West Hartford Public Library and the Leica X1 by Ted Johnson

As a passionate amateur photographer, and a big fan of compact cameras, I was very excited to use a Leica X1. I hate to lug around a lot of camera equipment, and prefer the discrete quality of a compact when I am taking photographs. I also have come to appreciate a fixed lens camera in the 35-45mm focal length range after spending a year almost exclusively using a small, fixed lens digital camera. Working with a fixed length lens has forced me to concentrate on the photo rather than on the equipment I have.

In February, when the X1 arrived, it was not the first time I had handled a Leica camera. Thirty years ago I owned a Leica CL with a 28/40/90 lens kit. I carried the camera and lenses everywhere, mainly on backpacking and fishing trips. Eventually I sold the CL, much to my regret today. More recently, I bought and still own a Digilux 2, which in my opinion is still one of the best small sensor cameras in existence. So I was not surprised by the solid build quality of the X1 when I pulled it out of its box. It is a good looking camera, and I can tell you in the week I took the West Hartford Public Library photos it attracted a fair amount of attention.

The cameraʼs autofocus speed was not as big a constraint as I thought it would be. Perhaps thatʼs a function of my style. I tend to zone focus if I am working with fast moving subjects, but objectively, the camera is not slow to autofocus in good light. My impression is that it is as fast or faster than most compacts Iʼve used.  For manual focus, the rear LCD provides a magnified view that does an adequate job helping focus.

I used the camera with an external 36mm viewfinder. I prefer holding a camera to my eye, rather than at arms length when using the LCD for framing. The small AF-locked light right of and below the hot shoe was easily visible while using the viewfinder, allowing the photographer to see when the camera is ready for taking the photograph. File write times were never an issue while photographing a variety of subjects, including fast moving conditions where capturing a personʼs various expressions was critical to my success. I never had to wait for the camera to write a file, even when using a middling 2GB card.

Simply put, I found the X1 a pleasure to use after I got used to its layout.

Most of my shooting was done indoors, at one of the three branches of the West Hartford, CT Public  Library.  Thirty photographers were selected to take photographs to document the library’s many activities. This resulted in over 800 “Snapshot Day” photographs being submitted to the library. Many of the images were shown in rotation on a big-screen, and twenty-five framed photos by sixteen of the photographers were displayed in the Noah Webster Library Gallery in March.  I was lucky enough to have two framed photos displayed.

Related press coverage with photos appeared in the Town News of the Hartford Courant on Feb. 19, in the iTowns section on March 21, and on the front page of the West Hartford News on March 11. The show was generously funded by the Friends of the West Hartford Public Library.

During two photo shoots at group meetings midway in the week, using the camera had become second nature.  Itʼs small dimensions, operational quietness and the fact that I could take photos without fumbling meant that the people being photographed were not overly sensitized to being models. In fact, they were not even aware I had actually been taking their picture. I think this is a significant strength of the X1. M4/3 cameras and DSLRʼs have loud shutter sounds that would have probably been unacceptable in these conditions.

File quality is for me the most important consideration of any camera. In this regard the X1 gets high marks.  The photos produced by the camera at all ISOs were excellent. High ISO noise was grain-like and actually gave the photos a nice tooth. The files responded well to moderate sharpening and local contrast enhancement. In sum, the output was easy to work with and could produce stunning results.

For most situations I used the camera in aperture priority mode, and exposure was very accurate. Best of all, it was simple to see and adjust the aperture with the top-mounted dial. With time I found the manual focus easy to use, and once I found a place for my thumb, the camera was easy to hold.

In conclusion, for a person who doesnʼt mind a fixed 36mm lens, the X1 might be an excellent choice. It produces wonderful images and has performance equal to most requirements.  And the price? The purchase of a Leica is more than the purchase of a camera. It is, I believe, a long term investment in a photographic tool.  Cold, hard logic says there might be better values available, but that logic would also have to factor in the remarkable resale value of all Leica cameras, including my Digilux 2, which has been appreciating of late. In the end, cold, hard logic might say, “Buy the Leica”.

- Ted Johnson

Ted Johnson is an entrepreneur and passionate photographer from Wethersfield, CT. To see more of his photos, please click here.