Leica Swings. And misses? All depends on what you want from a camera...

Leica X Vario.

So, what photographer in their right mind pays $2850 for a compact camera with no viewfinder? Probably the same type of person who buys a Sony RX1 (also with no viewfinder...). This is the kind of camera offering that will drive the rank and file camera buyers nuts because it's hard to quantify within the various niches of the photo gear world.

I'm going to give Leica the benefit of the doubt on three fronts. I'm going to presume that they've created a simplified and straightforward menu system for the camera just as they've done for the full fledged M cameras. I'll presume that they've sourced a really good 16+ megapixel sensor that's perfectly optimized for the lens system and I'll assume that the lens system (while afflicted with very pedestrian maximum apertures) is sharp and contrasty and wonderfully embue'd with luscious micro contrast over it's entire range.

But since it's a contrast detect AF system I'll have to guess that the focusing speed is less than stellar and that continuous auto focus is nearly non-existent, no matter what the comical brochure they've produced says.

If I decided to buy this camera I'm sure all of you would know that my very next purchase would be an EVF (plug is there for the accessory) finder but before I plunked hard for the Leica version of the Olympus version of the Epson technology I would want to test the new Olympus VF-4 to see if it worked with the camera at half the price. If that was a "no-go" I'd pick up a VF-2 for around $200 and work with that.

The Leica brochure of this model shows lots of studio shots with studio lighting being used. There is one particularly campy image that shows a photographer straddling a model, who is lying on the ground, and the photographer is pointing the camera at the model's face. Tacky shades of the movie, "Blow Up." I can't imagine that this camera would be the first choice of a studio fashion or portrait photographer. The lens' maximum focal length isn't long enough and the handling, without an EVF would be atrocious for studio work illuminated by modeling lights.  I'm sure that the camera would produce the same kind of image a Nikon or Canon would make with a similar lens attached because the positive effects of the studio lighting would mask most quality differences and, if we compared them all at the Leica's maximum telephoto aperture of f6.3, they'd all be operating in the sweet spot of their designs.

I still believe in the West German fairy tale of the last 2% of production perfection so something inside me says that if all three brands were shot side by side and all the images were blown up large and printed that the Leica would out art the other two. More micro contrast? Maybe. Maybe just better color. But that's my prejudice from the times in the past when the differences were demonstrable. 

So, if the Leica X Vario isn't for commercial studio photographers then who is it really for? I'd wager to say that there are some artists/photographs who routinely work in good light and in the provided focal range who will buy the camera because, in the category is may provide the ultimate image quality. Think of a small camera version of Andreas Gursky for whom more depth of field is nearly always better and who has a slow and deliberate working methodology. This might be a good camera for the diminished "Gursky" effect. 

If I never needed to sell an image and I wanted a beautifully designed and relatively burden-less camera to carry everywhere, and if I had unlimited funds for eccentric gear acquisitions I would probably pre-order one right now.

But suppose I'm not being kind enough to the camera. imagine if the lens is the "second coming" of zoom lenses and every image is special and marvelous. I mean really marvelous in the same way that the 90mm Apo Summicron was when compared to just about any lens on the market when it was first launched. What if the lens is as good as the Leica R 28-90mm lens that is currently fetching $6000+ from photographers in the know who are converting for use on Canon 5Dmk3's and other cameras whose optics don't quite reach the same stellar heights? Nikon, Canon and Sony Alpha users are currently tossing down $2,000+ for big, fat zooms in the same range and Canon is pushing the price up into the $2500 arena. If the performance of the Leica is demonstrably better...or just as good...but you also get a body for just a couple hundred dollars more, is that a convincing argument?

I guess the target buyer is someone who wants a small camera with very high imaging performance, has no interest in conventional sports photography (and I'm in that particular camp) and doesn't mind paying a higher price for better performance from a camera with a simpler interface but fewer bells and whistles.  Just like the purchaser of a Sony RX1 with the exception being that the Leica buyer understands the value of additional focal lengths.

I personally think that Leica blew one part of this camera. I think people would be more motivated to buy it if the camera had a built in EVF. Or, if the accessory EVF was included in the purchase price. Most savvy buyers understand that the slow max. aperture is part of a size and weight trade off and I'm sure many are okay with that. 

The real question is would you rather have this combination of features and compromises or, for less than half the price, the same basic camera in a Fuji EX1?  I haven't held the X Vario but I'm thinking the EX1 might be the front runner. It has the one missing feature that the Leica does not: It's a high IQ camera but with a price that most of us can afford...


