Monday, 16 May 2022

The Leica X Vario - part one - purchase and initial expectations

Readers (I know I have at least two readers), brace yourselves! A new series of photo-related posts is about to begin. I hope they will record happiness at having made a good purchase. But of course it may all end in disappointment. Being an optimist, I anticipate having an interesting time getting to know my latest camera.

So what have I done now? Well, I've bought a Leica X Vario from the big online photo retailer, It's cost me £599. I can afford that. But it has to be positively the last camera I will buy for the next few years. I really must get back to saving serious money again, for larger and more important things.

You may remember that back in March I sold my Leica X-U to, and I was impressed how straightforward the process was, how they kept to their quoted offer, and how quickly the money was credited to my bank account. I therefore felt they were trustworthy, and decided that I would buy from them, and ignore anything offered from private sellers on eBay, however tempting. 

I have of course paid mpb by credit card, and will get the benefit of Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, which if necessary gets me a refund from my credit card company if the camera fails to meet its advertised description, and for some reason I can't get satisfaction from mpb. But I am confident that when they say the camera is in 'Good' condition (which they define) it will work properly. 

The X Vario was in production only from 2013 to 2017, and so this is of course a used example, at a guess from 2014, so it's probably eight years old. I will try to pin down the month of manufacture as closely as I can from the serial number. 

I have studied mpb's pictures of the sale article minutely, and the camera looks very nice externally, almost entirely free of blemishes. There is no mention of its original packaging, so I reckon all of that has long gone. (In fact I'd be paying quite a bit more than £599 if the original packaging and documentation were included) I'm guessing that the camera has had at least two previous owners. However, being a German-made Leica, a product of the Wetzlar factory, and therefore solidly built to last, it should have taken in its stride anything that those previous owners may have thrown at it. I expect to lift it out of mpb's shipment box, charge up its battery, slip in a new SD card, and get shooting almost at once. In my own hands it will naturally get lots of TLC. Some people have rescue dogs and show them love. I have cameras.  

There is a month before my next caravan holiday (I returned from the Cotswolds today), and I should have got through all the preliminary assessments by the time I'm off again.

So why this camera? 

After using the Leica X-U for several months, and taking almost 15,000 pictures with it, I had a very good idea of what it could do - and couldn't do. I very much liked the crisper, more detailed (and possibly more subtle) pictures it took when compared with my faithful but venerable Leica D-Lux 4. I can see why I kept most of the shots taken with the X-U. They were very good shots. But there was a fatal snag: the X-U had no zoom. I was stuck with a 35mm fixed prime lens, and eventually I found it found limiting. No wonder I went back to the little Leica D-Lux 4, which did have a zoom, a modest one, but it did the job well. It gave me a versatility that was lacking in the X-U.

The Leica X Vario has that missing versatility. It will be much more like the D-Lux 4 - larger, but with a zoom of similar range. So I know it will suit me. The major difference is the size of the sensor. The D-Lux 4's is very small by modern standards. The X Vario's sensor is much larger: APS-C sized. The same as on the X-U. So I ought to get the kind of very good pictures I rated so highly from the X-U, but at a variety of focal lengths, not just the one.

There is another difference. The maximum aperture on the D-Lux 4 is f/2.0, and its lens can draw in a lot of light. The X Vario's maximum aperture is only f/3.5, and its slower lens can capture only a third of the light that the D-Lux 4 can. This is the result of a design decision. Larger sensors mean larger, heavier lenses, unless you restrict the maximum aperture to keep them manageable - especially so with a zoom lens. If you want the best image quality, there's no alternative. Which means that I'll have to turn up the ISO (light-sensitivity) by three compared to the D-Lux 4, or allow three times the length of exposure for each shot, or some combination of these two things. So I don't expect the X Vario to do well indoors, nor at night. But it should be fine for sunsets. And during the day, it should give me results noticeably better than the D-Lux 4's, and even beat the X-U. Leica's main lens designer, Peter Karbe, created the X Vario's zoom lens, so I'm taking it as a given that it will give remarkable results in the right conditions.

Do I need to say that I've hunted up all the X Vario pictures I can readily find on the Internet, to judge what it can accomplish in various lights? Many of these have wowed me. In skilled hands, this camera delivers pictures I'd be proud of.  

And what if, when viewing my own results, I don't get the expected frisson? Well, I won't dismiss my X Vario. I won't sell it on. I will hang onto it. It will appreciate in value, and one day I will get all my money back, and may even make a small profit. Classic Leica cameras - and it seems that the X Vario is now regarded as a modern classic - are much sought after. 

Why is the X Vario a collector's item? Because it is the only APS-C camera with a fixed zoom lens that Leica ever produced. Indeed it remains the only one of its type that you can buy, as no other maker attempted the same thing. It was made to fill a gap in the luxury camera market: and just like the X-U, this turned out to be a failed experiment, the gap always being too small to produce a sufficient return. It didn't help that the marketing for the 2013 launch misled potential buyers, making for disappointment if the original asking price (around £2,150) hadn't already put them off. So the X Vario never sold well when you could buy it new. That was then; today in 2022 that awkward launch is in well the past, and the second-hand prices are, for the moment, reasonable. The X Vario isn't an especially rare camera, but, like the X-U, there aren't many available to buy, and anything worthwhile gets snapped up fast. When I saw that this one had appeared on mpb's website during the previous few hours, I didn't hesitate. At £599, somebody else would soon have it. 

For my £599 I expect a very good camera, one I hope I will enjoy using. Will I see another one when out and about? Probably not. I hardly ever see anybody taking pictures with a Leica. I didn't when I took the X-U to London last January, the very place where you might expect to bump into another Leica user. But no. 

DPD are delivering my X Vario tomorrow. Expect some photos in the next post.

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