Is Leica’s New Q
The Answer? // Collecting
SO, AFTER ALL THE DRAMA OF THE out-of-left-field Leica T, we’re now back on script with the Q. As we noted at the time of its launch, the T was the camera Leica had to make and so, in all honesty, is the Q, except for very different reasons. The T is an imperative, the Q is intuitive. In other words, Leica couldn’t not make this camera. It’s in the genes.
You can just imagine the Leica design department looking at the Fujifilm X100 cameras and, probably more specifically, the Sony RX1/RX1R, and thinking, “We can really do better than this”.
So the Q ticks all the boxes the others missed. It has a full-35mm sensor sans optical low pass filter. It has a fast f1.7 speed 28mm lens… not dubbed ‘the cinematic focal length’ for nothing. It has a built-in electronic viewfinder which resets the bar for image quality. And, above all else, it’s a genuine Made-In-Germany Leica camera. What’s not to like? Well, some are baulking at the price tag, but this needs to be put in perspective given what you’d pay to have the same combo from anywhere else in Leica land (i.e. M Type 240 body + Summilux-M 28mm f1.4 ASPH lens = ouch!). So the Q’s Summilux 28mm f1.7 ASPH lens is fixed, but how many M users mostly use just one lens… typically either a 28mm or a 35mm? These focal lengths represent pretty much the essence of RF camera photography.
On a more practical note, a fixed lens means no dust-on-sensor issues and, more importantly, a more compact and, yes, less costly design. It also means the lens is precisely matched to the sensor which has real benefits in terms of the imaging performance.
Creating A Presence
While it’s smaller and lighter than a digital M, the Q isn’t exactly compact. It’s more mid-sized, but it has real presence and is distinctly M-like in its styling, the way it feels and the quality of its construction.
The top panel is milled from a solid lump of aluminium while the main shell is a magnesium alloy component. All the markings are laser engraved and everything works with a typically Leica smoothness and precision. There’s a traditional shutter speed dial and, on the lens, an aperture ring. Both have ‘A’ settings so, like on Fujifilm’s X100 models, the selection of the ‘PASM’ exposure
control modes depends on whether both, either or neither are parked on ‘A’. The lens also has a manual focusing collar and its distance scale is very niftily switched over when the macro mode is selected.
However, significantly, the Leica Q has autofocusing – engaged by setting the focusing collar to its ‘AF’ position – and here, perhaps, is a glimpse into the future. At first glance, the Q’s lens looks like it might be interchangeable and, on closer examination, there doesn’t seem any reason why a mount couldn’t be accommodated. Leica has hinted that the Q – its factory code is Typ 116, by the way – is just the start, but whether there’ll subsequently be a selection of fixed lens models like Sigma’s quattro dp series or an interchangeable lens camera isn’t clear. Nevertheless, with its EVF and autofocusing, the Q does start to look something like the basic formula for a ‘future M’. We shall see.
Importantly though, Leica has nailed the EVF in the Q. It’s a LCOS-type display (the initials stand for Liquid Crystal On Silicon) with a resolution of 3.68 million dots and it’s quite the best we’ve seen so far, superior even to Sony’s excellent OLED displays. It’s bright with a real world colour rendition, lots of definition and a good dynamic range. While the LCOS display is a field-sequential type (i.e. each point alternatively shows red, green and blue), there’s no noticeable lag or colour ‘tearing’ when panning. Proximity sensors in the eyepiece enable automatic switching between the EVF and Q’s monitor screen which is a fixed TFT LCD panel with a resolution of 1.04 million dots and touch control. However, unlike the all-or-nothing T, the Q’s user interface is conventionally menu-based with a fourway navigator and the touch controls are there as an option (although the facility can’t be switched off completely).
The Leica Q has a full-35mm CMOS sensor – source unknown and not the same device as is used in the M Typ 240 – with a total pixel count of 26.3 million and a sensitivity range equivalent to ISO 100 to 50,000.
The effective pixel count of 24.2 million gives a maximum image size of 6000x4000 pixels, but there’s the option of recording at three smaller sizes. Additionally, there are two ‘digital zoom’ settings which equate to the 35mm and 50mm focal lengths and which can be selected on-the-fly via a button on the back panel adjacent to the thumbrest. These are obviously crops, but in the case of the 35mm setting, the resolution is still 15.4 megapixels so it’s a handy facility for, say, street photography. The crops are shown in the EVF and monitor just like the brightline frames in an RF camera’s finder and, similarly, what’s happening outside the frame can be seen as well.
Furthermore, with RAW+JPEG capture, the RAW file is still recorded at the 28mm angle-of-view and the cropping frame can subsequently be moved around in Adobe Lightroom (which is supplied as a free download with the camera).
