If you’ve read any of my posts recently, you will know that I’ve been after a stripped back digital camera. I’d love this to be a Fujifilm, but they are adding more and more features, which I’m finding a little distracting. Yes, I know I can ignore them, but with the super-fast AF of the X100T and various other interesting bits and pieces on there it is hard not to revert to being lazy and using them! I want to be forced to go back to basics and not rely on the camera, more my own skill and to think about the photographic experience again, as the original X100 did to me all those years ago now.
Edit: This is an older post I’ve moved over to PhotoMadd
I’ve looked around and if you want a digital camera rather than a film camera then it seems that only Leica are doing the minimal feature set, maximum quality thing right now. I’ve been looking for a digital M of some sort, but they are just too expensive for me. The M8 is getting cheaper, but with a now 8 year old body, and a few issues, it is still expensive for what it is. When you factor in a half decent lens you are still looking at somewhere around £2000, and way more than that for a modern Leica 35mm or 50mm lens. Most other 8-year old digital cameras are pretty much scrap these days, which may in itself say something about the quality and persisting desirability of Leica cameras.
This isn’t going to be a detailed feature-by-feature review of the X, if you want that you can find it elsewhere online. I am going to write about using the camera in a normal day-to-day scenario as most of us do, from a non-technical perspective of a photographer rather than a camera reviewer. I’m going to intersperse the text with images I took during my week long trip in Ireland to give you an idea of the output from the camera.
I had a go with the Leica X Typ 113 (from now on I’ll refer to this simply as the ‘X’!) at The Photography Show in March and a good chat with someone from Leica. I was offered the chance to get a review sample, but despite chasing them up a few times it never happened for whatever reason. However my curiosity had been piqued, and an up-coming trip to Ireland would give me the chance to try one out properly when all I had to do was shoot images for myself, something of a rarity these days. Prices of new bodies were too much for me to buy one personally just to try out, but I found a second hand one at a crazy (literally!) price. I honestly think they must have marked it up wrongly. I’d set about selling off some stuff I either don’t use any more, or could do without, the week before so I could buy one. I had enough to buy it, and fortunately some to spare, something that I’ll come to later. I was leaving for Ireland very soon so had it express delivered and set about reading everything I could and watching all the YouTube videos on the X that I could find before it arrived!
The first impression of the X when you get it is the box. What a masterpiece! At one point Fujifilm used to sell the X-Series cameras in beautifully crafted boxes, but price constraints have meant they are now packed as any other camera would be. I thought Zeiss made some of the nicest boxes out there for their lenses, but this is a whole other level! The outer ‘shell’ drops away when you open it and reveals a box with a magnetically sealed top section for the camera and two drawers below containing leads, chargers and the manuals. I know it may seem like a small thing to many, but I do love a nicely packed and presented product, and all my boxes are always neatly stored away safely.
The camera feels very solid and extremely well made when you take it out of the box, exactly as you would hope and expect coming from a Leica-made camera. It certainly does not disappoint in this respect. As has become fairly standard, the battery and SD card slot in from below. Curiously there is a warning displayed on the screen if you leave the battery compartment door open and turn the camera on, although I’m not exactly sure why as this is rather obvious anyway!
Looking around the body of the camera it is immediately apparent that it is stripped back to pretty much the essentials, something that attracted me to it in the first place. Along the left side of the screen are the familiar row of Leica buttons (Play, Delete/Focus, WB, ISO and Menu) and a D-pad with central button on the right and an electronic dial by your thumb that can be used to adjust exposure compensation, flash compensation or bracketing options. No confusing mess of random un-marked buttons that either serve to confuse, or just get pressed by mistake under normal use of the camera. The only exception to this is the video record button, which I found is not only unnecessary (how many Leica users are really buying them for video?) but placed in a location that I seemed to press constantly by mistake and had to make a conscious effort to avoid. I really wish I could disable this button altogether. On the Fujifilm X-T1, a firmware update modified that same problem by forcing you to press and hold the video record button for at least 1s before it started recording. Something similar here would have been a good idea. I can’t count the number of 3-4 second videos I had to delete!
