USER REPORT: A Photographic Road Trip with the Leica X1 by D.J. De La Vega


A Photographic Road Trip with the Leica X1 by D.J. De La Vega

This is the story of a photographic road trip with the Leica X1. Like any journey, I will start at the beginning:

Everything was now in place for a road trip of ambitious proportions. The logistics: I would be leaving my hometown in the North East of England to head off to Edinburgh, Scotland. From there I would fly to Newark Airport in the USA. Over the next four days I would drive over 1000 miles to Alexandria Bay, Oswego, Webster, Niagara and all the back to Manhattan for three days of Street Shooting. This was a deliberately photogenic route, mainly following the Great Lake Seaway Trail, a stunning byway that hugs the shore of Lake Ontario.

Here at the start of my voyage lay my first challenge: What camera gear to take? Approximately five years ago when I went on a slightly more modest trip around the Highlands of Scotland I took a Nikon D200, 12-24mm, 18-200mm, 50mm, 60mm macro and 70-300mm. I was prepared for every possible eventuality. With this in mind however, a wise man once said “If you aim at everything, you hit nothing”.

This time around I was seriously considering leaving all my equally extensive kit at home and only carry my unassuming Leica X1. With no huge telephoto, no super wide angle and a mediocre macro mode, it is on paper not necessarily cut out for such a diverse photographic expedition. However as my DSLR gear was now gathering dust after sitting in a bag, rendered obsolete by more than a year spent exclusively shooting with the little Leica, I went with my gut and decided just to take the X1.

So there I was packed and ready to leave with the X1 in hand. This was my first shot of the morning waiting to get on the train to Scotland. Instantly this photograph put me at ease with my decision to leave the DSLR and plethora of lenses behind. The prospect of being limited to such an iconic focal length now excited me. It would be my photographic skills I would be exploring and not the effectiveness of different lenses for different situations.

Upon arrival in Edinburgh a world of picturesque opportunities were unfolding and presenting themselves exclusively for me and the X1. At this stage of my article I will point out how difficult it has been to edit down the photographs I have taken as I have got so many shots I regard as “keepers”. Even though I eventually took slightly more than 10 GB worth of photographs over the week (I shoot RAW), the number of camera actuations was far less than I ever imagined. Historically with a DSLR I would shoot and shoot and not stop: and why should I? Instantaneous shutter response, full automatic setting with a gazillion auto focus points, million area multi matrix metering and unlimited space on Compact Flash cards. It was the equivalent of wielding a photographic machine gun!

It only took a few hours of shooting the street in Edinburgh to dawn on me that I take far fewer photographs with this camera. Was it a conscious effort as it is a slower camera and shooting fully manual takes more time and creativity to get a good shot? Or was it a sub conscious side effect of shooting in a simpler, more traditional, historic style? Whatever it is, I do it and I like the results. I no longer shoot endless photographs of the same subject. I spot a moment take a shot and if I miss it, I move onto the next opportunity.

The next morning it was time to hop on the plane and embark on the biggest leg of the journey. Once I safely landed in New Jersey, there was no time to lose. It was straight in the car and drive approximately 350 miles north to the beautiful town of Alexandria Bay. Arriving at dusk I was greeted by a spectacular sunset over Heart Island.

Over the next two days I was immersed in stunning nature and beautiful scenery travelling down the Great Lakes Seaway Trail. I was enthralled by the local architecture, mesmerised by the iconic landscapes and enamoured with the more intimate secluded bays and forest trails.

So far I had not once missed the lenses I left behind. Without doubt, if I had a 12mm Nikon, I would have probably found use for it, but would it have made a better photograph or just a different one? I began to realise that historically I had probably spent more time chopping and changing lenses for particular applications than I did actually shooting with any one lens. By not having to decide which focal length to use, my mind was purely focused on capturing the opportunities that materialised before me; documenting them as I saw them with no distractions.

