Leica X1 £1395

27th Apr 2011 | 15:53

Leica X1

Is this the compact camera enthusiasts have been begging for?

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Crucially, what the X1 sets out to do it does well: that is, to provide high-quality images in a small and compact body

Like:

Excellent image quality with raw files; Sharp lens right up to edges of the frame; Beautiful, lightweight and pocket-friendly body; Analogue dials provide immediate and easy control over exposure; Reliable metering system

Dislike:

Slow and hesitant AF system; Below-par LCD quality; JPEG quality could be better; Priced far higher than competing models; Minimum focusing distance of 30cm can be limiting

Leica X1 review: Overview

Leica X1 review: overview

The X1 used for this review has the recently updated firmware, V.2.0

Leica's foray into the digital world may have been at a slower and more considered pace than what we're used to seeing, but working in partnership with Panasonic has nevertheless meant that it's managed to saturate a healthy range of the camera market.

For more everyday use the company's point-and-shoot C-LUX and enthusiast D-LUX ranges sit at the base of its stable, while the M9 rangefinder and S2 medium format model lie at the other end to cater for professionals.

In between the two, and among a handful of intermediate models, sits the X1, which can safely be considered as the company's answer to the growing popularity of compact system cameras.

In many ways the model is unique, or at least it was upon its launch in September 2009 and its recent firmware upgrade improves upon the original performance. It begins a new series for the company, pairing a 12.2MP APS-C format CMOS sensor with a 24mm f/2.8 fixed lens, the combination of which produces a camera with an effective focal length of 36mm in 35mm terms. It's targeted at the enthusiast who requires a solid, high-quality model with dependable image quality in a pocketable form, albeit it one who will be willing to part with around £1400 for the privilege.

The camera offers a capable feature set, but rarely does it go out of its way to offer any additional niceties. The sensitivity range, for example, is restricted to a reasonable span of ISO 100-3200, with no extension settings are either end, while metering patterns comprise the standard multi, centre-weighted and spot options.

Five colour settings are on hand, including two black and white flavours, while the camera records all raw images in the Adobe DNG standard, which makes them immediately compatible with Adobe's editing programs. Image stabilization is also included, although it's neither lens nor sensor based; instead, the camera uses processing to blend two images into one to achieve a sharper result.

There's a little flexibility in the camera's 11-point focusing system, with high-speed focusing options in 1-point and 11-point modes, as well as a more precise spot focus option and face detection setting, although sadly video recording - HD or otherwise - is nowhere to be found. Also a shame is the 230,000dot resolution of the camera's LCD screen, which today is bettered on models a fraction of the X1's price. At 2.7in it's hardly the largest display either, although, of course, a larger screen would necessitate a slightly bigger body.

Leica X1 review: Build quality & handling

Leica X1 review: Build quality & handling

Considering its target market, the X1 has more in common design-wise with Leica's rangefinder offerings than with its cheaper consumer-orientated models, providing the user with a more manual experience.

The shutter speed dial common to the M-series, for example, is included on the top-plate, while a smaller aperture dial is provided alongside, as opposed to a more traditional lens-based aperture ring. The collar around the shutter release button is used to cycle through drive modes and power the camera up and down, while on the other side of the top plate lies a small flash, concealed under a rounded tab. Separating the two sides is a standard hot-shoe which accepts optional accessories such as flash units and an optical viewfinder.

X1 top-plate

Although it's something for which Leica is well known, it's difficult to fully appreciate the exhaustive checking and testing of each model that goes on during its manufacture, which no doubt goes some way to justifying Leica's pricing. Nevertheless, the X1's build quality and attention to detail should be obvious upon handling the camera for the first time, with the all-metal construction ensuring it's as solid as needs be, and leather trim around its middle to provide a better handling. Some of the buttons on the rear may be a little too small for some, but all are clearly marked.

While the camera's retro design is clearly key to its appeal, a slightly more modern menu system would be welcome. Admittedly, with its restricted colour palette and single list of options its focus is more on ease of use, and there's little chance of getting lost or confused by anything within it.

