The ‘Search’ facility is possibly my most used feature in Adobe Lightroom. It is my usual starting point for finding pictures to illustrate a new feature article. The search tool opens up your catalogue and responds quickly to any category of data needed, either derived from EXIF embedded in metadata, or personal keywording. I guess most readers are familiar with this feature and use it from time to time.
A few months ago, I was looking for illustrations for an article on ‘Photography in Winter’ for the Leica Fellowship quarterly newsletter. Hence my search was for pictures not only keyed as ‘winter’ but for pictures taken with Leica cameras and/or Leica lenses. My catalogue also contains a lot of files derived from scanned films or prints and there is no easy way of determining their parentage, other than from attached keywords or tags, assuming they were attached.
After selecting my shortlist of winter pictures, I was surprised to find the oldest were made with my venerable Leica Digilux 2. I was astonished by their quality and relevance despite, at the time of shooting, not understanding the advantages of capturing files in RAW format. It spawned an idea for this article.
The Digilux 2 was a joint production with Panasonic who sold a near-identical version called Panasonic DMC-LC1. By today’s standards, its 5 megapixels sensor will seem woefully inadequate. But we are talking about the year 2004, sixteen years ago, which is a long time in digital development.
Although promoted and regarded by many as a point-and-shoot camera, it was very much more than that. It was used by professionals for press and illustrative work. In my case, it was to meet changing editorial requirements at that time that I bought my Digilux 2. Apart from the DMR (or Digital Module for Leica R 8/9 cameras), the Digilux 2 was as far upmarket as Leica went in those days. The M8 was still on the drawing board.
The outstanding feature of the Digilux 2 is its lens, designed by Leica, and an outstanding performer. I had never owned a lens in its class, so good. It is a real shame that it now languishes on an out-of-date body and sees relatively little use.
In comparison, it is noteworthy that contemporary Leica R lenses have seen a rebirth as they enjoy being adapted for work on newer system bodies, such as the SL and CL. Not so with classic lenses permanently fixed to obsolete bodies. They quickly become museum pieces, more is the pity.
The Digilux 2 sports a 28-90 mm Vario-Summicron zoom lens with an almost constant starting aperture of f/2. (At the 90 mm zoom setting, the aperture closes slightly to f/2.4 — a very modest loss of light transmission). All of this was possible because the sensor was a tiny two-thirds inch CCD type, or about the size of a photographer’s little fingernail.
Unfortunately, the sensitivity of the sensor is rather limited, typical of the state of technology at that time. The base ISO is 100, with two additional settings of 200 and 400, unthinkable today, but typical of contemporary film speeds in 2003 when it was designed.
Performance at ISO 400 is quite noisy but, within reason, that is controllable with modern software. However, one cannot hide the fact that the camera’s use in low-light is very limited unless auxiliary sources are added or time exposures are possible. I often used it in the latter way.
Piece of history
I wonder how many readers are familiar with, or actually own a Digilux 2? A search of Macfilos archives revealed that our Editor discovered a near-mint Digilux 2 camera with accessories in 2013, some seven years ago, and gave an interesting account of this little piece of history. So I will not go into further technical details here. They have not changed.
However, I do have two original accessories: the black leather case with space for spare battery and memory card; and a Leica Elpro-D E69 close-up attachment for even closer subjects. That enabled me to shoot close details, for example, of tools and grain of fine furniture.
In 2018, contributor John Nicholson brought his Digilux 2 out of hibernation and took some attractive Spring pictures. So it is mainly for the benefit of younger members, or those readers who are only recent converts to Leica Lore, that I share my current experiences with the camera which I bought new in 2004, soon after it was launched.
From colour slides to digital files
For about fifteen years I had been illustrating my freelance articles with colour transparencies, mainly in medium format, but gradually including Leica M6 material. By 2004 I had a varied portfolio of work of which one sector blossomed. I was profiling and portraying craftspeople and their workshops all over the country, one even in Australia where a sheep farmer was a nationally known woodturner. Within this body of work, I featured over two hundred workshops (more on this later) and witnessed the rapid emergence of digital media. Soon I was pressed by an editor to deliver my contributions digitally. Initially I was sceptical whether the quality was good enough. However, very soon film photography was eclipsed by editorial preferences for digital media.
