With its instantly recognisable style, a 16.2-million-pixel, APS-C-sized sensor and fixed 24mm f/2.8 lens, we find out whether the Leica X2 is a street photographer’s dream
Leica X2 at a glance:
- 16.2-million-pixel, APS-C-sized CMOS sensor
- Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 lens
- ISO 100-12,500
- Optional EVF
- Metal body
- Street price around £1,575
It has been almost three years since Leica released its X1 compact camera. At the time, it faced little competition as the only other compact cameras with large APS-C-sized sensors were the Sigma DP1 and DP2. Since then, the market has shifted away from DSLRs, and compact system cameras have become the largest area of growth.
Faced with this new demand for smaller cameras with larger sensors, compact cameras have had to raise their game, and Sigma’s DP2 is now only one of many compacts featuring a large sensor that will compete with the Leica X2. For instance, Sony has recently announced the Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, which has a 1in sensor, while Canon’s PowerShot G1 X, with its near APS-C-sized sensor, has received much praise. However, it is the APS-C-format Fujifilm FinePix X100 that will provide the most direct comparison with the Leica X2. With so much competition, it will be interesting to see where the X2 sits among the current crop of cameras.
There are only a few differences between the Leica X1 and X2. The most significant change is the 16.2-million-pixel, APS-C-sized CMOS sensor, which is 4 million pixels more than in the X1. Along with this increase in resolution, the new sensor has an expanded sensitivity, with a maximum ISO 12,500 setting compared to just ISO 3200 in the X1. A further significant change is the addition of an accessory port, which allows an electronic viewfinder to be added to the X2’s hotshoe. I’ll cover this in more detail later.
One of the reasons Leica is held in such high esteem is the quality of its lenses. Optically, the X2 is unchanged from the X1, and is fitted with a fixed Leica Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 lens. As the X2 uses an APS-C-sized sensor, the 24mm lens offers the angle of view of a 36mm lens when used on a full-frame camera. This is a fairly standard focal length, but it is wide enough for landscape images and street photography, while being just about long enough for documentary portraiture. In short, the camera should appeal to travel and documentary photographers, in much the same way as the Fujifilm FinePix X100 does with its 23mm f/2 lens.
As the Leica X2 is designed with the enthusiast and professional photographer in mind, it is no surprise to see that once again the Adobe DNG raw format is used for raw image capture. This format is widely compatible with most raw-conversion software, including the superb Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4, the full version of which comes included with this camera.
There are few shooting modes on the X2. It is very much a camera for the ‘conservative’ photographer, with basic aperture and shutter priority and manual exposure modes. Shutter speeds range from 1/2000sec to 30secs, in 1⁄3EV steps.
Should more illumination be needed, there is a flash hotshoe compatible with Leica’s SF 24D and SF 58 flashguns, as well as a built-in pop-up flash, the design of which has been changed since the X1. The older camera has a flash that pops up when it is pressed down, but this causes it to sometimes pop up when accidentally pressed while the camera is in use. Some photographers have even reported that it popped up while taking a slight knock in a camera case.
This time, the pop-up flash, while still sunken into the X2’s top-plate, is activated not by pressing it down but by releasing a small catch on the rear, just to the left of the accessory port. The flash also has a hinged bracket that raises it higher than the previous flash, moving it a little further away from the lens, which in turn helps to produce a more flattering effect for portraits and a reduction in redeye.
Image: Raw files reveal that the lens does suffer from chromatic aberrations, but these are automatically removed in-camera for JPEG images
Leica Elmart 24mm f/2.8 Asph
The Leica X2’s 24mm f/2.8 lens comprises eight elements, arranged into six groups, with one aspherical element, which should help to reduce distortion and aberration. The Elmarit designation is used by Leica to describe any of its lenses with an f/2.8 aperture.
Having a fixed rather than a zoom lens on the X2 means that the lens can maximise the potential resolution of the sensor, rather than be compromised by the complicated optics of a zoom. In this respect, the Leica Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 Asph is very good. There is little loss of sharpness in any of the corners, making it useful for landscape images. Curvilinear distortion is also kept to an absolute minimum and won’t really be noticeable unless the user is shooting objects with straight lines at close to the minimum shooting distance.
