6 min read
In the late 1990s, Leica began its foray into digital cameras with the Digilux series. They built the first few in partnership with Fuji. By 2002, Leica had started a new partnership with Panasonic (which it maintains to this day) and released the Digilux 1.
Then in late 2003, Leica released the next model in the Digilux line, the Digilux 2. It, like many Leica digital cameras, was introduced both in Panasonic and Leica guise, with the Leica version costing much more — $1995 at release or roughly $2750 in today’s money.
This price puts it in the same league as the modern Leica X series of point-and-shoot cameras.
Both the Digilux 2 and its predecessor were designed by prolific design and branding firm Heine/Lenz/Zizka. They’ve had a long history in the photography world, working on branding, products, and packing for Leica and The Impossible Project, now known as Polaroid Originals.
So why am I using and reviewing a 16-year-old camera today?
Ever since I made my start in digital photography in 2007, the Digilux 2 has been on my list of cameras I’d like to try. I was initially attracted by the combination of the retro rangefinder styling, tactile controls, and bright lens. It’s the same equation that led me to buy my Leica Q.
Nowadays, the Digilux 2 can be found on the used market for around 300 dollars or 15% of the original price. In the 16 years since its release, the photography market has changed dramatically. There are now many excellent large-sensor point-and-shoots available, such as the Fuji X100, Panasonic’s LX100, and Sony’s RX1.
Compared to those cameras, the Digilux is undoubtedly primitive. The electronic viewfinder and rear display are both low resolution and are a far cry from the photo-like displays and EVFs we see now.
The autofocus, shutter lag, and memory write speed are all horrendous by modern standards. It can take a full 6 seconds from the time I depress the shutter release to when the camera successfully saves the image to the SD card.
Furthermore, the 2/3” CCD sensor is a small fraction in size of a full-frame sensor like in my Leica Q. It’s so tiny by modern standards that it’s only 35% larger than the CMOS sensor found in the iPhone 11 Pro.
It’s also noisy and not very sensitive. Even with an ISO range from 100-400 combined with the bright f/2.0 lens, low-light performance leaves a lot to be desired.
Instead of viewing this only as a disadvantage, I see it as a creative constraint. I treat it as a daylight-only camera and shoot it only in bright conditions at ISO 100.
With those weak spots out of the way, why don’t we talk about what makes this camera still a joy to shoot with in 2020?
The first, and most significant for me, is the generous use of physical controls. Aperture, shutter speed, zoom, focus / AF mode, and metering mode all have dedicated controls. They have loosened up a bit over time, but are still much more satisfying than software menus.
Tactility is one of the most critical factors in how immersive an object or experience is. The easier it is for me to rely only on muscle memory to use an object, the more I feel “one” with it. With the Digilux 2, I quickly forget about the object in my hand and focus purely on the image.
The body feels solidly built. The rubber grips on mine started peeling away, but they were easy to glue back on.
The lens is large and bright. It maintains a wide aperture between f/2.0 to f/2.4 along its entire zoom range. Given the small sensor, the 7mm-22.5mm focal range converts to a field of view equivalent to a 28mm-90mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera.
A bonus is a built-in flash with both forward and upward facing modes. I haven’t tried using it, but I imagine it is best as a fill flash in daylight.
Note: all shots in this section were shot on the Digilux 2
I already mentioned the slow operation and low-resolution screen. Once I identified those weaknesses, I adjusted the way I shoot to account for them.
I love using the rule-of-thirds grid mode that hides all on-screen information but the grid lines. The lines are very bright and make framing shots extremely easy. When I depress the shutter release, the aperture and shutter speed readings appear.
Even though shooting JPEG would have sped up how long it takes to record images to the SD card, I chose to shoot raw since JPEGs from cameras in that era tend to lose quite a bit of information.
Once I imported my files, I noticed barrel distortion, especially at wider focal lengths. It was very noticeable in photographs of architecture but easily corrected in post.
I found the color rendering to be superb. These days, I love shooting in bright, harsh daylight. The tone of shadows and highlights is very natural.
I ran the images through the same post-processing flow that I use with the Leica Q. The sensor’s low-resolution means that I can’t crop in too much without sacrificing the final image quality. While I wouldn’t enlarge any of these photos to poster size, they are perfect at smaller resolutions like in this blog or on Instagram.
Vintage film camera prices have increased substantially in the last ten years as more photographers rediscover the joy of shooting film. I am optimistic that a similar resurgence in popularity could strike a select few vintage digital cameras.
Were there any digital cameras that you sought after years ago? Maybe it’s time to pick one up and test it out.
Thanks to Q for reading drafts of this.