Leica Breaks The Mould For Its New Mirrorless Camera System
Leica T (Typ 701)
Recalibrate all your conceptions of what a Leica camera should be because the new model T is like nothing we’ve ever seen from the German marque before… actually, it’s unlike any other CSC we’ve seen. Report by Paul Burrows.
Aside from the cameras it sources from Panasonic, everything Leica has done up until now in the digital era has been informed by its past. The digital Ms are rooted in the M7 (and further back), the X Series models obviously have rangefinder cameras in their DNA, and the S System D-SLRs follow the traditional formula for a reflex design.
So, when Leica came to design its interpretation of the digital camera that is purely of the 21st century – the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera – it’s logical to expect it might have erred on the side of conservatism. In fact, exactly the opposite has happened with Leica embracing the whole idea of a purely contemporary digital camera perhaps more wholeheartedly than anybody else. The Leica T is uncompromisingly modernistic and it embodies nothing, in design terms, of the past beyond the brand’s core values of premium quality and precision engineering. So, in many ways, the Leica T is not a camera for the traditional Leica customer and it’s almost certainly not targeted at them or, arguably, even camera enthusiasts in general.
That said, neither group is precluded from liking the Leica T – and, in fact, it does seriously grow on you over time – but they need to understand that it hasn’t been designed with them uppermost in mind.
Like any prestige brand, Leica walks a fine line between maintaining exclusivity and achieving sufficient volumes to be not just profitable, but purely viable. So the reality is that any new camera system had to dare to be different while, at the same time, preserving the essence of what makes a Leica camera a Leica camera. It would have been all too easy for Leica to come up with essentially a mini M system – indeed the X Vario hints at it – and this would have appealed to the purists, but wouldn’t bring the marque many more new customers… especially since Fujifilm has cheekily made this space its own.
Before it is anything else, then, the Leica T is a premium product just like a luxury watch or a prestige car and, let’s be honest, for some that will be its primary appeal. But style only really works if it’s backed by substance and, thankfully, there is a lot more to Leica’s compact system camera. Of course, breaking with a tradition as strong as Leica’s is a risky business, but the T is the camera it had to build. The product planning meetings must have been interesting – especially as the temptation to just throw in some little historical element must have been hard to resist – but in the end, Leica stuck rigidly to its ‘clean slate’ policy and, frankly, the T is a far, far better and more cohesive product for it.
While it’s vaguely shaped like a rangefinder camera – the dimensions are deliberately similar to those of the original Ur-Leica of 1914 – the T’s styling is thoroughly and utterly contemporary. What’s Leica-like about the T’s body, though, is that it’s milled from a solid block of aluminium – a process that takes 55 minutes and reduces the 1.2 kilogram lump to just 94 grams of metallic lusciousness. It’s followed by 45 minutes of hand-polishing to give the finish a particularly seductive lustre. There is a black version, but for once, the ‘naked’ finish is the more appealing. The one-piece body-and-chassis exudes the traditional Leica balance of precision and solidity, but also has the urbane sophistication of a 21st century device like, for example, Apple’s iPad tablets. Likewise, there’s a passing nod to dials in the T’s pair of semi-recessed control wheels, but in practice the camera is almost entirely operated via a touchscreen interface which even by-passes traditional menus.
Leica has always erred on the side of minimalism when it came equipping its cameras, avoiding anything deemed not essential or that has the potential to compromise performance, including autofocusing. While the Leica T System does finally embrace autofocusing, its feature list is somewhat puritanical compared to the rest of CSC world where the approach is mostly to include ‘everything but the kitchen sink’. Even Fujifilm’s fairly sober X-E2 and X-T1 look positively frivolous alongside the pared-down T.
The T is assembled in Germany at Leica’s brand new, high-tech facility in its hometown of Wetzlar
and much of what’s inside was designed by the company’s own engineers and technicians, including the processor. For the record, the body is made at Leica’s factory in Portugal. What Leica doesn’t have in-house though, is any stylists so, in actual fact, all its ‘Made in Germany’ cameras have been penned by external design bureaux, mostly notably Audi Design which also did the C and the M9 Titanium.
