Before the Leica Q
Before the Leica Q, I have never considered owning a Leica. I have been 100% loyal to Nikon for film SLRs and DSLRs (I am now on my 4th generation – the Df), though that isn’t the case when it comes to compact cameras, where I’ve typically used Canon ultra compacts like the Canon S120. Recently I started to wonder about getting a large sensor compact camera which would be more suited to street photography than my DSLR or the Canon S120. This interest was triggered by a friend of mine purchasing a Sony RX1 which packs a full frame sensor into a relatively small package. Initially I didn’t consider the Sony due to cost – at £2,700 this was no trivial purchase and instead looked closely at the The Fujifilm X100T and Olympus OMD 5 Mk II. Both of these cameras have retro looks and plenty of external controls, which personally I prefer and were far less expensive than the Sony.
The Fujifilm X100T resembles a Leica range finder, is competitively priced and is equipped with an APS-C 16.3MP sensor, a 23mm f/2 lens (35mm equivalent) and a hybrid electronic/optical EVF. Its image processor is effective in low-light and at high ISOs and there is a well regarded film simulation mode. If you do a search for ‘best camera for street photography’ it features well and so looked like a strong contender. The OM-D E5 Mk II is a rather different camera, as it offers a choice of lenses with a 16MP Four Thirds CMOS sensor. It has an electronic EVF and is also equipped with a tilt screen, 5 axis stabilisation and environmental sealing, none of which are present on the Fujifilm. It also had its fans when it came to street photography, not least because of its tilt screen and image stabilisation. Lastly, the f2.8 APS C Ricoh GR II (one of the few fixed 28mm equivalent cameras) is also viewed by many (notably Erik Kim) as an ideal street photography camera.
Then I read started to read reviews of the Leica Q. Pocket-Lint described it as “the best fixed-lens full-frame compact ever made” but it was Craig Mod‘s blog that really got me thinking. It was a six month field test in Asia and was one of the positive and compelling reviews I have ever read of a camera.
“Make no mistake: The Q is a surgical, professional machine. It pairs best-of-class modern technology (superb autofocus, an astounding electronic view finder, workable isos up to and beyond 10,000, a fast processor, beefy sensor) with a minimalist interface packed into a small body, all swaddled in the iconic industrial design for which Leica has become famous. The result is one of the least obtrusive, most single-minded image-capturing devices I’ve laid hands on.”
“If the gf1 so many years ago set in motion an entirely new genre of camera with micro four-thirds, the Q epitomizes it. If the iPhone is the perfect everyperson’s mirrorless, then the Q is some specialist miracle. It should not exist. It is one of those unicorn-like consumer products that so nails nearly every aspect of its being — from industrial to software design, from interface to output — that you can’t help but wonder how it clawed its way from the r&d lab. Out of the meetings. Away from the committees. How did it manage to maintain such clarity in its point of view?”
I believe that in hindsight… the Leica Q will be seen as one of the greatest fixed-prime-lens travel photography kits of all time.”
After reading that review I realised I wanted a Leica Q quite badly – but at close to £3,000 could I justify the purchase?
A demanding specification
Thinking through what I really wanted out of a large sensor compact I came up with a fairly demanding specification:
- Large sensor (full frame if possible, but no smaller than APS-C)
- Silent shutter operation
- Usable at high ISO
- A sharp, fast lens preferably with image stabilisation
- Fast autofocus
- Effective viewfinder
- Good handling/ergonomics
- Durable magnesium alloy construction
- Weather proof
- Good battery life
- Decent burst performance
- Value for money
The Leica Q has all this nailed except for weather sealing. That said, Craig Mod’s review indicated it was pretty tough:
“Over these last six months, the Q joined me while on assignment in South Korea, trekking across Myanmar, hiking the mountains of Shikoku, and spending a few freezing nights on Mt. Kōya. It was used in searing heat, 100% humidity, covered in sweat amid rice fields beneath a relentless sun…. The Q is small but substantial. Solid. It becomes an effortless all-day companion. Strapped across my chest, it was banged sideways against rocks, motorcycles, stone walls, metal water bottles, farmers, cats. It captured everything thrown at it and into it.”
