Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Leica Q (Type 116) Review

Leica Q (Type 116)

While the classic M camera is an enduring given for Leica, the German company has been quite adventurous with expansion into new niches outside of its traditional mainstay. They have gone higher to the S medium format series, but more often than not Leica has ventured lower to more accessible luxury. If the M is for the 1%, cameras like the X and T series are for the aspirational 19% that follow. However, nothing seems to endure like the M; the forays into accessible luxury always seem temporary at best. With the D-Lux and V-Lux cameras, it is very plainly about reaching as large a mass market as tolerable for a premium luxury brand. The X series was innovative at the time of its introduction, but as larger sensor cameras have becomes the normal, Leica has had to look higher to differentiate themselves from the mass market. The Leica T fits that bill, but is so innovative it's quite a bit off the beaten path.

To be perfectly honest, all of the downmarket forays have had to deal with the stigma of not being "real Leica's"; the fact that they aren't always made with the latest technology hasn't helped matters. However, that's not the point; for the users of these cameras, it's about the enjoyment of the camera rather than about outright perfection.

The Q is different. It is as contemporary and up to date as anything that has come out of Japan, but still maintains the core virtues of simplicity and superb optics. If it were a person, it would be the capable and self-assured new comer to the office, the one whose ambition and confidence come across in a palpable but understated way.  It's a camera that is comfortable at what it can do, but at the same time has the haughty air of timelessness that Leica cameras tend to portray.

Design and Build Quality


Unlike the M240 and the Leica T, which feel heavy for the sake of being heavy, and also unlike the X113 which feels somewhat hollow relative to its size, the Leica Q has just the right amount of heft. As a welcome change, this is a Germany-made Leica that is comfortable to hold right from the onset without the additon of extra grip extensions. A lot of this is made possible by the concave indentation that is the thumb rest. There is no rubber pad to grip on like you would find on a Japanese camera, but it's not necessary here; the thumb notch is enough for the camera to sit securely in your hand. (Why is this important? Leica does a steady business selling accessory thumb grips for their cameras, which might tell you where their priorities lie...) Overall, there is still the sense of German Bauhaus austerity in how it rests in your hand, but one of the success of this camera is how it balances aesthetic design against practical usability....

28mm f/1.7 lens

... And yet, those are all Leica cliches that you've heard before. Here's another trope: attention to detail. It's evident in the design of the lens. It is obviously a mimic of the a M-mount lens, complete with depth of field scale and focus tab. The macro ring is a delight to use; switch the lens from regular to close focusing and a different depth of field scale slides over the regular one. The take home message is "M-Like", but not quite M quality. The lens doesn't have the weighty metal feel of the M system, and the focus ring, though smooth and nicely damped, isn't quite like using the real thing. Another thing that is not traditional: the aperture ring. The copy that I got to use was a bit stiff. It works in the same way that the ring on the D-Lux and X113 does; it's aperture-by-wire, with a resting position on "A" for automatic.

M-lens style focus tab

The focus tab is one of the few letdowns of this camera. There's a small lock button on the right edge for releasing the focus ring from automatic mode into manual mode. In theory this is a good idea, but the amount of travel is too short for tactile feedback. In any case, the lock doesn't work particular well, as you can simply pull the focus ring out of automatic. Manual focus operation is a joy is fairly easy to use on this camera, as you can combine both magnified view and focus peaking. The focus peaking implementation, as you would expect from Leica, is on the stricter side of things, meaning that it tends to create narrower highlights to better show you what's in focus, as opposed to coarser highlights (ala Sony) for (too much) user friendliness.



Speaking of focusing and viewing, the design of the eyepiece is a thing of beauty. The oval shape of the EVF housing looks a bit like the window dressing that you get on some cars with larger chrome exhaust tips than the actual exhaust pipe. However, as a design element it discreetly packages the eye sensor next to the EVF; on many other cameras this detail is a bit ungainly, as the sensor is left next to the eyepiece as an afterthought.

35mm Frame Line
50mm Frame Line

There are crop modes that mimic the frame line view of the M rangefinder system. With the 35mm frame line, the image gets cropped down moderately, and with the 50mm frame line the cropping is considerable. As composition aids they are useful, but if you plan on using the 50mm frame line it is best to leave it for subjects with broad detail only.