Robert Hudyma said...


Thank-you for your thoughtful remarks and assessment.

Although I am a Leica owner, I will not be purchasing one of these.

I am most contented at the moment with a Nikon V1 with 10-30mm kit lens (cost $379), the build and EVF is great, focusing is lightning fast, the battery lasts a really long time, and the colors look a lot like film.

Like what more could you want?

This has become my all round stay with me image maker. I know that the images are 10mp but my images go on the web and into a photo album and they look great.

There is simply no value proposition for the Leica cameras anymore.

Is this Leica really worth almost 10 times more than an NEX3?

Michael Matthews said...

I don't know. It doesn't have a rosewood grip...

Bill Beebe said...

The real question is would you rather have this combination of features and compromises or, for less than half the price, the same basic camera in a Fuji EX1?


Kirk Tuck said...

Maybe they'll offer something in birch..

Kirk Tuck said...

"Is this Leica really worth almost 10 times more than an NEX3?" To someone, yes.

Claire said...

I have to disagree on this one Kirk. I don't own the RX1 and if I ever put that kind of money in a camera (again) it'll have to be a monster of a perfect machine with out of this world EVF, FF chip, lightning fast AF, tilt screen, à la TriNavi controls, etc.
That being said, I think it's a bit unfair to make a parallel between the Leica and RXI, the latter offering much more innovation and most likely delivering much more unique IQ.
Just my 02 cts though...

Christine Bogan said...

I have never owned such an expensive camera. But I must say. The Leica looks much better than all I have.From the first view I liked it. Image quality will be more than enough for me. I would buy it.


aurèle said...

may i point out that a Fuji X-pro and a simple 18-55 /2.8-4 cost less, and is the same size as this Vario X ? i understand that people could buy it. I just don't get people who will really do it :)

Anyway, refreshing post : different way of thinking is always very good to stay smart and friendly :D

Anonymous said...

No objections to slow-ish zooms but f6.4 seems perverse.

Anonymous said...

Nothing about it tempts me. I already have an Olympus E-PL2 and 14-42 (28-84) kit lens and plug-in EVF (the closest one of my many cameras to the Leica offering). I seriously doubt the Leica offering will have, in the real world, image quality so superior that it would justify the purchase. I think I'm a typical enthusiast, and 90% of my printed images are 11"X14" or smaller and that is only a small percentage of the images I take, most of which are shared on the Internet or social-media devices. Tom Barry

Tom said...

To answer your first question, the photographer that pays $2850 for a compact is the same person that pays $8000 for a black and white only camera. News flash people- the emperor is naked.

Carlo Santin said...

There is no justifying this camera just by looking at the numbers, they don't add up. Leica is marketed to those folks in the upper financial stratosphere, the same folks with country club memberships, Ferraris, Rolexes. Those people don't drive Fords and don't shoot Nikons. You have to look at this brand differently.

Jason Hindle said...

I'm not sure I see the point of this camera. At the moment, image quality is so close across the various formats, it's unlikely Leica would have done enough to justify the cost of the device. If the sensor is the killer feature, I'd expect the camera to be more expensive (i.e. a custom designed sensor). Likewise, if the lens is the second coming of zoom, I'd expect the camera to be more expensive 8-).

As it stands, we have a big sensor zoom compact, with the Leica name and Leica markup. In other words, a lovely tool to use, and capable of fantastic image quality in the right hands. But I wouldn't expect this camera to produce better IQ than say a modern Olympus Pen or Sony Nex, with any of the better lenses from these systems.

Michael Chuang said...

I've said this elsewhere, but "It's for people who have an appreciation for the finer things, such as German engineering combined with Leica's legendary optical expertise. No doubt the haptics are top-notch, so that when one picks up the X Vario one will find that the shutter release is sharp as a trigger, placing the user into the mood of a hunter or an active sportsman anticipating the moves of the other players. (The XE-1 and 18-55 on the other hand are known to give no feedback, thus lulling the user into passivity, becoming a mere spinner of dials and wheels rather than the active driver of the car.) The X Vario is targeted to the sort of person who likes to enjoy a glass of Romanée-Conti (with a just splash of Diet Coke to make it palatable) while critically reviewing images on the 3-inch, 920k dot LCD by the fireplace (pernambuco wood only, or in a pinch, seasoned quarter-sawn white oak) in the evenings after a busy day of HCB-inspired street photography."

