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Leica X Vario Review

Overview by
Posted 06/11/2013

Shooter's Report by Jason Schneider
Posted

Leica X Vario Review -- Front quarter view

As the world's first compact camera boasting an APS-C-type image sensor and a permanently affixed zoom lens, the Leica X Vario surprised some who thought it would be an interchangeable "mini" M-Series camera. Instead, it turned out to be an X2 with more reach, specifically a 2.5x zoom with a 28-70mm equivalent range. That added versatility definitely made the X Vario an interesting addition to Leica's compact lineup, however the zoom's relative dimness -- f/3.5 open wide to f/6.4 at full tele -- simultaneously proved somewhat disappointing. At a price of US$2,850, almost identical to the full-frame, fixed-focal-length Sony RX1, the Leica X Vario appeared to have a lot of convincing to do with non-Leica fanatics.

The Leica X Vario represents a calculated gamble: One of photography's most famous names trying a new direction with a large-sensor, zoom compact that -- while pretty pricey -- is more affordable than much of its other cameras. The X Vario clearly is not a camera for the common man, though, and potential buyers need to weigh Leica's long-standing attention to quality, aesthetics and feel to the compromise inherent in the design of a camera with a relatively dim lens and high price.

Walkthrough. In terms of height and width, the X Vario's body falls about halfway between Leica's M-series cameras and the Leica X2. Ignoring its lens, the X Vario is quite a bit slimmer than the M-series cameras, and near-identical to the body thickness of the X2. Like the X2, though -- and unlike the M-series -- the X Vario's lens is permanently attached to the camera body. Factor that into the equation and the the X Vario is twice as thick as the X2, and much closer to the size of an M-series camera with one of its smaller lenses mounted.

Leica X Vario Review - Front view

Zoom lens. The Leica X Vario's 2.5x optical zoom lens provides a 35mm-equivalent range from 28 to 70mm. (Actual focal lengths range from 18 to 46mm.) Maximum aperture of the Vario-Elmar branded optic varies from f/3.5 at wide angle to a decidedly dim f/6.4 at telephoto, while the minimum aperture is f/16 across the board. Taking into account the focal length crop, background blur would be similar to that from an f/5.3 lens on a full-frame body at wide angle, and by the telephoto position would equate to that of an f/9.8 lens.

Leica X-Vario Review - Lens

The lens design features nine elements in eight groups, including two aspheric elements. The X Vario's autofocus system operates to as close as one foot (30cm) at the telephoto position.

The X Vario does feature image stabilization of a kind for both still and video recording, and it can be toggled on or off separately for either capture mode. It's not mechanical, however. For still imaging, the stabilization system simply captures two images in quick succession, and then merges them to create a single shot with reduced blur. It works only at ISO 1600 or below, between 1/4 and 1/30th second, and with static subjects. For videos, electronic stabilization is used.

Sensor. Where recent M-series cameras have sported 35mm full-frame image sensors, the X Vario instead features an APS-C sized sensor. That's the same size you'll find in the majority of consumer and enthusiast digital SLRs and many compact system cameras. Both lens and sensor are much more closely aligned with the X-series than they are in an M-series camera.

Leica X Vario Review - Rear view

The Leica X Vario's APS-C sized CMOS sensor offers an effective resolution of 16.2 megapixels, from a total of 16.5 megapixels. The sensor allows burst shooting at either three or five frames per second, for a maximum of seven Raw+Fine JPEG frames. Sensitivity ranges from ISO 100 to 12,500 equivalents.

Viewing. The X Vario does not include a built-in viewfinder, but it does accept an optional electronic viewfinder accessory, the very same Leica Visoflex EVF 2 model used by the Leica M Typ 240 and X2. It's essentially a rebadged, restyled Olympus VF-2 electronic viewfinder, and past experience has shown that the two are interchangeable. That's worth knowing, given that Leica's version costs around US$500, and the Olympus variant can be picked up for US$200.

There is, of course, an LCD panel as well, so you can forgo the viewfinder altogether if that fits with your shooting style. The built-in monitor has a pretty standard 3-inch diagonal, and a reasonably high resolution of around 920,000 dots. That approximately equates to a VGA array of 640 x 480 pixels, with each pixel made up of adjacent red, green, and blue dots.