The T System gets its own dedicated lens mount – a four-claw bayonet with an array of ten electrical contacts (there are no mechanical couplings) – but naturally there’s an adapter for the M mount rangefinder lens. If these carry the 6-bit coding introduced with the M8 in 2006, the lens details will be recorded in the image EXIF data.
The first T System lenses are German-designed, but built in Japan and, as with any brand new mount, it’s here that Leica will have to pull out all the stops to create a reasonable choice as quickly as possible. The camera arrives with just two lenses – an 18-56mm zoom and a 23mm f2.0 prime – with another two promised for Photokina in a couple of months time, namely an 11-23mm wide-angle zoom and a 55-135mm telezoom. That’s a span of 17mm to 200mm in terms of effective focal length and presumably Leica is debating whether the lenses that are particularly popular with M users – such as ultra-wide or ultra-fast – will also be in demand for the T. Maybe not.
The T System is based on an ‘APS-C’ format sensor with a 1.5x magnification factor for the focal length so the first four lenses are fairly standard fare. Incidentally, the T System lenses are more traditionally Leica in their styling than the camera body and all have metal barrel tubes, glass elements and stainless steel mounts. Leica says their optical designs optimise the correction of distortion – via the use of aspherical elements – but there’s some in-camera lens corrections going on as well (as with the digital M bodies).
The Leica T’s sensor is a CMOS-type device – sourced from Sony – with a total pixel count of 16.5 million (16.3 MP effective) and a sensitivity range equivalent to ISO 100 to 12,500. Due to the way it’s mounted in the one-piece body-and-chassis, there’s no way of providing active sensor cleaning or, for that matter, body-based image stabilisation. None of the lenses announced so far have optical image stabilisation either, but there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why it couldn’t be provided in the future.
Images can be captured in JPEGs at one of two compression levels and five sizes while, as per the M and X digital cameras, RAW files are captured as Adobe DNG files. There is no standalone RAW capture, just RAW+JPEG, either JPEG Fine or Superfine. The maximum continuous shooting speed is 5.0 fps for a burst of 12 frames. The T supports SD format memory cards, but interestingly has a useful 16 GB of internal memory so, primarily, it can be used ‘straight out of the box’, but it obviously also serves as a good-sized reserve in the event you run out of card space mid-shoot.
“It would have been all too easy for Leica to come up with essentially a mini M system – indeed the X Vario hints at it – and this would have appealed to the purists, but wouldn’t bring the marque many more new customers.”
In keeping with the ‘don’t-need-it-then-ditch-it’ approach to the feature set, the Leica T’s image processing functions are limited to a set of five ‘Film Mode’ presets – three for colour and two for B&W. The colour presets – Standard, Vivid and Natural – can be fine-tuned for saturation, contrast and sharpness; the B&W presets – called B&W Natural and B&W High Contrast – for the latter two parameters only. Everything else – i.e. noise reduction, lens corrections, etc – is done in the background and things like filter effects are most definitely off the menu.
Talking of menus, the Leica T’s user interface is where it completely parts company with the past and wholeheartedly embraces the control device of the moment, the touch screen. The entire back panel of the T comprises the screen and the functions are displayed as tiles which, when touched, access the settings menu. If further adjustments are available, an arrowhead points to them. In some instances, touching the tile repeatedly cycles through the available settings (for example, the metering modes).
There’s a main menu and a ‘My Camera’ menu which you customise by dragging tiles from the former to the latter via a little camera icon. Beyond the two control wheels mentioned earlier, everything is done via your customised tile menu and, in practice, it works rather well. In the past we’ve praised camera designers for mixing touch screen operations with conventional menus and external controls – so you can take your pick – but Leica forces the issue with the T’s user interface and so, as a result, you have to learn how to use it. And guess what? You quickly learn to like it too. It helps that it’s all pretty logical, but Leica took a massive gamble abandoning conventional controls to the extent that it has and fortunately it seems to have paid off.
