There are few cameras that elicit the kind of lustful ogling as those made by Leica. For many photophiles, Leica’s machines are the holy grail of cameras. And for many devoted followers, Leica is a brand that can do no wrong. Not without good reason; the boys from Wetzlar long ago earned their enviable spot at the top of the pile due to their unflagging production of nothing but the highest quality cameras. Their M rangefinder system, specifically, has been the camera to own for over fifty years due to its timeless combination of optical fidelity, clarity of design, and exclusive price point.
But today, we’re not talking about the M2, M3, or any other M. Instead, we’re talking about a Leica that’s a little less popular, a little less expensive, and a little less German. It’s the Leica Minilux, a 35mm point-and-shoot that proudly boasts the famous red dot.
The Minilux was Leica’s offering for pros and passionate enthusiasts who wanted Leica quality and sophistication in a point-and-shoot camera. It certainly bears the name in enough places, but is the Minilux any good? Is this premium point-and-shoot a real photographer’s tool, or is it an over-hyped toy for rich boys?
Let’s find out.
What is a Minilux?
The Minilux was first made available in 1995 with production continuing into 2006. During this time, it was Leica’s premier point-and-shoot 35mm film camera. With previous Leica branded point-and-shoots being designed by Japanese firms such as Minolta, the Minilux was a thoroughly German affair. Chief credits went to Manfred Meinzer and Klaus-Dieter Schaefer. Sounds German to me.
More so than any Leica point-and-shoot before it, the Minilux was made with the serious photo enthusiast in mind. Incorporating high-end materials, sophisticated automatic features plus manual controls, and an unbelievable lens, the Minilux was poised to take the mid-‘90s photo-world by storm.
But before we get into that, let’s get the giant-strudel-in-the-room out of the way. The Minilux was not made in Germany. It was designed by Leica in Germany, but manufactured in Japan by (depending on the source) Panasonic or Minolta. While this fact has led a fair number of devotees to denounce the Minilux as something other than a ‘real’ Leica, I don’t think this characterization is fair or warranted.
By the time the Minilux was developed, manufacturing was a lot different than it was in the 1950s. By the 1990s, the universal spread of advanced technology and manufacturing techniques meant that the country in which a product was made held far less relevance to that product’s quality as may have existed in the past. Much like today, corporations were extremely keen to maintain their customary level of quality regardless of the geographical location of its factories. Would a BMW made today in North Carolina be any worse than one made in Berlin? I don’t think so. And it’s much the same with Leicas of the 90s and today.
What’s most important to me is that the Minilux looks, feels, and performs like a Leica. So those who want to quibble over its right to the name can continue to do so. I’ll be out shooting.
Which is easy to do, as this camera is a joy to shoot. Notable features include full auto-exposure shooting in Program mode and available Aperture-Priority auto-exposure mode with center-weighted metering system. Infrared auto-focus is available, as is manual focus, both operating from 70cm (2.3 ft) to infinity. Exposure compensation in half-stop values from +/-2 EV, automatic film advance and rewind, auto ISO set via DX coding, built in flash with both auto and manual modes, Bulb mode for long exposures, and a fairly capable shutter round out the Minilux’s major features. Pretty damn good for a point-and-shoot.
Aesthetics and Feel
I mentioned that the Minilux looks and feels like a Leica. But what does this mean exactly? With a stark and refined aesthetic, it shares the purposeful persona of previous Leica cameras. It’s compact, and sculpted with an eye for minimalism. Without any bulbous protuberances, bulky hand grips, or pseudo-ergonomic contours, it’s the kind of no-nonsense camera one would expect to come out of Germany. Unbroken lines and simple shapes make up the design brief. This is a camera designed from a single, clear idea. It may not appeal to everyone, but those who appreciate concise design will surely love it.
Held in the hand the Minilux is stout, sturdy, and dense in a way similar to the illustrious M rangefinders. While it’s not as robust as those classic machines, it’s certainly a more confident camera than nearly any competing point-and-shoot. There’s no flexing and bending, no wiggling components or finicky plastic flaps. Everything fits together perfectly.
Walking around town with the Minilux in hand, there’s a constant sense of holding a truly well-made object. This is in part due to Leica’s choice of construction materials; the outer shell of the camera is Titanium, with many internal components and the film channel being made of metal. Points in contact with the shooter’s hand are wrapped in fine leather. All of this adds a touch of class, and it’s clear that Leica wasn’t interested in making a plastic point-and-shoot with a Leica badge adhered to the front. Speaking generally of build quality, the Minilux is the real deal, though I do have one huge problem with the camera’s construction that you’ll read about later in the review.
Notable Features and Practical Use
So the camera looks and feels great, but those things are little more than luxuries in the photographic world. A camera can look great and feel great all day long, but if it can’t perform, if a camera doesn’t allow you to make good images, it’s worthless. Luckily, the Minilux is a serious performer.
Leica managed to pack into the Minilux an astounding amount of technology, automation, and convenience, without disconnecting the photographer from the act of making an image. This is thanks to the inclusion of manual overrides in addition to the extremely capable automatic conveniences. But let’s talk about the automatic stuff first.
