Three Days in NYC with the New Leica Q
Leica Q First Impressions and Review
June 10, 2015
In mid-May, 2015 I had an opportunity to meet with Leica executives for a preview glimpse of the Leica Q, which was to be subsequently announced on June 10. This meeting was followed by a few days of shooting with a Q during a weekend visit to New York City.
During the preview meeting I filmed an interview with Leica executives about the Q. This is seen immediately below, and runs for just over nine minutes.
The opportunity to shoot with the new Leica Q was all-to-brief, since my New York visit was primarily a vacation, with quite a few personal obligations. Nevertheless it was enough time to get the measure of the Leica Q, if not to wring every last nuance from it.
The Leica Q is that company’s attempt to produce a high-end full-frame compact with a fixed lens (actually, it’s not so compact) . Its most obvious competitor is the Sony RX1.
The Q is priced in the U.S. at $4,250, and I’ll have more to write about this, as well as the competition shortly.
In brief, the Leica Q is a fixed lens semi-compact camera with a 24 Megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor. The lens is a 28mm f/1.7 Summilux ASPH, and I’ll jump right in and say that its performance is simply stunning. Direct coupled as it is to this sensor, images produced have a Leica “look”, that while not easy to define is quite similar to that of the current M240. The Q would make an ideal companion to the M240, and since the28mm f/2 Summicron for the M costs nearly as much as the whole Q camera and lens combo, this might prove to be an interesting alternative.
The Q is no pocket compact. It feels not that much smaller than an M Leica, though it obviously is. The body’s front surface is covered in a textured rubberized material that gives good finger grip, and around the rear is a thumb recess that gives excellent purchase. As the saying goes, the large shutter button falls readily to hand (or forefinger, as it were). There is a big red Leica logo dot on the left front panel which many users will cover with a bit of black electrical tape for more discrete street shooting. I know that I would.
There is a three position lever surrounding the shutter button, OFF / S / C, the latter two positions being, obviously, Single and Continuous shooting modes. Up to 10FPS is possible, but the buffer isn’t all that large.
A red-dotted video button lies to the right of the shutter release and to its left a large shutter mode dial. There is also a heavily recessed adjustment wheel just to the right of the thumb indent. What it adjusts depends on what mode the camera is in.
The rest of the top panel has a hot shoe with cover, two small holes for audio picked when shooting video, and the words Leica Q engraved on the top left. The words LEICA CAMARA WETZLAR GERMANY are engraved in large letter just above the rear LCD, just in case there was any doubt about brand or manufacturing locale.
Exposure control is via the now ubiquitous Red A system, being used by quite a few manufacturers, and which I like a lot. The shutter speed dial has a red A position, as does the lens’ aperture ring. With both on A the camera is in auto exposure mode. When the shutter dial is set to a preferred shutter speed and the lens ring is left on A, the camera is in Shutter priority, and when the reverse is true the camera is in Aperture priority. With both dials off the red As the camera operates in fully manual mode.
A standout feature of the Leica Q is its ultra-high resolution electronic viewfinder… 3.68 M dots… the highest currently on the market. Lag appears to be very low, though I don’t have a spec on the refresh rate. Unlike its erstwhile competitor, the Sony RX1, the Q’s EVF is built-in, not an optional extra, and therefore it adds no exterior bulk to the design.
The rear LCD is a touch panel, making control of various camera functions quite straightforward, in the current smartphone idiom.
There really is only one competitor to the Leica Q and that’s the Sony RX1. On the market since late 2012, the RX1 has till now been in a class of its own. The Q now makes it a party of two.
The RX1 currently sells for $2,800 and the EVM-1K electronic viewfinder is priced at $450. Totalling $3,250, this makes the Leica Q’s price of $4,250 not seem so outrageous after all.
I owned at RX1 for a while, and thought it to be a pretty exciting camera. But, I eventually sold it because I found its fixed focal length, wide angle lens to be too limiting for the type of shooting that I do.
The Single Fixed Lens Issue
If Leica, or anyone else for that matter, could make a small ultra-high-quality zoom lens with a fast aperture for a full frame sensor, they would. But it can’t be done, at any price.
So companies such as Sony and Leica have chosen to use fast wide-angle, fixed-focal-length lenses. In the case of Sony, a Zeiss 35mm f/2 is used, and in the case of the Leica Q a 28mm f/1.7 Summilux ASPH.
Both of these lenses are state-of-the-art, and it’s hard to fault either. But, for me at least, it’s the fact that they are fixed focal length that queers the deal.
I know that many street shooters live and breath the 28-35mm focal range. I do to – sometimes. But not always, and not even the majority of the time. Looking through the EXIF data of literally thousands of my images over the years I find myself shooting in the 50-150mm range more often than any other focal lengths. For this reason, the Q isn’t my personal cup of tea. But it also raises an issue in my mind, and that is the value proposition of a pricy camera that just covers one focal length.
I spent several days walking around NYC as a tourist with the Q over my shoulder. When I got a shot where its focal length was appropriate, I was thrilled. The Q was superb to work with and the image quality was exceptional. But more often than not I wished that I had a wider range (longer) of focal lengths to work with, and a number of potentially good shots were lost because I just didn’t have the reach that I wanted. This says more about me and my style of working than it does about the Leica Q.
