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Leica X Compacts: Sinking fast, but is there a future for the X factor?

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  Last of the Exians: The X-U is still afloat, but for how long? (Image Leica Camera AG)
Last of the Exians: The X-U is still afloat, but for how long? (Image Leica Camera AG)

Whatever happened to the Leica X line-up? One by one — the X2, X-E, X, X Vario — they have come and gone. One example remains, but the X-U is made for use under water. It’s a specialist camera and we can’t be sure how long it is going to last now that the rest of the Xes have got the big X treatment. 

  The X Vario started life under a cloud after a marketing mistake which billed it as the
The X Vario started life under a cloud after a marketing mistake which billed it as the “Mini M.” But despite the slow lens, the X Vario has redeemed itself and is still in strong demand on the used market. This shot below shows what the camera is capable of (image Leica Camera AG)
  Image Mike Evans
Image Mike Evans

All this is a pity. All the X cameras, starting with the wonderful X1 (which led the pack, even before Fuji thought of using an X as a model designator) have been great in their own way. The X Vario, condemned from birth as a disappointing mini M, confounded critics and became a classic in its own right. Its zoom lens turned out to be a triumph, if a slow triumph. I suspect the X1 and X Vario will have a wonderful afterlife on the used camera market. It is a mystery to me that development of these cameras hasn’t continued.

  The Leica X, with its fixed 35mm-equivalent prime, is another excellent compact that deserved better sales. As with the X Vario and the earlier X models, the lack of a built-in viewfinder was the camera
The Leica X, with its fixed 35mm-equivalent prime, is another excellent compact that deserved better sales. As with the X Vario and the earlier X models, the lack of a built-in viewfinder was the camera’s principal disadvantage and the reason for its premature withdrawal from the market. (Image Leica Camera AG) 
  A shot from the original Macfilos test of the X by Mike Evans
A shot from the original Macfilos test of the X by Mike Evans

The pity is that Leica is now more or less out of the fixed-lens compact market — if we exclude the X-U and the two Panasonic-made rebrands, the V Lux and the D Lux. Yet there is still a place for fixed-lens compacts and I would be surprised if Leica isn’t working on something. The big problem with all the Xes, as with the Ts, was the lack of a built-in viewfinder. They would have sold in far greater numbers and would probably still be on sale if it weren’t for that seemingly innocuous omission. On a camera of this type, a viewfinder is essential to sales success. I don’t think there is now any disagreement on that. 

  Montreal Tomatoes — John Shingleton shot this on his six-year-old Leica X1 with its sloooow autofocus and its old-hat 12MP CCD sensor. There
Montreal Tomatoes — John Shingleton shot this on his six-year-old Leica X1 with its sloooow autofocus and its old-hat 12MP CCD sensor. There’s life in the old dog yet (referring to the X1, not Shingleton of course)

Perhaps the new CL could be the basis for a fixed-lens compact to succeed the X range? The CL with the 18-56mm is now more than a match for the old X Vario, but the 35mm focal length fixed-lens slot is still vacant. You could argue that the CL and the 18mm Elmarit or the 23mm Summicron is the modern answer to the X and the X1, but this somewhat misses the point.

If you don’t want a system camera and you appreciate the smallest possible package, then a fixed lens is the answer. As with all similar cameras, the lens can be partly concealed within the body, thus allowing the overall size to be as small as possible. Perhaps more important, though, is that the lens can camera can be tuned to a fine degree without any of the compromises that attend an interchangeable lens system. The Leica Q benefits from being a fixed-lens camera and it has been a huge success.

  The 35mm Leica X was a great camera for carrying around all day, especially appropriate for street photography (Image Mike Evans)
The 35mm Leica X was a great camera for carrying around all day, especially appropriate for street photography (Image Mike Evans)

I have written about my love of the original X1 many times. My battered old model still works perfectly. It is small and light and has the simplest imaginable controls. It doesn’t have the option of an electronic viewfinder (unlike the successor X2) but it works a treat with a 35mm optical finder. It looks so cute, too. 

For canny buyers, used versions of the X1, X2, X and X Vario are still in demand and prices are holding up. Any one of them makes a superb buy at the moment.

