The X1 retains the pleasing ergonomics of the Leica R1, made in 1925
Look closely at the new Leica X1 digital camera and you might ask, “where have I seen this before?”
You would have to go back in a time machine to the Leipzig Spring Fair of 1925 where the Leica 1 (Model A), with its fixed 5cm f/3.5 Elmar, was first presented to the public. The similarities between that 85-year-old film camera and this new 12.2 megapixel APS-C sensor format device may prompt thoughts of yet more retro styling, but, as Kaoru Mokunaka, the designer of the X1 recently told me: “Screw-mount Leica cameras are based on an original design by Oskar Barnack. Half-round edges on both sides are designed to store the film roll, but at the same time, it offers very good handling, and this Leica shape accidentally fits to the modern ergonomic design language.”
He went on to tell me it is the smaller body size of the screw-mount Leica film cameras that helps maintain their popularity, even today. “The X1 offers customers a professional-quality digital camera with good handling and the preferable size of the screw-mount Leica cameras.”
I am not entirely sure what Mokunaka meant by “modern ergonomic design language”, but the fact is that the X1 is a good 10mm shorter in body length than the original Leica 1. With an optional accessory handgrip fitted, overall height excluding dials and width is just about the same as the veteran. Using the grip does make a difference to the feel of the X1 in the hand; without it, there is a reduction of almost 8mm in height and this and the loss of the bulge on which to rest a finger or two increases security awareness level, making the fitting of the supplied leather strap essential for peace of mind.
To keep the weight down (286g without a battery), the main chassis of the X1 is manufactured from magnesium alloy fitted with hard-wearing grey metal anodised satin finished top and bottom plates machined out of aluminium. The body of the camera is covered with a tactile fine-grained black leather trim, while the fixed Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 ASPH lens is mounted firmly in a telescoping aluminium barrel. It has none of the looseness evident in some other products of the type.
The back of the camera is fitted with a 2.7 inch LCD monitor, but unlike the screen on the Leica M9, that on the X1 is not covered with a special sapphire scratch-proof glass. Compared with some, screen resolution is also now on the low side, delivering pixelated images when viewed at maximum magnification. A vertical line of buttons enabling easy access to the most used functions is positioned to the left of the screen, while to the right a small clock array is surrounded by a serrated wheel, the diameter and rim size of which I found a little fiddly. Above this at the top of the back is another partially recessed wheel used in record mode to refine manual focus, and play when skipping through files. Here again, styling seems to have got the edge on perfect function.
The top plate emulates older Leica film cameras with not one but two dials for setting shutter time and lens aperture. The shutter release with a drive mode selection collar is well positioned on the fore side. Moving to the left, an accessory hot shoe facilitates mounting Leica’s dedicated SF24D and SF58 flash units or optional bright line frame viewfinder. To the left of this is a recessed pop-up low-power flash.
The base of the camera features a solid, chromed-metal tripod socket positioned slightly off lens axis, and to the right is the access door for the battery and SD memory card compartment. Two conventional steel strap lugs are fitted at each end of the body while another slim door to the right houses ports for USB and HDMI data transfer.
In certain quarters, there is still debate about who, exactly, was responsible for the squashed tube shape of the original Leica camera. Barnack was probably not the first person to happen upon such a convenient ergonomic or mechanically practicable design; it had been around for a while prior to his first 1913 Ur camera and is evident in early Kodak roll film pocket cameras dating from 1899. Barnack certainly refined the idea to more compactly and exactly accommodate 35mm film cassettes, enabling a seamless evolution of tweaks and modifications to present day products like the MP and M9.
From the beginning of Leica’s involvement in digital camera production more than a decade past however, it seemed obvious to some that this timeless design could be adapted to suit almost any small camera, and when the X1 appeared last year, immediate thoughts ruminated on the possibility of an interchangeable lens mount. For the moment, Leica has no plans for such a product, but the idea that screw-on lens adapters could, in theory, be made available, remains an intriguing prospect
As it is, the X1 offers high-quality stills imaging from a fixed focal length lens, equivalent in 35mm terms to 36mm. It’s a small camera but one in need of larger stowage space – not a compact that slips easily into a shirt pocket. Nor does the X1 have on-board video or digital zoom capability. Autofocus is slow, and JPEG quality is not as good as some cameras using similar sized sensors, but Leica tends to assume users will prefer to shoot raw.
