Reid Reviews

Leica Digilux 2: Part Two

Leica Digilux 2 At 8.6 mm     ISO 100    F/8.0 @ 1/500

As I see it, an exceptional camera needs to be successful both in terms of its design (it’s usefulness to the photographer as a tool) and it’s image quality.  As I discussed in Part 1 of this review,  Leica’s analog controls for shutter speed, aperture, focus and focal length are among its greatest strengths.  Together they make the camera fluid and quick to work with.  The very large and bright 2.5" LCD screen also adds to the functionality and usefulness of the camera, as does the very effective metering and live histogram display.  For the most part, the camera allows one to work without delay or distraction.  In this respect, the camera mostly lives up to the Leica tradition of making functional tools for serious photographers. The two aspects that do interfere with making pictures are the EVF and the lack of a RAW file buffer.  The EVF limitations can be bypassed with accessory finders but Leica really should have equipped this camera with one of their superb rangefinders, even if that increased the camera’s price.   The lack of a RAW file buffer is also a design weakness but the cycle time between exposures can at least be minimized by using fast SD cards and I’ve include test cycle timings for these below.

In terms of overall image quality, the Digilux 2 creates the best RAW files I’ve seen yet from a small-sensor camera.  Despite a grain-like noise at higher ISOs, converted RAW files from this camera are sharp and have beautiful color and tonality.   The camera’s very fast F/2.0 – 2.4 zoom lens is made in Japan by Panasonic, according to Leica’s specifications, and it is outstanding.  It is the best lens I’ve seen yet on a small-sensor camera.

Leica Digilux 2 At 12.3 mm     ISO 400    F/2.2 @ 1/250

Thoughts on Digital Formats

I think that there may be some merit in considering the three major sensor sizes as formats unto themselves.  This is unusual of course because we’re accustomed to thinking of camera formats in terms of film cameras with the most common sizes being 35 mm, 120/220, 4" x 5" and 8" x 10".   Right now, sensors that are 24mm by 36mm and smaller are generally considered to be small format.  The reason that we might want to redefine these categories is that cameras of each sensor size (1/1.8 – 2/3",  APS size and 35mm film size) each have their own pros and cons.   The smallest format, which includes the Digilux 2 with its 2/3" sensor has three primary advantages.  The first is that its very compact size allows the camera to be lighter and smaller.  The second is that it allows a live video feed which in turn makes it possible to have a live histogram and live LCD view which is somewhat like composing on a ground glass.  The third, which is of most interest to me, is that the sensor is paired with very short focal length lenses that give it deep depth of field even wide open.  The primary drawback of the small sensor is that it tends to have more file noise than is found in larger sensors, but as described above, it also requires less ISO for a given depth of field.

In traditional silver halide photography, photographers have chosen to use 35mm cameras because of their compactness, depth of field, greater number of exposures per roll and other advantages over medium and large format cameras.  It’s common knowledge that medium format and larger cameras create negatives and slides with less grain, greater tonal range, etc. than 35mm cameras but many chose the small film format nonetheless.   Moreover, many photographers, myself included, chose to own several cameras of various formats so that they have the right tool for each kind of task they face.

I think there’s a place for small sensor cameras such as the Digilux 2 just as there has long been a place for 35mm cameras (even though medium and large format options abound).    I currently own digital cameras in two different formats: the APS-size sensor Canon 10D and the 24 x 36mm-sensor Canon 1Ds.   They’re both very good cameras and I use both extensively.   But there’s certainly a place in my bag for a lightweight camera with a silent shutter and a live histogram that has extensive depth of field even at F/2.    And if one agrees to consider small sensor digital cameras as belonging to a unique format, the Digilux 2 is the best small-sensor format digital camera I have ever tested.   It has the best lens I’ve seen in this format, the best access to key controls via its analog dial and rings and the best overall image quality I’ve yet seen in its class.

I imagine that some photographers may make much of the Digiliux 2’s grainy noise at ISO 400.    Although I haven’t yet tried it myself, I’m told that the files respond very well to Neat Image and Noise Ninja noise-reduction software.    I myself, however, don’t plan to do much filtering beyond reducing the chrominance noise a bit.   The fine grain one sees in an 8¯ x 10¯ print from a Digilux 2 ISO 400 RAW conversion is much to my liking.    While grainy, it retains the sharp detail provided by the camera’s excellent lens.    If one looks at much of the best photography done with Leicas and high-speed film, the film grain is quite evident in the prints and reproductions.   Examples of this include pictures in The Americans¯ by Robert Frank,  The Exiles¯ by Josef Koudelka and‚ The Man in the Crowd: The Uneasy Streets of Garry Winogrand¯ among many, many others.   There’s a long tradition of sharp but grainy Leica photography.   Large format film is somewhat transparent  in that its fine grain and subtle tonality call little attention to the medium itself.   In pictures made with small format fast film, by contrast, the medium makes itself clear in the presence (in the print) of the spaces between the film grains.   The same is true of the grain-like noise in the Digilux 2 RAW files. Neither the large nor the small format look is necessarily better, per se.   It depends of course on what kind of print one wants to make.

