The Leica Digilux 2
DC Vario Summicron
An Optical Analysis Using
Regular readers know that the cameras and other photographic products that I test on this site are the ones that personally interest me. I can't, and don't even try to cover everything that comes to market. Sometimes I can get my hands on things early, sometimes not. In the case of the Leica Digilux 2 / Panasonic LC1 twins, both companies took their time in bringing these cameras to market in North America. The LC1 appeared in Asia first, and contributor Wai-Shan Lam from Hong Kong gave us on these pages the world's first hands-on look at the LC1.
This was followed soon thereafter by an initial impressions field review of the Digilux 2 by contributor Sean Reid, and then a more in-depth field test. Finally, well-known photographer, critic and teacher, Ben Lifson gave us his perspective on the Digilux 2.
The one thing that was missing was a DxO optical test report. Finally in mid-May 2004 a Panasonic LC1 came my way and I have now both put it to test and also, at the end of this report, provide my own observations from the field.
Please note that I am making the assumption that the Panasonic LC1, which I tested, and the Leica Digilux 2, which I didn't, are essentially the same camera. This assumption is based on public remarks by representatives from both companies and also anecdotal evidence. While the cameras differ in some minor cosmetic ways, and appear to have slightly different in-camera JPG processing settings, I am comfortable in assuming that they are otherwise identical.
About The Tests
This test of the Panasonic LC1 and Leica DC Vario Summicron camera and lens was conducted using DxO Analyzer. If you are not familiar with this optical testing system please read this tutorial. Without being familiar with how the tests are conducted, and how to read them, there's not much point in proceeding.
The purpose of this test report is to support the empirical findings of field tests. Though the tests on this page are interesting and informative (as well as accurate and repeatable), they really only tell us about selected aspects of a camera or lens' capabilities.
As you can see from the DxO Tutorial there are a large number of charts and text graphs produced for each of the four tests — Distortion & Chromatic Aberration, Vignetting, Noise and Blur. A more comprehensive test would have to be done at all available apertures, all available ISO speeds, and at a large cross-section of focal lengths (in the case of zoom lenses). This would not only take an inordinately large amount of time to conduct, but would take up far to much space here and likely not be of much interest.
Consequently in this and other tests using DxO Analyzer I am publishing just one complete set of charts — those done at f/5.6, which is typically an optimum aperture for most lenses. In the case of zoom lenses this test is also done at a mid-position in the lens' focal length range. I also post data for other F stops, ISO ratings and in the case of zooms a selection of focal length, including the widest and longest. In my comments to each section I also draw attention to extremes of performance, such as maximum vignetting, greatest and least noise, etc.
To jump directly to the definitions and tutorials for a specific test click on the DC, V, N or B logos. You can also read and compare other DxO Analyzer test reports here.
Though it normally appears as part of my full camera reviews, since the earlier reviews of the Digilux 2 and Panasonic LC1 that have appeared here were done by other authors I have added a colour accuracy report to this lab report.
As always with viewing colour charts online, please go by what I say, not by
what you see.
Even if you have a profiled and calibrated screen, because this file has been
converted to sRGB
from Adobe RBG there will be differences between what I see on my Sony Artisan
monitor and what you may see.
It's always informative to shoot a Macbeth ColorChecker chart and see how well a particular camera handles the issue of colour accuracy. The methodology is simple. Photograph the chart under controlled lighting conditions and then load it into the RAW converter. Click on the 18% gray square with the gray point selector (to set the colour balance) and see what happens to all of the colours.
The Digilux 2 / LC1 has extremely high colour accuracy, as good if not better than any camera yet tested. I see a slight warmth to the light skin square (second from top left) and the greens are not as saturated as they should be. Blue sky, (third from top left) is a bit mauve, but otherwise colour handling is spot on.
Distortion and Chromatic Aberration
Panasonic LC1 @ ISO 100.
Focal Length = 12.5mm (50mm equivalent)
Chromatic aberration is very well controlled. Among the best that I've yet tested. It is also uniform across apertures and focal lengths. There should be little to no issues with this camera when it comes to CA. No purple fringing was seen in any field tests.
At mid-focal length the Summicron did not test as well for vignetting as did some other recent cameras, but in real-world applications even this amount of vignetting won't be a issue.
The Signal to Noise ratio was high, bested only by the Olympus C8080 of recent digicams tested. It also doesn't drop that dramatically as speed is increased, though I have to say that visually on screen and in prints it does so more than the number would indicate. The noise though subjectively appears quite grain-like, and thus is less objectionable than some other digital camera's more blotchy noise patterns at high ISOs.
