There’s a new travel zoom on the block in the shape of the Leica V-Lux 30, a 14.1 effective megapixel, 1/2.33 CMOS sensor incorporating, 16x optical zoom model with sophisticated accents yet familiar boxy styling. In fact, it resembles a re-badge-d version of a less expensive product that’s been out several months.
The latter is the challenge we find ourselves grappling with in the case of rating the Leica V-Lux 30, issued in sensible matt black. Outwardly and indeed inwardly it is the near spitting image of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ20, its manufacturer’s own flagship travel zoom. The Leica is a suggested £550, the Panasonic is around £350, which is still a lot for what at its core is a point-and-shoot compact. Leica is renowned for its classic attention to detail, but, with headline features the same, are the differences here, many of them subtle - like a more flattened, less curvaceous handgrip and of course that fetching silver and red branding - worth an extra £200 of your hard earned, even if copies of Photoshop Elements 9 and Premiere Elements 9 are additionally bundled in the box?
Design and features
Powering up in 2-3 seconds, the V-Lux 30 certainly feels well built when gripped in the palm, slightly wider than lesser-specified models due to that 16x optical zoom. Overall dimensions are 104.9 x 57.6 x 33.4mm and the Leica weighs 219g with SD card and rechargeable battery inserted, so it will still easily transport in any trouser pocket however.
In terms of feature set, like its Panasonic cousin the Leica V-Lux 30 offers everything one could possibly want from a camera for the holidays, apart from the fact that it isn’t waterproof, dust proof, shockproof nor freezeproof. As well as that extended lens reach, equivalent of a creatively broad 24-384mm in 35mm terms - so as adept at pulling the faraway closer as it is at shoehorning group portraits and landscapes into frame - and a maximum aperture of F/3.3, the Leica includes a GPS antenna, set into its top plate.
As on the TZ20 this tags images with location and date, details secreted within the image’s EXIF file, location popping up on-screen as you’re scrolling back through pre-captured images, so there’s no danger of forgetting were you’ve just been. Though once activated this is “always on”, you can of course turn the feature off if you don’t need it and want to save a modest extra of battery life (incidentally good for a fair 260 shots), and there’s an also airline mode whereby GPS lies dormant when you power down the camera to board a flight, but automatically re-activates the next time you turn the camera on.
Full HD video capture also expectedly features, here at 1080i and 30fps in AVCHD compression format, frames composed with the aid of the 4:3 aspect ratio, clear 3-inch, 460k dot LCD screen at the back. This display obviously narrows, cropped with black bands top and bottom to ape 16:9 widescreen format when the dedicated video record button to the right of the regular shutter release on the top plate is pressed. The quality is pretty good however, with the complete extent of the optical zoom accessible while recording. The zoom action is smooth and steady and the camera a fairly quick to adjust focus as the user adjusts framing, so the shot only goes soft very momentarily. Sound is also impressive for a point and shoot, as stereo microphones are sunk into the top plate - just like on the Panasonic.
Also to be found up top is a familiar bottle-top style shooting mode dial, with just the right amount of give to avoid accidentally slipping from one setting to another. But since video is a one-touch process, and recording commences without having to change modes first, video doesn’t feature on this 10-option dial at all. Instead, along with the expected subject recognising auto mode we get the creative quartet of program, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual shooting modes. The other features are likewise identical to those found on the TZ20: custom mode, the latest must-have of a 3D mode, 29 selectable scene modes, and no fewer than two customisable “My Scene” modes for a shortcut to your favourite setting from the list.
Turn the dial to 3D mode and the camera screen prompts you to shoot while sweeping the camera through a narrow 10cm arc, which you do to a machine gun like burst of the shutter firing. These separate shots are then automatically composited together in-camera to form a single MPO format file, viewable only on a suitably equipped TV or monitor. The Leica’s backscreen remains standard 2D, although you can opt to capture a low-resolution 2D image alongside the MPO file, so at least you have something to view on the LCD and thus check your framing in situ.
As indicated by that shooting mode wheel, there is a degree of manual control offered by the V-Lux 30 for those who do occasionally want to do more than point and shoot. Unusually, we also get a dedicated “exposure” button on the backplate. This too featured on the Panasonic. Press it when in aperture priority mode to incrementally alter the lens aperture from F/3.3 to F/6.3 as desired and in conjunction with the familiar four-way control pad just below. Likewise give it a press in shutter priority mode to move from 1/4000 of a sec to 8 seconds. In manual mode, tweaks to both settings can be made and we also get a +/- 2Ev exposure slider flashing up on screen.
As we had previously reviewed the TZ20, everything about the V-Lux 30 felt familiar and intuitive - so it’s hard to tell whether this would have been the same coming to it completely cold. That said, there are no curveballs thrown here; controls fall readily under finger or thumb and settings - such as colour boosting “vivid” mode - are where you’d expect them to be within the menus.
In terms of stills image quality, blown highlights and instances of pixel fringing were the only semi-regular issues we could take with the Leica - and in fairness these are bugbears that blight 99% of all pocket cameras anyway, to a greater or lesser extent, which means that these aren’t deal breakers by any means. Low light performance isn’t anything special as might be predicted from a camera that calls it quits at the maximum manually selectable ISO 1600, with it being best to stick to ISO 400 if you want to avoid any noise in shots.
Colours are realistic however, the vivid option warm without being unnaturally so, and a good level of detail is held across the frame, with no tell tale fall off towards the corners when shooting at extreme wideangle. Yes, we occasionally got the odd soft shot when shooting at maximum telephoto handheld, but this again felt par for the course. Ultimately, in using the Leica over the course of a week’s activities we enjoyed being able to slip such a versatile snapper into our back pocket to quickly retrieve for that spur of the moment shot, and after utilising a focal range this expansive we always find it a real bind to have to go back to a “regular” 5x optical zoom.
As a photographic brand Leica is synonymous with quality, the best of the best. That means its products inevitably cost just a little bit more. When what’s being sold is a standalone entity that nobody else does quite as well, it’s a little easier to justify than something that largely appears to be your standard Panasonic camera with subtle tweaks and Leica branding.
Of course with Leica it could be argued that you’re not just buying a camera, you’re buying into a dream. There’s just not the same kudos attached to the Panasonic brand, if on a practical level it is tried and tested reliable, and certainly not in this case a “second best”.
The Leica V-Lux 30 isn’t the first compact from the manufacturer to simply look like a more expensive version of an existing Panasonic and one assumes nor will it be the last. The bare facts are that it is, however, a very well made camera that performs very well and in that sense, if you’re on the lookout for a travel zoom, the V-Lux 30 could well be the only travel zoom you may ever need. Bear that in mind and £550 begins to look less contentious, as does £80 for an optional (and likewise attractive) leather case with strap to keep it safe and snug. On this camera it’s all about the little details rather than just the bigger picture.