Leica X Vario Review - Top View

Shooting modes. As you'd expect of an enthusiast-oriented camera with the Leica red dot, there are no hand-holding scene modes and the like on the X Vario. Only four standard exposure mode options are available: program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and manual. Both shutter speed and aperture are set with physical dials on the camera's top deck, with an Auto position on each dial taking that variable out of the user's hands. Available shutter speeds range from 30 to 1/2,000 second, and bulb exposures are also possible. Metering modes include multi-field, center-weighted, and spot, and Leica offers +/- 3.0EV of exposure compensation in 1/3EV steps.

Leica X Vario Review - Popup flash

Flash and hotshoe. Importantly, given its not-so-bright lens, the Leica X Vario includes both a built-in flash and a hot shoe for external strobes. The internal flash is rather puny, with a guide number of just 16.4 feet (5 meters) at ISO 100. At base sensitivity that means a range of about 4.7 feet at wide angle, and a nearly useless 2.6 feet at telephoto; you'll want to dial the ISO sensitivity up for a useful range, or better still, use an external strobe.

Video. As well as still images, the Leica X Vario can also shoot movies in MP4 format. The maximum video resolution is 1,920 x 1,080 pixels (otherwise known as 1080p or Full HD), with a rate of 30 frames per second. There's also an optional 1,280 x 720 pixel (720p) mode, which likewise records at 30fps.

Audio is stereo, recorded with a two-port microphone in front of the flash hotshoe, and a wind cut filter function is included.

Leica X Vario Review - Battery

Storage, battery and connectivity. The Leica X Vario stores images on Secure Digital cards, including the higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC types, and supports UHS-I cards. Power comes courtesy of a proprietary 3.7 volt, 1,600 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery pack, which Leica rates as good for 350 shots on a charge. Connectivity options include Mini USB 2.0 data, Mini (Type-C) HDMI high-definition video, and the proprietary socket for Leica's external viewfinder accessory. Included in the product bundle is a copy of Adobe's Photoshop Lightroom 5, a comprehensive and photographer-centric imaging application.


Shooting with the Leica X Vario

by Jason Schneider

Leica X Vario Review - Sample image
The Leica X Vario's lens can get to a wide 28mm-equivalent field of view for shooting wide shots in tight spaces like this.

The announcement of the Leica X Vario was greeted with consternation, confusion, and considerable controversy among Leicaphiles, camera enthusiasts, and reviewers for a host of objective and emotional reasons. However, in hindsight it is evident that most of the shrill and occasionally dismissive complaints were based on what the camera wasn't, rather than what it is. Many Leica fans were clearly hoping it would be an interchangeable-lens Leica X2 or a Mini M, maybe even with a full-frame sensor, and they were underwhelmed when they found out that it had a non-interchangeable 28-70mm equivalent f/3.5-6.4 Vario-Elmar lens.

Leica X-Vario Review - Sample Image

There were some notable upgrades from the X2, including a thinner anti-aliasing filter, a 920k-dot 3.0-inch LCD, a tweaked 16.2MP APS-C-format CMOS sensor, and a cool magnified-image manual focus (MF) system that gets down to 1 foot. But this didn't assuage the disappointment. Though reviewers and owners almost universally praised the X Vario’s excellent optics, superb image quality, above-average high-ISO performance, impressive body build, and gorgeous finish, it did not silence the critics who pointed to the camera’s high price (US$2,850), relatively slow lens (especially at the moderate telephoto end), mediocre AF performance in low light, and moderate buffer size limiting the number of high-resolution frames you can capture in continuous burst, which led to long wait times between auto-bracketing sequences.

Leica X Vario Review - Sample image
Although the close-focusing distance of the X Vario is fairly far, the larger APS-C and f/3.5 maximum aperture can easily produce a nice shallow depth of field.

While it is perfectly understandable and valid that a camera of this quality and elite stature be judged on the basis of such objective criteria, if you really want to understand why the Leica X Vario is more than the sum of its parts, you have to look at it holistically, savor its distinctive character, assess what kind of photographer it’s aimed at, and of course, what kind of results it is capable of delivering.

