Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Leica Prosumer Compacts (X1, D-Lux4, D-Lux3) Comparison

The Leica D-Lux 3 is a camera I swear by.  I take it with me everywhere in a leather holster attached to my belt.  Aside from a slight bulge, the camera is so light and compact it has become my favorite "everyday camera" -- it is inconspicuous and can easily fit in a pocket.  Although I have been shooting with my IPhone lately for non-work related photographs (some of which have actually ended as fineart prints), the D-Lux 3 is still my camera of choice when it comes to more serious photos, specially for pictures that will end up as larger art prints.  I bought my camera two years ago and I have never regretted my purchase.

I have included the D-lux 3 in this comparison, even if it has recently been discontinued, because it is still a good camera and it is the basis for my evaluation of the two newer models.

The Leica D-Lux 3 has a 10.4 megapixel 1/1.65 CCD and a Leica DC Vario Elmarit 28 - 112mm (4x optical zoom) f/ 2.8- 8 ASPH lens. It has an integral picture stabilizer and 3 picture formats (aspect ratios): 16:9, 4:3 and 3:2. The camera shoots JPEG at different resolutions plus RAW. It offers multiple, center weighted and spot metering as well as an adjustable 9-point Auto Focus with Spot.  The focus can be manually controlled and has a special macro mode.  The shutter and the aperture can also be set manually, aside from the usual Auto, Program AE, Aperture and Shutter Priority AE modes.  It has a  207,000 pixel 2.8 inch  TFT LCD monitor with a 16:9 aspect ratio.  The D-Lux 3 shoots video as Quicktime Motion JPEG with variable frame-rates at different resolutions.  It has 5 ISO settings:  Auto, 80, 100, 200 and 400, with 80 and 100 as the best ISOs to shoot with (noise becomes significant at 200 and 400).  It has a built-in flash but no hot-shoe.

The Leica D-Lux 3 has been compared to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2, since both cameras are manufactured by Panasonic and share similar specs, but Leica Camera AG firmly asserts that it has developed its own unique color-matching, contrast and picture definition profile for its D-Lux series, which produces digital picture characteristics  complimentary to Leica M film photography -- I have not tested the DMC-LX2 to give you a fair opinion on this matter, only that the D-Lux 3 gives superior imaging performance when used correctly.  With a special adaptor, the camera can also be used for "digiscoping" and can be attached to the eye-piece of a Leica Televid scope giving the camera an extremely long focal length range for naturalist and bird-watchers.

Here are two photographs I took with the Leica D-Lux 3 that I have blown-up to 13 x19 inch fineart prints.  (3 years ago, I was shooting magazine layouts with 8 megapixel cameras -- an 8 megapixel resolution is good enough for a two-page magazine spread) :

The Leica D-Lux 4 is essentially an upgrade of the D-Lux 3.  Dubbed as Leica's "first compact system camera," it has the same CCD sensor size as the D-Lux 3, but with a 1 megapixel increase in resolution and with better light handling capabilities -- range increase added 3 additional ISO settings:  800, 1600 and 3200.  Its light gathering abilites are further enhanced by the faster and newer Leica DC Vario-Summicron  5.1 - 12.8mm (2.5x optical zoom) f/ 2-2.8 ASPH lens.

The other significant improvements in the D-Lux 4 are: the 3 inch 460,000 pixel wide-angle 100% view TFT LCD; Lower range shutter speeds up to 60 seconds; 11-point AF tracking; 16:9 format HD (1280 x 720) video  recording at 24fps; and of course, the hard to miss accessory/hot-shoe mount on top of the camera.

Like the D-Lux 3, this camera has an aluminum shell and is available in two colors: silver or black.  In the past year, Leica Camera AG has released a couple of limited edition versions of the D-Lux 4... there was a "Safari Edition" in olive green and  the company has resently released a "Titanium Special Luxury Edition."  The D-Lux 4 is referred to as a "small system" camera, because with the addition of the hot-shoe mount, it can now use a detachable viewfinder and a compact flash unit.  Aside from these two and its stylish camera cases, the only other accessory it has at this time, is a hand-grip that attaches to the bottom of the camera.

The improvements on the D-Lux 4 that I love are its enhanced low-light handling capabilites (fast lens/higher ISO) and the addition of the hot-shoe mount -- which made the camera suited for studio/strobe work. The niffty detachable viewfinder, though redundant, adds a retro feel to the camera that appeals to me and the HD video would be a wonderful extra, but I have decided to wait for the next model (D-Lux 5?) before upgrading.   I need a substantial increase in resolution to at least 16 or 18 megapixels before I make another investment.  After all, Leicas (even Panasonic manufactured) are not cheap.

Two weeks ago, Leica Camera AG introduced a new compact camera called the X1, along with the introduction of the new Leica M9 and the 39 megapixel medium format Leica S2.  Unlike the D-Lux 3 and D-Lux 4 which were manufactured by Panasonic for Leica, the Leica X1 is engineered and manufactured in Germany by Leica.

The Leica X1 is a totally different camera.  Bigger and thicker than both the D-Lux 3 and D-Lux 4, it has a 12.9 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor and has a Leica  24mm f/ 2.8 ASPH prime lens. Instead of JPEG & RAW,  it processes its files to JPEG & DNG.  It has no video recording capabilities and has only one aspect ratio: 4:3.

This is a camera a Leica Purist would love.  It has all the essentials without the "extra-baggage."  Its large "DSLR size" sensor guarantees great detail and color for a camera this size.  The 24mm fixed lens (36mm equivalent in the 35mm format) mimics the traditional Leica M standard of using a 35mm prime, favored by the legendary photojournalists from the past.  With its steel-grey two tone body design and rounded features, the X1 has the look and feel of a classic M Series Leica.

Like the D-Lux 4 it has an 11-point Auto Focus with Spot and manual override. It has an ISO range up to 3200 and full-manual exposure control.  It also has a built-in flash and hot-shoe/accessory mount. From the photo above, we can surmise that it also has a detachable viewfinder and hand-grip (and of course, a dedicated flash), but its full line of accessories are still to be released at this time.

Here is a side by side comparison of the D-Lux 4 and the X-1 in relation to the size of the new M9:

The features of the Leica X1 are certainly tempting... It is beautiful, a real Leica to the core.  The large sensor is a right step to where I want to go.  The 24mm lens is excellent, but a multi-focal length (zoom) lens would still be better for me and will give me the flexibility I need for the variety of photography I do -- in this aspect, I prefer the D-Lux 4.

I guess I can wait a little bit longer for the next models-- hoping that there will be more improvements in both the resolutions and the low-light capabilites of either the D-Lux 4 or the X1.  A combination of the X1 and the D-Lux 4 would be ideal for me -- Something like a higher resolution D-Lux 4, but with the X1's build and styling.  Interchangeable lenses would be a dream.  I guess if I save enough, I could always go for the M9, but I love the size of these compacts.  For now, I will just stick to my trusty D-Lux 3.

Ian Ho has a good 4-part article/test comparing the Leica D-Lux 4 with the Panasonic LX3 for anyone interested in that debate: http://ianho.blogspot.com/2008/11/panasonic-lx3-vs-leica-d-lux-4.html 

The Leica D-Lux 3, Leica D-Lux 4 and the new Leica X-1 are all available in Amazon.com:

--Camera photos from Leica.  Fineart Prints shot with the Leica D-Lux 3.

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