Night photographer Lance Keimig takes you on a journey to the Aurora Borealis and helps you from start to finish, beginning with preparation for cold, Icelandic weather and finishing up with exposure...
“There was a little girl, and she had a little curl, right in the
middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was VERY VERY good - and when she
was bad, she was HORRID.” - Nursery rhyme
The Leica Digilux 2, and its Panasonic twin, the DMC-LC1, are an interesting
exercise in digital camera design and ergonomics - in essence, a throwback to the
shape and handling and analog controls of mechanical 35mm cameras from the last
half of the 1900s. As an operating tool in the hand, the Digilux 2 is very
successful. There are many shooting situations where being able to scale-focus
the lens, or set the shutter speed on a dial - even before the camera has been
turned on - greatly simplify and speed up operation, compared to the
push-here-while-twirling-that-and-watching-the-LCD controls common on most
non-SLR digicams. The Leica-designed lens is almost supernatural in its ability
to define details and separate tones and colors, and pushes right to the limits
of what 5 megapixels can record - a bonus I wasn’t even expecting.
So ideally, I’d start this review with the controls and handling and
lens, because they are so distinctive.
But as a reviewer, I have an obligation to point out the worst features of the
Digilux first - the HORRIDS. If you get past these and are still interested, then
we can have fun with the camera’s good side - which is occasionally
No RAW buffer
The Digilux 2 can save pictures in a RAW format. And it does have built-in
memory of about 11 megabytes or so. Enough to handle a burst of three
“finest” Jpegs (3.4 Mb each) in a little over a second before it has
to pause and write to the memory card. But a Digilux RAW file is 9.6 megabytes,
so it fills that memory with one picture, requiring a pause after every exposure.
The “hang time” varies according to the capacity and speed of the
memory card in use: 5 seconds or so for a fast type II 512Mb SD card, up to as
long as 13 seconds on the 64Mb SD card that comes with the camera. Six seconds on
my “regular” 256Mb Lexars. So - you can shoot fast, or you can shoot
RAW. Not both.
As a photojournalist, I’d rather shoot jpegs anyway, as much for the
time savings at the computer after the fact as those during shooting. A RAW
workflow is like the Zone system - a brilliant tool for some kinds of
photography, just not mine. But combined with the next issue, the lack of a fast
RAW buffer has been a “deal-killer” for many photographers who might
really like to work with the camera otherwise.
Excessive noise reduction in ISO 200/400 JPEGS
When shooting JPEGS at ISO 200/400, the Digilux 2 employs a rather
heavy-handed noise reduction routine. In Photo.net’s review of the Digilux
1 people spoke of a “Seurat filter”. Well, this is more of a
“Cezanne filter” - as though a palette knife had been scraped over
the light tones in the image. Does a great job at removing noise. Unfortunately,
it removes a lot of fine detail as well. And it mostly affects the lighter tones,
whereas the strongest noise is in the shadows. Ooops! You end up with smeared
highlights, noisy shadows, and a weird transition area between the two.
I queried Leica about what was going on here: Intentional noise reduction?
Accidental JPEG artifacts? If it seems odd to ask for a manufacturer’s
comment in a review, I guess it’s just my journalistic background - you
ALWAYS try to get both sides. Here are the key points of their response, edited
“Some noise at ISO 400 is not unusual for digital cameras. We tried
to get a perfect colour management, sharpness and contrast but it is impossible
to avoid completely noise....Image quality depends from the adjustments (colour,
contrast, noise, sharpness). If you change the colour-management than you change
automatically other settings or if you reduce the noise it could be that the
images will not have the typical Leica sharpness. You can compare the effect with
a 400 or 800 ISO film at the 35mm format. At 400 ISO there is a higher
sensitivity. It is not a effect of jpeg compression. We are aware that noise is
an issue so that we try more than our best to improve the
technological and optical performance in future.”
Reading between the lines, I get the impression that Leica (or Panasonic, or
both) was overly concerned with noise. They sort of ignored the fact that I was
asking about the noise REDUCTION, not noise per se. Perhaps they were panicked by
the hits the Sony 828 has taken on the subject - and overdid the noise
suppression as a result. As a photojournalist, I’d prefer “sharp and
noisy” to “blurry and noiseless”. Or at least the option to
choose for myself. There are workarounds, which I’ll get into later. The
most obvious one is to shoot RAW files, which bypass all “in-camera”
firmware processing, and thus the noise supression. But get you back to the long
delays between exposures.
And if a camera has a bug that requires workarounds - it’s still a
The electronic viewfinder
Despite the Digilux 2’s vague resemblance to a classic rangefinder
camera, it is not a rangefinder. The viewfinder is electronic - a TV set behind
an eyepiece. It’s jittery and grainy. Not any uglier than other EVF cameras
(except the new Konica/Minolta A2 - which is a big leap forward). Better than a
videophone broadcast from Baghdad. But if you’re used to the crisp texture
of an SLR screen or the brilliant clarity of a good window viewfinder, it’s
In addition to its general ugliness, the EVF also has three specific
First: Even at “90mm”, precise manual focusing is essentially
impossible on the unmagnified screen. The camera can be set to magnify the center
of the image 4x or 8x for manual focus (the magnification turns on when the focus
ring is touched, and turns off a couple of seconds later), but even using this
focus-assist, focusing at “28mm” is still troublesome.
