When it comes to waterproof cameras, you’re likely to think of GoPro or a similar action camera first. But what if you wanted a waterproof camera with full manual control? There aren’t many options on the market unless you’re willing to splurge for an underwater housing for a DSLR or mirrorless camera. But there’s a less-known option made by the venerable camera brand, Leica. In 2016, Leica introduced the Leica X-U – a rugged, waterproof compact camera. It didn’t seem to get much fanfare as it was completely unbeknownst to me until I browsed Borrowlenses.com in search of a camera for my upcoming whitewater rafting trip.
So how did it perform? Read on to find out!
The Leica X-U is considered a point and shoot camera. It has a 16.2 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor and a fixed Summilux 23mm f/1.7 lens (equivalent to about 35mm in 35mm format). The camera can shoot both RAW and JPG photos and record full HD video (1080p).
Some dials allow you to take full manual control of the camera and set the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. You can even manually focus the lens.
Taking into consideration all of these specs, this is essentially a pro-level camera that has the added benefit of being dustproof, shatterproof, waterproof (up to 15 meters for 60 minutes), and shockproof (from heights of up to 1.22 meters). It has a pro-grade camera price tag retailing at $2,999 USD.
Look and feel
There’s no escaping the fact that the Leica X-U is a chunky camera, especially when compared to other waterproof point-and-shoots on the market. It weighs in at 1.32 lbs and doesn’t float or come with a floating strap. Thus, you’ll want to make sure it is always strapped tight to you, or find a floating strap for it.
The camera exterior, made of anti-slip rubber, feels good in the hands. In front is a manual focus fixed lens with a built-in flash on top. There’s also a hot shoe on top of the camera for adding a larger flash or extra accessories.
Leica also includes a rubber lens cap with a small strap, but it fits very loosely and is prone to falling off. I recommend looping the lens cap strap to the camera for extra security.
Ease of use
This was my first time using a Leica camera. Up until this point, all I knew about Leicas was that 1) they were expensive, 2) they’re very solid in construction, and 3) their user interface is relatively simple and straightforward. All of these assumptions are true in the Leica X-U, but it is the third point that I appreciated the most.
The bulk of the camera’s controls are in the top two knobs and the lens’ focus ring. If you’ve used a film camera or Fujifilm mirrorless camera, you’ll feel right at home. Any other camera settings are controlled using buttons on the rear end of the camera, where there is also a large, brightly-lit LCD screen. Buttons were decently responsive, and the LCD was fast and accurate.
The one thing I wish Leica included is a touchscreen LCD. Menus are laid out simply, and it was easy to adjust settings. A rechargeable battery powers the camera, and it easily lasted a full day of shooting.
Performance in the field
I extensively researched this camera before renting it for my rafting trip. Unfortunately, most of the camera reviews swayed toward the negative. Many claim the Leica X-U’s autofocus is too slow, and its overall features fall behind when compared to what modern cameras (and smartphones) can achieve.
When shooting with this camera, I brushed off those negative reviews. Shooting with this camera was an absolute joy. I loved the ability to shoot in manual without having to worry about water splashes. And it is very easy to go from shooting still photos to video since the video record button is right next to the shutter.
Best of all was the ability to shoot photos of the night stars, which was my main reason for wanting this camera. My rafting trip frowned upon bringing non-waterproof cameras, so I didn’t want to risk bringing my expensive mirrorless cameras.
However, we would be spending the night in the pitch-black forests of Southern Oregon with stars shining bright every night, and I wanted the ability to snap photos of them.
With its fast aperture and the ability to shoot in manual focus, the Leica X-U had the capability of pulling off star photography, and it did so pretty well.
At the end of each day, I reviewed the photos and videos on the camera and marveled at what I was able to capture. Those negative reviews seemed completely wrong – that is until I reviewed everything on my computer.
Image and video quality
It’s a classic mistake to review media content on a tiny device screen and think that everything is working well. The real quality test is to review them on a big screen. Doing this showed that those reviewers were 100% right.
The Leica X-U’s image quality is quite good when shooting a static or slow-moving object. However, the camera absolutely blew the autofocus when shooting anything in movement.
This is an odd shortcoming for a camera that seems built for action, but it happened on a very consistent basis.
The video quality was downright atrocious, and I’m ashamed that I put so much trust in this camera when shooting videos. My Samsung Galaxy S10, in its waterproof case, took far better video.
So…should you use this camera?
Handling this camera was an absolute joy, but I can’t commend its photo or video quality.
If you’re seeking a waterproof camera with manual controls, this camera might work for you, but it depends on what you’re shooting. In fast-paced action scenarios, this camera’s autofocus performance won’t keep up. But if you’re shooting static landscapes or astrophotography, this camera will likely meet your needs.
For videography, don’t even bother.