By Barnaby Britton

I’ve always been fascinated by Leica as a company, but increasingly also as a business entity. In this industry, no other manufacturer has quite the same brand recognition nor quite the same apparent ability to float beyond the normal commercial concerns of - you know, actually selling cameras to as many people as possible at a price that doesn’t put them into cardiac arrest.

The Q is styled after Leica's classic M-series rangefinders while being both smaller and lighter. The red dot sits where the viewfinder window would be, and a high resolution electronic finder replaces the optical version in Leica's rangefinders. 

If they’re being honest, I suspect that most enthusiast photographers have at one time or another aspired to owning a Leica. And really when I say that, I mean a Leica rangefinder. Forget the overpriced Panasonic clones and the cynical and infuriating Leica T (more on that later), it’s the M-series rangefinders that really established Leica’s reputation in the heyday of photojournalism and which still capture the imagination of a many of us, even today. We still say ‘rangefinder-style’ when we speak about compact cameras with built-in off-center EVFs, regardless of the fact that as a technology, rangefinder focusing is pretty well obsolescent.

Rangefinders had some major advantages back in the early part of the 20th Century - they were comparatively compact next to large-format view cameras (and early SLRs) and they maintained a very bright optical viewfinder image which didn’t blank out when you took a picture. But this approach to focusing - which requires lining up ghost images in the center of a viewfinder expensively constructed from a delicate collection of springs and prisms - is inherently less straightforward than manually focusing a modern SLR or (gasp!) using autofocus.

The mechanical tolerances required to ensure accuracy were pretty tight when the typical imaging surface was a slice of black and white film, but on 20MP+ digital sensors, even the most practiced Leica rangefinder user may struggle to get accurate focus at F1.4 or wider. This is especially true of human subjects, who have an annoying tendency not to stand completely still in the middle of the frame.  

My late 1960s Leica M3. I thought I'd get at least one good picture of it before I sold it a few years ago. I sold it for more than I paid - something that's hard to envisage with Leica's digital rangefinders. I wish I'd kept that lens though...

Current models in the M-series are hugely impressive machines and offer the best combination yet of classic Leica ergonomics (and lens compatibility) with modern image image quality, but I’m never going to buy one. Much as I love using the new M-P I just can’t justify the expense of the camera itself nor the additional overhead of a lens or two. Leica would have you believe that its digital M-series rangefinders are heirlooms just like their film forebears but it’s not true. After a certain point, old digital cameras are just that: old digital cameras. Compare the relative deprecation of M8 and M9 bodies in the past few years against M3s and M2s if you don’t believe me (and good luck finding a compatible battery for that M8 in sixty years' time).

Quite apart from their relative lack of resale or collector value, no modern M-series rangefinder can match the discreet, near-silent shooting experience of an older M3 or M2. Compared to the rubberized cloth shutters of old, the digital M-series operate with a distinctive, and to my ear rather un-Leicalike, ‘kur-kloink’ which makes me a tiny bit sad every time I hear it. 

Leica T? No, not much.

And then there’s the Leica T. Sure, it’s made of a solid block of hand-polished something-or-other but the huge touchscreen on the rear of the camera is (like all touch screens) a magnet for unsightly fingerprints, and the lenses, while very sharp, are slow and a little bit too plasticky. I really disliked using the Leica T in general. It felt like a step too far away from conventional ergonomics, and in the wrong direction. Somehow, in the slimmed-down T, Leica’s interface designers achieved something that should not be possible: cluttered minimalism. 

Which brings me at last to the Leica Q and why I want one. The Q is the first high-end digital Leica camera that really feels like a modern digital camera. Ergonomically, the Q just makes sense. Like the old film-era M rangefinders it is smallish, extremely solid, surprisingly light and almost completely silent in operation, thanks not to rubberized cloth but to a leaf shutter inside its lens.

The touch-sensitive LCD on the back of the Leica Q is implemented sensibly. You can use it if you want to, or not if you don't (and it can be disabled completely if you wish). 

The Q has a touchscreen, but like the best such displays on competitive cameras, it is optional to the extent that the camera is no less usable if you decide to disable it. It’s not perfect (I’d like to see an option to enable / disable touch-sensitivity for AF point placement depending on whether the EVF or LCD is active for example) but it’s a good deal more sensible than the YOU WILL USE THIS AND ENJOY IT! approach taken on the T. The Q features physical dials for shutter speed and aperture and a beautifully well-damped focus ring, but ASP exposure modes and (impressively fast) autofocus are there if you need them. Meanwhile the built-in electronic viewfinder is crisp and stunningly detailed. 

The Q is also comparatively inexpensive for a high-end Leica product at ‘only’ four and a half thousand dollars after tax. And there’s no need to save up for extra lenses because its 28mm lens is fixed! OK, maybe that’s not much of a selling point, but still. 

Obviously I’m writing all of this on the basis of limited experience with a pre-production camera, but honestly, the combined effect of classic Leica ‘I want one!’ body styling and a modern shooting experience is intoxicating. And it's worth stressing that for now at least, the Q is the first digital Leica camera which legitimately out-specifies competitor models from Sony and (sort of kind of) Fujifilm. As such, its high price is harder to complain about.  

Will Sony eventually come out with an RX2 which catches up to the Q in terms of handling and autofocus? I expect so, sooner or later (I was half-hoping that it would happen yesterday when the rest of the RX-series was updated). And it will probably feature a better sensor than Leica has made available, too. For now though, the Q is a seriously attractive camera and a significant leap forward for what is still, despite everything, a very traditional manufacturer.