Leica X Vario Review - Top buttons

You can get a pretty good idea what it’s all about by gazing down at its top deck, from which vantage point it’s a dead ringer for a Leica M. There’s a large-diameter shutter-speed dial (ranging from 1s to 1/2,000s, plus Auto), a smaller aperture dial (f/3.5-16 plus Auto), and, atop the lens, manual metric and US / imperial focusing scales plus an autofocus detent. At the front of the lens is the zoom ring, sensibly calibrated in 28-70mm equivalent focal lengths. By setting both shutter and aperture dials to A and the focusing ring to AF, you can operate the camera on autopilot, but clearly this is a machine designed for traditionalists that want direct control of any or all of the picture-taking variables.

Leica X Vario Review - Sample image

That special Leica "feel". The Leica X Vario's thin body contours and rounded ends provide that quintessential tactile experience known as “Leica feel.” I disagree with those who claim the lens is front-heavy. In terms of both aesthetics and balance, I think it's exactly the right size -- but it would have been far too large and heavy if the lens had been designed as a constant-aperture f/3.5.

Leica X Vario Review - Back buttons

The control buttons along the left of the sharp, bright, high-res LCD are logically placed and clearly labeled, and the image magnification wheel on the back falls under your right thumb. The toggle switch on the right-hand side of the back is also clearly labeled for self-timer, exposure compensation, and flash functions though you have to press the bottom Menu/Set button on the left to activate these settings once they’re selected, since the center Info button controls the viewfinder display.

Overall, the controls are commendably straightforward, if slightly idiosyncratic, with no steep learning curve required. The fact that the shutter release has elicited a few complaints is a total mystery to me. I think this is one of the very best shutter releases I have ever encountered on any camera -- a model of quietness, smoothness and predictability. Would the handling be improved by the addition of a handgrip? Possibly, but that would have compromised the classic lines of the camera, which is an exquisite homage to the Leica M heritage.

Leica X Vario Review - Sample image
The Leica X Vario doesn't take a heavy hand to in-camera noise reduction, and still keeps lots of detail at higher ISOs as in this shot above at ISO 6400. The noise grain pattern has a very "film-like" look.

Performance. In all but the dimmest light, I found the camera’s autofocus system to be reasonably fast and accurate, but the X Vario’s forte is not really as an action camera, and unless you go to manual mode you can’t really separate autoexposure and autofocus functions. Testing in the IR Lab confirmed my assessment of the camera's short lag time, but it also demonstrated that the X Vario is not the swiftest performer when it comes to startup, mode switching and shot-to-shot times. Visit the Performance page for a full set of timing results.

Leica X-Vario Review - Sample Image

Image quality. Where this camera really shines is in sheer image quality up to ISO 1600, and in applications such as portraits, landscapes, street scenes, and what can be termed fine-art photography. In this milieu it equals or exceeds most of its competitors, performing on a level that is equal to a high-end DSLR or, dare I say, even a Leica M. Its color accuracy and saturation, particularly in the greens, is outstanding, and even at ultra-high sensitivities such as ISO 12,500, the camera delivers high-definition images with a tight "digital grain" pattern few will find objectionable.

Leica X Vario Review - Sample image
The compact body of the Leica X Vario was built in the company's classic rangefinder style, which makes it a great camera for street shooters.

As you would expect from a "Made in Germany" Leica with a real Leica lens, the X Vario is capable of extremely high image quality, and I did not find any noticeable falloff at the edges of the field even in images shot at maximum aperture. Happily, this high performance level was maintained at the closest focusing distances. While the Li-ion battery is relatively small, I was able to squeeze out more than 300 images per charge with a fair amount of LCD chimping -- definitely adequate for a compact, and for most shooting occasions.

Leica X Vario Review - Sample image
The Leica X Vario's high-quality lens and large APS-C sensor is able to produce lots of fine detail even at higher ISO levels like in this shot, which was taken as ISO 2000.

