Leica T (Typ 701) First Impressions Review
Controls and Operation
Here's a closer look at the T's twin top-plate dials, which are used to control the main exposure settings. The right side dial changes the 'primary' exposure parameter in each mode; in M mode it changes shutter speed. The left dial changes aperture in M mode, but in all other modes it's customizable from a choice of six functions (listed below). Cleverly the selection screen is easily accessible at all times, rather than being buried in the menu, which means it's easy to switch the dial temporarily to a different function if you want.
|Scene||No function||No function|
|*Choose from ISO (default), Exposure Compensation, White Balance, Focus Mode, Self Timer, or Focus mode. Selected function applies in all exposure modes.|
One nice touch is that when you have the M-mount adapter attached (and therefore most likely a lens with a physical aperture ring), the camera switches the function of the left dial to magnifying the image, to check focus. It's good that Leica has made this easy, as there's no other manual focus aid on offer. The T doesn't have a focus peaking display, for example, unlike almost any other mirrorless model currently on the market.
Live View Displays and Touchscreen Controls
The Leica T has four screens available while shooting, which can be cycled through by tapping the on-screen 'INFO' button. There's a full-screen view with no information overlay, which allows you to concentrate on your composition. Next is a view which overlays key exposure information on gray strips along the top and bottom of the screen - this does however make it difficult to see those edges of your composition (although it works nicely as a 16:9 preview for movies). In addition, you can choose to view a rule-of-thirds grid or a live histogram, but not both at the same time.
The T will lighten or darken the live view display to preview any exposure compensation you have set. In manual exposure mode it keeps the main display at a standard brightness for ease of composition, but previews your exposure when you half-press the shutter button. The camera will also stop down the aperture on half-pressing the shutter to give depth of field preview; however it still tries to keep refresh rates high in low light, which can result in a visibly noisy preview image.
Most camera control operations, aside from setting the exposure, rely on the touchscreen. Crucially, all of the on-screen buttons are large and well-separated, and the touchscreen is generally pretty responsive. This means that using the T feels very similar to a smartphone. The most important touchscreen controls are detailed below.
|When you spin one of the dials, little gray boxes appear at the top right of the display showing their current functions. Tap the left one and this screen appears, allowing you to quickly reassign the left dial's function.|
|Tap the exposure mode icon top right, and you enter the mode selection screen. The T offers the usual set of PASM modes, plus a number of scene modes too.|
|Tapping the camera icon below it opens a user-customizable short menu for your most frequently used settings.
To add a setting, simply tap the '+' button and select one from the main menu. To remove one, press down on it, then it drag to the right of the screen when a 'trash' icon appears.
Focus area selection
One operational aspect where the Leica T falls seriously short its competitors is in the selection of an off-center focus point. On most cameras you can simply tap the touchscreen where you want to focus, and continue to use that point as long as you like, reconfirming focus between shots with the shutter button. This didn't quite happen on the Leica T we tried out, which to be fair was a pre-production unit running non-final firmware. Hopefully Leica can improve this with a firmware change.
|To move the focus point, tap the Auto Focus Mode setting in the menu.|
|This gives a set of focus mode options. 'Spot' and '1Point' offer user-positionable AF areas that can be placed almost anywhere across the scene, differing only in size.
To actually move the AF point, though, you have to tap the 'Right Arrow' beside the main menu item.
|This screen then appears; you can position the AF area simply by tapping the screen, or (less conveniently) by spinning the dials.
Infuriatingly, you then have to tap the 'SET' button to confirm - forget this and you need to repeat the whole process.
The process for repositioning the AF point in 'Spot' or '1Point' mode is excessively long-winded, and most annoyingly requires a press of the on-screen 'SET' button every time. You'd think this would be overcome by using 'Touch AF', and to a degree this is true - here you simply tap the screen where you want it to focus. In this mode, though, the camera won't refocus between shots using the shutter button (unlike every other touchscreen model on the planet), so you have to touch to focus every single shot, which is equally annoying.
One feature that we do think is well-implemented on the Leica T is Auto ISO. You can select the maximum ISO you're happy to use, up to the camera's maximum of ISO 12500 in whole-stop increments. You can also specify a minimum shutter speed, from 1/4000 sec to 1 sec in whole-stop increments. This gives plenty of flexibility for either freezing a moving subject, or avoiding camera shake with a prime.
However, if you're shooting with a zoom or frequently changing lenses, and want your minimum shutter speed to adapt to the focal length in use, the Leica T also offers an 'Auto' setting. This is no big deal in itself; what's important is the rule that it follows. Leica is one of the few manufacturers to appreciate that the old 1/focal length rule of thumb may have been fine for film, but doesn't really work any more with high resolution sensors. So the T sets the shutter speed unusually high, to 1/(2x effective focal length), meaning it won't drop below about 1/180th second at the long end of the 18-56mm zoom (for example). This helps minimize the risk of getting images that are blurred due to camera shake.
Like most cameras, though, the T fails when you try to use Auto ISO in manual exposure mode. You can't apply exposure compensation, so have no control over the image brightness. Instead you just have to accept the camera's metering, whether you like it or not.
