Leica X Vario at a glance:

  • 16.2-million-pixel, APS-C-sized, CMOS sensor
  • ISO 100-12,500
  • Leica Vario Elmar 18-46mm f/3.5-6.4 Asph zoom lens
  • 3in, 920,000-dot LCD screen
  • Street price £2,150
  • See Leica X Vario product shots

Leica X Vario review – Introduction

The launch of the Leica X Vario was a much-anticipated event. Prior to 2 June when the camera was announced, the rumour mills, message boards and tech websites were in overdrive with news and speculation of a ‘mini M’ – a compact system camera with a cropped-frame sensor that would accept Leica M-mount lenses and cost less than an M-series rangefinder camera.

What actually arrived was not a smaller M, but a larger X-series camera. The X Vario is the third in the company’s line-up of large-sensor compact cameras, and features a fixed 18-46mm f/3.5-6.4 zoom lens (covering the equivalent of 28-70mm on a full-frame camera) instead of the fixed 24mm of the X2 and 28mm of the X1. To those people expecting a mini M camera, this was a disappointment – but perhaps they should not put so much faith in rumours!

The Leica X Vario enters a rapidly growing and competitive market sector: that of the luxury, large-sensor compact camera. Fantastic products from the likes of Fujifilm, Ricoh and Sony give the X Vario some stiff competition, not to mention the many compact system cameras that are around at the moment.

The X Vario is unusual in that it is one of the first large-sensor compact cameras to feature a zoom lens instead of a prime lens. Leica says this is in response to customer demand for a more versatile machine.

Leica X Vario review – Features

At the heart of the camera is an APS-C sized, 16.2-megapixel, CMOS sensor that delivers images measuring 4928×3274 pixels. That’s not the highest resolution by today’s standards, but it is perfectly adequate for prints of up to A3+ size, and maybe even beyond.

At first glance the camera’s lens seems a bit restricted, with a telephoto limit of 70mm and a maximum aperture of f/3.5-6.4. This means that when shooting with the long end of the zoom on a cloudy day you’ll need an ISO of 400-800 to be able to avoid camera shake. However, Leica says the lens has been designed with image quality first in mind, and compromises to maximum aperture size have to be made in order to keep the size down to something portable.

A company spokesperson told AP: ‘When designing a new lens, our engineers focus on the interplay between performance, focal length, aperture and mechanical size.’ In other words, you can have a fast, high-quality prime or a slower, high-quality zoom, but if image quality is to be maintained then sacrifices have to be made. So, as Scotty from Star Trek once said, ‘You cannae change the laws of physics.’

Shutter speeds run from 30-1/2000sec and ISO sensitivity can be set anywhere between ISO 100 and ISO 12,500. The camera shoots JPEG files with a choice of two quality settings (Fine and Super Fine) and five resolutions. As with other Leica products, raw files are captured in the DNG open standard, which is readable by virtually every raw-processing software package ever made, and is good for archive purposes. The X Vario can capture frames continuously at 5fps, for a burst of eight frames when shooting JPEG + DNG raw.

Being a camera for experienced enthusiast photographers, or professionals wanting a take-everywhere camera that delivers great-quality results, you won’t find scene-type exposure modes. Instead, the aperture and shutter-speed dials have A settings that automate the selection of that setting for shutter-priority and aperture-priority modes, respectively. Set both to A and you have program mode, while set neither to A and you’re working in manual. It’s a simple, no-nonsense and likable way of working.

A built-in flash is available, but with a guide number of only 5m @ ISO 100. External units can be attached via the hotshoe, which is also used for electronic viewfinders, such as the 1.4-million-pixel Leica EVF 2 Viso-Flex.

Close focusing is pretty good for a large-sensor camera – focus down towards the minimum limit of 0.3m and the camera will tell you to zoom out to 70mm for the best results.

Leica X Vario review – 18-46mm zoom

The X Vario’s zoom optic has raised a few eyebrows, although not for the reasons Leica perhaps wanted. The most frequently made comment about the camera’s lens design relates to its speed – or lack of it. A maximum aperture of f/3.5 at the wide end of the zoom is not going to set the world on fire, and f/6.4 at the 70mm end could be seen as pedestrian. However, it’s worth stepping back for a moment and considering the challenge Leica faced when developing the X Vario.

