Leica X1 at a glance:

  • 12.2 million effective pixels
  • APS-C-sized sensor
  • Fixed 24mm f/2.8 lens (equivalent to 36mm)
  • DNG raw format
  • Street price approximately £1,395

While a full-frame sensor of 35mm film proportions is seen by many as the most desirable option for DSLRs, an APS-C-sized device is akin to the Holy Grail for compact models.

Whereas full-frame DSLRs are now available from the mainstream manufacturers at a relatively affordable price, until now only Sigma, which is much better known for its lens production than its digital camera manufacturing, has offered a compact camera with an APS-C-format sensor.

Although it has its loyal devotees, the fact that Sigma has opted to use a non-standard sensor from Foveon may have restricted its compact cameras’ popularity.

The introduction of the X1 by Leica means that there is now an APS-C-format compact digital camera available from a manufacturer steeped in both camera and lens-production history. In photographic circles, the name Leica provokes a similar reaction to the Rolls-Royce, Bentley or Bugatti monikers among the motoring fraternity. It evokes an expectation of high build quality, excellent optics and superb images at a marriage-threatening price. The £1,395 X1, therefore, has a lot to live up to, but if it can deliver what we hope, the air could be ringing with the sound of smashing piggy banks.


As I mentioned earlier, the stand-out feature of the Leica X1 is its APS-C-sized CMOS sensor, which has an effective pixel count of 12.2 million.

As a compact camera it also has a fixed lens: a Leica Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 Asph that consists of eight elements in six groups with one aspherical element. This lens produces images approximately comparable to a 36mm optic on a 35mm camera. Its moderately wide angle of view is a logical compromise between a 24mm equivalent optic and a standard 50mm lens.

In keeping with its enthusiast and pro-level status, the X1 offers manual, aperture-priority and shutter-priority shooting in addition to program mode.

Unusually for a compact camera, the aperture can be adjusted in 1⁄3EV steps from f/2.8-f/22. Shutter speed, however, ranges between 30secs and 1/2000sec and can only be set in whole stops. There are no automatic scene modes to tailor the image to a particular subject – a fact unlikely to faze many enthusiast photographers.

Thoughtfully, Leica has opted to use the DNG raw-image format for the X1. These files are compatible with a wide range of image-editing software packages without the need for updates.

Even better, though, is that the price of the X1 includes a free download of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2.1, which many professional photographers use to process images. Conveniently, images may be captured as either raw or JPEG files, or as raw and JPEG simultaneously.

When set to its high continuous shooting speed, the X1 can capture JPEG images at a rate of 3fps, which is not far off what is possible with some entry-level DSLRs. The camera isn’t really designed for sports photography, but it can sometimes be useful to shoot continuously when photographing everyday life. The burst depth, at six images, is the same whatever the selected file format.

The X1 doesn’t have an extensive feature set – there’s no video mode or viewfinder, for instance – but there is a small built-in flash, a hotshoe for attaching any of the current range of Leica flashguns, an image-stabilisation system that captures and merges two images automatically, and a 2.7in, 230,000-dot LCD screen that provides a Live View of the scene.

Those who feel the need for a viewfinder must invest in the optional 36mm brightline optical device.

The X1 may not be flashy or offer a huge collection of exposure modes, but it is designed to let photographers who understand how to take control of a camera get on with the business of composing images.

APS-C sensor and f/2.8 aperture

In addition to the obvious benefit of producing lower levels of noise, a larger sensor allows greater control over depth of field.

This enables backgrounds to be blurred and subjects isolated from their surroundings when larger apertures are used.

As the Leica X1 has a lens with a fairly large aperture of f/2.8, it is possible to separate even quite close objects.

The key when restricting depth of field is to place the focus accurately.

Provided the light is good and the subject has reasonable contrast, the easiest way to do this is with the X1’s AF mode set to spot.

The AF point can then be moved to one of 195 locations by pressing the Delete/Focus button for a second.

Then use the navigation controls to select the correct point.

In most cases I found there is an AF point just where I needed it.

Images: Using an aperture of f/2.8 enabled me to blur even quite close objects in these shots

Build and handling

The X1 is one of those cameras that brings a smile to your face when you first hold it. As it is made from metal, it feels built to last, with a comfortable, well-balanced and reassuring weight about it. It feels well made and the design links to the Leica M series are clear.

Although it has quite a minimalist look, the controls that enthusiasts demand are all present and within easy reach. Two dials on the X1’s top-plate, each with an ‘A’ (automatic) setting, allow the user to select shutter speed and aperture values. When ‘A’ is selected on both dials, the camera is set to program mode. Setting the automatic option on just the shutter speed or the aperture dial sets the camera to aperture-priority or shutter-priority mode respectively. It’s a simple and elegant solution that allows the photographer to set the exposure without the camera being powered-up.

