Leica Q Review: Nine months of adventure with my best-ever camera
The Q has been an unprecedented success for Leica and is only just becoming freely available after nine months on the market. It has grabbed the limelight like no other Leica compact. Not only that, it has been acclaimed even by those who traditionally criticise any product bearing the red dot as overpriced, overhyped and over here.
As an early adopter, I was lucky to grab a review camera on announcement day back in the Summer. Shortly afterwards I managed to acquire a loan Q and it has since been my constant companion ever since. So impressive has been this camera that I decided to update my original review for publication in The Leica Society’s magazine in February 2016. My library of Q shots is ever expanding and this reprise of my earlier work provides an opportunity to add examples of results from the Q’s many travels. You can click on individual photographs in the galleries to expand them to full size.
Gallery 1: Q goes to the Swiss Alps (click to enlarge)
The Q takes its design cues from the both the X and X Vario. In a subtle way, though, the Q contrives to pay homage to granddaddy M rangefinder. With its rounded ends, its simple and precise controls and the perfect lens ergonomics, this new camera is every inch the thoroughly modern mini M.
It is the first fruit of the new in-house team at Wetzlar headed by Swede Vincent Laine. He has perfectly distilled the Zeitgeist of M photography and produced a camera that has everything you really need rather than what market forces decide you want.
The camera has the dimensions, give or take a millimetre or two, and feel of an M3 yet weighs 100g less than an M3 wearing even the featherweight 50mm Elmar.
The matte black trim with white engraving is pure Leica and in perfect taste. Even the black shutter release button is all the better for having resisted the temptation to chrome. And the new diamond-pattern trim strikes just the right note. This is one handsome and exceedingly desirable camera.
In addition to feeling like an M, the Q is solidly built, perhaps not quite as substantial as the M with its brass top plate, but the weight reduction is a welcome tradeoff.
Gallery 2: Q goes on the Naked Bike Ride:
The body offers a refreshingly uncluttered and simple control layout, devoid of the excesses found in most modern digital cameras. This is a major advantage and will be welcomed by Leica M owners and the increasing number of photographers who are frustrated by feature bloat.
Programmable function buttons are kept to a minimum, just one FN and one unmarked button which is mainly intended for control of the digital crop. The D-pad is simple in the extreme—the four buttons are used for moving the focus point or for navigating menus and playback. The central button does a few things well, including action confirmation and view toggling, but nothing more. This is a camera where you feel no need to fiddle with functions to the point where you forget where you are. Once learned, the layout of the Q is nigh on perfect.
The three-inch 1.04 million dot screen is bright and contrasty. It does not tilt, which some users will find disappointing.
The traditional shutter adjustment dial, with its A function and speeds from 1+ to 1/2000s, has a hidden feature. A dash after the 2000 engraving reminds us that the electronic shutter extends the range to 1/16000s. The mechanical shutter is whisper quiet while electronic operation is silent. Another plus point for the street photographer.
The movie button, to the right of the shutter release, cannot be disabled in the menu. Fortunately I have not so far suffered from phantom movies as I did when using the Leica X earlier in 2015.
Finally, to the rear right of the top plate is a flush, recessed control wheel which adjusts exposure compensation but also acts as a scroll dial in the menu and in playback mode.
The FN button (to the left of the screen alongside play, delete, ISO and menu) tackles seven functions: White balance, exposure, scene modes, file format, metering mode, wireless LAN and self timer. A single press brings up the last-accessed function, a longer press reveals the function menu for selection.
The zoom/lock button above the screen, which is unmarked, can be set within the menu to exposure/focus locks or to control the digital zoom. I have tended to leave this as a zoom-selection button since it is the one I use most frequently. The central button of the direction pad toggles the screen and viewfinder through various levels of information. It also acts as action confirmation for menu items.
