Leica seeks to extend its reputation for true photographic tools with the D-LUX 2, originally announced in October 2005. In many important ways, it succeeds admirably. But despite its many strengths, the camera's "noisy" files may be a deal-killer for some users, particularly given the D-LUX 2's premium price.
Leica D-Lux 2 Pros and Cons
Rapid access to critical settings via joystick
Lens is outstandingly sharp
16:9 aspect ratio
28-112mm (equivalent) focal length zoom
Auto white balance
Auto exposure accuracy
Physical design and build quality
RAW shooting capability
2.5-inch LCD monitor
Image stabilization (some caveats below)
Noise, especially ISO 200 and ISO 400
Maximum ISO only 400 (limits subject flexibility)
Max. aperture f4.9 at 112mm (equivalent) zoom
Screen does not have a wide viewing angle
Screen must be viewed straight-on for proper color/contrast judgements
Introduction For someone seeking SLR-like functionality in a compact digital camera, point-and-shoot cameras are almost by definition major compromises in design and usability. I suppose it's just as well, since different photographers value different features in their cameras at different times. But wouldn't it be great to have it all in a compact digicam?
In fact, I agree with one notable online reviewer, Michael Reichman of The Luminous Landscape, who says in effect that point-and-shoots endlessly come and go so don't bother me unless it's really special.
For me, this controversial little gem strikes at the heart of the digital conundrum: digital ease-of-use and quality in one package. Can a point-and-shoot deliver most of the control and quality a professional or experienced photographer is accustomed to? I don't see why not, and for the D-LUX 2 the answer is a qualified yes. Yes, for some photographic subjects. Yes, for those willing to work with the noise and generally shoot RAW.
Leica D-Lux 2 Features and Design
Photographers appreciate a tool that doesn't get in the way, i.e., something that just works. The legendary Leica M6 (35mm rangefinder camera) was such a creature. And those who have experienced its simplicity have been waiting for the day when digital would measure up. To be fair, digital is a different beast, but we see new models come and go as often as we see new shoe styles. Perhaps some of this camera design energy could be applied to understanding how photographers work in the real world? We're still waiting, but for a compact digital camera, the D-LUX 2 measures up extremely well.
The physical design of the D-LUX 2 strikes a nice balance between being small enough to tote around and large enough to handle easily. Operating the camera one-handed is simple and intuitive; although the mode dial on the top is easily jostled out of whatever position it is set to. While it seems to me that the control layout has been somewhat standardized for point-and-shoot cameras, the D-LUX 2 has a couple of extras that really work well. These are an auto-exposure lock button just above the four-way joystick, the joystick itself, and the switches located on the side of the lens barrel for focus mode and framing ratio.
Often you have only moments to capture a picture, so a big part of that is quickly setting the camera to match your vision of the scene. In no particular order (because it varies with the subject), I want quick access to auto-exposure lock (AE Lock), exposure compensation (if not shooting manual), white balance, focus mode, and ISO speed. The D-LUX 2 allows me to think photographically, as if I'm using an SLR, without having to work my way through awkward menus and redundant button clicks. The controls are all there at my fingertips.
Leica D-Lux 2 detailed capture display, with histogram on
Leica D-Lux 2 detailed playback display, with histogram
Leica D-Lux 2 exposure compensation control
Leica D-Lux 2 playback mode menu
Camera Performance and Image Quality Probably the most important "feature" of the D-LUX 2 is something that's not marketable: confidence. You can't capture this quality in the specs, and it may be even harder to convey in a review. Simply put, I trust the camera. I trust the auto-exposure in aperture-priority mode (and I can reliably and consistently tweak it as needed). I trust the reasonably fast auto focus. I trust the white balance to give me a pleasing, natural, yet dynamic color palette. In other words, I don't have to think about things to get the shot I see, and the camera does not get in my way. It's still not an SLR in terms of speed and control, but it comes closer to working like one than any point-and-shoot in my experience to date.
The Leica D-LUX 2 is the kind of camera that brings the fun back into photography, because for many subjects, you just shoot. And when you do think about the shot, well-considered features like the AE-Lock button right under your thumb help you nail the exposure. Hold the joystick (see right) down for a moment and you have direct access to all the critical settings such as ISO or white balance. And convenience-oriented scene modes are just a dial-turn away if you them them.
