Leica Q: First Impressions of Leica's Quirky Compact
The Leica Camera Q has been on the market for almost a year now, so it may seem a bit bizarre to have a "first impressions" take on something that has been around this long, but as long as Leica still struggles to meet demand for this camera in some markets, I think it's fair game to write like the camera is brand new.
If you are a frequent reader of my posts (website, Facebook, Instagram), then you probably already know that I got the Leica SL Type 601 in December 2015 and have fallen head-over-heels in love with that system. The SL is my primary camera for all things digital (as I still shoot plenty of film)... So why buy into a Leica Q?
The SL system and most dSLRs have one glaring thing in common- they aren't small and subtle. Everyone in a 100 mile radius knows when I bring that camera up to my eye, even if the shutter sound is nearly silent. That's okay, the Leica SL isn't trying to be small or discreet.
Since owning an SL, when I wanted a smaller camera, I turned to the iPhone. While the iPhone is a decent camera, it isn't a tool that I felt comfortable using to create fine art photographs (kudos to those who have done so successfully). I wasn't willing to skimp on image quality for the sake of compactness - again, the goal is to create fine art photographs. After some reading on the Leica Q, I realized I could get the same incredible image quality that has drawn me to the SL in a smaller body by investing in a Q system...... If I could find one!
The Leica Q released to much fanfare and has been touted as the best compact full frame digital camera ever built. And for that reason, it's still very difficult to find one for sale almost a full year after the camera's release.
Let's take a quick look at the highlights on the Q's spec sheet. Aka, the features I cared about:
- 24.2 megapixel CMOS full-frame sensor (same specs as the SL, if not the same sensor)
- Maestro II image processor (same as in the SL)
- Fixed Summilux 28mm f/1.7 ASPH lens
- Electronic viewfinder (like on the SL)
- Near silent shutter
- Good battery performance
- Ability to use autofocus or manual focus
- Macro mode
- Overall small size
A Q-uick Note
With the exception of the Leica SL and Q comparisons below, the images in this post were converted to black and white in Lightroom. I prefer to present street photography in black and white to remove some of the natural bias that color can introduce.
The settings used for these images were Auto ISO, f/1.7 and aperture priority.
Getting the Q
As previously mentioned, the Q is very hard to find in some markets, including the United States. While I live in the United Kingdom, I had a work trip to the Washington, DC area where I was hoping to find a Q for sale so I could buy it stateside and avoid paying her majesty the 20% VAT.
Leica Store DC.... No stock. Actually, they did get a camera one morning but sold it in a few hours, before I had any chance of getting to their store.
B&H Photo.... No stock.
Amazon...... Only if you are willing to pay $1,000+ more than MSRP (nope)
Ace Photo.... One in stock!
By some miracle, Ace Photo, which was my go-to camera store when I lived in DC, had a Q in stock, but the way their website displayed the stock implied it was sold out. I had emailed Mo, the owner, and he replied that he had one and was willing to hold it for me... Woohoo!
For what it's worth, the Leica Q is equally challenging to find in London right now. There is limited stock at some retailers, but Leica Mayfair continues to be out of stock on the Q. Clearly, Leica did not expect and produce for the demand this camera generated.
After getting the Leica Q, I returned to my hotel and tossed the battery on the charger, eager to play with the camera before taking it to a Washington Nationals baseball game later that evening.
Learning the Q’s Personality
While the Leica Q bears many similarities to the Leica SL, it has its own personality as a camera and a few distinctive nuances. First of these is the menu screens, which have some notable differences. One of the first obvious differences is the layout - the SL has four sections to the menu (Camera, Image, Setup, and Favorites) while the Q menu is all in one section. This isn't a problem, but I do like having a favorites menu in the SL to quickly jump to my most commonly used settings.
Also of note, the Q does not allow the user to capture DNG only - it's JPEG or JPEG + DNG. As someone who doesn't care for the JPEG files because I'll always give at least a basic edit in Lightroom, it'd be nice to have a firmware update allowing the user to only shoot .DNG raw files.
Finally, you’ll need to read the manual or some online reviews to know what some of the titles in the settings menu adjust - like ‘OIS’ - which stands for Optical Image Stabilization. Apparently spelling that out in the menu would be too hard? How about just "Image Stabilization?"
