Shooting Experience

By Dan Bracaglia

The Leica Q may be fashionable, but it is also functional, in every sense of the word. This image was a JPEG pulled directly from camera. ISO 100, 1/160 sec, f/5.

I'm not an exuberant millionaire, nor am I a wealthy oil tycoon. So it can be difficult for me to get excited about new Leica product releases. The German camera manufacturer's most recent release, a 28mm F1.4 Summilux-M lens runs $5950. That's more than some folks will invest in camera equipment in a lifetime.

But the Leica Q is different from any other Leica product. At $4250, it is still expensive, but the price includes both a full frame sensor and a lens, making it a bit more justifiable. Still, when it landed in our office for just over 48 hours, my initial reaction was to outright ignore it. You see, one of the hardest parts about being a camera reviewer is resisting the urge to buy the product you are testing. This isn't so much the case for products we spend months reviewing, but rather the products we only get to spend a limited amount of time shooting with - products we crave more time with.

On first seeing the Leica Q, I knew that if I picked it up I wouldn't want to put it down. I personally own a Fujifilm X100T, an APS-C camera that some will argue is built to look like and act like a fixed-lens Leica rangefinder. Regardless of how you feel about that statement, as an owner and enjoyer of the X100T, the Leica Q was an obvious camera for me to gravitate toward.

I was able to successfully ignore the Q for the first 24 hours it was in our office - being in the middle of previewing another cameras made it easy. But on the second day, fate struck, and I was assigned to spend every waking minute with the Q, up until the moment it had to be sent back. Over the course of a long day, I shot with the Leica Q in a wide variety of scenarios. A field test scavenger hunt of sorts.

 ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/5.6.

I first brought the Q to Seattle's Pioneer Square to capture street photography, followed by the famous downtown public library for a few architectural interiors. Next I shot some environmental portraiture using late-day sunlight on Seattle's Capitol Hill, before finally bringing it to a small concert venue to shoot live music using available light. The variety of scenarios and shooting styles used for each gave me a good idea of what exactly the Leica Q is capable of. You can see some of those images in our Leica Q samples gallery.

The Leica Q is not a four thousand dollar fashion accessory. The Leica Q is, in just about every way, a Leica M-caliber camera. From the design, to the controls, to the incredible sharpness of the lens, the Leica Q is worthy of the Leica name. It is, in many regards, a digital milestone for Leica. The Q is a camera that makes me excited, and it might be the first Leica digital camera to do so.

On the flip side, the not-too-long-ago-released Leica T was the opposite (I reviewed it for a different publication). It may seem impossible to discuss the Q without first discussing the T; my colleagues in the office have been doing so since the Leica Q arrived. But truthfully, the two cameras have just about nothing in common, other than the Leica name.

ISO 12,500, 1/250 sec, f/2.2.

The Leica T was, in many ways, a highly experimental camera system (to date, the company makes just four lenses for it). Leica teamed up with Audi on the physical design, while the OS was designed to operate more like smartphone than a camera, or so it seemed. The T was an attempt at a forward-thinking product, geared toward 'techies,' as opposed to hardcore photographers, at least that is how it felt to me. Simply put, it was a sleek hassle to shoot with - uncomfortable to hold while overly-simplistic to control, I found image quality to be underwhelming and AF to be lousy (though the AF was improved with subsequent firmware updates).

The Leica Q on the other hand was designed completely in-house by Leica. It incorporates a fixed 28mm F1.7 lens into the body design. It's forward thinking without being pushy. Features like a touch screen, with touch activated AF and shutter, are balanced with physical buttons and dials. Want to shoot from the hip, using the focus depth scale? Go right ahead. Want to shoot from the hip using C-AF with face detection? That'll work too!

The Q truly is a camera that marries a slowed-down film-era-esque style of operating a camera, with modern technology and convenience, in a way that few companies have done (Fujifilm is one that comes to mind). Manually-focusing the Leica Q is a joy. The incredibly high-resolution 3.86 megapixel LCOS electronic viewfinder looks as close to life-like as any EVF I've used. In fact, the Q is one of the easiest digital cameras I've ever manually-focused. The focus ring on the Q is well damped. Once you begin turning it, the frame is zoomed in, so that you can see exactly what you are focusing on, and focus peaking makes nailing sharpness super easy.

The Leica Q is an obvious choice for street photographers and photojournalists. And while street shooting is not my strongest photographic discipline, the Q made me want to go out and shoot more, even after we shipped it back to Leica. ISO 100, 1/500 sec, f/5.6.

Of course the Leica Q is also capable of auto focusing. My biggest concern after shooting with the Leica T was that the Q would also drop the ball in the AF department. But one day with the camera quelled my reservations. Even in low light, autofocus is incredibly accurate. AF, by the way is also very quiet. According to Leica, this is because the Q only needs to shift a single element to focus. The Q uses contrast detect AF to focus, which means the camera has a tendency to hunt and can also experience a drop in burst rate when shooting in continuous mode. But when shooting in single shot mode, focus is generally fast and accurate.

When I first picked up the Leica Q, instinct lead me to shoot with it on full manual. But as time went by, in my case, over the course of the day I found myself slowly trying more advanced controls, like face detect, the 10 fps burst mode, and even the touch-to-shoot functionality. Rest assured, the Q is not a camera that centers around offering advanced features, it simply includes them, as options next to its core features.