There is one glaring omission in the physical controls. The camera desperately needs a viewfinder toggle as on other cameras in the range, including the D-Lux and M (when using the VF-2). Most photographers I know prefer to work from the viewfinder with the screen disabled, not just in the interests of battery economy but to reduce distraction. The required option can be set within the menu but, once fixed, there is no way back other than to squint at the menu through the viewfinder.
The entire control layout, with the exception of the omission of a screen/viewfinder toggle, is straightforward and exceedingly simple. Leica M users will feel completely at home. It is a perfect example of less being more.
Gallery 3: Leica Q gets some sun in Greece:
The simplicity and sense of purpose extends to the menu system. It is an improvement over even the commendably straightforward layouts on the M and X models. Text is displayed in white against a dark grey background. Highlights are indicated in bold type with a red line under the item. Items are arranged over four fully populated screens, followed by WLAN and Reset on their own at the end. Unlike on other cameras, where menu items are arbitrarily grouped into folders, often confusingly, this single-list approach is refreshing. The last viewed menu page remains when you come back for a second look.
The Scene Mode option, accessible from the FN button, is set by default to PASM, allowing the camera to operate according to the physical settings. In addition, if required, there are baked-in settings for auto, sports, portrait, landscape, night portrait, snow/beach, fireworks, candlelight, sunset, digiscoping, miniature effect, panorama and time lapse.
JPG resolution can be set to 24/15/8 Megapixels at maximum resolution, corresponding to full frame, 35mm crop and 50mm crop. Full-frame resolution can be scaled down to 12, 6 or 1.7MP with corresponding reductions for the crop settings.
As with the X cameras it is impossible to record DNG files only—the options being JPG alone or a combination of DNG and JPG. With DNG files from this camera stretching to 43MB, compulsory JPGs only add to storage problems.
ISO parameters can be specified in conjunction with the Auto setting. Maximum exposure time can be set to anything from 1s through to 1/2000s. Sensitivity can be set to any value between 400 and 50000. My preference, to err on the cautious side, is to choose 1/60s and 6400 although a slower speed is undoubtedly possible because of the wide-angle lens and stabilisation function. Specific ISO settings can be adjusted by the ISO button, from auto to any fixed value and can be also be changed by touch, with a convenient screen slider to move through the scale.
Gallery 4: Leica Q at Brooklands:
The 28mm Summilux lens consists of eleven elements in nine groups with three aspherical elements. Not only is this a superb optic, sitting midway at f/1.7 between the traditional Summicron and Summilux maximum apertures, it is also a triumph of good, innovative ergonomic design.
With its aperture ring and depth-of-field scale it looks just like an M manual lens after a big dinner. Portly it undeniably is compared with the svelte M optics, but then it has to accommodate motors and stabilisation functions. Once you get over its stubbiness, this lens impresses in every respect.
The aperture ring, marked down to f/16 and operating in one-third stop increments, sits at the outermost edge, just as the gods ordained. Widest aperture is on the left, as with any Leica lens (and unlike Fuji lenses which drive on the other side of the road and cause no end of confusion). To the left of widest aperture is the A(auto) position, beyond a smooth and precise détente.
As with any M aperture ring, the travel from widest to narrowest aperture takes up around a quarter of a full turn and has firm stops at either end. The focus ring also has a short pitch with firm end stops, again similar to the arrangement on an M lens.
Although both aperture and focus rings are electronic, Leica does a remarkable job of simulating the feel of a mechanical M lens. From behind your viewfinder with your fingers on the focus tab you could almost think you were holding an M, except for the much lighter weight.
The tab design features a small button in the centre of the upper edge which releases the focus ring to move between AF and MF. Previously, on X cameras, the focus ring has made do with a simple détente similar to that on the aperture ring. After half a year I still find this little button difficult to locate by touch and somewhat fiddly to operate and I prefer the implementation used on the X.
On a more positive note, the tab allows setting by feel when in manual mode. With the tab at six o'clock the focus is 60cm, a good starting point for quick manual adjustment. Similarly, moving the tab to 4 o'clock puts the wide lens in its optimum hyperfocal setting for street or walk-around snapping.
