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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Leica's Digilux 2: The 'Analog' Digital

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

What does it say that one of the most remarkable digital cameras to come down the pike recently – a camera that can hold its own with all but the highest end, multi-thousand-dollar digital units – wants you to think of it as a film camera?

The Leica Digilux 2 – and its Ford/Lincoln alter ego, the Panasonic LC-1 – come to the marketplace with so many great features that it is hard to know where to start describing them. But the most important feature may be that this very sophisticated 5 megapixel digital camera looks, feels and operates almost like a film camera.

Hell, there's even a round shutter speed dial that you twirl with your fingers – my kind of "digital" control – as well as a manual focusing ring that feels as if it were placed on the lens deliberately, and not as some post-production afterthought.

Why this emphasis on going back to the future?

Of course, I'm not the most unbiased source, but I think this reflects a not insignificant consumer backlash against camera gear that looks – and occasionally operates – like something out of The Matrix Revisited.

Computer geeks may get off on equipment that is heavy on buttons, switches, LCD's and whatever the hell else lights their little fires, but I suspect photographers – even those who have embraced digital to their once hypo-stained bosoms – prefer simplicity: that is, gear that lets them concentrate on making images, and not on programming the space shuttle

I say this having reviewed cameras and other photo equipment long before digital reared its bit-laden head. In fact, nine years ago I noted how Hasselblad, in touting its then top-of-the-line, all-electronic film camera, made a special mention that it also was providing a place on the back of the film magazine to store the dark slide – a vital piece of sheet metal that photographers were always misplacing in the middle of a shoot. In that same article, I quoted another ad, this one for a new Minolta Maxxum, that announced "a step backward that's a leap forward...big, bold buttons and dials" instead of what the ad derisively called "electronic fussiness."

And remember: that was nine years ago. Think of all the additional "electronic fussiness" we have had to endure in our daily lives since then: e-mail spam, cell-phone rudeness, laptop computers regularly crashing and burning, mega-channel cable and satellite TV with utterly mindless content...you get the idea.

Which, of course, is about what Leica had in mind when it designed this terrific camera.

Once again, this is a joint venture between two highly respected companies: Leica of Germany and Panasonic of Japan. This marriage seems likely to last, not only because of the Digilux 2 and LC-1, but because of another Leica/Panasonic hybrid, the phenomenal digital point and shoot Lumix FZ-1, that I raved about last summer.

In every case, Panasonic, one of Japan's premier electronics companies, has handled the internal electronics while Leica has handled the optics. That is to say: each company has gone to its strengths.

But in the case of the Digilux 2, it appears as if Germany has had a major input as to the way the camera actually looks and feels. And that is important – and something Leica has not always gotten right in the past.

For example, previous "Leica" digital cameras actually have been tiny Japanese point and shoots on which Leica merely applied its brand, with precious little input from Germany. And its first Digilux model, though laudable for things like manual focus, was a boxy, clunky, inelegant affair that has almost nothing in common – vis a vis looks or performance – with its hot new younger brother.

Put simply, the Digilux 2 is a camera that just handles like the real thing. As I think you will agree from the photographs, the controls are few and well-placed. Which is not to say the camera doesn't have its share of very welcome bells and whistles.

One of the first I noted – and which took me back a whole lot of years to the days of split image rangefinder focusing in oldtime SLR's – was the Leica's novel system for manual focusing. Turn the focusing ring while peering through the viewfinder and the center part of your image suddenly will enlarge so that you can focus a whole lot more precisely. It's a simply marvelous feature, and as I noted it reminded me of the time when cameras combined two means to focus: groundglass reflex focusing and some form of rangefinder. [And for you autofocus fanatics: don't fret – the camera does that too.]

As for the lens, it's Leica glass, which should be all that I need to say. A 28-90 mm (35mm equivalent) Vario Summicron zoom that is plenty fast at f.2-2.4. And sharp, too – aspherical glass with 13 elements in 10 groups.

It's not so much that the Digilux 2 has loads of features; it's that its features have features. The pop-up flash, for example, is a very discreet thing that is slightly elevated to lessen red eye. But it also can be clicked into a 45-degree angle (unheard of on almost every other digicam of its kind) to render far more natural-looking flash photographs.

White balance? Of course the camera has it, but not just the usual handful of choices, from Auto through daylight to artificial light. Here, you actually can adjust white balance within the chosen menu, via a series of click stops that show real-time changes in the viewfinder or LCD. Again: a terrific, novel, damn-near unique feature that makes getting the picture right the first time that much easier.

As with higher-end SLRs, the Digilux 2 allows for auto-bracketing of exposures. As with better digitals, the camera features a real-time histogram to precisely monitor exposure. There is a "burst" shooting mode that I made out to be about 3-4 frames per second.

You can shoot mega-definition RAW files as well as three versions of JPEG. The recording media is the tiny SD memory card

In short, a remarkable camera.

And a steal at...hey, wait, this is a Leica. Who am I kidding?

In fact, the list on the Digilux 2 is $1850 (obviously that includes the fixed Leica lens). The Panasonic version, to hit stores next month, lists for $251 less, or $1599.

The cameras are virtually identical, though the LC-1 has a slightly more modern-looking black body. The Leica version looks more like, well, a Leica, including the famous red dot with "Leica" written in a flowing script.

To some, that's a lot of money to pay for a red dot.

Then again.....

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.


©Frank Van Riper
It resembles an M-series Leica rangefinder – that's the idea – but in fact the Leica/Panasonic Digilux 2 is a terrific digital camera. It combines the electronic bells and whistles of even some high-end pro digicams with the look and feel of an analog (film) camera. And it has the heft (and hefty price) you'd expect from Leica.

©Frank Van Riper
The Digilux pop-up flash is discreet and easy to use. This slightly elevated direct position can help minimize red-eye...

©Frank Van Riper
...but the novel 45-degree option not only eliminates red-eye in portraits, it also lets you make far more natural-looking flash pictures.

©Frank Van Riper
Yes, Virginia, that's a manual shutter speed dial on the top of the camera. And you can manually set aperture, too by – get this – turning a dial on the lens barrel. What won't they think of next?

©Frank Van Riper
For all its sophistication, the Digilux 2's back-of the-camera-command center is surprisingly simple. And yes, that's a hot-shoe for a separate flash.


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TALKING PHOTOGRAPHY
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Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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