Sunday, 30 June 2013

Walking with the Leica X Vario (Part 1)


It was delicious of +Frank Yuwono to recruit +Leica Camera in Australia to offer a Leica X Vario for test drive loan on our Google+ 2nd Anniversary Photowalk in Melbourne. And I was quite charmed to shoot the X Vario for 2 parts of walk.

It's a quirky camera and I had not encountered Leica Digital cultural notes and design ideas before - so it was a first for me. I often encourage potential buyers of camera gear to meet up with other photographer enthusiasts locally. There is so much that one can ONLY get from hands on, half an hour, several hours experience - you can't get this vibe of the gear from standing at the shop with the salesperson peering over your shoulder in case you make a run for it, you can't get this assessment from reading copious reviews, comments, notes on internet review sites and forums.

Thanks to distributors like Leica Australia who are willing to loan out gear on a supervised meet or walk - although Frank and the Leica rep did sound a bit worried when we got separated for some hours and they wondered whether yours truly had absconded. Frank jokingly said - "I know where you live".

This isn't a review, nor is this an objective assessment, technical or visual of the camera. And I don't at all, endeavour to leave JPEGs SOOC (Straight Out Of The Camera) virgin nor do I post process .DNG raw files for pixel peeping. To provide context, I normally shoot Olympus Four Thirds and Olympus / Panasonic Micro Four Thirds, with a film background stretching back to my school days. I am not a photo editing enthusiast although I teach and train Microsoft Office and Google Apps - I have a sad case of MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) after the phrase "first, create a layer"

It's a celebration of the joy of that day, a celebration of being able to shoot with friends and puzzle / challenge to work with a camera and a brand I had not seen or used before.

Let's get outside for a walk.

A quiet pastel scene on a cloudy day

There's quite a lot for me in this quiet scene. It's winter in Melbourne, this was in the morning, no rain but it was a dull lit morning, cloudy (EV11@ISO100). When I first spotted this scene, I was attracted to the dull pink, the off white, the greens and the leaves left over from autumn. It's a photo that needs a pause for thought, to enjoy the scene in context and the feeling.

Another scene that caught my eye with the richness of pastel mixed with reflections and a little bit of punch in some colours was the back bar

Lest you think that the Vario XL JPEG engine is muted, there are several settings for it - Standard, Natural and Vivid. I tried Standard and Vivid and in some of these shots added a touch of saturation. This Suzuki was metallic blue, quite bright and eye catching with the darkness of the garage and the muted maroon bin colours acting as a counterpoint.

As the sun managed to put in a little more presence and I encountered Street Art, I had this on Vivid and to finesse it, added saturation on edit. On a fair monitor, the brickwork is quite absorbing as well as the colour tones.

You would think, after this blast of colour outside, that I would escape to some muted colours indoors. Well, I tried but first encountered this carpet.

Now, let us give your eyes some rest. We'll look for something to read

Something water to drink (that image has been warmed up in post)

and something to eat. What about Eggs on Bolognaise ? (1/60th sec, f/6.4 ISO 3200 46mm optical on APS-C sensor)

Of course, with any food, you do insist that the the kitchen is careful about hygiene and washes well.

All in all, for this set of photos, I was quite impressed with the tonal style of the SOOC JPEGs (and I could touch up the look a little without imposing grossness). The back LCD on the camera showed even more attractive images because of the higher pixel density and brightness than our computer screen.

The images that got away

Just like the notorious fisherman stories, there are photographer equivalents that of the whopper that got away. You can as much blame it on the photographer, the slipping of oppurtunity and incident as well as on the gear.

Photos of people around the table talking

Without asking for a posed shot, it is often difficult with any gear to capture a moment when the person looks good, when the light is good and when motion blur is either absent or helps with the story telling. Obviously a big DSLR with the latest high performing large sensor would help quite a bit but then, I am allergic to tramping big gear with me to a relaxed, friendly lunch. Some people mouth - larger aperture lens so here you go, you now have a big DSLR and a big lens and you're entering into Depth of Field shallower than a Bishop's Nose. This X Vario has a 70mm equivalent lens at maximum f/6.4 - you can get to f/2.8 if you go wide to 28mm equivalent with resulting change in perspective of faces and torso shapes.

Some of these shots were 1/60th sec, f/6.4 ISO 3200 - that's EV6@ISO100 Camera Estimated Light Level - If you got yourself an f/2 lens, you could raise the shutter speed (to reduce motion blur).  And f/2 lens on a 50mm to 70mm equivalent lens would have significantly shallow DOF for a two person, 3 person, head and shoulders shot.

Under the circumstances, with this camera and the non removable 28mm to 70mm equivalent zoom lens, just point and shooting, it was quite difficult to reduce motion blur when people moved their head and hands.

Posing people would be the better choice.

Dynamic Range of the camera JPEG engine

In the shots that got away, once I managed to avoid head movement blur, I found that the camera's choice of exposure for the indoor scene was ambitious - hoping that the JPEG's dynamic range would handle the bright light from the window and the darkness of faces on the shadow side of the window. Of course, this is a pretty tough gig for most cameras. If the camera was optimistic by half a stop, complexion and flesh tones would go yellowish-pink bleached with loss of texture - a plastic look on the highlights. Each camera would have problems coping but this camera had this style of coping.

Exposure estimation and Control

I tried to find the Exposure Value Compensation and could not find a dial on the camera that would do this. After some hurried exploration during lunch, I discovered that the silver coloured disc on the back of the camera is a 4 direction button cluster and the Up direction was inscribed with EV+/-

Although my Olympus PEN E-PM2 has a similar idea, the E-PM2 uses a combination 4 direction button and rotary dial - you can simply twirl the dial to change EV Compensation.

Much later, I was shown that there is a tiny dial on the top right corner of the camera and although this defaulted to Program Shift adjustment, if you held down the Up direction of the silver disc and pressed the tiny dial, you could assign the dial to be EV Compensation.

Chalk it down to lack of finding out how to set up this feature - EV Compensation is, for me, the most important primary adjustment for P A S modes of operation.

For full manual (M) mode of setting shutter speed and f/no, the X Vario is different to the typical Japanese camera - On the top deck, there is a dial for manual choice of shutter speeds including A and another dial for manual choice of f/no, including A.  If you set both dials to A, the camera takes on Programmed mode exposure. If you set one of the relevant dials to A, then it becomes either Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority (I think the LCD displays Shutter Priority as "T"). If neither dial is on A, then you are on full manual exposure control.

There are three options for Exposure Metering patterns and you can choose from several levels of JPEG Contrast control but I didn't get into those variations.

Continued in Part 2...

In the meantime:

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