Gallery 5: Leica Q at the Japan Matsuri Festival
The most interesting design aspect of the lens is the macro ring which sits inboard of focus, against the body. Moving the ring to engage macro flips the focus scale, which slides back and forth beneath the macro and focus rings. Instead of the normal 30cm to infinity markings, the macro scale reveals a 17cm to 30cm range which lines up with the standard depth-of-field scale. It is quite remarkable and is one of my favourite features of the camera with its magical smoothness and perfectly damped progression from normal to macro scales.
The combination of high usable sensitivity and optical image stabilisation turns the Q into a very effective low-light camera. ISO performance at 3200 and 6400 is outstanding and I have been pleasantly surprised by results at 12500. Higher settings are best left for emergencies only, as you would imagine. But even shots taken at 50000 are still usable. Contrast this overall performance with the realistic ISO1600 maximum of the M9 from just five years ago.
At the other end of the scale, the addition of electronic shutter operation up to 1/16000s transforms the options for the use of wider apertures in bright sunlight. Unlike with Ms and X-series digitals, you can get away without an ND filter if you want to shoot wide open. The shutter also extends your options when photographing moving subjects.
The lens is tack sharp in the centre, even at the widest aperture. Edges are extremely sharp at f/5.6 and narrower but there is a very small degree of softening at wider apertures as is often the case. Lens correction is well sorted, as you would imagine in a fixed-lens Leica. Colour rendition excellent. Many people talk about the unique "Leica signature" but all I know is that I like what I see.
In macro mode the widest aperture is limited to f/2.8 in the interests of obtaining optimum sharpness. Unlike the Leica X, however, there is no restriction imposed when using the standard minimum focus of 30cm.
Gallery 6: Leica Q goes to war:
The mere presence of the EVF, right there in the body rather than perched on top, is a welcome feature in itself. Yet with 3.68 million dots, this finder is one of the finest I have ever used. The image is satisfyingly large and there is very little lag or smearing. It is nearly as good as peering through a DSLR viewfinder and, because of the high resolution, the view looks natural, almost optical in character. It is the nearest I have experienced to the M’s rangefinder view (other than with the new SL) and that is praise indeed. When those frame lines appear I get a real sense of being at home.
The eyepiece is centralised in a much larger oval enclosure with a second glass screen covering both viewfinder window and eye sensor. The rubber eye cup is very shallow and quite unlike the large rubber surrounds seen on other cameras. As a wearer of glasses I have had no problems in seeing the full screen.
The camera can be set (via the menu) to show live view on the screen, in the viewfinder or automatically to toggle between both. The eye sensor works well, no misses yet, but I have it set to low sensitivity. Transition can be triggered in error by a waving finger or neckstrap—the sensor is just where the thumb rests when holding the camera in two hands.
Annoyingly, there is no physical button to toggle between screen, viewfinder and eye sensor. This has to be set in the menu with the result that returning from viewfinder-only mode involves using the viewfinder to access the menu. This is the same problem I’ve noted on the Sony A7 range and I am surprised Leica didn’t pick this up at the design stage. It ought to be possible to add such a toggle to the FN button in a future firmware update.
Digital zooms are nothing new. Almost every point-and-shoot offers unfeasibly long zoom capabilities but with correspondingly unfeasible results. Zooming digitally (as opposed to using an optical zoom lens) does nothing that you cannot achieve just as easily by cropping in Lightroom. That said, with small sensors, the opportunities for cropping are limited. As a result, digital zoom has a bad name and serious photographers do not even consider using the function on most cameras.
With the Q, however, Leica has introduced a sleight of hand which makes the digital zoom more attractive and worth using, particularly bearing in mind the full-frame sensor. The camera offers two stepped levels of zoom to transform the 28mm lens into narrower 35mm and 50mm views. With the full-frame sensor, these crops are usable although resolution does suffer, down from 24MP to 8MP at 50mm and 15MP at 35mm. Ricoh has long offered a similar idea on the GR but on that camera the cropped view occupies the full screen (there is no viewfinder).
