Before the official introduction of the new Leica X Vario, Leica started a very effective campaign to – slowly – introduce the camera. The campaign teased the camera as a Mini M. It started with a row of cameras, including the Leica M, a box marked as Mini M, the Leica X2 labeled as Micro M and the D Lux 6 finally as Nano M. Over the course of several weeks, the box was shown opening and revealing more and more of the new camera.
The campaign created an unusual amount of interest, primarily because many succumbed to the wish for a less expensive model of the Leica M; they allowed the description of Mini M to get the best of them, and once the camera was introduced there was a general outcry of disappointment. The camera was immediately highly criticized as just being a Leica X with a zoom lens. The fact that the other cameras in the ad, the X2 and the D Lux 6 being also referred to a some sort of M camera made little difference, even though this should have been an indication that the Mini M designation was not meant as a serious indicator of what the camera would actually be like.
Once the camera had been officially introduced, I published an article, outlining the specs of the camera. Not having actually seen it at that time, I reserved my judgment and said I would report on it here after I had had a chance to see it during my visit to Leica in Solms last month.
The camera immediately impressed me as looking much more like a Leica M than the smaller Leica X. In terms of size it fits directly between the Leica M and the Leica X2. Of course being a zoom, the lens is obviously larger than the 35mm (equivalent) lens on the Leica X2.
Holding the camera, it became immediately clear that this is a very solidly built camera with an excellent finish. I immediately liked the larger size which ergonomically feels a lot more like an M than the X2. I must admit that I have never been overly bothered by larger and heavier cameras; I even liked the M5 and a Zeiss Contarex.
A direct benefit of the larger size of the camera is the larger viewing screen in the back. It is a gorgeous display and might be the same screen as the one in the Leica S and the Leica M. Andreas Dippel, public relations manager for Leica assured me that a tremendous amount of thought went into the camera, much beyond simply adding a zoom lens to the Leica X2. The camera was purposely laid out much more like a Leica M than the X2. This included the characteristic step on the top cover with an imbedded hot shoe. The result is a very well balanced camera that simply feels good on ones hands.
I fully agree with David Farkas from the Red Dot Forum when he says that “Leica is doing a phenomenal job creating a cohesive product ecosystem. We now have three stratified systems which share major components and a unified user interface... It’s now clear that Leica was doing more than creating marketing confusion while they transitioned to the single letter naming convention. Pick up an S, an M or an X and ultimately you are just picking up a Leica in a different form factor. Pretty brilliant actually and kudos to Leica for taking a big picture approach.”
Besides not being a smaller, less expensive M camera, the most criticism involved the lens, particularly the relative slow aperture range of f/3.5 – 6.4 with only a 28mm to 70mm (equivalent) zoom range. Of course it is easy to criticize, especially if knowledge of optical design is lacking.
A zoom lens is obviously a welcome addition to this type of camera. However, two important points were foremost in the mind of Peter Karbe, the head of optical design at Leica. One was the weight and size of the lens with the other being its overall quality and optical performance. The lens features 9 elements in 8 groups with two aspherical surfaces. While Leica is certainly capable of making faster zoom lenses, the lens on the Leica X Vario has proven to be of a perfect compromise between size and overall performance. The relatively slow aperture range actually offers two significant advantages, one being the relatively small size of the lens and its incredible image quality. In other words, Leica couldn’t offer a faster maximum aperture without making the lens much larger or sacrificing performance. There are plenty of lenses from other companies which settle for sub-par performance in favor of size and specs. This is definitely a Leica lens with all the feel and quality usually only found in Leica lenses.
While not a small, pocket camera, Leica succeeded in making an impressively capable picture taking machine in a small, portable layout. That is the Leica X Vario and this is the way it should be looked upon.