The trend towards smaller cameras is growing each year and in a market filled with many amazing options, you really can’t go wrong with any camera from almost any creditable brand. As a professional photographer (term used lightly), I’m always on the lookout for something small and flexible that can compliment my existing kit, and potentially be used as a ‘take-anywhere backup camera’ to my overwhelmingly large SLR kit. At this moment there are a lot of great-performing compact cameras, fully capable of meeting professional standards, and while Leica already has the Leica T and X series, neither have met the criteria I’m looking for in a compact camera. In terms of image quality, they’re certainly up to the task, but there’s a lot more to consider when wanting something versatile, and this is where the new D-Lux may have succeeded……
Enter the Leica D-Lux – but wait! I know what you’re thinking. There’s a Panasonic alternative that’s made in China with 1-year vs the Japanese made 3-years warranty in the Leica. You also receive a full copy of Adobe Lightroom with the D-Lux so I’ll leave it to you to decide if the premium is worth it. I think that by now it’s pretty well know that both cameras produce great pictures as they’re selling well and owners are saying very good things about them throughout social media. Therefor I won’t go into great detail on everything, but I’ll cover the things I feel you ‘need’ to know when considering the purchase of this interesting camera.
In a nutshell the new D-Lux now houses a robust 13-megapixel micro 4/3 CMOS sensor, a sharp 24-75mm f/1.7-2.5 lens, and WIFI connectivity in a small and almost pocketable body. The sensor is the most notable upgrade, and definitely stands out as the game-changing addition. My first thoughts were ‘this is what I’ve been waiting for – the backup camera to my SLR kit and my Leica M system’……but will it’s functionality in the field and image quality hold up alongside my existing kit? That is certainly not going to be an easy feat. Luckily for those of you reading this and considering a potential purchase, I’ve given this camera a thorough run-through over the last 2 months and finally able to provide you with my findings.
BODY DESIGN, LAYOUT & CONTROLS
When I first held the new D-Lux in my hands it felt surprisingly lightweight, almost too much so. I’m so used to carrying a fairy heavy and solid Leica M and an even heavier and much larger Nikon D4s so the weight, or lack of, was a very good thing. The camera feels very sturdy, and to keep the weight down plastic has been used over the magnesium inner-frame. Basically, it feels solid enough and comapres well against most top cameras in this segment.
I’ll leave comparisons to previous models out of this article as I have little experience with them. At first glance the new D-Lux looks like a typical Leica compact. It’s a very simplistic design that only comes in black with the Leica Red Dot. What I love about this camera being an M-user is that the typ109 has a manual aperture ring on the lens and a manual shutter speed dial on the top plate, as I’m used to seeing and using on the Leica M – already I’m feeling familiarity and loving it.
Next to the shutter dial sits the shutter button, on/off switch and the (useless to me) exposure compensation dial. I never use the dial as I shoot in manual 100% of the time and feel it’s a useless option as I’ve never understood the need to try and guess what you think the camera is going to do wrong and compensate for it with a dial, when you could just shoot in manual for better control and consistent output – but that’s a story for another day. Also on the top plate you’ll find the zoom lever and ‘A’ and ‘F’ buttons. The A button is designed to toggle between whatever manual mode you’re in and fully automatic. This may come in handy if a light situation changes or you’ve forgotten to change and don’t have time. Switching to this mode ‘may’ ensure a better shot, or ensure you don’t miss the shot by changing exposure. The F button is a customisable button used to select a feature you commonly use or change in the field.
On the rear you’ll immediately notice the built in EVF (Electronic Viewfinder), which is a very, very welcome addition. One thing to be careful of when considering a camera with a built in electronic viewfinder is that the brightness and colour match the LCD in live view mode, and I’m pleased to say they match very well and can be trusted for exposure and colour accuracy. The resolution is also a whopping 2,764,000 pixels, which provides a very clear and accurate image suitable for manual focusing and confirming auto focus.
The LCD has an industry standard 921,000 pixels which is also equally impressive in use. Compared to my Macbook, the colour and exposure accuracy is very close and I’m happy to say that Leica have added the ability to tweak brightness, contrast, saturation, red tint, and blue tint. By doing so and matching to your most used monitor, you’ll be able to trust the LCD and EVF to be accurate when using them in the field and this is very important to those of you keen on ensuring the best quality images out of camera in regards to exposure and colour accuracy.
Leica has also included the option to be able to view the image in real-time exposure, meaning what you see is really what you get. Being able to see your exposure and focus before pressing the shutter gives that extra confidence boost, and also negates the desire to chimp for checking exposure accuracy. This option can also be turned off, which is needed in situations where you may be shooting with flash, where live view of exposure is irrelevant.
Everything else on the back is pretty much the same as you’d expect from other compact cameras so I won’t waste your time going through them all.
