Leica has spent the better part of the last decade peddling one or two great products, flanked by a bunch of overpriced "special editions", and some re-branded Panasonic cameras (also overpriced). The Leica Q finally brings something new to the table. I spent a weekend with the Q, and here are my thoughts.
The Leica Q is a fixed-lens camera with a full-frame 24 megapixel sensor. It's basically what you'd get if you took their flagship digital M body, shaved off a few centimetres, replaced the rangefinder with modern autofocus, and glued on a lens -- a 28mm f/1.7 prime lens to be exact. That's one damn fine piece of Leica glass, and it's the Q's biggest strength.
This is the first time Leica has paired a fixed lens with a full-frame sensor. In fact, the Q is only one of two cameras anywhere out there with this combo. The other is Sony's RX1, which debuted in 2013 to much fanfare. Cameras like these have a very niche appeal. Usually it's for pros who want a highly capable secondary carry-around camera, or hardcore enthusiasts wanting the latest jewel.
Sony's RX1 cost $US2800 at launch. If you suffered sticker shock back then, well, hold on tight: the Leica Q will run a hearty $US4250. Is it at all justified?
Well, let's put it in perspective. The Leica M, which has a similar full-frame sensor, costs $US7000 just for the body. The Q combines a similarly terrific sensor with a superb lens, one that would surely run at least a couple grand if it were sold by itself. Compared to the Sony RX1, the lens is brighter, the body features an electronic viewfinder, and the overall build is solid as a rock. All of a sudden $US4250 doesn't sound completely unreasonable.
People are going to scoff at the lack of interchangeable lenses. Big time. I can hear their objections ringing in my ear already. Leica has built in a sort of workaround to this limitation with switchable frame lines for 35mm and 50mm equivalent crops. Of course, the resulting images will be lower in resolution (12 megapixels at 35mm, five megapixels at 50mm).
Personally, I think high-end fixed-lens cameras are great. They provide extremely good quality in a small package, and often feature outstanding optics for cheaper than the lens would cost on its own. And performance doesn't disappoint. A few days of casual shooting gave me confidence in a decent autofocus system, responsive interface, and most of all, stellar image quality. The sensor, which is newly developed, produces natural, rich colours, and does great in low light. But the optics are what really make it shine.
View our sample images at their original resolution on our Flickr page.
The shot below is at ISO 6400, showing pretty great noise performance:
The next shot is at ISO 1600:
The 28mm lens is virtually distortion-free, and oh so sharp. The bright f/1.7 aperture, combined with a super-close focusing distance of about 6 inches,makes for incredibly creamy out-of-focus background effects. It's got a nice focus tab with a tiny button for switching between auto and manual focus...
...and a really cool macro mode switcher, which magically reveals a 2nd depth of field scale.
Still, for a $US4250 camera, there are definitely flaws. For one thing, the shutter speed maxes out at 1/2000 (Update: it actually has an electronic shutter option up to 1/16000), making it hard to use that large aperture in good light. Video recording is clearly an after-thought with poor image quality. Lastly, the EVF, while responsive and high in resolution at 3.68 million dots, isn't in league with the best out there in terms of colour. It was quite washed out in sunlight, making it hard to judge exposure. There's also a complete lack of grip. But this is a Leica, which never have built-in grips! You can buy an attachable one if you want.
Despite its flaws, I think high-end camera buyers are going to love the Q. Leica seems to have learned lessons from 2013's terrible X camera, which failed to impress with lacklustre lens lineup and questionable design. The Q has more of that classic Leica feel, and it works. If you're the kind of person who would have spent $US2800 on the Sony RX1, I think you'd be even better served spending $US4250 on the Q. But hey, the RX1 is pretty old, and for all we know Sony could update it in the very near future.
The best part is simply this: unlike the moronic celebrity-branded "editions" with huge markups, the Q is an actual tool for photographers. Let's hope Leica continues on that path in the future.