A fixed lens means no dust- on-sensor issues and, more importantly, a more compact and, yes, less costly design. It also means the lens is precisely matched to the sensor which has real benefits in terms of the imaging performance.
As is standard on Leica digital cameras, RAW files are captured in the Adobe DNG format. There’s only one JPEG setting which is a manifestation of Leica’s minimalist approach, encompassed in the slogan “Das Wesentliche” which translates as “the essential”. In other words, why would anybody want to record lower quality images in-camera? Good question.
In the spirit of “Das Wesentliche”, the Leica Q also lacks any picture presets (although JPEGs can be fine-tuned for sharpness, contrast and saturation) and, God forbid, any special effects. It does, however, have a set of subject/scene modes which include panorama stitching, an intervalometer and, just to contradict the last sentence, the ‘Miniature’ effect (well, it’s more about focus than a gimmick, isn’t it?).
The heavy-lifting is done by Leica’s current-generation ‘Maestro II’ processor which enables continuous shooting for stills at up to a snappy 10 fps as well as video shooting at 1080/60p. While it’s resolutely a stills camera in design, the Q is actually fairly capable in the video department. Clips are recorded in the MP4 format (using MPEG 4 AVC/H .264 compression) with stereo sound via builtin microphones which have a gain adjustment and a switchable wind-cut filter. Adjustments are provided for sharpness, contrast and saturation, while continuous AF and all the ‘PASM’ modes are available. Interestingly, the lens employs just one element for autofocus adjustments so the operation is virtually silent which is a bonus when shooting video. A dedicated video recording start/stop button is located adjacent to the shutter release on the camera’s top panel.
The Q’s AF system is sensor based and uses contrast-detection measurement without, it would appear, any ‘go-faster’ processes, but it’s still exceptionally responsive and very reliable. There’s 169 measuring points which cover virtually the entire frame with the option of automatic or single-point selection, auto tracking and face detection.
Switching between single-shot and continuous operation is manual (via the main menu), but there are ‘Touch AF or ‘Touch AF + Release’ operations available on the monitor screen. A low light/con- trast illuminator is provided. While the AF is very capable, it wouldn’t be a real Leica camera if the manual focusing experience didn’t make this way of doing things arguably the more desirable option. The focusing collar is freed from its ‘AF’ position by depressing a small button set into its focusing tab and the subsequent movement is as smoothly fluid as that of any Leica M lens. Similar to any M lens, the distance markings are in both metres and feet, and there’s a depth-of-field scale for f4, f8, f11 and f16.
The minimum focusing distance is 30 centimetres, but as noted earlier, there’s a macro mode which is selected by turning a ring on the lens which also cleverly switches the distance scale to the close-
While the AF is very capable, it wouldn’t be a real Leica camera if the manual focusing experience didn’t make this way of doing things the more desirable option.
up range of 17 to 30 centimetres. It’s Leica showing off, really, but a very nice piece of precision mechanical engineering nonetheless. Focus assist is via the distinctly modern-era devices of a magnified image (up to 6x) with a focus peaking display in a choice of four colours.
Up To Speed
The lens’s aperture ring has click-stops in one-third EV intervals and the lens incorporates a leaf shutter with a speed range of 30-1/2000 second. It’s described as a “mechanical” shutter, although of course, it’s electronically controlled (and so fully dependent on battery power) and the word is used to distinguish it from the Q’s sensor-based “electronic” shutter which takes the faster speed range on from 1/2500 second to 1/16,000 second.
With the shutter speed dial set to its ‘2000+’ settings, the faster speeds are subsequently selected via the camera’s command wheel. The switchover between shutter types is performed automatically. Flash sync is at all speeds up to 1/500 second, but like any M body, the Q doesn’t have a built-in flash. External units sync via a hotshoe only as there isn’t a PC terminal.
Multi-zone, centre-weighted average and spot metering measurements are available and the auto exposure modes are supplemented by up to +/-3.0 EV of exposure compensation and auto bracketing over the same range for a sequence of three frames.
The white balance control options comprise auto correction, five presets, provisions for making and storing two custom measurements, and manual colour temperature setting over a range of 2000 to 11,500 degrees Celsius. No bracketing or fine-tuning. Also absent are any manually-set processing functions for dynamic range expansion or noise reduction and, perhaps not surprisingly, there isn’t a multi-shot HDR capture mode. No doubt Leica thinks many Q users will shoot in RAW and sort all this out post-camera.
Pared down to the essentials, the menu is a simple arrangement comprising one, continuously-scrollable section with the submenus accessed via a rightclick of the navigator. The layout is crisp and clean with the emphasis on functionality above all else. The live view screen can be configured to include a guide grid (the classic ‘rule-of-thirds’), a real-time histogram, highlight warning and a singleaxis level indicator plus all the important status indicators and read-outs. All are obviously replicated in the EVF.