Second: In really bright light the camera stops down the aperture to help
control screen brightness. Usually - it opens back up for focusing (AF or MF).
But on rare occasions (twice in 6 weeks) it has “forgotten” to do
this. Using ISO 100 and a high shutter speed, this left me shooting at f/2.4
while trying to focus at f/5.6 (the reverse of an SLR, where you focus at f/1.4
and shoot at f/5.6). Even at “90mm” and with the magnification turned
on, the DOF was so wide that an “infinity” subject still looked sharp
with the lens set as close as 4 feet - a recipe for fuzzy pictures. Pointing the
camera at something dark and trying again cleared the problem each time.
Third: the viewfinder lags behind reality by about 1/12th second (80
milliseconds +/-). The shutter lag on the Digilux 2 is pretty minimal, but the
viewfinder lag has cost me ‘moments’.
That’s the bad news.
THE VERY, VERY GOOD (and the merely nice)
On the flip side, at ISO 100 the Digilux 2 produces jpeg images at the rate of
1 per second-and-a-half even in single-shot mode that are not just very, very
good - they are astonishing. And when the final pictures are this clear and
detailed, the fact that the viewfinder image is grainy becomes a minor issue.
The lens is a non-interchangeable 7mm-22.5mm f/2.0-2.4 Vario-Summicron zoom,
equivalent to a 28mm-90mm zoom for 35mm film. The widest apertures at the marked
focal lengths: 28mm f/2; 35mm f/2; 50mm f/2.1; 70mm f/2.2; 90mm f/2.4. Focusing
and zooming are internal - so the lens never changes shape or size. Since the
zooming is mechanical, it does not have to extend or retract during
startup/shutdown, saving seconds. Closest focus is about 1 foot (.3 meters) -
which covers an area of about 4.5 x 6 inches (11cm x 16cm) at 90mm - hardly
macro, but tighter than most non-macro lenses, and much tighter than almost any
The Vario-Summicron “shoots” wider than its “28-90mm”
rating. The focal lengths are accurate if you crop the Digilux’s 4:3
“ideal” format to the shape of a 35mm frame. But if you use the
entire Digilux image, the results look more like 8x10’s (A4s) cropped from
a 24-75mm zoom.
Personally, I love wide (my main film lens is a 21mm) - so I found this a
pleasant surprise. The downside: at the long end, the V-S is barely a portrait
lens - a “long” normal. Of course, many rangefinder photographers
don’t shoot longer than 50mm or 75mm anyway - so it fits into the
Leica’s film lenses have a slight bias towards cyan-green - or more
accurately, away from magenta/red. The Vario-Summicron shares this tendency. It
strips away magenta casts from sky and clouds. And water reflecting sky, or
sky-lit shadows/shade, are rendered as cyan-blue, not purple-blue. Caucasian skin
tones in sunset light tend towards golden, not ruddy. Darker skin tones are
rendered in browns instead of purples. Evergreen trees are green, not brown or
The lens is very sharp, has crisp edge definition, and does a superb job of
separating and defining colors and tones. In most of my comparison images with
film it has held its own alongside one of Leica’s “signature”
film lenses: the 35 f/1.4 Summilux-ASPH. At its peak apertures (f/4-5.6) it is
projecting details so fine that they start interacting with the Bayer pattern on
the image sensor, producing moires - witness the clothing textures and ebony
tooling in the bagpiper picture - and dropping out fine details against the sky -
see the tail-less bird below.
Seems as though Leica/Panasonic have subdued or left out the
“low-pass” filter in order to maximize sharpness, even at the risk of
the occasional “eel”. (Moire, moray - hmmmm....never mind). Although
the lens has a minimum aperture of f/11, diffraction begins to soften the image
visibly below f/8.
At 28mm - barrel distortion is obvious, about 3-4% at the corners, and there
is a moderate amount of purple/green color fringing (3 pixels-worth at the
corners) in many pictures, Light fall-off is about 1.5 f/stops at the corners and
is rather abrupt. (A note on barrel distortion - obviously a bad thing in many
pictures. It does slightly reduce the stretching of faces and heads into football
shapes (American football - rugby-ball elsewhere) near the corners, so it’s
a mild plus in “people” pictures.)
At 90mm - no distortion I could measure, occasional purple fringing in dark
objects against the sky, very low vignetting (looks like about 1/2 stop at its
Since the true focal-length range is 7mm-22.5mm, depth of field is extensive.
BUT - it isn’t infinite. It is very easy to get less-than-sharp pictures
even at the “28mm” setting if you don’t focus carefully. At 4
feet and f/2 there is clear softening of the image from peak performance within 4
inches either side of correct focus. At “90mm”-f/2.4 the image starts
to degrade visibly within 1.5 inches either side of correct focus. There’s
a big difference between ‘apparently sharp” and really sharp. If you
want to get the best this lens can produce - you won’t count too much on
The Vario-Summicron will blur backgrounds and foregrounds when used near its
minimum focus at maximum aperture. When it does, the “bokeh” is about
the prettiest I’ve ever seen - the image just melts away from
“sharp” with a soft and delicate contrast, and no hint of bright
rings or double images. But “bokeh” is obviously a non-factor in most
Digilux 2 pictures.