Video. The Leica X Vario is one of the first Leica cameras to feature Full HD video recording, but it does so only at 30 frames per second. Results were iffy at best, with the X Vario's electronic stabilization failing to reduce much camera shake when panning. You can zoom while recording, but it's a dicey affair, as the manual zoom ring is a bit sticky and doesn't allow for smooth transitions. Take a look for yourself:

Gallery Sample Video
1,920 x 1,080, 30 fps, MP4
Download Original (51.5MB MP4)
Autofocus Sample Video
1,920 x 1,080, 30 fps, MP4
Download Original (35.7MB MP4)

Summary. To cut to the chase, I found shooting with the Leica X Vario far more satisfying and fulfilling than I possibly could have imagined, and the results speak for themselves. Yes, it’s a real Leica, and no, there will not be a Panasonic equivalent. If I purchased this camera for myself, I’d definitely invest in Leica's accessory electronic viewfinder (or the less expensive Olympus equivalent), which plugs into a port beneath the hot shoe. Admittedly this EVF doesn't do wonders for the camera’s classic lines. It makes the X-Vario look more like a mini-DSLR, but having a hi-res 1.4-million pixel eye-level viewfinder that tilts up to 90 degrees and displays all AE parameters means never having to compose and shoot at arm’s length.

You wouldn't think that adding a great short zoom lens and a few well-placed tweaks would transform this elemental machine into a timeless classic, but this is a camera that transcends mere logic and criticism, especially if its sterling virtues happen to correspond to your personal shooting needs.

Buy the Leica X Vario at one of Imaging Resource's trusted affiliates:

Leica X Vario -- Wide and Tele
Leica X Vario Review - Sample image
Leica X Vario Review - Sample image

 

Leica X Vario Review -- JPEG Image Sharpening

One thing we noticed when shooting our test shots in the lab is the Leica X Vario's limited amount of sharpening applied in-camera. Initially, when we looked at the JPEGs straight out of the camera, we thought the images were soft. However, upon looking closer in, we discovered a striking amount of detail in its images, and it became apparent that Leica had simply decided to take an understated approach to in-camera sharpening. Below are a few test shots showing a side-by-side comparison of the X Vario's straight-out-of-camera JPEGs, before and after a little Unsharp Mask processing in Photoshop CS6.

Leica X Vario - Image Sharpness Samples
Leica X Vario Review - Sample image
Leica X Vario Review - Out-of-camera sample image crop Leica X Vario Review - Sharpened sample image crop
Original JPG: Default sharpening
Unsharp Mask: 200%, radius 0.3
Leica X Vario Review - Sample image
Leica X Vario Review - Out-of-camera sample image crop Leica X Vario Review - Sharpened sample image crop
Original JPG: Default sharpening
Unsharp Mask: 200%, radius 0.3
Leica X Vario Review - Sample image
Leica X Vario Review - Out-of-camera sample image crop Leica X Vario Review - Sharpened sample image crop
Original JPG: Default sharpening
Unsharp Mask: 200%, radius 0.3

 

Leica X Vario Review -- Image Quality Comparison

Below are a selection of crops comparing the Leica X Vario with the Fujifilm X100S, Nikon D7100 and Sony RX1.

NOTE: These images are best quality JPEGs straight out of the camera, at default settings including noise reduction. Both interchangeable lens cameras in this comparison were shot with our very sharp reference lenses.

Leica X Vario versus Fujifilm X100S at Base ISO

Leica X Vario at ISO 100
Fuji X100S at ISO 200

Both cameras produce a ton of detail at base ISO. The Fuji's default in-camera processing adds more more contrast and saturation than the X Vario, which remains fairly neutral. The Leica does better with the pink fabric.


Leica X Vario versus Nikon D7100 at ISO 100

Leica X Vario at ISO 100
Nikon D7100 at ISO 100

While both of these cameras share an APS-C-sized sensor, the D7100 provides 24 megapixels compared to the X Vario's 16.2. Despite the resolution difference, the two compare very closely here in all three crops with clean, sharp detail. The red fabric pattern is more pronounced from the Nikon (which is typical), and the pink fabric also looks more finely detailed.


Leica X Vario versus Sony RX1 at ISO 100

Leica X Vario at ISO 100
Sony RX1 at ISO 100

What does around $2,800 get you? You can opt for the X Vario with an APS-C sensor and a zoom lens, or an RX1 with a full-frame sensor and a fixed 35mm lens. Both cameras produce sharp, highly detailed images, but the full-frame Sony camera edges out the X Vario here, most noticeably in the mosaic and fabric crops.



These days, ISO 3200 is a very viable shooting option for most good cameras, so let's take a look at some comparisons there.  

