Each year, Leica releases a handful of digital cameras with specs almost identical to a handful of models in Panasonic's line. Among this year's batch is the Leica V-Lux 1, which corresponds to Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FZ50. If you're going to relabel a product, the DMC-FZ50 is certainly a good choice. This superzoom sports a 12x optical, 35mm-to-420mm, f/2.8-to-f/3.7 zoom lens and a 10.1-megapixel CCD sensor; and it has a body that's as big and heavy as an SLR's. While this last part may scare off some users, more seasoned shooters, who value image quality over small size, will appreciate what this camera has to offer. As usual, the Leica version of this camera carries a significantly higher price tag, but it does come with Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0, a $99 value. So, if you don't count yourself among the family of photographers who find value in the classic Leica red-dot logo and the service and support that come with it, then you may want to look at the Panasonic version. The Lumix did perform slightly faster in our tests, but it also had slightly worse JPEG compression. Given my frugal, proletarian upbringing, I know what I'd do, but you'll have to make that decision for yourself. Leica's V-Lux 1 is large, but if you can get past that, you can enjoy some of its nicer features. For example, it includes a rotating, flip-out LCD screen to make extreme high- and low-angle shooting easier, as well as a hotshoe so you can add an accessory flash should the camera's built-in, pop-up flash not be powerful or versatile enough for you. Unfortunately, the LCD screen measures only two inches diagonally, but flip-out LCDs tend to be smaller, so it's on a par with the competition.
Its electronic viewfinder (EVF), like most EVFs, is bit coarse to look at, but again, is roughly equivalent with its competitors'. In continuous-shooting mode, it doesn't go blank as some EVFs do between shots. Instead, it shows you the last image shot, which doesn't help if you want to recompose or try to follow a subject while shooting a burst of shots. This makes burst shooting something of a crap shoot and much less useful, though this is true of all EVFs. If you haven't ever shot with an EVF camera, we suggest you try one out in a store before you make your final decision.
Since the camera is styled like an SLR, it's no surprise that you'll likely want to use two hands, especially since Leica put the focus controls on the left side of the lens barrel. We found this convenient when switching between AF modes, choosing a focus point, or making a quick switch to manual focus. All other buttons find their home on the right side of the camera, and all are within reach of either your thumb or your forefinger. The focus/autoexposure lock button would've been more comfortable to use if it was a bit further to the right, but it wasn't out of reach.
Two dials, one in the front of the grip and one on the back, let you change aperture and shutter-speed settings, respectively, when in the appropriate exposure modes. This made shooting in manual mode faster and more convenient than with cameras that make you hold a button while turning a dial to set either aperture or shutter speed in manual mode. In addition to one ring to control the zoom, Leica includes a second ring on the lens barrel for manual focus. When you move the ring, a box pops up in the center of the LCD or EVF with a magnified portion of your subject to make it easier to see if you're in focus. If you press the shutter button halfway, the box disappears, or it won't appear at all if you press the button before touching the ring. You can still change the focus, though, so be careful.
A 710mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery powers the camera, is conveniently placed inside the grip, and loads from the bottom. Leica says that it's good for approximately 360 pictures in program AE mode, when measured according to the industry standard CIPA guidelines. The V-Lux 1 stores images to SD cards, which load into the right side of the camera. The camera is SDHC-compliant, which means that you can use it with SDHC memory cards as well as regular SD cards. SDHC cards allow the SD format to grow to capacities larger than 2GB but aren't compatible with all card readers or cameras. The most attractive feature of the Leica V-Lux 1 is its big, fast, lens: a Leica DC Vario-Elmarit 12x optical, 35mm-to-420mm (35mm equivalent), f/2.8-to-f/3.7 zoom. Coupled with Panasonic's Mega OIS optical image stabilization, this lens's long reach becomes even more useful, but it would've been better if the lens was wider than 35mm. Since not many superzooms go that wide, it'd be a nice selling point and would help when trying to shoot group portraits. Of course, that'd probably push the price of this camera up even more, and it definitely doesn't need that. If you do feel the need to get wide, Panasonic offers a 0.7x conversion lens, as well as a 1.7x teleconverter for anyone that needs more than the built-in lens's 420mm equivalent. Since the V-Lux 1 and DMC-FZ50 are so similar, these and other Panasonic accessories meant for the FZ50 should work with this camera as well.
In addition to the usual run-down of AF and AE modes, Leica includes two high-speed focusing modes, as well as nine-zone selectable spot focusing. There aren't many other stand-out features though. One of the niftier ones is the flip animation mode, which lets you shoot as many as 100 320x240-pixel images, then string them together into a video clip that's as long as 20 seconds. Another nice touch is the high-sensitivity scene mode, which brings the camera's sensitivity up to an equivalent of ISO 3,200. In all other shooting modes, the sensitivity tops out at ISO 1,600, which is still impressive. The V-Lux 1 includes 15 scene modes, in addition to the high-sensitivity option, so if you're one of those shooters who doesn't like using manual exposure controls, you don't have to.