After a day or two of use I was still pulling the camera to my eye to the non-existent view-finder. It was at this point that the money I had spare came into play and I found an EVF in stock at Wilkinson Cameras in Liverpool, which happened to be where I was flying from, so I popped in to the store before my flight and picked it up. I’d highly recommend this EVF to anyone. Yes, it is expensive, but it is also very very good and not only that, but in sunlight when I was shooting in Ireland it was an invaluable option. Shooting a scene like the one below with the sun directly into your eyes is difficult without a viewfinder.
The lens has a MF/AF selector on the focus dial. Turn it all the way to one end and click it into AF, or twist back again to go into manual focus. The manual focus is still a focus-by-wire system, rather than true manual focus, but it is one of the best I’ve ever used and beats something like the Fujifilm X100 series hands down. A quick 1/4 of a turn from local to lock means you don’t have to mess about moving your fingers and can focus with them holding the lens in the same position for any focal distance. This makes focussing quick and easy. On turning the dial the central part of the screen turns into a magnified MF assist and allows accurate and rapid focussing. I like the fact that it only zooms the focus point in the central part of the display because it allows you to still keep an eye on composition, something that can be frustrating when the entire screen disappears in favour of the zoomed MF assist image and takes a second or two to switch back to the ‘normal’ view before you can check your composition again after focussing.
For shooting landscapes, anything above about F8 you can pretty much leave the lens on infinity and get it all in focus. A running (if apparently annoying!) joke with my travelling companion was that I had the worlds fastest AF when in that mode! One of the nice things is that because the focus ring is a fixed lock-to-lock system rather than a ring that spins continuously in either direction is that if you leave it at any point on the focus ring, the camera is always focussed at that same position even if you turn the camera off and on again, just as it would be with a traditional full manual MF lens. This meant that for much of what I was shooting in Ireland (landscapes) I could leave it set at infinity and when I turned the camera on, it was immediately ready to shoot without any adjustments or auto-focussing racking back and forth.
Flare is well controlled even when shooting directly into the sun, with only minor flaring when you really force it.
Dynamic range is impressive, the DNG raw file below (shown unprocessed) has plenty of latitude for adjustment despite the bright sunlight and dark foreground, I could easily still pull plenty of detail from it should I wish to.
The one thing I would most liked to see would have been the aperture control actually on the lens, as for me that is a much more natural place for it to be. Instead, the aperture setting is carried over from the same position as on the X1,X2 and X-Vario cameras, which is a dial on the top. A position in which I’d more normally be used to finding the exposure compensation dial. This is fine once you get used to it, but I was switching between cameras on the trip and at first I’d always try to go for the lens to adjust aperture, or try to dial in exposure compensation with the aperture dial rather than the electronic dial on the back! As I used the X more than the other cameras this becomes less of an issue, and it was mainly a problem for me specifically because of the fact that I was switching between several different cameras, and with me having become so used to the traditional control layout on the Fujifilm X-Series with aperture ring on the lens and exposure compensation as a thumb dial. This is now the control layout I note that the new Leica Q (Typ 116!) uses. As an aside, the new Leica Q is basically a full-frame version of the X, albeit with a 28mm lens and a few more advanced features. It is probably my idea of the perfect camera right now if I could afford one!
The menu system is one of the best around, clean, simple, just the right number of options. Perhaps the only thing I would have liked to see was some pagination to allow quicker access to items that were somewhere in the middle. Other than that there is nothing to complain about, accessing the various options is simple and consistent across the whole menu system, unlike the Sony menus where sometimes you need to press one button to get into a sub menu and sometimes you need to press another, only to be thrown out of the menu and start all over again if you got it wrong! On the Leica X it gives you just the right number of options to allow you to adjust those things you want without going crazily over the top and causing frustration. There are several “User” settings that allow you to save your favourite setups for quick recall.
