Instead of rushing in head first and billing the recently released X Vario as a "Mini M", Leica's marketing department has kept that particular moniker for the Leica C. With its parallel lines, its softly rounded edges and its viewfinder pushed over to the left-hand side, the C looks and feels like a pocket-sized version of the Leica M rangefinder. In fact, it looks like the most truly "Leica" model of all the firm's compacts derived from Panasonic cameras. Other rebranded Panas like the D-Lux 6 (Lumix LX7), V-Lux 40 (Lumix TZ30) and V-Lux 4 (Lumix FZ200) seem merely to make do with a quick facelift and red Leica logo.
The C is available in two two-tone colour schemes: black and dark red or cream and champagne gold. Both models are superbly sleek-looking and immediately attractive. However, on closer inspection, the Leica C isn't entirely flawless in build and assembly. The very hard plastics and shiny visible screw heads don't quite sit with the brand's usual high-end image. Thankfully, Leica has added an extra touch of class by outing a range of leather cases to keep its swanky snapper safe. These have a genuinely luxury feel and are finished to perfection.
That's the kind of extra you get from a premium brand—as well as the two-year worldwide guarantee and free copy of Lightroom 5—and it's that kind of attention to detail that could swing users towards Leica's camera rather than the original Panasonic LF1.
Leica has made a few minor changes around the back of the camera. For starters, the handy rubber thumb-rest has been ditched in favour of a simple set of ridges, which are more stylish and actually improve grip. Plus, the buttons are now rectangular rather than round. Otherwise, the LCD electronic viewfinder is as tiny as ever (0.2" for 200,000 dots) and is just as blue, over-saturated and unusable as in the Panasonic compact. There's no eye-sensor to automatically switch between the screen and the EVF, which is why you get the LVF button. Next to that, the Wi-Fi button serves as a reminder that the Leica C is the firm's first camera to come with Wi-Fi and NFC. Note that you'll need to download the Leica C Image Shuttle app to control the camera via a smartphone. Other than the red logo, this is a straight copy of the Panasonic Image App, but that's no bad thing, as it's the most feature-rich and effective of its kind (no lag!) in the current camera market. Note, however, that although the apps are technically identical, you can't control a Leica camera via the Panasonic app or vice versa.
The menus have been given a quick redesign to bring them in line with Leica's red, black and grey house-style. They're richly stocked with options and settings, but it's a shame that Leica hasn't taken the opportunity to correct some of the slightly irritating and incoherent features of the original Panasonic menus. For example, although the multifunction settings ring around the lens is an excellent addition, handling-wise, there's still room for improvement (see inset box, below). Other little blips include a self-timer at 10 seconds only, and no option for setting ISO sensitivity to the programmable "Fn" button.
The "Step Zoom" fixed-increment zoom system—for jumping from one focal length to another (28, 35, 50, 75, 90 mm, etc.)—can be accessed via the settings wheel on the back of the camera, via the lens ring (if set to do so) and via the quick menu, but can't be used via the standard zoom control around the shutter-release button! In Program mode (P), shutter speed can't be set any lower than a second. What's more, there's no shortcut to sensitivity settings in Aperture Priority mode (A) and Shutter Priority mode (S), so you have to keep going into the "quick menu" to find them ... which isn't all that quick, in the end.
Like with the Panasonic LF1, the settings controlled by the lens ring and "Fn" button change in relation to the mode selected. On the upside, that makes the camera feel versatile to handle. On the other hand, it could be quite confusing for some users. Thankfully, all these are all software-based issues and they're only likely to bug the handful of users looking to the Leica C as a stylish take on the advanced, expert camera rather than a sleek and sexy pocket snapper.
All in all, the Leica C is a very nice camera to use—except for its built-in viewfinder. Then again, we could have guessed as much from the LF1. Ultimately, it feels like Audi's designers and Panasonic have done the real hard work in building this camera. Leica no doubt has bigger fish to fry. But the firm could still have taken the time to dig around in the interface and build on Pana's basic foundations to offer a different, enhanced user experience that would really justify the difference in price compared with the LF1. Still, the extra cash gets you an undeniably sleek design and all the kudos of the Leica brand, as well as a copy of Lightroom 5 and a worldwide warranty.
Panasonic cameras are generally up there with the best when it comes to responsiveness, so it's only logical to see similarly impressive performances from the Leica C. In general, the C performs more or less like the LF1. The test results aren't 100% identical, but the C is still a speedy little compact that won't let you down.
If your Leica C is taking over four seconds to start up then that's probably because you've got the "Zoom Resume" setting activated. This automatically takes the lens back to the same position it was in when you switched the camera off. You can, for example, choose to fire up the C directly at 50 mm. That's nothing new, but it's a nice little extra that can come in handy.
We've already seen this 12-Megapixel 1/1.7" BSI CMOS sensor and Vario-Summicron 28-200mm f/2-5.9 zoom lens in action in the Lumix LF1. Seeing as the Leica C uses exactly the same components, picture quality should theoretically be identical. But, whether down to a difference in production, a particularly effective test model, or a genuine physical difference between the two cameras, the Leica C we tested actually did a slightly better job than the LF1. But only by a whisker. And even then, you have to look very hard to spot any real improvement. After painstakingly examining all of the sample shots from our camera lab, we found the Leica C to be a little sharper over the whole frame when shooting with the lens at full aperture and wide-angle. In real-life situations, there'll be no real difference in performance.
At wide-angle, images are very sharp in the middle of the frame but still a little softer towards the edges and corners. The lens gives its best quality between f/2.8 and f/4. A slight trace of barrel distortion is visible. At mid-range focal lengths—from 35 mm to 100 mm—the lens keeps quality nice and even, and ensures a good level of detail. We even reckon that this lens is good enough to handle a more pixel-packed sensor. Still, it's no surprise to see sharpness levels drop significantly at 200 mm.
A wider wide-angle setting would have been nice—these days plenty of compacts start at 24 mm—as would a slightly faster aperture, but the C's Vario-Summicron lens remains versatile and pleasant to use, especially thanks to its handy settings ring.
As well as leaving the menus alone, Leica doesn't appear to have touched Panasonic's image processing algorithms either. Unless, of course, it's the other way round, with Leica developing a system then used by Panasonic, as with the D-Lux 6/LX7. Who knows. In any case, the Leica C behaves just like the LF1. There's no drop in saturation as the ISO setting increases, and 8" x 12" (20 x 30 cm) prints will look fine up to 1600 ISO, with a reasonably restrained drop in detail. On the whole, picture quality is good ... but it's not faultless.
Moiré effects can be quite visible at times, which can make images feel sharp but not so detailed. Plus, magenta fringes are very much present in highly contrasted areas, distortion could be corrected more effectively and there are still a few coloured artefacts hanging around. We're clearly sounding more harsh about the C than we were with the LF1, but since Leica has a long history of making top-end cameras, we naturally expect more from this premium brand. And sometimes when expectations ride high it's easier to find flaws that seem less noticeable elsewhere.
In any case, don't forget that the Leica C comes with Lightroom 5 for any post-editing you may feel necessary, and that's considerably more effective than the Sylkipix software supplied with the LF1.
The Leica C films Full HD video at 50 fps (interlaced) in AVCHD format or at 25 fps (progressive scan) in MP4. In both cases, you're limited to just 28 minutes and 59 seconds of footage. Image quality is good, with no major defects. The stereo mic does a fair job of distinguishing left from right and reproduces voices well. However, a slight hissing is present in the background of quieter scenes.
Note that no settings can be changed once you start filming (although you can take a still shot), so you'll need to switch the continuous AF on first before you start recording.