Back in May, I rented the Leica X2, Fujifilm Finepix X100S, and Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens (the latter mounted on my Olympus OM-D E-M5) sequentially, to determine whether any of these cameras (or camera + lens) could solve a problem that I (imaged that I) had. It turned out to just be a case of G.A.S., though.
I'm quite happy with my OM-D and the lenses that I have for it: except for a high quality normal zoom, my current kit pretty much covers my photographic wants and needs. I have thought that my OM-D kit falls down in one way: I feel like it's just too big to be an everyday, carry everywhere camera, even with the not very large Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4 mounted.
I noticed this problem most glaringly at a wedding in April: the OM-D + 25mm was rather cumbersome for the occasion. I'm happy that I had it with me, though, because I made some great images of my niece that I otherwise wouldn't have made, but the combo definitely wasn't an ideal companion that day.
I had time to think on it during the long drive back to the Bay from Orange County. I noticed that a few common threads connect such situations where the OM-D is less than ideal to have with me: I'm not in photographer mode, so I don't want to be encumbered by a relatively big camera, but I still want to be able to create a great image if the situation presents itself. These situations tend to be lower light situations, such as at museums or weddings, or when out for dinner, or they're situations where having as little bulk as possible is a benefit, such as when I'm just out with my wife and/or friends, or am out on a hike and I'd rather have my pack full of food, layers, and water instead of camera gear.
So given the above, what attributes would satisfy my needs?
- A compact/slim enough total package to be able to go everywhere with me. It wouldn't necessarily need to be pants pocketable, but jacket pocketable would be great. At the largest, it would have to be able to be tucked out of the way and not be cumbersome.
- A camera capable of producing great images with tonal range, tonal smoothness, colors, and detail (collectively, image quality) that appeal to me.
- A camera with enough low light capability (in terms of higher ISO ability and focus acquisition speed and ability) to perform well in the aforementioned situations.
- An enjoyable shooting/handling experience: if I don't like using the camera, I won't.
- Images that are easy and fast to edit. I don't particularly enjoy post processing. I want to be able to get what I want out of the image with minimal fuss and bother.
I theoretically had a solution to this problem until I sold it in April: the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. The 20mm + OM-D is a fairly small and demure package. Despite the 20mm's many good qualities, though, I never connected with it, even after using it extensively over almost three years on both my E-P1 and OM-D. The image quality just didn't particularly appeal to me. It wasn't bad, just not the tonality, focus fall off, or rendering that really appealed to me. Most importantly, the focal length was always just a little odd to me - either too wide or not tight enough - and it focused rather slowly in lower light. It pretty much fell apart on most of my requirements.
The 20mm suited me so poorly that I used the 20mm exactly once in the six months after I bought my 25mm. That single time was when I set out to see if I'd really miss the 20mm if I sold it. Except for the size, the answer was a resounding no, and I passed the 20mm on to a more appreciative home.
Alternatively, my Canon S95 could suffice. It's a solid compact, small sensor camera, and it is pants pocketable. The second and third requirements make it falter, though. Some recent 8x10" prints that I had made of S95-captured photos were very disappointing, even at base ISO: they lacked in detail, demonstrated a limited tonal range, and tonal transitions were quite abrupt. At higher ISO's, images are grainy, and low light focusing isn't great. Images also exhibits a weird ghostly glowing flare when slightly over exposed in low light that, while can be a cool effect at times, can also ruin an image. I have no doubt that I wouldn't have been able to capture most of my favorite images from that aforementioned wedding, had i carried the S95 instead of the OM-D.
So something new then? Hm....
Narrowing The Options
For this exercise, I had a trade-off to weigh: zoom-equipped, small sensor cameras or fixed focal length, large sensor cameras. The trade-off is better quality images of what I do capture versus being able to capture a wider range of images.
Comparing everything in both categories in one go would take forever, so I ruled out all compact zoomers. Based on my perusal of professional reviews, the state of compact zoom-equiped cameras hadn't progressed all that far in the three years since my S95 came out, so it didn't seem particularly worthwhile to spend time and money on a marginal upgrade.
The concept of the fixed focal length, large sensor camera has captivated photography gear heads as of late, though, so I too was of course intrigued. I narrowed my options for this test down to the Fuji X100S and the Leica X2. The X100S is a starlet right now, with glowing reviews from every corner, and back orders for months. The Leica X2 is rather unloved in comparison, perhaps for good reason. It lists for $2,000 compared to $1,300 for the Fuji and lacks a lot of features, like a built in viewfinder or video mode. A used model can be had for about the same as a new X100S, however, so it's not that much different a financial decision (used X100S's are fairly rare).
I did rule out the Nikon Coolpix A and Ricoh GR. While the reviews of both are quite positive, and they both have a sweet size - on the edge of pocketable - the angle of view is really wide. If I'm going to be locked to a single focal length, something a bit narrower made a bit more sense to me.
I did throw one wild card in the mix. Given that I'm looking at two cameras with a fairly similar focal length, why not also compare them against my OM-D with the Olympus 17mm f/1.8, which provides a similar angle of view? Since I already have the camera body, it would be the economical option (assuming that a $500 lens can be called economical). All three cameras will then have a roughly equivalent field of view of 63 degrees. The big question with that lens, though, is whether it makes the OM-D too big a package for what I want. I don't think the 20mm pancake and the OM-D was too big, but the 17mm is just that much bigger. Is it too big for what I want? We'll see. We'll also see if this interest in a new bit of kit is nothing more than Gear Acquisition Syndrome, too.
