Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Leica Q Review - A Red Dot Renaissance?

Just for fun, I'll start at the end - this is a great camera, and I only wish it were mine.  Yes, the basic rangefinder design still has some interesting shortcomings, but successive generations of Germanic engineering evolution have yielded a truly satisfying, 21st century digital camera, capable of delivering outstanding image quality.  Any operational shortcomings can mostly be rectified by firmware updates, and it's a suitably good-looking, modern device, thereby ensuring that owners should feel happy with what they've bought for years to come.  And that's key because, being a fixed lens digital, "what you see is all you get"; buying into the Q means no ability to swap lenses, and of course no chance to change sensors (though with 24 MP, full-frame sensor on tap, there'd really be little point in doing so).  Also on the plus side, it is "mainstream Leica" enough to offer the chance of strong residuals, and the entry price is lower than anything comparable in what some would call the "true" Leica catalogue of M- and S-badged products.

St. Nectan's Waterfall, Nr. Tintagel

But there is one question that needs asking: is this indeed the first model in a new family of "Leica Ms for the masses", or a one-off exercise aimed at testing out some new EVF, sensor, and software-corrected lens technology?  Time will tell, of course, and for many that's all beyond the point: it's a real Leica; it's lineage is clear; and the appeal is obvious.  So now it only remains to dig-in and see if $4,000 + buys you everything you'd expect from a camera bearing that iconic logo.

Grimspound, Dartmoor

Firstly - and perhaps obviously - this is in no way a professional review.  I rented the camera from LensRentals to give me something different to use on a visit to the UK.  This was not a photographic trip, but rather a holiday with family and friends.  Therefore, taking a Canon 1D body, tripod, multiple lenses and a backpack, would have been both a pain to travel with and mean that I'd be slowing everyone down, interfering with what was supposed to be their vacation, too.  Now, I have not owned a Leica before, though I did have a rangefinder for a while some forty-plus years ago, but am experienced enough to the point where I knew in advance what I was letting myself in for: less flexibility than a DSLR perhaps, but in return a whole deal smaller, lighter and more nimble of a travel camera, and with the promise of world-class optics to boot.

Cornwall Churchyard

Secondly, I don't tend to shoot much in the way of street photography, nor do I own anything quite wide enough to equate to the Q's 28 mm lens on a full-frame sensor.  Therefore, this would be both a test of the camera and of my ability to find something interesting to do with it.  In addition, I was also taken with the idea that a fixed, wide-angle view would force me to move around more vs. standing still and zooming in order to get the frame I wanted, a bad habit that I ferry confess I do tend to slip into far too often.

Summer Blooms

Lastly, most of what I do is black-and-white.  In fact, what I really wanted to rent was the latest 246 iteration of the Leica Monochrom, a camera I really applaud Leica for both producing in the first place, and then for sticking with and updating.  Alas, when factoring in the rental price of both the body and a couple of lenses, the costs went far beyond what I could justify for a two week trip.  Maybe next time.


So that's the set-up.  I'd be shooting with something optimized for the wide-view/close-up style of picture making, with optics known for their excellent color-rendition and accuracy, in a small, light (if somewhat idiosyncratic) body style.  Let the fun begin!

Plum Tree

My initial impression will come as no surprise to existing Leica owners, but this is a well built, solid-feeling camera, that's a pleasure to behold and to, well, hold.  The controls feel well-weighted, with a reassuringly precise feel to the aperture ring, lens focussing action, and shutter release.  The only gripes I had over two weeks of use was that it was a little easy to go past f1.7 and end up in "A" mode, and in switching on and off I sometimes found the camera on "Continuous" instead of "Single-shot" mode.  Over time I'm sure this finger trouble would smooth out and muscle memory would help alleviate the glitches, but I did catch myself out a couple of times.

