Part 1: Leica X1
Not a review, more an appreciation of a mechanism
The first whispers of a Mini 'M' were heard 95 years after Leitz first filed a patent application for a handheld landscape camera that was finally presented to the public some years later at 1925's Lepizig Spring Fair.
The intervening years of so much turbulent history saw Wetzlar's introduction of interchangeable - and mostly iconic - lenses and various, if only slight, changes in body shape but, some ten years into Photography's Digital Age Proper and the new Millennium, the tiny fixed-lens Leica X1 arrived on 9th September 2009 paying almost direct homage to the original in a shape that still sported the rather eccentric bottom-loading, but now of a battery and SD card rather than film emulsion.
Comes a time in life when photographic equipment is measured and assessed for its pocketability more than its effectiveness as a weapon to bludgeon ambitious snatch-thieves and, coming as if on cue on my birthday, the X1 was, of course, as irresistible as previously were a succession of screw-threaded models: M's, a CL, an R3 Electronic (a double-decker bus amongst the minis that almost needed its own trolley), various Digiluxes and D-Luxes and the first rangefinder digital M, the M8. Not being a reviewer with an early claim, as always with anything new 'Red Dot', a fairly long wait entailed but, when it did arrive, the X1's unpacking alone was an event that rivalled Swiss timepiece unveilings, its box a cabinet-style masterpiece.
Oskar Barnack's original 'Ur' (prototype) Leica of 1913, with a collapsible but non-interchangeable lens, using standard cinema 35mm film, became the pre-production 'Nullserie' Model '0' of 1923/4 before debuting in Leipzig as the Leica 1 (or Model A.) Something just over 850 units were offered on introduction with just short of 59,000 units produced in all before its production ceased in 1936, by which time Leica cameras were already into the III-series and now used, famously, by Henri Cartier-Bresson among others, as much for street and reportage photography as for landscape.
But to the object: immediately pleasing was the fact that, unless someone was being particularly creative, 'Made in Germany' is where a real Leica surely should have been and, somehow, out of the box and in the hand, it instantly had that Leica feel: unobtrusively solid, oozing simplicity and simply begging to be taken for a walk; but toute-de-suite. The initial offering was black and silver retro-styled, the all-black issue delayed a year or two, a sequence later repeated with the advent of its successor the X2; helps boost sales when they start trailing. Employing a relatively large APS-C 12.2MP CMOS sensor, said to be from Sony, the X1 sports a 24mm f2.8 Elmarit lens that extends almost an inch beyond its knurled mount ring when powered on. Powering on is instant, off a little tardy, that 24mm of Elmarit glass, by the way, equating to an almost-classic 36mm in 35mm terms.
Ready for a 'facilities tour' (and looking at the camera, in action mode, from behind rather than from the front), one could say that the simple top-plate is dominated left-side by a cylindrical pop-up flash that's low on power (GN5) but, as I never use it, that's really not an issue; what is, however, is that it occasionally makes a nuisance of itself by popping up at the slightest touch or when nudged by something in the bag. Moving to the right along the top is a standard accessory shoe, which can accommodate a larger, more powerful flash (SF24D) or, in my case, an optical viewfinder from Voigtlaender, at a fraction of the price of an original but well made and effective when a bright sun renders the screen view difficult.
Next comes the speed dial with 'A' and 1+ to 1/2000, the power switch with Single, Continuous firing and Timer settings surrounding the as-good-as-silent shutter release and, on the extreme right, the smaller knurled aperture dial with 'A' setting and f2.8 through f16 in one-third-stop intervals. Both dials could have been a trifle stiffer for my liking as they're quite easily tapped out of position.
On the front, the superb extending lens, a snap on cap, the Red Dot and, at 11 0'clock to the lens, a small, low-light autofocus-assist lamp that can be switched off if it proves annoying or discretion is required. Simple. But what's that knurled and THREADED ring around the lens for when Leica have never offered any sort of lens accessory for any of its X-es?
On the sides, a couple of strap lugs that look solid enough but I have to admit that '9920' is not my first X1: truly lightweight and hardly noticeable when worn as a 'necklace', my Ur-X1 almost hit a French pavement, caught just off the shoe before it terminally damaged itself as a lug parted company with the body. Off it went to an obliging Leica for repairs, with a request that a prematurely peeling leatherette covering should also be attended to. Back it came (not too quickly), the offending lug reinforced, but it wasn't long before the leatherette was looking like a tired railway-buffet sandwich again, so back it went to its maker. It never came back: a brand new '9920' did. All I can say? That's Service! On the right side, a sprung door opens on a mini-USB socket and an HDMI port. I'd forgotten they were there.