Eventually I found myself at the magnificent Niagara Falls. Sometimes I find it difficult to photograph such a famous, well documented landscape as I am constantly aware that millions of people will have taken the exact same shot from the exact same angle. I tried as always to look for unique perspectives and idiosyncratic moments, but also believe if I am somewhere with my camera, it is far better for me to create my own postcard style picture of such an iconic scene than buy someone else’s off a rack.

Another lengthy drive was now required to head south to Manhattan. I was looking forward to finally getting to test the X1 in the area many people would either argue it was specifically built for or quarrel it just could not compete with its M siblings; Street Photography. How would this handy travel companion hold up in the city renowned for its street scenes? I’ll let you be the judge as to how successful the results are, but in practice, I’ve got to say the X1 coped admirably. This camera is a joy to use and because of its size and weight can be around your neck every waking minute of the day; at hand waiting patiently to be deployed as an extension of your eye at the presentation of something noteworthy enough to point a camera at. Its speed was more than adequate to capture pretty much everything I asked of it and if I missed a shot it was because I did not spot it early enough and by the time I had raised the camera, the moment had passed.

I quickly realised as I walked through the streets that I could very quickly drain my batteries with all the colourful characters and photogenic happenings at every turn. It was time to go old school and really test how good the X1 is at capturing the street as an unadulterated photographic tool. It was time to turn off the LCD and image review and rely solely on the 36mm Brightline Viewfinder. Shooting away at my heart’s content only to review the images that night in retrospect. No second chances, no reshooting the same scene over and over. I shot mostly in aperture priority mode and one spot centre weighted focusing. I would focus on the desired object and reframe the scene with my finger half pressed on the shutter. I found this to be a quick and efficient means of capturing the moment.

I was beginning to realise why so many people shoot the street in New York. The people here are a diverse mix of too laid back and too darn busy to be concerned that people were brandishing cameras about. I felt a lot more freedom than in my native England to get close the action and throw caution to the wind. The 35mm focal length was absolutely coming into its own! As I explored the city I found Central Park to be a hub of extroverted characters and wondrous and quaint occurrences.

As well as photographing the superb photographic opportunities that transpire with the people in NYC, it would have been a crime not to document the city itself. The architecture is so magnificent it has a personality of its own. Like at Niagara, I constantly tried to find a compromise between the iconic postcard views and more unique perspectives. Theoretically one could argue that there are no “unique” perspectives any more, but that would be quite a depressing, sombre philosophy for any photographer to subsist with.

Of all the areas I ambled upon in Manhattan, possibly the most vibrant and rewarding was that of The Bowery and China Town. The people and ambience somehow felt more “authentic”. It was a long way from Central Park with the brazen street performers and therefore sometimes I had to work up the courage to lift up the camera to my eye. However I soon defeated my nerves and I found the X1 to be quite inconspicuous and my confidence grew allowing me to get closer to the action.

Regrettably I had reached my last evening in Manhattan. I had loved every minute of shooting the street with the X1 and had not once bemoaned its ability to capture any given scene. I appreciate it is not as fast at focusing as a DSLR, and the viewfinder is only optical, no electronic information is transmitted across to reassure you as to what you are capturing. Yet it is specifically this simplicity that feels truly organic for me in using this practical, no-nonsense photographic instrument. I choose the shutter speed, aperture, ISO and then frame the glass through a glass viewfinder then shoot; fundamental photography at its best.

Thanks for reading my article if you made it this far. You can check out some of my other Leica X1 experimentation and photography here:

All the best

D.J. De La Vega

The Leica X1 is available through Dale Photo, Ken Hansen and B&H Photo!

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  1. Appoligies, I also wanted to thank Damiaan and Allan and everyone else for their kind comments. I am over the moon with the positive response to these shots 🙂

  2. Thanks macjim for the kind words. I really appreciate it 🙂

    Alexii, I have the specific Leica x1 viewfinder but I am sure any manufacturer’s (with a good reputation) 35mm viewfinder will do exactly the same job. The Leica one is pretty expensive for what it is, but you are paying for the Leica glass and badge 🙂

  3. Hello DJ, this must’ve been my fifth or sixth time re-reading your fantastic article and marvelling at your photos. If there’s one more needed push for me to get an X1, this article of yours is it.

