Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Leica X1/X2: Peter Pan approach to choosing a camera.

Leica X1/X2: Peter Pan approach to choosing a camera.

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  Image John Shingleton, Leica X1
Image John Shingleton, Leica X1

“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust”, so wrote J.M. Barrie in Peter Pan. In considering a new camera, faith and trust in the manufacturer is important.  But so is the magic: The “pixie dust”.

Ok, feet back on the ground, let’s consider a new camera choice from a more rational direction. What do we look at in the specs of that new toy we are hankering after? Manufacturer? Lens? Viewfinder? Cost? LCD? Weight? Dimensions? Image quality? Autofocus? Image stabilisation? Sensor megapixels?  All that info is available, and search engines make it possible to compare those specs against our current cameras or alternatives.

  Image: Wayne Gerlach, Leica X2
Image: Wayne Gerlach, Leica X2

But there’s one parameter that isn’t often presented up front by manufacturers in the specifications list, and it’s a very important aspect that I’d suggest should be high in the list of considerations. It’s pixel size, Peter Pan’s magic “Pixie Dust”. That’s just as important as the total number of sensor megapixels. And for many of us who don’t want to make large prints for the sides of a bus it may even be more important. It should be high on the list in considering  that new camera, or indeed for a good used purchase that we might make on the ‘Bay. 

  Image: John Shingleton, Leica X1
Image: John Shingleton, Leica X1

This realisation crystallised a few days ago over a weekly coffee with fellow Macfilos’ contributor John Shingleton, also known as Mr Leica X1. We were rambling on about  the Leica X1 and  X2 compared with the new generation of cameras, and considering their respective image quality. Now, there is no question that an old Leica X1 is capable of great image quality in the right hands and mindset. It might be slow to autofocus, the dials might be easily bumped, but dammit it is capable of great images. And if shot properly, its images might be as good as the latest and greatest. The X2 is pretty good too, as I’ve found out recently.

The discussion meandered on to why this might be so. We began to zero in on pixel size as a key reason, and went to Dr Google for some numbers to test the hypothesis. We are all aware that, all else being equal, bigger pixels are better for low-light capture, and dynamic range, and richer colour. So, the pixel size of the Leica X1 sensor being 30 um2 makes it very capable, and the X2 and the X Vario (and others in the Leica X family) have a pixel size of 23 um2. Compare those numbers to the latest generation of m4/3 and APS-C sensor cameras with 20 or 24 or more megapixels. They generally have pixel sizes in a range about 50% smaller than the X1 and 33% smaller than the X2. 

  Image: John Shingleton, Leica X1
Image: John Shingleton, Leica X1

Now I, or should I say “we” as I’d like to place Mr X1’s fingerprints on the record, realise that in-camera firmware might have improved over the years and, to some extent, CMOS technology might have improved as well, but it’s not easy to find digestible information on just how significant any sensor technology improvements have been.  I suspect that those changes might not be so great as to overcome the simple physics of photon capture and discrimination by a significantly larger sensor pixel unit. After all, physics is physics.

Incidentally, Sony do suggest that their next generation backside illuminated sensors do in fact have many times higher light capture and only half the inherent noise, but these sensors are not yet in most of the cameras on the market or already generally out there in photo land. Let’s wait and see how much better they really are when it comes to image quality.

  Image: Wayne Gerlach, Leica X2
Image: Wayne Gerlach, Leica X2

A further musing on this topic comes from Panasonic’s release of the new GH5S camera in the last week.  It has a mere 10mp m4/3 sensor, but in that real estate the pixels are 23um2 size. Compare that to its predecessor GH5 of last year which has 11um2 pixel size in its 20mp sensor. While the new GH5S may be marketed a bit differently than last years GH5, it does seem that the Panasonic rocket scientists are heading Back to the Future with that new camera. And let’s not forget the Sony A7s II which has only 12mp on its full frame sensor (released two years ago when popular prejudice was running to the likes of 36 megapixels). It has a monster pixel size of 70um2 which provides higher dynamic range and and ultra ISO performance up to 100,000.