The electronic viewfinder is very well implemented, with a clear, bright view on offer of the outside world, and I found it easy to read the information provided with or without glasses (though the diopter adjustment wheel was a bit fiddly to turn, especially if you try to do it while looking through the EVF in order to find the clearest setting!)  Having had a brief opportunity to try the Sony A7, I'd applaud Leica for going one step further in this area, producing an EVF that just gets out of the way; if it weren't for the all the additional information available, you'd have to work hard to realize that this is not an optical system.  And while on displays, ditto for the rear screen.  This (touch) screen is great for working through the menus, and is bright enough for reviewing pictures or using live view in all but the strongest sunshine, though given that we were in the UK in summer then this probably wasn't the sternest of tests ....

Books - Lanhydrock House

So far, so good.  However, all is not perfect in the packaging department.  When trying to shoot in vertical format using the viewfinder, the overall handling now feels a bit clumsy.  Partly, this is due to the fact that the viewfinder is at the far left of the body, so it's hard to find a comfortable and supportive place for the left hand to go to. And partly it's because the shutter release button now finds itself a bit of a reach away, and if you use the separate button on the back for focussing, which I do, then this, too, is now tricky to work in consort with taking the shot.  Oh, and if you are using the rear-screen for live view and then turn the camera vertical to change the orientation to portrait, odds-are that your left palm will obscure the sensor that normally recognizes when you bring the camera to your eye and it will turn the screen off, leaving you momentarily perplexed as to what on earth might be going on - "why did everything just go blank?"

St. Dunstans In The East

Overall though, this is an easy and intuitive camera to use.  Set everything to "A" and just start shooting, and then flavor to taste as you get more comfortable with how it all comes together.  I ended up setting it for auto ISO, auto shutter speed, and aperture priority, adjusting exposure via exposure correction as required.  This is very easy to do, allowing you to quickly and easily dial-back any over-exposure warnings showing up in the view-finder or on the screen.  However, there is a disadvantage to this approach - the warnings shown in the EVF or on the rear screen disappear as soon as you use the exposure compensation wheel, meaning that you have to keep going over to metering mode to see how far you've pulled things back relative to what's previously been shown as clipped.  (For a great summary of this and other firmware-fixable issues, Ming Thein has posted an excellent review from a professional's standpoint, and one that's from an experienced Leica user to boot.)  The only other thing that bugged me, but may well be down to a setting somewhere I never found, was that when using the EVF I'd get a review image projected there showing me how the picture I just shot came out.  The time this was there for before live view came back could be adjusted, but not to be short enough for my tastes.  Too often, when things were happening quickly, I just wanted the live view to be there continuously; having to part-press the shutter again to dismiss the image I just shot was an unnecessary distraction.

Harbour Entrance

One final - but critical - area that can make or break how successful you can be using any given camera, is focussing.  I have to say that I think Leica has nailed autofocus extremely well in the Q.  Except for a couple of occasions when I had to go manual, automatic focussing via the central spot in the viewfinder worked beautifully.  Personally, I like to separate focus control from the exposure control and so set the Q to assign focus to a small button on the rear, leaving exposure lock for the half-pressed shutter release.  In an ideal world I'd like the rear focus button to be a bit bigger, but it was OK and I'm sure with more user-time under my belt then I'd get used to both the size and the location.  But even with just a few days use, following my usual focus-compose-shoot approach was soon as automatic with the Leica as it has always been with my Canon 1D.

Egyptian Victoriana

Alas, I didn't have much chance to work with manual focus, but here it's clear that the Q also excels.  The focus ring was smooth and responsive, and the coupling of focussing with the ability to magnify what's shown in the EVF was very well done.

One additional feature, which was both very well implemented and produced great photographic results, was the ability to switch quickly and easily into macro mode.  Just by turning a ring set behind the distance scale (and how wonderful it is to find one of those on a camera again!) you now have an immediate ability to focus down to just over 6 inches.  Combine that with a sharp f1.7 lens, and it really does open up a whole range of creative possibilities that can only otherwise be achieved with a lot of additional messing and fussing on a DSLR.  This feature alone could make the Q a game-changer, and it has been implemented extremely well by Leica with that macro-setting ring also swapping over the distance markings on the focussing ring to match.  Lovely.

