Camera Reviews

Leica T Camera: Australian Review

The Leica T is a very complex camera to discuss. It’s incredibly innovative, extremely well built, and carries the entire weight of one of the world’s most respected camera companies on its shoulders. It is, in some ways, one of the best mirrorless cameras you can buy, but it’s also somewhat compromised.

What Is It?

The Leica T is the company’s newest camera system — and (at the moment) it is comprised of one body (the Leica T Typ 701), two lenses (a 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 and a 23mm f/2, with more on the way) and a variety of accessories (the Visoflex electronic viewfinder, different silicone and leather Typ 701 cases, wrist straps and neck straps, and so on).

The T is slightly more premium than the fixed-lens X Series (the X Vario and the X2), and significantly less premium than the interchangeable-lens M Series. It’s aimed at younger, more fashionable, more well-to-do amateur and enthusiast photographers who are willing to try something new.

The Leica T (Typ 701) was leaked a while before it became official, so it was no surprise to learn that Leica was working on a camera controlled almost entirely through a single wide touchscreen display. When you pick up the T, though, it’s still weird; there are almost no controls on the rear of the camera when it’s switched off. Unless you’re actively changing settings, the rear of the Leica T is all for framing your shot — which is exactly what you want from a mirrorless camera.

What Is It Good At?

The unibody aluminium design of the Leica T feels incredibly solid. Only 94g of the camera’s total 384g is aluminium chassis (the rest is electronics and screen and battery), but there’s no sense of the T being at all fragile. It’s a very well polished and refined piece of metal, too, and beyond being quite cold to the touch when you first pick it up, it really is one of the best made mirrorless cameras you can buy today. It’s like Sony’s top E-mount cameras on steroids.

The camera’s overall dimensions — 134 x 69 x 33mm without a lens or the optional external electronic viewfinder — feel right in the hand, too. All the buttons and dials are placed appropriately, and you can stretch your thumb from one corner of the screen to the other while you’re still gripping the front of the camera. One caveat is that the T’s edges are quite sharp — not slice-your-finger sharp, but sharp enough that you’ll feel them digging into your palm if you rest the camera’s weight on one hand.

The rear 854x480pixel display on the Leica T could be higher-resolution, and the touch could be better (more on that later), but its 3.7-inch size makes it one of the best cameras to use away from your eye to actively frame and view the scene you’re intending on capturing. Colours are vibrant and black levels are deep, and those two factors are far more important than resolution for getting an accurate idea of what your photos will actually look like after you capture them.

The control scheme of the Leica T is almost entirely based around touch. Whenever you’re adjusting white balance or autofocus points, you’ll be tapping away at the rear of the camera. As touchscreen interfaces go the T is almost ideal — the grid icons fill the entire screen, so they’re easy to press and there’s no wasted space. I have my reservations on whether a touchscreen is the ideal interface for controlling a camera, but more on that later. In any case, driving the Leica T is easy enough once you get used to the necessary taps and swipes and button presses, but it’s an initially jarring experience coming from a traditional digital SLR or compact camera.

The Leica T uses a 16-megapixel, Sony-derived APS-C sensor — that’s a 1.5x crop, and at 24x16mm it’s significantly smaller than the 36x24mm full-frame sensor of the Leica M, and the same as mirrorless competitors like Fujifilm and Sony (as well as most DSLRs). The T uses the same sensor as the one that appeared in the X Vario — quite well-regarded, apparently. It takes great photos whether you’re in automatic or manual modes, and Leica’s refined touches on the image processing add that all-important extra pop.

The Typ 701’s sensor has an ISO range of 100-12,500, and from my limited testing of it in a wide range of ambient lighting, it’s pretty damn decent. Anything up to ISO 1600 has virtually no luma or chroma noise, and colour rendition and white balance remains consistent — there’s a definite sense of quality and refinement even in the straight-out-of-camera JPEGs you see. At ISO 6400 and 12,500 there’s a little more chroma noise than I would have liked; luma noise is (in my opinion) a more attractive side effect of high ISO sensor gain, but chroma noise destroys colour consistency in photos and I would have liked it to be a little more controlled in the T. In any case, it’s one of the better mirrorless cameras on the market for actually taking photos.

