Vive la Difference: Leica X1 and X2 compacts compared
“The more things change, the more they stay the same”
(loose translation from the 1849 French of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr).
After years of seeing photographers wanting to downsize and go to smaller and lighter kit, we ended 2018 with a burst of full-frame mania. Larger and heavier cameras, the marketing gurus deserve their end-of-year bonuses.
But many avid readers and correspondents of Macfilos still acknowledge that there is a place for the smaller compact cameras. They are simply a part of an undercurrent that just won’t go away. Indeed, there has been significant rediscovery of the superb Leica X series cameras which will soon be a decade on from their introduction.
It was with this in mind that I recently took a Leica X1 and an X2 on a short vacation stay at a beach-house way south of Sydney. There was actually more fishing than photography (yes, we did catch fish, and had a couple of great evening meals). But on the last day I did make a point of getting the cameras out with the aim of making some real-world, real-time direct comparisons. And doing so in low light at the start and end of day.
Well, I got that one wrong. My colleague and your friend John Shingleton, aka Mr X1, continually tells me to get out and catch the morning light. So I rose bright and early and went down to the river mouth just as the sun rose. Damn, I could have stayed in bed, the sun rose directly across the river where I intended to find subject material. If I had shot those photos I would have fried the sensors (probably not, but hey, do forgive dramatic effect). So I looked off to the side, 90 degrees from the sun, and saw some rock formations that could suit my purpose.
Above: Beach rocks in the morning - X1 (left) and X2 (right) - Click to enlarge. Below: Closer up, the shade rendered quite differently. X1 (left) and X2 (right)
So, what else to do? Looking behind me and to the side there were some old boat sheds. Photographs taken within the same minute with each of the X1 and X2 provided a further basis for comparison. And a group of early morning dog walkers provided another opportunity. Actually, aside from concentrating on photography, I was really intrigued by one member of the group who was out in the water swimming with his dog. Sharks have been caught in that estuary, and early morning and late afternoon are feeding times. But maybe the early morning swimmer was smarter than I thought; his dog might have been his decoy.
Above: Early morning boatsheds, X1 (left), then X2 (right). Click to enlarge
Dogs and their Masters, early morning low light. X1 then X2. Click to enlarge
Camera settings and outputs
For each of the cameras the settings were the same. Images are jpegs. Major settings were AWB with grid neutral, jpeg super fine, standard film preset with medium high sharpening, sRGB colour space. And centre weighted focus and auto exposure. The X1 did have the firmware 2.0 upgrade. Otherwise all other settings as per factory default, and the same for each camera.
I decided to undertake the exercise solely as a jpeg comparison. For readers who prefer to shoot RAW, the outcomes and conclusions from this sort of comparison could be quite different.
The autofocus of the X1 with its version 2.0 firmware was only slightly slower than the X2. Not enough to be meaningful, and although neither of them are fast at focussing by today‘s standards they are quite adequate for stills photography. It was only in switch-on and wake-from-sleep routines where the X1 was markedly slower. But again, not enough to be deal breaker if choosing between the two cameras.
It was in the image outputs that I saw most difference. To my eye the jpeg engine of the X1 rendered images with a cooler, slightly bluer colour, especially in shadows, compared with a slightly warmer yellower hue from the X2. Now I don’t know whether this would be a general finding for X1/X2 comparisons and whether it is a general property of firmware processing of jpegs from these cameras. I simply present those observations based on the individual examples that I determined that day.
Later the same day
Towards evening I again took the cameras out for a walk. But once again the light wasn’t cooperating. Clouds were rolling in as a change in weather approached. However, I did get the opportunity to catch comparisons as breaks in the clouds allowed some sunshine through.
Above: Evening, looking across the river mouth to where the sun rose in the morning. X1 then X2 less than a minute apart. Below: Also evening, looking back along the ocean beach. X1 then X2. The two cameras do render colour differently in this light. Click to enlarge images.
Also evening, looking back along the ocean beach. X1 then X2. The two cameras do render colour differently in this light (click to enlarge)
Overall results looked the same as in the morning. The X1 provided jpegs with a cooler look than the warmer hues from the X2. Enough difference to be noticeable, but either camera on its own is pretty darn good. And certainly the ever-changing light had a bigger bearing on the output than the inherent jpeg processing in the cameras.
Lessons learned (for me at least)
For image output, the light is more important than the camera. We all know that anyway.
In processing their jpegs the X1 and the X2 do render slightly differently, based on a comparison sample size of one. Especially with regard to shade and lower light on subject material. But I’m sure that they could be tweaked to be indistinguishable with some fine adjustments of the AWB grid.
Image quality from each of X1 and X2 is very good, and satisfying. Unless there’s a need to print big or crop heavily the 12mp X1 is every bit as good as the 16mp X2. Some might suggest it is actually better given the larger individual pixel size of the X1.
Just as enjoyable as the image outputs is the simple and straightforward pleasure of using the X1 and X2 cameras, and others in the X series. I do ask myself why did I sell my little brick, the X Vario? The X1, with version 2.0 software, is quite useable for stills photography, as Mr X1 has been showing us for years, and with version 2.0 firmware actually quite similar in speed to the X2.
If you are considering getting a used X1 or X2 to enjoy their lightweight compact APS-C sensor technology and retro style, then either will suit you well. Just get a good one and and enjoy. Keep it and treasure it.
Make sure to get priorities right. If the light is good, then that’s the time for photography. I learned that the hard way last week. But if the fishing is good, then that’s the time for fishing.
And do swim upstream against the Zeitgeist. Continue to maintain that there is a place for great little compact cameras as the herd frenzy turns to heavier, bulkier full-frame (and larger) mirrorless monsters. Just remember …..
……The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Note: if deciding between these two cameras as a sensible used buy, do bear in mind that the X1 has no electronic viewfinder. You can use an optical viewfinder which works very well. John Shingleton, Mike Evans and I all enjoy using the X1 with the OVF. There is a useful little green light near the hot-shoe which blinks and then steadies to signify a focus hit, so it’s easy to use.
The X2, on the other hand, is built to accept the Leica VF-2 EVF (or the cheaper Olympus version). For some users, this makes focusing much easier. The only downsides are the cost of buying the accessory finder (which is going to be a bit more than a 35mm optical finder) and the fact that it sits on a little hump, introduced under the hot-shoe as a spacer for the electrical connection, and it therefore a little unsightly. It is also similar vintage to the camera, so not too exciting. But whichever you choose, X1 or X2, you will have a lot of fun.