Along with the 35mm M9 rangefinder and űber-expensive medium format S2, the X1 reviewed here is the more affordable of the three digital cameras designed and made by Leica in Germany.
Adopting a 12-megapixel APS-C format CMOS sensor with a fixed focal length Leica 35mm equivalent f/2.8, that retracts into the camera body the X1 is by far the smallest of the trio too, boasting a design and similar dimensions reminiscent to that of the original pre-war Leitz rangefinder cameras.
It has the same rounded body that can be found on the modern day classic 18-megapixel full-frame M9, each harking back to the days of the 35mm cassette, but thereafter the similarities end. It lacks a rangefinder system for focusing, or indeed any built-in optical finder, relying instead on the large 2.7-inch LCD to the rear for composition and a contrast-detection system for AF.
If you’re feeling flush, though, the X1 boasts an excellent, bright and clear optional optical viewfinder, but it will set you back a further £204 ex VAT. Ouch. A small LED placed near the accessory shoe flashes when the AF system has found focus, but other than that there’s no further shooting data as you might expect with an EVF.
Despite the metal body, in the hands the X1 feels strangely delicate. On the top plate two machined dials provide the user with settings for the shutter-speeds and, interestingly, apertures. Both dials have an Auto setting, for shutter and aperture-priority exposure modes while aligning the two gives you the handy program mode. It’s neat, but with aperture dial close to edge and not particularly stiff to turn we found it occasionally nudged inadvertently.
At the rear the X1 has similar controls and layout to the M9. The Leica’s various menus are straightforward to navigate but there’s one particularly frustrating anomaly. As part of the direction-pad, a dedicated self-timer button will only function if the shutter release lever is set to the self-timer mode.
As well as an additional command dial, which can be used for scrolling through menus, playback images and for manual focusing. The latter is handy particularly when used with the enlarged view option, not just for confirming focus accuracy, but also for reducing shutter-lag.
It’s a likely deal-breaker for those who had wanted the X1 for street photography, as the various AF system options are all leisurely in operation. The flip-side is that focus accuracy is some of the best we’ve seen, and the 35mm f/2.8 equivalent lens is top-notch in terms of optical quality. Wide open the lens is sharp out to the corners and needs only closing down a stop or two to produce its best performance.
Light fall off, or vignetting, was low for this type of compact too, with the corners just 0.7 stops darker at maximum aperture. Unlike some rivals the X1’s image processing engine doesn’t remove chromatic fringing, distortion or the vignetting, as each are visible in JPEGs when scrutinized. But in each case they’re trifling.
Another highlight is the auto WB. Even under difficult mixed lighting at high ISO’s the X1 produced low noise with truly excellent colors. We’re not so enthused about the Vibrant color mode, greens were too garish for our liking but otherwise Leica’s processing engine produced brilliantly sharpened JPEGs that even professional retouchers would find difficult to replicate.
The X1 is something of a conundrum then. On the one hand there’s no faulting of the snaps it can produce, but the speed of operation is a burden at times and like every Leica, they really don’t come cheap.
Leica X1, taken with a Nikon D3s with 85mm f/1.4 AF-S at f/1.4 (notice the slight spherochromatism of the Nikkor at maximum aperture).
It would be nice if the lens was as compact as it is shown in the first image, but that's not the case. There are two extending barrels, adding another couple of centimeters to the overall length but it's well made and there's very little movement unlike some rivals offerings.
The optional Leica finder is a must for day-to-day operation. Note the two command-style dials to the rear - the upper most is used for manual focusing and scrolling through the menu / picture memory - the two shooting dials on the top-plate are used for shutter speed / aperture selection.
Poor light and shot at ISO3200. No additional noise reduction.
Abysmal lighting saw off a Sony NEX 3 and Sigma DP2 I was using at the same time, the Leica X1 had by far the better white-balance of the three. ISO3200.
The first of a sequence of five shots, taken in continuous mode. Believe it or not this was taken (mistakenly) at ISO1600.
Black and white conversions (in Lightroom) look good from the X1.
Out of camera JPEG. ISO100 f/5.6 but set to vibrant - makes for punchy if somewhat garish greens.
If you needed any convincing about the quality of Leica optics, then take a look at this MTF 50 chart produced in Imatest. Central sharpness is consistently good throughout the aperture range with the edges only behind slightly over the first couple of stops. That's what you're paying for.
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Read our review of the full-frame Leica M9 here, and the APS-H Leica M8.2 here. We've recently added a review of the new Fujiflm FinePix X100 here.
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