I am not one for adding to my photographic gear often, nor do I buy items impulsively, preferring to research my intended purchase for months in some cases. When the Leica X Typ 113 was announced last year I read any information I could find enthusiastically and it soon became clear that this camera was going to be a replacement for my much loved X1…but not just yet…or so I thought.
My intention was to leave it a year or so and review the situation again. But I had not counted on Leica attending the 2015 Photography Show at Birmingham’s NEC. Like a moth drawn to light I gravitated to their stand and within minutes gazed at a Typ 113 in the flesh. Handling it triggered some impulsive passion in me rarely felt and before I knew it I was queueing at a dealers stand, credit card in hand, prepared to reap debt’s whirlwind in a hopeless case of gear lust. Leica did make it a little easier on me by discounting the price significantly…something I did not expect at the time.
This latest iteration of the X series cameras has addressed many of the niggles found in earlier models and represents real evolution in the product line. The similarities between my X1 and the 113 cannot be ignored and, when judged on specifications alone, it is difficult to see the reasons why I would give up the former for the latter. After all, they are both very well made compact cameras sporting large APSC size sensors. Just 4 megapixels separate their sensor size. Both have 36mm equivalent fixed focal length lenses. Image quality is incredible from each. Common sense would suggest I stick with my X1 for a couple of years and enjoy what has been one of my favourite cameras ever owned.
That said, the refinements offered by the Typ 113 were difficult to ignore. The larger size, berated by some, was a real attraction as I no longer need to use a handgrip as is the case with the diminutive X1. The lens doesn’t retract like its predecessor, something that bothered me with the X1 as I always felt that is could introduce dust to the sensor. The autofocus is much faster, not that it bothered me too much, but the X1’s sedentary nature did cause me to miss the occasional shot. Battery life appears much better…something that used to drive me crazy when out shooting for a full day. Then there is the shape of the 113; crafted in a similar style to the X-Vario, itself an echo of M series rangefinders, there is no denying that the design is one of sublime beauty. Couple this with the solid aluminium top and bottom plates and the precision engineered top deck controls and one is left in no doubt where some of the expense is involved. Apart from the M, the latest X camera feels quite unlike anything else I have handled. It is the lens that really appeals though as it adds speed for the first time to the X range. Sporting a nifty f1.7 aperture, it makes all previous X models, particularly the X-Vario, appear a little sedentary. Caveats apply though, which I will come onto later. Like all Leica’s, emphasis rests on functionality resulting in a distinct lack of features, lending an austere look to the camera - something that I am sure will divide interest.
At the time of writing, two colour versions of the Typ 113 are available; the business-like stealthy looking all black model, and the bohemian silver and brown version. I opted for the latter purely because of its unconventional looks. I find it inspiring in a way difficult to describe, begging to be picked up and used. It looks more like an offering from Leica’s ‘a la carte’ range than a standard release. In fact I would not be surprised to see the a la carte option extended to this model in the future.
For anyone who has used other models in the X series range, the Typ 113 will feel very familiar as little has changed with the main controls and menu layout. Even when comparing earlier models such as my X1 the 113 felt so familiar; in fact it was familiar enough for me to set it ready to shoot within several minutes, during the car journey home from the Photography show. I love cameras like this - not that I am adverse to change. I simply do not believe in change for changes sake. The design of the original X1 was so good there was little need for a redesign, just simple evolution which retained much of its predecessors DNA. This logic reminded me of my film days and Olympus’ mighty OM system. Anyone using any of the single digit bodies would have found their way around other models very quickly as they shared the same core design.
One addition to the 113 I really like is the ability to shoot video. OK, it is a common feature in almost all other manufacturer’s cameras be they SLR’s, compacts or bridge. But for me coming from a lineage of models that have never had video capability, it feels like brand new technology. I enjoy lending Alison’s camera when on holiday and shooting small keepsake movies of our travels. So to have my very own camera with this function is a real exciting prospect for me!
Something that has been vastly improved over earlier models (with the exception of the X Vario) is the manual focus. To be honest, it was difficult to use on the X1 due to a combination of low resolution screen and poor focus control. I did use it on some occasions but never found it easy. I am pleased to write that manual focus with the 113 has been improved significantly. Not only is the screen resolution akin to most modern cameras, but the implementation via a traditional rotating lens barrel is just sublime. It is fly by wire but feels very acceptable and very similar to a traditional manual focus lens. A simple click stop of the barrel engages the autofocus. As the lens focusses internally, the barrel does not extend throughout its range.
The caveat alluded to earlier in this review caused ripples of discontent when the camera was announced and subsequently tested. It soon became clear that the 1.7 Summilux was not a thoroughbred 1.7 after all; when the lens is set to its maximum aperture and focus is set to its closest (20 cm) setting, the aperture control is overridden, stopping it down to 2.8. Nothing can be done about this as it is hardcoded into the camera. Leica’s response to this is that the combination of then lens’ widest setting and such close focussing compromises its integrity to produce acceptable images, therefore the decision was taken to circumvent any potential complaints by forcing the aperture to close by a little over one stop. It actually sounds worse on paper than the results reveal. Even at 2.8, focussing at 20 cm allows for sufficient (and beautifully rendered) separation of subject from background. Does this ‘feature’ bother me? Not in the slightest and I brought into the Typ 113 fully aware of this. There were additional forum debates over the labelling of the lens; some felt that it should not be branded a Summilux as this is reserved for the faster 1.4 lenses. Summicron would have been more fitting some said as this suggests medium (f2?) speed. Based on this and the close focus ‘limitation’ I guess the latter is more appropriate but I am not going to get drawn too far into an argument on what is, fundamentally, a marketing gimmick. Be it branded a ‘lux or a ‘cron, it delivers stunning results that are difficult to fault.
