9 inches distance, but 3 to 4 inches is OK when I need to see smaller details. Since people who are not nearsighted typically use reading glasses for print, perhaps those would work with digicams as well.
Many of the consumer digicams don't have good AF/AE (auto-focus/auto-exposure) selections, but the G-Star Raw does. Other features such as minimum auto shutter speed and maximum auto ISO are becoming more common now, and are very handy for me, particularly the maximum auto ISO which I keep set at 400. Shooting some indoor scenes today with good outdoor light streaming in from a window, the camera chose 160 and 200 ISO for some of those images. I then set the ISO to 80 fixed and reshot some of the images, and the differences in noise can be clearly seen on the camera's monitor screen. The selectable built-in neutral density (ND) filters provide much greater flexibility in setting apertures and shutter speeds, but those really are professional options and most casual users will probably not use them. The G-Star's built-in flash is good, as built-in flash units go, but nearly everything shot with flash looks better with external flash units, or white reflectors at the very least.
I've read complaints about the tripod socket being on the end instead of more centered, but the obvious advantage is that it leaves the battery and memory compartment free so the tripod attachment doesn't have to be unscrewed when there's a need to change the battery. Since the G-Star Raw is slightly heavy for its size, if the tripod attachment has a small enough surface, it might not be perfectly stable that way, and a better solution would be to find a tripod attachment with a larger surface under the 1/4 inch screw mount. Leica warns about attempting to use a tripod mount with a screw that's 5.5 mm or greater in length. Checking my own tripod, monopod, and ZipShot mini-tripod, none of those exceed 4.5 mm in length, so 5.5 mm screw mounts must be relatively rare or occur on specialized equipment.
Camera forums are rife with complaints about the price of replacement batteries, and I always recommend carrying at least a second battery so shooting can continue if the first battery runs down. Contrary to what many people suggest - saving money with third-party batteries, I consider the price difference and if it's huge, I need to know why. Before I could even consider a very cheap battery, I would need several independent reviews that affirm the quality of that particular battery as well as the reliability of the manufacturer of that battery. On top of that, I would need to know that if their battery damaged my camera, they would pay to replace my camera promptly. Lithium-ion batteries can be very dangerous. If the price difference were less than my expenses in replacing a defective battery (packaging, shipping, time wasted, loss of battery for a period of time), I would certainly get the camera manufacturer's battery.
I'm currently building a set of images for the G-Star Raw at my dalethorn website, so check there occasionally to see what sort of results I'm getting with this camera. I made some initial comparisons to the Leica X Vario, an APS-C camera with a high quality lens and fairly high price, and viewing the images at 100 percent size on the screen, it's easy to see where the larger sensor has an advantage in resolving detail and minimizing noise. The X Vario's 16 megapixels compared to the G-Star's 10 megapixels increases that advantage, since each pixel on the larger sensor records more light with less noise. In spite of these advantages, and since the G-Star's maximum zoom focal length is 90 mm compared to the X Vario's maximum 70 mm, photos that require the full 90 mm zoom of the G-Star to fill the frame (or almost fill the frame), will have a 65** percent advantage over the X Vario in pixel resolution when the X Vario's image is cropped to show the same data as the G-Star's image.
**Since digital images are 2-dimensional, the zoom advantage is actually 90*90 / 70*70 (i.e., 1.65/1) in terms of how much detail each camera can capture in the scenario described above. In that scenario, the larger camera's 16 to 10 mp advantage is effectively canceled out by the smaller camera's zoom advantage.
Summarizing, the G-Star Raw should be a great camera for a person who wants high image quality, simple design and operation, and isn't greatly concerned about the high-performance features most professional users (i.e. mostly DSLR users) demand for their tasks. Those might include ultra-fast auto-focus and shot-to-shot times, large data buffers to allow for bursts up to dozens of images at a time, ability to deal with fast-moving subjects, and so on.
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