Mockery aside, if it makes money for Leica, good for them. And people are free to spend their money as they wish. (Though putting Coke into good wine ought to be a crime.) Personally, if someone handed me $2850 for a camera I'd get the XE-1 and 18-55 and put the rest towards some plane tickets.

Nathan Lewis said...

Virtually all APS-C DSLRs today are sold with an 18-55mm zoom, just as film cameras were sold with similar zooms since about 1990. There's a reason for this -- apparently, it's what a large portion of users want. This is apparently a very nice zoom in that genre. Also, a lot of people -- not those that read these kinds of websites, but those that use cameras, including my wife -- actually like rear-screen viewfinding, and don't like holding the camera up to their eye at all. Note that the Nikon J1 was a bestseller in Japan, while Nikon had trouble giving away the V1 for less than the J1.

Ugo Baldassarre said...

the Rx1 is a great 35mm with a sensor inside.
this is a mirrorless with no interchangeble lens and wid a very slow zoom. I like the RX1 but I think this Vario X not to be a great idea.

Andrea Costa said...

Why when one of the product from the german firm is criticized as being underspecced and overpriced, suddenly the talk is all about the "Leica experience"? Btw, I'm starting to believe that this fabled "experience" is not SHOOTING a Leica (that I have done, with a film one, for many months), but TOTING proudly one around... ;)

Corwin Black said...

Lunar seems like bargain compared to this (well, its NEX-7 afterall and thats a good camera :).

About Gursky, that guy shoots 8x10 format if Im correct.

NEX or NX or X-E1/X-Pro 1 over this any day..

This isnt "true Leica". Its just poin-n-shoot with bad specs and red dot. M9 or M240, well thats completely different story..

Im sure someone will buy it, there are people with more easy money than brain, but I think there is limited support even of those.

Brad Calkins said...

Sean Reid makes a pretty good case for why this camera exists. Bottom line is that if you are someone who compares features in a spec list this camera isn't for you... I do like the way they put the AF 'switch' at the end of the manual focus throw...and they prove once again that you can have an aperture dial that works even when the lens is variable apertue. The two dial method works well, and does away with the mode dial and LCD info panel at once.

Dave said...

A relative of mine had a giant Range Rover SUV. Its a nice looking rig, great paint and she feels pretty special driving that all terrain vehicle around town. Its a nice "experience". Leather seats, moon roof, auto leveling system, killer stereo, etc. Personally it drives me crazy when I drive it; knobs in all the wrong places, rough ride and crappy visibility. We have a very different perception of the same thing. Being middle class maybe my view is tinted by what I perceive as a pointless expense when my 13 year old SUV drives great and gets me to work and back. Its actually better in the snow than her super brand name ride, gets better gas mileage, rides better and doesn't break down near as much. But again she is willing, to happily pay for what she perceives as an "experience".

Ditto for my blue collar Nikon versus Leica. I suppose if I had enough money to be worried about Roth IRA strategies, stock diversification and gold futures Leica would be a pretty cool prospect. Great quality, great name and the owner's club is vetted by the price to enter. This camera makes no sense to me, but perhaps it will to my family Range Rover pilot :)

Jaak Ennuste said...

Cant agree with you. Sony has FF sensor and superb Zeiss lens. New Leica Vario has crap-dark kit lens. I really go for Sony and don't feel myself stupid.

Jack Devant ballet photography http://www.jackdevant.com/

jason gold said...

One big mis-conception is belief camera made in Germany.
It may not and still be legal, to mark thus.
If the main costs of testing, design, packaging, publicity and advertising
are "deemed to be more" than the cost of making camera, say in Taiwan, China or wherever, it can be marked "Made in Germany". For me with the short fingers, very deep pockets syndrome, the high price a joke.

What i am not happy about are cameras that REQUIRE RAW.
If it cannot do a decent JPEG, it ain't worth nothing.
Strange how many "testers" failed to mention how bad the white balance and color rendition,
was on the Leica M9 and M9P.
Now that the "new and improved" model is out, we see these statements.

Dogman said...

Misses due to lack of a zooming optical viewfinder. I mean, c'mon. I had a cheap Samsung-built Rollei Prego back in the 1990s that had a decent zooming 28-90mm viewfinder. (NOT a fan of EVFs.)

Anonymous said...

as good the optic maybe comparing to the kit lens of all other APSC/m43 cameras in the market, the novelty of the camera really don't add up.
but sure, people looking at leica has a deeper pocket than most others and i supposed when leica was in the process of making this camera they have the riches who doesn't know what ISO means in mind
then this would make sense