Leica Digilux 2 - Historical context
When the Leica Digilux 2 came out in 2004 digital cameras were starting to reach enough quality to compete with the analog film cameras. I don’t remember what camera I was using back then, but I was a student / part time worker, and my primary focus was to paint and draw as much as I could, among the other student’s things. I was already in love with Japan since several years, and had been visiting there few times. I probably was using a film compact camera, since I still have several photos printed from some convenience Japanese stores from that period, and no digital files (and no films, sadly, just prints).
2004 feels like another life, and it was. I was so much different, different person, different environment, different situation. 11 years later, so many things have happened that I think I have lived several different lives in between. 11 years are a huge, enormous, ridiculous gap for technology, too. And digital cameras are like small computers. Back to the 2004 I did the switch (old Mac user's terminology) with buying an eMac G4. An amazing computer that I still remember for its great design (similar to the iMac G3). The configuration was like this: G4 1.25 GHz PowerPc processor, 512 DDR SDRAM, and I think around 40GB of HDD, the Combo SuperDrive (ah, marketing) optical drive, and the ATI Radeon 9200 graphic card with 32 MB dedicated DDR SDRAM. Bluetooth and USB 2.0 (for the first time in this Mac). Everything inside of a CRT display 17”, with a resolution up to 1280x960. The current iPhone 6 is way above these numbers. As cellular phone I think I was using the Nokia 7650, that was a great phone for that period, with an integrated camera as well.
The point is that this is the same gap you will find with digital cameras. And the Leica Digilux has a small CCD 8.8 x 6.6mm (2/3 inch type) sensor with 5 megapixels (max 2560 x 1920 pixels). Surely, you don’t buy the Leica Digilux 2 now to use it as a main digital camera. But at least you buy it for its great amazing design, and its super lens: 28-90 mm f/2.0 DC Vario Summicron. As soon as you start playing with the D2 you realise one thing: this is the Grandma camera of the Fujifilm X series. Well, Fujifilm is of course pointing to the root of film cameras with its X series, so it makes sense to find several similarities in the philosophy, because the D2 does the same. It translated the traditional elements of the film cameras into the digital world. When you take, hold and start using the Digilux 2 and you can see all these points. The D2 feels very natural, with the aperture ring on the lens, with the shutter speed knob, and the zoom that doesn’t extend the lens. This is amazing, because the lens is already quite big (well balanced with the body, but the camera is overall bigger than the current mirrorless cameras around). The 18-55mm (28-85mm equivalent) lens of my Fuji X-E1 extends with zooming, while the D2 doesn’t (to be fair, the Fuji has interchangeable lenses, while the D2 has a fixed one designed just for that body and purpose). You can use the manual zoom ring on the lens without that nobody notices you are using a zoom lens. I keep it most of the times between 35mm and 50mm, but it’s really handy to have such a bright zoom lens from 28 to 90mm (equivalent). I often dislike zoom lenses, always slow comparing to primes, but this lens is like having different prime lenses in one zoom lens: it’s that good. It’s sharp, bright, produces great colours and contrast, and even if the sensor is small (that doesn’t really matter with the quality of the image, except for high ISO performance), it still produces quite amazing IQ.
The D2 is a 100 ISO camera. Really. I read this many times before purchasing one, and this is true, a rule, you need to stick with 100 ISO even if it can (settings wise) go up to to 400. At ISO 400 you get so much noise that the camera suddenly becomes the one you could find in the Nokia 7650, it is that bad. If you even underexpose the photo, then you will get even more noise with bringing up some shadow information. You could retrieve something with the black and white (the D2 by the way produces a great black and white), but it’s better if you always stick to ISO 100.
The camera is not really for street photography itself, not very discrete in its appearance and size, but it’s completely silent. Not just quite, but really silent. You could take many photos and nobody will hear anything at all; the Fuji X-E1 is also quite, but without a silent shutter.
I also read articles where people complain about the EVF, well, try to remember we are talking about a digital camera from 2004. It’s enough. Enough to frame, enough to see the exposure and the information, completely fine. You could count the pixels on it, but I don’t really care. I use the EVF all the time instead of the screen (would love to have even the same poor quality EVF on the Ricoh GR for example, since I don’t like external clumsy VFs).
RAW or JPG? I always prefer RAW over JPG (even if I shoot both to see also what the camera produces with the JPG). Though with the D2 I don’t feel I need to shoot RAW. At 200 or more ISOs the camera starts to apply a really ugly effect that tries to reduce the noise but produces a result like “Photoshop > Effect > Mosaic” in its JPGs, so if you want to try higher ISOs you want to shoot RAW. But other than this, just go with the great and light JPG files that the camera produces. You can tweak the appearance a bit in the built-in settings in the camera menu: sharpness, saturation, and so on. I apply some really light and subtle adjustments in Lightroom directly to the JPGs, but really few things, leaving the render of the camera to do the work. And it works quite fine. The photos that the D2 produces have a bit of the film texture that makes analog photos still so fascinating (among other things of course). It may be for the low quality ISO performance of the sensor, but it’s a noise that feels different from the typical digital crappy noise, more like film than digital. General points: the D2 suffers of shutter lag, and the lens is prone to flare.
The Leica Digilux 2 is not of course my main digital camera, both the Fujifilm X-E1 and the Ricoh GR perform much better with high ISOs, and produce larger files (even if to be honest for a classic size print the D2 is completely fine) that you could crop if you wanted to. That said, I find myself willing to shoot with the Leica Digilux 2 because I really enjoy using it, and it can surprise you with some amazing image quality pictures, even after 11 years.
Leica Digilux 2 vs Fujifilm X-E1
Here a comparison I did with these 2 cameras. The Digilux 2 covers slightly more focal lengths with the 28-90mm, and the Fuji X-E1 is very similar with the 28-85mm equivalent. I shot the same subjects to give a better comparison at a similar focal lengths. I set almost always aperture f/5.6 on both cameras, with 100 as ISO and aperture priority. I didn’t shoot RAW, also to be faster (shooting in RAW with the D2 takes 6 seconds per shot), but to be able to compare the JPGs that the cameras produce with their rendering. I did though a little bit of post production on the photos of both cameras, but very a little and subtle one.
As you can see the D2 has more natural and warm rendering, while the Fujifilm tends to a colder white balance, and more saturation overall. I must say I prefer the automatic exposure in the Digilux 2 JPGs. Of course, with the Fuji I usually shoot RAW and don't use the camera’s JPGs, but anyway it’s worth noticing the quality of the D2 rendering. The Fujifilm with its bigger sensor produces more DOF.
About the controls on the lens / camera, I prefer the layout of the Leica Digilux 2. For example the choice of having a physical ring to choose between center-weighted, spot, and multi-area meterings included in the shutter button, or the macro mode included as last step of the focus ring on the lens. I would add the X-E1's exposure compensation knob as well, but overall I would like to use this same layout on modern cameras, too.
The point of course is not trying to make the D2 a competitive camera for today’s digital standard, but to highlight that this camera is still capable, thanks to its great lens and design, that made and make it a masterpiece. And as all masterpieces, the Leica Digilux 2 could last way longer than others.