Saturday, November 1, 2014

Leica X (Type 113) Review

Leica X (Type 113) with leather half-case protector

There's a first time for everything, and for many people, the X-series is their entry point into the world of Leica. Yes, the X Type 113, even with its large 16mp APS-C sensor at fast f/1.7 prime lens is an entry level camera... for Leica. Though a large sensor compact with a fast high quality prime lens has enthusiast appeal, the X series trades on that appeal but sells primarily to an entry-level crowd. This is an unsettling concept to reconcile with if you are a camera enthusiast, but it bears repeating that luxury marketing is not about selling to the 1% of in-come earners, but the aspirational 19% below that thin slice of society. There is a saying in Chinese about shoppers who want to do everything in "one step"... that is, if the means are possible to skip past the entry level and go right to the good stuff, the presumption being that the user will eventually grow into the capability of the equipment. You might not agree with that type of thinking, but its hard to argue that the X cameras aren't built for this type of mission. They are simple, elemental, and have the veneer of timelessness without requiring the dedication of the M series.

The Type 113 continues on where the X2 left off in this regards.

"Silver" version
Black Version

The X type 113 is an update to the X2 in two key areas. The first is in the lens, which is (more or less) 1 and 1/3 EV brighter than the older designed used on the X2 and the current X-E. The second is actually a more important improvement: the screen is no longer the horrid low resolution affair that it was on the X2. Another welcome improvement is that the X113 is compatible with the accessory Vizioflex EVF used on the Leica T; at over $600 its not a cheap accessory, but it is far better than the old EVF2 used in the X2... and which is still used for the M240.

Like the X2 before it, the X Type 113 is a light camera for its size. The front is dominated by the lens, which looks a tad bit out of proportion with the rest of the camera but which doesn't impose a significant weight penalty. from the back, the camera is a delight for the user, as the design and is simply clean and beautiful. The metal finish on the silver-topped version has a satin-finish that is similar to that used on the more expensive M240. The X113 is a large for a compact camera, but the holding comfort is reasonable given that it is still thin front-to-back, is not heavy, and that the lip on the left side of the rear control dial makes for a decent thumb rest.

Holding comfort is once again improved if you add the optional handgrip, though the aesthetics do suffer. The curve of the hand grip matches that of the right side of the camera body, making for one continuous curved surface.

In operation, the X Type 113 is old hat for anybody who has used the X2. However, there are caveats. The maximum aperture is f/1.7... from approximately 1.5 meters outward. Closer than that and the maximum aperture shrinks to f/2.8. This was a conscious decision on the part of Leica; fast prime lenses are (usually) good for bokeh and low light situations but they are tricky to design for close focus. The shrinking close-range maximum aperture isn't a mechanical limitation, but a software design imposed by Leica's engineers, who deemed the optical quality wide-open at close range to not be up to their standards. That said, this is a bad news / good-news situation. Yes, you do loose maximum aperture opening, but look on the bright side (pun intended): you actually can close focus with the X113. This isn't something that could  have been done with the X2. The thing about range-finder lenses is that they can't close-focus. while the X cameras are M-analogues and aren't true range finders, up until now they have nonetheless picked up this limitation. In terms of shooting style, this means the the X113 isn't a true "bokeh" camera, even though there is a good separation between foreground and background, the primary benefit of the faster aperture is with improving low light shooting.

Another limitation of the Type 113's lens is that its AF operation seems to struggle a tad bit more than the X2 in low contrast situations. In some situations, the X113 will display a more pronounced "contrast-detect rattle: during focus lock. With high contrast targets, the focusing speeds is more or less the same. As for that legendary Leica quality... it is there, but it's not easy to quantify. As you would expect with a Leica design, the central portion is contrasty in the focus plain, which allows for some foreground-background separation even if you aren't opening the lens up all the way. The results don't quite "pop", but below f/4, it is more distinctive looking that what you would get from the Fujifilm X100s/X100t. It's far better than a Sony A6000 equipped with the SEL20mm f/2.8, and if you look in the Canon and Nikon lineups for a crop-frame 23mm prime....well, keep looking.

However, if you do insist on cross-comparing, there is one combination to consider: the Fujifilm X-t1 with the XF23mm f/1.4. This is a different type of camera... a DSLR analogue versus a rangefinder alternative... but the combined price is comparable to the X113 and the lens is 2/3 stop brighter. Simply put, the XF23mm f/1.4 is one of the better reasons to adopt the Fujifilm system, and with it mounted on the X-T1 you will get a far more practical and versatile tool than the Leica. But what it won't be is what the Leica is: simple... element... austere. If you believe that the virtue of a Leica is that it doesn't get in the way of you and the act of picture taking, then the X 113 is that camera.

Canvas Half-Protector Case

Another option that shouldn't be easily  overlooked is the Sony RX1 and RX1R. Though it's a more expensive option, the Sony cameras can "do bokeh" in a way that the X cameras can't. Even though the RX1 is more expensive, it is the better bargain of the two. The RX1 is an inexpensive and competent analogue to using a Leica M with a 35mm Summicron lens; the X113 is expensive for a 16mp APS-C camera.

What can't be underestimated is how much accessories are a part of the modern Leica experience. This is why Leica isn't just a camera company any more, and is also why they, along with Canon and Nikon are reputedly one of the only profitable camera companies as of 2014. ("Reputedly"... Leica is no longer a public company, therefore financially information is not as transparent as it is with the Japanese manufacturers.) When you walk into a Leica dealer, it's just about the camera... its the cases, the straps, the soft-release buttons, the accessories grips... This could be misconstrued as a derogatory statement, but it isn't: with a Leica, the joy of ownership is not just in using the camera, but in having it as well. It's one thing to love using your camera, and its another thing to love the camera itself. The latter isn't necessarily an emotional response that Canon users will derive.

Cognac Leather Half-Protector Case
Accessory Handgrip

If you set the price aside, the Leica X Type 113 is an excellent camera. It gives about as elemental shooting experience as possible; frame, adjust, shoot. It's about as far removed from your typical Japanese DSLR as possible in today's market. It doesn't hurt that it is unashamedly beautiful, and as is so often the case with the extroverted, you can't rationally justify it. That's not the point.

With thanks to the Leica boutique at Broadway Camera

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