Leica V-LUX 20 review

3.5 out of 5
£495

For

Great image quality, good detail at lower ISOs, all-metal stylish design, AF system, lens

Against

Noise at sensitivity is noticeable, price, no optical viewfinder, underpowered flash, blotchy shadows, detail smoothed away at high ISOs, no RAW capture

Leica’s link with Panasonic for its digital cameras is a good one simply because if you’re going to start with someone else’s kit as a start point Panasonic’s cameras and their reputation for them is very good. After all, one of our favourite digital compacts ever was the Lumix LX3. But the Panasonic model upon which the Leica V-Lux 20 is based is the Lumix DMC TZ10 (reviewed here) and it is almost identical but for some key elements.

The remarkably small all-metal body and minimalist styling (much more minimalist than the Lumix, which shouts its features and kit proudly all over it’s bodywork) look great, and given the scope of the lens, even remarkable.

But for many, the cost of the Leica over its Panasonic counterpart might make it easy to decide which model you plump for as the Leica costs around £495, the Lumix is around £255. So, what is it you get with the V-Lux 20 and is it worth the extra 240 odd quid needed to buy it over the Lumix?

For a kick off, there’s a 12.1-effective megapixel CCD beating at the camera’s heart and a superbly crisp Leica DC-Vario-Elmar zoom lens marshalling light onto it. The F/3.3 to F/4.9 aperture lens provides a very versatile focal range indeed; a wide end of 25mm is great for broader vistas while a telephoto focal length of 300mm (both in 35mm format terms) gives a respectable zoom end for getting in close to more distant subjects. We noticed that at longer focal lengths, particularly at 300mms, there’s slight bluish pixel fringing around the (usual and problematic) high contrast areas of a scene.

We also noticed a slight milkyness to images, akin to being shot through a soft focus filter for example, which was most disconcerting and we believe it to be some contrast issue when shooting directly into brighter light. A lens hood might be a remedy but there’s not one supplied with the camera and no way to attach one that we can see.

The V-Lux 20 is also the first Leica to feature GPS image tagging which means you can tag images with the geographic coordinates of where the images where shot, which is great for internet sites such as Google Maps or Google earth, for example, where you can show your snaps online on a map of where you took them.

In itself this is not a unique feature on the market today, but here it works very well, able to automatically add the GPS coordinates, local time and the time it was shot into each image’s EXIF data.

Additionally, the camera can also display nearby places of interest where you might want to take more shots, which can be very helpful if you’re looking for good shooting locations near to where you are already snapping. The V-Lux 20 is able to provide information on 500,000 such locations across 73 countries too, so you’ll have plenty of scope to shoot on your travels.

Another benefit is it makes organising images faster as well, so for instance, using the latest version of iPhoto on the Mac (version 9.0), images tagged with the GPS data can all be automatically organised by location within the Places section within iPhoto.

Another feature that is something more and more cameras have today is the capability to shoot HD movies. As with many modern digital cameras it’s possible to record movies at 720p resolution in the QuickTime Motion JPEG format, interestingly however, Panasonic’s TZ10 on which it’s based shoots HD movies in the more sophisticated AVCHD Lite format, which seems at odds with the Leica’s premium price tag.

We believe this to be because the Leica’s prime user/target market is more the discerning stills photographer than general consumer snapper, but this just leads us to another potential issue with the Leica. It cannot shoot RAW. If, as might be the case, the V-Lux is bought as a quality back up snapper, the lack of RAW shooting might raise some eyebrows, it certainly did ours.

The camera can shoot in three formats thanks to its 14.5-megapixel sensor on which you get 12.1 million effective pixels, the extra pixels allowing room to produce 4:3, 3:2 and 16:9 aspect ratio images all selectable from within the menus which apart from being the reverse of the Lumix in terms of design and style (white text on a black background), they appear to be almost the same as those in the Lumix version of this camera.

Clear crisp text on the back background makes it easy to read and use, the tabbed sections down the left navigated by the four way controller on the camera’s back let you land on a selection of further choices depending on the menu you need to adjust. The least satisfying menu is the GPS data and set up menu where a combination of strange messages can confuse. For example, in the GPS set up menus, within the flight mode, (incidentally where the GPS is turned off when the camera is switched off but in the "normal" mode it is not so beware battery drain) the message that appears when selected reads: "GPS stops working at power off, please follow cabin attendants when you turn on GPS".

This is less an instruction to actually wander around the plane shadowing the attendant and more about a missing word "instructions" after "attendants" but is indicative of some of the pigeon English used within the menus.

Also actually setting up the GPS is a little frustrating and is best done (as with most car satnav systems) when outdoors or near a window to get a decent GPS signal.

Handling the camera to take photos or shoot movies is rather good, even with such a long zoom lens on such a compact camera. The top plate houses a neat mode dial, adjacent to the shutter release and its surrounding lens zoom control. The on/off switch is a small tab-like affair off to the top plate’s right side.