X1 rear

At just over 300g with its battery in place the camera also puts paid to the notion that an APS-C sensor and a wide-aperture lens translate into a weighty model, and while it's certainly a little bulky it's far smaller than it's nearest competitor, Fujifilm's X100. With its lens protruding only around half an inch or so away from the main body, it can also happily squeeze into most coat and trouser pockets.

Leica X1 review: Performance

Leica X1 review: Performance

Thanks to the camera's manual controls and a simple menu system, operating the camera is reasonably straightforward. It takes less than a second to fully power up the camera and around twice that time to power down, and buttons presses show the camera to be largely responsive.

The focusing system lacks some of the expected fluidity in both normal and high-speed modes, and focusing speed on the whole could be better, but the camera does make it clear when it's found focus with bright green boxes over the focused areas. There's very little shutter lag once the shutter release is depressed, and the images spring up reasonably quickly on the LCD, while the iris shutter located in the lens clicks positively as images are captured.

With a minimum focusing distance of 30cm, it can be difficult to fully isolate a subject from its background even when shooting wide open, much more so than with the Fujifilm X100 whose minimum focusing distance of 10cm makes this easier.

The resolution of the LCD screen also makes manual focusing a little trickier than necessary, and as manual focus is performed electronically - as opposed to mechanically through a focusing ring – the off-putting unsteady nature of the focusing system makes itself known. The camera does, however, provide a distance scale to aid focusing, and also automatically magnifies the centre of the frame for more precise control.

While the LCD screen may be sub-par on paper, it's perfectly usable in controlled lighting conditions; sadly, in harsh lighting conditions its usability drops significantly, to the point where even shielding it with the hand only does so much.

Yet, as we would expect from any camera breaching the four-figure barrier, the X1's image quality is impressive. Metering in particular is spot on most of the time, with even tricky conditions failing to sway the camera one way or the other, while the hit rate of the auto white balance is equally impressive. Both of these are matched by superb control over noise throughout the camera's sensitivity range, with excellent results in terms of both noise and colour accuracy through till ISO 1600, and just a minor dip at the ISO 3200 maximum.

Once the lens has been stopped down to its middle aperture range, there's no drop in sharpness in neither edges or corners of the frame, with detail remaining consistently high across the frame. There's a very marginal amount of distortion visible when shooting linear details, but this isn't generally too big a deal with most subjects, while chromatic aberrations are slight and only visible under close scrutiny, and bokeh as smoothly circular as is often promised.

In fact, the only thing that really lets the camera down is its default JPEG output. In contrast with many other cameras, it's the raw files from the camera which are the more dynamic and vibrant, with JPEGs looking a little lacklustre by comparison. Colour tends to be a little more muted and brightness a little lower, although this latter point remedies the slightly highlight loss visible in the brighter raw files.

There's definitely room for improvement with sharpness in JPEGs, although as slight noise patterning is visible in shadowy areas on all sensitivities, this should be preceded by gentle noise reduction. Of course, it's more than likely that X1 users will be processing their DNG files rather than relying on JPEGs out of the camera, but few users will be inclined to process every image they shoot.

Leica X1 review: Resolution

Leica X1 review: Resolution and image quality

As part of our image quality testing of the Leica X1, we've shot our resolution chart.

If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the X100 is capable of resolving up to around 18 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files and 22 (LWPPH x100) in its raw files.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

JPEGS

Full iso 100 resolution chart

Cropped iso 100 resolutio chart image

ISO 100, score: 18

Cropped iso 200 resolutio chart image

ISO 200, score: 18

Cropped iso 400 resolutio chart image

ISO 400, score: 18

Cropped iso 800 resolutio chart image

ISO 800, score: 18

Cropped iso 1600 resolutio chart image

ISO 1600, score: 16

Cropped iso 3200 resolutio chart image

ISO 3200, score: 16

Raw

Cropped iso 100 raw image

ISO 100, score: 22

Cropped iso 200 raw image

ISO 200, score: 22

Cropped iso 800 raw image

ISO 400, score: 22

Cropped iso 800 resolution chart

ISO 800, score: 22

Cropped iso 1600 raw image

ISO 1600, score: 20

Cropped iso 3200 raw image

ISO 3200, score: 20

Leica X1 review: Our sample images

Leica X1 review: Our sample images

Colour image

While the Standard colour setting left this image lacking a bit of life, the vivid colour mode shown here has injected it with more of the vibrancy present upon capture