I attended the Photography Show and after testing some of Nikon’s longest zooms and examining the new DL, went to the Leica stand to see if I could get my hands on one. There was one to hand and it didn’t take me long to decide that this was would be a wise purchase – the lens was astonishingly sharp, the build quality was rock solid and the camera was a joy to handle. The good people at Leica told me that the London Camera Company had six Qs on their stand to sell at the show, so I went and promptly bought one – the alternative being a lengthy waiting list. I wondered whether I would suffer buyer’s remorse afterwards – at £2,900 the Q is by far the most expensive camera purchase I have ever made.
My experience with the Q has really been an extension of my first touch of the camera – it is a delight to use. I am still getting over how sharp the f1.7 lens is – I believe it is the sharpest lens I own, or at least paired with a custom sensor it produces the sharpest images; and I have been using Nikkor primes on my Df for some time. Handling is a just a pleasure. What I also found is that the camera can be remote controlled from my iPhone, which has permitted some street shots that I would not have got otherwise and that I could compose in high contrast black and white whilst simultaneously shooting in raw. Though I prefer to use Silver Efex for mono conversion the black and white JPEGs are so good that I can sometimes use them and bypass post production altogether.
The shot to the right of Folkestone harbour is straight from the camera. The image at top is of some objects for sale in Deal Market as was shot at f1.7 focusing on the statuette at the back of the table and shows the almost 3D effect a fast, very sharp lens can produce. Here is my summary of how the Q met my requirements:
- Value for money – Leica’s 28mm f/1.4 retails at £3,900 with the f/2 costing £2,700. £2,900 for a full frame camera plus an f1.7 lens suddenly seems quite reasonable
- Fast burst performance – 10 fps burst
- Good battery life – 300 shots (Leica/CIPA tests) which is decent
- Weather proof – sadly the Leica Q is not weather sealed
- Durable magnesium alloy construction – a milled aluminium top and base plates and a magnesium alloy body provide an unrivalled quality feel
- Good handling/ergonomics – The camera is built in Germany, the home of the Leica M. There is a good thumb grip on the back, optional grip is excellent. The controls are well laid out with an excellent tactile feel to them.
- Effective viewfinder – The Q’s viewfinder is electronic rather than optical, but it does a pretty good job of mimicking an the optical EVF with its high resolution EVF, which at (3.68 megapixel resolution is the highest currently available.
- Fast autofocus – The Leica Q is the first full-frame Leica to incorporate an autofocus system. It has a 49-point system with multi, 1-point, tracking, face-detection and touch AF.
- A sharp, fast lens preferably with image stabilisation – f1.7, 5 axis stabilisation
- Usable at high ISO – up to 6,400 in my estimation with film like grain
- Silent shutter operation – leaf shutter for close to silent operation (1/2000s)
- Large sensor – 24 megapixel full frame sensor with no optical low-pass filter for improved detail and tone mapping
And here are some of the extra’s I didn’t expect.
- Remote control from iPhone via the Leica Q App
- Rapid transfer of images of to iPhone via the Leica Q App
- Ability to shoot wide open in bright conditions due to the electronic shutter (1/16000s)
- Excellent monochrome setting, which allows high contrast mono JPEGS to be captured along with full colour RAW images
- The Outstanding macro mode with 17cm minimum focus distance, activated from the control ring on the lens. The distance markings on the lens change to a new set of macro markings in a way that really exemplifies engineering excellence.
- The aperture is controlled by a ring situated at the front of the lens (as with any M lens) and is astonishingly pleasing to handle and use
- Excellent bokeh, especially for a relatively wide angle lens
- The lens hood is incredibly solid and attractive – it is similar to the M’s Summarit 35mm
For a compact camera the Leica Q is quite substantial – it is not, by any means a pocket camera at 130 x 80 x 93mm and 640g. The purchase price is the same, but more so – it is very substantial! However, it is the best camera I have ever owned, and for me, an important step forward in camera development. I am shooting more and shooting differently – in street photography the 28mm makes you get in close (like Robert Capa and William Klein) and that means I am shooting better with the Leica Q and that is worth a lot to me.