Leica promised us a surprise. Instead the company gave us a shock when it announced the new Leica T in Berlin this afternoon. This sleek new vessel ditches the sacred cow of dedicated navigational controls and sails off into very uncharted waters. This camera appears to have only four physical controls, including the power switch, movie button and two thumb wheels. The rest is done on the touchscreen.
It is tempting to compare the T to the iPhone. Before Jobs's world-changing device it was received wisdom that any successful phone had to possess a physical keyboard. BlackBerry was king. Yet the iPhone dared to teach us that a buttonless touch interface is better. So perhaps the T will sound the death knell of the button proliferation seen on many current cameras. I certainly think the excellent design of the camera and the intuitive interface will attract many snappers who would otherwise not look at a Leica.
Of course there is nothing particularly unusual in replacing the traditional engraved and dedicated control dials with multi-function, software regulated soft dials. Consider the Sony A7 (or at Sony's NEX compacts) or at the acclaimed Olympus OM-Ds and you will not find traditional aperture and shutter controls. Only frumpy old Fuji is still trying to out Leica Leica with a plethora of dedicated dials. The new X-T1 even has dials for ISO and shooting mode. No manufacturer has so far done away with almost every physical interface as has Leica with the T.
The T is undoubtedly a milestone camera for Leica. Expect howls of protest from the traditionalists, reared on lens-encircling aperture rings and a simple, single shutter speed dial. Initially, I imagine, they will hate it. But maybe, as with the iPhone, this more customisable, modern approach to navigation will succeed and even set the agenda for other manufacturers.
The tech-junkie half of me is pleased; the Leica fanboy side is a bit shell shocked. I rely on a quick check of my settings by looking at dials. With the T there are no clues.
The T, designed by Audi, is made entirely from aluminium and features a 16.5MP APS-C sensor with a new range of T-mount lenses. The minimalist approach to controls, with a button-free back, is quite revolutionary in the compact system world and is sure to polarise opinion. I think this is a beautiful camera that seems to have more in common with Apple than with Leica: Aluminium body, just like a MacBook Pro, touchscreen just like an iPhone. If I had been told it had been designed by Jony Ive I would not have been surprised.
Almost all the action is shared between two anonymous programmable top-mounted dials and a 3.7in touchscreen which attempts to fuse the iPhone approach to photography with a high-end compact system. If you enjoy taking photos with your iPhone you will probably love the Leica T.
In another first for Leica, the camera included 16GB of internal memory which means that an SD card is not strictly necessary. I expect to love this feature.
At launch, the T will come with two Leica-designed lenses (presumably made by Panasonic but there is no confirmation) and will feature a completely new T mount with a smaller circumference than the existing M mount.
First up is a jack-of-all trades Vario-Elmar T 18-56mm (27-85mm equivalent) f/3.5-5.6 ASPH zoom. This looks very similar to the lens of the X Vario but without the aperture ring. Let us hope it is as good because that XV zoom is indeed a master of all trades. The Vario-Elmar is 10mm longer at full zoom and also faster (the XV's lens is f/6.4 at 70mm)
The second lens is a 23mm (35mm equivalent) prime, the Summicron T f/2 ASPH. The lack of an aperture control on all T lenses is something of a radical step for Leica and this lens looks very minimalist, much like the Zeiss 35mm FE 2.8 for the Sony A7.
The T does bring some very good news for Leica fans. An intelligent adapter will allow the camera to mount and read type information from modern 6-bit M lenses. Without doubt, also, the final firmware will include lens profiles which will make the T a first choice for M lens owners looking for a smaller system.
Although, disappointingly, the T does not have an integral viewfinder, there is a new Visoflex EVF with "high resolution" and, unusually, incorporating a GPS module. This device is said to be exclusive to Leica unlike the EVFs for the X cameras and M240 which are rebadged Olympus models.
The svelte, minimalist approach to design will polarise opinion. I like it and I approve of the new design touches, including the five colours and a new swivelling strap mount.
Leica expects the T to compete with Fuji, Olympus and Sony and I guess this is about right. The Fuji X-T1 is an obvious rival, bristling with manual controls and known to work well with M lenses. Even the Olympus OM-D EM-1 is a strong competitor despite the smaller MFT sensor. Perhaps, though, Leica needs to watch Sony with the ever-expanding A7 range.
Price and Availability
The T body will cost £1,350 which is less than I anticipated. It is almost a bargain by Leica standards. The lenses,however, are pretty pricy with the Vario-Elmar zoom at £1,250 and the 23mm Summicron at £1,350. The zoom will probably be most popular and will be seen as a "kit lens" for everyday use. It will bring the complete camera price to £2,700 although most buyers will want to add the EVF which is unlikely to cost less than £300. Owners of M lenses will be tempted to use them exclusively and not buy either of the T-mount versions. In many ways the 1.6 crop factor of the APS-C sensor plays well with full-frame lenses. A 35mm Summicron becomes a 50mm and a 21 or 24mm wide-angle can do duty as a 35mm on the T.
The camera and lenses are expected to be available towards the end of May and it is to be hoped that accessories such as the lens adapter are also on the shelves form the start and not trickling through months after the launch.
This report is written without my actually handling the camera. Inconveniently I am out of the country and was unable to attend the London press conference this afternoon. Pretty bad planning on my part. However, I hope to get some first hands-on time when I return to the UK.
My first impressions are very positive. While the user interface is not initially to my liking (and nor was that of the first iPhone) I intend to give it a go and judge the camera on its merits. It could be that Leica diehards will never adjust to all-electronic operation but the camera is likely widen the appeal of Leica among design-conscious photographers.