Digilux Dinosaur

Some of the earliest posts on this blog related to what was even in those days a “digital dinosaur” – the Olympus E-1 which was the 5MP dSLR that kicked off the whole Four Thirds system. Fantastic colours from that Kodak sensor as long as the ISOs were kept low, and a camera that was built so well that it felt like you were making images with a photographic Rolex. Compared to the size of its sensor though, it was certainly huge – a digital T Rex perhaps.

A pride of builders’ helmets near Soho Square

So, enter my “new” 5MP dinosaur – the Leica Digilux 2, purchased from eBay at a rather bargain price as it had lost its original packaging, manuals and most of the cables it came with through the years; it also needed a new battery as the original was no longer holding any charge. Lots of years have passed by too – this camera was launched in 2003 which really makes it antediluvian in electronic terms. It was, however, also written of by Amateur Photographer as the first, and perhaps only, truly classic digital camera.

Grain store in Hertford

Smaller than the E-1, the Digilux looks similar to a classic Leica rangefinder but has a lovely f2-2.4 28-90 (35mm equiv) standard zoom lens permanently attached. It has an EVF which does the job but is laughably small by modern standards, goes all the way up to ISO400 if you dare, and takes 6 seconds to save a single raw image. So it’s definitely not a speed demon, but the quality you can get out of that lens and the colours from an old CCD sensor (and, for that matter, the quality of the black and white files you can get) are lovely.

Drought survivor in the back garden
Mayfair Mercato
The Ukrainian Church in central London

Modern processing software helps too – ISO400 raw files are now usable in a way they wouldn’t have been years ago, and modern resizing means that sensible sized prints are easily within reach.

Chinatown cookie shop
Coffee time – if you view this image full size there is a lot of detail in that lace dress, even from an old 5MP sensor

For people who grew up with film, this camera is an uncomplicated revelation compared to most modern kit – it has a shutter speed dial and aperture ring which you can set as required when the camera is switched off, a proper zoom ring and a real focus ring – not the usual focus by wire that you get with most modern mirrorless cameras. It’s a tactile experience and, as you have to slow down to use it, I reckon the keeper rate increases. Realistically it’s not an obvious everyday camera because its speed of operation is, well, almost non-existant. But it’s a very enjoyable Sunday driver.

St Pancras Station – love the colour in the evening light
Club near Carnaby Street

So, if the E-1 is a T-Rex, I think the Digilux is definitely a dinosaur too, but in reality a medium sized dinosaur. And that leaves me with a problem….

Because there aren’t really any fossil records of medium sized dinosaurs. The theory is that juvenile giant dinosaurs outcompeted the medium species so they quickly left the food chain. And in a funny sort of way, I think that is what happened to the Digilux 2 – smaller cameras clearly differentiated from the large professional rigs came along that could do much of what the D2 could do in a more compact form, and the larger dinosaurs, in the form of the emerging digital SLRs, took the market share for people wanting the highest image quality and lots of control. Which is a shame – this camera and lens are crying out for a more modern sensor and faster processor, but evolution has left it behind as an almost one-of-a-kind, but one which is well worth seeking out if you can find one at the right price, and has quite the following from those who know.

By Jon Schick

Hertfordshire-based, I work for the National Health Service but try and fit in some photography on a regular basis. Not so much during the recent lockdown era, but here's hoping things can only get better in 2021....

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