Did I Break it Already? An Early Design Flaw
At the ballgame that night, the Q performed well - although the 28mm focal length is hardly the right one for shooting sports! But a few fan and stadium photos gave me something to pixel peep on my iPad later. Going to the game did highlight one of the first (and maybe the only) real problem with the Leica Q. The diopter adjustment for the Q sticks out the right side of the viewfinder, meaning that as the camera back rubbed against my shirt as I walked around the stadium, the viewfinder got out of focus. At one point I raised my new camera to my eye to take a picture and felt like screaming.... It's broken! The image was blurry and the camera never came into focus?! Was it something on the front of the lens? No. It was the dang diopter adjustment. While I figured it out after a few panicked seconds, there was momentary freak-out as my new camera suddenly was very blurry. I had read on other reviews that the diopter adjustment could be a bit too sensitive to the touch, and experienced the problem day one.
Thankfully, adding the Match Technical Thumbs Up grip to the Leica Q covers that wheel and prevents it from accidentally spinning. I also love the grip the Thumbs Up adds to the Q - it made it very comfortable to carry one handed in London all day.
I have this weird thing about batteries. I get stressed when my iPhone drops below 50% - this irrational fear takes over where the phone could die any second! Ironically, the same phobia doesn't cripple me when it comes to filling the car with gas….
Anyway, this fear of dead batteries manifests itself in my photography. I dread the idea of being without power at a critical photo opportunity. I carry three batteries for the Leica SL to ensure I can go for days without a charge. So one of the first tests with the Q was the determine how much endurance that little battery had after a day of shooting.
Leica rates the battery to somewhere in the 300 shot range, but I easily got that type performance and then some. Granted I have the screen auto power off after 30 seconds and the camera shortly thereafter; I avoid using the LCD screen on the back, and never record video (I’m told the camera can do that). While I am conservative in the screen usage, I am not afraid to walk with the camera turned on for stretches at a time, particularly when taking street photographs. During a full day of walking through London, I used maybe 50% of the battery, so I think Leica’s rating is very conservative. Of course, that didn’t stop me from buying a spare!
The Leica Q impresses me with the turn on and revive from sleep speeds. Turning the camera on, it can be ready to shoot in just over a second (I didn’t time this, but if I am carrying the camera on my side and I flip the switch to on and bring it to my eye, it’s just about ready to shoot once it gets to eye level). And if I think a photographic opportunity is imminent, I’ll carry the camera on because the revive from sleep time is near instantaneous. I distinctly recall being pleasantly surprised while walking in London; the Q had gone to sleep, but I brought it up and clicked the shutter to take a picture, not realizing it was asleep. The camera didn’t seem to care - it woke and took the photo immediately. I actually remarked to my husband my surprise that the Q awoke and shot that fast.
Eye Candy Creator - Summilux 28mm f/1.7 ASPH Lens
The real gem of the Leica Q is the lens; a Q with a 50mm f/4 wouldn’t be nearly as impressive or popular. I don’t own a 28mm M lens for comparisons, but I did shoot some side-by-sides with the Leica SL at 28mm, which we’ll cover in a minute. However, I think the 28mm Summilux f/1.7 lens that Leica has paired with the Q is a perfect match. It’s a great focal length for travel and street photography. And with the macro mode, the lens is far more versatile than most of the Leica M series lenses.
I will comment that I wish the focus ring was as smooth on the Q as it is on my M lenses. It’s not the same buttery feel and takes a little bit more force to rotate, but one of the appeals of this camera is the autofocus - if I want to shoot manual focus I can do it, or I can reach for one of my M rangefinders.
The aperture ring clicks into place with the feel familiar to my other Leica lenses. It is maybe just a tad tighter than my Leica f/0.95 M Noctilux, but that’s if I’m being picky and comparing the rotation of them side-by-side (which I just did).
Optically, the performance of this lens is wonderful. The bokeh is soft and creamy, although not Noctilux dreamy. And while 28mm is a newish focal length to me, I found it familiar and natural to use. I owe this to my iPhone, as the focal length of the Q and iPhone is very similar.
For day-to-day shooting, I will always equip the lens hood to protect the front of the lens, although the cap goes into my pocket and doesn’t come out between shots. Honey badger doesn’t have time for a stinkin’ lens cap.
