The Leica X-Vario as a Travel Camera by Thomas H. Hahn

leica_x-vario2

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.

XV_THH-101

XV_THH-100

XV_THH-112

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.

XV_THH-104

XV_THH-109

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).

XV_THH-110

XV_THH-111

XV_THH-105

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.

XV_THH-103

XV_THH-106

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.

XV_THH-113

XV_THH-108

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.

XV_THH-102

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)

Thank you.

Thomas H. Hahn

32 Comments

  1. Another belated comment on this very good posting. Another area in which the XV is underrated is available light. The HAS to be some light, of course, but I take portraits of my grandchildren indoors a lot and I’d rather have XV at 1600 than some others at 800! As for the control wheel, try adding a small pad of some lightweight but solid material where the thumb rests above the wheel. A few miilmeters will do the trick and keep you from touching that silver wheel for ever! If ever there was a camera that grows on you in use rather than specifications, the XV is it!

  2. Great write up and fantastic images. I agree 100%, X Vario image quality is fantastic. I can’t want to take mine to Hawaii later this month.

  3. A much belated response, but a big thanks. I’ve only just done my first test run with my new X Vario using the handgrip. It’s a lovely camera to hold and I rarely had the slightest trouble with that control wheel ! I’m very encouraged by the wider range of subjects you’ve taken with yours and the image quality. I won’t be trying to push it for what it won’t do but enjoying what it does. And I shall continue to enjoy my D-lux 4 and my V-lux 1 for backup. Such a pity Leica messed up the initial teasers and skewed eveybody’s perception.

  4. Great pictures, but because of the photographer rather than the gear. I went to your zenfolio page and no matter the camera you use, It`s full of great stuff, even with small(er) sensor cameras like the D-lux4 and RX100.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I’ve had that little D-Lux 4 for many years now (am on my third actually), that’s one camera I find very reliable and handy in many situations, but it sees less and less use these days, the sensors are getting larger and the bodies smaller, such as with the RX100.
      Thomas

  5. Leica gets that technical things and measurements are secondary to image beauty and build quality. These two things are pretty much all that matters. I’d rather have an X-Vario than a Sony A7 or any other little clicky thing from a consumer electronics conglomerate that defines image quality as megapixel count and high ISO performance. Good pictures happen in good light. Based on your article and other samples I’ve seen this is an underrated camera that delivers in the ways that count.

    • Sometimes, the “consumer electronics conglomerate” actually gets it right. In the case of Sony, there’s the ten-year old R1, a true classic. The A900, a no-frills dSLR; and I guess the RX1/r should have a notable mention here, too. The XV holds its own, though, and with the prices coming down, it makes it an interesting choice, not as a first camera, but, as in my case, an imaging tool for the road.

    • Seeing these stunning captures I would say the XV eats Fuji X-trans cameras for breakfast…

      (BTW: I have a X100s)

    • Steve, I can’t say how it compares to any of the modern Fuji X-cameras, my experience with Fuji is limited to the S5 Pro (great camera, that one!). I believe a lot of folk would probably go for something like the X-Pro 1 or the new XT-1 plus the 18-55 zoom lens instead of the Vario, and I can’t blame them, there’s the Leica price tag, the expandability of the Fuji X-system, and the great lenses that are being released by Fuji these days. However, all that is a bit detrimental to my own path, I don’t want or need another system right now, an all-in-one “happy snapper” in my bag is just enough for the road.

  6. I hope the people reading this realize that these photos look so great not just because you used a Leica X-Vario but because you’re a skilled photographer who knows what he’s doing , has a great eye, and knows how to edit before and after the shot. Thanks for sharing your work and insights with us.

  7. Wow, I love the way you isolate your subject. Great set of photos with great composition!

    Best of luck,

    Liandro

  8. I love the pictures and I agree the XV is very underestimated but the pictures speak for themselves.
    Keep up the great work.

  9. In my opinion the XV is the most underestimated camera currently. I use it for a couple of months now, the IQ and the character of the pictures are stunning. Thanks for the post and the great pictures, Thomas!

    • Thanks Stephan. I guess Leica got this one off on the wrong foot marketing-wise, but it’s reputation has only grown in recent months.

      • Great write up and photos.

        While it does have its quirks, the X Vario continues to impress me. It is probably the most under-rated camera out there today, especially for travel and as an “all in one”.

        That lens has such special character, with its combined rich, accurate colors, amazing microcontrast, soft bokeh, edge-to-edge sharpness and zoom versatility. Leica glass really IS special.

        Please forgive me, but when you side-by-side compare XV images with other cameras, you can see a difference and “that Leica look” for sure. Many cameras produce great images too, but they are usually more digital and sterile looking comparatively. This is not just to my eyes. XV images come to life and have a certain quality and special “pop” (with colors and microcontrast), a difference even non-enthusiasts notice.

        While I thought I would miss having 24mm and f:1.8 on-hand, I don’t miss them in the least.
        High ISO performance and a leaf shutter compensate for not having f:2.8, usually.

        The lens’ easy manual and zone focusing compensates for its mediocre AF performance, for me anyway.

        The versatility of its close-focus and zoom capabilities round out the XV be a fantastic all-in-one camera that is certainly more than the sum of its parts. With its fine build quality and intuitive handling, it forms a bond with you, even with its quirks. I never thought I would be so impressed and delighted.

        When you consider that Leica glass IS special, and consider what a bag of Leica glass (28, 35, 50, 70) would cost, then maybe the XV is worth it. But, it is certainly not a camera for everyone.

        Whatever you shoot with, enjoy the journey and pursuit of your passion.

        • Thanks for the input, I agree re the lens, it does have a lot of character, indeed. Whether it “pops” is more up to what’s happening in post I’d say, and my eyes are too weak to actually be able to discern “micro-contrast”. On the other hand, I can very well see how it grows on you and forms a bond as you say. On my big Sony I routinely go as wide as 16mm, so I’d miss that range which would take me beyond 28. But horses for courses as they say, as a travel camera, the XV ticks a lot of boxes.

  10. Great write up and insights on the camera. I’ve been on the fence about the camera because of the f-stop range but the ISO range seems to make up for it. Great images… now its got me thinking about it again.

  11. Well, I have zero interest in the X-Vario but these are some of the best images I’ve seen here for quite a while. Is that down to the camera, the operator or both? I don’t know but a great article all round.

    • Thanks much – it was a fun project to work with the XV for a week. I actually miss the camera, a very handy and versatile companion.

    • I’ve been a bit of an Olympus enthusiast until quite recently, starting with the venerable C-5060, 8080, all the way up to the E-5. It’s a company I have great respect for (despite their shady financial dealings).

    • I used to use an EP-2 with the 20 1.7 as my travel camera. It was so tough! The only thing I hated was the EVF. Having a small expensive plastic EVF that clip onto the top was annoying. I had to take it off to put the camera away in its case. I always worried I would lose it, which I eventually did in a Seoul taxi.

      Now I use an X100. The built in VF is what sold me on it. Though I miss the sharpness of that 20mm wide open!

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