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
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.