Leica has a waterproof camera in their line: the Leica X-U. I recently had the chance to shoot with it for a few weeks on a trip to the Arctic. Here's my hands-on review.
Thanks to the folks at B&H Photo, I recently had the chance to spend some time shooting with the Leica X-U. I took it with me on a trip to the High Arctic around Svalbard. A good chunk of the trip was spent kayaking, so it was a good opportunity to put the camera through its paces in some damp and cold conditions with spectacular scenery and wildlife.
No Leica is just an ordinary camera, but this one has a very unusual feature for the brand: it’s waterproof. And even with that feature it manages to distinguish itself from the other waterproof cameras out there in that it aims for the same image and optical quality as a Leica and has the price point to match (about 7x something like the Olympus TG-5, for example).
Before we get into the nitty gritty, I should first explain how I used the Leica X-U, because there’s a couple of different ways to approach it. An argument can certainly be made that a camera like this should be used primarily underwater. But I prefer to think of them as amphibious. That is, they should work well both in and out of water. If I’m doing a dedicated underwater shoot then I’ll use a dedicated underwater rig, with housings and dome ports and off-camera strobes. If I’m shooting only in dry conditions, then I obviously don’t need the extra complications that come with making a camera waterproof and have infinitely more options to choose from. But to my mind, cameras like this one–and conceptually similar ones like the Olympus TG-5–should be versatile and useful whether wet or dry, working equally well on the beach or when snorkeling or swimming with the kids or visiting tourist landmarks around town. A camera for all seasons, as it were.
And that’s very much how I used the Leica X-U. We were kayaking in the Arctic. So it was cool and cold conditions. Sometimes it was clear and sunny, but other times it was snowing or misty. Spray and splashes were constant. We weren’t geared up for polar SCUBA diving or snorkeling, so I didn’t use it fully underwater as much as I would have in warmer conditions. But I also wanted to use it as a regular travel camera when water wasn’t a factor.
The Leica X-U (often listed as the Leica X-U (Typ 113)) has an unusually large sensor for a small waterproof camera: a 16.2MP APS-C CMOS sensor (23.6 x 15.7 mm). That’s a big step over the usually tiny compact sensors and promises much improved image quality.
The lens is a Summilux 23mm f/1.7 ASPH. So it’s wide, fast, and aspherical to reduce spherical distortion. But it’s also a fixed lens in two senses: one is that it’s hard-wired to the camera, so you can’t detach it and swap it for a different lens. The other is that it has a fixed focal length, with no zoom.
There’s a large 3-inch LCD screen on the back (not a touch screen), and the whole thing is encased in an anti-slip rubber that makes it waterproof (15 meters / 60 minutes), dust proof, and shock proof (all within limits, of course).
It’s notably lacking the kinds of bells and whistles. That of course isn’t an oversight–it’s the Leica way. The emphasis is very much on crafting a top-notch tool that lets your focus on taking the photo without buttons and features getting in the way. Whether it has gone too far in that direction for this particular kind of camera is very much a matter of personal preference but certainly a consideration.
Normally, I wouldn’t bother noting the packaging. I’m not an unboxing aficionado. But the Leica X-U isn’t shipped in just any old box. The packaging itself is a work of art and has impressive engineering.
The attention to detail really is extraordinary. Even opening the box becomes something of an event. As you start opening it, layers gracefully fall away like flower petals to reveal a small cardboard chest of drawers. Sure, it makes the box larger than it needs to be, but you certainly feel like you’re opening something special, which I suspect is precisely the intent.
This is not a pocket-sized camera. The body itself is relatively compact–though closer in size to a mirrorless camera than a compact, but it’s the large lens that makes the package so much larger. The lens protrudes about 2 1/4 inches from the body (the body itself is about 1 1/2 inches thick). It’s also worth noting again that the lens is not detachable, so it’s not like you can swap it out with a smaller pancake lens.
The whole package weighs 1 pound 6 ounces (626 grams).
Compared to a lot of other cameras on the market, the controls are quite bare-bones. There are the things you need and not much you don’t. It’s refreshing, and it has the effect that you spend more time and thought crafting the photo than messing with menus and settings.
Focus. The lens has a large manual focus ring around it. It rotates smoothly and easily. If you’re inclined to use autofocus, you simply rotate the focus ring to the step beyond infinity, which is the AF setting. It’s not exactly intuitive–I and others who picked up the camera had trouble working it out at first–but once you know to look for it, it works well enough.
