The Leica Digilux 2

Leica Digilux 2

Since writing about this camera a few weeks back, I've had quite a few people asking me to explain my infatuation with it. I could answer them simply just by showing them an image from the camera. But, to be fair, it's more than that. And, after all, lots of cameras out there, regardless of price, can take a good picture.


First, I'll acknowledge that I'm a little crazy when it comes to this sort of thing. And, I happily admit I can become obsessive about tiny nuances that may not matter to others. But for me, the personal experience and the emotional process of ENJOYING something is important. For me, "getting there" is half the fun. So, if you are brave enough to continue my personal guided tour of this jewel of a camera, be forewarned, I have no problem losing touch with reality and when it comes to this sort of thing and you might end up learning more about me than you probably care to know. It's all about the experience.

The basic nuts and bolts:

The Digilux 2 retains the classic Leica rangefinder stylingThe Leica Digilux 2 was released jointly by Leica and Panasonic in 2004. The Panasonic version was the Lumix DMC LC1. The cameras were distinguishable in appearance by virtue of the outer case and color. The Leica inherited the classic silver and black Leica rangefinder styling, while the Panasonic came in all black. There are few differences in the contours of the case… but for the most part, they're the same.

In this arrangement, Leica took responsibility for the optics while Panasonic (via some Sony technology) managed the electronics. But make no mistake about it, the business end of this camera, the lens, is all Leica. In many respects, the lens is the heart of this beast.

In addition to cosmetic differences, there is a difference in how the two cameras handle the image interpretation when shooting in JPEG mode. Just like you and I might "tweak" our images differently in Photoshop or post processing, camera manufacturers each have their own "recipe" for how the camera's image processing software creates the JPEG output from the camera's RAW file. The folks at Leica claim their software offers a look more suited to the Leica owner's tastes... in other words it looks more like film. :) Panasonic, on the other hand, will probably have a bit more saturation and punch to the colors. However, if you're shooting in RAW, it's a moot point.

The Leica also shipped with a longer warranty than the Panasonic, though many didn't feel that was enough to warrant the extra $400 Lecia added to the retail price. A new Digilux 2 sold for $1895.00 whereas the Panasonic DMC LC1 sold for $1495.00. Many Leica owners will tell you with little embarrassment, they're happy to pay for the Leica name, reputation and little Red dot.

The Digilux 2 is notable for its high-speed LEICA DC VARIO-SUMMICRON 7-22,5 mm f/2.0-2.4 ASPH. zoom lens.Of course, for our discussion here, the retail price is a moot point. I'm sure there aren't any "fresh" Digilux 2s anywhere in the retail supply chain. In the second hand market you can expect to pay anywhere from $500 - $800 for a Digilux 2 depending on its condition. If you consider pursuing either of these cameras, it is important to note that the sensor (which was supplied by Sony) suffered a very high failure rate due to a flaw in manufacturing. The good news is, Leica stood by the camera and extended the warranty on the Digilux 2, promptly replacing the sensor with new ones. They continue to honor the warranty to this day. The new sensor and later serial numbers have not had any problems. But the situation does speak to Leica's commitment to quality and customer service. If you do buy a second hand camera, I'd be sure and look for one where the sensor has been replaced. Leica maintains a record of the service, so you can follow up with them via the camera's serial number.

The lens displays true Leica characteristics. The lens is a LEICA DC VARIO-SUMMICRON 7-22,5 mm f/2.0-2.4 ASPH. zoom lens, which covers a focal length range comparable to 28 to 90 mm in a standard 35 mm system. There are three individual rings on the lens barrel. One for controlling the zoom length, another for manually focusing the camera, and finally... (the piece d' resistance and for me), a third ring is for setting the aperture. That's right... and analog aperture ring right on the lens barrel, right were it should be.

In addition to the analog control of the aperture, you also control the shutter speed in a similar manner. Yep, right on top of the case, right where it's always been, is nice knurled round knob for setting the shutter speed. Now we're beginning to see the magic of this camera... and the personality that allows us to experience it and make it our own.

A nice bright viewing LCD on the back incorporates a "live view." The camera's base rests comfortably supported in your palm while you extend your thumb and forefinger around the lens barrel. You look through the view finder (more about that later) and in full manual mode, you begin to twirl the aperture to the correct exposure. Or, with your finger on the shutter button, lift your hand and slightly and dial the shutter speed up or down. Beautiful, simple and elegant. This is solid design at work. Just like the wrist watch we all take for granted. Think about it. As important as time is to us all, with a simple turn of our wrist and a passing glance, we know what time it is... no matter where we are or what we are doing.

This is the beauty of the Leica's analog controls. With our eye to the viewfinder, we simply twist the aperture with one hand or dial up the shutter with the other, dial in the focus, zoom in or out... the camera never leaves our eye or the subject we're focused on. This is the difference between shooting with a camera or shooting with a computer. Your mind is free to create. The Digilux 2 got it right.

Now, let's not kid ourselves. We're talking technology that is bordering on five years-old. In the digital age ... that can seem like a lifetime. But, to its credit, the Digilux 2 belies its age and in retrospect, it's apparent that the camera actually strikes a pretty good balance. Sure, the 2/3 sensor is only 5 megapixel, but to be sure, they are 5 beautiful megapixel. The 2/3-inch image sensor is extremely large. Furthermore, each individual pixel has a size of 3.4 µm which is more surface than normal in the point n' shoot class of digital cameras. Larger pixels will register the light more quickly and therefore reduce errors such as interference. I can assure you, getting print enlargements from this camera is not an issue.

