Leica X Vario review by Dale

Discussion in 'Open Discussion' started by dalethorn, Jul 31, 2013.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Guest

    Notes: This review covers my use of the new Leica X Vario camera for general-purpose photography, shooting JPEG format images only. I have owned the Leica M4-2 and M6 film cameras, with a 50mm fixed lens for the former and a 35mm fixed lens for the latter. I purchased the Leica X1 compact camera in early 2010, and used it for nearly 3 years before donating it to a photo club in Ohio. The X Vario is similar in many ways to the X1, given that both are digital cameras made in-house by Leica in Germany. There is also much resemblance between the X Vario and the 'M' film cameras in their heavy-duty construction, and the large heavy lens assembly of the X Vario in particular. The X1 by comparison has a fairly small lens assembly that pops out when the camera is switched on and collapses when the camera is switched off.

    Since the X Vario costs $2850 USD and is a simple camera with a short zoom range lens (28mm to 70mm in 135 equivalence), people who are not familiar with Leica or their raison d'etre might find the price shocking. Looking at this from a Leica owner's perspective, the next step up from the X Vario is the M9, which costs about $12000 to $13000 for camera with similar lens, and the next step up from that is the S2, which sells for approx. $30000 without lens. If you were thinking to buy one of these Leica cameras made in-house by Leica in Germany, based on its specifications as compared to other popular brands such as Fuji, Nikon, or Ricoh et al, then you would probably not want to consider the Leica any further because of the large price difference for comparable specifications. If you are familiar with the Leica brand and what they offer compared to other cameras having similar capabilities, then this review might be helpful since I won't be speculating on the reasons for those differences.

    I'm currently building a set of images for the X Vario at my dalethorn website, so check there occasionally to see what sort of results I'm getting with this camera. I made some initial comparisons to the Nikon Coolpix A, another APS-C camera with a high quality lens (and fairly high price), and viewing the images at 100 percent size on the screen, I note a slight advantage for the X Vario. This is especially good news, since the Nikon has only one focal length and the X Vario has to maintain that quality across the entire zoom range. I made a few comparisons to images I captured with the Leica X1, and the X Vario shows a slight improvement over those as well. Since the X Vario is much larger than the X1, it has the disadvantage (at this time) of not having a dressy camera case available such as the 18709 case for the X1. On the other hand, it's much easier than the X1 to hold and operate with my large hands.

    Removing the X Vario from its packaging, any concerns I might have had about the build quality or design evaporated instantly. It reminded me of the 'M' cameras much more than the X1, although on closer inspection some of the similarities to the X1 become apparent. I liked the X1 pretty well, but I thought it was near the lower limits of what I considered to be a good value for $2000. I have no such concerns about the X Vario - in fact, I feel quite lucky to be able to get this much of the 'M' camera look and feel (and build quality) for what I paid. I'm tempted to say that it's almost a steal at that price, but then I get the idea that Leica has done some research and found ways to produce this camera in sufficient quantity to keep the price down. Again, if you're not a collector or long-time user of Leica cameras, most of this price/value discussion will not make much sense.

    There were a set of videos released by Leica at the introduction of the S1, M9, and X1 circa September 2009, which detailed Leica's development and marketing plans for their full lineup of cameras going forward from that date. I would recommend those for anyone who wants to know more about the company and its products, and why they command the prices they do. Those videos should be available on Youtube et al, and they should provide some background that will make the X Vario design and Leica's other designs more understandable.

    Some photographers will buy their cameras based on a specific need or task they have to perform, others will purchase cameras based on getting a state-of-the-art design that they feel they can grow into, so they don't outgrow the camera immediately, and some users will buy cameras based on a combination of factors - how it looks, feels, and operates, etc. I bought the X Vario because I didn't have a Leica camera at the time, and with just the S2, M9, and X2 available, none of those had enough appeal to me to justify the expense. The X Vario was the perfect simple (but very high quality) camera for me at just the right time, offering manual and automatic features, a usable zoom/focal length range, and the perfect look and feel for continuous everyday use.

    When I'm out with the camera, I usually carry a backup of some kind, and depending on where I go and the subjects I'm likely to photograph, that second camera may be the Leica D-Lux6 or the Panasonic LF1, both tiny-sensor compact cameras with 90 and 200 maximum zoom lengths. It's not likely that I'll be using those backups much though, since the straightforward and simple design of the X Vario gives me nearly 100 percent of the control I need without having to access the menus or deal with controls whose function aren't obvious. The smaller cameras do have a distinct advantage in situations where a professional-looking camera might attract unwanted attention, or be prohibited outright, but for all else the X Vario wins since it fits the hand better and offers the best image quality.

    The X Vario comes with a neck strap, which I don't use because of the weight it puts on my neck, and a lithium-ion rechargeable battery pack with an external charger. The charger comes with a selection of AC mains plug types for most countries of the world. I'm using a wrist strap for the X Vario - a Leica strap I received with a different Leica product. That wrist strap is perfect for this camera since it's strong enough to complement the camera's size and weight. Most small digital camera lenses retract automatically when the camera is turned off, and a shutter or metal plate appears in front of the lens to protect it from being scratched. The X Vario lens does not retract, nor does it have a lens "plate" or shutter that protects the lens - it comes with a plastic lens cap that you remove to operate the camera, and replace when finished shooting. It would be very easy to lose this cap, and very bad if the lens got scratched, so it would be wise to purchase a backup lens cap.

    Summarizing, the Leica X Vario should be a great camera for a purist who wants very high image quality, very simple design and operation, and isn't greatly concerned about the high-performance features most professional users (i.e. mostly DSLR users) demand for their tasks. Those might include ultra-fast auto-focus and shot-to-shot times, large data buffers to allow for bursts up to dozens of images at a time, ability to deal with fast-moving subjects, and so on. I've read quite a lot of commentary by DSLR users who seem mystified by the X Vario's design and performance, and my advice to them is either forget about this camera entirely, or leave it for a time when they have a week with no work to do, and they can relax and enjoy some leisurely shooting with a type of camera that's optimized for high optical quality, not for speed.
  2. Brian

    Brian Super Moderator Subscribing Member

    Apr 3, 2013
    Thankyou for taking the time to write up this review. I think you have defined what this camera is all about.
  3. BBW

    BBW Leica Place Regular

    Apr 15, 2013
    I'm a little late to this thread and have to say that this sounds to me to be a very handy camera, indeed.

    I have one little question - how is the EV compensation accessed? I suppose I could go digging around on other websites but thought I'd start here. Thanks in advance!

    *I see that there is a dial on the back which would make it seem pretty straightforward, though I thought I'd read some complaints about its access being difficult?
  4. dalethorn

    dalethorn Guest

    Just push the wheel top then rotate the wheel to change the value. It's as easy as most cameras to do that, but then the judgement part of the equation is you deciding what's really right in the images made with that compensation.
  5. BBW

    BBW Leica Place Regular

    Apr 15, 2013
    Right, thanks Dale. I understand how EV compensation works. I'd just read something leading me to believe it was difficult to access or something along those lines and after zooming in on the photo I can see it's marked clearly.

    XVARIOR Leica Place Regular

    Dec 9, 2013
    thanks for the review, the Vario managed to become an extension to my hand and eyes.
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