One part of that system I was less enthused about, though, is its tendency to move off AF accidentally. There is a slight resistance click built in when turning it to AF, but it’s easy enough to unintentionally rotate it when taking the camera out of your bag. So I had found myself having to check it every time I pulled it out.
Shutter speed. The left-most dial on the top is for shutter speed. It goes in the usual increments from 1 second to 1/2000 of a second. The red A marking denotes automatic, which is the functional equivalent of putting it in aperture-priority mode.
Aperture. The aperture is also controlled with a dial, this one to the right of the shutter. It goes from f/1.7 to f/16. There’s another red A here, and that’s for automatic aperture. So to put it in shutter-priority mode, you’d set the aperture dial to A and control the shutter speed on the shutter speed dial. To go fully automatic, you’d set both dials to A.
Shutters. The main shutter is obvious enough. This being a Leica, it’s for all intents and purposes silent when you press the button.
Around the shutter is a dial that turns the camera on and off and controls the focus/shutter mode, with options for S and C.
The video record button is to its right, with the red dot.
Buttons on the back. The other controls are accessed using a combination of buttons on the back and the screen. It’s there that you access things like ISO, exposure compensation, white balance, flash, and the self-timer.
All of the buttons are sealed under rubber skin to prevent any chance of leaking.
UW button. The UW button is for underwater mode. It changes the white balance to compensate for the reduction of red and orange wavelengths underwater. It only matters if shooting JPG or video; if you’re shooting RAW still images you can override the white balance in post-processing.
Quality. It’s a Leica lens. The quality of the glass is excellent. It’s very sharp. I found no issues with chromatic aberration (purple fringing) or flaring.
Focal Length. The lens is a 23mm lens. Paired with the APS-C sized sensor, it’s the equivalent of 35mm on a full-frame sensor.
That’s a good all-round focal length for general shooting. It’s less ideal under the water, though. Because of the distortion that water brings, it effectively narrows the focal length considerably. That’s why so many underwater photos are taken with wide-angle lenses. But it is a good compromise if you’re looking at it as a camera to be used both above and below the water, as I am.
The minimum focus distance isn’t especially close (20 cm, or 7.9 inches), which means it’s not useful for macro photography.
Aperture. It starts at a very fast f/1.7 and goes up to f/16.
Flash. You’ll notice something unusual in the photos here: there’s a small on-board flash mounted directly above the lens. While I can see the logic behind it, I didn’t find it especially useful either above or below the water. It creates lighting that is very 2-dimensional indeed.
Still Photos. The autofocus is accurate but a bit slow. It tends to search forward and back before locking on. Once it’s locked on, it’s good, but it feels like a generation of cameras behind the competition.
There are several choices for the focus mode: 1 point, 11 point, spot, and face detection.
The images come out as 4928 x 3254 pixels, with the options of shooting either DNG RAW files or JPGs for stills and MP5 for video. Because of the large sensor, the image quality is generally excellent–at least as lower ISOs.
Here’s a small sampling of images shot with different settings and under different conditions. Click on each image to open a full-size version. I’ve posted many more sample images from the Leica X-U separately.
The ISO range is from 100 to 12500. There’s also an Auto ISO option.
At low ISOs the quality is superb. But the quality drops off quite a lot at the higher ISOs. By 3200 the quality is notably less impressive that even cheaper, newer cameras with the same sized sensor like the Nikon D3400. That’s not to say that the images aren’t usable at 6400–they are–but that the newer cameras are improving all the time and I was a little underwhelmed by its high-ISO performance.
Here are a few examples:
It has pretty basic video options: you can choose either 1080p or 720p, both only offered at 30 fps.
I didn’t shoot a lot of video with it, but something I was particularly impressed with is the way it handles autofocus when shooting video. It’s unusually smooth even when searching for focus. There’s very little of the usual back and forth that can be so jarring. It’s not perfect–there’s still a little searching happening and isn’t the same as expert manual pull focus–but it really is unusually smooth for a fully automatic system.
A headline feature of this camera is, of course, that it’s waterproof. So it’s worth digging into that a little. Because while in some respects you might even consider it a modern equivalent of the old Nikonos-V underwater 35mm camera (a camera I used to love shooting with, by the way), there are other things about the Leica X-U that make it less than ideal as a camera to take diving.