In addition to the 3.2x mechanical zoom range, the Digilux 2 offers a 2x/3x
“digital” zoom which transforms the lens into a
“56-180mm” or “85-270mm”. As with all digital zooms, it
simply magnifies the image from the middle of the sensor, without gathering any
more detail. Essentially useless for anything other than 4x6 prints or video,
IMHO - and at 3x, don’t expect to use the resulting images to prove you
actually saw “Bigfoot” or “Nessie”.
The Digilux 2 body is a basic Bauhaus “form-follows-function” box,
with a lens on one side and a light-sensitive surface on the other. Even Louis
Daguerre would recognize it as a camera. I’ve seen comments that it is
“styled” to look like a Leica rangefinder. But with its squared-off
ends and large (69mm diameter) lens - it reminds me more of a Canon 7 wearing the
legendary 50mm f/0.95, or perhaps a Nikon SP with a Nikkor 50 f/1.1 mounted,
especially if the Nikkor and the Vario-Summicron have their massive lens shades
All of the “photographic” controls (exposure, focus, focal length,
metering pattern, etc.) are analog dials, rings and levers. They all have a
mechanical feel - though most obviously connect to electronics beneath the
surface. The focusing ring is slightly “light” in touch, but allows
one-finger focusing. The shutter dial rotation is oriented to match a Leica M6ttl
or M7, rather than the ‘opposite’ design of older Leicas or the
After you have used the on-screen menu lists to set up your major shooting
preferences (RAW or Jpeg, image size/compression, saturation/contrast/sharpness,
etc.) and minor shooting preferences (color or B&W, ISO speed), it is
possible to take pictures for hours, or even days, in all the automatic or manual
modes, without ever again looking at a menu or LCD read-out, or touching a
push-button - except, of course, the shutter release.
Anyone who has ever used a Nikon F2 or Canon F1 or Pentax Spotmatic (or - yes,
a Leica rangefinder) already knows where everything is and what it does.
The ergonomics of the Digilux are superb. With its centered lens, it is easier
to hold, and much easier to hold steady, than the “L” shape used for
most other top-end digicams, because the left palm has a corner to provide mutual
support, instead of thin air.Since people vary, there is no perfect size and
weight for a camera. The Digilux is heavier than a Leica rangefinder wearing a
tiny 35mm Summicron, and lighter than the same Leica with a 35 Summilux ASPH. My
shoulder loves it - my hands might wish for an ounce or two more heft at slow
shutter speeds. The bulk is just inside the large end of my comfort zone - about
the same as a small motor-incorporated film SLR (Nikon N/F80, Contax Aria).
Build quality is average. I wouldn’t swear to any part of the body being
metal, although some controls probably are. The lens barrel and rings are
aluminum or some other light metal, not brass. And there’s a rather tacky
seam down the middle of the bottom plate. But my Digilux took a 3-foot fall out
of my camera bag onto carpeted concrete the first night I had it, and survived
with no marks or damage.
As with most rangefinder cameras, the viewfinder eyepiece is in the top left
corner. This has great benefits for right-eyed photographers: you don’t
have to balance the camera on the tip of your nose (firmer support), people can
see your face while you’re shooting (a good way to establish and maintain
trust), and, in the case of the Digilux, you aren’t constantly planting
nose-grease on the rear LCD. Left-eyed shooters end up the same place they do
with most camera designs - out in the cold. (Has anyone ever built a camera that
favors left-eyed photography? - seems unfair).
The analog controls, with each control handling one function, are very fast
and very transparent. Not only can you set them with the power off, you can set
two or three things simultaneously: left hand setting focus or aperture or focal
length while the right hand is thumbing on the power and setting the shutter or
meter pattern. All of which gets you to the important thing - pushing the shutter
release - in the shortest time possible.
Turn-on lag time
Let’s turn on the camera and set the lens to 6 feet for a quick
“scale-focused” street photography grab shot. We’ll use the
Digilux 2, and a couple of other popular digicams, the Canon G5 and the Sony 828,
which I tested at the local electronics-appliance store.
On the Digilux: Total time to “ready to shoot” - turn on the
camera and set 6 feet on the lens’s analog scale - 2.7 seconds
On the 828: Total time to turn on the camera, turn on “manual
focus” and set 6 feet on the LCD readout - 5 seconds
On the G5: Total time to turn on the camera, turn on “manual
focus” and set 6 feet on the LCD’s “thermometer” focus
scale - 6-7 seconds
Not to pick on the Canon and Sony, which do pretty well as digicams go. But a
manual-focus “feature” buried somewhere in the electronics is simply
not in the same league as a focus ring on the lens that can be set with a flick
of the finger even before the camera is powered up.
The viewfinders and focusing
I’ve already touched on the major flaws of the EVF. Every viewfinder
ever conceived has been a Faustian bargain - there is always a trade-off between
things it does well and things it does poorly. Rangefinder cameras can’t
frame accurately, can’t focus closer than a couple of feet, have trouble
aligning near and far parts of the subject precisely (parallax), and won’t
work with zoom lenses - but are very quiet and smooth. SLRs solve the problems of
the rangefinder - at the cost of noise, shake and bulk. Both can be very fast to
focus and provide clear (if different) views of the world.