Autofocus


If this isn't Panasonic's Depth from Defocus (DFD) technology, I'd be very surprised. Leica, of course, is coy about their technolgy, but it's unlike a small(ish) company like this would have made this great a leap in autofocus solely by themselves. The D-Lux and V-Lux use this technology, as they are Panasonic clones.



On single shot, still moving subjects the focus is pleasurably quick, DSLR-like in fact. Though the sensor does not have built-in phase detection elements, the system as a whole is clearly operating with discrete distance information. Continuous autofocus isn't quite as successful; it works, but is unreliable and slow to maintain focus for quick moving subjects. To access the full range of the focusing system you have to dive into the menu. There are area modes, and a useful tracking mode for focus-recompose shooters. You can also change the camera over to touch-to-shoot with the LCD. In this regard, the integration of the touch screen isn't as good as on the Leica T; it's there, but it wasn't designed as something to be used front and centre.

Macro


Before mentioning macro mode specifically, it bears mentioning that the Leica Q lens is superbly sharp overall. There's the natural fall off in detail towards the corners, but the centre and centre-mid portions of the lens are crisp.

Even if the Q is a rangefinder analogue, it doesn't slavishly imitate one. One thing that is thankfully not rangefinder-like is that the Q has a dedicated close-focus mode. it works beautifully, but the downside is that 28mm is ill-suited for macro photography as it does not give adequate working distance to illuminate the subject. That out of the way, the sharpness of the lens comes through with close-up work. Here's a Canadian $20 bill; note that the camera go the white balance wrong in this situation.

ISO 125, f/2.8, 1/60s

... and here's a 100% crop (Click on image). Focus point was on the left eye (right eye on image).


Image Quality


Before discussing the quality of the stills output, it should be mentioned that the video output is noticeably better than that seen on the M240. Though the specs don't match the cutting-edge video-focused cameras, the output of the Q is very much usable and has a markedly less degree of "jello shutter" than the M240.


The following is an ad hoc demonstration of the camera's JPEG output quality through the ISO range. Even though you can often get better quality with the RAW file (especially so with Leica cameras) the default JPEG programming gives an indication of what the engineers feel looks generally "good". Pay attention to the legibility of the soda bottles for detail retention (or lack thereof) as the ISO value rises, speckling in the broad colour patches for overall image noise, as well as the harshness of the reflections and shadows as dynamic range decreases. These samples are not directly comparable to similar samples found elsewhere in this blog because of variable ambient lighting conditions. Click on images for 100% crop view.

Two things jump out. The first is that the colour tuning seems different from the M240; the reds are (thankfully) not as pronounced  and the general colour profile seems a bit more even. The colour is still very much CMOS-like in that it's bright and punchy.The second is that the dynamic range is narrower than from a Sony sensor camera, but not terribly so. Even though the Leica M240 sensor doesn't give the highest score on DxOMark, that isn't a huge hindrance in real-world shooting. If anything, the dynamic range is similar to what you would see in a Canon file; maybe not as much leeway for processing, but more than enough if you expose properly at the time of shooting.

Image noise is well controlled and is exactly what you would expect from a full frame sensor. The JPEG tuning is not as good as you would get from cameras like the Nikon D750, but you can get results that are of good quality and which can be shot carefree up to about ISO 6400. Note that the JPEG engine is strategically de-saturating the image in the upper ISO range. ISO 12800 is usable for broadly-detailed subjects. Anything higher isn't really worth the time.

ISO 100, 1/250s
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800
ISO 25000
ISO 50000

Now for the good news: What's the lens that's on this camera again? That's right, a 28mm. Safe hand-holding shutter speeds aren't going to be particularly high, especially for typical Leica-style street shooting. In other words, even if the image quality is class leading at the high end of the range, it's not a camera that will need it often.

Bokeh



Because lens optical performance is a complex topic, the objective description of such is beyond the scope of this blog. Though there are many aspects to quantify (resolving power, field curvature, distortion, aberrations, etc.), a general sense of a lens’ character can be determined without resorting to lab testing. The following is one aspect; bokeh and apparent background blur with the subject at short distances.  

