By Barnaby Britton
I wanted to love the Leica T, I really did. Having seen the luxuriously detailed launch videos and images showing its construction, and especially after reading my former colleague Andy Westlake's largely positive write-up following his experience with a pre-production unit, I was very very keen to get my hands on a camera and start shooting. It was a while before I got that opportunity but as soon as I could, I threw the T (gently) into a bag and headed out into the world to see what it could do.
What happened next was interesting. Occasionally wonderful, frequently frustrating and sometimes downright maddening.
The Leica T is a fascinating camera. Clearly designed to have a serious aesthetic appeal in addition to its functional capabilities, it looks and feels amazing. The pricing is bonkers by anyone's standards (except, apparently, Leica's), but the standard of construction of the camera body is truly outstanding. It's not quite the same story when it comes to the lenses. Although extremely well put-together they do not have the same heavyweight 'there's brass just underneath this paint - I can feel it' quality of their M-mount cousins. Overall though, the quality of the T's construction and that of its peripherals is top notch. It's a camera you'll want to touch, and hold, and touch some more.
Unfortunately, although the Leica T is worthy of inclusion in some sort of design museum (assuming it isn't already in one) if you want to actually take pictures with the thing, you might find yourself - like me - falling out of love with it pretty quickly. The good stuff is great, but the bad, both major and minor, adds up to a shooting experience that I'm in no hurry to replicate.
Let's start at the beginning -with startup. The Leica T takes around three seconds to come to life after the power switch is rotated from 'off' to 'on'. Three seconds is too long. If you're using the EVF, and you raise the camera to your eye then turn it on, you could be waiting for as long as five and a half seconds before you'll see an image in the viewfinder (my timings varied from between 4 - 5.5s). A lot can happen in five and a half seconds. The International Space Station covers twenty five miles in that time. A high-performance sports car can hit 60 miles per hour from a standing start in half that time - actually, even my 1998 Subaru Legacy could probably get up to at least 40 mph in five and a half seconds* (and I could have bought three of them for the cost of one Leica T outfit).
Silly comparisons aside, the point is that as startup times go, 3 - 5.5 seconds is bad. The Sony a6000, by comparison takes ~0.75 seconds to come to life from 'off', and around 1.5 seconds if your eye is to the viewfinder. And don't go thinking that sleep-to-wake times are any better. Nope. You're still looking at around 3 seconds minimum from pressing the Leica T's shutter to a live view image appearing on the camera's rear LCD, and 4 - 5.5s with your eye to the finder. I missed a lot of shots thanks to the T's slow startup from off / sleep, and so will you.
Once you're up and running though, the Leica T is (generally) a fairly agreeable companion as long as you keep things simple. I tend to stick to aperture priority mode when shooting, and changing aperture using the rear control dial is smooth and painless. Assuming you hit the right dial, that is. There are two dials, and in aperture and shutter priority modes you can assign the other to exposure compensation or ISO. This is fine, but because the two dials are so close together and identically textured, when using the EVF I did find myself constantly adjusting aperture when I wanted to use exposure compensation, and vice versa. Obviously when using the rear LCD to compose images it's much easier to keep track of what your thumb is doing, but given the option of using an EVF, I will take it. Sadly, I'm not sure that Leica's designers really considered EVF shooters like me when they designed the T. Which brings us to...
Touch and Try
In a bold move, Leica has stripped the T almost bare of physical control points, leaving only an on/off/flash switch, shutter button, movie record button and two control dials. And that's it. The large touch-sensitive screen on the back of the camera is the primary interface for menu navigation, feature finding and setting, image viewing and everything else besides. As touch-sensitive screens go, it's responsive enough most of the time but not as fluid as the experience of using a current-generation high-end smartphone. Flipping through images in review mode is frustratingly laggy and it is easy when scrolling through the full camera menu to accidentally select an option when you just wanted to swipe down or up through the list of icons.
It's worth noting too that the behavioral logic which governs finding and setting functions using the Leica T's LCD is quite unlike any other camera out there. The fact that image review is initiated using a downward swipe on the T's rear LCD for example is - once learned - easy to remember, but this action is not intuitive. No other touch-screen enabled camera or phone works this way. From a photographer's point of view this is such a simple thing - I just want to see my pictures - why make the operational logic so opaque?
As such, I'd recommend taking some time reading the manual and playing around with the interface before doing any serious shooting with the T. You'll find a detailed breakdown of the major points in the controls page of this first-impressions review.
My second most serious gripe about the Leica T (after its slow startup times) is that as we've made clear already, the AF mode / point selection logic is awkward and thoroughly frustrating. I don't want to dwell too much on this, since we've already covered it, but I was surprised at just how broken the experience is when using the Leica T's electronic viewfinder (which after shooting in the bright conditions of a Seattle summer I would consider an essential, rather than optional accessory).