Faint chromatic aberrations are visible towards the edges of raw files, but have been removed in JPEG images.
Image: The 35mm (equivalent) lens sometimes left me feeling a little far from documentary subjects
Build and handling
Even if the Leica X2 weren’t carrying the famous ‘red-dot’ logo, the camera would still be unmistakably a Leica. The metal top plate, black leather-effect body-wrap and simple lines show the lineage of the Leica X2, and again, it helps cement in our minds the expectations we should have of the camera.
Generally, the X2 is a very simple affair. On its top plate sit two control dials – one for the aperture and one for shutter speed – as well as the shutter button. The power switch is also on the top plate and doubles up as the single or continuous shooting mode selector.
On the rear of the camera is a fairly standard button arrangement, allowing direct access to white balance, ISO, exposure compensation, flash, self-timer and focusing modes. Although the buttons on the rear are nicely positioned, they are raised from the back of the camera and, for want of a better expression, ‘clicky’ and ‘plasticky’ when pressed. There is a lack of finesse when it comes to the rear buttons, which is in contrast to the otherwise superb build quality that distinguishes Leica.
All other settings are accessed via the on-screen menu, which is understated, to say the least. The 38 menu options are, in fact, all on the same single menu list. There are no submenus or different categories, just a list. This isn’t the first time we have noted this on a Leica – the menu is basically the same as that on the M9, and while I’m not a fan of overworked, complicated and over-illustrated menu systems, a few subcategories would have been useful. That said, the menu’s simplicity makes it easy to use and, anyway, the settings that are most commonly changed are found among the first dozen. I suppose my gripe is that when I am paying so much money for a high-quality camera, I want a menu that doesn’t feel like an afterthought. Overall, though, the Leica X2 is a pleasure to use and has the ‘feel’ of a film camera.
Although it is described as a compact camera, the larger sensor in the X2 makes it bigger than most consumer compacts. This isn’t much of an issue, however, as it will still fit into a large coat pocket, and it doesn’t weigh enough to be burdensome when exploring a new city. In fact, the X2 has a point-and-shoot quality about it, especially given its fixed lens and simple control system. In many ways, the fewer options in terms of control offer more freedom to just get on with taking better photos.
White balance and colour
There are five colour settings on the Leica X2, comprising standard, vivid, natural, b&w natural and b&w high contrast. The saturation and contrast can be adjusted separately, and each of these also has five different strength settings.
Of these colour modes it is best to avoid vivid, unless the saturation is set far lower than the default standard setting. Colours are far too intense, which has an adverse effect on bright blue skies. Bright areas that are almost beyond the camera’s dynamic range are saturated, but due to the lack of definite colour detail they are shown as cyan rather than blue. I even had some images that faded from cyan to blue across the scene.
In standard and natural modes, with AWB set, blue skies look better. In fact, they look almost as if a polarising filter has been used. I would recommend using the natural mode and just adding a touch more saturation and contrast to achieve an image that is more ready for printing straight from the camera.
Setting the camera to its black & white shooting modes, I found that the b&w natural mode was a little too flat. Switching to the b&w high contrast mode was better, but even then I found that I was increasing the contrast to its highest setting to really get punchy black & white images. This is, of course, entirely subjective and other photographers may prefer a flatter image with more shadow detail.
One of the advantages of using the DNG raw format is its compatibility with almost all raw-editing software. This makes it easy to correct the colours of images shot with the X2, and to really allow the images to fulfil their potential.
Image: I found the in-camera b&w high contrast mode could actually do with some more contrast. Pictured is a converted DNG raw file compared to the in-camera JPEG
One of our criticisms of the Leica X1 is that its autofocus is slow. Thankfully, this is an area where the Leica X2 has improved upon its predecessor, but while the AF is now faster, it is still not quite as fast as would be expected for a camera with a fixed-focal-length lens.
The contrast-detection AF assertively moves the lens to the point of focus before a green square is displayed to show that focus is achieved. The system is prompt, without being snappy. Recent compact system cameras have made real advances in the speed of contrast-detection AF, and while the Leica X2 is faster than the X1, it still lags a little behind the best focusing speeds that compact system cameras have to offer. In testing, however, I didn’t find the AF speed to be a huge issue. The subjects the X2 will be directed at are likely to be static ones, such as cityscapes, or those for which the camera will be pre-focused, like street photography or candid portraits.