By the way, as an interesting fact, the green in the shot above appears as though it is lit by sunlight, but it wasn’t. Compared to the surrounding material it must have a high reflectivity and appeared as though it was bio-luminescant, giving the impression of patches of sunlight in the forest.
If you intend to use this camera in AF mode I would caution that it isn’t exactly the fastest AF in the world, in fact it isn’t even close! It can be a bit hit and miss. When it works it is quite useable, but sometimes it is seemingly unable to lock focus on anything at all, much like the original Fujifilm X100. The other issue with AF is that to change focus mode you press the Focus button and it gives you the focus mode options, but to change the focus point you have to press and hold the focus button. For me that would have been better reversed as I’m far more likely to want to change the position of the focus than the focus mode. A relatively minor gripe though.
For me at least, I wanted to buy this camera for the manual focussing option it offers and that is how I used it for 95% of the time so any problems with the auto-focus are pretty much irrelevant to me, I only mention them for those of you who may want to primarily use this camera in AF mode. In regards to manual focussing I would say it is unbeatable in terms of operation for a manual focus-by-wire lens, with a beautiful smooth direct feel to the focus ring and an excellent digital focussing aid that meant you could achieve fast and accurate focus even wide open.
Why would I want to use MF when I have the option of AF you may ask? The idea is simple. Instead of being able to point the camera at a subject, focus as fast as possible and then shoot, by manual focussing it gives you just a little more time to stop and look at the composition before pressing the shutter button and moving on. Even this small delay can mean you notice something that isn’t quite right at the moment of taking the photograph, or see a better composition before you press the shutter button, rather than finding out later when you look at the image on the computer that you could have done better. By slowing down slightly and getting better images in the field your photography improves. Now, having said that, when you do want to capture a frame quickly, by pre-focussing you can simply click away at the shutter button with zero lag where other cameras would be going through the AF routine trying to lock focus. I used this trying to shoot seagulls flying above my head! For street shooters, you can use this to zone-focus and just run around shooting away, even taping the lens to a fixed focus point if you want to be absolutely sure it doesn’t move.
The 35mm lens on the X is one of my favourite focal lengths, and I still think it makes for creating some lovely portraits, despite that not traditionally being an ideal ‘portrait’ lens.
High ISO images come out well and I would happily use ISO3200 and probably beyond if necessary. Detail is extremely well preserved and there is minimal noise even in the shadows. The noise that is present is not unpleasant, and could be fine tuned in post processing if necessary. Both shots below are camera JPEGs at ISO 3200. Click for higher resolution images.
What do I like about the X?
The simplicity. Less is certainly more here. Fewer buttons, fewer options meant I spent more time taking photographs and less time fiddling around with unnecessary options, or having to put the camera back into the correct mode when I’d accidentally pressed all the buttons by mistake when carrying it around.
Leaf shutter. This is one of my favourite things about the Fujifilm X100 series and I never appreciated, or even understood, the difference until I had one. Firstly there is the almost silence of shooting, which if you’re into discrete street shooting is a huge bonus, but I’ve also been able to use the X100 (and now the X) in situations where a traditional focal-plane shutter would simply have not been allowed (church, theatre, etc.) I’ve shot images that I would not have been allowed to normally. The second reason, and this is my personal favourite, is that I can sync the flash at up to 1/1000th of a second, even over radio triggers. Combine this with my Profoto B1 or Cactus speedlights, and I enjoy the fact that I can turn bright sunny days into near darkness. This suits my own style of street fashion photography perfectly.
Image Quality. The image quality from the Leica X is superb, truly stunning. I’m not going to go on about this for ages, IQ is exactly what you would expect from a Leica, sharp and great detail in the files. Very good accurate colour rendition. Some people have complained that the lens restricts the aperture at close focussing, but I understand why Leica have done this, as frustrating as it may seem. Certainly the Fujifilm X100 series images at close focussing distances are at their worst when shooting wide open, so bad on the X100S that I actually asked Fujifilm to take a look at it when servicing it to confirm nothing was actually wrong! I would not consider using my X100S in most circumstances unless I stopped the lens down to f/4 when focussing at close range. It would have been nice if Leica had given the option to shoot wide-open at all focussing distances, but I can see why they restricted it, to perhaps stop the complaints of (relatively) poor image quality under those circumstances. Even at f/2.8 and focussing close up, you can still quite happily achieve a shallow depth of focus.
