When you think of Leica, you probably don’t think digital. This is because Leica’s digital cameras, until now, have been either point-and-shoots lacking a real Leica feel or fake-vintage rangefinders with a sensor in place of film. That changes today. The Leica Q combines the top-of-the-line look and feel the German optics experts are known for, with truly progressive technology that makes it easier to get great images out of the Q than any Leica before. This is a 21st-century Leica exactly as it should be.
The Leica Q inhabits a middle ground between Leica’s consumer-focused compact cameras and its professionally minded M family of rangefinders. The former are mostly rebranded plastic Panasonic cameras meant for your pocket or backpack, while the latter have been the expensive gold standard for photojournalists for the better part of a century. The Q might be smaller and priced at less than five-figures, but it has no clicky zoom lens.
The foundations of the Q are a 24 megapixel full-frame sensor, the brand new Maestro II image processor, and a fixed (non-zoom) 28mm f/1.7 Summilux lens. Translation for all you non-camera nerds: The Q has top-of-the-line specs across the board. The combination of large sensor and bright lens means the Q can achieve great color fidelity and resolution, and in exchange for the trade-off of not having interchangeable lenses, the lens/sensor combo can be designed specifically for one another to optimize performance.
Practically, what this all means is that the Q is easy to use and produces gigantic image files that look great out of the camera. They can be processed ad nauseum, if that’s your thing. If you open the lens up to the full aperture and crank up the ISO light-sensitivity settings (the Q goes to a crazy 50,000, though you’ll want to keep it at 6,400 or lower), you can shoot anywhere that’s lighter than pitch black and still get photos that don’t look like a blurry sandbox. Colors are bright but not exaggerated, and people actually look like, well, people.
The body and lens housing are all metal, which is nice in theory and makes the camera feel amazing when you first pick it up, but I found the weighting to be a little strange, and after a few hours my lilliputian wrists started to get a little tired. If you end up springing for a Q, you’ll definitely want to grab one of the screw-on finger grips, too, as this fixed the problem and made the camera much more manageable.
I’ve shot various film and digital M rangefinders, and what shocked me most about the Q is just how much it can feel like shooting one of these cameras if you want it to.
The biggest downside to Leica’s M rangefinders for many is that they lack autofocus. When you want a visceral photography experience, this is great, and Ms are amazing cameras for pros and for taking long walks through unfamiliar cities, but just try getting a shot of your young kid at a party. The Q adds extremely fast and accurate autofocus, but not at the expense of the manual experience. You just release a lock, and the lens moves to M-style manual focus. The action is smooth, dense, and unlike any digital manual focus I’ve ever used before. The viewfinder will magnify, show focus-peaking, or both, so you can really nail the shot. This is the first digital camera I’ve actually enjoyed shooting with manual focus.
There’s also a macro mode, and when activated, the focusing scale on the lens itself changes to match. Both auto and manual focus work just the same in macro, and you can focus all the way down to 17cm (6.69 inches), which is really, really close. Shooting macro with a wide lens is a little strange, but it’s a nice option to have, and I could see experimenting with this being a lot of fun.
Features and Faults
While the 28mm lens doesn’t zoom and can’t be swapped out, Leica added adjustable frame lines to the Q’s viewfinder that mimic what you’d find on an old film rangefinder. You fill the whole viewfinder to shoot with a 28mm field of view, but additional lines can be toggled to simulate 35mm and 50mm lenses, too. What you end up with are essentially just photographs cropped in from the beginning (if you’re shooting both raw and jpg, the raw file stays the full 28mm while the jpg is cropped) to give you the experience of two other lenses. The images you get out of the Q are big enough that practically, these crops aren’t problematic at all unless you’re printing billboards. This feature might be my favorite thing about the camera.
I do have some gripes, though. The biggest is one that Leica fans have been complaining about since the company first got into digital cameras: The menus are so sparse and linear, it can be hard to find exactly what you’re looking for. The settings are all there; it just takes some digging to get to what you need, which can be frustrating out in the field. And while you can navigate these menus and examine photos using the touch screen instead of the buttons, it’s not nearly as responsive or dynamic as what you’re used to on your smartphone. It’s still better than what’s on most cameras, but the lag and jitters can make the experience feel less than perfect. I mostly stuck to the old-fashioned buttons.
At the $4,250 price, the Leica Q is expensive, no two ways about it.
The most similar camera to the Q is Fuji’s X100 T, another rangefinder-style compact with a fixed lens and manual controls, which retails for $1,299. While Fuji has mastered the electronic viewfinder, and the X100 T creates sharp, vivid images, the Leica optics and full-size sensor generate much more accurate, finely detailed photographs. Individual blades of grass are well separated and the sweat on a cold glass of beer looks like it might drip off the photo.
Plus, the Q nails all the little experiences, such as the feel of the focus ring, in a way that Fuji just can’t touch (and I say this as someone who primarily shoots with Fuji cameras). At a little less than one-third the price of the Q and much smaller and lighter, however, it's easier to toss into a bag for a weekend away. For casual shooters, the X100 T will probably get a lot more use and perform just as well.
The Leica Q is an incredible camera. That's not up for debate. It has a sharp lens, a high-fidelity image sensor, and a processor that lets it perform with almost no friction. Sturdy dials, a smooth focus ring, and a bright viewfinder simulate the experience of using a traditional film rangefinder, but lightning-fast autofocus makes sure you don’t miss shots while fiddling with settings. Sure, it’s pricey, but it’s a Leica. It it were cheap, I’d be suspicious.
If you’re looking for a camera that marries the authentic Leica experience with the modern conveniences most of us expect from a camera, and you’re willing to pay for the best, you’ll love the Q.
The Leica Q is available at Leica boutiques and authorized dealers worldwide from June 10 for $4,250.