Church Sculpture

Mechanics aside, let's now begin to look at answers to the real questions at hand: can the Q produce results that set it apart from the competition and that justify it's lofty price tag?  Briefly, yes to both, absolutely no problem.  Colour, clarity, and contrast are all outstanding, and are there for the taking from f1.7 through to f16.  I'm sure there are sites out there detailing how and where this lens is at its sharpest or has the highest resolving power, but I just don't care.  Get those DNG images into Lightroom and you'll find that they have that certain "something".  Call it a three-dimensional feel, call it micro contrast, call it what you will, the net result is that, with a little bit of practice, this camera will produce outstanding results.  I kept stabilization off, largely because it's a 28mm lens so it should be unnecessary in most situations, and tried instead to pay attention to holding it steady, getting the right aperture and exposure, and exploring the real changes in composition 28mm gives you in return for a small change in position or perspective.  In return, I was rewarded with razor sharp, colorful images regardless of settings used.  At f1.7, the out of focus areas are dreamily-smooth, and so long as you have focussed and composed correctly then the razor thin focal plane will deliver fabulous results.  At f16, you have all the DoF you will ever need, and can use it with impunity thanks to essentially noise-free operation up to ISO 800, with very usable results up to ISO 2000.

The Shard

Embankment Sign

Because the Q is so light, compact, and is such a joy to use, you find yourself taking it along when otherwise you'd think twice about carrying a larger camera.  That alone means you get better results, if for no other reason than you now have more pictures in the catalogue to work with.  A small camera bag (included in the LensRentals shipment) meant I could carry the Q, a tiny table top tripod, a bottle of water, and a packet of Polo mints (it is the UK remember) all together, and still have room for other small things as shopping opportunities arose!

Post-trip, Lightroom seemed to do a very credible job indeed of rendering the DNG files, showing that everyone is better off when the camera companies focus on what they are best at and leave Adobe and others to deliver world-class processing of raw files.  Lens correction is automatically applied, and it turns out that this is an integral part of the Leica Q package.  I opened up one of the files using AccuRaw (a black and white converter) and was quite surprised to see the degree of correction that Lightroom is automatically applying.  Vignetting in particular was very evident in AccuRaw, to the point where you'd have to question the viability of this design without built-in software assistance, though surely that's the point.  Looking ahead, software-corrected lenses will, I believe, become increasingly important across all market segments, not just cell phones, and here Leica is simply pointing the way of the future.

I did find a glitch or two in how color temperature values were being reported, but again I'm sure this will be improved in future Lightroom releases.

Another feature I found to be of some use, though I'm still not sure I'd use it in the long run, was the option to have an electronic level in the viewfinder.  Even so, when looking at the files in Lightroom, I still found myself making minor corrections to some via image rotation, which makes we wonder if the distraction of having something else in your field of view when trying to compose a scene, get the exposure right, check the settings, etc. is the right trade-off after all.

Low Tide

When processing an image you can either use the Adode Standard profile (though only one vs. the range of profiles offered for other cameras) or the one that's embedded in the image, with each giving subtly different renditions.  The Adobe setting looks the flatter of the two, at least to my eyes, with the embedded profile offering a bit more pop to the colours; again, I'd expect future Lightroom releases to offer more in this area as future updates roll-around.  However, the DNG files already hold up very well to Adobe's current implementation of the Q's Raw processing needs, and it's worth noting that converting to black-and-white produces some excellent results, to the point that it almost weans me off my day-dreaming of winning the lottery and buying the type 246 Monochrom.  Almost.

But now let's cut to the chase: the pictures.  What do the photographs look like - how do they make you feel?  I don't mean 100% crops of the 1x1, pixel-level reviews, but rather real images either viewed on-screen or in print.  I've of course included a few examples here, but I have to say that these JPGs just don't do the Leica justice.  The resulting pictures, especially when viewed in Lightroom on a Retina-equipped Macbook, have more depth and detail than anything else I have seen.  The colours seem natural and yet with a nice level of "pop" to them, and feel well balanced right across the spectrum (though just one caveat ... I'm a bit colour blind, so don't take my word on this as gospel!)  Shadow detail looks very good and stands up well to being aggressively lifted in Lightroom if required.  Though I've not yet had the chance to print much of anything and hence that assessment is largely from a pixel/screen standpoint, I don't imagine it will be much different on paper.

