Studio Comparison

Our latest test scene is designed to simulate both daylight and low-light shooting. Pressing the 'lighting' buttons at the top of the widget allows you to switch between the two. The daylight scene is shot with manually set white balance aimed at achieving neutral grays, but the camera is left in its Auto setting for the low-light tests (except Raw, which is manually corrected during conversion). We also offer three different viewing sizes: 'Full', 'Print', and 'Web', with the latter two offering 'normalized' comparisons to more fairly compare cameras of differing resolutions by ensuring equivalent viewing sizes.

The Leica Q has no direct rivals. If you want a full-frame fixed-lens camera, the Sony's 35mm F2 RX1R II is your only alternative. If you're more of a fan of 28mm equiv, then the likes of the Fujifilm X70 and Ricoh GR are options but these both have F2.8 maximum apertures and smaller, APS-C sensors. Our studio scene should show the differences this makes.

JPEG performance

The Leica Q shows an impressive level of detail, considering how closely it has to be shot to our test chart. Its 24MP sensor can't match the Sony's 42MP chip, but it's more than a match for the Fujifilm or Ricoh. Sharpening is fairly well handled, with no signs of halos, but there is a little stair-stepping on high-contrast edges, suggesting the camera is pushing to the very limits of what it can capture.

Color is not the Leica's strength. Skin tones are neutral and unsaturated to the point of being unflattering, when compared with pretty much any camera you choose to compare it to. And even in this carefully white balanced scene, there's a slight green tinge to everything. Auto White Balance takes itself very seriously - neutralizing tones to a greater extent than any of its contemporaries, though still leaving that tiny hint of green.

The camera's noise reduction suppresses chroma noise very heavily, but leaves the more grain-like luminance noise essentially untouched. This isn't a bad decision, but can't compete with the more sophisticated system offered by the Sony, which manages to suppress AND retain detail and saturation. The Leica may be struggling with retaining saturation at higher ISOs but its larger sensor means it can easily outperform the Ricoh and Fujifilm when it comes to overall image quality.

Raw Performance

The sharp lens and lack of AA filter means the Leica captures plenty of resolution with the consequent risk of moiré. The extreme corner performance is far from shabby, despite the application of distortion correction as part of the lens's design, even when compared to a very good, uncorrected prime lens shot further from the chart.

Noise performance is a little behind the Sony RX1R II and perhaps even a touch better than other contemporary cameras. This means it shows something like the 1.3EV benefit that its sensor size should give it, over the likes of the Ricoh GR II, and that's before you take into account its maximum aperture being 1.4EV faster.

Overall, then, an impressive performance from both the sensor and the lens but, while the rather simplistic JPEG noise reduction is pretty well judged, we have real concerns about the color rendering and white balance performance - concerns borne-out in our real-world shooting.

Sony doesn't consider distortion corrections to be an essential part of its lens design so allows them to be turned off. In this scene, the JPEGs were shot with correction on but the Raws were processed with it switched off. The Leica requires the correction as part of its design so they are engaged in both cases.

Real-world image quality

As we've covered previously, the Leica Q will reward you with predictably good image quality in most situations. The dynamic range may be lacking for some more demanding landscape photographers (or if you mis-judge your exposure and need to push several stops), but noise levels are usually fairly well controlled into higher ISOs.

In most shooting situations, files out of the Leica Q are perfectly fine. Photo by Carey Rose. F8 | 1/320 sec | ISO 100

However, there are two issues we repeatedly ran into with files from the Q, one of which is relatively minor, and the other relatively major.

The minor issue concerns JPEG processing out of the Q, with real-world results mimicking our studio findings above. Leica claims that the JPEG output is intentionally neutral, at the expense of bright, printable images. However, with limited JPEG engine customization options (color space, sharpness, contrast, saturation), users coming to the Q from other systems may find the JPEG performance lacking, and will simply turn to the Raw files. The 'greenness' of default yellows in the Q's JPEGs does show up in real-world shooting, and can cause unpleasant results when photographing people. Couple that with unreliable auto white balance performance under artificial light, and frankly, I ignored the JPEGs altogether.

In the below comparison, note how the out-of-camera JPEG is skewed green, compared to a more pleasing white balance when processed from Raw.

Out-of-camera JPEG Processed to taste from Adobe Camera Raw

The second issue is arguably more major. Although outright noise performance is good with the Q, pushing the exposure or shadows of your Raw files in post processing can result in noise 'banding.' The degree to which you'll see it varies from 'barely' all the way to 'terrible,' and it is present even at base ISO. The more random nature of the additional noise you see at higher ISOs can help to hide some of the worst banding, but it is still visible.

In the below example, the original exposure was a bit dark. It was pushed by 2.45 stops in Adobe Camera Raw, with the shadows lifted some more. Banding is clearly evident (and clearly unpleasant), but this level of adjustment is not a particularly strenuous exercise for the majority of full-frame cameras on the market (most notably, those with Sony sensors).

Photo from our Leica Q real-world sample gallery. Photo by Barney Britton. F1.7 | 1/60 sec | ISO 200

It's also important to note that files that have only had slight exposure adjustments (and not additional shadow pushing) can still show banding, if you look carefully. In the below example, the out-of-camera shot looks a bit dark, and so exposure was brought up slightly, and banding is just visible on the car interior to the right of the dog's head. A final extreme adjustment shows the banding pattern more clearly.

Out-of-camera JPEG Adjusted Over-adjusted

If you're not one to really push your Raw files, this probably won't concern you. But it does represent an additional shortcoming that users coming from other systems may not be prepared for from a fairly recent full-frame sensor. To get a more in-depth and controlled look at this banding and its implications, jump to the next page of our review which goes into more detail concerning the Q's Raw dynamic range.