Leica X Vario Review – by C.S. Muncy

C.S. MuncyC.S. Muncy is a New York City-based freelance photojournalist with a client list that includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, The New York Daily News and The Village Voice. His work has also appeared in Time Magazine, The Smithsonian Magazine and Wired Japan. In 2012, he was selected for the 25th Eddie Adams Workshop, received the NPPA Short Course Travel Grant and won first prize in the National Geographic/Nikon “Full Story” photo contest. A graduate of the Defense Information School, he enlisted in the United States Air Force in 2002 and is currently a combat correspondent with the 106th Rescue Wing.

Leica X Vario

A few weeks ago Leica sent me their recently released high end point and shoot, the X Vario. I’ve been planning a trip from Alaska, through the Yukon and back to the United States with fellow Brigade contributor Zach Roberts, and decided to put it through its paces in the extreme cold.

Leica X Vario

The first thing I noticed was the impressive build quality of the camera. The body is constructed out of an extremely sturdy combination of aluminum and magnesium painted in a semi-matte black and finished in a high quality leatherette. The lens is built of a high-impact plastic and the focusing and zoom rings move smoothly and are easy to turn, with just enough resistance to prevent any kind of zoom creep. The lens is a Vario-Elmar 28-70mm f/3.5-6.4 ASPH, and features the familiar Leica font you’d find on other M lenses.

Leica X Vario

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So what do I like about the X Vario? Aside from the build, the image quality is very nice, even in very low light. Early in the trip we stopped at Watson Lake, stepping out into the cold and dark to grab some photos of the area. After some time, we came across a small park filled with signs from cities and towns from all over the world. According to a local, Watson Lake had the largest number of stolen signs in the world. I’m not sure how one would find the stats to measure that claim against, but I could easily believe it. Aside from a few streetlights and the car headlights in the distance, the camera managed to get sharp, contrasty shots. Later in the mountains, the camera performed very well catching images of rivers and snow-capped peaks. Despite the battery draining cold (ranging from the -20’s to a balmier mid-teens) the camera lasted for three days without needing to be recharged. With the APS-C sized sensor, the depth of field was impressive when compared to other point and shoots.

Leica X Vario

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What didn’t I like? While the depth of field was impressive, it would have been nice to see a lens with a wider aperture range. I believe users would have been just as happy with a fixed lens with a wider aperture than the mid-range zoom that came with it. Like other Leica digital cameras, I found the menu options a bit off-putting.

I’m a Nikon shooter, and even on Nikon point and shoot cameras the menu options are a bit more intuitive. It took me a little while longer to master the X Vario.

Leica X Vario

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I also believe the price point is going to be an issue with this camera. At nearly three thousand dollars it’s an expensive bit of kit. For serious shooters, you could easily put that money towards an X-Pro 1 or Sony A7r, both of which feature large sensors and interchangeable lenses. Unlike those cameras, though, the X Vario is small and unassuming. There are plenty of situations where it’s important to be able to take a shot with a camera that doesn’t scream “PHOTOGRAPHER!”

Leica X Vario

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If image quality and durability are the final details that the X Vario is measured against, then it’s a great camera. The images, as I mentioned before, are sharp and contrasty and the exposure is almost always on the spot. While shooting in brightly lit, snow-covered environments this proved extremely important.

Leica X Vario

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Can I recommend this camera? Certainly, but with the understanding that it’s not for everyone. The high price point (something I believe Leica will need to address) will put off casual shooters, while professional photographers with that kind of money to spend may turn towards cameras like the A7r or X Pro 1. But for shooters who work between these two extremes and have a little extra cash this could be a fantastic addition to their bag.

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