The ideal zoom lens must be (1) small, (2) fast and (3) give great quality right across the image circle. In reality, though, only two out of these three ideals is achievable at any one time. Sure, you can get standard zooms that maintain f/2.8 throughout their range, but they are always large and heavy. Equally, we see f/3.5-5.6 kit zooms with entry-level DSLRs that are light and compact, but often leave something to be desired in terms of image quality. Given Leica’s wish to satisfy its customers’ desires for a more versatile X-series camera that still turns in great image quality, the company had no real alternative than to compromise on aperture size.

Perhaps f/6.4 is 1⁄2 stop too far, and f/5.6 would have resulted in less tutting and rolling of the eyes, but this is a camera that performs as well wide open as it does in the middle of its aperture range – and there aren’t many DSLR zooms you can say that about. The X Vario is a pretty good high ISO performer, too, don’t forget.

So, is the slow speed of the X Vario’s zoom nothing to worry about? Well, it certainly might limit you if you like shooting handheld in low-light conditions, but if you are more conventionally inclined then don’t be put off buying the camera because of its maximum aperture. It’s an otherwise versatile high-quality camera.

Leica X Vario review – Build and handling

Being a Leica, the X Vario is built better than some other cameras to a most satisfying degree. It feels solid without being too heavy and its controls move precisely without any play. Incorporating a zoom lens has made the X Vario larger than the X1 and X2. Yet while you won’t be putting it in your pocket, it will sit comfortably in a small bag and is easy to carry around all day. I found it to be a very discreet camera that didn’t attract unwanted attention.

Despite its (typically Leica) boxy shape, the X Vario is comfortable to hold, both at the eye and in live view mode. The minimalist design is lovely to work with and doesn’t detract from the picture-taking process. The top of the camera is home to a traditional shutter-speed dial featuring speeds from 1-1/2000sec, with speeds longer than this accessed through a thumbwheel on the back of the camera. Apertures are controlled in 1⁄3-stop increments by a smaller wheel. The shutter release is surrounded by a power switch that selects shooting mode – single or continuous.

The M-series-like design continues with the zoom and focus controls, both of which are barrels on the camera lens. The manual zoom is fast and intuitive to use, more so than motorised zooms, and I loved using it. The focus ring is well designed, too. The scale runs from 0.3m to infinity, beyond which is an AF setting that sets focusing to automatic. This means that coming out of AF to focus manually just requires a simple turn of the focus ring, which can be done with the camera at the eye.

The back of the camera is more compact-like, but still minimalist in design. A 3in, 920,000-dot screen dominates and is flanked on its left-hand side by buttons that provide access to the main menu and quick menus for adjusting focus mode and ISO. The only real handling problem is the camera’s four-way joypad controller that is used to navigate menus and scroll around magnified images. The up, left and right keys also provide quick access to exposure-compensation, self-timer and flash-mode options respectively.

While the joypad control itself is fine, it is situated in exactly the right place to be activated by the palm of your hand when holding the camera. I found myself on the self-timer or flash-mode menu screens several times while holding the camera with one hand.

Additionally, while every other joypad in the world uses a button at its centre as the OK or set selector, Leica has chosen not to do this, instead combining ‘set’ with the menu key on the far left of the camera. The centre of the joypad is instead marked ‘info’ and provides shooting data overlays while shooting and reviewing. This is frustrating because using the joypad and the menu/set button requires two hands. Furthermore, the menu/set button isn’t always the key that accesses menus – the right joypad is sometimes used. Confused? You will be!

All this could have been avoided by moving the set key to the centre of the joypad, making the menu button single-use, and having info on the down joypad hot key. However, this really is the only problem on an otherwise well-constructed camera that is highly enjoyable to use.

Leica X Vario review – Metering

The X Vario offers the standard selection of metering modes we’ve become accustomed to these days – multi-pattern, centreweighted and spot – which are selectable from the camera’s menu options. In practice, multi-pattern did a good job for the vast majority of the time, with JPEGs showing little evidence of underexposure or overexposure.

