The Leica C-Lux – a review by Jonathan Slack
During the last few months of last year I bought and shot with a number of different cameras (Olympus OMD EM1ii, Fujifilm X-T2, Nikon D500, Leica CL, Nikon D810 and Nikon D850 and finally the Panasonic Lumix G9 with the excellent Leica branded lenses). I wanted to get a real handle on the current status of the camera world.
I also wanted to get an idea of the advantages and disadvantages of using a camera with a smaller sensor, and especially to understand the real distinctions between µ43 and APSc. The outcome of this was that I felt that the advantages of µ43 in terms of lens size and handling outweighed the slight Image Quality advantages of APSc, but that my real photographic home was full frame cameras. As a result of this my personal kit settled to the Leica SL and M10 together with a Lumix G9 with two Panasonic / Leica zooms (the 12-60 Vario-Elmarit and the 100-400 Vario-Elmar).
I hadn’t shot with a compact camera for something like 4 years, not since I tested the Leica D-Lux and V-Lux cameras, both excellent (and both still on the market). Personally, I always carry a bag, and there is always room for (at the very least), an M10 with a 50 lens, so neither of them found a permanent place in my bag.
I was interested when Leica offered to lend me the new C-Lux camera for a week or so, especially as it coincided with a short trip to Crete that we had arranged some time before. In fact, the “midnight-blue” C-lux arrived at home the day before our departure.
The camera I have been shooting with is ‘complete’, but I didn’t have the final firmware, so there may be some changes in image quality and operation when the camera is released.
Unless you have very small pockets (or very tight jeans) the camera is eminently pocketable, it comes in a rather tasteful ‘midnight blue’ colour with a silver lens, or in gold (which I haven’t seen).
The C-Lux has a 1” 20mp back-side illuminated CMOS sensor, this is tried and tested, and is probably the same sensor as found in the Sony RS100 v.
There is a remarkable 24-360mm Leica DC Vario-Elmar f3.3 to f6 lens. For a camera this size, and with a sensor this large, the C-Lux (and its sister camera the Panasonic TZ200) really have no competition. Even the just announced (and more expensive) Sony R100vi doesn’t come close with it’s 24-200 lens.
The Electronic viewfinder has 2.3 million dots, and a 0.53x magnification, this is quite usable, but it is quite small when compared with those on the SL (or the CL).
There is also a 3” fixed touch screen LCD allowing access to all the menus, to touch focusing and touch shooting, together with all the review features you would expect with a good touch screen.
I have only had the camera for 1 week, and I’ve not had the facilities or desire to do formal testing, I was trying to establish whether it functioned sufficiently well to be a good travelling companion. However, there are many reviews of the C-Lux’s sister camera the Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS200/TZ200 available on the internet, and these are pretty much universally favourable.
I’m not aware of the worldwide pricing for the camera, but my impression from the European price (€970) is that this time around the premium to pay for the red dot and the nicer styling is modest. If you factor in the increased resale value, then It really begins to look like a bargain!
The Travel Camera
Not having touched a compact camera for a few years I was a little worried about using it as my only camera, so I bought along my M10 and the Lumix G9 as companions (traveling without hold luggage meant leaving the SL at home).
In the event I did shoot with the C-lux alone, I sometimes carried another camera in my pack, but didn’t actually use It. The C-Lux is not weather sealed, and it had a lot to put up with; we walked something like 80km in the short time we were there, usually in temperatures up in the mid 30s centigrade. I carried the camera in my hand all the time without a case, so it had to contend with sweat and dust much of the time. It looks unmarked, which is a tribute to the finish of the metal top and bottom plates and the quality of the ‘leather’ finish on the rest of the body.
Not really! The C-Lux has every conceivable function hidden away in its menus and buttons. Both the Essential, and the not so essential.