Leica X Vario versus Fujifilm X100S at ISO 3200

Leica X Vario at ISO 3200
Fuji X100S at ISO 3200

The Leica doesn't offer any user adjustable noise reduction and clearly takes a light-handed approach. We see an obvious difference here at ISO 3200, with the Fuji producing much cleaner images with a high degree of fine detail, especially when comparing the fabric crops. Nevertheless, the Leica still produces a lot of fine detail, as seen in the mosaic crop, for example.


Leica X Vario versus Nikon D7100 at ISO 3200

Leica X Vario at ISO 3200
Nikon D7100 at ISO 3200

Both cameras here struggle with the fabric crops (the Leica does better with the pink fabric, however). The noise reduction in the Nikon image is evident with slightly mushy detail. The Leica, however, while showing a definite grain pattern still demonstrates fine detail in the mosaic.


Leica X Vario versus Sony RX1 at ISO 3200

Leica X Vario at ISO 3200
Sony RX1 at ISO 3200

The noise reduction applied in the Sony images produce a less grainy image, but some of the fine details are smoothed out, most noticeably in the fabrics. Like we saw with the previous comparison, the Leica produces more detail at higher ISOs at the expense of more noise that resembles film grain.

 

Leica X Vario Review -- Lens Quality

Geometric Distortion
Low geometric distortion from the X-Vario's 18-46mm fixed lens in JPEGs, though strong distortion at wide angle in uncorrected raw files.

Camera JPEG
Barrel distortion at 18mm is ~0.2 percent
Barrel distortion at 46mm is ~0.1 percent

When shooting JPEGs, the Leica X Vario's 18-46mm lens produces only about 0.2 percent barrel distortion at wide angle, which is much less than average and hardly noticeable in its images. Geometric distortion at full telephoto is even lower at about 0.1 percent, and is barrel-type instead of the usual pincushion. This is the tendency for the lens to bend straight lines outward (like a barrel).

Uncorrected Raw
Barrel distortion at 18mm is ~2.3%
Barrel distortion at 46mm is ~0.1%

To see how much correction is taking place in the camera, we converted raw files of the same test shots with dcraw, which does not correct for distortion. As can be seen above, actual barrel distortion at wide angle is quite high at about 2.3%, while barrel distortion at telephoto remains the same at about 0.1%. High barrel distortion at wide angle is not unusual for compact lenses and most raw converters will automatically correct for it, however there is going to be some loss of resolution in the corners as a result of such correction, because pixels in the corners of the frame are being "stretched" to correct for the distortion. Obviously, a lens that doesn't require such correction, and is also sharp in the corners to begin with would be preferable, but relaxing constraints on distortion often brings other benefits to a lens' design.

Chromatic Aberration and Corner Sharpness
Low levels of chromatic aberration in JPEGs, though uncorrected raw files show higher amounts. Very good to excellent sharpness in the corners.

Maximum Aperture
18mm @ f/3.5: Upper left
C.A.: Low
Softness: A touch soft
18mm @ f/3.5: Center
C.A.: Very low
Softness: Sharp
46mm @ f/6.4: Upper left
C.A.: Moderately low
Softness: Sharp
46mm @ f/6.4: Center
C.A.: Very low
Softness: Sharp

Chromatic Aberration. Chromatic aberration in the corners is low at wide angle, and just a little higher at telephoto in JPEGs. The camera's processor does a pretty good job of reducing C.A. in JPEGs (see below for uncorrected raw). As usual, color fringing gradually reduces in brightness and width as it approaches the center of the image, where it is almost non-existent.

Corner Softness. The Leica X Vario's 18-46mm lens produces slightly soft corners at wide angle when wide-open at f/3.5, and much of the softness is likely due to the strong distortion correction. Corner performance is very symmetrical (all four corners show similar sharpness), and the center is quite sharp (though sharpening halos are quite evident). Corners are sharper at full telephoto when wide-open, with excellent sharpness across the frame.

Vignetting. Some minor corner shading ("vignetting") is also noticeable from the difference in brightness of the center versus corner crops above, and it appears the camera is applying some shading correction.

