A Leica Camera For For An Active Lifestyle
Leica sometimes surprises us, as it did me with the release of the Leica X-U last year. We think of Leica as a boutique camera company famous for its M-series cameras. Over the last few years, though, Leica has been moving in some new directions. The company has released a medium-format camera (the Leica S), a full-frame, mirrorless camera (Leica SL), some iterations of the M camera, and even some smaller and instant picture models.
The Leica X-U Video
I find it interesting that the X-U hasn’t been talked about a lot more. This camera is small, compact, built like a tank, and waterproof, with a depth factor underwater at 49 feet. I took it to Hawaii and did my best to challenge its specs.
Pixels – Actual: 16.5 Megapixel
Effective: 16.2 Megapixel
Sensor – APS-C (23.6 x 15.7 mm) CMOS
File Formats – Still Images: DNG, JPEG, Movies: MP4
Max Resolution – 4944 x 3278
Aspect Ratio – 3:2
Lens – 10 elements in 8 groups
EFL: 23mm (35 mm equivalent: 35mm)
Aperture: f/1.7 (W) – 16 (T)
Focus Range – Normal: 7.87″ (20 cm) – Infinity
ISO Sensitivity – Auto, 100-12500
Shutter – 30 – 1/2000 Second
Exposure Metering – Center-weighted, Multi, Spot
Exposure Modes – Modes: Aperture Priority, Manual, Program, Shutter Priority
Compensation: -3 EV to +3 EV (in 1/3 EV Steps)
White Balance Modes – Auto, Cloudy, Color Temperature, Daylight, Flash, Halogen, Manual, Shade
Continuous Shooting – Up to 5 fps at 16.2 MP for up to 7 frames in raw format
Self-Timer – 12 Sec, 2 Sec
Flash Modes – 1st Curtain Sync, Auto, Fill-in, Red-eye Reduction, Second-curtain Sync, Slow Sync, Studio
Built-in Flash – Yes
Maximum Effective Flash Range – 0.98 – 6.56′ (0.3 – 2 m)
External Flash Connection – Hot Shoe
Memory Card Type – SD, SDHC, SDXC
Video Recording – Yes, NTSC
Resolution – 1920 x 1080p: 30 fps, 1280 x 720p: 30 fps
3.0″ LCD Rear Screen (920,000 pixels)
Screen Coverage – 100%
Connectivity – Not specified by manufacturer
Operating/Storage Temperature – 32 to 104°F (0 to 40°C)
Humidity: 0 – 85%
Waterproofing – 49.0’ (14.9 m)
Battery – 1x BP-DC8 Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery Pack, 3.7 VDC, 1600 mAh
Dimensions (WxHxD) – 5.5 x 3.1 x 3.5″ / 140.0 x 79.0 x 88.0 mm
Weight – 1.397 lb / 635 g with battery
Upon receiving this camera, I was surprised at how straightforward and intuitive it is. This is a 16mp APS-C CMOS sensor camera with one of the easiest menu systems to navigate that I have seen. I was reminded of the Nikon Nikonos camera line, for any of you who may remember the old days when the Nikonos was the go-to underwater camera. The X-U feels as though it can take a beating as well as handle the underwater use it is made for.
Much of the exterior of the Leica X-U is covered in rubber. This does a good job of protecting the camera, and it also allows for a comfortable grip when using it. Leica claims it can handle falls from 1.2 meters, which is about 4 feet. While I surely tested it underwater, I did not do a drop test. Sorry, but I have a thing about purposely dropping expensive cameras. Maybe it goes back to the day I dropped a Phase One. That was a bad experience, not to mention a bad day.
Looking at the top of the camera, we have an accessory shoe; shutter speed dial; shutter release button with single exposure, continuous exposure, and an off position; a movie button; and an f-stop dial. The f-stop dial is a bit strange, as one would never expect it on the top of the camera, but it performed well in conjunction with the lens-focusing ring when used manually. There are some small holes on the top of the camera, and they are for the speaker and microphone.
