Leica X1

Although I’ve yet to touch or even see this camera for real, I’m beginning to feel an interest in it, despite the price tag (it is a Leica after all, so the main market will be the idle rich.)  But I spent quite a while reading – and reading between the lines as well – the lengthy full review of an almost-release version on Digital Photography Review. Their test camera came with the final development version of the firmware, and Leica told them the release version will have ‘bug fixes and performance improvements’.

DPR always give hardware a really good going over, and also realise that different people will have different needs and uses for cameras.  It’s an intelligent and thorough site, and gives readers much of of what they need to make an informed choice, even if sometimes they miss out things I think are important or fail to explore how users might tweak files. There are some things reviewers can’t really do and you only find out from working for several weeks or months with a camera.

The LX1 also comes with a full copy of Adobe Lightroom, which should be good news for those who don’t already own what I think is the best software around for digital photographers. Presumably for those of us who already own it, at least if we wait to purchase the camera after Lightroom 3 emerges (its full release is expected in April 2010, though you can download a free beta version) at least we will save the upgrade cost.

You can read the details on DPR, but what came into my mind as I read about this very limited camera with an APX-C sensor and a fixed 35mm equivalent lens was that it seemed to me to be an almost perfect digital replacement for one of my favourite film cameras, the Konica Hexar (aka Konica Hexar AF)  at least when equipped with the accessory viewfinder, although its a shame that the lens is only f2.8 rather than the fine Hexar f2. This was described as “the ideal stealth street camera” and within its limitations was both faster in use and better than any Leica. I bought one from the USA soon after it came out in 1993 – they were never easy to find here and at the time you could save around a hundred pounds by ordering from B&H in New York

Apart from the lens quality and speed, the great thing about the Hexar was shutter noise. In normal mode it was considerably quieter than any Leica, just a gentle click, inaudible on the street. But it also had a ‘quiet mode’ that more or less needed a stethoscope to detect it – often the only way I could tell I had taken a picture was by looking at the frame counter. I doubt if the LX1 will be quite as quiet, but DPR say it is very quiet.

I used the camera mainly on manual focus and exposure – when shutter lag was essentially zero. Again the LX1 may not be quite as fast (and its autofocus seems rather slow)  but I think it will be usable.

Thinking back to the Hexar, even the  price for the LX1  doesn’t seem too bad. From memory the Hexar cost me around £500 (which at the time was probably around 900$.)  Allowing for inflation that wouldprobably benearer £1000 now, 15 years later. But when comparing with a digital camera you need also to add in a certain amount for the price of film and processing – and having just been to a little pre-Christmas celebration with some of my neighbours I can quite decide what would be reasonable.  Lets assume I would take the equivalent of perhaps 5 films a week on the LX1 – about my average with the Hexar – and add on a couple of years work, making a total of 500 films.  The current cost including processing it myself is around £2.60 for the film and £0.90 for the processing chemistry, that would make a total of around £1750.

What I think is clear is that the LX1 is not a general purpose camera, but a tool for a very specific job. If its a job that you want to do – and it was once for me, and perhaps may be again – then I think it may be the right tool. The Leica X1 is now starting to look quite reasonably priced and I think I’ll start saving my pennies.

And if I do get one, the first thing I’ll do when I take it out of that so carefully (what a waste) designed box is to look for my black tape to put a piece over that red Leica flash on the front. Its the last thing anyone who is actually trying to work with the camera needs.

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