F8 Aperture
18mm @ f/8: Upper left
C.A.: Very low
Softness: Slightly soft
18mm @ f/8: Center
C.A.: Very low
Softness: Sharp
46mm @ f/8: Upper left
C.A.: Low
Softness: Sharp
46mm @ f/8: Center
C.A.: Very low
Softness: Sharp

F8: When stopped down to f/8, corner sharpness improves just slightly and chromatic aberration is a bit lower. Vignetting (corner shading) also improves, but overcorrection at telephoto is still detectable.

C.A. Suppression
18mm @ f/8: Upper left:
Camera JPEG
18mm @ f/8: Upper left:
Uncorrected Raw
46mm @ f/8: Upper left:
Camera JPEG
46mm @ f/8: Upper left:
Uncorrected Raw

Chromatic Aberration Suppression. As mentioned above, the Leica X Vario applies lateral chromatic aberration correction to its JPEGs, as uncorrected raw files show moderate levels of green and magenta coloration at wide angle, and cyan/red fringing at telephoto.

Overall, though, this is excellent performance from the Leica X Vario's 18-46mm f/3.5-6.4 (28-70mm equivalent) zoom lens. We just wish it wasn't quite so slow at the telephoto end.


Leica X Vario Review -- Color

Leica X Vario Review -- Imatest color chart

Saturation. When using manual white balance and the default saturation setting, the Leica X Vario produces extremely realistic saturation levels. At base ISO, mean saturation was 100.4% or only 0.4% oversaturated in our test. Almost all colors were nearly bang-on in terms of saturation. Most cameras oversaturate by about 10% on average, which makes the X Vario's colors look muted in comparison, but technically, the Leica's default saturation is very accurate with only a slight push in darker greens and blues.

Hue. Hue accuracy is outstanding at base ISO, with the camera producing an average "delta-C" color error after correction for saturation of only 2.6. That's the lowest (best) score we've ever tested from a camera JPEG. There are only miniscule shifts in hues compared to most other cameras, ranging from a tiny red to orange shift to no shift at all for aqua.

Overall, this is really excellent color reproduction, and if the X Vario's default colors are too realistic or flat-looking for your tastes, you can always increase the saturation setting or select the Vivid preset.


Leica X Vario Review -- Print Quality

Excellent 24 x 36 inch prints at ISO 100/200/400; a nice 16 x 20 inch print at ISO 1600; and even makes a good 5 x 7 at its highest ISO of 12,500.

ISO 100/200 prints superbly at 24 x 36 inches, with very nice detail and exceptional color accuracy. Good wall display prints are possible up to 36 x 48 inches.

ISO 400 also produces terrific 24 x 36 inch prints, with wall display prints possible up to 30 x 40 inches.

ISO 800 yields a very good 20 x 30 inch print, quite nice for this ISO, with only mild softening in the red channel and minor (and very typical) amounts of noise in shadows and flatter areas.

ISO 1600 makes 16 x 20 inch prints that are quite good, with sharp detail even in our mosaic tile bottle. There are similar minor issues as we saw with the 20 x 30 at ISO 800, but just barely noticeable.

ISO 3200 starts to introduce more apparent noise in flatter areas, but this is likely due to the fact that the camera itself takes a lighter, more even-keeled approach to default noise reduction than many other models in this class from other companies, and the result is that fine detail is not lost in all the processing. If you don't mind a small amount of "film-grain-like" noise in some flatter areas then 11 x 14s will work just fine for you here. Taking the size to 8 x 10 all but eliminates the minor noise issue.

ISO 6400 prints an 8 x 10 similar to the 11 x 14 at ISO 3200. Noise is certainly apparent in shadowy areas of our target, but the print itself is still quite good all around, and noise is all but gone if reduced to a 5 x 7 inch print.

ISO 12,500 makes a good 5 x 7 inch print as well, thus joining our growing ranks of "who can make a decent 5 x 7 at ISO 12,800" club.

The Leica X Vario makes prints that are a joy to look at. At default settings, the camera takes a relatively light hand at sharpening and noise reduction, which makes its prints rather like a fine wine as compared to other cameras that take a more jarring, heavy-handed approach. Such over-processing is a bit like over-salted food; it gets old after awhile (or as ISO rises), and the X Vario stood out as a rare treat for us here at IR. Moreover, the X Vario's listed ISO sensitivities appear to be honest, unlike others whose results don't match up. In the end, the highest ISO (12,500) on the X Vario produces a good 5 x 7 with good color and little noise, while several recent APS-C cameras we reviewed could not produce usable 4 x 6s at two of their top published ISOs! Well done, Leica!

