Leica CL+18-56 Vario-Elmar: Is this the new X-Vario?
Now I’ve had three months' use out of the Leica CL — and have tried most of the available TL lenses — I’ve reached the conclusion that the CL with the 18-56mm Vario-Elmar could well be the ideal relacement for the discontinued X-Vario.
The XV came to the market in mid-2013 amid an overwhelming fug of disappointment. To say it was badly received would be a gross understatement. Part of this frustration was focused on the “slow” zoom range of f/3.5-6.4. But the main gripe came directly as a result of Leica’s marketing foolishness in teasing the newcomer as a “mini M”. This led many commentators to envisage an APS-C camera with interchangeable lenses. Sadly this wasn’t to be, although Leica did the ILC deed two years later when the T was born.
Despite its bad initial rap, the X-Vario turned out to be a great little camera. For a time it was my favourite travel companion and I came to understand that the slow lens was actually an asset. By settling for a smaller aperture, Leica was able to squeeze extraordinary image quality out of a very small lens. You only have to look at the typical APS-C f/2.8-4.0 zoom to see how big they have to be if top results are expected. Even fast m4/3 zooms are bigger than Leica's Vario-Elmars. And a fixed f/2.8 zoom, either for m4/3 or APS-C, is likely to be even larger. The laws of physics are clear in lens design. If you want the fastest glass and the best performance your muscles must take the strain.
The X-Vario soon had a strong fan club and this has turned into almost a cult now the camera is no longer being made. There are not many on the second-hand market and when they do turn up you can expect to pay up to 50% of the price of the camera when new five years ago —around £1,000 even without the accessory viewfinder. That’s not bad for a “failure” and most camera manufacturers would love to have such good residuals.
Nevertheless, the 2013 X-Vario, good as it is, is now falling behind in a number important of areas, including pixel density, low-light performance and autofocus speed. Its 1/2000s speed limit is also a significant disadvantage, even with the slow zoom.
I have a number of friends who own the X Vario and would buy another in a shot if Leica were to produce an upgraded version. But I think this is now unlikely. One by one the fixed-lens compacts (X2, X-E, X, X Vario) have been dropped and only the underwater X-U is left to hold a rather sodden flag for APS-C compacts. Instead, Leica seems to have put all its eggs into the interchangeable-lens CL basket.
Is this a bad thing? Possibly not, given that the CL with the 18-56 Vario-Elmar f/3.5-5.6 does a pretty good job of replicating the virtues of the much-loved X-Vario. The CL is almost the same size and weight as the X-Vario. Indeed, it you weigh the X-Vario with the external viewfinder attached (which is only fair in this comparison) it works out some 30g heavier than the CL. The CL combo is 2mm shorter, 5mm higher (thanks to the built-in finder) and 13mm deeper with the Vario-Elmar lens attached (and the latter increase is accounted for entirely by the added bulk of the lens mount). In other words, much ado about nothing. The CL handles in a very similar fashion to the X-Vario.
The CL’s big advantage is that very bright and usable built-in viewfinder. Add the much inferior EVF-2 to the hotshoe of the X-Vario and that camera becomes unwieldy in comparison with the CL combo. All in all, I much prefer carrying around the CL/18-56 outfit to the older camera.
Ancient and Modern
Much praise has been heaped on the X-Vario for its simple controls. The top plate features a traditional shutter speed dial position. A second, smaller dial selects aperture from f/3.5 to f/16. Both disks have an A(uto) position. Depending on which of the two dials you set to auto, you have direct access to aperture priority or speed priority shooting. Set both dials to A and the camera is in fully automatic mode. You also get a video button and a small pop-up flash.
The CL adopts a more up-to-date electronic approach which I know many traditionalists abhor. They much prefer the physical dials of the X camera range. Yet the implementation on the CL is very simple and straightforward and is soon learned. There are two simple dials separated by a small LCD display which gives you instant confirmation of settings. By the default the left-hand dial sets exposure compensation while the right adjusts speed or aperture depending on the selected mode. Each dial has a central pushbutton. Pressing the left-hand button brings up the mode display on the LCD — to select aperture, speed, manual, program and scene. The right-hand button, which is programmable, I have set to control exposure setting.
In essence, therefore, this arrangement duplicates the simple two-dial arrangement on the X-Vario and adds more functions according to your need. I find it very intuitive and it is always easy to see at a glance the aperture (or speed), compensation setting and the state of the battery.
Approached with an open mind (rather than an fixed idea that only traditional physical dials will do) and I think the CL’s layout is actually an improvement. I am used to it already and I like it.
The back of the CL is very minimal, with just three buttons for Play, Function and Menu. There’s a four-way pad (far too sensitive in my opinion) and a very grown up and secure EVF diopter adjuster. The X Vario, on the other hand, has direct access buttons to Play, Delete/Focus, White Balance, ISO and Menu — similar to the other X cameras and the M240. There is also a customisable thumbwheel which I preferred to use for exposure compensation in record mode.
The more minimal approach of the CL is in line with the M10 and SL and works well enough for me. Again, I prefer it and think Leica has done a good job overall.
Without going into too much detail, the menu system on the CL with its initial favourites screen, is an improvement on the older systems of the X cameras. The system is very similar to that of the M10 and, with some reservations, the SL. But, in general, I prefer the CL setup to that of the older cameras.
Better all round
In summary, then, the CL does improve on the X-Vario in all respects, once you get over the shock of losing those two physical settings dials.