As with the Fuji system, you determine the traditional P, S, A, M modes by the way you have your settings set. For example, you could set ISO on auto, shutter speed to auto, and f-stop to auto, and you would have the P mode. For aperture mode you would set the aperture and leave the shutter speed on auto. The AF is established by rotating the ring to the AF position. You get the idea, I hope.
The lens has a focus ring on it. It is rubberized on the front and well machined. Focusing with it feels very nice. The lens is 23mm 1.7, which is equivalent to a 35mm on a full-frame camera. On the front of the lens is a small flash.
The side of the camera has recessed neck strap eyelets. I used the Peak Design anchor and strap system while testing this unit.
The rear of the camera is encased in rubber and has five buttons down the left side. Unlike some of Leica’s cameras, at least, these are labeled and easy to figure out. There is a play button that is self-explanatory enough. You can determine what is displayed on the rear screen by pressing the info button on the info pad on the right.
The delete/focus button serves two functions. In shooting modes, it allows you to set the size of the AF fields. There isn’t full-screen coverage for focus. There are 11 focus fields. Nine of these are centered in the frame, and two extras are on the left and right. You can use the cross pad to move focus fields to include some areas of focus. AF is set to find the focus point closest to the camera. There is face detection focus too. To switch to manual focus, just rotate the focus ring. There is no optical viewfinder on the X-U, so you will be focusing on the back screen. When you turn the focus ring, you get an enlarged view of the center of the frame on the rear screen.
The WB and ISO button are just what you would expect. There is a special underwater color balance as a selection too.
On the right side of the camera is a plus and minus sign set of buttons. These are used for EV adjustment in shooting mode or as a way to scroll through menus and such.
The touch pad, which consists of four directional arrows and a center button, is also quite useful. Each of the four buttons is preset for specific functions other than just navigation in menus or focusing. The top button activates EV adjustment. Push it, then either the + or – button, to compensate for exposure. The left arrow button activates the self-timer. The right turns on flash mode, and the bottom enables underwater mode.
The menu system itself, which shows when you select the bottom (menu) button, is brilliant. It consists of five pages. Each page has eight choices on it. On the left of the screen there is a highlighted bar they tells you which of the five pages you are on. You navigate up and down using the arrow keys. You make a selection by pushing the center button on the cross pad. All the choices are pretty self-explanatory, and there are some selections that make this small camera quite a performer.
On the bottom of the camera are a battery and SD card compartment. This is a very secure compartment and takes a bit of work to open. You slide a slider one way. That unlocks a safety, and then you push the bigger slider the other way. This is a useful feature because it means the compartment won’t open by accident. It is very well sealed against moisture and dirt. There are no other external ports for microphone, headphone, remote, etc. Simplicity is key as well minimizing anything that could compromise the waterproof integrity of the camera.
Essentially, this is a straightforward and easy camera to operate. Remember, there is no viewfinder, so all image composing must be done on the rear screen. I had no problem with this even in bright Hawaiian skies.
Using the Camera
I had a couple of weeks to work with the X-U. It’s a fun camera to use. It’s small enough to fit in a jacket pocket and built to take a beating. I am not much of a point-and-shoot camera guy. I either want a camera that’s small enough to keep in my pocket, such as the Sony RX100V, or one that’s big enough to have interchangeable lenses. But I was on vacation and was going to spend a lot of time near or in the water, and my favorite types of cameras weren’t really suitable for that.
This camera is an ideal beach, snow, or hard activity type of camera. It could and should be marketed to the sports enthusiast, mountain climber, and skier and should have a place on every sailboat or yacht.
For some devious reason, I wanted to push this camera to its limits. The first day at the beach I took it in the ocean and started taking photos. Surf was splashing all over it. I got back to shore and put it in the sand and let the waves wash over it. I took it everywhere. That usually involved sand and water, and the camera took it well. There was not one failure or mishap. The worst it suffered was some sand in the battery compartment door. But not once did water enter the camera.