The base is quite plain, the tripod bush almost but not quite central and biased to the right of the lens. The battery/card door is well-fitting, if a little flimsy, but forget about quick changes of either when on a tripod: access denied. But, while the full-leather, Leica X2 case fits the X1 perfectly and looks a real but never-ready retro treat, it's the clever Gariz case that thoughtfully offsets the tripod bush by just over an inch to give the necessary access, albeit comfortably only to those with rubbery necks, stable blood-pressure and long, thin fingers.
When an optical viewfinder is being used, there's a tiny neon-green bulb on the back of the top plate that lights up to confirm autofocus, although there's also a distinct bleep that simultaneously does the same. At 2.7" the LCD is smaller than the current norm and its resolution isn't great, but it works. Arrayed top to bottom on the left-side of the monitor are small - but usable - oblong buttons for Play, Delete/Focus (depress this for a moment to move the focus point around the non-touch screen), White Balance (enough options with Auto doing a grand job), ISO (Auto to 3200 with 100 at the slow end) and a customisable Info. Top Right of the monitor there's a scrolling wheel that shifts menu items up/down and Playback images back/forth. Below that, the 4-way selector-dial surrounds the Menu/Set button, its ring used to magnify playback images, while clockwise from the top: EV can be set to +/-3; seven Flash settings; AF-AF Macro-MF and, finally, the Self Timer duration selector, but that's set in conjunction with the power dial on the top plate.
The Menu is delightfully simple but comprehensive and when using RAW plus jpeg, the Preset Film's 'Vivid' and 'B&W High Contrast' settings are fun to use while it's easy to recover the original images from the raw file should they prove too much of a good thing.
So, what does the X1 have going for it?
If your subject is still and your hand steady at slow speeds, the X1 has image stabilisation of sorts: it'll take two jpegs - one at a fast shutter speed, one slow - and combine them, but don't bank on it for critically sharp enlargements.
While its jpegs aren't the best, raw image quality is class-leading. Little wonder that it was the first compact approved for submissions to the Getty Images library: it really is that good - for its colour rendition, sharpness and overall image 'look'. Its metering and exposure are hard to fool and both its B&W and high ISO performance hard to beat.
Battery life could be better as could be its autofocus which, while largely accurate, is slow in getting there. It might not, therefore, be the best for rapid-fire street photography but more experienced users will know how best to apply it for that.
And finally we get to that knurled ring around the lens, which Leica first provided then totally ignored. Perhaps Wetzlar or Solms just wanted to be nice to the independent accessory-makers; who knows? Unscrew that ring and what do we have? An invitation for someone to be creative.
And the best of the creators seems to be Kiwi Fotos with its anodised aluminium Filter Tube LA-49X1 AP212, available on Amazon for a song: beautifully, solidly, matt-blackly made, the knurling of the original faithfully and accurately reproduced, it's a real steal. As its coding suggests, its takes standard 49mm filters and comes with a Leica-style, vented screw-in lens hood that threads into the filters themselves, so ideal for a circular polariser and for anyone still fortunate enough to have a good set of original, graduated Cromofilters; a chance for fresh, creative delights the old-fashioned and pocketable way. But do remember to give that tube one last, firm turn before action as you could be waiting for a fresh delivery in the post if you don't. The tube is also a great protector for the slightly vulnerable, telescoping lens and will keep the dust and drizzle off whilst dispensing with that rather awkward, original lens cap; certainly robust but also unattached. The Gariz half-case is solid protection for the base against butter-fingers or expiring strap lugs as, given the camera's balance, any accidental drop is likely to see damage to the Gariz but not to the substantially more expensive 'Made in Germany' parts.
Without these add-ons, the Leica X1 is already a great camera. With them, and a Cam-in strap, adjustable this time, it's just about complete: creativity filter-enhanced, as is its handling, with the tube effectively becoming a grip when cradled in the left hand, making filter rotation or adjustment that much easier and smoother.
Coming into its fifth year, it could well be that the X-series (X1, X2, X Vario) has already run its course as fashions and perceptions change, but for me the original X1 is a potential classic, a first of its kind and a 'keeper'. Properly handled it can produce stunning images in both colour - subtle or vivid ('Kodachrome-like' as someone remarked) - and Black & White and always with that specific Leica-look that few others can match.
But a fixed-lens rather than convenient zoom compact? They say slow food is good, maybe slow photography is too (and the X1's focusing helps in that respect) and it might be that actually walking to or into a picture or a composition is better than being pulled into one: I certainly enjoy the short walks.
Kronberg, January 2014
Next - Part 2: The Fuji X100