So, even in today’s world of advanced technologies, I’d propose that physics doesn’t lie. A large pixel size will often provide a better image in terms of low light capture, dynamic range and richer colour. We need to consider it more when we buy our new or used toys. And that brings us back to the Leica X1 and X2: Sometimes, less is more.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting stuff! I immediately checked, and found that my M8 has 47um2… But it is not very good in low light/higher than 800 ISO situations…

  2. A really worthwhile reminder which nevertheless has to be put alongside the quality of the lens (which all the X cameras have in spades) and the noise characteristic of the sensor, which in the later Sony offerings is stunningly good, too, and makes the RX100 series and the RX10 series incredibly good despite "only" one-inch sensors – in combination with Zeiss optics, of course. So I’m a philanderer: X’es when I want the best OOC and Sony when I want most versatility with high quality in the smallest package. And thanks for choosing those lovely pictures from John and yourself!

    • Yes John, I too wonder how much Leica glass (and their lens coatings) also contribute to image quality. Like you, I suspect that its quite a lot. I didn’t mention the lens except for early in the piece, but it is something that I also put in the top three criteria.

  3. Wayne and John, thank you for your relevant thoughts on the value of bigger pixels and another super set of pictures made with the aid two early X cameras.

    I have recently been revisiting my X1 and M8 files which leaves me with a glow and a question, Why upgrade?

    • Hello David. Quite true re the upgrade question. I’m not seeing a need, even tho a CL would give me an inbuilt viewfinder and interchangeable lenses. I must admit that the cost / benefit analysis doesn’t make it compelling. And perversely, there is something smirkingly satisfying about excellent images from a lovely little X factor piece of retro tech. (And maybe you could help Nico below with a comment on your X1/M8 experiences?).

  4. Thanks Wayne. That is a lot of mathematics. It has been understood for some time that pixel density is more significant for image quality (as it is usually defined by most of today’s photographers) than the actual number of pixels. Now, pixel peeping is against the principles of my photographic ‘religion’ and, for me, image quality is related more to the contents of an image rather than, let us call it, pixel quality. I also avoid referring to images or photos as files, as it goes against my photographic persuasion. I look on this term as a form of commodification of photography. You may recall the fun we had here some months ago when I showed images from 2 Leicas, made 91 years apart, and a lot of people started to peep at the images and to declare for one camera or the other. My intention, on the other hand, was to show that you could get good images out of both cameras and that which one a person might prefer was a matter of personal taste. I have yet to show a photograph to a normal person (ie a non photographer not affected by ‘pixelism’) and to have them comment on pixels, whereas most of today’s photographers will immediately blow up the pixels to have a peep, as if that were the most significant aspect of the photo.

    I was trying to think back to how we might have discussed this aspect back in the pre-digital and pre-pixel days. I do recall a lot of discussion about slower films being finer grained and if it were colour film, saturation and colour (tone and balance etc) would also be a subject for discussion. There was also a concern about excessive grain in faster films and also ones that had been ‘pushed’ during processing. At camera club level you might get comments about excessive grain or noise, but the photographs which are regarded as being really great and are shown in galleries around the world are judged by what they contain or ‘say’ rather than by their technical quality.

    All of the photos by John and yourself in the article above have great image quality, using both definitions of that term.

    William

    • Thank you for thoughtful comments William. I agree totally about pixel peeping. A higher megapixel sensor should always come out in front there, but it really bears no relationship to the look and feel of "normal size" images. With today’s cameras it’s just not relevant to images as we generally see them.
      And yes I do remember your two-camera-one-hundred-years-apart comparison. I still smile at how readers (me included) just couldn’t pick which images were on the left and which were on the right. Enjoyed that.
      And your final point re noise, I must admit that I don’t mind some noise, especially in night photos using available light. I think it can add to the mood of the image. Some will agree, some will disagree. An interesting visual arts parallel exists in the world of paintings – there are those who love hyper-realism with its no-noise ultra clinically sharp rendition, and others who much prefer something with a certain looseness providing for the viewer to experience and interpret. Neither right nor wrong, to each their own.