One of my objectives with the new Leica CL is to compare it with the X1 as a street photography tool. The X1 is the camera I pick used to up when I wanted to travel without a big camera — it is so light that it fits in a corner of a bag but provides excellent quality images. I found myself using it more than the even smaller Ricoh GR. The GR in many ways is more competent, but the controls are fiddly where the X1’s layout is bold and simple. Will the CL + 18mm pancake serve the same purpose and the X1/2? Could it be the X1, the X Vario and all things to all people? I suspect it could. And it does have a viewfinder, in case I haven’t mentioned it already.

Next week I shall be considering how the new CL can replace a whole raft of cameras

Read more about the CL system 

And more about the Leica X and T cameras

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Mike, an excellent highlight of the plight facing those who do not wish to buy into a new camera system such as the CL, but yet yearn for the simple solution of one fixed lens, be it prime or the truly excellent zoom, neatly wrapped up in a CL body. But you already know my view. I just wish enough kindred spirits would voice their ambitions and that Leica would listen. Maybe the new CEO will listen.

    • David, there is a certainly a good case for fixed lens cameras in 28, 45 or 50mm format. The X range was just so uncoordinated. And it didn’t take a genius to work out that a built-in viewfinder had become essential. I think the runaway success of the Q amply illustrates what the X V and the X could have been with a bit more understanding of the market. Sometimes, I think, designers live in a vacuum.

      • A pair of small (X2-sized) fixed lens cameras (28 & 45/50 as you suggest) would be brilliant travel and street cameras. And why not just include a built in (left corner please!) optical finder with the center AF box marked? Simple and easy to use.

        • Ah. You’ve hit a sore point there. A fixed spot focus point. I have been banging on about this for years and no one listens. He SL and the CL are the latest models where it is impossible to fix he central point. Nudge a button my mistake and it’s in the bottom left hand corner of the screen when you come to take the next shot. Leica say no one has this problem and there is no call for “over complicating things by adding another menu option”. I am glad to see I am not alone. Perhaps we should start a campaign.

    • I also fear you are right. If it doesn’t improve its sales (and it is hard to see this happening) the factory will have to take a difficult decision. I’d be sorry to see if go simply because it was a breath of fresh air in a conformist camera market. If it does go down, it will go down as a sort of classic and reams will be written about it in the future. The question is, how many people bought it because it was only only thing available from Leica. And how many of those people will be more satisfied with the CL.

  2. This is very fascinating, Mike, and I’d sure like my XV to be smaller – even though I like it very much as it is. I’m not sure I can envisage Leica doing a fixed lens APS-C camera on top of the CL because that would be like competing with themselves, given that it will be easy enough to treat the CL as fixed lens either with the zoom (= new XV) or the 18mm (= APS-C Q, so to speak. Admittedly a genuine fixed lens can make for a more compact solution (and those of us who like the X1 – not the X113 ! – with its still amazing IQ know what that means.) But I can’t see it happening.

    • John, we have similar likes and aspirations where Leica X models are concerned. However I am not sure that I agree with your premise that a fixed lens CL would be an unacceptable rival to the CL system camera. The two need not be mutually exclusive solutions.

      If I had no camera system, the CL would be high on my wish list. I am content with my Leica XV as an alternative, a versatile and effective Bridge camera. At marginal development cost however, Leica could easily retain and expand this market segment by utilising the CL body at its heart.

  3. I love my X, but then you already know this. The CL does have me wondering if Leica will do something with the Chassis and reinvent the X series around it. After all it would put some of the X’s issues behind it, and it may even sell well. Which would allow continued development of the series.

    • I think everything is up for grabs now, Dave. I’ve heard that "exciting things" are afoot at Leica and I wouldn’t mind betting there will be a fixed-lens APS-C model among them. After all, the Q has been a massive success and I am sure than a 35mm-equivalent CL(X) would be popular, particularly an uncomplicated, small and "Barnacky" street photography tool.

  4. I never have understood the need for a fixed focal length fixed lens camera? Surely such as the CL or a TL2 answers the same need if you just leave such as the 18mm fixed length lens on it? Or am I missing the point? Don Morley

    • I suppose the two oft-cited advantages are the possibility of reduced overall size (on the basis that the back end of the specially designed lens can be accommodated within the camera) and the presumed absence of sensor dust. On the other hand, with narrow bodies such as the CL, I don’t suppose there is much opportunity to save on size. And some fixed lens compacts (the Ricoh GR and the Leica D Lux) have a bit of a reputation for getting sensor dust despite lens being fixed. I can see both sides of the story.

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