Mono JPEGs. Before I got the camera I saw some shots taken with the High Contrast B&W JPEG mode and loved them straight away. They are pretty much exactly as I would process the images myself, so probably 95% of the shots I took from this camera came straight from the camera as JPEGs in this mode. The majority of the mono images in this write-up are straight from the camera JPEGs with no adjustments. This saves a huge amount of post processing time. I would warn you that in this mode the shadows can be really black with very little detail, so if that isn’t how you like your images then you may be better off with the standard B&W mode, or you can even use High Contrast and then manually adjust the contrast to a lower setting to recover more in the blacks. Personally I adore the look it gives straight out of the camera so I left it as it was for the most part. Many of you I’m sure will balk at the idea of using JPEGs from the camera, but it really frees you up and means you don’t have to spend hours editing images afterwards. You can adjust exposure in-camera to get the look you are after there and then. The JPEGs are good enough for some adjustments in post should you want to just lift the shadows or pull the highlights down without reducing image quality.
35mm lens not wide enough? Below is a panoramic stitch of 10 JPEG images processed in Lightroom!
Adobe DNG RAW files. If you do shoot RAW, the X uses the standard Adobe DNG files, which render very quickly within Lightroom and are so much smoother to work with than camera-specific files within Lightroom. Aside from them rendering considerably faster, it also means you don’t have to wait for a new version of Lightroom or Photoshop RAW to be released to be able to edit your RAW files.
What don’t I like.
Very little! I would prefer the aperture ring on the lens and the exposure compensation to be where the aperture setting is, but as I said, if you shoot with this camera more you do get used to it, only when switching back and forth between cameras does this become a little odd. If you’re already use to shooting with an X1, X2 or X Vario then it will instantly be natural.
The Vivid film mode is truly awful. I mean really awful! How Leica could put that into a camera I don’t know.
Below are two images, the DNG raw and the Vivid JPEG. The Vivid setting is just way way too over saturated for anything I could find to shoot with it!
Other film modes are very pleasing with great useable JPEG output, so how this one slipped through I’m not sure!
I really love the pop-up flash. Having a built-in flash is something I’ve always appreciated in a camera. It has a real quality damped ‘clunk’ when you open it up, much like that quality German car door feel! In use the flash gives a particularly pleasing effect, and there is the option to sync to first or second curtain (yeah, I know this is a leaf shutter, but those are the terms I like to use!).
The only issue I had with it is that it seems to do a pre-flash and that slows down shooting, so there is a delay from when you press the shutter button to when it actually takes the image. I couldn’t find any option to turn that off. Flash exposure compensation can be adjusted using the same dial as exposure compensation by pressing the top button of the D-pad repeatedly until that option appears. Quick and easy, the setting is persistent even if you turn the camera off.
As you can see below, the built in flash gives a nice fill light without being overpowering or giving the deer-in-the-headlights look to your subject! Being a pop-up flash, it just moves the flash bulb enough off axis and above the lens to give pleasing results. It balances nicely with the ambient light and just gives a little boost when you’re shooting in sunlight. Impressive.
What would I like to see added?
Just one thing… an electronic level. I’m the worlds worst person at getting horizons straight, even when I try my best I never seem to manage it! The X does help with ‘rule-of-thirds’ grid lines overlay, but there is nothing better than an electronic level to be sure you’re horizons are straight. Other than that I did not miss anything on the X that I have on my other cameras, in fact as I have mentioned, the total opposite was true. I truly appreciated the fact that it wasn’t packed with distracting features I almost never use anyway.