So, here’s the thing. If you have a shooting history of working with wide and semi-wide lenses, and find that shooting with a 28mm lens meets your needs, then the Q may well be just your cup of tea. On the other hand, if you are used to working with a range of focal lengths then you will find the Q to be an excellent tool, but not necessarily one that will satisfy your working style.
The above highly cropped photograph is indicative of the problem that I had being limited to a wide-angle lens.
The smaller frame below is what I was able to shoot with the Q’s 28mm lens. The extreme crop above is what I saw and wanted to capture.
In Camera Cropping
The Q has a curious feature… in-camera cropping. If you wish that the camera actually had a zoom lens, say with 28-35-50mm focal lengths, then you can change the cropping in camera, and in addition to its actual 28mm focal length shoot with the image cropped to 35mm and 50mm farmings. Just be aware that this applies to JPGs only and that your raws will be unaffected. Of course the JPGS will be of lower resolution; 15MP and 5MP respectively for 35mm and 50mm cropping. Cute, but not terribly useful. Unless you are using images straight out of the camera why not do the cropping in Adobe’s Lightroom (which is bundled with the Q).
Now if Leica had built the Q with its justly famous Tri-Elmar design for the M instead of using an ersatz in-camera crop I would have been ecstatic, but it was not to be. One can dream though.
Quirks and Cudos
Though the overall design if the Leica Q is quite excellent, there are a couple of quirks which annoy; one of them from the moment you open the box.
The 28mm f/1.7 Summilux comes with both a lens cap and a lens shade. But, they are mutually exclusive. Here’s what I mean.
Take off the lens cap and proceed to put on the lens shade. You can stop now, because what you’ll discover is that you can’t. It doesn’t fit. Instead you will find that there is a metal ring surrounding the front of the lens which must be unscrewed first. Now the lens shade can be attached.
Next, try and remove the shade and replace the cap. Can’t be done unless you find the metal ring, which is likely in some pants pocket, jacket or bag or other.
Really Leica! Really? Is this the best design that you could come up with?
Another quirk is not on the technical side but in the firmware (V1.0). For reasons unknown, in Program mode the camera wants to have as high a shutter speed as it can, forcing the aperture to be much wider than one would normally desire. I frequently found the camera shooting at 1/1000 sec @ f/1.7 @ ISO 125 in open shade. Similarly, inside a shop 1/800 @ f/2.8 @ ISO 640 was auto-selected.
These are simply not sensible settings for optimum exposure and performance, especially with the fixed 28mm lens. And, if the test camera which I was given indeed has shipping firmware then I would urge Leica to have a second look at the auto-exposure program algorithms.
The third item that I found to be annoying is the lack of an articulated LCD. A fixed and flush panel may look more elegant, but it is far less useful than one that allows high and low angle shooting. It really isn’t as if incorporating articulation adds any significant bulk (the Q is already in the middle-weight category as it is), and other manufacturers have shown that these can be made keeping the profile low and without a compromise in robustness. On balance I feel that the Q would have been considerably enhanced as a photographic tool if the rear LCD were articulated.
On a more positive note, I have to say that the Q is an absolute pleasure to handle and shoot with. I was especially taken with the optional hand-grip and finger loop. In combination with the rear panel thumb groove this provides for some of the most secure and enjoyable camera handling I’ve ever experienced.
The Bottom Line – For Now
Let’s be clear. I have always been a huge fan of Leica products. I made a living for years as a photojournalist using an M3 and an M2, and over the years have owned an M4, M6, M8 and M9. Only budgetary restrictions have prevented me from owning a Leica S.
But, this affinity does not mean that I look at the company or its products with rose coloured glasses. I find that Leica frequently makes design decisions that I disagree with, and, not surprisingly, I also don’t find all of their products to meet my particular needs.
The new Leica Q is a case in point. If I was heavily involved in wide-angle street shooting and had a spare $5K, I’d be all over my local dealer to put me at the front of the queue (Q?) for the Q. But I am not, and don’t. But for anyone that fits this description I can offer praise and high regard for the new Q. Leica just has to fix the auto-exposure algorithm before first shipment so that the bias toward too high shutter speeds is corrected.
Otherwise the Q scores highly. Like all true Leica cameras it is a thing of beauty in terms of fit and finish. Optically, and in terms of image quality, this is an exceptional camera. I did no high ISO or resolution tests, but the camera passed my subjective image quality tests with flying colours – which is no small feat.
Michael – June, 2015
A reader sent me the following e-mail. I now stand corrected.
“I enjoyed reading your article on the Leica Q. Just one minor point you may wish to check. The metal lens cap will fit on the mounted lens shade. This is why Leica provides no additional lens cap for the shade (similar to the 28 2,0) and there is no need to take it off.”
Sean Reid at Reidreviews (a subscription site, and well worth your attention) has just published a complete long-term review of the Leica Q which he has been testing since December of 2014. It includes various side-by-side tests comparing the new camera to the Sony RX1R and Leica M-246.
He also has published two new articles based on field work done with the Q in Florida and Vermont.