In a stroke of genius, Leica decided to introduce frame lines, something we’ve heard of before. The unmarked zoom/lock button above the screen toggles from full screen (28mm) to 35mm or 50mm. To dispel doubt, the lines carry a tiny 35 or 50 imprint at the bottom right-hand corner. Any M user will feel right at home with this arrangement. At 50mm, in particular, there is a wide surrounding view which enables anticipation of subject movement, something that is always lauded as an exclusive benefit of the rangefinder. Even at 35mm there is a respectable border to simulate a rangefinder view.
But why bother with any of this when the same result can be obtained in post-processing? It's a fair point but I suggest it is worth persevering with this feature. I believe Leica's approach enhances the user experience and makes framing and composition easier. It is undoubtedly useful for producing cropped JPGs for instant mailing or copying to the iPad or phone without need for further processing. But it is also helpful in composing 35mm and 50mm shots when you feel in the mood for those focal lengths. Standing further back and using the 50mm view helps with portraiture, for instance.
If you crop to 35mm or 50mm the Q produces no-return JPGs whichcannot be expanded subsequently. DNG files, on the other hand, give you the best of both worlds. When first viewed in Lightroom they are shown cropped to the camera zoom setting. But pressing the crop tool immediately reveals the rest of the 28mm frame around the edges.
Within Lightroom CC, which I am currently using, the metadata always shows 28mm regardless of the digital zoom setting. I suppose this is to be expected. On the other hand, the file size tells you whether or not the crop settings were used. A full-frame DNG is 6000x4000 (24MP) with 35mm at 4800x3200 (15.36MP) and 50mm at 3360x2240 (7.53MP).
This brings me to the choice of a 28mm lens in the first place. Not everyone thinks 28mm is ideal, with many preferring 35mm or even 50mm as a fixed local length. I admit I have been on a 50mm kick in the past and I have often argued that 28mm is a bit specialised. Many people have ignored the Q precisely because of the wide-angle lens.
Gallery 7: Leica Q goes to Hong Kong:
While I have not had confirmation from Leica, I can surmise that the designers took the view that a wider lens would offer greater versatility. After all, you can crop 28mm but you cannot uncrop a 35 or 50mm frame. When looked at it this way, the wider lens makes a lot of sense. A 28mm aspect can be very useful in travel, especially for architectural and landscape shots and in crowded city streets. All I can say is that 28mm has grown on me massively in the past half year and I would not now let it influence my buying decision.
Video and wifi
I seldom, if ever, use video and never use wifi so I am not qualified to comment. The camera is capable of recording full HD at 1920x1080p with 60 or 30 frames per second; or HD at 1280x720p with 30 fps. Other reviewers, including Ming Thein, have covered this aspect of the camera.
It is very hard to fault this camera after canning over 7,000 shots. I have loved every minute of using it and have only very minor quibbles about the control functions.
The Q is the right size in my opinion, just like any Leica film camera. It fits the hands well, the controls are perfectly placed and the lens ergonomics are outstanding. I have been using it with a wrist strap most of the time and it is as comfortable as an M6 or M7 but in a lighter package. The indented thumb grip helps a lot but the new Thumbs Up from Match Technical is the bee’s knees with its neat padded bulge to slot into the thumb indentation. I have not felt the need for the optional grip, nor the rubber thumb rings which I have tried in the past on Ms and discounted as uncomfortable.
Gallery 8: Leica Q goes indoors at the Guards' Chapel, London:
The contrast-based autofocus is extremely fast and reliable in good lighting conditions. It also performs well in low-light, in terms of both speed and accuracy. It beats the Fuji X-T1, the Sony A7 range and could even be as fast as the Olympus OM-Ds which are said to offer the fastest experience. Subjectively, AF feels as fast as on any camera I have used and this is particularly impressive for a full-frame camera.