It’s essential that a camera in the point-and-shoot class be able to point and shoot effectively. If a point-and-shoot camera doesn’t work well in Program mode, what’s the point? With the Minilux there’s very little to worry about. Program mode works beautifully, as long as the photographer is able to think just a little bit as well. Set the selector wheel to “P”, set the focus wheel to “AF” (autofocus), think about your shot a bit, and fire away.
The camera uses a metering system that seems old-fashioned in this day and age, but it works surprisingly well. Rarely will the center-weighted auto-exposure screw up. In my test shooting in Program mode, I saw occurrence of only two poorly exposed shots out of ninety-six attempts. That’s pretty damn good.
But I mentioned the need to occasionally think, even in P mode. What’s all that about? In my testing, when I could predict that a scene would be a tricky read for the camera’s light meter or autofocus system I’d try to help it along to ensure I achieved the shot I wanted. For example, in shots where a bright light source was positioned far from the center of the frame, I’d split the difference between the subject and the aforementioned light source. Placing the center of the viewfinder in an average location, it’s possible to depress the shutter release halfway to lock the exposure, reframe the shot, and then full-press to take the picture.
The autofocus patch is similarly located in the center of the frame, as denoted by an outline in the viewfinder. When half-pressing the shutter release, whatever is occupying this center spot in the viewfinder is the subject that will be in sharp focus. Thus, if you desire your subject to be anywhere besides in the center of the final composition it’s necessary to frame the shot with the subject in the center, half-press the shutter, reframe, and shoot.
This method of framing and shooting has a long history in photography, and it’s one I almost prefer over more modern AF methodology. Even shooting DSLRs of a few years past, this was often the fastest and most efficient way of achieving sharp focus and quickly adjusting EV. It’s simple, quick, and to me, feels entirely natural.
If one wants to shoot in a more manual style, the Minilux can handle that too. An ingenious double selector wheel on the right side of the top plate sits in a perfect spot under the photographer’s resting thumb. It allows for instant access to Aperture-Priority auto-exposure and manual focus modes with a quick flick. By turning the lower wheel it’s possible to select the desired aperture for artistic control of depth-of-field, while the upper wheel sets the focus to a set distance.
Aperture-Priority mode works extremely well, especially for landscape shooting or street photography. In both of these schools of photography it’s important that the shooter be able to easily dictate which aspects of the shot will be in sharp focus. By closing the aperture to ƒ/8, for example, it’s possible to take compelling street shots in which lots of things are in focus. In any case, choose the desired aperture and the camera does the rest, automatically setting the shutter speed that will result in a perfect exposure.
The manual focus mode is similarly simple. Set it to the subject’s distance and shoot. This is quite useful in situations where the infrared auto-focus system may have trouble acquiring the correct focus, such as when trying to photograph an object seen through glass, with fast-moving subjects, or when taking shots of highly reflective objects (water, architectural glass).
The original sales brochure of the Minilux speaks highly of the camera’s optics. Among other superlatives, it claims that the top-quality lens will “instantly amaze”, and that its superb image quality places it “in line with the legendary lenses of the Leica R- and M camera systems.” Those are some pretty big shoes to fill. So was this marketing at its finest, or is the Minilux’s lens truly as astounding as all that?
To put it simply; yes, this lens is a miracle. More so than its build quality, high-end materials, or that illustrious brand name, the bread and butter of the Minilux always was, and continues to be, its optics. I don’t want to gush too much, but it’s hard to resist, given the consistently stellar performance of this Leica glass.
The magic springs from a beautiful assemblage of glass; a Leica Summarit 40mm lens with a maximum aperture of ƒ/2.4. Made of six elements in four groups, the Minilux’s lens is one of the most advanced found in the point-and-shoot segment. The 40mm standard focal length is perfect for a multitude of shooting situations. It’s equally comfortable taking snapshots of the family, street photographs, landscapes, lifestyle shots, architectural shots, action shots, and the list goes on. The relatively fast aperture (for a point-and-shoot) allows exceptional low-light and available-light shooting. Again, this is crucial in street photography, where the use of flash is often just a bit too conspicuous.
Shots with the Minilux are distortion-free across the entire field of view. Chromatic aberration is carefully mitigated by Leica’s advanced optical coatings, presenting itself only in the most high-contrast areas of a shot. Similarly well-handled are the ghosting and flaring issues so commonly found in photos made by cheaper point-and-shoots. Even shooting directly into bright sunlight results in mostly flare-free images. Light fall-off (vignetting) is virtually non-existent, even when shot wide-open. Pretty amazing.
Sharpness is nearly unparalleled in a point-and-shoot camera. The lens has immense resolving power, and even shot wide open things are impressive. Normally I’d expect corner softness at maximum aperture, but the Summarit is as sharp as any lens I’ve seen shooting this way. Stop the lens down and things become just amazingly crisp. For shooters who value sharpness, the Minilux is the king of the point-and-shoot.