City View

Black and white conversion yields great results, even using just Lightroom's standard filters, and I have no doubt that, with a bit more work on nailing the processing workflow, that this will prove to be an outstanding B&W camera.  Kudos here to Leica for having the wisdom to bin the AA filter, because I think it really allows the processing software to take maximum advantage of the built-in sharpness and colour accuracy of the Leica glass.

Kitchen Range - Lanhydrock House

Wish list?  I'd like a mini-histogram available in the viewfinder to really help get the exposure setting right, and I'd like to have more features that could be assigned to the user-configurable button on the back of the camera, most notably the exposure-bracketing setting.  I'd also love to be able to work primarily with the viewfinder, but to then have the option of just pressing the "menu" button to allow access to the rear display when needed for function setting or live viewing.  Hitting that button and seeing the menu options appearing in the viewfinder, rather than on the rear screen, is still a bit weird for my tastes!  Right now, your only available options are basically to use the viewfinder, or to use the screen and the viewfinder together, with the auto-detect function turning the rear-screen off when you bring the camera up to your eye.

Another nit, easily fixed in firmware, is to offer the option to just record DNG: right now, you still have to have a JPG file recorded onto the memory alongside the DNG file, thereby at the very least wasting space on the memory card (something that is at a bit of a premium, as the typical DNG file consumes north of 40 Mb).  No idea why, but I suppose it made sense to someone at Leica to force this dual-format requirement. Oh, and the lens cap kept falling off the lens hood, something I frankly didn't expect to find on a camera costing north of $4,000.


In many ways, it's tempting to compare this camera to the Porsche 911.  Both derive from a specific and rather particular design choice, and both have been re-worked numerous times in pursuit of achieving a perfectly balanced product.  However, perhaps that's the wrong yardstick in this case.  Although I think the constant development of Leica rangefinders in general mirrors the way Porsche has evolved the idiosyncratic "engine slung behind the wheels" configuration of the 911, to the point where the negatives of that design have been engineered-away, something else it at play here.  The Leica Q might better be compared to a Porsche Boxster - a broader-market model, aimed one step below the flagship range, but one that leverages all of the heritage, design and engineering excellence embodied by it's elder sibling. And therein lies the equivalent challenge Leica have set for themselves.  Will the Q build a unique following, or simply eat into the digital M range sales?  As raised earlier, is this camera aimed at those who want a Leica M but can't afford it, or are they trying to win new buyers from the ranks of those who just want a high-end point-and-shoot, have money to spend, and are willing to pay the premium for a Leica badge?  Time will tell if this is the start of the re-invention of the M range, or just another evolutionary dead-end as Leica continue to search for a growth strategy moving forwards.  Meanwhile, the Leica Q is a hell of a camera, and one that Leica can be proud of.  It embodies both their heritage and their new-found drive to reach into the future, an accomplishment which, as Porsche can tell you, is no mean feat!  It's very nature meant I got some shots I wouldn't normally have been able to achieve, and I found it a joy to use.  28mm is indeed a challenging focal length, but if you decide to work with it, rather than spending time wishing you had another focal length available, then you will really come to appreciate what it can do for your photography.

Verdict: highly recommended.  Those lucky enough to own one will, I am sure, be thrilled with what it does and how it does it.  Like with the Porsche Boxster or the Cayman, so with the Leica Q.  Those are fantastic driver's cars, and keenly priced considering what's in the package.  Enjoy them for what they are and don't get hung-up on not having the 911 badge in your garage.  Similarly, a Leica Q might not have the cachet of the M-series, but it's a brilliant camera that stands tall purely on its own merits.  Buy one and bank the savings over an M, or save that bit extra and buy one over the other cameras out there chasing the same market.  You won't regret it.

Greenhouse Memorial

Giant Leaf - Lost Gardens of Heligan