The EVF combines rangefinder quiet and smoothness with SLR-like framing, focus
range, and zoom capability - at the cost of an unpleasant view and slow (if
eventually accurate) visual focusing. And while rangefinders and even SLR screens
can get out of alignment, with the EVF you are focusing using the actual pixels
that will make up the final picture - the image sensor can’t ever get out
of alignment with itself. It’s still ugly - especially when sitting on the
sofa and “fondling” the little beast. But it’s funny - once I
start shooting and paying attention to the world and the moments around me - how
quickly the ugliness fades into the background. I’m too busy seeing
pictures to notice.
Some people have experimented with using accessory viewfinders,
rangefinder-style, to avoid the EVF. I tried it myself - and went back to just
using the built-in finder. Didn’t like being limited to one or two focal
lengths; didn’t like the parallax error; didn’t like the big lens
protuding into the viewfinder corner; didn’t like the extra bulk on top.
Very strange - since I use the same finders, with the same limitations, all the
time for film photography.
I use all the camera’s focusing modes, depending on the situation.
At focal lengths above “50mm”, autofocus is usually fastest (the
AF lock time is about 1 second). But I use manual focus when I don’t want
the focus point to shift between shots, or when I’m using
“trap-focus” for action - or simply to avoid the AF lag when the
“moment” finally happens.
At 35mm and 28mm, I use scale-focusing for most fast work. For slower,
critical manual-focus at f/2, I use the old film-maker’s trick of zooming
in to focus and zooming out to frame.
Again, the logic of the analog controls comes into play. With two rings
side-by-side on the lens, it is simple and fast to change focal lengths and click
between manual and autofocus without taking my hand off the lens or the camera
away from my eye.
The Digilux has a single AF point in the middle of the frame. The size of the
focus area has two settings - a “spot” area smaller than 1% of the
image, and a larger “box” about 1/5th the height and width of the
screen. When using manual focus, the viewfinder can be set to magnify the center
of the image when the focus ring is touched. At 4x, the magnified view appears in
a box within the full-frame image, which supposedly allows one to keep track of
the overall picture while focusing. At 8x, the magnified area fills the screen.
I’ve discovered that: 1) 4x really isn’t enough enlargement for most
critical focusing, and 2) holding the shutter button down lightly will turn off
the magnification temporarily to allow a quick check of overall framing anyway (a
nice “undocumented” feature). So I always use the 8x setting.
The internal viewfinder and rear LCD show identical views. Only one or the
other is on at any time, and a button on the back toggles between them. The rear
finder is almost as large as a 645 film frame, but is not hinged for
low/high-angle shots. One very smart feature is that the viewfinder of choice can
be set separately for shooting or reviewing pictures. So that flipping the
shoot/review lever automatically switches you to your preferred viewfinder with
In shooting mode, four levels of information can be shown in the
The most basic shows you nothing but the image and the AF ‘box’ -
until you touch the shutter button, at which point the aperture and shutter speed
appear, along with a “match-needle” scale if you’re setting
exposure manually. There is one bug using manual exposure in this view: the
needle and numerical readouts won’t change in real time as you change
apertures or shutter speeds. You must lift your finger and touch the shutter
again to get an update on the “new” actual settings and metering.
A touch of the ‘display’ button overlays a “rule of
thirds” grid on the basic image.
Another touch, and you get information overload: Exposure info, battery
status, focus/flash/ISO/white-balance mode icons, remaining exposures, etc. etc.
Las Vegas in a camera. But in this view, touching the shutter does turn on a
“live” scale and readouts for manual metering that stay on for 10
seconds, or as long as you keep moving the aperture/shutter controls. Finally,
you can add a live histogram (brightness only, not colors) to the “Las
It is possible to see an "auto review" of each picture in the viewfinder after
every shot, for 1 or 3 seconds. I immediately turned this off, since I am far
more interested in the next picture than the one I've already taken. In which
case there is simply a viewfinder black-out of 1 second while the camera starts
to save the image.
In picture review mode, the camera can show your collected images as a 3x3
array of thumbnails, for fast navigation, or one image full-screen, or a zoomed
view into that single image up to 16x.
Three levels of picture information can be displayed in the single picture/1x
view: nothing but the image; basic picture info (frame number, date/time of
exposure, file size/type); and the basics plus detailed exposure info (histogram,
aperture/shutter speed, metering mode, etc.). It’s also possible to resize
and crop images, set up DPOF info for requesting prints from a mini-lab, play
slide shows and video, and some other stuff - none of which I use.
Neither viewfinder is especially good for critical evaluation of exposure,
color, or sharpness. You can tell if you missed the moment, or if the exposure or
focus were really off. Otherwise I save my editing for the computer monitor,
where the images are generally sharper, warmer, and darker than the camera
I won’t go into all the possible menus that can be brought up on the
screens - every possible control from setting the internal clock/calendar to
choosing how many prints to order. I’ll just mention two other nice
touches. You can select your 4 most often-used controls - perhaps ISO, contrast,
white balance and auto-focus area - and assign them to a “quick
function” list that can be accessed via the 4-way toggle button, saving a
lot of scrolling through menus. And in most cases, simply touching the shutter
button will “clear” all menus/functions and take you directly back to
shooting. A fast “escape” key.