There are actually only five ‘real’ controls – four, if you count the combined shutter release and power lever as one (the latter also serves as the release for the pop-up flash) – so there isn’t even a replay button. A downward swipe on the touch screen brings up the last image captured and then touch control is used for browsing, accessing the thumbnail page (there’s only one with nine images) and zooming. However, you can also use the two control wheels for browsing and zooming. Tapping the ‘Info’ soft key cycles through the review screen options which include a brightness histogram and a highlight warning. When you’re in camera mode, this same soft key is used to cycle through the live view screens which include a real-time histogram and a framing grid (but unfortunately not both together) plus basic capture data or an unadorned image. Given the screen is a massive 9.4 cm with a resolution of 1.3 million dots, the image display is pretty impressive. It’s flush-fitted like on a tablet or smartphone, but this also means it’s fixed and can’t be tilted to adjust the viewing angle. An optional EVF is available and it’s a new Leica-designed Visoflex unit with a resolution of 2.4 million dots and an adjustment for tilt. It couples to the hotshoe and is exclusive to the T System. There has been much debate about whether the T should have a built-in viewfinder, but Leica makes the valid point that EVF technology is still evolving and will certainly improve during the lifetime of the camera so it wants to be able to offer better devices in the future. Nevertheless, it means an additional outlay and also takes up the hotshoe, precluding fitting a bigger flash.
Leica sees ownership of a T as a long-term thing which, of course, is pretty true of all its German-built cameras, not to mention if you’ve invested the best part of $5000 in something.
The body goes some way to justifying the price tag. It is indeed a thing of beauty and there’s a silky tactility that’s nothing short of addictive. It sits in the hand beautifully and there’s unquestionably a distinctly different feel to that of thin panels with air behind them. Worryingly, any blemish is going to be unforgivable, but do you really want to cover up such a magnificent piece of metal working with a camera case, no matter how bespoke? The finish looks to be pretty durable, but you’re unlikely to want to put it to the test. And despite being one-piece, the body isn’t weatherised.
In the pursuit of ruthlessly clean lines for the T, Leica has even redesigned the way the camera strap attaches to the body. Gone are the unsightly lugs and rings, replaced by nifty click-lock plugs made from stainless steel. If you choose to wear your Leica T strapless – risky – tiny little covers conceal the connection points, restoring uninterrupted smoothness to the body lines. Releasing both the covers and the strap plugs requires a tiny tool – shaped like the T’s body, bless – which looks just too easy to misplace (no doubt why Leica supplies two). The strap itself is neoprene rubber rather than woven nylon so, like the rest of the camera, it’s completely smooth. And a nice spin-off of this coupling arrangement is that you can never have a twisted strap.
Another interesting aspect of the body’s design is that the battery pack incorporates the battery compartment cover so there’s no concern about this possibly breaking off over time and there are no hinges to upset the lines. Additionally, a double-latch arrangement prevents the battery falling straight out of its compartment until you give it another little push which frees it completely. Neat.
So, does such an obsession with form end up compromising function here? The simple answer is no, because it’s clear a whole lot of thought has gone into the latter too. When shooting, the control wheels provide direct access to the exposure mode and the ISO settings… arguably the two most important adjustments required in the field, and we’ve seen how clunky things can get when these are only accessible via menus (remember the lamentable Nikon V1?). Depending on the exposure mode, the control wheels do different things. In program mode, both apply shifts, but one additionally shifts the ISO as well as the aperture and shutter speed combination. In the semi-auto modes, one control makes the manual adjustment while the other changes the ISO. In manual mode, one switches between aperture or shutter speeds (there’s a touch tab for this) while the other still changes the ISO. Easy-peasy.
What about exposure compensation which is another control you’re likely to need quite a lot? Simple. You arrange your custom menu so the tile is on the top line and then it’s easy to get to. Incidental-
ly, once you have the exposure compensation scale on-screen, you make adjustments via touch control or by using either of the control wheels. The range is +/-3.0 EV, traversed in one-third stop increments, but there’s a slightly annoying idiosyncrasy in that you have to touch the ‘Set’ tab in order to make a setting stick.
This is also true of the exposure bracketing function which allows for an adjustment of up to +/-3.0 EV per frame across a sequence of three frames. Where having to go via ‘Set’ is mostly an issue is when cancelling these settings… you might think you’ve zeroed everything, but unless you press ‘Set’ afterwards, you haven’t.
