Leica T Camera: Australian Hands-On

What does a $2300 camera with a $2300 lens and a $700 viewfinder feel like? Expensive, yes. But deservedly so -- the new Leica T is incredibly well built. That price tag also buys you a full dose of the Leica brand name, and an innovative touchscreen control scheme that may not be perfect, but goes a long way towards justifying the price.

I travelled to Melbourne to try out the Leica T -- flights to and from Sydney and a hotel for the night were comped by the company. When testing the Leica T, I used a Sandisk Extreme Pro SD memory card provided by Sandisk in the camera, and a 128GB Sandisk Extreme Pro USB 3.0 flash drive for long-term storage.

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) and a variety of accessories (the Visoflex electronic viewfinder, Typ 701 cases and wrist straps and neck straps, and so on). T sits above the large-sensor, fixed-lens X Series and below the larger-sensor, interchangeable-lens M Series, appealing to prospective Leica owners by offering a mid-level interchangeable lens system, with that inimitable Leica design and construction, and a renewed focus on fashion and style.

<The Leica T Typ 701 Camera

The Leica T was a poorly-kept secret within Leica; the Typ 701 body was leaked a while before it was officially announced, so there was no real surprise around its introduction a few days ago. The near-$5000 price for an Australian-delivered body, lens and viewfinder was a bit of a shock, but come on, it's Leica -- what were you expecting?

The Typ 701 starts its life as a 1.2kg billet of aluminium, then CNC milled over 55 minutes into the camera's 94g unibody chassis -- that 1.106kg of waste metal presumably is melted down and reused. After that, 45 minutes of polishing gets the camera body to a consistent finish, and all the technological wizardry is installed.

The camera's body feels solid -- more solid than that 94g weight would suggest, since the final weight including batteries is 384g. Overall dimensions are 134 x 69 x 33mm sans lens or accessory viewfinder. Apart from the milled finger-grip on the camera's right, there's no obvious standout design cues -- until you look at the T's back. A 3.7-inch, 854x480pixel touchscreen on the camera's rear joins two unmarked dials on the top right of the Typ 701 in providing every single point of control for taking and viewing photos.

Driving an almost-entirely touchscreen camera is an odd experience coming from a digital SLR. Leica's interface for the T is simple, icon-driven, and highly customisable; when you're shooting, tap on the little camera icon on the right (conveniently placed for a thumb or right forefinger), and you're presented with a three-by-three grid of your most-wanted adjustments. Swipe down while shooting to enter the playback mode. You can pick and choose from a much larger list, but there's no unnecessary drilling down into sub-sub-menus needed. It's quite simple to grasp, but takes a little effort to master.

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.

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.

The Leica Vario-Elmar-T 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 Lens

$2300 is a lot of money to pay for a wide-angle zoom lens without OIS. It's 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 two-day jaunt with the T System's first zoom 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's 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.

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. DPReview's tests would suggest otherwise, however. 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 I took on Friday and Saturday morning around Melbourne with the Typ 701 and 18-56mm mounted:

As much as it is a 'kit' lens, and as antithetical a 28-85mm equivalent zoom might be to the Leica brand, this is an excellent choice for walkaround work. 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.

A Few Closing Thoughts

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, 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. From our early impressions, if you do make that initial investment, you won't be disappointed.

Stay tuned in the next couple of weeks for a full review of the Leica T Typ 701, its accompanying 18-56mm zoom lens, the 23mm f/2 Summicron-T prime and some accessories.