The X2 also has face-recognition AF, which detects faces as soon as they enter the frame. I found that for most of the test I set the X2 to 1-point AF mode. An 11-point mode is also available, which automatically selects one of 11 points around the centre of the frame. The final AF option is spot focus, which uses a much smaller AF area to allow focusing with more precision. There are 196 possible positions when shooting in both the AF point and AF spot modes, although the very edges of the frame are unavailable, but as these areas are rarely used for the point of focus it shouldn’t be an issue.
Manual focusing is possible on the X2, and is electronically controlled via a dial on the rear of the camera. A magnified view is displayed in the centre of the screen, but its relatively low resolution means it is a little tricky to find the exact sharpest point of focus. Again, this should not present a real issue, as the X2 is unlikely to be used in manual focus all that often.
The Leica X2’s metering system is fairly traditional. Its evaluative metering is called smart multizone metering, and on the whole it works well. On a few occasions I added 1⁄3EV to some exposures. This was usually in slightly overcast weather, where the bright sky caused the main subject of the image to be backlit and, as a result, a little underexposed. Of course, this tendency to underexpose in such conditions is a characteristic common to most metering systems, and it is easy enough to dial in the compensation. However, I would have preferred a dedicated control dial, rather than requiring a button press first. This would make the X2 feel even more like using a film camera, and a dial could have been added to the lens barrel, which, although bevelled, currently does not rotate and serves no function. Centreweighted and spot metering are also available.
I found the dynamic range of the Leica X2 to be good without being outstanding. Generally, the evaluative metering exposes images to avoid any burnt-out highlight detail, which can cause underexposure in shadow areas.
It is possible to increase the brightness of shadow areas, but only by around 2EV before colour noise becomes very apparent, even at ISO 400.
Image: Exposed for the detail in the sky, this image shows how much shadow detail can be recovered
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the fixed Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 Asph lens. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
Raw images taken with the Leica X2 show about as much detail as you would expect from a camera with a 16.2-million-pixel sensor. JPEGs, however, are a little underwhelming, only reaching around 24 on our test chart when shooting at ISO 100, which is about what you’d get from a 12-million-pixel sensor.
More detail can be revealed from the DNG raw files, with images taken at ISO 100 reaching almost 28 on our test chart. This is about on a par with most other 16-million-pixel sensors. The DNG raw images sharpen nicely in Adobe Camera Raw, and it is easy to control colour noise as the sensitivity increases.
Noise is relatively well controlled at low ISO sensitivities, but is visible at ISO 1600. At ISO 3200, luminance noise can be seen, despite apparent attempts to smooth it out in JPEG files. At this sensitivity there are only slight signs of chroma noise in shadow areas.
The maximum ISO 6400 and ISO 12,500 settings are actually best avoided as luminance noise is very apparent in each. In fact, at ISO 12,500, it appears that there has been a lot of sharpening and contrast applied to compensate for flat images that have had luminance noise reduction applied. The overall effect is not very flattering.
I would recommend that ISO 3200 be the maximum setting that most photographers should consider using.
When converting raw files at ISO 6400, it is possible to reduce colour noise almost completely, but to keep detail some luminance noise must be retained.
The resulting images are just about usable, if not ideal. Even when shooting raw, the maximum ISO 12,500 seems a step too far, and it is difficult to find a suitable compromise between noise and resolution detail.
The best option is to convert these images to black & white and add a hint of speckled grain effect, to make them appear like a push-processed film.
Image: Taken at ISO 12,500, raw images have a lot of luminance and chroma noise. This is reduced in JPEG files, but at the expense of detail
Viewfinder, LCD and live view
New to the Leica X2 is an accessory port that allows the Leica EVF-2 viewfinder to be attached. This is the same 1.4-million-dot electronic viewfinder as the Olympus EVF-2. In fact, I mounted the Leica viewfinder on an Olympus XZ-1 compact camera and it worked perfectly. This is interesting, as the Olympus viewfinder can be used on the Leica X2. Not only is the Olympus EVF-2 viewfinder around £100 cheaper, but it is also available in a silver finish, which will complement the silver version of the X2 rather nicely.