I compared the shutter lag of the Digilux 2 to a Leica M6.
I found an intersection where a building blocked my view of oncoming
cross-traffic, so that I couldn’t anticipate when a car would enter the
scene. Then I shot a series of pictures with each camera, pressing the shutter as
soon as I saw a car bumper appear from behind the building. Focus was set
manually. With the Digilux, I shot two series, one using the internal viewfinder,
and one where I watched the scene directly, to see if the EVF had any additional
lag. In the resulting snaps, I marked how far the car bumpers had moved by the
time the shutter actually exposed the picture. What I was measuring was shutter
lag PLUS my reaction time - but it’s still possible to compare relative lag
The diagram shows the results. Lines mark the actual bumper positions, the
arrows mark the average for each group. Within each series, the variation is
likely a combination of my reaction time and small changes in traffic speeds. The
much larger variation for the M6 is interesting, and could be due to the
mechanical linkage-chain in the shutter. The traffic was moving at 20 mph (I
drove the street 3 times to check this) - which is 30 feet per second. Each foot
of movement thus equals about 33.3 milliseconds.
With the M6 (which has a known shutter lag of about 20 milliseconds), the
average total distance traveled was 7 feet. Total lag (including my reaction
time) was 233 msecs.
With the Digilux 2 and direct viewing, the cars had, on average, moved an
additional 1.5 feet, or an additonal lag of 50 msecs. Added to the Leica’s
20 msecs., that makes a shutter lag of about 70 msecs.
With the Digilux 2 using the EVF, the cars had moved yet another 2.5 feet, on
average, for an additional “viewfinder” lag of 83 msec., and an
overall lag of 153 msecs.
Despite the long time needed to save RAW files, when shooting fine jpegs, the
lag between exposures is 1 to 1.5 seconds, about the same as thumb-winding a film
The Digilux 2 is essentially silent. When the shutter is pressed, there is a
faint internal “tic-tic” (I think it’s the aperture blades
shifting to shooting aperture). About on the level of the quietest leaf shutters,
at most. No focusing sound - manual or auto. It’s possible to dial up one
of three “Hollywood” shutter sounds (“clack”,
“click”, or “cluck”) that play when you fire the shutter.
But to use them you must also put up with a loud “beep” that plays
when the AF locks, and EVERY TIME you press a button on the back: choosing from
menus, setting functions, scrolling through pictures, deleting pictures,
confirming deletes, switching viewfinders. BEEP BEEPBEEP BEEPBEEPBEEP. Obnoxious.
And the “tic-tic” is enough to tell me the shutter fired. So I leave
the noises off.
Funny how often people eventually asked “When are you going to take the
picture?” - after I’ve already nailed a dozen candid moments and
expressions from 4 feet away. Silence is golden.
The glove test
Just for grins, I put on a heavy set of ragg-wool gloves and tried operating
the Digilux. In general, it was easy to handle all the controls (analog and
digital) smoothly and without affecting neighboring buttons/rings/dials.
Occasionally the focus would shift a bit when turning the aperture ring. The
control wheel on the back was very slippery and hard to turn with gloves, but
fortunately most of its functions can be handled by the 4-way button inside it,
which worked fine. And while it was easy to slide open the door for the memory
card and press/release it - it was then impossible to get a grip on the card and
remove it the rest of the way. If you’re going to shoot in cold weather -
start with an ‘empty’ memory card so you won’t need to replace
it - or bring tweezers.
The Digilux 2 has a built-in pop-up flash. Press a button on the back once,
and the flash head pops up to a 60-degree angle for bounce flash. Press the
button again, and the base pops up another 60 degrees, pointing the flash at the
subject. The bounce flash is surprisingly powerful. I get nicely exposed bounce
shots even at ISO 100 in settings where my “film” flash (Vivitar
2800) often poops out on slide film. (Having an f/2 aperture helps, of course).
Due to the 60-degree bounce angle, the flash provides a small amount of
‘kick’ light directly at the subject as well as bounce - but also
sets a limit on how close you can shoot. Under an average ceiling, once you get
closer than about 5 feet, the “pool” of bounced light is directly
above, or even behind, your subject. Using direct flash, the huge lens shade will
cast a shadow in the bottom of pictures shot at “28mm” - but the lens
alone will not.
So far as I can tell, the Digilux has about every possible flash capability
generally available - normal sync up to 1/2000th second (yes, 3 zeroes is
correct!); slow-speed sync; sync at the beginning or end of the exposure (I
refuse to call it “second-curtain-sync” when the camera has no
shutter curtains); flash exposure compensation of +/- 2 stops for fill. The
camera also has a standard hot-shoe, with dedicated contacts for use with
Leica/Metz flashes. Other flashes with safe trigger voltages can be used, but
must depend on their built-in automation rather than TTL. No PC outlet -
you’d need some kind of adapter (radio, slave) for work with studio
strobes. There is a physical lock/switch in the shoe that will turn off and lock
down the pop-up flash if ANYTHING - even an accesory viewfinder - is mounted in
the shoe. The switch also changes the flash firmware to
“external-flash” mode - no pre-flash, but otherwise the same options
as using the internal flash.