Results in this measurement are very good. Among the digicam tested thus far the Minolta A2 scores highest, with the Canon Pro1 second, but the LC1 / Digilux measures ahead of the others, such as the Olympus C8080, and Sony F828. But, also note that the difference are not that great (except against the Sony, which does not score all that well on this test). What can be seen from the Blur Plot though is that the Summicron lens holds its best from about one stop closed down till about f/8. These apertures are the sweet spot of this lens, at all focal lengths.
A Hands-On Evaluation of the LC1
With three separate reviews so far on this site prior to this one I won't bother with anything more than some general observations and a few personal comments. Firstly, it seems to me that there is no reason to buy the Leica version of this camera when the Panasonic is essentially the same camera with the same lens, but for hundreds of dollars less. Of course if having the Leica logo is more important to you than saving money, who am I to say otherwise?
But the LC1 seems to me a better choice not only because of its lower price, but also for what you get and a few functional differences. I much prefer the black finish of the LC1. The chrome Leica is pretty, but the black finish of the LC1 is much more practical when it comes to doing unobtrusive street shooting, and to ward off thieves. (No one would steal a lowly Panasonic camera, now would they?) Also the LC1 has a molded hand grip, which makes the camera significantly more comfortable to hold with one hand for long periods of time. The LC1 also ships with a hard-to-find 69mm UV filter and an electronic cable release. The Leica does have a longer warranty though in most markets and also some proprietary remote control software.
Panasonic LC1 @ ISO 100. 10mm (40mm Equiv)
Ergonomics and Design
Like the other reviewers I am taken with the very high quality of fit and finish of these cameras. Materials are first rate, and (almost) every knob and switch and latch is positive and solid. There are a few missteps though. The manual focusing ring has a positive latch for the Auto position, but then a much too loose detent between AF and AF Macro.
The rear LCD is big, bright in all lighting conditions, and a joy to use. Sean Reid said that it reminded him of a small ground glass. Indeed. Except that no dark cloth is needed as it is highly viewable even in direct sunlight. Many photographers who enjoy working with digicams do so because they can work with the rear LCD as a 21st century ground-glass equivalent. The one on the LC1 / Digilux 2 is a big and as bright as these currently get. Such photographers will find this camera a revelation.
The Electronic Viewfinder is by comparison small and dim. It's not worse than many other digicams, but given this camera's design roots it's not as good as it should be. Leica / Panasonic should look at the OEM viewfinder used in the Minolta A2. It has 4 times the resolution and provides a much larger view. Come on Leica / Panasonic — get with the program. A Leica needs a great viewfinder, (even if it's electronic), not a mediocre one.
The bounce flash feature is very well conceived, but unfortunately underpowered, making it not as useful as one would wish.
On a more negative note — there is no top panel LCD. This is in keeping with the camera's minimalist and traditionalist design approach, but detracts from practicality.
As an M series Leica user for some 30 years I have nothing but praise for the LC1 / Digilux 2's handling. It's fluid and intuitive and for the most part very much like what photographers have become used to since the first Leica came out some 70+ years ago. Traditionalists rejoice.
But as a digital photographer I have to express my dissatisfaction with the fact that the camera can't shoot a RAW frame without freezing. The only saving grace is that if a fast card is used, such as the Sandisk Ultra II, the camera is available again after about 6 seconds. Just this side of tolerable.
In my opinion one of the problems with using digicams for any type of serious photography is that one has to constantly be pressing a button to switch between the EVF and the rear LCD. The only digicam maker that has solved this problem properly is Minolta on their A1 and A2, which have automatic eye-sensing so that the EVF turns on when the camera is brought up to ones eye and then back to the LCD when it's removed.
The Leica/Panasonic doesn't do this, but has a feature which I wish more digicam makers would adopt. When you move the lever to switch between shooting and reviewing images, the image will appear on the rear LCD even if you have set the default to the EVF. With a little practice this can make for efficient workflow and raises this camera above other digicams that aren't as thoughtfully designed. I would suggest though that the EVF / LCD control be made a physical switch. A toggle button tells you nothing visually about its current state.
I am less than enamoured of the fact that the otherwise excellent rear LCD doesn't tilt or swivel. Having a flexible LCD can be a very useful feature of shooting with a digicam, and while not providing this may make the camera more robust it also reduces flexibility. One thumb down for this poor design decision.