Here’s where things get good – real good! The lens is a 10.9-34mm lens, and not a 24-75mm lens as you’d expect in 35mm terms. This means that due to the smaller 4/3 sensor size, the lens’s view is being cropped to a 35mm equivalent of 24-75mm in full frame standard. This means that while your frame is showing a view of 24mm at the wide end, you’re achieving the depth of field of 10.9mm, resulting in more depth of field for any chosen aperture. For bokeh lovers, this is a bit of a drawback because you can’t isolate subjects like you would a normal 24mm f/1.7 lens, but for people like me, I welcome the extra depth of field achieved by this camera. Shooting at fast apertures for me is more about gaining faster speeds in low light, compared to blurring backgrounds, so I actually benefit from what many may describe this as a ‘shortcoming’.
Now that the technical blabber is out of the way, let’s get into the lens in use. First off, the lens is not the fixed type found on the Leica X for example. In the off position it retracts into the body, and extends when turned on, and extends even more when zoomed. So what does this really mean? Well, it’s not going to well to knocks and bumps for starters so you’ll need to be careful with it. If you knock the lens when extended it could jam and disable further use.
The aperture ring sits on the end of the lens where you’d expect it and clicks smoothly and positively. It doesn’t have the strong feel of an M lens, but it’s ok for what it is and a very welcome addition as it’s something we don’t see too often on such prosumer compacts. Just above the aperture ring is the image aspect ratio selector which allows you to choose between 3:2, 16:9, 1:1 and 4:3 aspects. On the side of the lens is the focus mode selection lever, which toggles between AF, AF with macro to 3cm and manual focus. Lastly there is a manual focus ring, which is just like those found on most autofocus cameras – smooth but very light. In use it’s ok but not like the ones found on M lenses, so I prefer to use AF wherever possible.
Speed and accuracy of the autofocus system is good and about at industry standard. It’s not super speedy but it’s fast enough for everything I threw at it. As long as it focuses as fast or faster than I can manually on my M, I’m happy – and it certainly does, with great accuracy. There are several focus modes available as well as the ability to move the focus point, which comes in handy with off-centre subjects. Due to the extra depth of field of the lens/sensor combination I never had an issue with recomposing so I mainly used the centre focus point for most things. The 24-75mm focal length combined with the fast speed make a great combination for documentary and travel situations where you prefer to work closer to your subjects. For those who need a long lens for ‘sniper-shooting’ this is probably not the camera for you (see Leica V-Lux on my blog).
Resolution from the lens is fantastic, especially when you consider it’s a 24-75mm f/1.7-2.5 lens in such a small size. At open apertures the detail is already very good and gets a little better when stopped down 1-2 stops as you’ll find with most lenses. I found myself shooting at open apertures a lot because I could always depend on the lens to deliver great clarity in any situation. Being a very small zoom lens thrown into a compact body, don’t expect the lens to have no distortion and/field curvature. There is a little but nothing worth worrying about considering it’s intended purpose. If you’re doing serious architectural work you may need to consider sticking to your professional fixed lenses.
I’m pleased to report that chromatic aberrations are nearly non-existent and flare is very well controlled. Shooting into the sun or other strong light sources resulted in pictures, delivering great clarity and contrast with a pleasing look to the flare. If you place the light source directly in the centre of the frame, you can actually eliminate the flare altogether. Bokeh is smooth and pleasing to the eye. It won’t blow your mind because getting the background completely out of focus requires you to get very close to your subjects, either at f/2.8 at 75mm or f/1.7 at 24mm.
CONNECTIVITY – WiFi and NFC
The desire and need to share imagery faster than before is being driven largely by the social motivations of the modern photographer. The most used camera on the planet is the one found on the iPhone so there’s no doubting that manufacturers like Leica ‘need’ to ensure their cameras come with connectivity that make sharing pictures with smartphones and tablets a breeze.
Pictures can be sent to your Smartphone or Tablet via NFC or WiFi. NFC (Near Field Communications) allows pictures to be transmitted by simply touching the devices. Wifi use takes a little more work as you’ll need to download Leica’s shuttle application and set it up. It’s a simple process but has a few steps, which I won’t go into. In use it was fast enough but not instant and certainly not as easy as shooting with your iPhone.
Regardless, it’s good to see such technology ‘finally’ being implemented into Leica’s products. I just hope to see this technology being passed on to future M cameras too.
WHITE BALANCE AND COLOUR
This is an area where Leica have been a little behind recently. For some reason Leica has been calibrating their new cameras towards a different colour palette compared to their very successful and popular Leica M9. When the Leica M240 was released it had some pretty poor performing AWB and colours tended towards the warm side with a slight over-saturation of oranges causing skin tones to be over-cooked. The same is happening here somewhat so I’m ensuring this is kept in the review so that the feedback is passed on to Leica. The good news is that it isn’t bad and it is easily fixed by selecting the orange channel in Lightroom and desaturating a little.
White balance issues aside, the colour coming out of this new sensor is fantastic. The best part is that it looks very similar to the M240 sensor so it works very nicely alongside it in the field. I can shoot the two cameras side by side and feel comfortable with the pictures matching up down the track. This is a very important consideration when choosing a backup/second camera. Monochrome conversion works as well as any other camera, and of course being a big Monochrome shooter, I had to convert a few…..