Waiting For Monroe
by Sean Reid
It seems that a new Leica camera introduction never fails to stir things up a bit. In the wide world of the web I'm told there have been some strong negative reactions to Leica's newest camera -- 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 "Mini-M". That's a very loaded promise and it leads people to hope for a window finder camera that will take M lenses -- something like the long awaited digital version of a Leica CL. So part of the frustration I think we're seeing now comes from a collision between hope and reality. That's not to say that the X Vario is a bad camera. In fact, it's quite a good camera. But it's 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 "MASH", characters Hawkeye and Charles start a rumor that Marilyn Monroe will be visiting the 4077th. Of course that isn't 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 people's 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 Leica's case Marilyn didn't show up and instead we got Jimmy Stewart. Now, Jimmy was a great actor and having him visit would be an honor. But he isn't 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 he's a good actor, fairly handsome, modest, a good guy -- 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 "M" and instead getting "X". I predict that's 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 wasn't 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 everyone's cup of tea. A lot of people are looking for more of an all 'rounder 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 couldn't 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 - 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 -- faster -- compact zooms (for APS-C cameras) reach all three of those goals? I think that, as a rule, they don't. Some of them are larger than this Vario. Some are a bit faster and offer a degree of optical performance which is sufficient -- if not outstanding. I've 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 Leica's size goals for the Vario. It's 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 didn't 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. They're very serious about their lenses and that's 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 -- corner to corner. I'd 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 - milder than the one in the X2 in fact.
On the other hand, there's no question that the speed of this lens could pose a problem for a serious photographer -- especially at the narrower end of the zoom's 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 he'd 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 Vario's 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 didn't see either of those as viable options. Again: size, speed, optical quality across the image circle -- choose any two.
But, of course, Leica's reasons and a photographer's needs are two different things. If the lens is too slow for a given photographer then that's 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 it's 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 isn't a review (I've done that on my own site) so I won't go into a detailed list of what this camera's 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 Fuji's 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's that's 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. It's not perfect but, then again, no camera is. So Jimmy Stewart the camera is now here. Perhaps we needn't give him too hard a time just because he turned out to not be Marilyn Monroe. And if the reader doesn't know who Jimmy Stewart or Marilyn Monroe were then, at age 47, I'm afraid I'm just too much of an old man for you.
Happy picture making with whatever camera suits your needs and fancy.
About Reid Reviews and Sean Reid
Sean's latest articles for his own site, Reid Reviews, include reviews of the Ricoh GR (medium sensor), Leica X Vario, Fuji X100S, Sony RX1, Leica M (240) and Pentax K5 II S. He also recently published an article that compares the file quality – at various ISO levels – of the beta Leica M (240), Leica Monochrom, Fuji X-Pro 1, Sony RX1 and Sigma DP2 Merrill.
Sean Reid, an American, has been a commercial and fine art photographer for almost thirty years. He studied under Stephen Shore and Ben Lifson and met occasionally with Helen Levitt. In the late 1980s he worked as an exhibition printer for Wendy Ewald and other fine art photographers. In 1989, he was the first American photographer to receive an artist-in-residence grant from the Irish Arts Council in Dublin, Ireland. His commercial work is primarily of architecture, weddings and special events. His personal work is primarily of people in public places -- especially in rural New England where he resides. Most of his newest reviews and other articles can be found at Reid Reviews. The site concentrates on reviewing equipment intended for professional and serious amateur photographers but also includes a wide range of essays about various aspects of photography. It pays particular attention to rangefinder camera equipment and compact cameras for serious photographers. Most of the reviews are based on extensive field work as well as formal studio testing.