In 'Touch AF' mode, when you're shooting in live view you press the screen and the AF point jumps to the location of your fingertip, and focus is acquired immediately at that point. Weirdly, half-pressing the shutter button does nothing at all, but if you've used a smartphone camera you'll be familiar with the behavioral logic of the Leica (and yes, it does seem strange writing those words...). Fine. Not entirely 'normal', perhaps but fine.
'Spot' and '1Point' AF modes offer user-positionable AF areas that can be placed almost anywhere across the scene, differing only in size. To move the AF point, though, you have to tap the 'Right Arrow' beside the main menu item.
To place AF point directly by touch you'll need 'Touch AF'.
Inexplicably though, in Touch AF mode autofocus then becomes entirely impossible if you switch to using the EVF. There's a grain of sense here (you can't accurately reposition the AF point with your eye to the viewfinder) but let me be very clear - because AF acquisition in this mode is entirely driven by touch (remember that half-pressing the shutter has no effect) AF is literally impossible when the EVF is used in Touch AF mode.
Far more sensible would be for the Leica T to allow you to position the AF point by touch using the rear LCD and then disable further repositioning when the EVF is used but allow AF acquisition using a half-press of the shutter button. As things stand, however, there is no way at all of manually changing the active AF point with your eye to the Leica T's viewfinder.
It's also worth noting that while it is possible to manually override focus in the Leica T, this feature is (again) somewhat hidden, and doesn't work exactly as you might expect. To override AF, you must keep the shutter button half-pressed and rotate the lens focus ring. Depending on the focal length you’re shooting at you might not realize anything is even happening though, since the T does not offer focus peaking and it isn't possible to magnify the live view image during this operation.
Full disclosure - we missed this feature originally, and assumed after scouring the manual focus section of the T's instruction manual that manual focus adjustment in AF mode was simply impossible. The only clue that it isn't is a short, curiously-worded note in the 'Automatic distance setting / autofocus' section which says: 'with the shutter release pressed half-way and focusing by pressing, it is also possible to manually change the automatically set distance in autofocus mode with the distance adjusting dial'. We apologize for the earlier confusion.
Performance and image quality
Fortunately, given how frustrating the Leica T can be to use, the pictures that come out of it are really nice. JPEGs are rather flat and a little lifeless at default settings, and AWB tends to over-neutralize the natural warmth of late and early sunlight, but I suspect that really, this is a camera for Raw shooters. The Leica T's DNG files are packed with detail. This is thanks in part to the very high quality of the lenses available for the system.
The Vario-Elmar-T F3:5-5:6 / 18-56mm ASPH is very nice indeed and while I'd like a faster maximum aperture (F3.5-5.6 is firmly in 'cheap kit zoom' territory) it's a pleasant and capable walk-around zoom for every day use, and very sharp, especially in the center. Focusing isn't super-quick, but it's not bad in bright light, becoming a little hesitant but still generally accurate in low interior lighting and after dark.
High ISO image quality is up there with the best of the Leica T's APS-C competition, and at low to medium ISO sensitivity settings I have no complaints about the camera's output. Video mode feels like an afterthought (which leaves me seriously questioning the inclusion of a dedicated video button) but the quality of recorded footage is perfectly acceptable.
It's rare these days to encounter a product that offers a genuinely new way of doing things. The Leica T most certainly does, and I want to be very clear that in my opinion, Leica deserves praise for being bold. Making the Leica T's control logic so reliant on a touchscreen was a brave move from the German manufacturer, and although its experiment in combining conventional camera ergonomics with a smartphone-like screen experience doesn't entirely succeed, it's certainly an intriguing first attempt.
I am optimistic that Leica can make some changes via firmware to smooth out the experience of using the T, because at present the camera is not as much fun to use - nor as effective a photographic tool - as it should be. The AF mode / point selection logic is tortuous, and operation with the EVF attached is downright broken, if you consider that it's impossible to shift AF point with your eye to the finder. The lengthy startup time is unacceptable for a camera at any price point in 2014, too. Image quality is excellent but right now, there's too much designed-in risk of missing the moment for me to recommend the T to a working photographer or even a snap-happy enthusiast.
Among people who've been using and testing cameras for a long time, one of the ways that we tend to speak about new models is in terms of whether hypothetically - if we were given a particular camera as a gift - we'd choose to keep it. Sadly, pending a major firmware update, if someone gave me a Leica T I would give it straight back.
*Non-controlled track, non-professional driver, have not attempted.