I really enjoyed using the X2 with the Leica viewfinder. The combination works well and once again it gives the feeling of using a traditional film camera. The viewfinder is bright, with a good refresh rate, and it certainly displays a better-resolution image than the rear LCD screen.
Of course, electronic viewfinders aren’t to everyone’s taste, so thankfully there is also an optical, hotshoe-mounted viewfinder also available. The Brightline Optical Viewfinder has the advantage of not relying on the camera’s batteries and being brighter than the electronic display. It is also cheaper and will appeal to more traditional photographers.
Whether the electronic or optical viewfinder is preferred, I would recommend that one of the viewfinders be purchased with the X2, due to the poor-quality LCD screen. While most manufacturers now use at least a 3in monitor, the X2 offers a smaller 2.7in, 230,000-pixel (690,000-dot) display. Its specification really is quite dated now, with even £300 compact cameras offering 3in, 921,000-dot screens. The resolution makes it difficult to discern details, and as the screen is also fairly reflective it is difficult to see in bright sunlight.
Using the viewfinders really changes the experience of using the camera, and I would recommend that potential purchasers of the Leica X2 also factor in the cost of buying one of them. Of the two viewfinders I actually enjoyed using the EVF more. It offers a high resolution, with all shooting information, and acts as an angle finder, allowing the user to shoot at low-angles simply by rotating the hinged finder through 90°.
As a camera designed purely for photography, there is no video-shooting option in the Leica X2, and neither should there be.
The Leica X2 has a lot of competition, although not all of it in the form of fixed-lens, large-sensor compact cameras. Almost all compact system cameras are potential rivals, with the added advantage of having interchangeable lenses.
Image: Fujifilm FinePix X100
However, the Fujifilm FinePix X100 is the most obvious rival. Unlike the X2, the X100 has a lower-resolution, 12-million-pixel sensor, but a similar 23mm f/2 lens. At around £680, it is also less than half the price of the X2.
The Canon PowerShot G1 X is also a possible contender. This costs around £700 and has a 14-million-pixel sensor, which is a ‘cropped’ version of the 18-million-pixel sensor used in Canon’s EOS DSLRs. It has the added advantage of a 28-112mm (equivalent) f/2.8-5.8 zoom lens, which offers more versatility.
Image: Canon PowerShot G1 X
In what is becoming a very competitive and overlapping market, the Leica X2 stands out as a high-quality, well-built camera, with a sharp lens and good image quality at low sensitivities. Sadly, however, the X2 has in many ways arrived a few years too late. Cameras such as the Fujifilm FinePix X100 will provide strong competition, and many photographers will instead opt for a compact system camera.
The lack of any finesse to the camera’s buttons and on-screen menu is a little strange given the high quality of the rest of the body, and the screen is also looking somewhat dated. However, the accessory socket and optional EVF are very welcome improvements over the previous X1.
Lacking many additional features, the Leica X2 is a very conservative camera, designed and built for photographers who want the convenience of a digital model but with the high quality of a professional film compact. However, with such a high price tag, many may look elsewhere for a better screen, or the convenience of a 24-70mm zoom lens.
Leica X2 – Key features
The internal pop-up flash reveals itself from the top plate on the left-hand side of the camera and is accessed via this switch.
There is currently only one accessory for this port, the Leica EVF-2.
As well as the electronic and optical viewfinders for the Leica X2, there is a range of other accessories. The most notable of these are the handgrip, which costs around £100, and the brown leather Ever Ready case, which is around £150.
On the side of the Leica X2 is an HDMI port. This allows an HDMI cable to be connected so that images can be viewed via a compatible television screen.
Leica quotes that the Lithium-Ion battery supplied with the X2 should be able to take around 450 exposures from a full charge. I found this figure to be accurate, and would feel comfortable taking the X2 away for a weekend without needing the charger.
As well as being compatible with SD, SDHC and SDXC memory cards, the Leica X2 also has 110MB of built-in memory.
This wheel rotates around the control buttons to allow menus and images to be quickly scrolled.
The hotshoe not only allows the use of Leica-compatible flashguns, but also holds the optical and electronic viewfinders.