There is a separate “flash” white-balance setting to compensate
for the coolish color of the flashtube. I “gelled” my flash for that
warm “sunset light” look, and to balance with tungsten lights
indoors, by the simple expedient of coloring a piece of translucent office tape
with an orange marker and sticking it on the front.
EXPOSURE AND IMAGE CONTROLS
The Digilux can expose in the standard 4 modes - manual, aperture-priority,
shutter-priority, or program.
These modes are set via the aperture ring and shutter dial. Set the aperture
to “A” and the camera will choose the aperture as you choose the
shutter speed. Set the shutter dial to “A”, and the camera will
choose the shutter speed as you change apertures. Set both to “A”,
and you are in program mode. The program mode can be biased towards either fast
shutter speeds/large apertures or slow shutter speeds/small apertures by thumbing
the serrated silver wheel on the camera back.
In manual mode you set both the shutter and aperture yourself, using the
internal meter readout’s “needle” as a guide, or using a
hand-held meter, or even just using the old “Sunny-16” rule-of-thumb.
The meter can be set to center-weighted, spot metering, and
“multi-area” patterns. The spot meter reads about 1% of the image
area - roughly 2 degrees at “90mm” and 6 degrees at
“28mm”. One advantage of a “shutterless” digicam is that
the exposure can be metered directly from the live image sensor voltages instead
of through a surrogate metering circuit/sensor.
The Digilux 2 uses this ability to “protect” the highlights when
set to multi-area or centerweighted metering patterns. It pins the brightest
pixels to about a level of 245-248 on the histogram, preventing burned-out
Outside of ISO speed, there are 4 main “digital” image controls
for JPEG shooting (they have no effect on RAW files). Contrast, Saturation, and
Sharpness can be set to “Std.”, “Low” or
“High”. And apparently this is the sole difference (except cosmetics)
between the Leica and Panasonic cameras - the Panasonic’s settings are all
a bit ‘higher’ than the Leica’s.
I generally work with sharpness set to “low” and the other two set
to “std.” Setting contrast and saturation to “low”
results in very softly toned images, with histograms that end well short of black
and white, and the appearance of a freshly-born TIFF from a RAW file. An
excellent starting place for some kinds of landscape work, with a long tonal
range (but obviously not sharpness) that approaches large-format images.
Due to the meter’s habit of protecting the highlights, changing the
contrast when using autoexposure has the effect of lightening or darkening the
shadows - moving only the left end of the histogram.
There are also seven White-Balance settings: Auto, sunny, cloudy, tungsten,
electronic flash, manual - and black-and-white.
Generally, I find the AUTO setting to be most reliable for daylight use.
“Sunny” is generally too blue (especially here in Denver, where there
is a lot of extra UV light at a mile high). Cloudy and flash go a bit overboard
in adding yellow/red. Tungsten does OK, but undercorrects a bit, leaving some
residual yellow under house lights.
The Manual setting also tends to run a bit on the yellow side. Looks great on
the bluish LCD when reviewing pictures, but too yellow once the pictures are
loaded into Photoshop. It’s the best choice under non-daylight light
sources, but needs to have a lot of blue compensation dialed in if the light is
short on blue wavelengths (see blue-channel issues below).
The B&W mode is interesting, and I like to use it if I am looking for
B&W pictures. But it eliminates the option of playing with Photoshop’s
“channel-mixer” after the fact to darken skies and such. Comparing a
“B&W” shot of a Gretag ColorChecker to a color image converted
via the channel-mixer, the camera’s internal channel-mix is roughly Red
35%/Green 55%/Blue 10%. JPEG files are actually monochrome RGBs, not grayscale.
And the B&W setting doesn’t affect RAW files, which by their nature
still contain the full color data from the original Bayer pattern of the
The blue channel has some issues, at least in JPEGS.
1) Testing color rendition with the ColorChecker, most colors are rendered
quite well, but blues - especially dark “nylon sportswear” blues -
and to a lesser extent, yellows, tend to hypersaturate.
2) Under lighting short in blue wavelengths - tungsten, fluorescent, sodium
vapor - even when “white-balanced”, the blue channel develops large
blobby noise, which shows up as an “underpainting” of yellow patches
at all ISOs, but especially 400. The actual blue channel looks like a Kodalith
image of out-of-focus oatmeal - no fine details, no tonality. Shooting at EI 100,
manually white balancing, adjusting the white balance as far to the blue side as
possible, and being generous with exposure (+1 EV) will boost the blue exposure
to a reasonable level - pictures still need some Photoshop work to fix color
balance and saturation, but at least the blue channel contains detail. The camera
is still much happier with full-spectrum light (daylight, flash or blue
3) Blue lights bloom excessively in night exposures (see section below on
OVERALL IMAGE QUALITY
Let’s make it simple. I wanted a digital camera that could do better
than the 2700-ppi scans I was getting from ISO 100/160 color negative films. I
hoped wistfully for a camera that could come close to scans from ISO 100 slide
films. That is what the Digilux 2 delivers. As I mentioned in discussing the
lens, the sharpness and occasional moire patterns in fine details lead me to
believe that Leica/Panasonic have chosen to limit the amount of low-pass
filtration over the Bayer pattern - a route that Kodak, in the 14n/ProN/ProC, and
Nikon, in the new D70, also seem to have followed.