As with most other metering systems, the X Vario only got confused when the frame contained a predominance of light or dark tones, at which point it under or overestimated the correct exposure settings. In this case, exposure compensation can be applied by pressing the up joypad key and dialling in the desired correction (in 1⁄3-stops) with the thumb wheel. Repeated pressing of the up joypad key gives access to autoexposure bracketing (AEB) and flash exposure compensation.

Leica X Vario review – Dynamic range

Image: The dynamic range allows for a good level of detail in shadow areas

The JPEGs delivered by the X Vario really are some of the best we’ve seen straight from the camera, and this is typified by the camera’s uncanny ability to get the balance between bright highlights and dark shadows absolutely spot-on. Of course, JPEGs do have a physical limit as to how much information they can hold, but when things get a bit much the 14-bit DNG raw files have plenty of highlight detail to recover.

Images: There is a fair amount of detail resolved for a 16.2-million-pixel sensor, and highlight detail is well preserved

Leica X Vario review – Autofocus

Autofocusing is contrast-detection based, offering a choice between 11-point, single-point and spot modes (the latter being a smaller, more precise version of single-point AF). Face detection is also included, although when I used this it often didn’t latch on to faces as well as I expected.

In poor light, the Vario X takes its time to focus, but usually gets there in the end. This is something we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in most contrast-detection-based AF systems, but the camera also struggled in some situations where I expected it to do better. In bright sunlight things occasionally went wrong and I ended up with a completely out-of-focus frame. It’s hard to predict when this is going to happen, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on what is actually sharp once the camera has confirmed focus.

Unlike many luxury compacts and CSCs, the X Vario’s manual-focus mode is very usable, and offers a real alternative to working with AF. Simply turn the focus barrel on the lens away from its AF setting to set the focus distance. As soon as this is done, a magnified centre portion appears on the live-view display, helping you judge when proper sharp focus has been achieved. It would be nice to see a focus-peaking facility, too, with red edges outlining in-focus areas. Perhaps a future firmware update?

The X Vario can focus down to 0.3m in macro mode, which is pretty good for a large-sensor camera. Unlike other compacts, it does this at its longest zoom setting, not its widest angle, which gives more natural looking close-up images.

Image: Shot at 46mm at f/6.4, the lens is capable of producing a reasonably shallow depth of field. However, many would have preferred a larger aperture and even shorter depth of field to really throw out backgrounds

Leica X Vario review – Noise, resolution and sensitivity

These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the 18-46mm lens set to 23.5mm and f/3.5 . 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.

ISO sensitivities from ISO 100 to ISO 12,500 are offered in the X Vario’s menu, which can be accessed quickly with a push of the ISO button. It’s nice to see an ISO 100 setting, as opposed to the ISO 200 minimum of the Leica M Type 240, as this gives a bit more flexibility. An auto ISO feature is available and nicely implemented, with the ability to set a maximum ISO ceiling and the lowest shutter speed that the camera should go to before raising ISO sensitivity.

Given the X Vario’s relatively small maximum aperture, it is important that it performs well at higher ISO values, and thankfully this is the case. As expected, noise becomes more evident as you progress up through the ISO range, but this is nicely controlled. Detail is still well resolved and there is no smudging or blurring. Noise reduction in-camera or with the supplied Adobe Lightroom software does a great job of cleaning up images while preserving resolution. Somewhere between ISO 3200 and 6400 is probably the limit of what we’d call acceptable, and that’s good going for a camera with an APS-C-sized sensor.

The X Vario’s oh-so-controversial zoom lens turns out to be an excellent performer. At whatever aperture or zoom setting it is used, images are sharp from edge to edge with very little in the way of fall-off or distortion, although perhaps with just a trace of barrel at the wide end of the zoom. Chromatic aberration is minimal, with only small traces of purple fringing near the edges of the frame in high-contrast situations.

Other zooms can match this quality, but only when stopped down and perhaps not at the extremes of their focal-length range. Being able to have the confidence that, no matter how you shoot with the X Vario, you are going to get great-quality JPEGs straight from the camera, is a big plus point.