The quality of the bokeh is what you would call "flat perfect". There isn't any harshness, and highlights are rendered close to circular. It's the same sort of quality that you would see with the pro-spec Nikon and Canon lenses but what it doesn't have is that distinctive "swirl" that the a lens like the 50mm Summilux has.

f/1.7
f/2.8

f/4.0

f/5.6
f/8.0


Even at f/1.7, there isn't much opportunity to to separate the foreground from the background except when the focus as is extremely close distances, but there is just enough hint of a blur to maintain a feeling of depth.

Samples


A random assortment of sample images. This type of shooting is what the Q excels at, as it is discrete and does not draw attention to itself as you explore your surroundings.

ISO 100, f/1.7, 1/60s

Jewellery kiosk at close quarters: The bokeh melts off evenly into the distance. LED lighting, the camera gets the white balance just right.

ISO 100, f/2, 1/80s

Hello Kitty kiosk: Note saturation and detail on the fabric of the pencil cases.

ISO 100, f/1.8, 1/1000s

Spot of sunlight: This scene is challenging for any camera. The Q got the white balance and exposure right at the point of focus (women at the telephone kiosk), and wasn't fooled by the warmer lights of the atrium ceiling.

Leica Q vs Sony RX1


Left: Sony RX1R   Right: Leica Q (Type 116)

Of course, once people realized what the Leica Q actually was, there was some disappointment that the lens was a fixed 28mm and not the "natural" Leica focal length of 35mm. That is understandable from a marketing point of view, as a dedicated 35mm full frame compact would eat into M system sales rather than just supplement them.Ostensibly, there is such a camera, the Sony RX1, however, even if these are similar in concept they are two different devices in practice. The RX1 and RX1R were statement pieces; the specially designed Carl Zeiss lens is right up there with anything that Leica has produced, but the camera's resemblance to the RX100 is not a coincidence. The RX1 was the initial halo product for what turned out to be one of the most successful niches in the current market; the RX100 is now up to its fourth iteration. Both the RX100 and Leica Q make great travel and documentary cameras; the RX1 even more so because of its small size. The Q adds an EVF and faster focus, and though  it is larger, it is still a discreet camera for street photography.

Simply put, the Leica Q is the more complete camera, but an argument could be made that the Sony takes better pictures. For one, 35mm is a focal length that resonates with more people than 28mm. Another reason is that the RX1 ostensibly uses a Sony sensor. As seen above, the Leica Q files are somewhat akin to Canon files; Sony sensors produce more dynamic range at base ISO and tend to be less noisy at higher ISO. That said, the choosing point between these two cameras is not really about image quality, but about which form factor resonates most with the user.


Concluding Thoughts


It's not hard to image that the seeds of the next generation of Leica M body are present in the Leica Q (116). The upgrade path from the M240 to whatever comes next has been building for some time; the Q is a signpost along the way. You have the sleek functional minimalism of the Leica S medium format cameras. You have the touch screen aesthetics from the Leica T as well as the cleaned-up and menus that camera and the X (113) share. Though the next M will undoubtedly be a rangefinder in the classic mould, it's not hard to image what it might look like if you remove the lens from the Q and attach a traditional M-mount with the rangefinder mechanism.

However, if the Q is a signpost it is one that points in two directions, with the second leading to the elusive new ground that Leica has been striving for, the one with younger camera owners and a new generation of loyalists. Even if the reputation of the company is based on the M cameras, the future is clearly with more contemporary offerings. In the future, the M could be a small sliver of Leica's business, in much the same way that the iconic 911 is now dwarfed by Porsche Panamera and Cayenne sales. For a conservative company, this seems like an inevitability that the company is willing to face; from D-Lux to X camera, with the T and now the Q, Leica seems to be slowly finding its way to whatever that future may be.

On it's own merits the Q is a fine camera that seems to generate a lot of positive feelings from the people who have gotten to use it. You do pay a hefty red dot tax to own one, but at the very least, you can say that the opportunity cost isn't as dear as it may seem, as there literally is nothing else on the market like it. On paper it's like an amped up Ricoh GR or a Sony RX1 set at 28mm, but the Leica Q genuinely feels like more of a complete camera than the other two. Few M shooters have the privilege to own two bodies, but the Q fits in nicely for somebody who has started with a 50mm or 35mm lens; think of it as a cheaper alternative to the 28mm f/1.4 Summilux... only that it's one with a camera attached.



With thanks to the Leica Boutique at Broadway Camera

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