(BTW, in the film/digital comparisons here, the Digilux 2 images were
upsampled about 40% to match image size with the film scans. In the D2-only
examples, the pixels are 100% as they came from the camera unless noted
At ISO 100 the images are very smooth and clean - not quite as sharp as
Velvia, but a good match for the average 35mm 100 slide film. An overall look a
lot like Ektachrome 100VS with some Kodachrome and Velvia touches thrown in - and
with adjustable saturation and contrast. Clearly less “grainy” noise
than scans from color negs. But there is occasionally a cyan-red patchiness
(Chrominance noise?) in dark grays or blue-green areas like architectural
The most startling thing about digital color is that, properly white balanced,
it is remarkably clean and free from color casts compared to chemical
imaging/scanning. There is something to be said for working directly from the
subject’s original color wavelengths, rather than an image
‘filtered’ through various stages of chemical dyes and
scanner/enlarger optics. It’s scary when you open a color image and all the
grays have identical amounts of RGB - 160/161/160 or 120/119/120 or the like.
On the other hand, the Digilux 2’s jpeg images are somewhat
“brittle”. If you don’t nail exposure, white balance,
saturation and contrast in the camera, and have to start making major corrections
in post-processing, they can fall apart rather quickly.
B&W pictures follow the same pattern. At 100 the Digilux is a bit ahead of
“traditional” ISO 100/125 silver films in terms of grain/noise, but
not TMax/Delta or ISO 50 film. Sharpness is a tiny bit lower, and the overall
feel of grainless highlights and a touch of grain/noise in the shadows comes
closest to chromogenic B&W films such as Ilford XP2.
Workarounds for using ISO 400
Shoot RAW and accept the lag between shots
Add some “grain” in Photoshop to fill in the
‘smoothed’ areas, and the results are still nearly as sharp as some
“old technology” 400 B&W films.
Set the camera contrast to “high” - which increases local
contrasts enough to “burn through” a lot of the noise smoothing, but
drops out a lot of shadow detail.
Or my preferred technique when I need ISO 400 jpegs: set the camera to ISO
100, contrast and saturation settings to “low”, and underexpose 2
stops (EI 400 instead of ISO 400).
(Pause while the “expose to the right” fans stop choking and get
their hearts started again).
Then I lighten the resulting dark images in Photoshop (after converting to
16/48-bits and upsampling to avoid posterizing/combing the histogram as much as
possible) using curves and levels.
Outcome: almost no smoothing, at least a 4x increase in resolution over the
“smoothed” parts of a straight ISO 400 picture, an increase in noise
(probably to about where it would have been at 400 if Leicasonic weren’t
smoothing it), and a slight increase in saturation. Nice crisp clear “ISO
400” pictures. Less grain than most 400 color negs I’ve scanned, a
bit worse than Provia 400f, especially in the shadows.
In the image above, the bottom row shows straight exposures at ISO
100/200/400. The upper images were shot with the camera set to ISO 100 but
underexposed 1 and 2 stops and lightened in Photoshop. Note especially the faint
rays in the top of the label - erased in the 200/400 exposures, retained in the
“pushed” ISO 100 shots.
“Pushing” Digilux images beyond 400
The Digilux 2 is limited to ISO settings of 100/200/400. For many
photographers, that’s not enough. Since my “push-processed”
images from ISO 100 to 400 worked pretty well, I also experimented with
underexposing and “pushing” ISO 400 images to higher EIs.
Put simply - the JPEG noise reduction at ISO 400 has already fouled the image
so badly that it can’t hold up to any further strain on the pixels. Even at
EI 800 the results are as ugly as the average ISO 3200 film. In a “news
emergency” I could get a publishable newspaper picture at 800 or 1600, but
not something I’d want to hang on the wall.
If Leica sees fit to change the firmware and make the JPEG noise-reduction
“user-adjustable” - or if one works from RAW originals - better
results may be possible. Otherwise, once the light drops below what f/2 and ISO
400 can handle, it’s time for an f/1.4 lens - on an SLR with a bigger chip
and less noise reduction, or a film rangefinder. Or flash. Or (uggh!) a
Speaking of tripods (which I normally use about once a year) - I did try a few
long exposures. The Digilux 2 is limited to an 8-second maximum exposure time,
and uses a ‘dark-frame’ second exposure to map and subdue
‘hot’ pixels. I don’t see much noise beyond the normal amounts
for ISO 100 or 400 in an 8-second exposure - perhaps 50 specks out of 5 million
pixels that might be under- or over-corrected hot pixels. The dark-frame exposure
is not user-adjustable, and kicks in at 1/2 second - which snuck up on me a
couple of times when I was making hand-held 1/2-sec. pictures.
The wonky blue channel shows its stuff. Blue lights ‘bloom’ like a
7-pixel gaussian blur, and over the rest of the picture the blue channel is
essentially black. Red and yellow lights bloom a bit, green lights the least.
White lights show purple fringes - red and blue blooming combined.
The attached image is a crop, but not a 100% view of the pixels.