There’s the choice of multi-zone, centre-weighted average and spot metering, and a selection of eight subject modes which are fully automatic (including the ISO) except for the availability of exposure compensation. The Auto ISO control can be configured to a maximum ISO setting and a minimum shutter speed down to one second… or this can be set to Auto and is then dictated by the lens focal length.
The shutter has a speed range of 30-1/4000 second with flash sync up to 1/180 second (but no ‘B’ setting). The built-in flash is quite small and has a metric guide number of 4.5 (at ISO 100), but the selection of control modes includes red-eye reduction, fill-in, slow-speed sync and the choice of first/second curtain sync (which gets its own setting tile). The flash compensation range is also +/-3.0 EV.
“The one-piece bodyand- chassis exudes the traditional Leica balance of precision and solidity, but also has the urbane sophistication of a 21st century mobile device.”
The white balance controls include a set of five presets, provisions for making two custom measurements and manual colour temperature setting (over 2000 to 11,500 degrees Kelvin), but no bracketing and no fine-tuning.
If it follows that if the Leica T is the luxury camera for the smartphone generation then it’s likely they’ll be grabbing plenty of movie clips to upload to social media via its built-in WiFi module. Incidentally, the memory card’s compartment cover is only plastic so the WiFi can work, otherwise it’d be aluminium too.
The T keeps its video recording operations simple… 1080p or 720p resolution at 30 fps with MPEG 4 AVC/H .264 compression in the MP4 format. It has built-in stereo microphones with a switchable wind-cut filter, but no way of coupling an external mic (unless Leica devises a coupling that uses the hotshoe which seems unlikely). There’s a dedicated recording start/stop button. Functionality includes autofocusing, but it’s slow so you’re better off doing it manually. You can use exposure compensation, but exposure control is fully automatic regardless of the set mode. The ‘Film Modes’ presets are available.
The Minimalist Approach
The Leica T uses conventional contrast-detection autofocusing with nine measurement zones and the choice of multi-point or centre-point area modes, plus a moveable point which is when the user interface again becomes a bit idiosyncratic.
After selecting the ‘1 Point’ mode, it’s necessary to tap the accompanying arrow head which subsequently activates the focusing zone so it can be moved around the frame. You can do this via touch control or by using the two input wheels,
but then – wait for it – you also have to press ‘Set’, otherwise the AF zone will stay exactly where it was before you started making any adjustments. Given this is a pretty cumbersome arrangement, the Leica’s ‘Touch AF’ mode is the much better option here and provides the same coverage. There’s also a face detection mode. Manual focusing is assisted by two-step image magnification – 3.0x or 6.0x – and a distance scale. We’ve already noted a few of the more notable omissions, but to this list can be added colour space switching, a level display, an AF/AE lock, a focus peaking display, HDR capture and RGB histograms. Leica’s reasoning with most of them is that many people never use them which is probably particularly true of the T’s target audience and, to be honest, also beyond.
For example, when did you last use the AE lock in preference to exposure compensation or spot metering? Exactly. White balance bracketing versus taking a custom measurement? Thought not. Filter effects? C’mon!
So Leica’s minimalistic approach to the T might have merit after all. You can, in fact, live without everything it hasn’t got even if a few of these things would have definitely enhanced its overall convenience.
Not surprisingly imaging performance is a big deal for Leica which is why it’s putting so much effort into the design of the T System lenses. And while the camera’s sensor may not be its own, all the programming for the processor that makes it work most definitely is so Leica is in command here. And, of course, following Fujifilm, Leica endorses 16 MP as the ‘sweet spot’ for ‘APS-C’ size sensors in terms of balancing resolution, dynamic range and signal-to-noise ratio.
In the spirit of how Leica envisages the T being used, we shot Superfine quality large JPEGs for test purposes and no doubt helped by the superb optics of the 18-56mm zoom – which is like the Fujinon XF 18-55mm in being too good to be demeaned as a ‘kit’ lens – they are exceptional.
Leica is clearly milking every effective pixel for all its worth because the level of detailing is stunning as is the crispness with which each contrast edge is defined.
