Ever wondered why Leica cameras are so expensive? There is a reason, a very good one -- they take amazing photos, whether you want to snap them manually or let the camera do the heavy lifting. There's a new Leica that, in some ways, is the best Leica yet; it's not the cheapest but it's also not the most pricey. The Leica Q is a $6000 fixed-lens mirrorless camera par excellence.
What Is It?
- Resolution: 24 Megapixels
- Lens Mount: N/A (fixed)
- Screen: 3.0-inch
- ISO: 100-50,000 Native
- Storage: SD (SDXC Compatible)
- Warranty: 1 Year
The $5990 Leica Q is a fixed-lens digital 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 one of only 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 market. Usually they appeal to pros who want a highly capable secondary carry-around camera, or hardcore enthusiasts wanting the latest jewel.
The fixed lens' 28mm field of view is reasonably wide (especially for the Leica brand that most enthusiasts associate with peerless 35mm and 50mm primes) but its f/1.7 maximum aperture is incredibly bright and allows for relatively narrow depth of field, especially when you're shooting subjects close up. That full-frame sensor has 24 megapixels across its 36x24mm surface area, has no optical low-pass filter to blur out fine image detail, and can ramp up its ISO from a base of 100 to a maximum of 50,000.
What's It Good At?
It takes amazing photos. The Leica Q's 24-megapixel sensor has no optical low-pass filter to destroy fine image detail and the 28mm F/1.7 prime lens is incredibly sharp. The JPEG processing engine does an extremely good job of compressing photos, removing moire and presenting finished files that look great -- not crunchy and colour-blocky, but smooth and almost filmic in quality. Leica seems to be going through a modernising revolution recently too, since its M cameras are all about very deliberately and slowly taking photos, where the Leica Q can capture photos in a burst of up to 10fps.
You can of course tweak the JPEGs to your liking with custom and preset style modes, or shoot exclusively in DNG-format RAW if you desire. The smart money, though, is on shooting DNG-plus-JPEG and having some photos to share instantly along with some high-quality files to edit later in the photo editing software of your choice. You can change photo styles, of course, but I wouldn't bother -- the standard images are as perfectly saturated and contrasty and sharp as I'd want them to be. The proof is in the pudding, though, so here are some photos, downsampled to 1080p resolution, that I captured with the Leica Q.
The Leica Q handles its JPEGs very well as you can see, even in lower light conditions and more difficult backlit or high-contrast environments. There's a digital frame selector too, which will crop the 28mm wide-angle lens down to 35mm and 50mm equivalents in-camera. If you're so inclined -- and some Leica faithful might consider this blasphemous -- the Q will even capture video at up to 1080p60 resolution and frame rates. Having the option to fire off burst photos at 10fps too is genuinely useful in the Leica's home-turf street shooting situations, where you want to grab that perfect moment. You don't have to use these goodies, but you can.
It's so well built, too. So well built. I loved the Leica T when I tested it out, with its single-billet-of-aluminium body, and the Q is no different. The top panel of its body is also milled from a single billet of aluminium, but the majority of its chassis is magnesium, with components hidden away inside and surrounded by the diamond-finish leatherette plate on the front. Control dials and on-lens aperture and focus rings are perfectly mated to each other -- every button depresses with a satisfying click, everything just feels great to use and it does make you use the manual options that much more often.
Effectively using the Leica M's rangefinder design with a fixed, prime lens, the Q has the same excellent control scheme as much more expensive cameras, and ones that have been using the same tried-and-tested control layout for decades. There are buttons on the back, of course -- a traditional digital SLR or digital-camera-esque five-way navigational pad and playback button -- but unless you're only ever shooting in manual mode then you'll want to be using the top panel's shutter speed and contextual control dial, along with the lens' front ring for focusing, middle ring for aperture and rear ring for manually switching between macro and regular distance focusing.
What's It Not Good At?
It's expensive. Are you surprised? It's a Leica. It's much cheaper than any M-Series Leica interchangeable-lens rangefinder that you could buy, despite taking photos that are very nearly as beautiful, detailed and tonally excellent, but it's still a very expensive camera when you compare it to any visually similar digital SLR or even the like-for-like form factor of the $3499 Sony RX1R. You're paying a premium for the Leica brand and Leica logo as much as you're paying for the amazing photos and excellent build quality, and the superb attention to detail with which the Leica Q is put together.
The camera gets even more expensive as you add on Leica's bespoke Q-series accessories, which have that trademark excellent quality but are still extremely pricey. The one that I take umbrage at is Leica's not including a handgrip in the box -- it's the kind of extra that can really transform the way a camera feels for someone with especially large or especially small hands, and would be very welcome on a camera with as streamlined and potentially slippery a design as the Leica Q's. It's great that you can customise the camera to suit your needs, but you'll have to pay up to do so.
Capped at a maximum ISO sensitivity of 50,000, the Leica Q doesn't quite have the low-light capabilities of its equally priced or similarly pro-level competitors. What's interesting is that all the way up to that ISO 50,000 maximum, the Q maintains a very firm hold on image quality, with its JPEGs looking only very slightly blurred and retaining visible fine image detail at the maximum ISO. It would have been nice for Leica to include even a single higher setting that would double the Q's low-light capability at the cost of a little more grain, luminance and chrominance noise -- just to give it a little more versatility.
It's also quite weighty, moreso than you'd think for its (relatively) small size and the lack of an interchangeable lens mount. At 640g it's almost a third as heavy again as the already-solid 482g Sony RX1R, which is functionally the same camera, although that additional weight could come partially from the extra glass required for a brighter, wider-angle lens. At least the weight is distributed evenly across the short, sturdy lens and the equally tough-feeling body. It's a very solid camera and one that feels like it will absolutely stand the test of time, you just might find it a little heavy along the way.
Should You Buy It?
It's hard to recommend a camera that costs $6000, as the Leica Q does. There are cameras that are half as expensive and a third as expensive that can still take beautiful photos and do almost everything the Leica Q can. Its feature-set is not unique and not especially special in 2015. But that ignores the something factor with this camera, the feeling that you get, holding it and clicking all its little clicketty bits around and bringing it up to your eye to take a photo. It's very special to use, as a Leica should be, it's very well built, as a Leica should be, and it takes genuinely beautiful photographs -- as a Leica should.
It's also the most modern Leica around by a long way. The Leica Q app works well as a remote viewfinder and for quickly, individually or bulk transferring files (both JPEGs and DNGs). It can capture photos in bursts. It can record video -- if you want it to. It has an electronic viewfinder that genuinely works well and offers an actual advantage over optical finders, in the right conditions. But, crucially, you can use it just like the old-timey Leica M that you've always wanted to own. It can be classic, it can be modern, it can be anything in between if you want it to be.
Apart from the small technical hiccup of having to eliminate a bit of moire from the Leica Q's RAW image files if you're going to be editing in a third-party program -- like the Adobe Lightroom that's bundled with the Leica Q if you buy it at retail -- the images that come out of this state of the art digital mirrorless camera are, without exception, beautiful. Whether you're in low light or bright light, shooting for a narrow depth of field or for a pin-sharp 24-megapixel landscape, you will find yourself taking photos that you want to keep. With a camera, that's exactly what you want.