A friend bought a Leica X Vario off eBay from a local seller in Sydney last weekend. The camera was just under a year old, barely used, and came complete with all the packaging and accessories, three spare batteries and a genuine Leica lenshood and handgrip. He paid A$1211 for it (US$924-£634)—a serious bargain. However a glimpse down the eBay listings shows that, while this camera was an outlier, the prices for used and even new X Varios are very weak.
How come? Well sadly the Leica X Vario is an unloved orphan and how this has come about is an interesting marketing “who dunnit”.
The biggest villains in the story are Leica themselves because the launch of the X Vario in 2013 was a disaster—a case study in itself on how not to launch a premium product. I can only hope that Leica contracted out the launch to a marketing agency. If they did, I am sure that they won’t ever be using them again.
Weeks before the launch, sneak “spy” shots of a supposed mini M series Leica were leaked to the online photographic gossip media. These raised widespread expectations that a mini M rangefinder camera with interchangeable lenses and a price point below the M series was about to be announced. The media and the forums were salivating at the prospect and all those who could not afford a current M but lusted after one thought that salvation was close at hand.
So, when the X Vario was announced with an APS-C sensor, a fixed 28-70mm f3.5 to f6.3 zoom lens, no built-in EVF and a ridiculously high retail price the derision started. And to compound the felony I understand that at the launch event itself Leica did not really try to explain the philosophy behind the camera.
The photography forums were aglow with keyboard critics, most of whom had never handled a Leica, yet alone taken a photo with one, heaping derision on Leica and the hapless X Vario. One well known US blog was full of comments from venomous critics huffing and puffing about this being the end of Leica themselves.
The “slow” lens was the subject of the most criticism. But any objective evaluation would show that most zoom 28-70mm lenses have a f/3.5 maximum aperture and, while the f/6.3 at 70mm was unusual, it was in fact only half a stop slower than the more usual f/5.6. Hardly relevant with today’s sensor sensitivity.
The omission of a built-in EVF was a much bigger crime. If the camera had been launched in 2008 then maybe the market would have accepted a very expensive accessory clip-on EVF—although Leica themselves had the Digilux 2 years before with a built in EVF. But by 2013 an accessory EVF just did not cut it with the market.1
And then there was the pricing. Now Leica will undoubtedly claim that for its performance and specification and build quality the X Vario represents realistic value at its price point. Sadly there is a phenomenon called “edge of cliff pricing” at play in the marketing of premium products. This basically says that whilst you can really push your luck when premium pricing a product there does come a point—over the edge of the cliff—when the market says “you are trying to take advantage of us”. At that point most of the buyers stay away. The edge of the cliff is sudden. At one price sales are strong but yet add 10-20% to the price depending on the product and sales slow dramatically. The X Vario was totally overpriced for the market Leica were trying to sell into. The pricing was over the cliff edge. If they could not make and sell the camera for a lower price then they should not have made it.
But it was not all bad news. After the keyboard warriors had abandoned their assault on the XV and Leica and moved on to vent their spleen on the Nikon DF or some other hapless camera, the first XV reviews started appearing. Not reviews by amateurs but by trusted pros such as Ming Thein. And the reviews were good. Very good. The common thread of all the reviews was that the IQ from this camera is extraordinary. That the lens is an absolute cracker. That perhaps this is the best zoom lens ever made.
Sadly the reviews were not enough to save the XV, nor was the simple fact that it was capable of taking beautiful photos. The damage had been done. It had been condemned in the court of public opinion. It was underspecified, overpriced and very unloved.
Which means that those of us who are prepared to overlook its shortcomings, the XV is a beautiful camera now available at a bargain price. A future classic. I love my Leica X1—which probably marks me out as being far from normal in photographic circles—and its superb IQ. But the IQ of the XV is even better.
I bought my XV because I cannot resist a bargain particularly when it is a superb piece of Leica engineering and it has one of the best zoom lenses made so far. I did not need to buy it (who needs another camera anyway?) but I am glad I did. I just like using it. It feels beautiful when I move the controls. The manual focusing and macro focusing are very user friendly. But the clip-on EVF is a nuisance, a real pain. I am going to break it one day and I will be very annoyed because I should not be putting up with it in 2016. I would like a faster lens but I realise that Leica made compromises to achieve the optimum IQ from a compact design. I have adapted to the irritating control pad and no longer accidentally activate it. The controls are straightforward and the menus simple.
I may be swimming against the camera tide but, well, each to his own. If you want to take photos with stunning IQ take a look at the very unloved XV. You won’t regret it.
- You can find John Shingleton at The Rolling Road.
- Macfilos tested the XV, read here
- Read about the X Vario in use alongside the Tri-Elmar and the Fuji X-E2
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- Editor’s note: I agree with John on the bad call on the external viewfinder but it is worth noting that the X Vario wasn’t the last miss-step in this direction: Just look at the various X cameras and even the T. Let’s hope they have learned their lesson and will never again launch a new camera without a built-in viewfinder. ↩︎