The dynamic range is excellent – just as well given there’s no expansion processing available – and the tonal gradations are so smooth you’d swear you were looking at the output from a bigger sensor with bigger pixels. The colour reproduction is consistently accurate across the spectrum and from the highly saturated to subtle shades. Using the Vivid ‘Film Mode’ bumps up both the saturation and contrast considerably and it’s a bit like shooting with Kodachrome 64 and an old M mount lens… punchy, but a bit unforgiving in some situations. Noise is low all the way up to ISO 3200 and because Leica appears to be quite restrained with its noise reduction processing, some mottling or graininess is evident in the areas of uniform tone in images captured at ISO 6400 and 12,500, but neither the definition nor colour saturation are overly affected.
To be frank, the T isn’t quite in the same league as the M240 when it comes to image quality – particularly the high ISO performance – but it’s knocking on the door of the clubhouse and could probably qualify for an honorary membership.
Clearly the Leica T isn’t about pure speed, although 5.0 fps is still fairly respectable. With our reference memory card loaded – Lexar’s Professional 600x 64 GB SDXC UHS-I speed device – the T fired off the mandated 12 frames in 2.421 seconds which represents a continuous shooting speed of 4.96 fps. The JPEG/large/superfine test files size was typically around 5.7 MB while the RAWs were in the order of 24 MB. The burst length and maximum shooting speed remain the same, by the way, even when shooting RAW+JPEG.
Just reading about the Leica T isn’t really enough to get a feel (no pun intended) for this camera, you really have to see it and handle it in the flesh to get the full sense of what it’s all about. And it’s not necessarily all about that fabulous body either, although few other cameras feel quite so delight- ful in the hand. The Leica T is an experience and it’s only after you’ve had a taste of this that you start to appreciate what Leica is trying to achieve. You also need to abandon all your ideas or preconceptions of what a contemporary Leica camera should be, because these will invariably be informed by the past and the T is most emphatically a new start.
It could be that Leica has tried just a bit too hard to rid the T of anything it deems unnecessary and that a few more enthusiast-level functions could easily have been included without compromising the design brief, but the reality is that you can live without most of them and still get what you want out of the camera. Obviously, the user interface lends itself easily to firmware upgrades so there’s no reason Leica couldn’t offer a ‘pro pack’ update in the future. Then there’s the little matter of the price tag which really doesn’t make any sense alongside the likes of the Fujifilm X-T1 or the Olympus OM-D E-M1, but the Leica T isn’t really a shortlist sort of a camera; it’s a see-it/want-it camera. And the truth is that we’ve never been here with Leica before… “fashionable” being the last adjective you’d apply to one of its German-made products. But the times they are a-changin’ and the bottom line is that if you buy a Leica T you’ll be getting a fabulous piece of design that makes both a big statement and pretty decent images.
Talk about parting with tradition… Leica has distilled the T’s external controls down to just four (five if you count the power switch around the shutter release separately). Take a deep breath.
Probably an essential additional purchase for Australian conditions. The new Type 020 Visoflex EVF is exclusive to the Leica T and has a resolution of 2.4 million dots.
The T’s touch control interface is surprisingly intuitive, especially as you can create your own customised ‘My Camera’ menu.
Despite the minimalisation of the external controls, there’s still a separate button for video start/stop.
Rear panel mimics smartphone design with a fully flush-fitted touch screen.
While there is virtually nothing of the past in the T, it’s close in dimensions to the
original Ur-Leica from 1914… symbolic given Leica’s 100th anniversary.
Leica has even redesigned the way the camera strap is coupled to the T’s body, eliminating ugly lugs and rings.
The body and chassis are one unit, milled from a 1.2 kilogram block of aluminium down to just 94 grams of metallic lusciousness.
Test images taken mostly with the 18-56mm zoom which, not surprisingly, performs well beyond what’s normally expected of a system’s standard zoom. Images are superfine JPEGs and exhibit stunning detailing with crisply defined edges. The colour reproduction is consistently accurate across the spectrum and noise is acceptably low up to ISO 3200. These images were all taken at ISO settings between 400 and 1600.
Due shortly are two more lenses – an 11-23mm f3.5-4.5 wide-angle zoom (equivalent to 17-35mm) and a 55-135mm f3.5-5.6 telezoom (equivalent to 80-200mm).