Sadly I can’t say that all was perfect with the Leica X. EDIT: I have now confirmed this locking-up issue to be the fault of the SD Card I used. I will leave it in for the sake of completeness, and to show that the people at Leica are good at helping and responding to customer issues. To be clear, it is not the X 113 at fault. At least once a day I had to remove the battery because the camera had locked up. At one point even after removing the battery several times the camera refused to respond to any buttons at all despite the display showing the live-view image. I eventually ‘fixed’ this by removing the battery and leaving it out for several minutes. I spoke to someone at Leica on my return and they were very helpful and suggested trying another SD card. Since then I haven’t had a re-occurance so I suppose that must have been the problem, and it was good that I could pick up the phone and actually speak to someone who knew what they were talking about straight away rather than being passed around departments, or in the case of Sony not being able to speak to anyone at all! I’m now using a Sandisk 95MB/s Extreme Pro card and it is working fine.
The GPS in the EVF never worked, and from what I’ve read online that seems pretty common. For ages it came up with the warning that it could not find a GPS signal (despite being in the outdoors in Ireland and leaving it turned on for a long time trying to get a signal). The warning icon did eventually disappear, but despite that the X never did write any GPS position into the EXIF data. I checked through the menu options and there is an ON/OFF option for GPS, which was set to ON. I tried cycling this on/off, but it still never worked. I also spoke to someone at Leica about the GPS issue. They did say they were aware of issues with the GPS, even on the “M” model grip, and they had heard of complaints about it. It seems that for the majority of owners (perhaps understandably) GPS is not a priority. I got the impression that they didn’t really have the will-power to sort this out because most owners don’t care anyway. That’s a little frustrating for those of us who do though, and it makes you wonder why they bothered to include it in the first place if most users don’t care about it enough to make it work properly. My own feeling is that is it a poor quality GPS receiver hardware in the EVF unit that causes this.
Leica X Typ 113 vs Fujifilm X100T (or X100S)
I guess this is a pretty obvious comparison people want to make, and unfairly anyone could judge the X to be not as ‘good’ as the X100S or X100T in terms of features, price or many things that make sense on paper, but that would not tell the whole story by any means. I don’t want to go into all the ins and outs here as I want to talk more about my experience with the X than a comparison with my long-term use and extensive knowledge of the Fujifilm X100 series. I also feel that perhaps many people buying into the Fujifilm system, and particular maybe someone considering the X100S as a 2nd hand option at around £400, that they wouldn’t even think to buy the Leica X, so I’m not totally convinced they are direct rivals away. Even perhaps people considering the X100T would not necessarily think to buy the X given the price difference. However, with both having APS-C sensors and a 35mm fixed lenses, a comparison of some sort is hard to ignore.
I have been using the Fujifilm X100 almost since it came out, and then later the X100S. I have never owned an X100T but have had the chance to shoot with them. The X100T is a good upgrade to the X100S with faster AF and other useful features such as WiFi, but no huge leap as there was from the X100 to the X100S. Because I’ve been using those cameras for so long I’m intimately familiar with them and can use them to the point of everything just being instinctive, which does make things easier. Having said that, I have not found the X to be difficult to get used to at all, and with the cut-back approach that I admired it quickly becomes a fantastic camera to simply pick up and start shooting away with.
The X100 series have more features, and certainly the X100T has a much faster AF system than the X, but the X is way ahead in terms of manual focussing, something I loved when using it. I would never use manual focussing on the X100 series as it is just too awkward.
The lens on both cameras is a fixed 35mm equivalent, but the Leica is an f/1.7 as opposed to an f/2.0. Not an enormous difference, but with a 35mm equivalent lens (23mm depth-of-field in 35mm film terms) then it does mean you can get a little more separation and shoot at a slightly lower ISO in low light if necessary.
In terms of image quality you certainly would not complain about either of them, the Leica perhaps has the edge when focussing closer and displays incredible fine detail across the entire range of the lens. I adore the B&W High Contrast JPEGs from the Leica and although you can tweak the X100 series JPEGs a bit more, but straight out of camera images that are ready to use, for my own taste at least, I would give it to the Leica.