Leica X Vario review – White balance and colour

Image: The default colours from the Leica X Vario look natural

The camera didn’t seem to struggle with white balance in normal situations or with a predominance of one colour in the frame. Skin tones are nicely reproduced, too. Overall, the X Vario’s approach towards colour could be described as natural rather than punchy, but I prefer it this way. Those wanting more zingy colours and deep-blue skies should shoot DNG raw and use Adobe Lightroom’s Vibrance slider.

That said, the X Vario offers the ability to choose between standard, vivid and natural colour reproduction, as well as the neutral and high contrast black & white modes. These film modes are useful, without being over the top. It would have been nice to see some kind of in-camera raw editing, though, to enable users to choose their film mode retrospectively. Some colour filter simulation on the black & white modes also wouldn’t hurt.

Leica X Vario review – Viewfinder, live view and video

The 920,000-dot screen on the rear of the X Vario is a significant improvement on the 230,000-dot affair seen on the X1 and  X2. Image quality is easily enough to allow manual focusing in live-view mode, which is something that was difficult with other X-series cameras. Shooting in bright sunlight is tricky but manageable, and there aren’t too many reflections to distract when reviewing or composing.

An optional electronic viewfinder is available in the shape of the EVF 2 Visoflex. I didn’t have chance to use this with the X Vario, but I am familiar with the unit as it’s the same one available for the new M Type 240 as well as the older X2 camera.

As EVFs go, it’s a good example, with a 1.4-million-dot resolution and the ability to hinge up through 90° for easy shooting from low-down angles. In fact, it’s a pity the EVF 2 Visoflex isn’t included as standard. (It should be noted that Olympus’s VF-2 electronic viewfinder is the same as the EVF 2 Visoflex, but significantly cheaper).

The X Vario can capture full HD video at 30fps in MP4 format, which doesn’t need anything doing to it before it can be viewed and uploaded to sites like Vimeo and YouTube. The camera features a dedicated video capture control, so there’s no need to swap over to a movie mode. The manual-focus ring can be used to create some nifty pull-focus effects, and the film modes provide plenty of scope for creativity, particularly the black & white (high-contrast) setting. It’s a shame there is no external mic or headphone socket.

Leica X Vario review – The competition

The Leica X Vario doesn’t have much direct competition since it’s really the only large-sensor compact camera to feature a zoom lens. The closest competitor is Canon’s PowerShot G1 X, which has a 14-million-pixel 18.7×14.3mm sensor and a 28-112mm (equivalent) f/2.8-5.8 zoom, but this isn’t as large as the Leica’s sensor. The G1 X costs around £400.

There are plenty of fixed prime lens compacts available. Around the same price point as the Leica X Vario is the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 – a full-frame compact with a fast 35mm f/2 Zeiss lens. For £2,200, the RX1 delivers staggering image quality, but it is perhaps not as versatile as the Leica. Then there’s Fujifilm’s X100S, which features an APS-C-sized sensor, a fixed 35mm f/2 lens and costs £1,000.

Perhaps more competition comes from the compact system camera market, with a body and standard zoom combination like the Fujifilm X-E1 and XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS lens. The X-E1 is a similarly specified camera to the Leica, and its standard lens is not only faster but features built-in image stabilisation to keep things steady.

Leica X Vario review – Our verdict

For the discerning photographer (with deep pockets) the Leica X Vario produces good image quality from a small, lightweight body.

Initially it is hard not to be frustrated by the relatively small maximum aperture of the camera’s fixed zoom lens, especially when many of its comeptitors have fixed f/2 lenses or larger. However, the camera handles very well and produces great images, and for most types of photography that the Leica X Vario will be used for the f/3.5-6.4 aperture shouldn’t be an issue. Overall, the Leica X Vario is an enjoyable camera to use, but it does come at a very high premium.

Leica X Vario – Key features

The Leica X Vario has a hotshoe that is compatible with the Leica SF 24D flash unit.

Accessory socket
Below the hotshoe is a port that allows the Leica EVF 2 electronic viewfinder to be inserted. This EVF has a 1.4-million-pixel resolution.

Built-in flash
The Leica X Vario’s pop-up flash is released via a sliding latch on the rear of the camera. It has a guide number of 5m @ ISO 100.

Behind the door on the side of the camera is a mini USB 2.0 socket and an HDMI socket.

Image: The Leica X Vario is small enough for discreet documentary photography