Leica X2

When Ben reviewed the Olympus OMD-EM5 he made a compelling case for buying previous generation cameras: A few months ago (maybe?) I told Shawn [Blanc]: “I am beginning to think the best/smartest/cheapest way to buy a new camera is to wait until it’s a year old.” As a slave to the full-price annual iPhone upgrade,…

When Ben reviewed the Olympus OMD-EM5 he made a compelling case for buying previous generation cameras:

A few months ago (maybe?) I told Shawn [Blanc]: “I am beginning to think the best/smartest/cheapest way to buy a new camera is to wait until it’s a year old.”

As a slave to the full-price annual iPhone upgrade, the fact that one, two and three year old cameras are still perfectly usable and, in some cases, still the newest models offered by a manufacturer, makes me smile.

I read some of the reviews of the OMD, thinking that a Micro 4/3 camera system and a couple of great lenses might be a perfect way for this amateur to step up into the ‘prosumer’ market. When we travel my Better Half wields a Canon 7D and a bunch of expensive ‘glass’, as she calls it. When I say, ‘she wields’, what I really mean is, ‘I carry the bag with all the lenses and accessories, while she takes the pictures’. Being relegated to the pack mule is no fun, so I decided it was time to get a camera of my own to use when we travel. She can carry her own glass.

The last camera I bought was a Canon Digital IXUS75 (A.K.A PowerShot ELPH SD750). It packed a ridiculous 7.1 mega pixels and featured witchcraft-like ‘Face Detection’. I used it extensively on a trip I took to Australia in 2007. The pictures from that trip are predictably mediocre, exactly reflecting my ability as a photographer and the ‘consumer’ nature of the camera. Later that same year I bought the first iPhone.

I haven’t even switched on the Canon since 2007 but I’ve taken thousands of photos with every model of iPhone released since.

One of my big fears about the Micro 4/3 system was the interchangeable lenses. Having the option of changing the lens on a camera means that one thinks about changing the lens. Readers of this site can empathize: I imagined myself researching lenses, reading reviews of lenses, going to my local store and test driving lenses, and then inevitably buying lenses and attempting to use them.

What if I just…took photos, instead of thinking about lenses.

During my reading I stumbled on Steve Huff’s review of the Leica X2, in which he references its predecessor the Leica X1. Both cameras have 35mm-equivalent fixed lenses, very few ‘creature comforts’ (no video etc.) and apparently take wonderful photos.

The more I thought about it the more I liked the idea of trying a Leica. One of my architectural heroes, Harry Seidler, carried a Leica 35mm film camera around with him at all times and was told by his photographer brother to, “only use Leica cameras and Kodachrome film, which is archival”. Seidler adhered to this advice and published the best architectural photographs he took over a 50 year span in an amazing book called, “The Grand Tour”, which is well worth a look if you love architecture, or photography.

Leica enjoys something of a reputation for being either costly or expensive (and sometimes overpriced), depending on the opinion. If anybody reviewed the X2 (or any Leica) and claimed it to be excellent value, I couldn’t find it.

Gavin Stoker, in his Leica X2 Review for Photographyblog.com:

[The] gripe with Leicas largely appears to come down to the price tag, which sees them earmarked either as playthings of the rich or for successful pros only.

Joshua Waller’s first impressions for ephotozine.com:

From what we’ve seen so far, the X2 offers excellent image quality with low noise up to ISO3200, but without video and an optional electronic viewfinder it may only appeal to Leica fans, or those with a large wallet.

Mike Lowe slams the X2 for its price in his review for pocket-lint.com:

The Leica X2 is a bit like the Ferrari of the camera world. It looks gorgeous, has some enviable features, but it’s also extortionately expensive. […] This Leica is part statement piece, part camera. It’s lovable, but most will head straight for a “normal” compact and pocket the change.

Price, among other things, is a sticking point in T3.com’s review of the X2:

The Leica X2 is a bit of curio, to be honest. […] It comes across as slow, light on features, inflexible and expensive.

My feet felt a little chilly at this point. The prevailing opinion appeared to be that the X2 is overpriced. What good could it possibly do a rank amateur photographer, looking to move past an iPhone, as their primary camera?

A week later I sheepishly returned from my local camera store with a brand new X2, which raised some eyebrows at home: “You spent $2,000 on a compact? With a fixed lens? Are you mad?”

Maybe I was mad. Compared to the simplicity of the iPhone I found full manual mode totally confusing. Those first days with the X2 were filled with uncertainty and hesitation as I constantly checked my focal distance on the display, double checked aperture and shutter speed and then wondered why I kept missing shots.

Then I read an interesting post by photographer Alex Coghe about how he uses the Leica X2 for street photography. From here I delved into some traditional photography techniques for manual shooting, like the ‘sunny 16 rule’ and zone focusing.

Zone focusing with the X2 is an incredibly satisfying way to take photographs. If you’re used to auto focus it will seem odd but it introduces a really interesting constraint: The focal range can be fixed at a known distance, which means no guessing about what the autofocus will lock on to and no way to alter your composition with a zoom lens. Simply fix your focal range (in feet or meters), estimate the distance to your subject, move your feet and concentrate on nailing the composition.

After a few days of perseverance the uncertainty melted away and I found my ability to judge distance improved dramatically, allowing me to concentrate my attention on the subject and composition.

I’ve now been shooting with the X2 for just over a month and have almost never used its auto focus, instead preferring zone focus with full manual ISO/shutter speed/aperture (occasionally I use Aperture priority, to prevent screwing up my zone focus when moving in and out of shadowy areas). I’ve taken almost a thousand shots with the X2. Most of them are truly horrible, unsalvageable messes but I’m putting it down to the learning curve. I have no intention of getting rid of this camera because the keepers are incredible.

My biggest fear when buying the X2 was that it was going to be an over priced toy. Would I be a good enough photographer to to get anything out of it? I could have spent $1,000 less on a really decent M4/3 camera and a good prime lens. I could have bought a mid-range DSLR body. I could have bought a much less costly compact digital. But would I have used them? Would I have loved them?

It is my genuine opinion that the X2 is worth every penny of its $2,000 price tag. Professional versus amateur be damned. This camera makes me want to take it along whenever I leave the house, so I do. This camera makes me want to learn more about the masters of photography, so I have. This camera makes me want to take photographs, and I am. In some ways, this camera is very much like the iPhone; a beautifully designed object that you want to have with you all the time that encourages you take photographs.

If you take a lot of photos of fast moving subjects like children or dogs, or children playing with dogs, the X2 is probably unsuitable. If you need to take very wide angle photographs, or very close-up macro photographs, or use a tilt-shift lens to straighten out a tall building the X2 is probably unsuitable.

If you’re looking for a portable, light-weight camera that reproduces color beautifully and removes a lot of the analysis paralysis inherent with interchangeable lens systems, the X2 is fantastic choice.

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