Classic Camera Review: Leica Digilux 1

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When the first consumer digital cameras began coming to market in the mid-1990s, they were nowhere as svelte and graceful as their analog counterparts. It would take a few more years before the hardware under the skin would come down in size to a point where film and digital cameras could compete in a bathing suit competition, without having to grade them on a curve.

In 2002—eight years before Leica rolled out the M8, the first digital M-series camera, Leica introduced the Digilux 1, the company’s first point-and-shoot collaboration with Panasonic. Unlike the original Leica Digilux, which was a rebadged Fujifilm camera, the Digilux 1 featured a fast f/2-2.5 Leica DC Vario-Summicron 7-21mm ASPH zoom lens (33-100mm equivalent)* and a body design that smacks of classic Leica, and yes, it even has that precious red badge. Panasonic’s counterpart was the Lumix DMC-LC5, which had a more contemporary design that (in my eyes) never had the curb appeal of the playfully retro Digilux 1.

*Fun fact: The same lens was used in Canon’s popular PowerShot G2.

Photographs © Allan Weitz

The sporty design of the Digilux 1 is enough to make you smile. Aesthetically, it resembles the love child of an Argus C3 and a Leica M-series camera. The camera controls are a user-friendly blend of analog wheels, buttons, and switches combined with a short list of menu settings you access on the camera’s 205k-dot 2.5" Color TFT LCD. The pleasingly Teutonic simplicity of the controls and menu interfaces found on modern digital Leicas can be traced directly to the Digilux 1. It’s the kind of camera you can easily figure out over a cup of coffee without having to crack open the manual.

The black and brushed-chrome body panels of the Digilux 1 are made of magnesium alloy. Four brushed-chrome dual-action control dials and buttons contrast nicely against the black top panel. The largest dial is for setting the exposure mode (Program, Aperture, Shutter, Manual, Video, and Auto) and Record / Playback switch, the smaller round control is a combination shutter-button and Power Zoom control, along with a Self-Timer button and a Flash control button.

The back of the camera is Spartan, by digital camera standards. In addition to a 2.5" LCD, there’s an all-glass optical viewfinder, which is coupled to the camera’s 3x zoom lens. In use, the finder is quite accurate compared to the captured image. Included with the camera is a 3-sided barndoor shade that screws onto the base of the camera. Pop it open and you can use the LCD at arm’s distance under sunny skies without having to squint.

Even though the Digilux 1 claimed title to having the shortest shutter-lag for cameras in its class, the hybrid infrared / passive contrast focusing system found in the camera is slow compared to modern point-and-shoot AF systems. Ditto the camera’s lever-controlled power-zoom function and image processing times, which in the case of TIFF files, take upwards of 8-seconds before you can take another photograph. Images are recorded to (maximum 1GB) SD cards.

Rather than sticking to standard protocol of the day, the 4MP 1/1.76" CCD in the Digilux 1 (and Panasonic DMC-LC5) recorded color through CMYG color channels rather than the industry-standard RGB pattern. By going this route, the engineers could tap into about twice the wavelength range of the visible spectrum, resulting in better color saturation in the red and blue channels. The CMYG arrangement is also twice as sensitive to light than comparable RGB sensors, which combined with the lens’s fast maximum aperture, made the Digilux 1 one of the best low-light cameras of the day.

Although the Digilux 1 and the Lumix DMC-LC5 shared common imaging components they didn’t necessarily capture pictures that ‘looked’ the same. Just as Leica has always strived to produce lenses that would render color faithfully, they maintained the same sensibilities when they calibrated the camera’s image processor to reproduce a neutral color palette. Conversely, Panasonic’s DMC-LC5, like most cameras designed and engineered in Japan, tend to have punchier, more saturated color palettes.

The Digilux 1 offers the choice of shooting JPEGs (Fine or Standard) or something you don’t see any more in consumer cameras—TIFF files. The beauty of TIFF files is that though they can slow the camera down and take up more memory than JPEGs, unlike JPEGs they are “lossless” files, which means they can be altered and saved multiple times without sacrificing image quality.

4K might be the ticket to camera sales these days but, in 2004, video capture was limited to 320 x 240, which was fine as long as you didn’t try watching it on anything larger than a 2.5" LCD. The camera’s ISO range extends to 400 but, for best results, the camera’s native ISO 100 delivers the cleanest image files.

The Digilux 1 features three metering modes: center-weighted, multi-field (matrix), and spot, along with the choice of shooting single frame or in bursts of up to 3.8 fps with a maximum of 8 frames per burst (high compression) or 4 fps (low compression). A focus mode switch on the front of the camera allows you to flip between manual focus, autofocus, or macro mode for focusing as close as 6 cm with the lens in the wide-angle position.

Considering the state of digital imaging in 2004, the photographs I captured with the Digilux 1 are surprisingly good. At 300 dpi, you can get a detailed 5 x 7" print. Take the resolution down to 240 or 180 dpi and you can coax decent 8 x 10 or 11 x 14" inkjet prints out of your files.

Leica’s Digilux 1 sold for $899 when it was introduced, in 2002. Even though it’s pokey-slow compared to modern digicams costing a quarter of the price, the Digilux 1 remains an enjoyable camera walking-around accessory. It gets a gratifying measure of double-takes from photographers you pass on the street and it’s satisfying to use as a camera.

I’ve long known that pixel count isn’t everything when it comes to image quality. It’s comforting to know you can crop deep into an image file if you need to but, when used properly, even a 4MP camera can take perfectly pleasing photographs. You may not be able to print them wall-size, but they stand up well within their limitations.

The Digilux 1 also reminded me how lush the colors are in photographs captured on CCD imaging sensors, especially sensors with larger-sized photons, as is the case with the Digilux 1. CMOS sensors might drive the industry these days and they certainly have their advantages, but pictures captured with CCDs have, for lack of better words—more soul.

When using digital cameras from this period, it’s imperative that you keep an eye on battery power. Lithium-ion battery technologies and related camera technologies were not as efficient as they are today and, thus, you can drain them faster than a Hummer burns through petrol. Fortunately, the image field you see in the camera’s optical finder 1 closely matches the 100% image area you see on the camera’s LCD.

Have you ever shot with a Leica Digilux 1? How about an Argus C3 film camera? Either way, we’d love to hear about your experiences.

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