And then there’s the price – £1395, which gets even more expensive once you add extras such as an optical viewfinder, which is half the price of some offered for the MP/M9, but at £250, it’s still something to think about.
For all that, the X1 has a certain je ne sais quoi that quickly grows on you. From the very first moment of picking it up, it felt familiar and my instinct as a longtime Leica film camera user was to set the shutter time before investigating the menu. The adjacent aperture control dial falls just where the thumb rests on the end of the body: it’s a nice touch, enabling rapid corrections in one-third of a stop increments while walking along a busy street where light and shadow fluctuate. Alternatively, setting the operating mode to A on both dials, or one or the other, allows the auto exposure system to do the rest, and it does that well.
While dials offer a more positive user interface, the two on this camera are very lightly tensioned and I found the shutter time in particular was easily moved when brushed against a coat flap. Users have better control over aperture setting as the thumb is more or less in constant contact with the dial when the camera is in ready-to-shoot mode, but it too could do with a stiffer feel.
Subject framing, composition and focus are achieved using either the LCD screen in the now universal manner of holding a compact camera at arm’s length, or by means of an optional accessory bright line viewfinder.
Two methods of obtaining object focus are offered; autofocus with optional normal and high speed single or 11-point, spot or face detection modes or manual focus are quickly selected. For street photography, however one sets these options, the AF mode responds too slowly for most sedately moving subjects. By the time walkers were framed up sharply, the picture had gone. Switching to manual focus enabled a picture-segment-in-picture feature on the LCD screen that is finely focused using the wheel at the top of the camera rear, handily placed under the aperture dial.
There is a tendency to want to use this feature in much the same way as one would use a reflex camera, not in the liberating way a rangefinder camera encourages. But, by using the manual focus feature to set distance on a sliding scale that appears under the LCD image segment and then selecting an aperture for appropriate depth-of-field, something near-optimum hyperfocal distancing is obtained.
Practically, this isn’t the simplest solution, and to be frank, I would have much preferred to see the manual focus feature transposed to a ring on the lens to enable continuous rather than stepped lens focus. Somewhere on the ring or the dial, the addition of an engraved depth-of-field scale would also be useful. For many other disciplines where the desired subject is static however, the fine focus control is both useful and efficient.
The temptation to use the brightline viewfinder in preference to the LCD screen is great, but on a camera of this type, the facility to mount an articulated electronic eye level viewfinder would have been a bonus. Sadly, it’s not possible on the X1, but as Olympus found with the EP-1, it isn’t difficult to bring the feature to consecutive models.
Several manufacturers now have small and handy sized cameras fitted with APS-C sized sensors and all of them claim in one way or another that the image quality they obtain is comparable to the performance of similarly equipped DSLRs. It is, but the language is used to imply another meaning; that performance of the smaller camera is at least equal to the more sophisticated tool. In one case – Sigma’s DP duo of APS-C Foveon sensor equipped compacts – image quality is extraordinarily good, but it’s arguable whether it can match that of a five-year-old Nikon D200 or a Pentax K10D.
A Sony 12.9 megapixel primary filter CMOS sensor with just over 5μ sized pixel wells lies at the heart of the X1, producing images with an aspect ratio of 3:2 measuring 4272×2586 pixels for the largest (12.2 megapixel) file and reducing optionally through three more levels to 1.8 megapixel. With colour space set to Adobe RGB and all other settings at default, Super Fine JPEGs illustrate a tight tonal range from black through white, with perhaps too much compression at the lighter end but opening up in darker zones.
What this means in practice is more visible detail at the darker end of the image scale than at the top, where, if one is not careful with exposure settings, highlight tones are squashed. Sharpening at standard default levels seems set quite high and that process also adds some artifacting to textural details, giving an impression, but not the reality, of finer detail. Raw (Leica’s DNG) files gain an extra tone step at the higher end and just below the mid-tones, producing somewhat flat looking, less contrasty images that need further work to produce better fidelity for large-scale prints.
The restrictions of a fixed focal length notwithstanding, the X1’s Leica Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 ASPH equates to the classical reportage standard field 35mm focal length view, and if this is how you see, nothing else is needed. The lens is a fine performer, comprised of eight (one aspherical) elements in six groups turning in well delineated images with edge-to-edge clarity across the frame and sharpness at optimum apertures between f/4 and f/7. The glass also subtly enhances the colour palette, delivering the Leica nuance other products still find difficult to emulate. With care and attention to exposure, the combination of image sensor and lens can deliver excellent results; functional improvements, however, need to be made.
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