Definitely not quite so classical, is the built-in WiFi module which provides the convenience of NFC ‘touch-and-go’ connectivity. The Leica Q app allows for the wireless transmission of files and remote camera control, including exposure settings. The live view image is also available at the mobile device, either iOS or Android.
There’s only one JPEG setting which is a manifestation of Leica’s minimalist approach, encompassed in the slogan “Das Wesentliche” which translates as “the essential”.
Speed And Performance
With our reference 64 GB Lexar Professional SDXC (Speed Class 1) memory card
loaded, the Leica Q fired off a burst of a burst of 26 JPEG frames in 2.454 seconds which represents a continuous shooting speed of 10.6 fps. The typical file size for this test was 8.7 MB so the Q has no problems delivering on Leica’s shooting speed claims.
The JPEG image quality is simply delicious. The colours are slightly muted (fixed, if so desired, by setting it to ‘Medium High’ in the camera which adds some extra punch), but the dynamic range, crisply-defined detailing and smooth tonal gradations are all excellent.
Noise isn’t an issue up to ISO 6400 and still acceptable at ISO 12,500, but the two highest sensitivity settings do exhibit some blotchiness in areas of continuous tone and the colour saturation suffers accordingly, but the sharpness less so. Nevertheless, the RAW files contain just so much detail that post-camera noise reduction can be applied without unduly diminishing the overall image quality. This, combined with the f1.7 lens speed and image stabilisation, give the Q exceptional low-light shooting capabilities.
Of course, the lens is part of the deal here and there’s a distinctly Leica ‘look’ in terms of the contrast and colour balance. Centre-to-corner sharpness is pretty good even at f1.7, but excellent from f2.8 and beyond. There’s no vignetting and it’s very highly corrected in terms of distortion – three aspherical elements are included in the optical construction – and both spherical and chromatic aberrations. The Q does perform some in-camera corrections for lens aberrations, but regardless of how it gets there, the end result is nothing short of brilliant. The out-of-focus effects are beautifully smooth so images exhibit real depth and allure. And the 28mm focal length is hugely versatile, providing plenty of scope for experimenting with composition and the ‘room’ to crop later on if necessary.
Part of the whole Q experience us undoubtedly the handling. It feels like an M and can be worked like one too, but there’s also the option of going to full point-and-shoot operation – complete with touch screen controls – or any auto/manual combination that’s preferred in between. However, what’s really telling is that the Q is as comfortable – and pretty much almost as efficient – to use with manual focusing and exposure control as it is to set everything to auto. The simplicity – and this word is used in a very positive sense – is refreshing and, much more so than the T, the Q balances the traditional and contemporary in a way that gives it far wider appeal.
Let’s talk money. Live with the Leica Q for even a short period of time and the price tag becomes easier to justify. It is an expensive camera, but then it is a full-blown Leica – in terms of the build quality (both body and lens), the way it operates and the performance – and it’s also a combination of features and capabilities that makes for an immensely competent package… more so straight out of the box than any of the models suggested as rivals. And, in the end, there’s also a certain degree of exclusivity that comes with Leica’s 100-year-old legacy and the considerable reputation that this has built. In the end, potential buyers will have to decide whether they’re happy to pay a premium to have this cache.
But beyond the brand and badge, the Leica Q is a truly fine camera that’s a sheer joy to use and delivers wonderful results. End of story.
The control layout is simplicity itself. The single customisable ‘Fn’ button is in the middle of the rear-panel array.
What you see is what you get. The ‘2000+’ and ‘1+’ positions on the shutter speed dial provide access to the extended range of settings (up to 1/16,000 second via a sensor-based shutter).
Built-in EVF is a bright LCOStype display with a resolution of 3.68 million dots. Proximity sensor on the eyepiece provides auto switching between finder and monitor.
Similar in styling to the classic M, but the Q is smaller and lighter… and the 28mm f1.7 Summilux lens is fixed.
Small lever within the focusing tab (this is at the base of the lens) allows for the focusing collar to be unlocked.
Turning the focusing collar off its ‘AF’ setting engages manual focusing. The Macro selector ring switches to the close-focusing distances.
Aperture ring is calibrated in one-third stop increments.
Fixed TFT LCD monitor screen has touch controls, but the Q also has conventional menus and a set of traditional external controls.
In keeping with the M series bodies, the Q lacks a built-in flash. External units sync via the hotshoe.
The menu design is also clean, simple and intuitive.
The replay screen can be configured for a real-time histogram and highlight warning ( just visible as a small black section in the top left of this illustration).