Tuesday, June 11, 2013

First Impressions of the Leica X Vario Type 107

Today was the launch day for the Leica X Vario Type 107, one of the strangest marketing campaigns that we've seen in the camera world. It's as if they dared us to hope that the camera would not be what all the signs were pointing at....

  • 16.5MP APS-C sensor
  • Leica Vario Elmar 1:3.5-6.4/18-46mm ASPH lens (28-70mm equivalent): 8 elements in 6 groups, 1 ASPH element
  • Minimal focusing distance: 30cm
  • ISO range: 100-12,500
  • Max shutter speed: 1/2000s
  • 3" TFT LCD with 921k dots
  • Full HD video
  • Built-in flash
  • Adobe Lightroom  included
  • Battery capacity: 450 exposures
  • Dimensions: 133 x 73 x 95mm
  • Weight: 680g 
  • Price: around 2,500 Euros or $2,850 USD
Let's go straight to the source of all the angst, the lens:

The Tale of the Tape

A typical kit lens covers 28-75mm at f/3.5-5.6 for most entry level dSLR's and m4/3 cameras. The lens on the Leica Vario is a tad bit slower on the long end, by 1/3 of a stop, meaning that you will need 25% more shutter speed compared to similar lenses. This is ostensibly a space saving choice, as the diameter of the lens barrel not only adds to bulk of the lens, it also influences the height of the camera body as well. This is important, considering that in terms of size and weight, this is both larger and heavier than the Fuji X100s; it's roughly the same weight as the D7100 body and twice the weight of the Leica X2. The rear display screen is comparable to the Nikon D7000 both in size and resolution. It's just half an inch shy of the 3.5" display of the D7100, but for the most part, there isn't much of a practical difference. The way they've marketed the 16.5mp APS-C sensor is interesting, as it does not correspond to any sensor currently being used on the market if you look at the effective number of pixels. The Nikon D7000 and the D5100 use a Sony part that is 16.2mp... however, if you look at the total number of pixels, the count of the  Sony chip is 16.5mp (total is always greater than effective). Perhaps Leica is being coy here with the origins of their sensor; they listed the X2 at 16.1mp, and sure enough, the Vario's effective number of pixels is 16.1mp. So in other words, it's the same basic sensor, may a different implementation. And yes, it is probably the same Sony sensor, as nobody else makes a CMOS APS-C sensor of this type.In most ways, the X Vario is similar to a modern APS-C compact, like the NEX cameras and the Canon EOS M.... compact(ish), something of an all-in-solution, capable of video. However, there is one important distinction: no image stabilization. This is what will really hurt the already slow lens of the X Vario, especially if you want to take a head shot at 70mm equivalent indoors. There would be no way to do it without flash; increasing the ISO would not save you.Other than that, there's no denying that it's a beautiful looking product, as much Leica's are want to be. The control layout is carried over from the X2 and has a functional minimalism about it.  

The Business Case

The obvious hurdle is the price. For the same amount of money, you can buy a complete Fujifilm XE-1 system, or a Nikon D800 body, or you can go for the true "mini M" experience and get a Sony RX-1. For less money you can get the NEX-7 and have better image quality, more features and the option to change lens. So what gives? To understand the craziness of the X Vario pricing, you have to look at the current line up of digital Leica's, excluding the S series:

Camera Price

D-Lux 6 $799
V-Lux 4 $899
X2 $1,995

M-E $5,450
M $6,950
M Monochrome $7,950

Notice anything missing? Yup, There's a huge gap between the lesser Panasonic-derived compacts (and the X2) and the M-series. Leica cannot only be the company that makes the the M-series, there's not enough business in that to keep them afloat. That's why they've had to partner with Panasonic, so that there product range can be diversified. True Leica aficionados will not regard the cheaper cameras as legitimate, but they are there to make the M-series possible in this day and age.

This is what the price gap looks like when you fill in the missing segment with the X Vario:

Ignoring for the moment whether you get value for the money at any of these price points, you can see the logic of having a camera priced near the $3,000 mark; it makes the product line much more cohesive. Before, with the gap, you had two unrelated sets of products, but by creating a contiunum, Leica can better tie in their low-priced alternatives with their traditional M-series.

If you get past the knee-jerk reaction about this camera (and make no mistake, all of it is deserved), the logic becomes a little clearer if you think about it. The D-Lux series, based on Panasonic's excellent LX cameras used to be Leica's serious enthusiast compacts, appealing to photographers, but not necessarily rich ones. The current D-Lux 6 still does that, but the market has moved on, spurred by the Sony RX-100 and  the rise of large sensor mirrorless cameras. The problems is that Panasonic doesn't have anything in that space right now. Leica could clone Panasonic's m4/3 offerings, like they once did with the Digilux 3, but the problem is that there isn't a suitable model. The GH3 is entirely a Panasonic thing, and very much specialized towards video, and the GF series has now migrated towards the point-and-shoot crowd. Furthermore, Panasonic is falling behind in sensor  technology, now that Olympus has adopted Sony sensors. Additional to that is that Panasonic's camera business is the most in financial danger of the major players right now. So  in other words, Leica can't rely forever on the 1/1.7" sensor size which is no longer considered "large", and moving up to m4/3 looks to be a dead end. So that means rehashing the Sony APS-C sensor in the X-2, but with a zoom lens.

That explains the X Vario's existence, but it doesn't explain it's price. Here's the rub: mirrorless cameras are relatively cheap to produce.  Compared to a Nikon or Canon DSLR, there are far fewer parts; no mirror assemblies, no phase detection arrays, no separate exposure meters. The margin on any mirrorless camera is higher than that for a DLSR with the same sized-sensor. That's how the m4/3 cameras have lasted this far despite their lesser market share; they're no selling enough to be profitable, but at the very least, Olympus and Panasonic have not been loosing as much money as they would have had they still be selling mirrored cameras. At $2,850 USD, how much profit per unit do you think Leica will be making off of the X Vario?

Leica would have studied the business base before going through with the launch. Ostensible, the X Vario is not for enthusiasts, not is it for the masses, but there probably are buyers out there for it. (I'm reminded of the saying "The very rich are different from you and I.") There's also a bit of the halo effect going on here. A wealthy buyer browsing through a Leica boutique might find the M-E a bit pricely, but hey, look, you can have the X Vario with a lens for less. It's still a Leica, after all.

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