The T has no physical play button, so playback mode is accessed by swiping up or down on the live view display, which is easy enough once you know how. Once there, image browsing is just like a smartphone; swipe left or right to browse though images, pinch to zoom in or out.
The Leica T offers a pretty conventional set of playback screens, which again are cycled through by tapping the 'INFO' button. There are four screens; image only, exposure information, histogram (luminance or RGB), and an exposure clipping warning. The camera's playback menu offers pretty standard options - you can play slideshows, protect images from deletion or mark them as favorites, and delete them either individually, or by selecting a group. You can also transfer files between the camera's internal memory and the SD card.
The Leica T has a movie mode, but rather like with Fujifilm cameras, it feels somewhat as though it's been bolted-on mainly because it has to be on the marketing spec sheet. So while you can start movie recording at any time simply by pressing the red button on the top plate, you don't get a lot of manual control at all. You have no control over Frame rates or bitrate either - the only choice is between 720p or 1080p resolution (both at 30fps).
You can set exposure compensation at the start of recording, but the camera simply ignores any aperture or shutter speed setting you may have made. If AF is enabled, the camera will set itself to multi-area continuous focus mode, and perform a visually-distracting AF cycle at the start of every recording. Worse still, it will then continually try to readjust focus on whatever it decides should be the subject. You can't use focus lock before the start of recording, because the T simply doesn't have that function, so the best option is to switch to manual focus.
Sound recording is via tiny stereo microphones placed on the top plate, with no option to plug in an external microphone. The camera offers no control over sound recording volume, but it does at least have a selectable wind-cut filter.
By Andy Westlake
Assessing a camera like the Leica T comes with its own set of problems. The first is suspension of disbelief at the pricing - Leica has become a premium, essentially 'designer' brand, but even so the idea of spending £2700 for a mirrorless camera with no built-in EVF and a slow zoom lens is difficult to accept rationally. But exclusivity has become part of Leica's continued existence, and manufacturing this kind of product in Germany (complete with 45 minutes of hand-finishing each body shell) both contributes to, and helps justify, the high price. The design is - quite deliberately - all about desire over reason.
And the T is, without doubt, a desirable object. That solid aluminum shell gives it a unique feel and heft. The smooth metal finish isn't remotely the most practical, but it does give the camera a wonderful feel in your hand. It's terribly easy to be seduced by the purity and single-mindedness of the T's minimalist, and ever-so-modern design.
This leads onto the next problem, that of deconvoluting the style from the substance. The T is a lovely object to hold, and I really enjoyed my time with it, including taking it out for a couple of sessions shooting. But I have to acknowledge that at least part of that enjoyment came from precisely those attributes that will make it prohibitively expensive to normal photographers.
However, I think there's some real substance too. The combination of twin control dials for setting exposure, alongside a clear and simple touch interface for everything else, shows other manufacturers that it can indeed be done. We've seen touch interfaces that genuinely work well (such as Canon's), along with others that are rather less successful, but the T strikes me as perhaps the most successful attempt yet to marry modern smartphone design with physical camera controls. Not everyone wants that in a camera, of course, but some will find it compelling.
The T also turns out to be a genuinely nice camera to use. Focusing, at least with the 18-56mm lens, is fast enough to make it competitive with modern mirrorless cameras, albeit not quite as fast as the very best of them. It's also almost completely silent. The twin dials let me tweak aperture and exposure compensation easily with my thumb, with the camera providing reasonably accurate on-screen feedback of how the image would turn out. My main gripe is that the process for moving the focus point is convoluted and frustrating, so I resorted to using center-point focus and recompose instead. This works OK with a slow zoom, but I can't help but feel a touchscreen-equipped mirrorless model should behave better.
We don't generally talk much about image quality from a pre-production camera or lens, but it already seems clear to me that the 18-56mm is an impressive performer for such a small lens. It looks to be impressively sharp corner-to-corner wide open at all focal lengths, with relatively low chromatic aberration too. Leica has adopted the thoroughly modern design practice of automatically correcting distortion in software, so you won't see any in your images unless you go out of your way to find it using a non-mainstream Raw converter. The overall result is that it delivers consistently good-looking images.
Similar praise can't, sadly, be heaped on the camera's JPEG output. At it's best, the camera can give pleasing results with bright, punchy colors. But the auto white balance can be overly-enthusiastic about neutralizing real color, and the metering has a slight tendency towards overly-bright exposures. These things can be fixed if you keep an eye out when you're shooting, though, and even more so if you shoot in Raw. Indeed the camera records easily-opened DNG files and comes with a copy of Adobe Lightroom; but we wonder how many buyers who are attracted to the T over, say, the Fujifilm X system will actually work like this.
Overall, then, the Leica T is a lovely camera to hold and use, with a touchscreen interface that will feel instantly familiar to smartphone users. Both lenses are sure to be superb, too. Of course rationally, the pricing looks absurd, but even so the Leica red dot is sure to have an irresistible draw for some.
*based on experience with a pre-production camera
Apr 27, 2016
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