Waiting For Monroe
It seems that a new Leica camera introduction never fails to stir things up a bit. In the wide world of the web Iím told there have been some strong negative reactions to Leicaís newest camera ó the X Vario. I can think of two reasons why this may be happening. The first is that Leica made a big mistake, in my view, by pre-advertising this camera as a ďMini-MĒ. Thatís a very loaded promise and it leads people to hope for a window finder camera that will take M lenses ó something like the long awaited digital version of a Leica CL. So part of the frustration I think weíre seeing now comes from a collision between hope and reality. Thatís not to say that the X Vario is a bad camera. In fact, itís quite a good camera. But itís really not a Mini-M even though some aspects of its design were clearly inspired by the M (240).
On one episode of the old TV series ďMASHĒ, characters Hawkeye and Charles start a rumor that Marilyn Monroe will be visiting the 4077th. Of course that isnít true and they end up having to fake a telegram from her explaining why she had to cancel, etc. Had they not, the unit might well have roasted them both on a spit. Building up peopleís expectations is a tricky thing and one has to be careful to deliver or the pent-up excitement can release itself in anger and dissapointment.
In Leicaís case Marilyn didnít show up and instead we got Jimmy Stewart. Now, Jimmy was a great actor and having him visit would be an honor. But he isnít Marilyn Monroe and soldiers expecting Marilyn Monroe might not be too happy with the substitution. So the next time Leica does a strip tease reveal of a new camera it would make sense for them to align expectations with what the product really is.
Imagine how Jimmy Stewart (the Leica X Vario) feels when he shows up. He knows heís a good actor, fairly handsome, modest, a good guy ó a man with things to offer the world. Yet, from the moment of his arrival he senses the disappointment in the air. By the end of the evening, hopefully, people will be enjoying their time with Stewart. But first they need to get their heads around the disappointment of being lead to expect ďMĒ and instead getting ďXĒ. I predict thatís what will happen with the X Vario; it may take a little time for people to warm to the camera and get over their dissapointment that it wasnít what they expected.
The second reason some people seem to be concerned about the X Vario is that the lens is slow.
Frankly, I would not have advocated for the slow zoom idea but I do understand why Leica went this route. Many Leica customers, my dealer friends tell me, have been asking for a zoom version of the X2. I happen to like cameras with prime 28, 35 or 40 mm lenses but they are not everyoneís cup of tea. A lot of people are looking for more of an all írounder type camera that can shoot wide or tight without changing lenses. So, in creating an X with a zoom, Leica was responding to what a number of its customers have been asking for. Those customers may or may not be vocal on Internet forums (I couldnít say one way or another) but Leica dealers tell me they certainly do exist.
So Leica needed a zoom for the new X camera. A range from 28 Ė 70 is a pretty reasonable one but at this point in the evolution of lens design I suspect that one can have only two of the following three qualities in a zoom like that:
3. high optical performance across the image circle
How do other ó faster ó compact zooms (for APS-C cameras) reach all three of those goals? I think that, as a rule, they donít. Some of them are larger than this Vario. Some are a bit faster and offer a degree of optical performance which is sufficient ó if not outstanding. Iíve spoken with Leica about why the lens on this camera is not faster and their answer is simply this: They could not keep their zoom design both compact and fast while still maintaining the levels of optical performance they were aiming for. I hear through the grapevine that they tried some faster zoom designs (in test mules) but the lenses were simply too large and heavy to match Leicaís size goals for the Vario. Itís important to understand that Leica is perfectionistic when it comes to lens design. They realize, I think, that every lens is a compromise but I suspect that none of the Leica optical team would sleep well at night if they sent a lens design out of Solms that they didnít feel good about. I understand that might seem quite an old-fashioned approach in 2013 but I think it really is the way Leica works. Theyíre very serious about their lenses and thatís one reason they often produce some exceptional, but often breathtakingly expensive, optics.
And in all fairness, having worked with a beta version of the camera for several months now, I can say that the file quality is impressive ó corner to corner. Iíd prefer that the camera have no AA filter at all but the one it does have (which theoretically filters at 1.3 times Nyquist) is mild Ė milder than the one in the X2 in fact.
On the other hand, thereís no question that the speed of this lens could pose a problem for a serious photographer ó especially at the narrower end of the zoomís coverage. As I was working on this article I sent a draft to Michael Reichmann (my editor for this site of course) and he told me about an interesting little test he did. Today, apparently, the skies are overcast in Toronto, Ontario where he lives. He took a meter out and found that if he was working outdoors today at F/6.4 at 70 mm heíd need to be at ISO 1600 to get a shutter speed of at least 1/125. That, as he explained, is a higher ISO than he would really want to use under those circumstances.
In a nutshell, the X Varioís lens is so slow because if Leica made it faster it would either have had to be notably larger or lower in optical performance than they were willing to accept. As I understand it, the company didnít see either of those as viable options. Again: size, speed, optical quality across the image circle ó choose any two.
But, of course, Leicaís reasons and a photographerís needs are two different things. If the lens is too slow for a given photographer then thatís that. Some of this will depend upon how wide one usually works. The actual maximum apertures I observed are as follows. (Note the settings reflect effective, not actual, fields of view).
28 mm setting: F/3.5
35 mm setting: F/4.5
50 mm setting: F/5.1
70 mm setting: F/6.4
In the end, the X-Vario is simply a camera with pros and cons like any other. I know some people prefer things to be more dichotomous than that but itís true. The lens is not fast but it is excellent. The camera also has an exceptionally usable, and well weighted, distance marked focus ring that allows one to set specific manual focus distances (by sight or by scale) or, with a twist, to switch to AF mode. The overall ergonomics are very good, the build quality is excellent, etc. This isnít a review (Iíve done that on my own site) so I wonít go into a detailed list of what this cameraís pros and cons are but, like any camera, it has both.
My own ideas for the future of the Leica X camera line include models with window finders (including frame lines) and stepped AF target markings. Fuji has borrowed heavily from Leica over the past few years and I think Leica would do well to learn from Fujiís excellent blending of window finders and auto-focus. I also think there should be a Leica X camera with a lens mount and a line of auto-focus Leica X lenses that are designed for digital from the start.
But thatís just my perspective on the future of Leica X cameras. What some other people wanted was an X2 with a zoom. Now they have it and, in fact, it is a very good camera. Itís not perfect but, then again, no camera is. So Jimmy Stewart the camera is now here. Perhaps we neednít give him too hard a time just because he turned out to not be Marilyn Monroe. And if the reader doesnít know who Jimmy Stewart or Marilyn Monroe were then, at age 47, Iím afraid Iím just too much of an old man for you.
Happy picture making with whatever camera suits your needs and fancy.
This article was first published July 2, 2013 on Luminous Landscape.
Many of Sean Reid's reviews, essays and other articles can be found in the subscriber section of Reid Reviews. They include an extensive review of the Leica SL and tests of various rangefinder and Leica R lenses on both the SL and the Leica M-240.
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