I surveyed the market, visited Focus on Imaging at the NEC in Birmingham and handled the new Leica Digilux 2 camera which had just been launched. Although the resolution was a little on the low side in comparison with other brands, I did like that lens. Soon after its launch, I had my own Digilux 2 together with its own leather case and UV filter to protect the lens in active workshops. Many of these places were very dusty, not ideal environments for changing camera lenses.
The changeover was daunting. I had to become competent in digital processing and quickly saw the need for some kind of DAM – or Digital Asset Management. DAM is a fairly complex subject and, understandably avoided by many photographers. Suffice to say that after one or two false starts, I welcomed Adobe’s launch of Lightroom. It was clearly superior to earlier software and continued to evolve over time. It meets all of my current needs, both for DAM and processing.
Into the Workshops
So the Digilux 2 quickly became the digital camera of choice for my illustrated articles, profiling a wide range of businesses. How did it perform?
Whereas with film cameras I carried portable studio lighting units into the workplace, I found, with care, that I could mostly cope using ambient lighting. That was very liberating and also yielded more natural photographs of my subjects. I found that I had finer control over colour fidelity and setting the white balance. Invariably I grew to depend on using a calibrated grey card to control unwanted colour contamination. Different coloured woods, for example, could be shown more accurately.
The Digilux 2 was mostly used on tripods; a table version for worktops and a conventional tripod for more general views and portraits of people at work. Some subjects were specialist colleges and schools while others included musical instrument makers, boat-builders, a coracle-maker, archers, cabinetmakers, bow-makers, oarsmen, tree-houses, cathedral furniture, replica sports car makers, church organ-makers, a smoking pipe-maker, Romany caravan restorers and woodturners. These represent a few of the many craftspeople I profiled in the Nineties and Noughties. Each workshop was different and posed challenges when intruding with photographic equipment.
Dust was a hazard to be avoided wherever possible. While some places were spotlessly clean with modern air filtration, others revealed the legacy of years of accumulated dust. It was a serious fire risk and naked flames were prohibited. In the latter cases, I always used a shroud to protect my camera and lenses between shots.
I found this chapter of my work most interesting and several of these subjects became my business features in The Times and professional media.
The Digilux 2 proved equally capable when I needed a camera for family pictures. Apart from informal portraits, it was the camera of choice when persuaded to photograph my nephew’s wedding. In church, its silent operation enabled me to shoot from quite close to the bride and groom.
I rarely use flash, nowadays. However, the Digilux 2 has a most ingenious inbuilt pop-up flash which I used to advantage when ambient light indoors was borderline. What is special about its flash is the ability to select a halfway position, which gives a brief burst at 45 degrees tilt, useful for bouncing light. With a make-shift reflector, the shady side of window light can be softened in a convincing way. A product picture also shows the Digilux 2 with flash set to the angled position.
Is the Digilux 2 still worth buying today?
I have often been asked this question by people worldwide who have seen my historical notes on my website. My advice varies and has naturally become more cautious over time. I will try and crystallise my thoughts on this question as follows.
- In terms of specification? Probably not.
- In terms of helping a young person learn about photography? Possibly. Its analogue controls help a beginner to appreciate the factors influencing how to take a successful picture.
- For a nostalgic experience with early Leica digital cameras? Certainly.
- For those at peace with a slower pace of life, yet who resist dabbling with cut-film in technical cameras and mixing chemical brews? Possibly.
- For those who believe what others claim, i.e. that the Digilux 2 produces photographs with a distinctive look? Many users think so. See this thread which has 2,900 contributions from users and inquirers worldwide.
What is not in doubt is the enduring performance of the earliest Leica digital cameras, epitomised by the Digilux 2, X1, X2 and X Vario. They are still fully capable of taking impressive photos, fully up to the standard established when first launched up to sixteen years ago. That is pretty good for modern electronic devices.
The main risks with the Digilux 2 are component failures. Leica no longer maintains spares for these obsolete digital cameras. That is why serious owners possess one or more spare bodies in case cannibalisation becomes necessary. But let us not dwell on the negatives. My Digilux 2 could certainly do with a new coat (or ‘skin’). But I like it as it is. It looks like and handles like many classic Leica cameras. That is a joy in itself and a good enough reason to own one.
Copyright © David Askham 2020