|Leica Digilux 1
4 Megapixel Digital Camera
by Jim McGee
What was Leica thinking? When you pull a new M7 out of the box you're blown away by the fact that it looks and feels like a precision instrument. When you pull the Digilux out of the box the first thing you think is "boy this thing is ugly." And trust us its not one of those cases where it's so ugly its cute.
The body is a smooth plastic box that reminds you more of a pre-production mock-up than a finished camera. Buttons and levers sit atop the basic box, which has none of the sweeping integrated look we've come to expect from Japanese digitals. Then you notice the "big metal hood" on the back of the camera that folds out to expose the large LCD screen. It all seems a bit clunky until you remember that hoods like this are an aftermarket option for high-end digitals like the D1 and 1D. Finally you notice the Vario-Summicron f/2 - f/2.5 aspherical lens and you start to realize that this camera really is something a little different - in spite of its butt ugly looks.
Fiddling with the controls (Leica ships it's test models without manuals) I snap an indoor shot looking through a picture window towards the woods behind my house. I suddenly have a new found respect for "Mr. Ugly." The oversized LCD screen is bright and clear and really gives you an idea of how good an image you've captured. Colors are accurate and you can see detail in the LCD image. More impressive from a compact camera is that it nailed this tough flash exposure. There's a good balance between the scene outside the windows and the interior illuminated by fill flash. Interesting.
That oversized LCD is one of the Digiluxe's best features. At two and a half inches square it's anywhere from 50% to 90% larger than the LCDs you'll find on most digital cameras. Mount it on a tripod and the Digilux is like a little digital view camera. The only thing missing is a cable release, so for rock steady images plan on using the self-timer.
Cruise through the menus and you find that you have an exceptional degree of control with the Digilux including exposure compensation, flash exposure, white balance, and ISO (100-400 speeds). You can choose between auto or spot metering and auto or manual focus.
In our experience the meter was spot on in most situations as was white balance. The one situation that seemed to fool the white balance a bit was open shade. However if in doubt you can manually calibrate the white balance setting using a white card.
The Digilux is a collaboration between Panasonic and Leica; part of a long term strategic partnership between the two companies that allows Leica to benefit from Panasonic's expertise in electronics and Panasonic to benefit from Leica's expertise in optics. Panasonic even offers it's own digital camera with a Leica lens.
The lens itself is interesting. It's a Vario-Summicron f/2 - f/2.5 aspherical lens covering the 35mm equivalent of 33mm to 100mm. Designed specifically for the Digilux it renders sharp images consistently with no noticeable distortion. Exactly what you'd expect in a lens from Leica.
At it's highest resolution setting the Digilux produces 4 Megapixel images (actually 3.9 Megapixels). Supported image formats include TIFF and JPEG (fine or standard) in four resolution modes (2240x1680, 1600x1200, 1120x840, 640x480). Digital Print Order Format (DPOF) and EPSON Print Image System (PIM) formats are also supported and the camera ships with ACDSee 3.1/3.11 for image viewing. Raw file mode is not supported.
In the Field The Digilux is surprisingly easy to learn and use. While not pretty to look at the controls fall easily to hand and the menu system - so important on digital cameras - makes sense and is easy to navigate. A feature we really liked was the ability to tag thumbnail images for deletion and then delete them as a group rather than having to go through multiple steps to delete each image as you do with so many digitals.
Which brings up an interesting point. The Digilux faces some stiff competition in this price range from cameras that sport more features. But to accommodate so many features those cameras often have complex controls and menu systems. I've missed many a shot with digitals while fiddling with menus and tiny control buttons. The Digilux handles more like a traditional rangefinder and the simpler digital interface lets it get our of the way and just take pictures - which after all is what its supposed to do.
Unlike many of it's competitors the Digilux comes with a 64Mb SD memory card which makes it usable right out of the box. Shame on those other manufacturers that give you cheap 4mb cards that wind up at the bottom of a drawer.
For those whose eyesight is no longer 20/20 a diopter is built into the viewfinder. This is also critical if you'll be focusing manually as manual focus is one area where the large LCD doesn't excel. Speaking of the LCD, that big metal shield may look awkward but it's godsend in the field. LCD screens tend to wash out in even indirect light making them difficult to see. But when folded open the three part metal hood keeps the LCD in shade. That preserves color and contrast and makes working with this camera on a tripod a real pleasure.
The camera runs on a lithium-ion rechargeable battery and an AC adapter/battery charger is included along with a USB cable and video out cable to display your images on a TV. Connecting the camera to your MAC or PC via the USB cable requires no software or drivers. Our windows PC recognized it as a plug 'n play USB disk without a hitch. And when you open the access door to plug in one of those cables you'll get a very pleasant surprise. We've all suffered through cameras and computers who've had little access doors fall off or been broken off. But that shouldn't be a problem with this camera. Solid spring loaded metal hinges secure the doors on the Digilux.
Another important feature is that it has the least shutter lag of any digital we've used since the Nikon D1X.
Gripes and Groans
While the individual controls are logically placed we noticed that on a hot day that smooth plastic body is hard to grip. The gripable textured covering used on the M6 & M7 would be a welcome addition on the Digilux. Then there's that certain something that a good ergonomic design possesses. That quality where the camera falls easily into your hand so that you almost cease to notice it there. By contrast the Digilux feels boxy and even a touch clumsy at times. Look at the camera and your first impression is that you're looking at a design from the 40's or 50's. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if Leica made some minor tweaks to make it more comfortable in your hand.
Some people will buy this camera just because the name on the body is Leica. But with street prices ranging from $900 to $1,100 most people will compare this camera to competitors such as the Nikon Coolpix 5000, and Canon G2 that offer more options and similar image quality for around the same price or even the Minolta Dimage 7i or Olympus Camedia E-10 which handle more like SLRs than a compact digitals or rangefinders.
Leica and Panasonic have teamed up to produce a very competent package with some unique features to set it apart. But the Digilux is swimming in shark filled waters. It will be interesting to see how it fares.