The first outing for the camera was to document the initial flight of Ethan’s Phantom II drone (purchased at the same time as the 113). Due to being an existing X user, the camera was very familiar in my hands and I had no problem finding my way around the controls. One problem I did encounter was erroneously pressing the video record button as it is located next to the on/off/focus button. When I first did this I thought the camera was faulty as the shutter release becomes unresponsive. It wasn’t until I noticed the flashing green light on the rear of the camera that I realised what I had done. Another press of the video button stopped the recording. Given that the camera’s intended target demographic is photographers, not videographers, I think the video button is too prominent and would be better repositioned away from the shutter release (or simply added as a menu function). I have mistakenly activated video on a few occasions since.
Tracking a drone or other object travelling at between twenty and thirty miles per hour is something most cameras take in their stride. I am sure that my X1 would struggle with this as the focus is very sedentary to say the least. The focussing module in the 113, however, is significantly improved and did not give me any issues, proving to be very accurate in all conditions except when the evening light began to fade. Even at this time it was pretty good and missed just a few shots. I also tried manual focus which worked fine, but found it quicker to let the autofocus take charge.
In an effort to see how flare resistant the lens was, I pointed the camera at the sun as it set behind woodland. I did not find much to worry about here as the image was flare free, rendering the suns rays through the branches with wonderful clarity.
As the light faded I decided to exploit the lens’ brightness and asked Ethan to hover the drone just in front of me while I took a picture of it with him in the background. The resulting image looked superb - the drone was pin sharp while Ethan faded into the dusk background, but still recognisable. Similarly I took a picture of the drone returning home in the evening’s afterglow (albeit at f2) and the result was superbly sharp.
After processing my first batches of images I am very pleased with the results and feel that I made the right decision purchasing the Typ 113. As stated earlier, it shares many similarities with my X1 but does a few things better and is more suited to my large hands. This is the camera I longed for several years ago when the X1 was in production, but the closest thing to it was Fuji’s X100. I did try this model out but found the RAW output required more work. Image softness wide open was also disappointing. The finish, which is important to me, did not come close to the X1’s engineering. Knowing the X1’s shortcomings did not put me off going down the Leica route. So here I am, a few years later using a camera that I really did not think Leica would make. My money would have been on the Typ 113 having a different focal length (50mm equivalent perhaps) leaving my dream of a fast 35mm equiv. going unfulfilled.
Gazing at my new toy, its beauty cannot be underestimated. The minimalist controls, fine lines, excellent colour combination and superb engineering add up to a product that is more than a sum of its parts. It begs to be used and handled. It instills a sense of nostalgia in me that I thought long extinguished in the photographic world and I am sure it will act as a mechanism of catharsis over the next year or two, in a similar way as my old OM film cameras did many years ago. We have planned a walking holiday in Southern Crete this summer and I have every intention of only taking the 113 along to document the journey. Back to basics, back to roots and almost devoid of any choices; this is how I first found my feet in photography and it is where I wish to return.
I also purchased the vintage leather ever ready case, a thing of real beauty. The smell is like that which emanates from a fine pair of leather shoes. It is well known that Leica accessories are expensive and often overpriced. At £160 for a compact camera case, this is no exception. I would have thought that for this kind of price Leica would have at least tested the functional use of the case with the camera…clearly not. After decades of camera and case design we seem to have reached a stage whereby the ‘never ready case’ has hit the pinnacle of uselessness.
Take one Typ 113 and one above mentioned case and proceed to add the camera to the case. Things are fine up until now, so what can possibly go wrong? Attach the strap - wow, all looks awesome. Go out shoot some images - wow all is still awesome. The low battery indicator comes on so it is time for a battery change. Now things go very wrong. Its seems an easy enough task to release the camera from the case by feeding the strap through the holes in the case where the strap lugs are seated. I could not be more wrong; the strap soon becomes too wide to allow sufficient length to be fed through to allow the camera to be taken out of the case, so I ended up having to remove the strap altogether to remove the case so that I could change the battery. What it this all about? What ever happened to the simple concept of a press stud situated over each case eyelet that could be released to allow the camera to be removed from the case easily? I am left completely speechless at the dumbass design of this thing, and from a company that usually shows such meticulous attention to detail. Come on Leica - has no one there considered changing a battery while using this case? Oh God..and then there is the small issue of tripod use…
To get around this nauseating gaff I have rolled the standard strap up and put it back in the box, substituting it for a very thin tan leather one that came with a D-Lux camera case. It has small quick release carabina’s at each end that can be snapped onto the camera strap lugs. Using this strap allows for relatively easy removal from the case as it takes just a second to remove the strap which in turn leaves the camera free to be removed from the case easily. Now that I know this works, I will source a genuine Leica strap to match the case and buy a couple of small carabina’s and viola - problem solved.
Writing about accessories, I quite fancy the new Visioflex finder that will allow easier composition when bright sunlight washes out the rear screen. It also has a GPS module which would be interesting to use. After a little research I was surprised to find that it was only available in a black finish which is fine for those users of black 113’s…it looks really awesome. But putting this on the pretty silver version turns my princess into a frog. Where is the matching silver version? This is a very expensive accessory and something I do not wish to simply ‘make do’ with. So Leica, another request; please look at the bigger picture and make accessories that match. I know this is nothing more that a cosmetic issue, but having gone to all the trouble of engineering such a beautiful camera, why undo it?
Accessories aside, I am really enjoying the 113 - for me it is perfect in so many ways as it matches my shooting style well. Its elegant looks, fine craftsmanship and beautiful output combine with almost perfect symbiosis to create an image making machine that is inspirational to use.