Photographers that have been shooting for any substantial amount of time will of course begin to drool at the mere mention of the word “Leica.” After all, Leica has been around for a very long time. The Germans know how to make finely tuned mechanical instruments. Mercedes, BMW, VW, etc. In the world of photography, Leica means superior quality. Their optics are simply the best. There is a 3D quality to the lenses Leica produces and they don’t produce duds. That is probably the reason why you need a 2nd mortgage for some of their lenses, i.e. the Noctilux f/0.95. Yes, you read that correctly, f/0.95. This is only a $10,000 lens. (gulp)
So, you can imagine my joy this Christmas when my wife played a major role in funding my first Leica purchase. The Leica X1 with Elmarit f/2.8 lens. This little gem is Leica’s first attempt at a smaller camera. Unlike the gimmicky Panasonic-Leicas, the X1 is 100% made in Germany. It comes in the same presentation box as the M cameras and each X1 is tested by one person in Solms, Germany. This person then signs a Leica certificate included in the box.
Why is the X1 so good? Why is is so much more expensive than the Fuji X100? Why do X1 owners love this quirky camera with slow AF and no video? Simple. It is a Leica. That is not a “snob” statement. I mean, I am mostly a Nikon guy. However, there is a reason why I purchased this X1. The glass. There is something magical about quality Leica glass. Read some reviews of the finest Nikon and Canon lenses and you will often see flaws. The better the lens, the less flaws will be present. My Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 is an amazing lens, one of Nikon’s finest. But, it has flaws. The big Japanese camera makers know what flaws will be acceptable and pros have learned to work within these parameters. Leica does not do this. Leica aims to make lenses that are sharp, contrasty, without distortions or CA, and with beautiful bokeh. By succeeding at this, there is something beautiful and hard to describe about the images shot with this glass. Many call it the “Leica effect.” An almost 3D quality where the subject seems to be pasted on the blurry background.
Leica lenses have almost no optical imperfections. They are meticulously designed and engineered with the highest precision from people working in a factory dedicated to producing the best photographic equipment on the planet. This is why the X1 is “over-priced” according to some. The way I see it, I paid for the lens. The camera/sensor just has to be there to catch the beautiful images that make it through those elements and aspherical glass.
The tech specs of this camera read like my 4 year-old’s bedtime book…meaning there are very few features. This camera just takes photos. No video. No “Museum” mode. No flashy autofocus. No 1,000,000 dot LCD. No dual card slots. This camera is as simple as my 1970s Nikon FE film camera. It points, it meters, and you create. No amount of gimmicky scene modes will take the place of this f/2.8 Elmarit lens. You have to understand photography to get the best from this camera. Otherwise, it will just frustrate you.
My assumption is that those that favor the Fuji X100 et. al. are looking for the camera to do all the work. Personally, I don’t want the camera to do any work. I just want the camera to get out of my way so I can magically pull the environment around me through that lens and onto the sensor.
The only problem with the X1 is that it makes you want an M9 or M240. Unfortunately, the M240 is $7,000 and entry level Leica lenses begin at $1,800. That is $8,800 + tax for a single camera/lens combo. Oh, and that’s with no autofocus and just a prime lens. Still, there are many that sell all their gear just to fund one Leica camera. Some might say that is foolish. But, so many people put too much emphasis on technology. I think art/creativity can suffer if you allow too much automation to disrupt your workflow. The X1 (any Leica) or an old film camera will make you a better photographer. It will slow you down. It will make you think. It will force you to compose in your mind before pressing that button.
If you want to know more about the X1, Steve Huff has a big review with more detail than my little blog post.
For now, I am just enjoying this camera and look forward to capturing life’s moments without lugging around a big DSLR.