Build quality and appearance is a hard one to judge. Aside from the aperture blade issues on the X100 I have never had any problems with my Fujifilm cameras even though I don’t tend to treat them like pieces of jewellery, they are well used tools. X-Pro1 aside, the X100 range do feel are the best made Fujifilm’s out there. The Leica feels extremely well made and the staunch appearance of the X appeals to me greatly, the whole camera gives a real sense of a truly high quality product worthy of the price. This one really is down to personal taste.
Battery life is pretty much neck and neck. Neither being amazing, but enough for a whole day of shooting unless you leave the camera turned on all the time and shoot everything going!
The X100 series has one big advantage, and that is that the EVF is built-in to the body. Leica really missed a trick with this one as the optional EVF really is pretty much a necessary accessory should you wish to shoot outdoors. That’s not to say the screen on the back is bad, far from it, it is excellent, but the EVF makes shooting with the X a pleasure. I note that the new Q from Leica has the EVF built in, perhaps future versions of the X, should they be developed, will go down that route too and I’d certainly like to see that. I never use the OVF of the X100 series as it was never a reliable indicator of either composition of focussing. For me it is a bit of a gimmick that I can do without. I know there will always be a hard-core element who hate an EVF, but more and more people are starting to see the benefits and converting to them. EVF technology has come on a long way in the past few years. A friend of mine, on trying out the X-T1, said he basically couldn’t tell that it wasn’t an OVF. The latest generation really are that good.
My overall impression of the Leica X Typ 113 is a very positive one. Despite the few issues I mentioned above, with perhaps the exception of the GPS, I can easily ignore and work-around those to use the camera quite happily and I certainly do not feel like I’m missing out on features.
The Leica X is a fantastic all-rounder, with the ability to shoot in full automatic if you don’t want to think about it, but equally the option to shoot everything in proper full manual mode. In that area the X excels with the best (focus-by-wire) manual focussing that I’ve used, and with quick, easy access to the vital controls that you need to change, the X is a pleasure to use.
Image quality is exactly what you would expect from a Leica, and I can’t imagine that anyone would be disappointed.
In terms of comparing this camera with others this is a hard one for me. Price is the most obvious differentiator here and I admit it is a difficult one to ignore. My own feeling is that this camera is less for the Fujifilm X100T/Ricoh GR/high-end compact market and aimed perhaps towards the Leica M users who want a smaller portable carry around camera with some of the more modern features that current digital cameras have, but still with the familiar Leica interface, image quality, and files they are used to. In this regard the X is a perfect companion to the M, but I am not one of those users and I still love using the X. Everything about it feels right, much more about photography than technology. Yes, I would like to have seen an electronic level, but by not having one it makes me think about getting it right myself and not relying on the camera to do it for me, that eventually becomes a natural thing to look out for when shooting and means less to do in post. Exactly what I was looking for in a camera. It makes me work, it makes me think.
I haven’t enjoyed shooting with a camera so much in a long time, not since I got my original Fujifilm X100. Enjoying taking images with a camera is a big part of my experience of photography, if I don’t like using a camera I will not pick it up. If I enjoy using it, it inspires me to shoot more and to shoot better. I’ve felt like I was somewhat in a rut and needed a push to get going again. The Leica X does that for me right now, and for that reason I have really fallen for this camera.
It may seem wrong to think that buying a new camera will make you a better photographer. In general I would say that is true, but as the X100 pushed me to a new level, the Leica X has given me the inspiration to push myself further and go back once again to thinking about my photography and less about how the technology can improve my images instead.
I note that with the release of the Leica Q, many of the things I talk about here that I’d like to see on the X are exactly those incorporated into the Q. That’s not because I’ve been prompted to say those things after the release of the Q, I started to write this and form my impressions before I knew about the Q. I get the feeling that I’ll be saving long and hard to get the Leica Q, and would/will enjoy shooting with that camera even more than I do the X!