I shot all my images in JPEG and RAW (DNG). I found the JPEGs to be overly saturated. Coming from me, that’s saying something. As you can see by the samples below, I show a few RAW processed out with no adjustments and the JPEG straight out of the camera.
The camera performs as expected. It has a 3fps and a 5fps, and I found I was using the continuous shooting mode a bit, especially when shooting waves and other action. The menu system allowed me to make adjustments quickly. I found, as I do with my Fuji system, that the dials and lens combination were excellent for switching between different shooting modes.
The rear screen was bright enough to shoot with, even under the Hawaiian sun. I am not a big fan of shooting using the rear screen, though. I much prefer a viewfinder. There is something about holding the camera to your eye that makes picture taking more natural for me.
The screen does not articulate. That’s another feature I love for when you have to do a ground level or overhead shooting. I shot RAW and JPEG the whole time. The JPEGs were good, but as I said, overly saturated. The RAWs, imported into Lightroom, were easy to adjust and make clean color.
The lens was very sharp. This made for crisp, fine images, just as one would expect from a Leica. I found the battery/SD card compartment a bit hard to get into on some occasions. It seems I had gotten sand on the camera (surprise), and this made moving the slider for unlocking and opening a bit hard.
When I returned to my hotel room, I rinsed the camera off with fresh water, patted it dry with a towel, and waited a little while before opening the battery SG card compartment just to make sure no water leaked into it. I also had a brush to brush off any sand I found on the seals and a blower to make sure I had an entirely clean camera after each use.
The rubberized camera was easy to hold on to. The buttons on the back were easy to use and didn’t get pushed accidentally. I had no issues with any dial or switches. I shot most of the time in aperture priority. The battery seemed to have an OK life, but frankly, I never pushed it. I would suggest having a second battery on hand if you plan to use this camera for an extended period of time.
I did not like the neck strap. I prefer the Peak Design strap systems and use them all the time. The anchors were a bit hard to get through the recessed camera eyelets. But once they were attached, I was able to quickly interchange a neck strap or a wrist strap.
This is not a mainstream camera. The price from B&H is $3295.00 USD. That’s a pretty hefty price, but not unexpected from Leica. It certainly is a different camera than you would expect from the company. As much as I like this camera, I could not justify the price for the amount of time I would use it. However, if I were a Leica owner and wanted to stay in the brand, which many Leica owners do, then this would be a great complement to a system. This camera would be the camera that you take out when you don’t want to expose a Leica M system, for example, to the elements.
If I could afford a yacht, then this would be the boat camera. If I could afford a beachfront summer home, this would be the camera to use there. I could take it jet skiing or to the beach and not have to worry about the salt water or anything else. I could take it into the surf and take it underwater to shoot striking images. I would add a floating neck strap to make sure I wouldn’t lose it.
If I were an avid skier, then this is the camera I would have with me. The buttons are easy to push with gloves on, and the lens focusing and control dials could all be used with gloves. Also, with the 5fps, I could take some great action shots.
This is a niche camera, as are all Leica cameras. It is a brand that many people misunderstand, though others understand it perfectly. This camera will and should be used by those folks who know what I mean by this. There are tough, pocketable cameras that are more affordable, such as the Olympus line of tough cameras. But there is still something about shooting with a Leica. The Leica is fun; it feels good; it is what you would expect from a high-end brand.
For those who want to stay loyal to the brand, this camera will not disappoint you. If I had the money, I would purchase it. I am disappointed that at this price point it lacks the standard 24mp sensor we are all accustomed to today. The 16 mp sensor is older technology as far as I am concerned.
All this being said, I applaud Leica for having the guts to make a camera like this. Leica gets it in many ways. The company released a nice, if not very heavy, mirrorless camera, the Leica SL. Canon and Nikon haven’t even done that yet. At least Leica sees the future. They produced this camera for the Leica user, without a doubt. I think, though, that they will find a new audience among those who are looking for a tough camera that excels at shooting challenging activities.
When I own a yacht, a summer home, and go skiing every winter, I’ll make sure I own this camera. I know it will take the images I would want and take the beating I would give it.