Helpfully, the exposure settings can also be displayed on the LCD screen, so they can be viewed while the scene is composed.

Leica has continued the elegant design of the X1 on its rear, with a neat array of rectangular buttons to the left of the LCD screen and four navigation buttons to its right. The latter controls also provide access to the exposure compensation, self-timer, flash and focusing options.

These buttons are surrounded by a slim wheel that rotates to enable the user to scroll through the options displayed on the monitor. It’s much quicker to use than repeated button pressing.

When I first used the X1, I was concerned that there appeared to be noticeable shutter lag. However, after a little experimentation and alternating between manual and autofocusing during this test, it became clear that the delay between pressing the shutter release and the image being captured is the result of the camera’s often sluggish AF response and not shutter lag. My initial analysis of the situation was confused by the poor visibility of the screen in the bright shooting conditions.

The X1 is also sometimes troubled by slow processing and the LCD often displays the message ‘Data Transfer!’ for around a second after shooting, before it clears and another image can be composed.

White balance and colour

Image: The X1 is small and discrete, making it a good choice for street photography. This colour original was almost monochrome, and I converted it to black & white post-capture using Adobe Photoshop CS4.

I primarily used the X1’s automatic white balance setting during this test and it performed well on most occasions. There were only a couple of times when it didn’t produce the result I was looking for. When shooting under mixed artificial and natural light, for example, I set the custom white balance manually.

Also, when shooting a scene that contained lots of leafy green foliage and mossy tree trunks on a sunny day, the automatic setting produced a rather yellow series of images. Had I been able to tell this at the time – the screen was difficult to see because of the bright ambient light – I would have switched to the daylight setting. Fortunately, I was shooting simultaneous DNG and JPEG files so I have raw images that are easy to adjust.

In its Standard Preset Film setting, the X1 can produce JPEG images that look very different from the raw files. Whereas the raw files usually have quite natural colours, on some occasions the simultaneously recorded JPEG files look artificial with higher contrast and greater saturation.

Pale-blue skies are a particular concern as they are often rendered an unnatural cyan tone, and green grass looks much too vibrant. The effect is most noticeable in overexposed areas as the X1 attempts to darken them to bring out hidden detail.


I found the X1’s general-purpose, 256-area multi-field metering system effective in a range of conditions, but some of my sunny landscape images are about 1⁄3EV too bright. Generally, though, it isn’t overly distracted by very bright or very dark objects within the scene and suggests sensible exposure settings in most situations. The only time I felt the need to activate the centreweighted or spot metering options was when shooting a bright scene framed in the window and surround of a very dark building.

As usual, I kept an eye on the histogram view during this test and occasionally reduced the exposure by 1⁄3EV or 2⁄3EV to retain the highlights.


Like other compact digital cameras, the X1 has a contrast-detection AF system. This offers six modes, with three using a single AF point and two using 11, plus the now obligatory face detection AF mode. There are normal and high-speed AF modes for both the single and 11-point AF modes, but using the faster option effectively lowers the LCD refresh rate so that the displayed image lags significantly behind the scene, negating the benefits of using it in the first place.

In the 11-point modes the camera can either be left to select the appropriate point by itself, or the user can narrow the selection down by choosing one of five groups of points to be used. This is useful in quick-shooting situations, as the photographer retains some control over the location of the point of focus. Where possible, though, I prefer to use the normal single-point or spot AF mode, as they allow me to place the focus fairly precisely.

In good light, the X1’s AF system can perform well, but it is prone to indecision in anything less than perfect light. On a couple of occasions, it turned the AF rectangle green to confirm that focus had been achieved when the subject wasn’t sharp.

On several occasions I was unable to get the camera to focus automatically, so I had to switch to manual focus mode. Although the screen can be set to display an enlarged view of the scene, I found this was of little help as the low-resolution image doesn’t display sufficient detail for really accurate focusing.

Subjects closer than 60cm require the macro AF option, but this only goes down to 30cm, which is further way than we would expect for a compact camera, but respectable for a DSLR standard lens.

Resolution, noise and sensitivity

These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using matching 105mm macro lenses. 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. As our resolution images show, the X1 is capable of resolving a lot of detail when images are saved as raw files.

Not surprisingly, given its APS-C sensor, it is on a par with many 12-million-pixel APS-C-format DSLRs.

However, when images are recorded as JPEG files the resolution drops considerably. In fact, the quality of JPEG images is quite disappointing, and given the relative convenience and wide compatibility of the DNG raw format, I would recommend that this file format be used for most occasions.

If JPEGs are required direct from the camera, the results are better if the sharpening is turned to its lowest setting, as in its default setting the edges of elements within the image are quite harsh and haloing is visible when shots are inspected at 100% on the computer screen.