I didn’t have the manual, so on the flight to Crete I used the manual for the Panasonic G9 to familiarise myself with the camera, the menu system and options are pretty much the same, including the autofocus options and controls. To be fair, Panasonic have done a really good job steering a path through the minefield of modern camera design, they’ve managed to avoid the impossible menu confusion of some manufacturers, and to keep the controls and options sensible and easy to use.
For my purposes I wanted to set the camera up so that I could concentrate on making images rather than on fiddling with controls and menus. To that end I made a number of changes to the default setup of the camera.
I shot in Program mode, because the sensor is relatively small, and the lens relatively slow, I thought that limited depth of field wasn’t really an option, so I’d let the camera work out the ideal aperture. As far as shutter speed was concerned, I wasn’t sure how good the image stabilisation would be, so, again, it made sense to let the camera decide on the best shutter speed. For the same reason I set the camera onto Auto ISO.
I changed the ring around the lens to ‘zoom’, although, to be fair, I found myself mostly using the standard ring around the shutter release, it’s reasonably quick and worked well.
I set the rear dial to exposure compensation (just like my M10), changes are shown in the image on the screen / EVF, I always like to work this way.
For Autofocus I did do a little experimentation. I had it set to AFS (auto-focus single). I did try their new ‘Intelligent’ AFF mode, but it removes the option of fine tuning focus with the dial around the lens with the shutter half pressed.
In the end I mostly used ‘face detect’; this moves to multi-area if it can’t find a face to fix on. Used together with the touch-focus option this worked really well. In addition, I had the touch focus so that it prioritised the focus point for exposure control. The touch focus is really good and works even with your eye to the EVF when the screen is blank. You can elect to have it work literally – so that where you touch the screen relatively is whereabouts on the image the focus point will go; or else ‘offset’ where it moves around with your finger relative to the original point of focus.
The camera has a multitude of ‘scene’ modes in addition to 4k video. I didn’t use any of these!
Handling and Operation (and firmware update)
Having set up the C-Lux the way it seemed best I started to take pictures. The camera easily fits in a pocket, but it’s so small it’s really not a bother to carry it in your hand all the time, which is what I did. It only went into a pocket when negotiating a tricky piece of path.
Startup time is okay for a camera of this class, but hardly instant, so most of the time I left the camera turned on so that it was ready to go. The buttons especially are rather small, so it was good to have organised the controls so that the only thing needed was the rear dial and the dial around the lens.
I’m a viewfinder kind of photographer and I was expecting to use the EVF most of the time, however, compared to the SL it is rather small (0.53x magnification) and I found myself increasingly using the rear screen. Most of the time I was shooting in very strong sunlight, and of course this made it harder to see either the screen or the EVF, but in practice I found them good enough to compose the image easily and shooting with the rear screen the scene is laid out before you so that is all that’s needed.
The Autofocus performance seemed to be extremely good – some scenes confused it a little, as did very low light, but on the whole, it felt instant and proved to be very accurate. Face detection was excellent, and when no face was available it quickly moved to multi-point focusing. The only thing I found slightly confusing is that if you had chosen a point with the touch focus it stayed on that point rather than reverting to face detect (almost certainly the correct way of working but slightly irritating nevertheless).
The macro mode varies minimum distance to the subject depending on the focal length chosen; from 3cm at 24mm to 1m at 180 (and then onwards to 360), this is pretty standard for a camera of this type, perhaps it wouldn’t be one’s first choice for shooting macro, but it does a good job for close-ups of flowers and bugs. AF is a little slower in macro-mode.
Shooting with the camera was fast and fun, and it was easy to take pictures one handed. Fast enough indeed that I think it would be quite a good camera for street photography (especially for those who don’t like to limit their depth of field).
Battery Life and Firmware Considerations
Battery life has traditionally been a weak point of this kind of camera, but it seems to be pretty good on the Leica C-Lux. I had a spare battery with me every day, but I rarely used it, one battery was enough for 200-300 shots over a long period.
