Last Act: Curtain falls on the Leica X Vario
Leica’s X Vario — a camera that polarised opinion from the day it was announced — has been discontinued according to the B&H website in the USA. The fixed-lens 35mm Leica X (Typ 113) is also listed as no longer available. Both were good cameras and, in the case of the X Vario, I had a lot of fun using the compact zoom and found it to be a congenial travel companion on many occasions.
The X Vario was unfairly damned from day one because of its perceived “slow” zoom, ranging from f/3.5 to f/6.4, and it never fully recovered from the initial criticism. For my part, though, I never found the slow lens a hindrance and appreciated the fact that the Vario-Elmar 18-46mm zoom lens was optically superb. To have introduced a wider aperture range would have increased the size of the lens to unacceptable proportions and that is precisely why Leica decided on the “slow” maximum aperture of f/3.5. The Leica X, on the other hand, didn’t suffer from this perceived handicap. Its f/1.7 Summilux lens was plenty fast enough to compete with the main opposition, the Fuji X100. Yet even this didn’t save it.
While much attention was focused on the slow lens of the X Vario, there was one overwhelming reason why neither the XV nor the X were outstandingly successful. It can be summed up in one word: Viewfinder.
Or lack thereof. The decision to follow the X1 and X2 with a new range of viewfinderless cameras was a mistake. It was the external accessory viewfinder that ultimately killed both the X Vario and the X. Very few photographers now want to stick an accessory viewfinder in the hotshoe when there are so many cameras — from the Fuji, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony ranges for instance — that combine good performance with a sensible built-in finder.
Incidentally, let’s not confuse these two APS-C mirrorless cameras with the new Leica M10 rangefinder. Sure, if you want an electronic viewfinder on the M10 you have to slot the Visoflex unit into the hotshoe. In the case of the new M, using an external electronic finder is entirely acceptable. Most M10 owners will spend 90 percent of their time with the optical rangefinder and that is why they will buy the camera. The Visoflex EVF is an accessory, rather than a necessity as it is with the X cameras.
If Leica had re-engineered the X Vario and X to incorporate a finder (perhaps in place of the flash unit) both cameras would have been more popular and would probably still have a lot of life left in them.
In my opinion Leica would be wrong to introduce similar future cameras without a built-in viewfinder. A tiny camera without a viewfinder, such as the Panasonic LX15 (which I covered here) is perhaps acceptable but not a camera with the pretensions of the X Vario or the X. The Q, with its marvellous built-in finder, has shown us the future. Without doubt, if the Q had had to rely on an external viewfinder it would not have been one quarter the success it has been.
This brings me to the T, or TL as it is now called. This camera also suffers from viewfinder withdrawal symptoms. The Visoflex looks even more ugly on the little T than it does on the M10. Good as it is, to have it sitting on top of the TL is an anachronism.
I was disappointed when the updated TL was introduced because the opportunity to add a viewfinder was missed. I had hoped for a complete redesign, bringing the camera more into the traditional camp rather than continuing to pander to the boutique market. In the meantime, Fuji makes the camera that the T could have been.
There is no mystery as to why Fuji has stolen the APS-C market from under Leica's nose. The X series, particularly the X-Pro2, is more Leica than Leica. Bill Palmer made this point cogently in an article on this site last May. The Fuji’s style and traditional control layout appeals more to the typical Leica lover. That’s why so many potential T buyers have instead chosen Fuji.
Leica chose to be radically different with the T and it has been a disappointment to many. While I do know several T owners who love the camera and like the touch control system, far more take the opposite view and have gone elsewhere. Since the introduction of the T(L), Leica has largely offered the APS-C market to Fuji on a plate.
The Leica range is crying out for an traditional APS-C camera to use with the impressive range of TL-mount lenses. If Leica designers really wish to recover their stake in the APS-C market they will take the X or X Vario body, introduce an integral viewfinder in place of the flash and add the lens mount. For a more radical approach, dare I suggest a mini SL with the same control system as the large full-frame camera? That could be a real winner and would create a coherent family of models sharing the same lens mount.
A new camera on these lines makes common sense all round. I can guarantee that such an APS-C system camera with more traditional Leica values would sell in great numbers. What’s more, it would put new life into the TL system lenses and provide Leica with a clear path from APS-C to full frame.
Meanwhile if you can accept having to use an accessory viewfinder, there are probably some bargains to be had. I would especially recommend the X Vario because, despite the lack of viewfinder, it performs well beyond expectations. The lens is outstanding, despite its slowness.
More reading on the X Vario and X:
- Leica X Vario: Macfilos full review
- Leica X (Typ 113: Macfilos full review
- Leica X Vario in Beijing
- Leica X Vario Revisited — Simplicity and Elegance