Text & Photography by Ben
Over the past 3 decades, Phuket has rapidly transformed itself from an island of fishing villages to an immensely popular vacation destination. Yet despite all of the developments you can still get a glimpse of the local lives if you are willing to look beyond the sun and beach. What better way to do that than taking the role of a keen bystander? Armed with the latest and greatest compact camera from Leica, we set out to do just that.
APS-sensor, Automated Body, Compact Leica Vario-Elmar Zoom Lens
With a listed price of about HKD $27,000 (USD $2,850), the Leica X-Vario is firmly positioned as a luxury product. For many connoisseurs – photographers or otherwise – Leica is synonymous with style, luxury and prestige. Holding a Leica product in your hands, it’s hard not to be impressed by its design, craftsmanship and overall quality. Leica is also known for making some of the finest rangefinder cameras and lenses in the history of photography. In fact, we use Leica’s M-series aspherical lenses ourselves for many of our assignments, as they are capable of producing lifelike, 3-dimensional images like few others.
X-Vario is an interesting product. To start with, it belongs to the company’s X-series, which includes compact, auto-focus cameras – like the fixed focal length X2. The camera also sports a relatively large, 16 megapixels APS-sized sensor and a fixed Leica Vario-Elmar 18-46 mm F3.5-6.4 ASPH. zoom lens (corresponds to 28-70 mm in 35 mm format). In addition, the camera, unlike its sibling X2, is capable of recording HD video in internet-friendly MP4 format.
So how does the X-Vario perform in the field? Very well indeed. The camera is very solidly built and inspires confidence in your hands. We took it to Wat Phra Thong, where the famous half-buried golden Buddha image resides. The Buddha image is said to be “untouchable” as anyone who tried to dig it out failed (and some even died as a result), regardless of how many times they tried. The X-Vario did a fine job of capturing the kaleidoscopic colors and subtle tones around the temple and the Buddha image. We also took an informal portrait of the two monks whom we met outside the temple (with their permission). The zoom lens proved to be very convenient as we were able to cover a variety of compositions, from wide-angle landscape shots to intimate portraits.
Next up, we headed to a wet market where local people did their daily grocery shopping. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was bright and full of contrasting colors. The rather harsh shadows made for a challenging and yet interesting photographic session. The Vario-Elmar zoom lens truly shone under these demanding conditions. The lens almost never flared even when shooting directly into the sun. It also held its contrast and color rendition rather brilliantly. The dynamic range of the camera is well matched to the lens as details in both of the shadows and highlights are well preserved. X-Vario’s autofocus is fairly quick and accurate, and we were able to lock in our subjects, static or moving, without issue most of the time.
Like all Leica lenses, the Vario-Elmar zoom lens in the X-Vario displays an impressive level of sharpness. Images are uniformly sharp from edge to edge, at any aperture. It is also capable of reproducing Leica’s hallmark micro-contrast. The jpeg engine is well-tuned to convey the lens’ characters as the files it creates are rich and finely detailed, with vibrant and yet still realistic colors. We did some post processing of the photos displayed here but you can see straight-out-of-the-camera jpeg examples on our other write-ups HERE and HERE.
Last but not least, we took a stroll in the historical Phuket Old Town, where Sino-Portuguese shophouses, heritage Chinese buildings and stylish cafes and restaurants melded seamlessly. We visited Nguan Choon Tong, the oldest (established over 100 years ago!) Chinese herb shop on the island, and thanks to the kind staff we were able to take some pictures inside. The X-Vario captured the ambiance of the shop interior without a problem. Noise was well controlled at high ISO and the in-camera stabilization was quite effective, allowing us to use slower shutter speeds when needed.
Like all cameras, the Leica X-Vario has its limitations. Its small aperture prevents the use of a shallow depth-of-field, or a high shutter speed to freeze motion under dim light. The camera’s autofocus could also become less effective in darkness. Moreover, photographers who favor a viewfinder will have to pay extra to get the optional EVF. On the other hand, the camera is a joy to use. The lens is a gem and the simplicity of the controls makes it a real photographic tool.
In 1911, when Oskar Barnack set out to create a small camera that he could take with him on hiking trips, he envisioned a compact camera body equipped with a small lens, hence the birth of 35mm photography format and the first Leitz camera (Ur-Leica). We feel that the X-Vario fulfills Barnack’s original vision and is a camera that he would have been proud of, had he lived today.
(For more image samples taken with the Leica X-Vario, see: Review: The Pavilions Phuket; where Luxury Meets Romance and Gallery: Best Sunset Views in Phuket.)
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