The camera comes with a plug in USB charger, but mine only had an American plug, so I used the portable USB charger I take with me to charge my phone and iPad, simply plugging in the camera – It seemed to recharge quite quickly, and the socket is a standard micro-USB type. Easy and Convenient.
I was informed by Leica when I received the camera, that with the final firmware it would shoot DNG files. However, I have now been informed that the shipping camera will support the Panasonic RWL file format instead (which will, of course, be supported in Lightroom and other Conversion Software).
I decided that, to be safe, I would shoot only highest quality jpg files, and would use Auto White balance. I didn’t have time to investigate the different jpg settings, so I just left them as default.
I also like to tag images with GPS data – especially on a trip like this. The camera doesn’t have GPS built in, but it does have both WiFi, and low-power bluetooth. This will allow you to have the camera permanently connected to your phone (iOS or Android) and you will be able to tag the location information on to the files with the GPS information from the phone.
I’ve used this technique with the Panasonic G9, and it works extremely well. I assume that the technology is the same on the C-Lux and that this will work even when the camera is in sleep mode.
I haven’t seen the best the camera can do, as I’ve been limited to jpg files, but I did notice in one of the reviews that the reviewer (who really liked the camera and the image quality) said that the pictures were good enough for any kind of web / on screen application. Well, I’ve printed them out to A2+, and unless you want to look from a foot away with a loupe they are just fine . . . and that’s from jpg files.
The dynamic range seems good, there is no tendency to blow out highlights or to block shadows. Almost everything I shot was at 800 ISO or below, but 1600 looks good as well.
Of course, the relatively slow lens is a disadvantage, but the image stabilisation is excellent which helps to keep the ISO down. As is normal with this kind of lens, it’s best within the standard range – I could see a little fall off at 360mm, but it was still perfectly usable.
Although I understand that sensor technology has come on over the last few years, I was, frankly, rather startled at how good the image quality actually is.
Leica’s previous C-Lux offerings have been style conscious point and shoot cameras with small sensors and form factors. Fun, but fairly limited in terms of image quality and performance. The sensor on the previous C (typ 112) was 1/1.7” (7.6 x 5.7mm) whereas the sensor on the new camera is 1” (12.8 x 9.6mm), in the same territory as the µ43 sensor in the D-Lux.
Since 2013 when the last C camera arrived sensor technology (especially for smaller sensors) has improved by leaps and bounds . Put all this together with the improvements in AF technology image stabilisation and lens design and suddenly you have a serious contender.
I went on our walking trip in Crete with a bag of cameras and lenses, expecting to use the C-Lux some of the time, but in the final analysis I took around 1500 photos. . 10 or so with the iPhone X . . 20 with the M10 . . 25 with the Panasonic G9 and the rest with the C-Lux, most of the time I was carrying a couple of kg of equipment which I simply didn’t use!
Okay, magic doesn’t happen, and many of these images would have been better quality if I’d been shooting with my SL or my M10; but there are images that I caught as a function of the 24-360 zoom range and excellent AF and image stabilisation which I simply would have missed with the “better” cameras.
With previous Panasonic / Leica collaborations there has always been the argument that you should save some money and eschew the Leica red dot, but with Leica’s sensible pricing on the C-Lux suddenly it seems that the improved resale value is probably worth more than the small difference in price. Add to that the ‘midnight blue’ camera I’ve been shooting with is rather a dashing object (and the blue leather half case that I don’t have looks great as well).
The C-Lux is perhaps not a major step forward for Leica, but like most great products it seems to be more than the sum of its parts. I would predict that it’ll find a lot of friends amongst street photographers who zone focus with small apertures, and it really does seem to be a great travel camera if you want to travel light.
On Friday I will have had the C-Lux for 2 weeks, and it will be time to hand it back to Leica. I haven’t owned a compact zoom camera for more than 5 years, but I’m seriously considering buying the lovely little C-Lux.