The Leica X1 has a large DSLR-like APS-C CMOS sensor in a compact body for the ultimate quality, but is the X1 the ultimate luxury fixed-lens compact? The What Digital Camera Leica X1 review...
Leica X1 review – Features
There’s no getting around the fact that the Leica X1 is a specialist compact for a knowledgeable, niche market. Anyone considering buying an X1 will desire its fixed lens (no zoom here) as a particular format of working. There’s no lens-based nor sensor-based image stabilisation system, instead a system that takes two frames and combines them into one. The X1’s 2.7in, 270k-dot LCD to the rear isn’t the most up-to-date of technology in terms of size or resolution and, unless using the 36mm optical viewfinder hotshoe accessory, there is otherwise no viewfinder on the body itself.
Capable of shooting Raw + JPEG files in Adobe’s universal DNG format (or JPEG as a standalone format, but not DNG on its own) at up to three frames per second, and including full PASM controls, the X1 is undoubtedly a creative compact for the discerning photographer – the large APS-C sensor and fixed 24mm (36mm equiv) f/2.8 lens are both a clear testament to this.
Leica X1 review – Design
The Leica X1 is unlike pretty much any other compact camera on the market today. Sat next to the yet more up-market Leica M9 there are perhaps some external similarities, but these are entirely different cameras.
The X1’s PASM shooting modes are controlled using two top-dials – one for shutter speed, the other for aperture. Leave both dials set to ‘A’ (Auto) and Program mode ensures, select aperture and leave the shutter dial set to Auto and you have Aperture Priority (Shutter Priority achieved using opposite dials) or select controls on both dials for Manual exposure. There are no locks on either dial which can lead to the occasional knocking of settings, though this isn’t a problem as quick accessibility to change settings is a must.
Other controls include a five button array to the left side of the LCD screen on the rear to control Playback, Focus/Delete (this isn’t a particularly suitable combination due to accidental deletion during playback), White Balance, ISO and Display Info. A usual d-pad is aligned to the right side of the screen with exposure compensation, AF/MF, flash and timer controls on the four-way directions, plus a rotational wheel to the outside that can facilitate zooming in on playback and other functions. Above this is a rear thumbwheel which controls manual focusing.
Move into the exterior menus, however, and a rather uninspiring black and dull-turquoise colour aren’t too easy on the eyes. It’s also tricky at times to work out which option is selected (for example, Delete Single/All is a two option only menu, which led to an unexpected card format the first time it was used) at times. Furthermore the menu is one long stream to scroll through on a single page which doesn’t lend itself well to quickly locating options.
The X1’s overall body design is very quirky though and is further complimented by accessories that include: a 36mm optical viewfinder, attachable grip and leather strap (each sold separately). The X1 looks modern in a retro-kitsch kind of way, and thanks to its low-weight magnesium body is light to carry around, though feels a little more ‘plasticy’ than it actually is.
One slight niggle is the placement of the SD card in the battery compartment, as this is bothersome to access when the optional grip accessory is attached.
Performance, Image Quality & Value
Leica X1 review – Performance
The X1 is a mixed performer. Merging the traditionalist approach of a fixed 36mm lens (ok, so this would usually be 35mm in that sense, but this is nigh-on the same) with a wide aperture and user-defined controls, the near-silent shutter and subtle appearance will make this an ideal camera for the street wanderer. At the same time, despite this romantic lean to the decades passed, the X1 balances precariously on the edge of not providing the most up-front of technologies in some areas.
To explain: firstly there’s that 2.7in, 270k-dot screen that isn’t boasting up-to-the-minute technology (this would have been considered high-end some two years ago). Considering the very size of the camera’s body there’s plenty more real estate for a more significant size and, indeed, greater resolution. Upon playback there can be a ‘flickering’ between areas of high contrast, plus the surface of the screen is reflective and fond of fingerprints to the point of making exposure assessment in bright light tricky. The X1 does signify for overexposure by displaying values in red, yet the camera does not visibly preview for any applied exposure compensation on the screen itself, which can add to the difficulty of taking and viewing precise exposures in bright sunlight or other such testing scenarios. Therefore the fixed 36mm optical viewfinder is recommended – but at around £250 on top of the original purchase it’s not a marginal purchase.
