Field Review: Leica X1 (Day 2)

In Day 1 of this review, we took a look at the X1’s stats, appearance and overall feel. In this part of the review, we will focus on the X1’s handling and controls when in use.

Controls

As someone that prefers to shoot in either manual or aperture priority, the controls of the X1 are right up my alley. Having direct access to the X1’s shutter and aperture controls means no flipping through menus or having to spin a scroll wheel ten times to get from F/11 to F/2.8. Also, ISO values are easily changed by a dedicated button on the left of the screen. With the dedicated ISO button, aperture dial and shutter speed dial, you have the three elements you need to control exposure right at your fingertips.

A major omission in my book is the lack of an exposure lock button. When shooting in aperture priority, I constantly use exposure lock with my personal cameras. Many advanced compact cameras have this feature or you can reassign a button to perform this task. A dedicated exposure lock button is one thing I love about my GF-1.

Something that doesn’t matter much to me but may be important to others is manual focus. The manual focus on the X1 is clumsy at best. Once you have selected manual focus from the menu, you refine your focus by the dedicated manual focus wheel which is located in the top right corner on the back of the camera. Once you start to turn the manual focus wheel, you are presented with a zoomed in view on the LCD to ensure your focus will be dead on. So what’s the problem you ask? The problem is there is a pretty major lag between when you turn the wheel and when the X1 actually adjusts the focus. This gets old fast. I tried using manual focus a few times in dark situations but I just got frustrated and turned it off. Because I would probably never use manual focus, I would really liked to have the option to assign another function to this wheel, like exposure compensation.

Speaking of exposure compensation, this could have been better implemented as well. One of the four “cross” buttons on the back of the camera allows you to modify exposure compensation. Once you click the button, you can increase or decrease exposure compensation by 1/3 increments. The problem is, as you adjust exposure compensation you do not see the effects of this change onscreen. Basically, you have to guess how much exposure compensation you want to apply, select your value, half press the shutter to see the effect, and the go back and my adjustments if necessary. I know that this is pretty much how you have to do things with a DSLR (take you best estimate, shoot and makes changes) but one of the benefits of shooting with “live view” is you can see the effects take place right away. This is just another reason to shoot the X1 in full manual mode. You simply half press the shutter to bring up the meter, adjust your shutter, aperture or ISO as necessary and shoot.

 

Menus and Navigation

The menu setup on the X1 and pretty plain and basic, just the way I like them. There are no pictures or definitions for any of the settings like you find in some of the newest cameras (like the Sony A55) but things are relatively easy to figure out as you are not presented with a million different options or settings. It only took me a few minutes to get the camera setup to my liking. You will most likely have to reference the manual on occasion but you should only need it for a few features, like the different focus point options.

 

Shooting Modes


Unlike most cameras on the market today, there is no dial on the X1 that lets you select from different shootings modes like auto, program, or shutter priority. Instead, modes are set by different combinations of the shutter and aperture dials. You have four modes to choose from, manual, shutter priority, aperture priority and auto. Setting the aperture dial to A will let you select your shutter speed and the camera will sort out the aperture value to give you the correct exposure. In reverse, if you set the shutter dial to A you can pick the aperture value and the camera will select the corresponding shutter speed. If you set both dials to A, then you are in auto. The priority modes work quite well but after playing with the X1 for a while, I found that shooting in Full Manual is really the best way to go with the X1. If you shoot in either of the priority modes, you are most likely going to want to sue exposure compensation which is kind of a pain to use on the X1 as I stated in the previous section.

 

Performance


Unfortunately, compared to other “similar” cameras (like the GF-1), I found the X1 to be sluggish in every way possible. Personally, I can live with a camera being slow in some situations but the X1’s lethargic performance does end up holding it back from being a truly amazing camera.

Start up and Shutdown times are reasonable, but I definitely wouldn’t call them fast. The X1’s shutdown times actually caused more frustration than the start up times. There were several occasions where I would shut the camera down and nothing would happen for a few seconds…and then the lens would retract. I kept thinking I was doing something wrong or the camera was still processing something. Not a deal breaker by any means but something to note.

Focusing speed is really the crux of the X1. I can deal with all of the other speed issues, but this one is going to be challenging to deal with. I’m used to my GF-1 snapping into action but instead the X1 takes its sweet time. If you have any type of fast moving subject, you are most likely going to miss your shot. Luckily for me, I mostly shoot still life and street scenes so this may not be a major issue but only time will tell.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad with the X1 and some of the above may not matter to many people. There are definitely things the X1 excels at so don’t give up on it just yet.

So the X1 may not be a speed demon and it may be missing a few of today’s latest features, but the X1 does excel in one area, image quality.  I’ve only taken a few shots with the X1 but I have been very impressed with the IQ from the X1. RAW files come out a bit flat but they are very flexible and you can obtain some excellent results with minmal post processing. JPEGs vary quite a bit from the RAW files in both color and exposure. The X1 seems to push the exposure a bit with the RAW files, which is not always a bad thing as many people follow the whole “shoot to the right” mantra.  Along with the exposure differences, greens and blues are dramatically boosted in the out of camera JPEG files. I would imagine most people would shoot RAW or RAW + JPEG with the X1 and that would be my recommendation at this point. I’m sure the lens of the X1 has something to do with the IQ as well. The 35mm equivalent is perfect for all around use, especially when out on the street. The lens has very little noticeable distortion and sharpness is good even at the extreme edges of the frame.

One thing I absolutely LOVE about the X1 is the shutter sound. The shutter is DEAD quiet. You could fire off a sequence of shots in a library or church and no one would be the wiser. Because of its stealthy shutter and compact size, the X1 is a great choice for someone looking to stay off of the radar.

 

 

Other Observations

I’ve noticed a few oddities in my very short time with the X1 but I think they are worth mentioning. One of them is the onscreen meter and histogram. The meter works well but you have to constantly half press to get the meter to come up, this can be slightly annoying when shooting in manual mode. The histogram has the opposite problem. It’s there when you are framing which is good but then as soon as you half press the shutter, the histogram disappears. Why? What if there is a shift in light or you are trying to focus and recompose? That’s a real bummer.

The second quirk I noticed when shooting is the X1 doesn’t display what the camera will truly capture until the shutter is half pressed. This seems kind of strange to me. With my GF-1, if I apply exposure compensation, I see the screen get brighter and the histogram move to the right or left. With the X1, if you apply exposure compensation, the screen looks the same until you half press the shutter and then the screen will get brighter or darker. Seeing your inputs change in real-time is one of the benefits that comes with shooting in live view but for some reason Leica decided to nix this feature. Strange.

Another odd limitation of the X1 is there is no way to simply turn on the camera without removing the lens cap. If you turn on the camera with the cap on you are presented with an error that tells you to remove the cap. Until you remove the cap, the X1 is crippled. There were a several times where I just wanted to review an image or check to make sure I had my ISO set to my desired value but I didn’t want to take off the cap and shoot. Nothing major, just a minor frustration.

Be sure to check back for more on the Leica X1.

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