    The Brightline viewfinder you’re using, is it the Voigtlander viewfinder sold at Amazon for less than 200 USD?

  4. I tend to save to Instapaper the reviews and stories for reading at a later date. That is why my comments are so late in being posted.
    This was one very enjoyable review of the Leica X1 and and a positive one too — too many reviews have made a point of looking at the negatives of this camera but here, we are informed at what can be done and more importantly to change our ways of taking photographs. We’ve all gotten used to the bells and whistles of the modern digital camer and especially the DSLR.
    Looking forward to further reports D J De La Vega and his Leica X1.

  5. Wonderful personal essay and photos, DJ. I love individual reflections on how photogs use their gear. Invariably there are techniques and perspectives I’ve never heard of or read about, and I go out and try on my own. Looks like you fit right in with the little camera in The Big Apple. It’s incredibly energizing to realize that you can snap and snap and snap in a big city this side of the Atlantic and virtually no one gives you a second glance. It’s even moreso true in DC and San Francisco where everyone assumes the next passerby is a tourist on photo holiday. Glad you had a good time here in America.

  6. It is encouraging to see that you obtained these results with the Brightline Viewfinder, as that is how I woud want to use an X1. Even if an X1 had an integral viewfinder, like that of the X100, my left-eye dominance would make a top-mounted external viewfinder preferable, to keep the camera from blocking my view as much, an important consideration in a crowded city.

    • This is true. I really like this external OVF. I find there is no more paralax than any other viewfinder I’ve ever used (not SLR obviously).

  7. Excellent story and fantastic photography. You were right to ‘limit’ yourself to just one camera/lens combination, it forces you to work hard for the shot and not just use a zoom to get you out of a problem.

  8. lovely pics ,especially the b\w
    I certainley enjoyed the X1 results, i wish they had an integrated viewfinder and i guess it will be there eventually
    good job

  9. Such a kind offer Clifford, sadly I don’t think I’ll be able to afford another trip state side any time soon. I will definitely have to return one day tho 🙂

  10. Thanks again everyone and thanks Bradley, I’m a big fan of your work on Flickr (tho I’ve been away for a while), you are right about the metering when I use the viewfinder. If I need to spot meter I use the LCD not the OVF as you can get some surprises.

    That leads me on to Ronnie’s dilemma. The only advantage the X100 has is the EVF (ok also better high ISO).

    Rich, that sounds like a rewarding plan you have lined up. That’s some cool kit you have there. It will be good to shoot primes, but you will have work on your hands switching between 3 totally different cameras, you’ll not only need to adapt to different focal lengths, but strengths and weakneses of the bodies too.

  11. Great article. I live in Central NY would have loved to travel with you. There are a lot of great sites here in Central NY. If you are ever this way again give me a shout.

    Cliff Hopkins, aka Old Dog New Tricks on Planet Nikon.

  12. DJ this article includes some of your best yet! Steve thanks for posting this!

    DJ you are really diverse in what catches your eye. You don’t get stuck on one thing. Usually photographers get one idea in their head for a period of time and that’s all they shoot. You seem to be aware of diverse kinds of moments at all times. The dog, Niagara viewer, bubble boy, balloon woman, and ESB reflection are my favorites.

    Am I correct to conclude you have your X1 metering on spot plus frame?

  13. Well done, a great series of shots. My favourite is the girl on a bike. Lets see another group of photos from your road trip soon.

