Leica X Vario: The Long-term Review

 

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I have been known to get hit with Gear Acquisition Syndrome from time to time, but this terrible affliction has really slowed down over the past few years. A proof of fact in this matter is that my Leica X Vario has been in my care since late 2014, an eternity in my camera bag and the camera industry as a whole. Why has this maligned crop-sensored, outdated, and unsupported camera stayed with me for so long? The short answers are image quality and ease of use. I won’t go into the Leica’s tragic Mini-M campaign as its been beat to death, but want to focus on the things it gets right, its shortcomings, and its place in today’s camera landscape.

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Some of the accoutrements I have acquired (and kept) over the years.

Like everyone else, I balked at the nearly $3,000 price tag when the Leica X Vario first came out. An eager and early adopter of the Leica X1, I should have been thrilled about the announcement but with reports of the slow lens and mediocre performance it appeared Leica had played a cruel joke. I forgot about the X Vario for a while but eventually saw one at Leica Store Miami, and this is where my mind was changed. In the hand it felt good; solid, well built, balanced, and once I started playing around with the camera I was sold. So, with a bee in my bonnet my quest for the X Vario began. It didn’t take me too long to find a used one in like-new condition and get shooting.

When I first received the X Vario it was easy to pick it up and get going. With the shutter speed, aperture, focal length and focus being able to be set manually without even powering the camera on, only a few menu tweaks were needed to get things how I like them. My brain is funny and likes things simple (which is probably why the Leica M system most appeals to me) so its nice for me that the X Vario is also simple in its operation. Though, much like the X1 and X2 it does take some time to get the best out of the images and this is where its limitations come in. I found out real quick that the lens speed is a limiting factor as there is no optical image stabilization and the sensor does good until 1600, or 3200 in a pinch. IOS 6400 and above are discouraged. The XV quickly became my daily camera, fitting in my briefcase / backpack for work where most of my non-family photographic opportunities present themselves and it is in these areas that the X Vario does extremely well; landscapes and macro. Not that the XV is incapable of handling day-to-day family shots, but it definitely takes some practice and knowing what it can and cannot do (such as fast moving kids in fair to low light) is imperitive.

One of the things that drew me to the XV was its macro capability; macro is reached at the long end (70mm) of the lens which is different than most zoom camera lenses which have he closet focus point at the widest setting. The XV’s implementation allows a greater working distance for those things which you normally shoot macro with such as bugs and flowers (or Gila monsters!). Macro photography with the X Vario can be further enhanced with add-on lenses. In my case, a Raynox  M150 lens is the key but there is a M250 and various Leitz Elpro lenses that are reported to work .

Like all Leica X cameras, there are shortfalls to consider. First, no viewfinder. Sorry, but the slip on EVF’s do not count. Sure, it gets the job done but like a car that only goes 40 miles per hour down the highway it is not a great solution. It is, though, certainly better then nothing. The fact you can use the Olympus VF2 to save a few bucks is also nice. Second, autofocus speed; yeah it stinks. I’ve heard comments about how accurate it is but that can be misleading as well. I have found this to be a common factor of the X family, and as long as you know what you are up against it can usually be mitigated or at least accounted for. Shooting still life, landscapes, slow moving objects, or sleeping children are obviously not the issue but get a moving target in questionable light and you are out of luck. Manual focus is good but still a little tricky in lower light situations as the screen gets buggy in lower light. While the XV feels good in the hand, it definitely benefits from the grip, a Thumbs-Up, or a case with a grip like my Artisan & Artist leather half case.

The positive attributes easily outweigh the negatives in my book. Image quality is outstanding. I can, and have, printed and sold magnificent 36″x24″ prints that look fantastic. The lens is truly nothing short of spectacular; I read the Peter Karb article  where he states that the lens was made to match M quality lenses at every focal length and I concur. Although there is a weak anti-aliasing filter the photos are plenty sharp and need little, if any, sharpening in post processing. The XV is built very well; I’ve not babied it or kept it sheltered and it still looks great. In wet or rainy conditions I cover the microphone ports with electrical tape and have not {yet} had a malfunction. Ease of use is great with the menus straightforward and most of the controls you need on the outside or accessible through the buttons on the back. Battery life is good and I can get through a day of shooting on a single fully-charged battery. Want wi-fi? Pop in a Toshiba FlashAir and the XV can send photos directly to your phone, tablet or computer. I recommend the excellent PhotoSync app for this task as it works better than even the Leica made transfer applications.

Here are a couple shooting tips for the Leica X Vario;

  • Shoot at /125 or above to ensure sharp photos.
  • Practice with the manual focus, it can be a lifesaver when autofocus is being finicky.
  • Keep ISO at 3200 or below. 6400 is for B&W grainy photos but bad for color. Forget 12,500.
  • Pick up a good quality macro conversion lens; it really does open up a world of possibilities.
  • Don’t blindly trust the green autofocus confirmation, look at the screen and see if it looks right.
  • I’m not a huge fan of the EVF option, but it does help in manual focusing and to steady your shots in all light.
  • Try the Olympus VF2 instead of the Leica-branded EVF2, its truly the same thing!

So where does the XV live in today’s camera landscape? With a few add ons it has most of the features one would ever need, and the image quality is more than sufficient for most so it is, and will remain to be a viable camera for many years to come. Leica has not updated the camera since it first came out and will not update it again, but it is perfectly capable just the way it is.