With so many other point-and-shoots that have appeared on my credit card statement (and then my Craigslist account), there's always some compromise. Shutter-lag. Digital-color. Menu mazes. Indecipherable icons. Icons that obscure the image on the monitor screen. The list goes on and on.
Leica D-LUX 2 controls, the joystick is just to the left of the photographer's thumb.
The Leica does not have these problems, although it does have idiosyncrasies. One thing that takes some getting used to is confirming/selecting a menu item. While iPod users are accustomed to pressing the center button to select menu items, the Leica sometimes employs the right keypad button to select, and sometimes uses the down keypad button. For what it's worth, my two favorite menu interfaces are found on Casio's Exilim compact digital cameras and on Canon's 20D/30D. Anyway, one gets used to the Leica way of doing things eventually, because the joystick and dedicated buttons are the primary control interfaces.
Which brings us to the fly in the Leica ointment, and of course I'm referring to the noise. For some in the photography community, "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that clean." (Sorry, Ella.) If the data isn't squeaky clean with smooth tones and a zillion lines of resolution, it's trash. While I don't subscribe to that philosophy myself (How many contest winners are judged on technical merit alone? Who asks what kind of camera was used to make the iconic images of our time?), I do share the desire for the most technical bang for my buck, and I can appreciate that Leica's competition fares much better in this regard, especially for the money. I must admit that when I first looked at the D-LUX 2's sample files online, I wasn't impressed and wrote this off as "another typical point-and-shoot." Two thoughts on that: One, I was wrong. Two, post-processing seems to be a required (rather than optional) step in the digital age, so shoot RAW if you want the best.
Ultimately, the noise issue will be a personal choice, so download some sample files, look in the shadow regions, smooth tonal areas, and decide for yourself. Remember that you can clean things up in post-processing. And if shooting RAW, you would probably be doing a little noise reduction anyway. As Reichman pointed out in his article, the noise cleans up well with Noise Ninja or the noise-reduction software of your choice.
For candid shooting, the D-LUX 2 performs well; shutter-lag is very short, and shot-to-shot speed is quite good, although in real-world use you still have to anticipate the moment more than you would with an SLR. If emulating a range-finder is for you, then the manual focus features will give you a strong sense of the heritage it follows (and greatly reduce the shutter-lag). The Leica behaves predictably and you quickly learn to understand what it can and can't do.
I was somewhat disappointed with the D-LUX 2's O.I.S. optical image stabilization. I've been a fan of this image stabilization on long telephoto SLR lenses since it was first introduced by Canon about eight years ago. It's not really fair to expect comparable performance from a point-and-shoot, but that is where the bar is set for me. Image stabilization should help the Leica deliver better quality photos in low light by allowing the photographer to use slower shutter speeds instead of increasing the camera sensitivity and introducing more noise. However, I often found situations where I couldn't quite get a fast enough shutter speed to make a sharp image, and the image stabilization seemed inconsistent from frame to frame. A work-around for this is to capture a series of frames in rapid succession with the hope that the second or third frame is sharp. I also experimented with image stabilization set to "always on" and that seemed to help a little. Perhaps I'm used to using shutter speeds slower than the D-LUX 2's image stabilization can realistically compensate for but without higher and cleaner ISO sensitivities, hand-held, low-light, and sports photos are hindered.
Finally, macro shooters may feel the close-focusing distance is a bit too great. On two occasions I found myself wishing for the ability to get just an inch or two closer. The purple flower photo was a situation where I could not get as close as I wanted.
Camera Experience Despite the contrast of strengths and shortcomings described above ), I find the Leica to be highly competent in most situations and even exceptional at times.
There are realistic limitations, however. As with all compact cameras, its responsiveness begins to falter with fast-moving subjects (e.g., sports or kids). Hampered by the small maximum aperture at the longest zoom setting, you cannot achieve a fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion, nor can you get a strong selective focus effect (e.g., portraits with soft, blurry backgrounds). In real-world use, I wish the noise issue did not exist, since I find myself shooting telephoto in many low-light situations. Telephoto shots generally require faster shutter speeds and higher ISO settings help to shoot even faster. So even with image stabilization, users would benefit from less noise at ISO 400.