The area between these halos is also rather soft and mushy. Incidentally, there is no option available to adjust the level of noise reduction.

Noise isn’t a major concern with images from the X1, even when they are taken at the maximum sensitivity setting of ISO 3200. Chroma noise is there in raw images, but it isn’t excessive and has a fine texture with no sign of any patterning or banding. High-sensitivity shots look good in black & white.

I also found that the image-stabilisation system, which operates at shutter speeds of between 1/4sec and 1/30sec, and sensitivities of up to ISO 1600, works well. It captures and merges two images automatically, with one being taken at a faster shutter speed to provide the detail, while the other, longer exposure gathers the colour information.

Barrel distortion is only just noticeable with close linear subjects and slight chromatic aberration is occasionally present along some high-contrast edges.

Image: JPEG images are darker than the raw files straight from the camera. Lighter parts of the sky in the JPEG version are also a bit cyan

Dynamic range

For a modern APS-C-format camera, the X1 has a relatively restricted dynamic range of 10.5EV, but this is very respectable for a compact model.

As usual with this type of camera, the X1 can display a histogram view of the scene before it is captured as an image, so exposure adjustments can be made to ensure any highlights are retained without overdarkening the shadows. Surprisingly for a modern digital camera, the X1 doesn’t have a selectable dynamic-range optimisation mode to brighten shadows or darken highlights in high-contrast situations.

Image: This graph shows the brightness values recorded by the test camera when it is used to photograph a stepped graduation wedge

The wedge has transmission values in 1⁄2EV steps ranging from 0 to 12EV. The camera’s exposure is set so the 12EV section in the wedge has a brightness value of 255.

Software analysis of the image then determines the recorded brightness values of all the other steps and calculates the camera’s dynamic range.

Viewfinder, LCD and live view

As I have already mentioned, the X1 doesn’t have a built-in viewfinder, but an optional unit is available for £250. This slips into the camera’s hotshoe and provides a bright, clear view of the scene, with brightlines indicating the framing of the 24mm (36mm equivalent) lens.

The viewfinder proves useful when it is too bright to see the image on the LCD screen clearly, but it cannot display any shooting information. However, provided the ambient light isn’t too bright, it is sometimes possible to see the focus confirmation light on the back of the camera while looking through the viewfinder.

Given the price of the X1, I am surprised that its 2.7in LCD screen only has a resolution of 230,000 dots. This is very low by modern standards, and even though there is a magnified view, there just isn’t enough detail visible to be absolutely confident when focusing manually. As ever, the screen is difficult to see outside, so it is sometimes tricky to tell if the camera has managed to get the subject sharp.

On several occasions when composing and reviewing shots during this test, I noticed that the on-screen image was less saturated and had lower contrast than the final captured image. The screen refresh rate is also quite slow, especially in low light, and the image sometimes appears to freeze or blur any movement. It makes shooting a moving subject very difficult.

The competition

Sigma is the only other manufacturer to offer a compact camera with an APS-C-sized sensor, in the form of the DP1, DP2, and the DP2s.

Image: Sigma DP2

These cameras have a Foveon 3X Direct Image sensor (CMOS), which produces a full-colour signal at each photosite. Sigma claims this enables the 4.6-million-pixel cameras to produce images comparable with 14-million-pixel models. However, our tests of the DP1 and DP2 indicate that seven or eight million pixels is nearer the mark.

With a street price of around £1,395, the X1 costs more than many entry-level DSLR kits, although these are bulkier, and a compact-styled hybrid camera like the 12.1-million-pixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 is the more likely competition.

Image: Panasonic Lumix GF1

This camera, which accepts interchangeable lenses, can be bought as a kit with the Lumix G Vario 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens, or the Lumix G Vario 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 Asph Mega OIS.


The Leica X1 looks and feels like a proper camera that is worthy of the Leica name, and it is capable of recording high-quality raw files.

However, it is let down by its poor AF performance, low-resolution screen and intermittently slow processing. Those who have grown up using Leica M-series cameras may feel that an AF system is anathema, but the problem with focusing manually with the X1 is that the view on the LCD screen isn’t clear enough to be confident or accurate.

Fortunately, there is a distance scale that appears on the LCD when the manual focus option is activated, and this enables hyperfocal distance focusing.

A pricetag of £1,395 is more commonly associated with a high-end, enthusiast-level DSLR than a compact camera and, like most photographers, it is not a price I could pay at the drop of a hat.

Despite this, I was excited at the prospect of testing the X1 and was genuinely hoping that it would be the compact camera I really wanted to own. However, afterwards I was left feeling deflated. I have some nice shots, but getting them was more frustrating than I had expected.