But as with everything in photography, the lens isn’t perfect. With the camera’s rather far minimum focus distance of 70cm (2.3 ft), it’s a bit difficult to really blur the background of a shot even when shooting wide-open. The maximum aperture is fast, but not super-fast, so we never really reach those super-blurred backgrounds that some shooters might lust after. It’s not that the bokeh is terrible (out-of-focus areas don’t suffer distracting double lines or polygonal highlights at smaller apertures thanks to the numerous and curved aperture blades) it’s just not anything special. For subject isolation in portraits or product photography, the Minilux isn’t the best choice.
Of course, nothing is perfect. Where I see some issues with the Minilux is in the way some of its secondary controls are implemented. On the top plate there are three selector buttons. These small, rubber buttons control the self-timer, secondary shooting modes, and exposure compensation. Being single buttons, the only way to make adjustments to the parameters that they control is to press them multiple times. For example, to cycle the camera from auto-flash mode to flash-off mode, the photographer is required to press the “Mode” button six times. This can get pretty annoying as I press the button over and over, staring at the LCD screen all the while.
Similarly finicky is the exposure compensation button. One would think that to set the exposure compensation we’d simply press the button and cycle through as we do with the shooting modes. Not so. Pressing the EV button only brings up a display showing the set exposure compensation. That’s great for checking your settings, but if one wants to adjust these settings it’s necessary to press and hold the button for close to five seconds. After that, each press of the button adjusts the exposure comp in half-stop increments. At its worst, this can require close to ten or twelve seconds to make a simple exposure compensation adjustment. Pretty annoying.
An additional annoyance is the previously mentioned Autofocus selector wheel. Though I praised its convenient placement just under the shooter’s right thumb, it can also be something of a nuisance. Given the camera’s compact nature, it’s common to throw the thing in your pocket as you walk about town. The proud nature of the AF switch can cause it to be rotated as it slips in and out of a pocket or camera bag. If you’re not careful, the next time you shoot you may erroneously assume you’re shooting in AF mode when, in fact, you’re zone focusing. If a shooter doesn’t want to have a half-roll of film be out-of-focus it’s important to always check this switch.
But the most egregious offense suffered by those shooting the Minilux is most certainly the pain inflicted by the camera’s viewfinder. It’s tiny, offers a rather pathetic .38x magnification, and yields virtually no useful information in the run of shooting. It’s good for nothing, and for those of us who wear glasses it’s simply a nightmare. Yes, it offers a center spot for focus and metering, parallax correction lines, and panorama framing lines. And yes, it offers little red and green lights to indicate focus status, flash status, and possible warnings, but it’s just not enough.
The inadequacies of the viewfinder (a component that’s pretty damn important) really hamper the pleasure of shooting the Minilux. Just how much of the joy is sucked out of the experience will vary from user to user. It’s just a shame that in a camera such as this, a camera that gets so much right, the woefully inadequate viewfinder would get so much wrong.
The Fatal Flaw
Which brings me to the scariest aspect of the Minilux. I can’t speak from personal experience on this, but given the number of reports online and from other shooters it would be negligent to not touch on it in our review. There’s a constant refrain heard from Minilux shooters on the internet about a certain apocalyptic flaw in the camera. It comes unexpectedly. One turns on their Minilux and is greeted by a miserable sequence of letters and numbers on the LCD display, “E02”.
Some kind of shutter error, “E02” results in a bricked camera. The shutter won’t fire, and you’re stuck with a useless machine. Some say that it’s brought on by overuse or a faulty ribbon cable, some say it’s brought on by squeezing the juice out of a dying battery. Still others say that the when the silver light of a gibbous moon falls tinkling from the heavens, hide ye shutters. For that waxing light doth spell doom for all pretty, virtuous cameras…
I’m not sure which theory is right, but whatever causes “E02” to crop up, it always ends in misery. In the past, Leica would repair the camera and send it back (charging a pretty penny, of course), but users online report that Leica stopped servicing the Minilux some time ago.
But is this really a big issue as some would have us believe?
It’s my opinion that these reports should be taken with a grain of salt. Follow the logic here; the internet was made to buy things, look at pictures of cats, and allow formerly audience-less masses to complain loudly to the entire world. While everyone who’s had a problem with a Minilux will most surely vent about it, it’s unlikely that happy Minilux users would feel the need to populate camera forums with posts of “20,000 shots and all’s well!” Until my own Minilux breaks, I’m going to happily shoot it. My recommendation, as when buying any camera, is to find one that looks like it was taken care of and buy with confidence. Don’t live in fear, my friend.
When the Minilux arrived in the CP office (from Germany, no less), I was pretty excited to try it out. The Leica heritage, the good things I’d heard, and the camera-porn that floods Instagram had me wringing my hands for a chance to get out and shoot. After more than ten rolls of film, some street photography, and some happy weekends with friends and family, I can’t recommend the Minilux enough.
It’s an incredibly well-built camera that’s super fun to use. It’s gorgeous, compact, and feels like quality in the hands. The lens is unbelievable, the images it makes are exceptional, and its operation is effortless. I don’t keep every camera I review here (in fact, I keep very few), but the Minilux’s quality, personality, and image-making capability have convinced me that this is a camera worth holding onto. It’s just an amazing machine, and truly a keeper.
Oh, and I guess that red dot doesn’t hurt either.