There are times when I wished my M series bodies had autofocus. Times when I missed a shot because I am a mere mortal (or when I was shooting the Noctilux, which has extremely narrow tolerances for focusing). As much as I love to manually focus and to have the total control afforded to manual focus, there are times when it’s nice and easy to have autofocus - particularly if the goal of the photograph is documentary.
The autofocus of the Q is what makes this camera so wonderful. It’s all the great stuff of an M body (except for interchangeable lenses) but with autofocus. The focus is fast and nearly always accurate. All of the images in this preview were shot with autofocus.
And in those instances where the Q fails to correctly read your mind and selects the wrong focus point, you can re-press the shutter half way and it’ll select a new point. I can’t tell you how wonderful this is - I felt like my Nikon and I would fight over focus point selection, but the Q knows it is your camera, and graciously offers alternative focus points if it missed on the first try.
I am totally smitten with the image quality of the Leica SL, so the question for me was, can the Leica Q replicate the same quality but in a more compact package? Challenge gauntlet thrown!
I compared the cameras by matching similar settings - auto ISO at f/4 and let the camera choose the shutter speed. Both cameras had -1/3rd stop exposure compensation dialed in. The images you see here are both .JPEGs that have undergone the same post-processing in Lightroom (IE, both got the same adjustments for clarity and vibrance). I conducted this comparison hand holding the cameras, so minor differences in composition are “user error.”
Remember to click on an image for a full preview
Overall, the three tests are very similar. In a blind taste test, I don't think I’d be able to correctly identify which camera made which image. There are slight differences in the casting of the blue and green shades on the helicopter body, and the Q reveals slightly more shadow detail than the SL image does.
When comparing the flag photographs, big differences can be seen in the sky - the SL has almost a greenish hue (likewise, the flag is a little more green) while the Q seems to render the sky more accurately. However, recall that I shot in aperture priority - the SL in that image was a full stop brighter than the Q, which is probably a difference in metering off the reflective car hood, and may have caused some of the sky detail and color to be lost.
Of these test shots, I prefer the Q image in 2 out of the 3….. will the Q overtake the SL in my eyes as the king of image quality? It might be a little early to crown it, but the Q has certainly joined the SL in “Kristen’s smitten circle of cameras.”
Silence is Golden
It’s worth noting that while the Leica SL is near silent, the Q is totally silent. Unless you are in a totally silent room, you cannot hear the shutter of the Q. On the street or in an area with any ambient noise, the Q will make as much sound as your iPhone (that is, none). The people you photograph on the street will never know you took their picture from audible clues. I have found myself occasionally questioning if the camera actually took a picture - it’s ninja silent. And that’s perfect, because the Q will certainly be thrust into situations where the loud sound of a shutter would not be appreciated, but where it will tippy toe through the scene without notice.
Who Should Q?
I don’t know who Leica was targeting when they produced the Q, but the continued demand for the camera suggests they underestimated the market for a perfectly engineered, full-frame, mirrorless, compact, 24 megapixel, f/1.7 28mm, stealthy, silent, shooting machine. So who should want a Q?
Without doubt, the Leica Q is a professional tool, and it can produce fine art prints for consumers and professionals alike. The image quality, which is probably owed to a combination of wonderful glass, a drop-dead gorgeous sensor and the Mastro II processor, produces results that rival Leica’s new larger body Leica SL.
Personally, I will be using the Q to fill a space that the Leica SL didn't fill for me - the desire to have a small travel camera that I can discreetly use on the street or to document little moments that aren't "worthy" of the Leica SL. There are times when it's not appropriate to use the SL - for instance, with a shy subject in a tribal village - and where the small and silent Q will allow me to still collect those moments with incredible quality. And with travel to Norway, Germany, Austria, Thailand and a month long road trip through the US upcoming, the Leica Q will get plenty of use, and a formal review after more extensive work will be forthcoming.
As Craig Mod put it, the Leica Q is the “unicorn of consumer products….you can’t help but wonder how it clawed its way from the R&D lab” - and I cannot agree more with his sentiment. Although the Leica Q was released before the SL, the best explanation I can offer is that it’s like the M series and SL series mated, and produced this beautiful bastard child that was so quirky that Leica had no choice put to apply the same moniker to name it….. It’s the Leica Quirky Q.
And quirky is very good.