The Leica X2, Leica T, Leica Q, Leica D-Lux 109, Olympus OMD EM5 and various other cameras have come and gone through the years, but the X Vario has stayed. I can’t say it will be kept forever (only two cameras have earned that right; my immortal Leica M6 and Contax T2), but for now it does its job as a reliable, enjoyable camera that takes great photos. What more can I really ask for? I will end this review with some of my favorite photos from the Leica X Vario, showing the versatility of this misunderstood, but brilliant, camera.

 

 

 

 

 

11 thoughts on “Leica X Vario: The Long-term Review

  1. My wife and I both have Vario X’s. When the camera was introduced the Washington, DC Leica store allowed me to use it for a day. I loved it for all the reasons cited in the article. My wife is also a photographer, but with a very much people and street scene preference. I enjoy landscapes and architecture. After I tried the camera, I bought it. I told my wife this camera could challenge her M6 for versatility and etc… There is nothing like enthusiasm! My wife used the Vario once and then told me, “you had better get your own.” That was some seven or so years ago.

    My wife shoots in color, I in B&W. It more than meets our needs. We just returned from three weeks in Northern Italy, shooting in snow, sun, rain, and cold. The camera always performed superbly. We both put shoot aperture prefered to get depth of field. We like tried and tested things, and the Vario X has passed that test many, many times. I recently bought a Monochrom, but when considering what to take on the trip, decided the Vario with some closeup lenses was easier on the back than the Monochrom with several lenses. I agree with Erwin Putz’s observation in his review of the Vario that if Oscar Barnack were alive today he would have designed the Vario.

  2. Great post, I’m seriously considering moving away from the M line as I’m just not shooting with it anymore. Seems like the X line is right up my alley as an in-between choice!

    1. The X Vario is a great compliment to the M as you will not lose much in terms of image quality. If you wanted something a little faster check out the X typ 113 or the XU, which I would love to try one day.

  3. Nice pictures from the X Vario. New user here. I currently have Olympus EM1 with 75mm and 12-40mm lens. Itching to try Leica as browing through images produced by X vario and your’s is such a joy. I love nice blur background when I take portrait pictures of my kids so the question is would X vario give nice blur background as I know the lens is only F3.5 at the widest aperture (or tips to produce nice bokeh.) Thank you all for your insight.

    1. Thank you for the kind words! Going from the EM1 to the XV will take a lot of getting used to, especially in the autofocus department. Bokeh can be tough with the smaller apertures, but I found that 70mm close up can produce a nice look. My best advice is if you really want the camera, be sure to give yourself time to learn it. The XV can be frustrating in the beginning but will be very rewarding once you get used to it.

  4. Thanks for the interesting review which in most instances reprises my thoughts. The Vario is designed to do a few jobs very well. Images captured with the Vario lens are spectacular and IMO likely rival the images captured with one of my M cameras. The Vario is a fabulous travel camera and as such the fixed lens is convenient and obviates problems with dust on the sensor However, the vario is not the tool to use when one needs to have, for example, rapid auto focus and an extremely fast lens. The Vario is of course a poor choice for “street photography” with rapidly moving vehicles and people. It is NOT that the Vario is slow to use, but the Vario does invite a more carefully framed and composed approach. As such the Vario fits my current “style” perfectly.

    I had thought that perhaps the new Fuji File T-X3 would be an upgrade from the Vario. However, I have no need for video or fast auto focus and I doubt that the lens on the Vario can be surpassed.

    I also print my images and find that one can easily print 12×15 sized prints or larger.

    Alluding to image editing: Capture One and other RAW converters support the Vario. However, ACR and Alien Skin do not have bespoke profiles. In lieu of creating my own DNG profiles I purchased DNG profiles for ACR ( very reasonably priced ) and such work quite well.

    Have you updated the firmware so as to use “Auto Iso” in A mode”? If so, can you comment on that feature?

    Have you had the need to use a neutral density filter in high contrast “sky” situations(sic)?

    I live just down the road from you in Palm Coast. It would be fun to meet and spend some time using the camera together. I suspect I am considerably your senior, but perhaps we can find some reasonably level ground upon which to tread! In lieu of meeting, perhaps you can suggest some locations with estimable scenic possibilities. In such situations when used on a tripod the results with the Vario will likely be exemplary.

    Elliot

    1. Hello Elliot, and thank you for the nice reply! Palm Coast is pretty close, it would be nice to meet another XV enthusiast to see what we can find photographically. I’m probably not too far behind you at 43😃. Send me an email and let’s see if we can get together at some point.

      Regarding the Auto ISO in Aperture mode, I do use it and find as long as I stay below 1600 things are good. I manually set ISO when I want to maximize picture quality or plan on printing large (20 x 30).

      I have not used a ND filter, but have used a circular polarizer with good effect for the sky.

      Where did you purchase the DNG profile from? Does it make a difference? Every so often I take a photo and just can’t get the color right so maybe that would be worth a try.

      I bring the XV with me everywhere I go, so new opportunities present themselves often and the camera is good enough not to disappoint! I wish Leica would consider another model in the future, but I’m happy with this version for sure.

      Thanks again and have a great weekend,

      Adam

  5. Wonderful article and review! I’ve enjoyed every minute spent with the XV; great for landscapes and when you have the time to frame the right composition. Not great in low light, but that’s what a tripod is for. If you’re looking for more speed and low light capability, I’d suggest the X113; same body with a great fixed 1.7 35mm equivalent lens. Now that would be a terrific pair of cameras. You can probably find both of them used at B&H or EBay for a song.

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