If selected, the touch-screen function can be set to permit focus selection or to combine focus with shutter release where you can take the picture by simply tapping the screen. It is undoubtedly useful for selective focus when using the screen for composition. Screen touch focus is a menu option and is not in operation when standard focus modes (multi, single-point, tracking, face detection) are selected. So, if you hate the thought of touch focus it can simply be disabled. Touch is also useful for flicking and zooming during playback.
It is disappointing that AF mode selection is not assignable to the FN button to enable quick changes between touch and traditional focus options. Personally I would substitute AF mode selection for WLAN or self timer in the FN-button options. Or, better still, just add it to the list.
Gallery 9: ISO comparisons. Left to right, 1600, 3200, 6400, 1,500, 25000, 50000
Manual focus implementation is without doubt the best I have found on any mirrorless camera. It is second only to the experience of using a rangefinder. If required, live view can be set to automatic magnification, which I find useful. Initially this appears as a x3 view but a press of the button in the centre of the D-pad brings up x6 magnification. Once fixed, the choice of magnification sticks during power off.
Because the focus ring functions identically to that on a mechanical M lens, it is very quick. It is easy to home in on an approximately sharp view before fine tuning. Most modern autofocus lenses are extremely disappointing in manual mode since the focus ring twiddles round and round and, often, you do not know which way to turn, lost in a sea of bokeh.
Focus peaking is available in a choice of colour but in only one intensity. If you do not wish to use focus peaking it is still quite easy to detect sharpness by eye. The image shimmers slightly when in focus as on most cameras with EVF. The MF Assist options comprise auto magnification without focus peaking, focus peaking without magnification, auto magnification combined with focus peaking and, finally, if you wish, you can switch the whole thing off.
Gallery 10: Cropping extremes:
The bird on the pole (far left) represents 1/50th of the full frame. The shot of the Jungfraujoch (fourth frame) is cropped from the larger picture to the far right. Full-frame and high resolution offers offers surprisingly effective cropping opportunities
If manual focus implementation is excellent, zone focus on this camera is totally impressive. Zone focus becomes progressively more viable the wider the lens. There is a perceptibly wider depth of field with the 28mm Q lens over even the 35mm FOV as found on the Fuji X100T or Sony RX1. At f/8 or f/11, ideal apertures for street photography, a setting of 2m (or 6ft) ensures that almost everything you are likely to shoot is in focus. This no-focus is the quickest autofocus you can get.
While the Q has such excellent autofocus, I find myself drawn increasingly to manual focus because it is so quick and easy to use and so perfectly mimics the feel of an M lens.
Gallery 11: Leica Q goes to the Magical Lantern Show:
Battery life is a problem with the Q as with most competitors. I would say that even the claimed 300 shots on a charge is on the optimistic side. Despite the physically large 1200 mAh battery (the same as that used in the Leica V-Lux and Panasonic FZ-1000) the Q definitely runs out of power sooner than you expect. You will definitely need at least one spare battery, preferably two.
No other digital Leica, except perhaps the M itself, has stirred the juices quite as vigorously as the Q. It isn't perfect but, for once, Leica is ahead of the game with a camera that even Leica haters are grudgingly accepting as outstanding. Always there will be criticism on price but, even by non-Leica standards, this camera is not overpriced. It is actually comparable in price to its sole competitor, the Sony RX1.
It is indeed something of a bargain by Leica standards, especially in the UK. Soberingly, the 28mm Summilux-M lens costs 30% more than the Q and, while the M lens is surely the better long-term investment, the Q is still a very good deal. One dealer told me that he is telling customers that the camera comes free with the lens. This tongue-in-cheek proposition is not without an element of truth.
The Q will lead to further Leica full-frame fixed-lens digitals that will sail happily alongside the flagship M and the new more specialised SL. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Q Vario next in line.
For the first time, the Q offers similar image quality and handling to the traditional M together with a more modern approach and greater affordability. If you can live with 28mm and can make the most of it you have need not envy the M or SL owner.