The AF system, as per the majority of compacts’ contrast-detect systems, is no match for a DSLR, yet is snappy enough to get by. There is the option of 1-point, 11-point, spot or face detection shooting modes, with the pressing and holding of the Focus/Delete key allowing the user to select priority of focus points. Both the 1- and 11-point systems also have an ‘H’ option (‘High Speed’) which provides marginally faster focusing that sacrifices the LCD screen’s refresh rate. This can cause fast moving subjects to ‘jump’ around the frame, but is a better mode to use for catching moving action. There is also a manual focus mode that uses the rear thumbwheel to adjust focus from infinity to up to 30cms from the lens. A manual focus assist option will magnify the central area of the screen to assist, though the image isn’t always entirely clear and the focusing itself is rather slow, nor is the final focus point saved when switching between AF and MF modes.
Although there is the option of ‘AF Macro’, it’s limited to shooting only up to 30cms from the lens, far from providing true close-up capabilities. Without the ‘Macro’ option engaged, expect the closest focusing distance to be around some 60cms from lens. Given the fixed mid-wide lens, the lack of a higher performing macro function does pose some limitations in use.
Continuous shooting can snap away at up to 3fps, shooting six consecutive frames total (assuming a fixed subject) before a ‘Data Transfer!’ message pops up on the screen to signify a full buffer. Clearing these six Raw + JPEG shots from the buffer took some 26 seconds in this test.
Then there’s the X1’s Image Stabilization mode which isn’t a conventional system by any stretch of the imagination. By taking two consecutive frames and combining them into one, the manual suggests that ‘it can only be applied with static subjects’ – which, frankly, isn’t why a stabilisation system would exclusively be desired. All results in testing provided either blurry or double-exposure-like images, leading to this redundant mode remaining switched off for the duration.
Power-wise, the X1’s battery quickly dipped from full to its final quarter in its four-stage gauge, yet on this last setting continued to operate for a considerable period of time whether using flash, shooting or previewing images on playback. The pop-up flash itself is a user-defined circular unit to the top left of the body. It’s not overly bright, but does offer some successful fill-in options though, when holding in portrait format, can be obscured by a gripping hand or finger.
Leica X1 review – Image Quality
The X1 produces exceptional images that are low in image noise and consistently decent throughout the ISO range. JPEG images from ISO 100-800 are very crisp and clear, with noise reduction only causing some slight softening of sharpness at the higher ISO 1600-3200. Raw DNG images retain better sharpness and although image noise is more prominent, images have a fine grain-like quality that, with the exception of the more coarse image noise at ISO 3200, lends well to prints. Compared to their JPEG counterparts, the Raw files are flatter overall, not showing full shadow and highlight potential without some post-processing. The combination of the lens and large sensor clearly pays off.
Leica X1 review – Value
At close to £1400, the X1’s RRP is a tall order by most people’s standards. And yet Leica cameras have never been ordinary cameras. Collectable, striking and with a strong re-sale value, they are targeted at the ultimate enthusiast. Its fixed-lens format won’t suit everyone, nor will its price offer value to many looking for a more ‘general’ purchase. Saying that the X1 does offer excellent overall image quality to easily match a DSLR camera and its unique shooting experience is unlike anything else out there, which will appeal to many. Plus, with Adobe’s Lightroom 2 included, there’s further added value.
The X1 is no ordinary camera. Designed very specifically to facilitate a fairly niche area of the market, its fixed 24mm (36mm equivalent) will rule out many buyers looking for something altogether different – and for less than the £1395 asking price. For those in the know, however, the combination of a large APS-C sized CMOS sensor and an f/2.8 24mm (36mm equiv.) fine lens does result in excellent images.
There are a number of issues however: the AF system isn’t lightning-fast; the lens won’t focus closer than 30cm which wildly limits macro capabilities (fairly requisite for a mid-wide 36mm lens); the screen is small, not of great quality, mightily fond of fingerprints and tricky to see in sunlight; and the Image Stabilization mode is ineffective for its outlined purpose.
Some will love what the X1 has to offer and, after much use, it is a fun little camera that offers a unique shooting experience as well as great pictures. But at such a high asking price and with a number of issues in use, this is strictly one for the hardened Leica fan.