As with all digital cameras, there is a nice bright viewing LCD on the back and it does incorporate a "live view" shooting mode. The button layout allows you to bring up multiple screen menus for managing the usual camera functions. Another nice feature is you can assign frequently used functions to the four arrow cursors on the camera's back. Typically, they are assigned to White Balance adjustment, image Quality, ISO settings and Spot Autofocus.

With our eye to the viewfinder, we simply twist the aperture with one hand or dial up the shutter with the other.The viewfinder of the Digilux 2 could be called its Achilles heel. It is an electronic view finder... similar to what you'd have in your video camera. I will say though, it does have its benefits. Because it is on/off in relationship to the back LCD screen, when the LCD is off, you see all the same menus and information through the viewfinder. So once again the camera need not leave your eye. And, of course, you can scroll through all of your shooting preferences, check exposure and review changes in aperture and shutter speed settings.

In autofocus mode, you see a green light when the focus locks. If you are manually focusing, you have two presets for manual assist that will magnify the view into the center of your viewfinder's screen at 2x or fill the entire screen at 4x. I've become very comfortable with the EVF. But, I'd be lying if I said I loved it.

The camera only has an ISO range of 100-400. And, as you can probably guess, it can be susceptible to noise when you shoot JPEGs over 200 ISO. In RAW I find the noise manageable even at 400. You just have to be sure you're not underexposing. That is only going to add to the noise problem.

The camera will shoot in a three frame burst. For this type of camera, that can be very useful. Due to its near-slient shutter, the Digilux 2 is a great camera for candid shooting. By bursting three frames you are provided with a choice of images. You'd be surprised how much people move in a second. One thing to note, there is a momentary freeze of the video display when you shoot. But as I said, it is momentary and I don't find it bothersome at all. BUT, if you are shooting in RAW, the camera does not have a large enough buffer to shoot multiple frames. It requires about 6 seconds to write the RAW file to the SD memory card. Again, something you learn to work with.

The DIgilux 2 contains a very ingenious built in flash. It is engineered to lie flush with the top of the camera when it is in the closed position. With a steady push of the release button, the flash head will pop in a "Z" configuration and be pointed directly at your subject. However, it you give the release button a quick push, only the head portion of flash tips upward aiming at an angle toward the ceiling, functioning as a bounce flash. Crank up the flash settings in the Function menu and it's a fairly effective little unit.

Keep in mind, this isn't a camera you'd use for shooting high-speed action. Certainly you could shoot casual sports and moving objects, but that's not the camera's strong suit. It all depends on how accomplished you are at understanding your camera, the subject you're shooting and how to get the most out of the situation. I will say, the more you shoot manually, the more you "own" this camera. You'll be amazed at how adept you can become at wheeling the controls and making this baby sing. It's a blast.

The Images:

With the Digilux 2's aperture at f/2.2 and 1/500 sec. I discovered what this camera was all about.When I first started shooting with the Digilux 2, I used it the way I've used a lot of cameras... at least, that is, when I'm not working. I'd take the lazy way. I'd put it in automatic... maybe go aperture preferred or shutter preferred, or however the situation dictated. I'd adjust for a 1/3 stop under... and so on. Now, don't get me wrong, the pictures were great. But honestly, that's not the way to get the true magic out of the Digilux 2.

One day, after looking at a few images I had shot of our son, I was a bit disappointed in the contrast and highlights on his face. They were nice shots, but the contrast and highlights just made them a bit harsher than I'd like... especially on a child. You want nice smooth skin tones on a kids face. So, I decided to take him outside and do a few shots using an incident light meter and using the camera in full manual mode. The result was breath taking. With the Digilux 2's aperture at f/2.2 and 1/500 sec. I discovered what this camera was all about. The skin tones were perfect, the transitions from shade to light were smooth and rounded... just perfect. And at f/2.2 the "bokeh" (out of focus areas and the background) was smooth as silk. This is what users of Leica lenses refer to as the "Leica glow."

Nowadays, I still keep a light meeter in my day bag... but for the most part, I've gained a better understanding of the camera's meter and by shooting in manual, I've becoming more adept at knowing where the camera wants to be. Even using either of the priority modes, shooting in manual has taught me more about the camera's traits. More importantly, shooting manual puts my brain in gear and has made me quicker with the camera. I even find the manual focus to be faster.... though I'll still go back and forth with autofocus. It just depends on the situation.

But, that's just it, I'm using the camera to its fullest based on the shooting situation. Getting comfortable with its manual features as put me better in charge of my camera and ultimately, my photographs. And I attribute that directly to the camera and its analog controls. They're at my fingertips. It makes it easier to do it right and get it right. After all, none of this was anything I didn't already know. I just wasn't using it. Why? Because our "modern" digital SLRs don't encourage it. They encourage autopilot. And why not? For the most part, they get the job done.

I participate over on the L-Camera Forum and of late and it seems there is a resurgence of interest in the Digilux 2. The camera appears to have created a pseudo-cult following. It also appears that the camera is slowly earning a new found respect and perhaps a degree of acceptance among the hard core Leica enthusiasts. Obviously the Leica tradition is steeped in the history of film, and had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age. So, in many ways, it speaks to the uniqueness of this camera and the fact that the Digilux 2 might be earning its place in the legacy that is Leica.

Shooting with the Digilux 2, or any rangefinder for that matter, is not just about getting the job done. For me it's about the enjoyment of photography. It's about the experience. It's about taking your time and making great photos... simply for the sake of making great photos.

Thanks for listening.

RESOURCES:

Leica Web Site
Digital Review's Review of the Digilux 2
Thorsten Overgaard's page on the Digilux 2
Leica Forum