The mode dial provides access to the manual shooting options, a full auto mode (iAuto on the Lumix) selects the best shooting mode for the scene detecting faces, landscapes and setting the camera accordingly, which it does well enough. 28 scene modes can provide quick and dirty settings for most subjects from babies and children, to pets, food or aerial photos shot from a plane.

Two customisable My Scene positions allow you to tailor settings for two oft used shooting styles or subjects, so you can get set quickly for each but it’s backed up by three dedicated custom settings as well. So you can tailor the snapping the set up in two ways on the My Scene modes or set up the entire camera for, say manual, shutter or aperture priority shooting with very specific settings available from each of the camera’s features in each.

This makes the camera very versatile and very quick to get up and running for a given subject assuming you set up these options, of course. On the camera's back plate we find the large, 3-inch colour screen that has a nice anti-reflective coating that seems to work well in almost any condition even near direct sunlight. This is good because there’s no optical finder so some traditionalists might find that a problem. Nevertheless there are ways to customise the LCD power settings and brightness controls to boost the brightness or reduce the power consumption depending on conditions.

To the right of the LCD fall the rest of the main controls: a four-way jog button layout provides scrolling and navigation features for menus or images in playback. A central OK/Menu button either confirms selections in menus or activates the menus. The four-way jog controllers are used for exposure compensation, flash, drive modes and macro photography in shooting mode.

A switch at the top of the back plate toggles between shooting and playback while just below it are two controls. One is a direct movie recording button, which makes movie shooting a dead easy to get going, and we really like the fact all the auto settings and features available to still shooting can be used in movie recording too. Below the four-way jog controls sits the display toggle button and a "Q Menu" button, this last item fires up a very neat quick menu that allows you to adjust all the main camera settings from the LCD without having to dip into the menus, so it really is a quick menu.

Movies and images are stored on either the very modest 15MB of internal storage or SD, SDHC or SDXC memory cards, which sit under a flap alongside the Li-ion battery pack which is capable of shooting around 300-images on a full charge. We found the battery usage to be actually very frugal in most shooting conditions but the use GPS has an impact as will boosting the LCD brightness if things get too bright to view the screen in other modes.

Focusing and metering performed well and the face AF set up can recognise up to 15-faces in a shot ensuring focus and metering is optimised for them rather than a background for example. The small built-in flash performed well but is just able to cope with subjects up to 5m away in ISO auto mode.

And speaking of ISO, the camera’s sensitivity settings run from ISO 80 to 1600, which is a little limiting but for a reason, noise at higher ISO’s is an issue though Leica’s noise processing has kilted towards noise reduction than detail retention. Shots taken at ISO 1600 seem a little blurred as a result, as if smoothed over by the software. However, the smoothing effect is not as bad as can be seen on many similar cameras it’s just a little disappointing on this Leica.

Another disappointment was the fact although images shot at lower ISOs are very clean and crisp, use ISO 200 or above and at 100% in a photo editor, in our case Photoshop, it’s easy to see that shadows have very slight blotchiness that remains subtle until you get to the highest sensitivity settings. The overall effect is to make the images appear softer in shadow areas.

To help snapping at longer focal lengths at lower sensitivity settings or in low light, the V-Lux 20 employs Panasonic’s accomplished MEGA O.I.S image stabilisation system. This works very well and although it does not prevent subject blur at lower shutter speeds it can certainly help control camera shake.

The metering provides centre-weighted, spot and multiple-zone evaluative, combined with the face AF set up and tracking AF the metering can produce some excellent results with the best overall mode appearing to be centre-weighted, which produced the best balance between subject and background in many of our shots. 

And so the V-Lux 20 is a bit of mixed bag, but we're not sure it should be given it’s the price of a consumer DSLR. Leica claim that the camera has some bespoke internal tailoring from them in terms of image processing and the like, which may be true but does that justify the price differential between it and the TZ10? Well one sweetener that may help is the Leica comes with Adobe’s Photoshop Elements 8 image editor, which is worth £77 and is an excellent piece of software if you lack an image editor already although a neat retro leather case for the camera costs another £70!

For Leica enthusiasts, with a the budget to match, perhaps the V-Lux 20 makes sense, but for everyone else, we feel the Panasonic TZ10 may be the weapon of choice so read its review here.

Verdict

We cannot help but feel the Leica V-Lux 20 is very overpriced no matter how you look at it. It’s certainly less brash in terms of styling and while the all-metal build and features are good, they are no better than the Lumix and certainly so in terms of the HD movie shooting, though arguably the AVCHD Lite format of the Lumix is less broadly compatible than the Leica’s QuickTime format.

Image quality is however superb and while we’ve been picky here (for £495 we think that’s fair enough) with issues around the shadow blotches and the way detail is lost at higher ISOs, colour, sharpness, metering and focusing all performed very well.

The lens is superb, but again it’s the same as the glass on the Lumix, plus there’s the slight problem of pixel fringing at full zoom, which the Lumix suffers similarly. Overall then, the Leica V-Lux 20 provides a comprehensive and feature rich snapper for those on a bigger budget but omissions such as RAW capture might ultimately put even those more enthusiast users off, even if it does ship with Adobe’s excellent Photoshop Elements 8 software.