For the majority of my time with the Leica T, I used what is probably the most expensive kit zoom lens ever sold, the 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-T. $2300 is a lot of money to pay for a wide-angle zoom lens without OIS. It’s also a lot of money to pay for a variable aperture lens. It’s a lot of money to pay for an APS-C mirrorless camera lens. But I came away from my time with the kit zoom lens genuinely impressed with its quality, its construction and the images I shot with it.

Seeing the price tag for the 18-56mm zoom, I fully expected it to be the poor sibling of the 23mm f/2 (a proper Leicaesque prime, right?). But taking it out of its soft case and mounting it on the T, you can tell from the first couple of seconds that it’ll the best basic zoom you’ve ever used. In terms of build quality, the Japanese-built zoom is just so precisely machined — the focus movement is supremely well damped and is consistent across the entire zoom range, and the focus-by-wire manual focus ring is similarly smooth. It really does feel like it’s meant to last a lifetime.

Apparently, there’s only a small amount of digital correction applied in-camera to the 18-56mm, the same case as with the 23mm prime (although DPReview’s tests would suggest otherwise). Despite that fact, you don’t notice adverse effects from that correction either in-camera or in Lightroom — there’s effectively no visible vignetting anywhere along the focal range, the lens is impressively sharp even at f/5.6 and 56mm, and I didn’t notice any obvious chromatic aberration or distortion in any of our 200-odd test shots.

Here’s a few examples of the photos you can capture with the Leica T and the 18-56mm kit lens:

As much as it is a ‘kit’ lens, the 18-56mm kit lens is an excellent choice for walkaround photography. If you have a chance to try one out, do so — it’s the perfect argument for why spending money on good glass is just as important as spending money on a good camera body to shoot with (despite the fact that it’s relatively uninspiring in its specifications).

I similarly spent some time shooting with the 23mm f/2 prime, and my experiences were much the same. It’s an extremely well-constructed lens, it takes beautiful photos, and the focal length is spot-on for wandering around. It’s probably more in line with the Leica mindset, to be honest, but it’s not as if the zoom lens is markedly inferior. You sacrifice some mobility and versatility for the increased image quality that the prime lens offers — it’s probably my favourite of the two lenses, but it’s a tough call between the two.

What Is It Not Good At?

The Leica T is an extremely expensive camera when you consider that with a lens, it is nearing five times the price of largely similar mirrorless body-and-lens combos like the Fujifilm X-E2 and its kit lens, or Sony’s excellent a6000. You are paying a premium for the Leica brand name and that excess of build quality refinement and the novelty of the touchscreen, there’s no doubt about that. Whether you’re willing to pay that premium is up to you, of course, but I can see where it’s worth it. If I was looking for a new mirrorless camera, I could possibly justify paying the significant premium for the T.

The touchscreen interface on the Leica T is good, but there are some points where you realise it needs refinement. Swiping downwards to get to the playback or shooting screens could be a lot smoother, and there are some times when the initial swipe doesn’t register — these are problems inherent with using a touchscreen display for these kind of motions. You can work around them and learn the best way to use the Leica T to prevent any issues occurring when you’ve spent some time with it, but with the firmware and hardware I spent time with the touchscreen was only 95 per cent there. (Which is objectively great, but you’re paying for perfection.)

Battery life from the Leica T is also not excellent. Driving that touchscreen digitiser and the large, bright, colourful 3.7-inch display (and the Visoflex external viewfinder, if you buy one) draws a lot of juice from the T’s removable lithium-ion cell, rated at 400 shots. In reality, and using the T’s internal Wi-Fi to transfer some photos to a smartphone for viewing and sharing, I got around 250 shots — in reality, with normal usage, I’d expect somewhere in the region of 300 to 350 photos on a full charge. There’s also no provision for USB charging, which is a pain.

Should You Buy It?

The Leica T is expensive, and a cynic would tell you that it’s too expensive to stand up in any comparison to the roughly-similar mirrorless cameras from Fujifilm, Olympus, Sony (and even Samsung). Hold one and shoot with one for an extended period of time, and you can start to understand its price tag — there’s a very real sense of quality in almost all aspects of using the T.

To justify a Leica T camera, you’ll have to buy into the entire system — maybe that means you already have M glass, or you’re willing to purchase more than a couple of T lenses and accessory pieces. If you do make that initial investment, you won’t be disappointed.


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