Then there's the highly subjective part of camera handling called feel. Maybe it's because I've been a photojournalist, have used M series Leicas for decades, and just plain like the way they're designed, but even though this isn't a rangefinder cameras it still has a lot of Leica DNA in its handling makeup.
The fact that there are no dummy modes shows that the design brief for this camera was for the advanced amateur and the professional. The use of "A" positions on the traditional shutter speed and aperture rings is similar to the approach taken by Rollei with its medium format 6000 series cameras. Shift the aperture off A and you have shutter priority autoexposure. Shift the traditional shutter speed dial off A and you have aperture priority autoexposure. When both are off their A position you have full manual exposure control. Totally intuitive.
But there's a downside to the use of traditional rings and knobs for aperture, focus and shutter speed control. With current digicams you can, for example, have the camera autofocus and then switch to manual. The camera stays focused where it was set. With the Summicron lens focus automation is at the infinity end of the scale, and therefore one can't do this.
Panasonic LC1 @ ISO 100. 22.5mm (90mm Equiv)
The camera's worst aspect, and one which I've seen no other reviewer comment on, is that autoexposure and autofocus locking are linked. This means that one can not lock autofocus, recompose, and then separately lock autoexposure. Of course this can all be done manually, but that's not the point. Every other contemporary camera that I know of, film or digital, allows for separate locking of these two vital controls. What was Leica thinking when they designed this?
Subjective Image Quality
This is about the lens and the imaging chip. The lens itself is fast and very good, and deserves the historic Summicron name. The sensor, by Panasonic, is state-of-the-art for its size, producing very clean images. It should be known that Panasonic is a leading manufacturer and OEM supplier of CCDs to many camera makers. It is their chip that was in the original and at the time highly regarded Canon 1D, for example.
One thing that may give some purchasers pause is that the lens only goes to 90mm equivalent at the long end, while several of the current generation 8MP cameras go out to 200mm. On the other hand this lens is at least a stop faster than most, and whether either of these is an issue will depend on a photographer's particular needs.
Test bench results aside, when it comes to evaluating prints made with this camera I am impressed. There is a clarity and smoothness to the images that is sometimes missing with some cameras, and which I find hard to correlate with objective testing. I also find that this camera seems to be able to capture a broader dynamic range than some other cameras I've worked with recently.
These cameras are more expensive than any other 5MP cameras on the market — as much as twice the price. Are they worth it? Naturally this is very much dependant on ones financial ability as well as photographic needs. One thing that I will comment on are the inevitable remarks by some to the effect of , "Why waste your money on a digicam when you can get one of the 6 Megapixel DSLRs?" Well, the reasons are obvious if you take a moment to think about it. Smaller size, lower weight, silent operation, integrated lens of wider aperture and broader focal length than available for DSLRs, and a lower price when a comparable lens is factored it. Photographer's needs and wants differ greatly. That's why camera makers try to fill all the niches with appropriate (and sometimes not so appropriate) products. One size does not fit all.
The Bottom Line
Traditionally many people ascribe almost mythical properties to Leica lenses. Over the years I've done my fair share of waxing poetic about the often unmeasurable and yet sometimes clearly visible difference that lenses from this company can display. In the case of the Vario-Summicron on the LC1 and Digilux 2 I see it, but not as strongly as I sometimes have in the past, but it is there. Naturally there will be those that reject this. That's understandable. But for those that can see it, it's something to take pleasure in.
After just a few hundred frames with the LC1 it occurred to me — using it was like shooting with a real camera, not a computer with a lens attached — which is what so many digicams remind me of. Not to disparage all digicams. Some are very good, and though the paradigm is different, one gets used to it. But for long-time photographers who enjoy the feel of shutter speed knobs and aperture rings and the control that a manual focus ring gives, the LC1 / Digilux twins will feel like coming home again.
But at the end of the day the LC1 / Digilux 2 is a flawed and somewhat disappointing camera, primarily because of its poor electronic viewfinder, inadequate RAW buffer, and lack of separate autofocus and autoexposure locks. On the other hand its handling and feel are very pleasant, and it is capable of producing A3 sized prints that are the equal of those from any comparable camera. It's not an M series Leica, regardless of its cosmetics, but on the other hand it's not your father's digicam either. If Panasonic and Leica listen to user and reviewer feedback I have high hopes for the inevitable LC2 / Digilux 3.
There are quite a few online reviews of the Leica / Panasonic twin, including the four that are now available on this site. But shortly before this page was first published a very fine review of the Leica Digilux 2 by Andy Piper was published on Photo.Net. It provides the perspective of a working photojournalist with long experience using M series Leicas. A recommended read.