For one thing, it’s waterproof, yes, but not as waterproof as it could be. It’s rated at IP68, which means it’s designed to go down to a depth of 15 meters (49 feet) for up to 60 minutes. While many recreational dives are likely to be in water shallower than 15 meters, it’s also very common to go below that, even if it’s only temporarily. That is, of course, just a rating, and a few minutes lower than 15 meters might do no harm at all. But exceeding the manufacturer’s depth rating is a big risk to take with a $3000+ camera. It’s also worth mentioning that the rating specifically excludes water coming at the camera hard and fast, such as “when jumping or falling into the water with the camera, under waterfalls, hose water or high-pressure water cannon impact.” So no water cannons and no cannonballs.
There are, of course, other things that prevent it from being considered a specialist dive camera. It’s possible to use external strobes, but only through a wireless light-activated system. And the fixed lens that while wide above water is considerably less wide when shooting through water.
One other consideration here is that while the camera is ruggedized, it’s also probably not the type of camera where you’ll want to put that to the test. You probably won’t want to get it knocked around with the kind of higher-than-average wear and tear that comes with the kinds of activities where you’d want a ruggedized camera in the first place.
There aren’t any. No USB. No HDMI. So you can’t connect the camera to your computer to download photos (you have to take out the memory card to get the photos off) or connect it to a TV or monitor.
It also means that you can’t connect a power source to charge it. You’ll need to take the separate battery charger with you and remove the battery from the camera every time you want to charge it, something that I found to be a bit of a pain.
While it does have a flash hot shoe, it’s sealed by default, and Leica recommends using a wireless strobe underwater that can be triggered by the camera’s on-board flash.
No, definitely not. Even with standard large float wrist-straps it sinks like a stone. It comes with a neoprene wrist strap, but that’s definitely not buoyant enough to float the camera.
Leica does make a large float strap that’s designed specifically for this camera. It’s $95. For a strap. I haven’t tried it.
Dedicated Underwater Shooting Mode. Like some other waterproof cameras, this one has a dedicated underwater shooting mode. In practice, that’s less impressive than it sounds. What it means is that when you’re shooting in JPG mode it shifts the white balance toward the warmer end of the spectrum so as to provide a more neutral look. And if you are shooting JPG, it’s a good option to turn on if you’re shooting underwater. Just remember to turn it off when shooting in regular above-water daylight or everything will come out yellowish. It has no meaningful effect if you’re shooting RAW (it does apply to the embedded JPG preview but not the underlying RAW file).
Cases. I wish it came with a dedicated case. It’s an expensive camera, and being specifically designed to be waterproof, chances are that you’ll be using it in places where it might get knocked or scratched. For the price of the camera, a simple protective case doesn’t seem like it would be hard to include. Of course, it also means you can go crazy with accessorizing if you’re so inclined.
It does come with a branded neoprene strap, but it’s not a float strap and won’t keep your camera on the surface.
Memory Cards. It takes SDHC and SDXC memory cards. There’s a single memory card slot.
Instruction Manual. You can find an online version of the instruction manual here [PDF].
Simplicity is not itself a bad thing. In fact, much of the time it can be virtue. That’s especially true when shooting in wet conditions or underwater. You have enough to worry about without messing with endless buttons and menu items.
Unlike some cameras, it’s not packed with features. The settings you can control are relatively few. You can, however, control the key elements of exposure, like aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and exposure compensation. You have control over the focus, whether using autofocus or manual focus. But you don’t get things like grid overlays on the display screen or embedded GPS coordinates or picture modes that the competition offers. Chances are that if you’re looking at a Leica you don’t really care about most of those, but I did find myself missing things like grid overlays to help with leveling and composition. There’s a point where simplicity means leaving things off that are useful. And this camera pushes that right up to the edge. Admittedly, it’s a criticism I’d be less likely to level at a much cheaper camera. But the price point of this one–over $3,000–encourages very high expectations.
In real-world use, it’s a fun camera to shoot with. But it also feels like it’s a generation behind the competition. I’m not referring to bells and whistles here; I’m referring to more basic things like a slow autofocus, very slow startup, and underwhelming high-ISO performance.
Overall, it’s a Leica. That means superb image quality and impeccable construction. Of course, it also means pricey.
It seems to me that this is a Leica for those already love Leicas. It doesn’t strike me as the type of camera that would convert new users to the brand. That’s not to say that there’s something specifically bad about it–as is typical with Leicas, there’s a lot to like–but that the combination of its basic feature set and very high price point doesn’t exactly sell the camera to the uninitiated.
You can find the Leica X-U at B&H Photo for $3295.