  14. Loved the article, and was really happy to see places I shoot all the time here in NYC from your point of view.

  15. Great article, D.J.! And enjoyed all the images.

    I, like many others that frequent this site, am trying to redefine the remainder of my photographic journey having left the newspaper industry several years ago. Until I found Steve’s site, I had never entertained getting rid of my DSLR and variety of lenses. Now, however, I have set a challenge to myself to pursue something along the lines of what you just did. For the next six months, I will shoot only normal focal length lenses. For my journey I am using a Yashica Electro35 GS (45mm f1.7), a Contax G2 (45mm f2 Planar), and a Nikon D2H (35mm f1.8 AF-S G DX). The first time I went to start this quest, I made the mistake of putting all of the DSLR in my car. But this past Sunday, I took just one D2H body w/the 35mm and the G2 w/the 45mm to shoot a local ballet company’s outdoor performance. I had already gotten away from the practice of “chimping” as I equate to downloading the digital images and looking at them for the first time on the computer as my way of “developing” film!
    I plan on shooting with just the normal lenses for at least the next six months to really test out the configuration. I am doing this because I read somewhere that one of my photographic inspirations, H. Cartier-Bresson, shot with just a rangefinder and a 50mm lens. I figured it will help me to see images I have been missing.

  16. You did a grand job of it! I’ve had the X-1 since last October, and live only 45 minutes from NYC, but have yet to go there on a shoot. It’s on my list for this fall, though, when I have more time.

    As for the camera, the clarity and ‘pop’ really show how good a job it does; I’m always impressed with my stuff, once I see it at home. Agreed that the X-1 is more of a single-action revolver than machine gun. You have to aim and pick your shots carefully.

  17. Great stuff! Wonder mix of B&W and color. Very creative and well composed shot. I am very impressed by the work of you and the X1!

  18. Thanks so much everyone!

    @JR: yes I like the boy and bubble shot a lot too. Ironically tho it’s one of the only shots I took that wasn’t sharp 🙂

    @Antonio: I do find the viewfinder to be very useful with X1, it really does change the way you use the camera. Plus you can hand hold it sturdier at slower shutter speeds when the camera is held to your eye as opposed to at arms length.

    • “you can hand hold it sturdier at slower shutter speeds”
      Very interesting… I even didn’t thought about this simple issue. Thanks !

  19. Thanks, for sharing your wonderful images! I have not seen Upstate NY since 1998, and miss it, very much. I only passed through NYC, on I-95, once, in 1994 or 1995, and have long wanted to return for a true visit.

  20. Your photos are fabulous.A great documentary.I love my X1. Now i will have to learn how to use it. Keep up the good work.

  21. Wow, fanastic article with fabolous photos! Your phots are unique in every segment, and I see them 50years from now as a document to one era 🙂
    I’ve red this on my phone, can’t wait to get home to read it again on a computer screen 😉

  22. Great report !
    I have a Leica X1 and when I see this, I see I must practice A LOT to reach that kind of pictures.
    And also, it changed my opinion on one point : I think I’m gonna invest in the optical viewfinder… to get rid of all that electronic stuff and concentrate on framing.

  23. D.J.,

    nice report. It tells us also a little bit about your struggle to get the right composition. To give you a hint: the photo of the boy with the bubble is by far the very best one. You know why? The photo shows true emotions. Photos with two interacting accents, the boy and the bubble, are very strong. And its fantastic to capture the boy when he just jumped up in joy to reach the bubble.
    The second best one is the photo with the two workers. It is not really emotional, but it shows a moment of concentration and involvement. The eye of the person on the ladder, the intense look upwards, underlined by the stretched out arm and hand, of the other person, all linked together by the third accent, the board.

  24. Thanks for tye kind words guys and thanks Steve for letting me share my thoughts and shots on your awesome site 🙂

  25. What a set of fantastically composed and well documented moments in photography!!

    Darn it, Steve! Now I want the X1 too! hahaha… Kidding. X2, maybe…
    For now, X100 is enough while I wait for M to come back from Solms.

  26. What a fantastic report, and great images, well done. You did what a lot of photographers only dream of and you did it in a way most photographers would not. It’s true that less is more and we shouldn’t rely on equipment to do it for us…….

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