The Leica X-Vario as a Travel Camera
By Thomas H. Hahn
Hi Steve and Brandon,
Many thanks for giving me the opportunity to share some insights & outsights on the Leica X-Vario. I travel a lot, sometimes overseas, and am always interested in what type of camera might be a good travel companion to my other, more “serious” gear, which at present comprises the Sony A900 and a Leica M9. I’m a big believer in trying first, buying later. For example, I rented a M9 twice from LensRentals before buying one. When the silver X-Vario was announced in February, I became interested. Doing the LensRentals thing again, a black X-Vario arrived at my doorstep on a Monday, giving me a whole week to run it through its paces.
What I was mostly interested in was how it would stack up against its fellow travelers, namely, the Leica X2 (which I sold again after some nine months), and the Sony RX100 (passed on within the family now). As is well documented, the little Sony is an extremely responsive, lightning quick little unobtrusive silent black stealthy high quality tool delivering very satisfactory results especially in its various b/w modes (see http://hahn.zenfolio.com/rx100 for samples). The X2 on the other hand is a rather deliberate tool, its DNGs providing a more robust basis for further development.
Some odd but important numbers on the X-vario first:
1. 2,850. That’s the official price. Without grip, EVF, leather case. There seems to be some movement here in the past few weeks, as Ken Hansen for example sells the (black) XV these days new with warranty for $2200. That’s still a bag full of shekels, but a substantial cost reduction nevertheless.
2. f/5.1. The maximum F-stop for the Vario-Elmar lens at the 50mm mark. I suspect that might well be the slowest 50 normal that Leica has ever made, in any form, zoom or prime. For someone who uses the latest f0.95 Noctilux as a standard 50mm lens on the M9, the XV’s value of f5.1 was a bit of a shock I must admit.
3. 70. The tele end of the Vario-Elmar. Sort of an oddball in my book, as it’s neither here nore there, neither “normal” nor “portrait” ready. The little Leica D-Lux 4 started out with a 24-60 (equivalent) lens, whereby the 24mm was very useful indeed, more so than the long end. Leica/Panasonic then increased the tele end to 90 on the subsequent offerings, which I personally find much more useful. Likewise, the Leica Digilux 2 (and the XV is sometimes thought of as a successor to this cult classic)was equipped with a 28 to 90mm lens. But 70 it is for the all-in-one X-Vario.
4. 12.7. That’s DXO’s dynamic range rating for the X-Vario’s sensor. It’s an amazing value really, in fact exceeding the M9 by quite a margin. The two cameras consequently produce entirely different DNGs, mostly of course due to the different sensors: CCD for the M9, CMOS for the X-Series and the M240. I would describe the XV DNGs as very even and smooth, and the M9 DNGs as Kodachrome 64 raw and untamed before processing.
5. 12.500. The highest ISO value which was still useful (two samples below). With the M9 I usually hover low on the ISO floor, rarely going above 640, whereas the XV produces excellent files up to 3200 and in some cases, well beyond.
6. 3:2. The XV’s aspect ratio. In fact, the XV’s only aspect ratio. No soft or hard switches to change over to a more landscapy 16:9, a more printer-friendly 4:3, or a more artsy 1:1 (all of these provided in the D-Lux series for example)
7. 30. The closest you get to your subject in terms of distance in cm. Much better than with any M (Visoflex and specialized macro lenses excluded). It opens up a whole new universe, and broadens considerably the scope of one’s imaging versatility.
With these numbers out-of-the-way, how did the XV perfom as a travel camera? Btw., my specs for a travel camera are ruggedness (weather sealing preferred), reasonable size to fit in a pocket or small case, satisfactory IQ and color integrity throughout a useful ISO range, and yet simple enough to just set up once to be ready for action. As is evident from this spec sheet, I am taking a rather pragmatic approach. It is not ultimate IQ I expect (whatever that may mean in the end), but versatility, a healthy measure of common-sense physical layout, responsiveness and durability.
Here are the “tests” I subjected the camera to:
Countryside drive, exploration of a 19th century model farm, snow on the ground, minus 15 C, static subjects, withered wood and metal, very bright and sunny, EVF, JPG only (by accident). No issues at all. ISO stayed low, f-stops as fast as they would go, A-mode; nice background blur in fact on occasion, crackingly truthful colors, absolutely amazed at the results. I had feared that since ending up with JPGs I would practically have to toss the entire day’s output, but far from it: These are the best and most useable JPGs I’ve ever seen from any digital Leica to date.
Main control wheel drove me mad…
Nighttime outing, mixed city lights, window reflections, interior designs, street, minus 15 C, A-mode, high ISO, EVF, DNG. Surprised by the high ISO results. Camera did some override on my settings and had its way with the situations it confronted, pulling through admirably. I’ve never taken (nor processed) an image at ISO 12.500 in my life, the XV delivered absolutely remarkable results.
Main control wheel drove me…
Museum outing, interior, AWB, mixed lighting, medium high ISO, flat, static surfaces (mostly), EVF, DNG: No issues. Almost flawless AWB, truly excellent color reproduction of the artwork on display. I do that a lot, taking pictures of artwork, so that was an important aspect of judging the XV’s overall performance. Based on my experience, this camera is well suited for repro art work. Colors are underhanded and a tad muted to begin with, which is a very good basis for PP. Lens is sharp from corner to corner, too (maybe a tad less so at 70mm).
Main control wheel drove…
Street photography in NYC; sunny, harsh contrast, moving targets, A-mode, S-mode, manual mode, every-which-way-mode, EVF, blind hipshots, complete disregard for f-stop and DoF issues, DNG. Hmmm…the XV inherits the X2 genes when it comes to AF performance, although I also used it in manual mode, with focal distance preset to something like 7 feet or so, at 35 to 40mm, spot focus, EVF on, sometimes shooting blind without looking. It worked remarkably well I must say, and after a day’s work I came away with some decent images.
There’s really no debating the XV’s IQ at this point, it really is a matter of operability, responsiveness, and it’s usefulness under a variety of conditions. I managed to keep track of joggers along the Hudson piers, but lost track of bikers gliding alongside. A matter of experience I suppose, but a faster AF module in the XV would certainly help. One annoying thing was the slow wake-up time (2 seconds or so), I missed quite a few shots that way in the beginning, until I just kept my finger on the shutter button half pressed regularly every 30 seconds or so, just to keep the camera awake and alive. Can’t do that very long, though, there’s a penalty involved in terms of battery life.
Main control wheel…
Art fair, thousands of people all at once, mixed lighting, tight spaces always emptying and filling up again, AWB, DNG, EVF. I use this as a separate “category” from the museum visit above as one function of the camera actually came in really handy under these circumstances: the VARIO aspect. Duh! It is really useful to have a zoom at times! Leica M users are zoom-deprived creatures, we zoom with our feet. We focus by hand. At eye level. It’s often quite conspicuous, especially with the M9′s shutter sound. Well, the XV changes all these parameters, constituting a very flexible tool which, when needed, stays totally silent. Among the crowds, I managed to capture images and situations which would have been much harder (if not impossible) to do with my M9.
Main control…(I was told it’s less prone to accidental setting changes with the grip or the case, but you get the idea)
I have put together a gallery of sample images at http://hahn.zenfolio.com/xv (Warning: rampant eclecticism)
Thomas H. Hahn