    • Cheers Jake. It was John who pushed me into the X2 world. I’ll likely still be enjoying learning its fixed 35mm abilities years from now. And I’m certain that John will be enjoying his X1 with Voightlander OVF. It’s emotionally superglued to him.

  5. Very nice and very enjoyable, long live the ‘x’s! Glad the king X1 is out and about! Nice to be able to have a pal with the same enthusiasm .

    • Yes John. I do enjoy the weekly coffee with John Shingleton. He doesn’t hold back on his views on wide ranging topics. WYSIWYG. The only annoyance about him sometimes manifests when I put on my propellor-head cap and start raving about something detailed technical. His eyes start to glaze over, then his eyes roll backwards, and finally he looks over my shoulder and interrupts, exclaiming "Look at that photo over there, just waiting to be taken". You see, he just cares about the image – He’s right of course, but I’ll never admit it !

  6. Nice pictures Wayne and John… Thanks.

    I must say that I have noticed that pictures straight from the camera look superficially more compelling with the Leica T than with the Leica CL.

    However, after running them both through a raw editor both cameras are as good as it gets, and of course, the CL has a viewfinder, so maybe there is truth in the idea that in-camera software has become more capable, and what one sees in newer cameras is the designer pulling and pushing all the buttons.

    Having said that, I prefer film from an aesthetic point of view, the pictures from John a few days back seem more pleasing than anything that come from a digital camera, notwithstanding the fact that even those have been scanned in order to end up on our screens.

    Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

    Am I just being contrary, or is there something more artistic about emulsion than 1’s and 0’s?

    In the end, all cameras are just tools, the real stuff is about what goes on behind the camera.

    I hope Mike will forgive me, but I saw a post on the Phoblographer today that includes a video comparing the work of two professional photographers, shooting the same girl in the same room, and trying to impose the same conditions on themselves, whilst one is using her normal digital gear and the other is using his film cameras.

    https://www.thephoblographer.com/2018/01/19/film-vs-digital-shoot-shows-comparison-need/

    • You’re 100% correct. Both film and digital can provide great images. Some will prefer the look of film, and some will find the flexibility of digital and self processing to be great (no more tongs and paper in wet developer and fixer!). In the end it’s all about the subject, the composition and the light, and a good presentation.
      Will check out the phoblographer post with interest. Thanks.

    • Hi Stephen, Thanks for the link to the video, I watched it through with interest. However it does explain my shooting styles as I seem to use digital cameras, but managing them in the same way as the chap with the film camera’s. It might be why I love my Leica X so much.

      Thank you for sharing.
      Dave

  7. There is a gorgeous 3D natural rendering to some of these images which shows the quality of the pixels/rendering which is delivered by the whole capture chain of the lens and sensor electronics. My wife has been able to spot the "pixel magic" since I owned a Leica M4-P and 50mm summicron back in the 80s. I have never had to fight for a Leica since then. I took photos at our daughters wedding, two years ago, with a M240 and Sony A7R for glass outside the 18 to 50mm range and my wife could readily spot the difference in images. There is a magic that cannot be measured by resolution on places like DX0 – if you want sterile images there are lots of options for those that are not discerning. As for high MP sensors, easy to sell to the unsophisticated, you need glass and enhanced technique to match and then hopefully you are selling prints for the side of buses! For artists, the rendering of the image is what matters and the X1 is certainly not past the best before date within its application limitations – it is not a sports camera and would not be purchased for that no matter how good the AF system is. I must go and chase the light and let the trolls that critique my camera choices (but they never show their images) be negative about Leica and experience the joy of photography and being creative.

    • Yes Brian, I agree that the "Leica Look" of film days has morphed its way into the digital world. A bit different perhaps, but there’s something there. I sometimes wonder whether its not just the slightly subdued colour, but additionally the way that Leicas render the white-silver-grey-dark grey-black hues within that colour. As you suggest, it’s all about how light is handled, and the Leica lenses and Leica firmware and their sensors have a unique way of doing that.
      I also agree with your comment re analysis of cameras by spec numbers. I too look at DXO (and Apoyelyt.com), and then get confused whether the numbers that I see do really translate into the reality of the image.

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