Another thing that makes the $4250 price tag of the Q more justifiable is the the simple fact that once you've bought the camera, that's it. There are no more lenses you can physically purchase for the system. And even if 28mm is not your cup of tea, the Leica offers options to crop the frame in to other focal lengths like 35mm and 50mm. If that seems silly to you, it really shouldn't. With a 24MP full frame CMOS sensor, the Q has enough resolution for cropping in, at least a bit.

The 28mm f/1.7 lens is very sharp. ISO 160, 1/500 sec, f/5.6.

Of course there were aspects of shooting with the Q that left me wanting more, specifically, the body design. The body of the Leica Q is constructed of magnesium alloy, while the top plate is made of a single piece of milled aluminum. This combines for a very slippery shooting experience, especially if you're spending long periods of time gripping the Leica Q, as in, actually using it. Sure, the front of the camera is wrapped in a leather-like material, it's just not all that grippy. And the thumb grip indentation on back has a tendency to collect moisture from one's hand.

Leica does sell a leather case that in all likelihood will help counteract the slippery-factor. The company also offers a variety of hand grips and straps custom-tailored to the Q. Still, it seems the exterior design could have been made more ergonomic right out of box for a better shooting experience.

Slickness aside, button/control placement on the Leica Q is very good. According to Leica, the camera was designed to reflect the principle of 'reduction to the essentials,' and as such, it has every button you need, and none you don't. Take the top of the camera for instance: it offers no more than a shutter button, on/off switch/drive mode selector, shutter speed dial, exposure compensation dial, and a video record button.

Aperture is set on the lens barrel. Switching the camera into AF mode is done by moving the manual focus ring into the AF position. You'll hear a faint click once it is locked in. The back of the camera is also quite simple - in addition to a four-way controller, with selector key in the center, the back also offers a dedicated ISO button and a customizable function button (plus the other usual suspects like a 'Delete,' 'Play,' and 'Menu' button).

The Leica Q is, simply put, a fun camera to shoot with. The simple controls mean you spend less time fussing with options and features, and more time framing and composing. ISO 12,500, 1/60 sec, f/1.7.

I did notice that the FN button can only be set to a very limited number of options. For instance, you cannot set that button to toggle face detect on and off. But this is something that could change with firmware.

The Leica Q's leaf shutter is also near-silent. I'm a fan of street photography, and while it's certainly not my strongest photographic discipline, it's something I'm working to improve daily. Shooting the streets with the Leica Q is a whole lot of fun, because of how incredibly quiet it is. Even when shooting inside Seattle's quiet downtown public library, the Q was barely audible in operation.

In terms of image quality, I found the Leica Q to be impressive all around. When shooting Raw files, colors are bright, skin tones are accurate and overall detail is also fantastic (JPEGs are another story). The 28mm F1.7 lens is incredibly sharp throughout the frame. I personally like to shoot wide and occasionally crop in, in post (as oppose to in-camera). With the Leica Q, there is ample resolution to do this and distortion from the 28mm lens is fairly minimal.

In low light, the Leica Q also does very well, though the top two ISOs of 50,000 and 12,500 do display some visible banding. At 12,500, it's possible to minimize this banding using noise reduction - detail is so good that I can crank up the NR, without hurting overall image quality much. In fact, a few of the music photos sprinkled throughout this shooting experience were shot at ISO 12,500.

The Leica Q has a very quiet shutter, and near silent AF. I ran into no issues using it to make this shot in one of Seattle's public libraries. ISO 320, 1/500 sec, f/1.7.

The Leica Q slides into a peculiar spot in the market: A fairly vacant category of large sensor compacts, with fixed, fast lenses (of course there is nothing particularly compact about the Leica Q, it's about the same size as a Type 240). Its most direct competition is the full frame RX series of cameras from Sony. They also offer a 24MP full frame sensor with a fixed lens. Of course the RX1R offers a 35mm F2 lens, instead of a 28mm F1.7. It also lacks a built-in viewfinder, though one can be purchased and attached to the hotshoe.

Another obvious comparison is the Fujifilm X100 series of cameras, which offer a fixed 35mm F2 equivalent lens, tucked in front of an APS-C sensor. Looking at the two side-by-side, you can see a lot of superficial similarities in body design. But don't be fooled, the Leica has a far more robust build quality than the Fujifilm, and of course, a larger sensor with a wider, faster lens.

Ultimately, the Leica Q is a camera most will stare longingly at, but never own. Still, it is priced considerably less than any other full frame Leica camera, and offers a great shooting experience, in a simple, tough-built body, with impressive image quality and a very sharp lens. So if you're considering a camera of this type, the Leica Q is definitely worth checking out.

For the rest of us, myself included, we'll have to settle for the gear we have. A day with the Leica Q may have taken the sparkle out of my Fujifilm X100T, but until I get that four thousand dollar bonus, I'll just have to make do.

Another very useful feature incorporated into the Leica Q is image stabilization. It might seem extraneous to include IS in a camera with a fixed 28mm lens, but it definitely helps in low light. ISO 6400, 1/15 sec, f1.7.