 

Leica X Vario Review -- In the Box

The Leica X Vario retail box contains:

 

Leica X Vario Review -- Recommended Accessories

 

Leica X Vario Review -- Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Beautiful, simple camera design that carries forth the classic Leica look and feel
  • Well-made, clearly defined physical controls, including a manual focus ring that switches over to AF mode with a soft click
  • Striking still image quality that rivals top APS-C DSLRs
  • Incredible hue accuracy and realistic color saturation
  • Excellent high ISO performance with pleasing film-like grain at the upper reaches; even delivers a good 5 x 7 print at max ISO 12,500
  • Very sharp 28-70mm equivalent Vario-Elmar zoom lens with very good to excellent sharpness in the corners
  • Low geometric (barrel-type) distortion and chromatic aberration in JPEGs
  • Fairly quick and accurate contrast-detect AF system with spot and face detection modes
  • Good battery life at 350 shots per charge
  • 3-inch LCD monitor with 920K dots of resolution
  • Full HD video at 30fps with stereo sound and a built-in, wind-cut audio filter
  • Continuous shooting mode able to capture 3fps or 5ps at full resolution (we managed up to 4.4fps in the lab)
  • Fast download speeds
  • Expensive for a fixed-lens, APS-C camera at $2,850 (though one of the least expensive "Made in Germany" Leicas)
  • No built-in viewfinder (though accessory electronic viewfinder available)
  • Not at all pocketable and fairly heavy (about the size of a larger compact system camera with mid-range zoom lens attached)
  • Lens is relatively slow, with f/3.5 max aperture at wide and f/6.4 at tele
  • Macro mode maximum closest distance is 1 foot (30 cm) at full tele 70mm
  • Cannot shoot raws solely; must shoot Raw+JPEG
  • Slow autofocus in low light
  • No continuous autofocusing mode
  • Sluggish mode switching, and below average startup and shot-to-shot speeds
  • Shallow buffer, fixed at 7 frames
  • Built-in flash is rather weak

 

This may not have been the Leica you were looking for. However, the Leica X Vario still pleasantly surprised us, especially after all the naysayers panned the camera for what it wasn't, even before they got their hands on one! So what is the X Vario exactly, and who is it for?

First off, the Leica X Vario is a precision-engineered piece of photographic machinery geared for purists. It's beautiful to behold, and a pleasure to hold, with well laid-out physical controls that marry form and function. The centerpiece of the camera's design is the 28-70mm equivalent Vario-Elmar lens, which bore the brunt of the camera's bad rap at launch. Yes, it's relatively slow and dim, with a f/3.5 max aperture wide open and f/6.4 at full telephoto, which may limit your quest for bokeh and low-light flexibility. But it's also an incredible piece of optical design, delivering very sharp images corner-to-corner with very little distortion (in JPEGs).

The X Vario's image quality starts with the lens, but builds with an excellent 16.2-megapixel APS-C sensor. Our eyes boggled at the camera's ability to produce photos with uncanny color accuracy and saturation, and we were pleased by how well it performed at higher ISOs, displaying an attractive film-like grain in the upper reaches. Images may look soft at first glance -- mainly because they're relatively unsharpened by the X Vario's JPEG processor -- but they hold a ton of detail. A bit of Unsharp Mask in Photoshop, and you can achieve truly striking results.

As far as speed and performance goes, the X Vario is relatively fast and accurate at autofocusing, though many who use it may prefer to stick with manual focus. It's a tad below average otherwise, including sluggish mode switching and a limited continuous burst mode with shallow buffer, but the model was never intended to be an action camera. Instead, the X Vario is designed for contemplative photographers who prefer to take their time. It's designed for shooting portraits, landscapes and street scenes, as well as creating fine art.

The Leica X Vario may be expensive and not entirely practical -- even an underperformer in some aspects -- but there's no doubting the quality of its craftsmanship, nor its awe-inspiring capabilities. You can spend nearly $3,000 on photographic equipment in far more productive ways, but you still may not be able to elicit the same joy as shooting with this Leica. It may be more a wish-list item than a pragmatic purchase, but the X Vario still warrants a Dave's Pick.

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