Monday, April 14, 2014

Leica D-Lux 6 Review

There is no denying that Leica's are beautiful. Leica knows this as well, and as is the case with modern luxury, it must maintain the air of exclusivity while being accessible to as many people as is possible without damaging that exclusivity. This is known as having your cake and eating it too, and is something that BMW does well with their 3-series cars, which somehow manage to maintain both high-margin and respectably high production volumes as well. The Leica D-Lux 6 is the camera equivalent affordable luxury. Like many  "high end" women's handbags, it is very plainly expensive but not so expensive that it is unattainable by middle class consumers. For many people (though not the same ones), Leicas are objects of both scorn and lust. They are undeniably beautiful but obviously pricey. Disregarding the Leica C, the D-Lux 6 is the most "affordable" Leica camera for serious photographers.. but how much value is there in a camera platform that is near the end of its lifespan (as of this writing in 2014)  and which is is at heart, indistinguishable from its Panasonic cousin?
The Leica D-Lux 6 was announced in September 2012. It is based on the Panasonic LX-7, which was introduced two months prior. Because of the various rising and falling fortunes of the camera industry, the D-Lux version of this camera might possibly longer effective shelf-life than the Panasonic version due to the difficulties that the Japanese company has had in bringing its camera division to profitability. Leica is certainly doing its best to stretch out the lifespan of the camera with occasional offerings of limited editions.

The standout feature of the D-Lux 6 (and the Panasonic LX-7) is the extremely bright and sharp f/1.4-2.3 zoom lens. This is 2/3 of a stop faster than cameras of a similar sensor size, but with the added benefit of being fully 24mm wide vs the typical 28mm full frame equivalent. However, the true test is comparing the D-Lux 6 versus the Sony RX-100 cameras. Because of its fast aperture lens, the D-Lux 6/LX-7 comes the closest of matching the Sonys for safe low-light shooting speeds. The Leica is even better the Fujifilm X20, which has a larger sensor. In fact, the brightness of the Leica lens means that it is more or less equivalent to the Sony RX100 at 70mm (full frame equivalent) which dims to a greater degree at the longer focal lengths. However, the RX100 M2 has a more efficient sensor (approximately 1/2 stop) and is the best compact at all focal lengths with one exception. Rather than reinvent the wheel, you can reference the comparative differences in compact camera low-light ability with this DPReview chart. The caveat to all of this is that normalizing effective apertures across difference cameras ignores differences in dynamic range and the ability to render tonal transitions. There's no contest; the larger-sensor cameras win.

The exception would be the Canon G1 X Mark II, which has the twin virtues of a relatively bright lens and a large sensor size (larger than m4/3, but smaller than APS-C). Though the Canon is more truly a mirrorless competitor, it's priced at approximately the same level as the D-Lux 6, so it does bear mentioning. In other words, if size is not the primary consideration, then the opportunity cost of the Leica is to forgo the near-DSLR image quality of the Canon. This is the problem with the idea of "affordable luxury" as it pertains to consumer electronics; what is luxurious today is quickly superseded by advances in technology tomorrow. This is will be especially true of the advanced compact segment, as future large sensor cameras like the RX100 become the norm for small cameras. Why will this happen? Smartphones. In order to justify the cost of a stand alone device, compact cameras will have to give a demonstrably better shooting experience compared to mobile devices. For advanced compact cameras, there is nowhere to go but up, up in sensor size and up in lens aperture.

Of course, it's impossible to speak of the D-Lux 6 without also mentioning the LX-7; these are essentially the same camera. In fact, the packaging for the D-LUX 6 is distinctly more Panasonic-like than it is Leica-like. Un-boxing a X2 or more expensive Leica camera is an occasion; the boxes for the D-Lux 6 are no difference than any other camera, save for the printing on the outside.  As to the merits of one versus the other, crudely speaking, the Panasonic is the better camera because it comes with a built in front grip, whereas the optional grip for the D-Lux 6 costs over $100 USD. (Does that not sound like something Ken Rockwell would write?) Ignoring that difference, the Leica does include a free download of Adobe Lightroom, which retails at $149 USD for a new perpetual license, and comes with an international warranty, whereas nearly every other camera company only honors warranties within the country of purchase. Though the D-Lux 6 is in the waning days of its product cycle, it still retails for approximately $850 USD. Accounting for the inclusion of the Adobe software, it is still twice as expensive as the street cost of a Panasonic LX-7 ($350 USD, spring 2014). Earlier in the product cycle, the price difference was not as great, but the downside of Leica products is that the price remains relatively constant until the product is discontinued. The Panasonic equivalents are more susceptible to market forces and correspondingly drop in price over their shelf lives.

In terms of value, the D-Lux 6 is a poor deal as there is a significant opportunity cost in choosing it over either the similarly-designed Panasonic or the better performing similarly-priced Sony and Canon cameras. For camera enthusiasts, though, this is a shame, because the core virtues of the camera are usable and practical. The brightness of the lens is not just a marketing gimmick; it's astonishingly sharp at f/1.4. The range of the focal length intelligently ignores the longer end of the spectrum and concentrates on the usability of the 24-90mm range where the majority of shots are taken. And finally, as a Leica, it is a beautiful object in its own right. This point is both obvious and contentious, as it can be argued that the external appearance of the camera has no bearing on serious photography. That's not the point, though, as Leica is most certainly not playing in the photographic game. They are a luxury brand, not a camera brand. Though not everybody can be wealthy, most people will have one area of interest where they will be willing to overspend regardless of the practicality. For some people that would be fashion, for others it might be cars. Some music buffs buy way more guitar than they need. For Leica customers, the conspicuous excess of consumption is on cameras.

So the short answer is that there is no value in buying a D-Lux 6 over a Panasonic LX-7. As outrageous as the price is, there is some merit in choosing a M Type 240 with a 50mm f/1.4 Summilux lens over a Nikon D800; at the very least, the Leica shot wide-open does something that the Nikon cannot. Even though the camera body will lose its value over time, the value of the lens (likely) won't. A luxury compact camera has no enduring quality; because it is affordable, by definition it lacks enduring value. However, overspending on the D-Lux 6 is far less damaging to your financial health than overspending the on M system. It's beautiful, but not a true luxury item... but it is an excellent camera and will bring pleasure to anybody who is willing to overlook the cost.

With thanks to Broadway Camera

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