As an operating tool in the hand, the Digilux 2 is almost exactly what I
wanted in a digital camera. I love the silence and stillness. I like the compact,
grippable ergonomics. The manual controls, quick start-up, and short shutter lag
simply outperform anything less than an SLR (and even a few of those) when it
comes to fast work on the street, or wherever the action is. The ISO 100 image
quality is extremely good - challenging the results from film scans with twice as
many pixels due to the lens’s outstanding resolution.
I could wish for an alternative to the video viewfinder, so long as it
retained the manual focusing, silence, and accurate framing. Don’t see any
way to do it without giving up something else, though.
I could wish very strongly for an upgrade to the camera’s software that
would make it possible to turn off the noise-suppression at ISO 200/400 via a
menu selection similar to the color and saturation settings. Shouldn’t take
more than 100 lines of code. Leica - are you listening?
I could wish for an 8Mp sensor to capture more of the lens’s abilities.
And I’ll acknowledge the usefulness of a bigger buffer for RAW shooters -
though I personally wouldn’t use it much.
No kidding around, though. If I weren’t primarily an ISO 100
photographer, and willing to use creative workarounds on the few occasions I need
400, I would not be nearly so happy.
This is probably as good a place as any to say that I did not buy the Digilux
2 for the Leica nameplate. I bought it for the straightforward analog controls.
If Nikon or Canon or Minolta had produced a camera as ‘manual’ as the
Digilux 2, I would have bought Nikon/equipment/canon/Minolta - whichever came
I chose the Leica over its Panasonic twin because it was available. As of this
writing (late April 2004) I have yet to see a DMC/LC-1 in the flesh, whereas
I’ve already shot 2200 exposures with the Digilux. That’s 60 rolls of
film - or $660 in film/processing costs. So I’ve already recovered more
than the Leica/Panasonic price difference.
Another 2-3 months of shooting, and I’ll be able to slap a
“Don’t laugh - It’s paid for” sticker on the Leica. At
which point the Digilux will be the same price as any other well-used digital
camera - free. And I will still have the analog controls, comfortable ergonomics,
and really impressive Leica lens to keep using forever - or what passes for
“forever” in the world of digital photography.
full set of manual/analog photographic controls - even the “auto”
settings are via dials, rings and levers.
comfortable “35mm camera” ergonomics
superb lens performance
the “wideness” of the zoom at “28mm”
dead silence and smoothness of shutter release
short shutter lag
compactness and light weight
100% framing without parallax problems
extremely good “off the sensor” exposures, that protect the
highlights in multi-spot mode
viewfinder and rear LCD separately assignable to shooting and review modes
automatic ‘escape’ from most menus by touching the shutter
automatic ‘escape’ from focus magnification for framing by
holding the shutter button
built-in bounce-flash capability
excessive noise-smoothing at ISO 200 and 400, with no user control
long delays between shots when shooting RAW
the “ugliness” of EVF/LCD viewing/focusing in general
too much DOF (on occasion) for reliable focusing with the EVF at 90mm and
large apertures in bright light
chip resolution that doesn’t fully support the abilities of the
long end of the zoom range a bit short
some often-accessed controls (e.g. focus magnification on/off) not available
through the “quick set” of 4 custom functions
and (yes!), digital image quality that is “only” better than most
35mm color neg. films, and can’t go places that Tri-X and an f/1.4 lens can
internal electronic LCD viewfinder. Large 2.5” LCD screen on the
File formats: RAW, JPEG (3 levels of compression); 2560 x 1920, 2048 x1536,
1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960, 640 x 480, 1920 x 1080 (HDTV-format), 320 x 240
Memory card: Secure Digital (SD) or Multi-media (MM): 5 RAW or 15
“finest” JPEG files (approx.) per 64Mb of card capacity.
Connections: USB 2.0, A/V out/remote release, DC power in. Battery:
proprietary 7.2V, 1400 mAh Lithium-ion (Leica BP-DC1-U, same as used in the
Comes with: battery, charger/AC power supply + cords, 64Mb SD card, A/V cord,
USB cord, strap, lens hood, hood cap, lens cap, CD-ROMs with Photoshop Elements,
ACDSee, and Silverfast (for RAW processing).
Price: $1850.00 US
Additional functions that I don’t use, but may be of interest:
Video with sound at 10 or 30 fps, 320 x 240 resolution, about 8 minutes worth
per 256 Mb of memory at 30 fps; stop-animation, (a series of “still”
pictures that end up as a video file, for Claymation™-type animations);
sound recording that can be appended to still pictures (news photographers could
use this to have subjects spell their names, I guess); DPOF settings for ordering
prints from a digital minilab; down-sampling and/or cropping of pictures in the
camera; showing pictures as a timed ‘slide show’ on the LCD or a TV
(camera comes with an A/V outlet and mini-plug/RCA cord); remote control from a
computer via USB connection; direct printing to a USB-direct-print-compatible
Where to buy
The Leica Digilux 2 can be obtained from many of the photo.net affiliate
stores listed below. Purchasing from these stores via these links helps support
Andy Piper has been a medical photographer, newspaper photojournalist,
graphic designer, and Assistant Managing Editor/Graphics for the San Juan (Puerto
Rico) Star. He is currently a Presentation Editor with the Rocky Mountain News in
Denver, Colorado (winner of the 1999 and 2002 Pulitzer Prizes for news
photography), and a free-lance travel photographer/writer. The Digilux 2 is his
first, and only, digital camera.