While skiing recently I encountered a mountain view with "big mogul" snowdrifts in soft, monochromatic light. The wind was blowing, the light was changing, and I was trying to catch up with my ski partner, so I rushed through three frames in aperture-priority, JPEG-only. Due to the brightness of the snow, I had a hard time seeing the monitor, even with the LCD brightness at maximum and my sunglasses off. After I got home, I discovered I had something special (to me anyway!). I decided to enlarge the image and have it printed for framing. The final print is 27 by 15 inches (16:9 ratio). On a scale of 1 to 10 for overall quality, I'd rate it a solid 7 or even a 7.5. What "digital-ness" you can see in the final print is partly due to my use of Noise Ninja noise reduction software. The print has smooth tones and pleasing monochromatic color. The sharpness of small trees against the snow is pretty good for such big enlargement and certainly not an issue if you view the print from a normal distance. Detail and sharpness are areas where the Leica lens tradition really delivers!
Digiscoping Digiscoping is the practice of using a spotting-scope with your digital camera to photograph distant objects. Typically this technique is used for bird watching. Leica makes a couple of scopes and I received a Televid 72 scope along with the Digital Adapter 2. The latter is a clamp device that allows one to mount almost any kind of point-and-shoot digital camera. (I tested the scope only with the D-LUX 2.) According to Leica, the scope and camera combination can achieve equivalent focal lengths of up to 2000 mm.
Click on thumbnails to view sample photos of photos taken with the Leica spotting scope.
Unfortunately, I did not have an opportunity to photograph birds. There are some really nice images online taken by dedicated bird digiscopers, so rather than compete with them, I went with the next best things. The boat above was a mile away or so (guesstimate) and the moon's mean distance is 238,712 miles. You can almost hear the guys in the boat talking . . . "Lookin' good, Billy Ray."
Some thoughts from my small amount of experience with digiscoping that may save you some frustration:
You must have a video tripod or video panning head. Regular still-photography tripod heads may not allow you to make the minute scope adjustments smoothly. In moving subjects like those pictured above, tracking is difficult; stationary subjects are much better!
Unless you plan to use more than one camera, try to find a way to maintain or "lock" the physical clamp settings and position of the camera relative to the scope. I spent (wasted) a lot of time trying to get the camera positioned properly and the scope focused every time I broke the gear down and moved from
one location to another.
To make it easier to see the scope's image on your camera when first setting it up, switch the camera to spot-metering or center-weighted exposure metering first. This helps you see the scope's image and set the camera properly so the image fills the frame. You can then reset the metering to whatever you want or shoot manually.
Set the D-LUX 2's image stabilization to "always on."
Use the self-timer for two or ten seconds rather than pressing the shutter button yourself.
Conclusion The D-LUX 2 is for photographers who value creative control and confidence in their camera. I was tempted to call it a "pocket-M6," but the digital noise and speed issues keep the D-LUX 2 from fully measuring up to the famous 35mm rangefinder. Unless the noise levels are unacceptable to you or you need SLR-like auto focus speed and capture rates, the D-LUX 2 is a compact camera very much worth considering.
Photographers who expect to shoot RAW however should find a lot to like with the Leica . For many candid uses, landscapes, and artistic endeavors, the D-LUX 2's strengths enable you to quickly get the shot. And the 28mm wide angle, combined with the 16:9 landscape format is addictive for those of us who naturally "see" in this aspect ratio. Shooters who prefer long telephotos, however, have much more compelling choices in the marketplace. Finally, the Leica's sharp glass and ease-of-use are strong reasons to give it a try.
Contents of the Leica D-Lux 2.
Leica D-Lux 2 Digital Camera
64 MB Secure Digital Card
Lithium ion battery
Complete software package (Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0 including Leica RAW Plug-in, Quicktime Movie Player, USB driver)
About Laurence Chen Laurence Chen is a freelance editorial, commercial, and wedding photographer based in Seattle, Wash. His clients have included Fortune Magazine, Sunset Magazine, and America 24/7. Visit his portfolio at www.Lchenphoto.com and buy his e-book, "Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera", at http://www.takecontrolbooks.com/buying-digicam.html.
Strengths: Heavy buid quality, superb glass, unique aspect ratios, raw file format, anti-shake
Weaknesses: price ($200 more for rebadged Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX1)
Great camera ... disregard critics about noise--it just isn't processed out like it is on other cameras to the detriment of image quality. These images allow the photographer to control the processing. If no post processing is what you are looking for, this camera might not be for you. Same camera as Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX1 which is $200 less. Save yourself some money by buying Panasonic logo vice Leica.