Camera Review: Leica X Vario

March 3, 2014

By Dan Havlik

If you’ve long had an interest in owning a Leica but haven’t necessarily wanted to fork over a ton of money for a pricey M-System digital rangefinder, the Leica X Vario could be the camera for you. No, the X Vario isn’t exactly cheap, but for just under $3,000—which is less than half the price of a Leica M—this all-in-one digital camera is the kind of item you might see yourself splurging on.

Since you’re a reader of this magazine, I’m guessing you already have some kind of professional photography rig (a full-frame DSLR or a medium-format camera perhaps?) with which you do your serious work. And while the 16.2-megapixel, APS-C-sensor-based Leica X Vario could certainly be used for pro work—it’s tailor-made for documentary or street photography—it’s probably not the camera you’re going to turn to for everything. But that’s OK. Pro photographers can be weekend warriors, too.

The Leica X Vario is a follow-up to the Leica X1 and X2, which were fine little compact cameras in their own right, but really a class below the X Vario. For starters, the X Vario looks a lot like a smaller Leica M. When my test unit arrived, I couldn’t help but try to unscrew the 28-70mm (equivalent) zoom lens from the front of the camera only to realize that, of course, it was permanently attached.

This was one of the major gripes about the camera when Leica teased its release last year. Most Leica fans had hoped the German company was coming out with a mirrorless Mini M with small interchangeable lenses. The fanboys were further disappointed when they saw that not only did the X Vario have a fixed zoom, it had a relatively slow maximum aperture range of f/3.5 to f/6.4.

And I understand that disappointment. But, as the Rolling Stones once said: “You can’t always get what you want.” Anyone who’s tried out the X Vario knows, however, that the camera is actually much, much better than the post-release pundits might have told you. Sure, the lens is not quite fast enough to shoot in extreme low light but it produces extremely sharp results in a range of shooting conditions. The camera’s APS-C chip, which is about the size of the sensor you’d find in an entry-level DSLR, also does an excellent job of handling noise in low light, letting you shoot at up to ISO 3200 while producing clean images that don’t look overly processed.

The color, particularly skin tones, from the X Vario is rich and accurate, which is why I’d recommend it for street photography. It’s a relatively fast performer, with barely any shutter lag when you autofocus. It also does a neat trick of letting you switch from autofocus to manual focus just by twisting the barrel of the zoom lens. In terms of performance, my only major complaint is that it’s a bit slow from shot to shot. If you’re quick on the draw to get a shot when you see it, you might find these cycle times disappointing. But compared to the slow manual focus of a classic rangefinder, the X Vario feels blazingly fast.

The X Vario is also extremely well built, with a solid metal/polycarbonate frame and a soft, textured exterior that’s a dead ringer for the pricier M-System. While the long, attached zoom makes the camera feel front heavy, you get used to it quickly, especially if you’re wearing a wrist strap. On the other hand, while the X Vario is small, it will not fit in your pocket, which limits some of its conveniences.

The camera has a nice 3-inch LCD screen on back with 920K dots of resolution and a handy little pop-up flash when you need some fill light. The best thing about the X Vario is that it’s Leica’s cleanest attempt, so far, at marrying the analogue look and feel of its classic rangefinders with all the modern conveniences of a digital camera, including full 1080p HD video at 30 frames per second (fps) with stereo sound and built-in filter to cut down on wind noise; and a spritely burst shooting mode, which can capture up to 5 fps.

The Bottom Line
Have you been considering buying a Leica camera but can’t justify the price tag or the learning curve it takes to use an M-System rangefinder? With the X Vario, Leica has done an excellent job of combining the image and build quality of a classic Leica rangefinder, with the convenience and versatility of a modern digital camera. No, it’s not exactly cheap, but if you feel like splurging on a Leica product, this is the camera to break the piggybank for.

Pros: An excellent combination of sophisticated analogue design and modern digital convenience

Other cameras on the market do the same things for less money

Price: $2,850;

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