The Leica X Vario- Big Brother or More?

Leica’s newest camera, as of today, is the Leica X Vario.  It was officially introduced on June 11, 2013.  The media campaign for the month before had labeled it as a “Mini M.”  I think even Leica realizes now that was a mistake.  It is not an “M”, it is more like a bigger, better and more versatile “X.”

I don’t think I have seen a more polarizing camera hit the market in the last three years.  On the Leica Forum there have been 2272 comments about this camera, many before it was even released.  After it was released the incredibly adverse reactions to the camera flowed in like water as Leica had promised a “Mini M” but they didn’t deliver.  Honestly, at the time, I had no inclination to purchase this camera as I was more than happy with my current stable of Leica cameras, but I was curious about it.  Why was everyone so upset about the Leica X Vario?

Then the reviews began to surface about “Paula,” which was the codename for this camera.  Reviewers had been using it for months.  As they posted their reviews and pics I became more interested.  The files coming out of this camera were great.  The color was superb and the B&W Jpeg’s were to my liking.  I kept reading and wondering if this was a camera I would use as much as my other Leicas.  A month later I decided to visit my local camera store to check about availability.  They had some still left as it was selling well.  Again, as I posted in my last mini review of the X2, they do not demo new Leica’s.  They want the experience of opening the box and handling the camera to be for the new owner.  I appreciate that but again, as with the X2, I was taking a leap of faith in spending $3000 with the grip for this camera.  Quite a gamble!

I took it home for the unveiling and frankly fell in love.  This camera is more than an X but not quite an M.  Maybe an “X-M?”

When I picked up this camera the first word that came into my mind was, “Quality.”  Leica quality.  This is not a camera that was thrown together in a rush to meet some kind of market demand. This is a camera that is designed and manufactured by Leica and it feels like it.

The body is larger than an X1/2, but not quite the size or weight of my M8.  When you hold it the first thing that stands out is the size of the lens.  Instead of being a fixed lens that opens and closes as the X1/2 it is  a non-interchangeable zoom.  It is large but I like it as it is easier to cradle in my hand than the smaller X’s.  It also happens to be the most talked about thing concerning this camera.

The zoom range is 18-46mm, with the APS-C crop sensor, which works out great for me.  The full frame equivalent is 28-70mm. It is the lack of speed, if you will, that people are complaining about.  It is a 3.5-6.4 lens.  It is not a “fast” lens by any means.  Would I rather it would have been 2.8-5.6 or faster?  Yes, but to  do that Leica may have had to make it larger and certainly the camera would have cost more than the already expensive $2850 MSRP.

The lens itself is very high quality and zooms smoothly.  The image quality is outstanding and is sharp edge to edge.  I am able to compensate for its “slowness” because the high ISO of this camera is much better than the X1/2.  I can easily shoot at ISO 1600 and have pushed it to 6400.  I prefer to keep it at or below ISO 3200 for the most part.

I must mention the outstanding LCD screen.  It is literally night and day compared to the X1/2.  I can actually see what it says in broad daylight.  With the X1/2 I don’t even bother looking as I know I won’t be able to see anything.

The controls on the X Vario are similar to the X1/2 so the learning curve is non-existent.  The knobs on top for shutter speed and aperture feel like those on the X2, meaning they will not turn easily like the knobs on the X1.  I do wish that the shutter release button was metal and threaded for a cable release/soft release.  I use soft releases on all my cameras and was “stuck :-)” using an adhesive Gariz soft release as I do with my other X cameras.

If you have read any other reviews you have heard about the silver pad on the back of the camera being too easy to activate.  Amen to that!  Even with the grip I find my palm pushing against it.  No settings are changed but it is irritating to bring the EVF to my eye and see a menu instead of the scene I am attempting to frame.  Hopefully Leica can do something about this in a firmware update.  It is an irritant.

I have referred to the IQ (image quality) in my previous mini reviews of the X1 and X2.  This camera has that in spades.  I have my camera set to take DNG and B&W Super Fine Jpegs.  Personally, I find the DNG’s to be softer than the ones I get out of my Nikons, but after processing and sharpening in LR5 they look great.  The Jpegs are fantastic, especially the B&W Jpegs.  I use them out of camera for the most part and since buying it haven’t converted one color DNG to B&W.  There is no need to!

So to sum up this user review here are the things that I really like about the Leica X Vario: Build, Image Quality and Ergonomics.

Here is what I would like to see improved: Speed.  I wish it did everything from auto focus to formatting faster.  It is pretty decent but could be better.

I would suggest the following as must have accessories: Grip, EVF (Olympus is cheaper that the Leica) and Lens Hood.

Major irritant: The silver pad on the back.  As much as I try not to press against it, my palm does many times a day.

Of course we must address value: I guess this is subjective.  Real Leica’s are going to cost more money.  That is the way it is.  If you want a Leica, then you have to pay the cost.  I have and don’t regret it at all.  Do I wish it was less expensive?  Of course!

Would I recommend this camera?  YES!  In fact I was in Ace Photo talking to a customer who was thinking about getting one.  After I talked to him he did.  I own five Leica cameras (X1, X2, M6 and M8) plus the X Vario.  I haven’t touched the other four since I purchased the X Vario a month ago.  One of the reasons for that is because I can shoot much closer now with the “macro” setting on the lens.  It is not a true 1 to 1 ratio but it has allowed me to enjoy shooting nature up close more than I can with my other Leica’s.

I did get the opportunity yesterday to use the X Vario for some street photography.  The auto focus worked great and I got some really nice pics.

Hope this review has helped.  If you want to read more in-depth reviews I would suggest Peta Pixel or Steve Huff.  Both do a great job reviewing cameras and lenses.

Below are just a few pics from my new Leica X Vario.  Enjoy!

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