The camera’s primary weaknesses, in my mind, are its EVF and its lack of a RAW file buffer.   The only way to work around the buffer, to some extent, is by using a fast SD card.   Using accessory finders instead of the EVF, however, proves to be an enjoyably old-fashioned way of working that I quickly adjusted to.   At $1850.00 the Leica costs nearly twice as much as many other competent compact digital cameras.   Certainly, I’d prefer to see it sell for closer to $1000.00 but there are many photographers who are willing to pay the steep price of entry to own a camera with the Digilux 2’s advantages.   Panasonic has it’s own version of this camera called the DMC-LC1 and it’s not yet clear as to what image quality differences, if any, might exist between these two cameras.  

Both cameras include a battery, battery charger/AC adapter, lens hood (with special cap), AV cable, USB 2 cable and neck strap.   The silver-bodied Leica has a three-year warranty and includes a 64MB SD card as well as Silverfast DC-SE, Photoshop Elements 2 and ACDsee software.    The black-bodied Panasonic DMC-LC1 retails for $1599.00, has a one year warranty and includes a 16MB SD card, a dedicated wired remote shutter release, a multicoated UV filter, Panasonic’s‚ SD Viewer¯ and‚ USB Remote Control¯ software and the following software from Arcsoft: Photoimpression, Panorama Maker, Photo Base and Photo Printer. 

Expensive as it may be, the Digilux 2 is, overall, the best camera I’ve yet seen in the small-sensor class.

Leica Digilux 2 At 13 mm     ISO 400    F/5.6 @ 1/250

Some Requests For Leica

As I mentioned in the first section of this review, Leica plans to introduce a digital version of their M series rangefinder design in about two years.   I don’t know if, in the interim, there will be a Digilux 3 (or whatever the name might be).   If there is such a new model, however, I’d suggest the following changes in particular:

1. Add a RAW buffer to the camera that will allow it to capture several RAW format pictures in succession.

2. Remove the smoothing processing of JPEGs or at least make it an option that photographers can switch off.  

3. Give the camera a good, accurate, optical rangefinder that is matched to the excellent 28 - 90mm zoom lens.   Given your longstanding expertise in this area, I’m sure the company could produce a first-rate rangefinder for the Digilux. 

4. Design a moveable 2.5" LCD so that the image can be viewed when the camera is held above the head or at the waist (like a twin lens reflex camera).

Leica has already discussed some of its plans for the digital M camera.   It will presumably have a traditional Leica rangefinder and will accept as many existing M mount lenses as possible.   The sensor and associated processing will be based on the components currently being developed for the Leica  Digital Module R¯ back which is a 10 MP CCD unit with a 1.37 magnification factor (similar to the current Canon EOS 1D) and an expected sensitivity level of, at least, 800 ISO.   The development of the R back is a cooperative effort between Leica, Imacon and Kodak.  I’d suggest the following be considered in the development of the‚ Digital M¯ camera.

1. Weather/dust seals: Traditional Leica rangefinders have a reputation for remaining reliable even in extreme weather.  Even though moisture and dust may enter the body, the camera continues to function.   Needless to say, a digital camera cannot function with moisture and dust entering the body.   The only way  (to the best of my knowledge) to make a digital camera that is reliable in challenging weather is by designing it with seals such as are used on the Canon 1D and 1Ds professional SLR bodies.   Although existing M series lenses are not weather sealed, future M lenses with weather seals could be developed and sold to professionals who need all weather capability.   Without a sealed body and sealed lenses, the new Leica M will be a‚ fair weather only¯ camera which would not at all be in keeping with Leica’s reputation.

2. Be sure to design the camera with an ample RAW buffer.

3. Allow the camera to record JPEGs that have not been smoothed or otherwise processed any more than is absolutely necessary.   Allow the photographer to specify what processing will be done in-camera, for JPEG creation, so that photographers who prefer to capture in JPEG mode can have control over the look of the files.

Added December 4, 2015: An older version of this article, which was Part 2 of the first camera review I ever wrote, was first published in early 2004 on Luminous Landscape.  The version here is abridged.

Looking back on this article now, in late 2015, the most interesting part to me is the suggestion that we start using the term "Small Sensor Camera" to look at a unique digital format. Prior to that suggestion, these cameras were typically called "digicams" or "point-n-shoots".  My feeling was that they should be taken seriously as cameras in a format with a distinct style of drawing. About a year later, I devoted an essay to that topic, for the new Reid Reviews site, called "On Small Sensor Cameras".  I also, that year, reviewed a camera that, to me, was a great example of a serious small sensor camera: the Ricoh GR digital.

It's also interesting to look back on my 2004 "wish list" for Leica. It took some time, but the current CMOS Leica M cameras meet every request on that list.

Many of my reviews, essays and other articles can be found in the subscriber section of Reid Reviews. This includes a review of this camera's successor the Leica Digilux 3 and the essay "On Small Sensor Cameras".

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