Metering

This scene is a good candidate for underexposure, but the X1's metering system has ensured that all the main details remain well exposed

white balance

The camera's auto white balance system does an excellent job to retain the correct mood of images, even when there's little colour detail in the image

Noise

The overall level of noise at the top sensitivity of ISO 3200 is minimal, but the camera does an excellent job to process it out of JPEGs without sacrificing detail

Colours

JPEG: While brighter areas are brought in a touch in JPEG files, their raw counterparts files show more pleasing colour

raw colour

Raw: While brighter areas are brought in a touch in JPEG files, their raw counterparts files show more pleasing colour

Detail image

Raw file: Sharpness in JPEGs is slightly higher than in raw files, but overall JPEG quality is still no match for what can be achieved with some careful raw processing

JPEG quality

JPEG file

Distortion

Distortion is well controlled

House

Railings

Wall

Leica X1 review: Sensitivity images

Leica X1 review: Sensitivity images

Full iso 100 image

JPEGs

Cropped iso 100

ISO 100

Cropped iso 200

ISO 200

Cropped iso 400

ISO 400

Cropped iso 800

ISO 800

Cropped iso 1600

ISO 1600

Cropped iso 3200

ISO 3200

Raw images

cropped raw iso 100

ISO 100

cropped raw iso 200

ISO 200

cropped raw iso 400

ISO 400

cropped raw iso 800

ISO 800

cropped raw iso 1600

ISO 1600

cropped raw iso 3200

ISO 3200

Leica X1 review: Specification

Leica X1 review: Specification

Sensor APS-C CMOS sensor, 12.9MP total, 12.2MP effective
Lens Lecia Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 ASPH
Memory SD, SDHC, internal memory approx. 50MB.
Viewfinder none (optional optical viewfinder available)
LCD Screen 2.7in TFT, 230,000dots
Video resolution n/a
ISO range ISO 100-3200
Focus modes 1-point, 1-point High speed, 11-point, 11-point High speed, Spot, Face Detection
Max burst rate 3fps
Shutter speeds 30-1/2000sec.
Weight 286g (without battery), 306g (with battery)
Dimensions 124 x 32 x 59.5mm
Power supply BP-DC8 rechargeable lithium-ion battery (supplied)

Leica X1 review: Our conclusion

Leica X1 review: Our conclusion

By any standards the X1 is certainly expensive, particularly when you consider that many of its specifications are bettered elsewhere. Then again, together with the Sony NEX series of models and Sigma's DP range it's among the smallest and lightest camera to incorporate an APS-C sensor, and Leica models have the added advantage of holding their value extremely well. Crucially, what it sets out to do it does well: that is, to provide high-quality images in a small and compact body.

Still, with the arrival of Fujifilm's X100 and, to a lesser extent, Ricoh's GXR system, it's less of a unique proposition than when it first came onto the market. Unfortunately for Leica, in that time those two companies have managed to leapfrog the X1 with better-specified models delivered at a cheaper price point, and while it's true that each is affected by its own issues, for the enthusiast market they have more than just price to tempt buyers away from the X1. To that end, the best thing Leica could do now is to release a successor to the X1, with a better LCD, a revised focusing system and video recording, and perhaps even an expansion to its sensitivity range, too.

Leica X1 review: We liked

With its large sensor in a small format body – and a beautiful one at that – the X1 is a pocketable but serious camera that can deliver sharp, noise free images with a superb amount of detail.

Leica X1 review: We disliked

No video recording, sub-standard JPEG quality, a tardy focusing system, and an asking price that comfortably makes it the most expensive compact on the market, the X1 won't be to everyone's liking.

Leica Compact cameras
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