When Leica, the German company synonymous with design and quality, announces a new camera, people pay attention. The announcement of the Leica T, its new mirrorless camera system, was no exception. But when you're paying this kind of money, substance should be right there with style.
What Is It?
A $2300 16-megapixel mirrorless camera with an APS-C sensor. It takes Leica's new T-system lenses, but it has an adaptor to fit M-mount glass.
Why does it matter?
Leica has long been held in high regard as the epitome of premium quality camera-making. Its M series has a place in history as the tool of choice for scores of the world's most impassioned photographers. Its transition into the digital age has been a mixed bag, but the company has maintained high end with prohibitively expensive, yet lauded, digital versions of their flagship M series. Photogs have hoped and prayed that Leica would release a more compact, affordable interchangeable lens shooter that would bear the Leica stamp of quality and style. This is that camera. Or at least, it's supposed to be.
This is where you may expect to read endless praise about the beauty and simplicity that Leica poured into the T. With such a glorious history of design, it would be strange to expect anything less. Nevertheless, I think the Leica T is ugly. Bear with me. It's got all the telltale signs of supreme good looks; straight, uninterrupted lines, a seamless body shaped from a solid aluminium block, a lack of superfluous decoration. And yet, the whole thing feels like one big decoration. It seems built for a display case, an objet d'art rather than a high-performance tool.
You might think it's beautiful, and that's great. Sensibility is going to vary, but the problem with the T's build is that it comes at the expense of function. The ultra-smooth aluminium is slippery to hold. The two dials on top are hard to differentiate without looking at them, and fall too flush with the body. The exquisitely designed strap locks are impossible to use with any strap besides the rubber one Leica provides, which is non-adjustable and sticks to any surface it touches.
A camera should of course look good, but the best form reflects and builds on the idea of the object as a tool, not a trophy. I felt extremely uncomfortable even walking down the street with the Leica T. Not only does it stand out -- when a photographer usually wants to blend in -- but it felt like I was wearing a precious gem around my neck. More in the don't rob me sense than the I feel pretty one.
The disconnect is illustrated by Leica's enlisting of Audi to help with the design. Yes, Audi, a great marquee name with a history of designing gorgeous cars. That doesn't appear to have translated to cameras, though. Don't hire a fashion designer to build a skyscraper, and don't hire a car designer to build a camera.
Operation of the T is based almost completely on the large 3.7" touch-screen display. Unless you plunk down an extra $700 for the external viewfinder (which is huge and goofy looking), you'll be getting to know the rear display quite well.
With the exception of the shutter speed and aperture dials, every setting and control is accessed via touch-screen. The interface is simple enough overall, though it definitely takes some getting used to. The settings are presented as a grid of squares. You can move around each square and re-order the settings, or remove them from the top menu altogether.
There are only three distinct 'sections,' including modes, capture settings, and general settings, though these separations are basically arbitrary. It's modern and smartphone-esque, and certainly simplifies the process of finding a setting, since there are so few places for them to 'hide.' At the same time, the touch-screen doesn't always work very well, with missed swipes and presses occurring frequently. Some key settings are an extra press away from being convenient, like the ISO setting, which requires multiple presses to adjust.
The worst of Leica's touch interface is the image review. You need to swipe across to go from pic to pic, which occurs with insane lag -- sometimes up to two seconds between pictures. And the pinch to zoom is an absolute mess.
The actual shooting experience with the T also is not stellar. Autofocus doesn't live up to the speed of most current generation cameras by a long shot. Despite having most normal AF modes: touch-to-focus, multi-point, face detection, and spot focusing, the T flubs the most useful one. Normally, a camera features a focus point that you can move around with a wheel or directional pad between shots. With the T, you have to dive into the menu to set the focus point, after which you cannot change it without diving back in. It takes forever. If you select the touch-to-focus mode, you can move the point around with your finger without accessing a menu, but then you have to touch the screen every time you want to focus, with the shutter half-press disabled! It makes very little sense.
You can switch to manual focus mode, which works fine with focus magnification at 3x or 6x. but the magnified image is extremely grainy and hard to tell if it's in perfect focus. The software lacks focus peaking for additional assistance.
Let's talk about those T lenses. So far there are two -- a 23mm f/2 which costs $2300 in Australia, and an 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 which costs another $2300. Both lenses produce very sharp images. The 23mm prime does showcase some purple fringing near the edges. The zoom lens offers a disappointing aperture size for the exorbitant price, but it is much better quality than your standard kit lens. How quickly will Leica expand this lens system? Chances are not very. The next lenses aren't scheduled until next year. If you own some M-mount glass, you can purchase Leica's adaptor for a staggering $500 and go the manual focus route.
Optical quality was always Leica's strength, but it needs a quality sensor to complete the picture. The T's APS-C sensor is the same one found in their X Vario compact camera. It performs well, on par with most APS-C cameras out there. Noise at high ISOs is reasonably fine up to ISO 3200. Nothing will knock your socks off, but it stays with the competition. Video quality is another story, with severely crappy results at 1080p. Moire and aliasing run rampant in any area of detail, and it's just not pleasant to look at.
Other little Leica touches are either joyous or infuriating. The strap locks rotate around bearings: good. The battery compartment lid is built right into the battery itself: good. The retractable flash is prone to popping out if you flip the power-on switch too hard: bad. And then there's the built-in 16 GB memory. It can be great if you forget your memory cards, but be careful because you can go on shooting without the instant warning that you didn't bring extra cards.
All of our test images were shot RAW and converted in Adobe Lightroom. To view and download full-size images, visit our Flickr album.
f/6, ISO 800, 1/125, using 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 lens
f/13, ISO 400, 1/125, using 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 lens
f/3.5, ISO 100, 1/125, using 23mm f/2 lens
f/4, ISO 100, 1/250, using 23mm f/2 lens
1:1 crop of previous image
f/5.0, ISO 1600, 1/80, using 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 lens
1/80, using 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 lens
The build quality is stellar, and some of the design cues like the strap locks and battery compartment are thoughtful. Image quality is solid, and the optical quality of the T system's two lenses is very good. The touch-screen interface is imperfect but forward-thinking and easy to figure out.
Its look is gaudy and over-designed, without enough attention paid to functionality. Operation is hampered by slow focusing and interface miscues. The lens system is extremely limited. The body and every accessory you can buy is extremely expensive.
Should You Buy It?
No. Unless you're buying a camera purely as a status symbol, there is nothing the Leica T offers that isn't bested by numerous other camera systems out there. Sony Alpha series (formerly NEX), Olympus OM-D, Fuji X-series; they all out-do the T in nearly every area, for a fraction of the price. It's frustrating to arrive at this conclusion, because Leica holds a place in many people's hearts. They forged a reputation with simple design that served the photographer. The T loses that focus in favour of opulence.