Leica X1

I've been out and about with the Leica X1.  What does it do?

It lets me take high quality images with a 35mm-equivalent lens in a body that's like a solid, compact film camera. Part of the new breed of bigger-than-compact cameras with much bigger sensors, the X1 gives the best image quality you can get in a small body.

However, it's expensive and despite its good looks, I believe it's not most people's idea of a dream camera.

It may offer the same image quality as  bigger cameras but it is much slower to use. Because its made by the last commercial German camera manufacturer, it is a high-quality product with a lot of quirks.


It's winter in Russia. All these photos were taken in poor light or at night. They are posted in low resolution, in which low-light images suffer. However, my feeling is they are very close to the M8 in terms of what you get in these conditions. The only image that's had any adjustment is The Third Man, to balance for the bright television picture. The others are straight from the camera, mostly on auto settings, to show what you get.

Image: Moscow Street Dog

I'm an amateur photographer and a television news journalist, not a camera reviewer. I mostly use a Leica M8, but also use cameras from Panasonic, Nikon and Ricoh. A few thoughts on my first two days with the X1.

It looks like a miniature M camera, in fact, it's looks hark back to the earliest 35mm camera by Oskar Barnack. Unlike the M8 or M9, however, the new camera will work in full automatic mode. But it's too slow for moving targets for which you need to pre-focus and switch to manual focus. To take full advantage of the DSLR-sized, APS-C sensor in the X1, you'll need to use manual controls to get around the camera's quirks.

Image: The Third Man


AF/MF – Leica should move the AF-Macro setting somewhere else. The AF/MF button could then become a toggle button, with a single push switching between AF and MF. One could then quickly refine automatic focus using the thumb wheel. (To explain – the AF/MF button currently offers three options. So you need to press it three times to get from AF to MF, and two times to get from MF to AF. Not intuitive)

Auto Review – There is no way to magnify the image to check focus as part of Auto Review, unlike the M8 and M9. The menu system is familiar to M8, M9 users but I was surprised to see the selection ring (not the thumb wheel but the one that surrounds the five buttons) work differently. It doesn't magnify an image during Auto Review.  It’s second nature to M8, M9 users so why not carry it over.

Likewise the magnified view for focus confirmation as a part of Auto Review, a very useful attribute of the D-lux series is also missing. (Focus Assist magnifies the central portion of the screen as you are using the thumbwheel. The same magnified view should be an option under Auto Review.)

Image: Novodevichiy Convent

Live View – Working in low light, in manual, the Live View shows an estimated version of the exposure, depending on the settings the user has chosen. Only half a second before the shutter release does it show you what the lens and sensor are actually recording. This may be something to do with reports that the lens stops down uncontrollably during focusing instead of remaining at the selected aperture.

Whatever the reason, it makes Live View useless for manual photography in low light. You are essentially using a film camera and making your own estimates.

Waking from Auto Power Off 
(sleep) – takes three seconds. If you press the shutter during this time you get a message Auto Power Off Cancel. That’s a Microsoft touch: I know I want to cancel Auto Power Off. That’s why I pressed the shutter!

There is no way to cancel Auto Power Off. The maximum time before your camera locks up is 10 minutes.

Image: Metro

Ultra Slow Operating Speed
- Accessing Menu after switching on the camera – Even though the camera is fairly quick to extend the lens, you cannot enter the menu for three or four seconds.  As the camera does not remember manual lens settings, autofocus will require another second. In practice, it took me six seconds from switch on to take a photograph of my wall clock.

The X1 shuts down so slowly it is possible to switch it off and take the battery out, leaving the lens still extended.

The Battery and Base
- Who designed this? While the contacts are on only one side, the battery can fit in the slot either way. Back to front, it gets caught on a small spring.

Perhaps Leica kept this spring as a memento of the film M loading mechanism and it’s just as fragile. The battery compartment door does not click shut. You need to push a lever. Another hangover from the M design.

Nor is the tripod mount centred. Yes, Leica has managed to make the base plate of the X1 as fiddly as the Leica M's traditional removeable base plate.

Image: Snow Man

Comparison with GF1 - There's loads to say but what does an amateur photographer need to know?

I’m also using the Panasonic GF1 and 20mm f/1.7 alongside the M8 with selection of lenses.

In the hand, the GF1 feels solid and Leica should learn from the main dial on top of the camera: it is wonderfully firm, you can feel it through gloves, and it won’t move accidentally.

Speed, speed, speed. If you  want to capture facial expressions, a momentary glance, children or trains, planes and automobiles, the GF1 is fast enough. The X1 is not, unless you pre-focus manually and take your chances. But then the slow shutter actuation of more than a second, even in manual focus, can let you down.

Low light lens. Theoretically the X1 with its higher ISO capability is equal to the GFI with a faster lens. Those who know the difference don’t need preaching to.

The 20mm f/1.7 has a focus ring which, combined with a higher resolution LCD screen, makes manual focusing much easier and more accurate than on the X1.

Of course, both cameras can be used in auto mode, and in this the X1 feels slightly quicker in operation than the D-lux 3 (I haven’t used the 4).

The X1 offers higher image quality than the GF1 from both lens and sensor. In auto mode, the X1 is a slow point and shoot but one which offers ultra high image quality and low noise.

However, to get the best from this no-frills you need knowledge of how to use a manual camera.

Image: Mixed Light


The camera handles all kinds of light conditions but two tendencies quickly emerge: multiple light sources are handled exceptionally well by Automatic White Balance. However, there is a tendency to overexposure, even when compensation is dialed in. This may be related to the problem highlighted earlier (excuse pun!) that Live View and Histogram do not show the image according to the exposure settings.

Many reviews focus on the slow auto focus. This would not be a problem (it might actually be a bonus) if one could switch, at the press of a button, into manual focus for final tweaking. Unfortunately, the AF-Macro option is in the way.

This is a slow camera. Almost everything takes time: Switch on-to-first image, wake up from Auto Power Off, pressing Play to review images.

On the other hand, it is very easy to use, if you know what you are doing. This last bit is important, because often the camera will not tell you what it is doing! (In Auto ISO, the selected ISO is not displayed. Live View, as I said, shows you something quite different to what your selected settings are going to give you.

The use of single function buttons really helps, which is why Leica really should remove the final obstacles to fluid use. The buttons truly are excellent. You only need one press, and no confirmation. For example, to select MF, just select MF, no need to press Set.

Image: Charm Locks


If you have read this far and you still need to ask, then it is almost certainly not for you. I'm not being flippant.  This camera has quirks, obstacles to fluid use. You need to know what those are and to be ready and willing to overcome them.

As to the price, I can honestly say if you need to ask, you can't afford it.

1 comment:

jaap said...

Interesting review, thank you. You compare the images to the M8/M9. I disagree. On the images you post here I see a quite individual fingerprint of the X1, especially in the color rendering. I quite like that fingerprint, though.