In terms of specification, the CL body is a big advance on the old X-Vario. It houses a 24.2MP sensor compared with the 16.2MP of the Vario and features the latest Maestro II processor. Autofocus is much, much faster and more accurate, ISO performance is in another league, up to 50,000 on the CL compared with a measly 12,500 on the Vario. While ISO 6400 was rather pushing the Vario, it is eminently usable on the CL (see the examples). The CL is also much better equipped for moving subjects and bright conditions with its 1/25,000s electronic shutter whereas the old Vario tops out at 1/2,000s. Altogether, the CL is a much slicker and more competent camera than the Vario. As it should be given the intervening five years between development.
Having concluded that the CL, as a camera, is considerably more competent than the X-Vario, let’s have a look at the lenses. The 28-70 zoom lens on the V-Vario is capable of outstanding results. Peter Karbe, the designer, made the point clearly:
“The AF lens of the X Vario is actually a unique synthesis between tradition, most modern optical design and precision mechanics. From an engineering point of view, a lens is always the interplay between performance, focal length, aperture and mechanical size. The focal length 28-70mm covers the most popular and most used ones by our customers. So that range was fixed quite easily. The aperture has a huge influence on the size of a lens.
“The X Vario lens is designed to deliver the best image quality at any aperture and any focal length – so to achieve that, and on the other hand, not get too bulky a lens we decided to compromise in the best possible way and restricted the aperture range to f/3.5-6.4. In comparison to comparable lenses of other systems the Vario lens is actually a relatively small lens. ”.
The 18-56mm Vario-Elmar-TL looks very much the same, externally, as the X-Vario’s lens. Its zoom is equivalent to 28-85mm, so 15mm longer than that of the X-Vario. It is therefore more versatile and, as we’ve discussed, slightly faster at the long end (f/5.6 compared with f/6.4).
- X-Vario: Leica Vario-Elmar 18-46 mm f/3.5-6.4 ASPH. (corresponds to 28-70 mm in 35 mm format), 9 lenses in 8 groups, 2 aspherical lenses.
- CL: Leica Vario-Elmar 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH (corresponds to 28-85mm in 35mm format), 10 lenses in 7 groups, 4 aspherical surfaces.
So, while I am certainly no expert on optics, the interchangeable TL lens does appear to have a slightly more complex design than that of the X-Vario. It should be capable of equivalent, if not better results, again bearing in mind Peter Karbe's comments about offering outstanding image results in the smallest possible package. I can detect no difference in build quality, as you would expect.
Clutch of primes
In my experience, the Vario-Elmar-TL produces very similar results to the X-Vario’s lens. It is good. As with the X-Vario, you don’t need to constantly fret that you might have been better off with a clutch of primes. It is limited in aperture, of course, and that’s where a prime or two comes in handy. At least, with the CL, unlike with the X-Vario, you do have the opportunity to sneak out an f/1.4 Summilux from your Billingham when the need arises.
Some will say that a built-in lens such as that of the X-Vario and Q has an advantage since it can be tuned precisely to the camera in order to ensure a perfect symbiosis. They have a point, but with the CL and 18-56 I see no real difference except, perhaps, in overall length. The CL combo is 13mm longer than the X-Vario and all of this is down to the added bulk of the lens mount.
My friend Don Morley loves the two other zooms in the TL lineup — the 11-23mm wide angle and the 55-135mm telephoto. They cover the full-frame equivalence of 18mm to 200mm with the Vario-Elmar neatly sandwiched with its 28-85mm range. Don isn’t as keen on the 18-56, although he acknowledges it as a first-class lens, but only because he loves what the other two zooms can do at wide and telephoto ends of the spectrum. With the wide-angle zoom extending to a useful 35mm and the telephoto starting at 85mm, there's a good argument for saying that these two lenses could be your staple diet. On the other hand, the 18-56mm occupies the sweet spot for everyday use and, as we see, reproduces the size/performance benefits of the old X-Vario.
My one complaint about both the XV 28-70 and the TL 18-56 (28-85) is that they could have done with a wider 24mm starting point — in sympathy with most more recent zooms. But there’s nothing we can do about this, and it has no effect on the present comparison.
My conclusion is that the CL with the 18-56mm TL zoom is a better camera than the old X-Vario. It includes an EVF, which was always a major downer for the Vario, and it offers much better overall performance and a novel, but intuitive control interface.
The CL also has the advantage of being a system camera with a relatively rich stock of lenses to choose from. While purists may cleave to the X-Vario because it offers just one choice, pragmatists will recognise the advantage of being able to change lenses at will.
The CL with the 18-56 is indeed a replacement for the X-Vario and you could enjoy it with just this one lens. Although still slow, the 18-56 embodies the excellence of the X-Vario lens and will not disappoint. About the only negative aspect of the CL versus the X-Vario is the reduced battery life — 220 shots compared with 360. But, no doubt the X-Vario calibration was made without the accessory viewfinder installed, so the difference may not be significant.
If you also own the rather tasty new 18mm (28mm) f/2.8 and, perhaps, the brilliant 35mm (50mm) f/1.4 Summilux, you have a very versatile and competent system. The X-Vario will continue to have its fans — it has become something of a cult camera — but I cannot say with hand on heart that it is a better camera than the CL. Far from it.
What do you think? If you already own the X-Vario, are you tempted by the CL or do you intend to move over to, say, Fuji and give the Leica APS-C offerings a miss? Could the CL with the 23mm f/2 Summicron be a match for the old Leica X 113?
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