A Date with Leica Q

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I can still recall when Leica Q was launched last year, there was a whole lot of buzz about this camera in the photography world. Leica loyalist praised over it, rangefinder loyalist disliked it, Sony RX1 series loyalist trashed it, and the photography community has generally given a mixed reaction to it. I tested the camera for awhile after the launch, the initial impression was pretty positive. But I can’t really judge more from there as my hands on experience only lasted for a couple of minutes.

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Fast forward to today, I got a chance to really carry this camera with me to go out and shoot in real life, and to try out myself what is it all about, courtesy of my friend. The background story for this was rather complicated, but to cut it short, I’m actually looking for a sidekick camera to my Leica M setup. There are many things that the M excel in, but there are just things that it can’t do well, and I’m probably looking for something to bridge that gap. Hence, I decided to give the Q a try and here’s what I thought about it.

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The camera is considerably lighter than Leica’s M body, but to be honest it is still not a light weight camera. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. For me, the weight is acceptable and very much comfortable to get used to, but the camera does have a bit of front heaviness to it, which may affect the overall balance and comfort for some. The built was again very reasonable to me. I would say it feels similar to most mirrorless bodies out there, not extremely solid, but at least it doesn’t feels cheap and plasticky. The thumb rest area is a nice touch, but not too practical in use. I would still suggest adding a grip or a thumbs up like those offered by Match Technical. Overall, this is indeed a sexy looking camera.

I won’t talk too much on the technical specs, so I’ll just do some rundown here. EVF is responsive and clear, but it seems to me that the colour is a bit not so natural in the EVF, as if there’s some colour cast to it. LCD is clear and sharp to view it under daylight, and it is a touch screen panel. Auto focus speed is reasonably fast consider it only has contrast detection on board, it won’t win any award in this department for sure. Focusing accuracy is very good except when shooting in macro. When shooting in macro, the camera gets harder to lock the focus for some reasons, but this minor flaw is acceptable for me as it’s not really that often I will go into macro mode. The menu system is very minimalistic just like any other Leica digital camera. Overall camera operation and responsiveness is very good and clean.

Okay, now let’s talk about something specific that I would like to share about this camera. First, this is NOT a rangefinder. It’s not too hard to condition my mind and start using it like a digital point and shoot, as I have a couple of years of experience in using the Fujifilm mirrorless system which behaves similarly. I know a lot of rangefinder purist dislike the Q, and I can roughly understand why. But the difference to me is just the “user experience” on camera operation, which is very subjective. The advantage of Q is that even in manual focus, with focus peaking you can easily frame your shot and focus your subject off centre, all the way to the corner. No more focus and recompose, no more guessing. That’s when I’m talking about manual focus, you can make your life much easier by just turning the focus tab all the way, lock it to the right and start using the auto focus. You get direct access to AF point selection via the directional pad, which is neat.

The lens is sharp, but some distortion can be observed if you look close enough. I wouldn’t say this lens is optically perfect, but this 28mm Summilux does produce some wonderful output that you wouldn’t expect from such a tiny lens. This lens is stabilized optically, and with aperture of f1.7 you can easily conquer the night (sounds a little wrong…). Auto focus is silent, manual focus ring has a nice dampen feeling to it, and that sexy macro dial with depth of field scale that changes when you go into macro mode… simply brilliant engineering.

JPEG output is reasonably good, but I would personally add in a bit more punch in contrast and colours through the camera’s JPEG settings. RAW files on the other hand is great. I always like the RAW files from Leica camera for some reasons. The RAW files from Q is versatile, highlight and shadow recovery can be easily done in post processing without much problem. Of course you are not getting those crazy dynamic range that Sony’s sensor is offering, but the files are good as it is. All in all, I feel that the RAW files of the Q packs more dynamic range than that of the Leica M Type 240. I did not do a side by side comparison, but it seems to me that I can recover a bit more details with the Q’s RAW file than I normally would with the M.

The 35mm and 50mm cropping feature is pretty handy at times when you want to visualize a frame in different focal length. The wifi feature allows transfer of pictures and remote shooting, which is rather a standard feature for digital cameras nowadays. The touch screen is not the most responsive one, but it does the job when you need it. I personally forgot that it’s there most of the time. If you want to go a bit further, you can touch focus and snap a photo with it to remain stealthy… Though I don’t think that’s possible when the camera is not small in footprint to begin with.

To Q or to R? That’s the million dollar question that everyone tries to answer. You see, the Sony RX1 series is slightly smaller than the Q, packs in more features, it has a 35mm f2 lens on it, it has an EVF (for RX1R Mk II), cheaper in price tag… It does seems to be a better buy in every aspect that you are looking in. But for me, at anytime I will pick up the Q than a RX1 series. Sony made wonders by cramping so much into such a small camera body, but to me that’s it strength and yet it’s achilles heel. I personally feel that the camera body for RX1 series is simply too small. With so much buttons and dials, the camera just feel… Crowded. The Q is a simpler and much more straight forward kind of camera. You dial in the setting and start shooting, the usual minimalist approach of Leica in photography. But that’s just me. The RX1 series, especially the RX1R Mk II, is one hell of a camera and engineering monster. They are very well performer and the Zeiss lens doesn’t disappoint either. But all in all, the user experience using both camera is completely different. Hence, choose one that fits your needs and style.

For those who complaint the Q is overpriced and underspec, well, it’s hard to change this perception. If you compare the price of a Leica M body with a 28mm Summilux lens, the Q looks dirt cheap. If you compare to the likes of RX1 or RX1R, yes it does seems expensive. End of the day, one needs to understand the philosophy of Leica and appreciate their idea and approach in order to truly value their cameras.

So what’s my feeling towards the Q? Well, for a start I won’t call this a compact camera (probably the Ricoh GR or Fujifilm X70 is the largest I can accept as “compact”), rather it’s a fixed lens camera with full frame sensor inside. To me, the Q is like an iPad. It does well on the things it does. Its something that you would like to carry with you everyday and to complete things that are not too convenient to be done on an iPhone or a MacBook. But ultimately, it is not a MacBook or iPhone. If you are expecting to squeeze more from it, you will get disappointed pretty soon. For me, I personally haven’t decide whether my sidekick will be an iPad, an iPhone or a MacBook, hence I will hold on to my purchase on this camera. Furthermore, I’m not too much of a 28mm lover, so I want to be very sure before I spend on a Q. For now, I’ll just keep shooting with what I have and be good with it.

So is it worth it for you to buy one? If you have the money to spare, by all means go ahead. You really won’t be disappointed by it, unless you are looking for rangefinder experience from it, then you probably should look elsewhere. It can be a very good sidekick camera for most, and it can also be a very good “one and only” camera for most users. For those who have wanted to enter to the world of digital Leica… this is perhaps the cheapest and yet future proofed option money can buy. Otherwise, just grab a used M8 or M9 and start shooting with it. I hope my sharing is useful for some. Till then.

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