I rented each item (X2, X100S, and 17mm lens) sequentially, so they weren't compared head-to-head. I need a good amount of dedicated time to get to know a camera (or lens), and I couldn't justify renting each piece for more than a week at a time. So, no, it's not a scientific test, but that's okay: this whole test is about my subjective needs and likes anyway and how it fulfills my requirements.
I took each piece of equipment with me during its week long rental, and used it as my primary camera to see how it works as my primary camera and how well it fulfills the specific role I think I need filled.
A couple things of note.
First - as opposed to just about every other review of the X2, X100S, or Olympus 17mm f/1.8 - I did no street shooting in this review. I'm not interested in the genre, so I don't do it. Landscapes, cityscapes, and candids and portraits of friends and family interest me, and that's what I shoot. If you want to know which of these options are the best for street shooting, more qualified people than me can give you that answer. All I can answer is what I think is best for me.
Second, all images have seen some processing in Lightroom, unless specifically noted. What's important to me is whether I can get images I like out of the camera, and every keeper I take sees post processing adjustment. Straight out of camera is only relevant to the extent that it's as close to what I want in the end, and how little adjustment I need to do is a criteria, as mentioned before.
Third, I'm assuming you have at least a passing familiarity with the three products. Spec sheet rundowns and product shots exist elsewhere on the web.
Proponents of the Leica X2 argue that it is classical and harkens back to glory days of film. Well, yes - it operates and feels as primitive technologically as something from the film days. After a week of use, including a solid weekend with it constantly in my hands, I still hated using it. I don't get the ergonomics of the camera at all.
The camera features four dials: Independent physical shutter speed and aperture dials, a dial that's dedicated to manual focus when the camera is in that mode (and doubles as a thumb rest), and a wheel around the four way selector. Looking at images of the camera, I imagined that the surfeit of dials would enable nigh instant settings adjustments.
Nope. Leica saw fit to make all of those wheels controlled by the left thumb. It's simply too many controls for a single finger to adjust quickly, especially when their spacing requires constant grip-shifting. Independent dials for everything is a great idea, but the execution is poor.
Leica should have copied Fuji and moved the aperture and focus controls to lens rings. One hand would then be responsible for adjusting shutter and exposure compensation (and ISO when needed), while the other can adjust aperture and/or focus. The camera would be so much faster and intuitive to operate. As is, the ring out the lens is just there to be protective of the lens mechanism and provide an attachment point for the non-integrated lens cap (boo!); a not particularly well thought out design.
Size-wise, though, it's sweet. It fits in most jacket pockets and can be tucked under an arm and not be noticed at all. It takes up hardly any room in a hiking pack. I had the camera with me when I went to Point Reyes National Seashore, and I had no problem stuffing it in the hand pocket of my jacket. The camera simply fits well in hand when not taking a photo. It's perfectly unobtrusive; Leica should be commended for that.
Seeing how I found the camera difficult to adjust, I usually left the camera in auto and let it drive. The camera makes good decisions on exposure in good light, so letting it drive is fine, but I did need to make exposure adjustments when the light faded.
Most problematic: I couldn't figure out how to way to move the focus box around. Ugh. The four way pad looks perfect for that, but I didn't see a way to make it work. The camera has very few menu options, so I don't think I missed anything, but it's possible that I did.
The live view functionality is a mess. The live view shows an optimized view of the scene, not an approximation of how the camera would record the scene under current settings. It's fine when the camera is fully driving and under good light, but you don't know you need to adjust exposure compensation until you half press the shutter button and the camera takes an official exposure reading. This implementation of live view is poor. I want the camera to show me what it would record so that I can change exposure before locking in my composition and focus. Otherwise, I have to take an exposure reading, adjust, take another reading, adjust, etc. The OM-D has a much more sensible way of going about it: it constantly adjusts the live view to give an approximation of exposure under current settings (including exposure compensation), so I can make adjustments and see the results in real time and before touching the shutter. When live view is the only way to compose, such an implementation is critical.
Live view in low light is even more atrocious. It becomes really choppy, and the image freezes momentarily while trying to acquire focus. Not good at all.
The buttons here are terrible. They are clicky and cheap feeling: absolutely inexcusable for a $2,000 camera that's marketed as a luxury item.
The screen is on the small size, but couldn't be any bigger without making the camera correspondingly larger. It's not a panel that'll wow anyone, and its flaws are more software based with the poor live view execution than anything particularly wrong with the LCD itself. It's fine for a viewfinder and quick exposure review.
Focusing is two-generations-old slow. In good light it's tolerable, unless you're trying to capture fast moving action. Good luck with that. In lower light - i.e, a restaurant in the evening - it's abysmal. I'm pretty certain that my old Olympus PEN E-P1 focuses faster. Leica really ought to be ashamed at the performance.
What makes the autofocus performance even worse is the bad manual focus implementation. Tuning focus with a little dial isn't intuitive, and the dial takes many turns to get from close focus distance to infinity.
The menu interface is also aged. It's rudimentary and overly simplistic. The camera has (cheap feeling) buttons for most functions, obviating the need for a quick menu, though. That's fortunate, because the quick menu would probably be horrible, given the rest of the interface. Also, Leica doesn't allow for just RAW file capture, only RAW+JPG. I'm utterly baffled by that; it effectively reduces the amount of images I can capture on a single card by 20-30%.
But once I popped the memory card into my computer and took a look at the photos … almost all was forgiven. Image quality is very appealing, especially at low ISO. Images have rich color, great tonality, accurate exposure, smooth tonal transitions, and solid highlight/shadow recoverability. I needed all of 20 seconds to get this image adjusted how I wanted: