11.2.10

Leica X1 at Usachevsky Market

As a follow up to my earlier review of the X1, I took it out for some documentary work in Usachevsky market in south west Moscow. I have photographed this market before, using the M8 to capture its diverse traders from, Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Tatarstan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan among others.

These markets are under threat from the Moscow municipality or for reasons varying “jobs-for-Russians” nationalism, the valuable real estate the markets occupy and the perception that somehow these glorious markets are a sign of Russia’s backwardness, a view shared somewhat surprisingly by the BBC’s correspondents in Moscow.

Ikra from the salmon family. Caviar from Sturgeon is regulated.

Actually, food lovers know that these markets offer a range and quality of produce you will not find in even the most expensive supermarkets. You need to know a bit about Russia's logistical problems. The reason is that Russia imports much of its food and the best cheese, fruit, fish and caviar is more readily available from countries outside Russia proper, from the Commonwealth of Independent States.

SILENT, STEALTHY

These high quality goods stay in the street markets because the distribution of these products is handled by the same nationals who grow and make them, and who struggle to get their products into supermarkets controlled by French, Russian and (formerly) Turkish grocers – despite the evident superiority of these products.

Purses and Passport Wallets

On to the X1: Stealthy, near silent, pocketable. Perfect for the market, where corrupt policemen exact bribes and the traders are naturally suspicious.

The camera shines in this regard. I have average sized hands and the X1 sits perfectly. The body covering is grippy and I felt no need of the optional hand grip similar to the one I use with the M8.
While not invisible, most of the people I photographed did not notice it. Where I felt it was appropriate, for example where a woman was working alongside her daughter, I asked permission.

Vobla: An acquired taste.

Often I am using the camera without raising it to my eye. So having automatic focus should give me an advantage over the manual focus M8.  What I found was that, despite AF, the X1 was no faster in practice.

FACE DETECTION

Using the 1-point, high-speed AF setting was hit and miss and, of course, I should have tried the 11-point AF. I was still becoming familiar with the camera and I blame myself for missing focus. I used manual focus on occasion and found that much slower than working with the M8, which you can adjust in a split second by looking straight down at the focus markings on the lens.  Even with the fastest autofocus, and the X1 is not fast, you have no way of knowing where an AF camera has focused. With the M8, you do in terms of scale focus.

I will go back to the market and try face detection for the next round of shots. If it does seize faces and lock on to them, as I suspect it will, then face detection will raise the X1’s game. A couple of reviewers have dismissed face detection as something for kids’ parties. I suspect it could prove far more useful for stealth shooting.

Beekeeper from Altai

SHUDDER

However, auto focus was not the reason for most of my poor shots. I chose to use auto ISO and the X1 has a problem. The menu offers a choice for the slowest shutter speed: 1/8 th, 1/15th, 1/30th.  This is great. Instead of turning up the volume, it slows the shutter speed, extracting every ounce of quality from the sensor.  But it works too well, with no option to avoid subject movement in many situations. Most shots I lost were due to shudder – either camera shake or subject movement.

Another issue I will blame myself for is a tendency among my market shots to over exposure. I had not dialled in exposure compensation when clearly I should have.

Pickle Champions

Automatic white balance was exceptional under mixed lighting conditions, predominantly fluorescent, followed by strongly angled daylight and then tungsten. A better performance than the M8.

THE LENS

Sharp

Evaluation of image is subjective. However, when you achieve focus, spot-on, the 24mm f/2.8 really snaps. The lens is excellent. Leica was right not to go for an f/2 lens stuffed into a small package, requiring an additional file of distortion and abberation correction alongside the digital negative.

Why did Leica not go for a faster lens? The same reason it didn't go for a zoom: image quality. Even full sized fast lenses have trade-offs  (though you don't see this until f/1.4 in a full sized lens) between chromatic aberration, various types of distortion, flare etc. Only some of these can be corrected by software.

CONCLUSION

Now that I feel I’ve identified the way the X1 handled the Usachevsky market sequence, I’ve set everything under user profile. This is brilliant! The profiles (three available) remember absolutely everything, from the flash (forced on, then you just pop it up when you need it) to auto or manual focus, basically anything you set on any of the buttons or menu options.

I’d love to be able to name the profiles via a link to a computer and I don’t see why Leica shouldn’t offer a little more control via computer – for example to override the lowest shutter speed in auto ISO settings. Why does everything have to wait for a firmware update!

Lotions and potions

I can say I am much happier with the X1 than at first. This camera allows me to get into places that I could not, even when palming an M camera. It is that small and even more silent.

The tension comes in the dynamic between the auto and manual settings. Auto is auto. It often has no idea what you want and I’m not talking about the X1. I mean auto in general, even on a D700. However, coming from an M, there is an obstacle to overcome.

The digital M is a triumph of mechanical interface with technology. The X1 is still a compact camera, and the trade off is you still have to fight with things that answer first to the technology and only second to the user.

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