Leica Q (Typ 116): The Question of a Q with a Red Dot

 

Their first AF enabled full frame compact with an EVF, the Leica Q breaks new ground. And K Madhavan Pillai comes away with a heartache.

Leica Q (Typ 116)

Leica Q (Typ 116)

Nobody speaks red dot like Leica. The traditionalist feel of the rounded sides, and the flat top and bottom of the Leica Q, (Typ 116) goes all the way back to the original prototypes in 1913 and the first Leica 1 in 1927. The full frame, fixed lens, AF enabled Typ 116 is a veritable leap of faith for Leica, and the first of its kind. Though its lines borrow heavily from the classical M series, it is philosophically very different. Conservatives may rue the loss of the optical rangefinder in favour of an EVF, and the less weighty hybrid aluminium magnesium (non-brass) architecture, but the additions are quite state-of-the-art, well-implemented, and possibly, a sign of things to come.

Features
The Q is equipped with a 24.2MP full frame CMOS sensor (with no AA filter) married to an optically stabilised Leica 28mm f/1.7 Aspherical Summilux lens. While some would debate on the merits of the more classic 35mm over 28mm, I personally quite like the idea of a slightly wider and more dramatic field of view.

The lens of the Q is marvelous in its design and engineering. For a large aperture 28mm lens, it is quite small (a filter diameter of a nicely standard 49mm), and the front facing lens element is concave rather than convex. Theoretically, this allows better flare control. A very intelligently designed, compact, rectangular metal hood that slopes inwards at the outer edges, rather than outwards, helps with this as well. Manual focus, a mainstay of the M series, has not been ignored in the Q. The focus is mechanical, and far more enjoyably tactile than fly-by-wire. The minimum focus distance is down to an excellent 0.3m. There’s a macro setting available as a switch near the lens. It aligns the optics to enable rather effective close focusing between 0.17m to 0.3m.
The Q has a lens-based mechanical leaf shutter that moves from 30sec through 1/2000sec (enabling 1/2000sec at f/1.7 is testament to Leica lens design and engineering, not replicated by most other manufacturers), after which an electronic shutter kicks in automatically for speeds as high as 1/16,000sec. There is no option to manually select the electronic shutter below 1/2000sec, but this also means that high speed flash synchronisation is possible at all shutterspeeds below this point. The leaf shutter is silent and discrete. In terms of shooting speed, the Q is able to deliver a very respectable 10fps with AF-S, and about 5fps with AF-C, with DNG RAW.

The ISO range is 100 to 50,000 (in the Q, beyond 12,800, it is 25,000 and 50,000). An Auto ISO feature lets you specify the upper limit for both ISO and shutterspeed (overridden by the shutterspeed dial).

Considering this is Leica’s first serious attempt at a complete range of AF controls, the Q does well. It delivers a number of options with its 49-point contrast detect system, with both single and continuous AF, and a variety of AF area modes including single, multi-point, tracking, and face detection.

The Leica Q is enabled with WiFi and NFC. It also has a dedicated app for Android and iOS devices with some comprehensive options. The connection can be set to either ‘Remote Control’ or ‘Backup.’ Remote shooting includes exposure, shooting mode, digital crop, white balance, self timer, focus mode and area, metering, and bracketing adjustments. Images and video from the Q’s memory card can be downloaded and media can be deleted off the card, or the entire content of card can simply be backed up.

Among other features, there is a useful panoramic mode and interval timer. You can imagine my surprise to find a bunch of scene modes too, buried in the menu (thankfully so). Video is not one of the Q’s strong suits. It does decent Full HD at 30 or 60fps, accepts colour and manual inputs, but there is no external mic support. Finally, the Q is not weathersealed.

Foreground and background DOF is smooth and soft-edged. With minimal levels of distortion and excellent sharpness, the Summilux 28mm lends itself well to portraiture. Exposure: 1/1000sec at f/1.7 (ISO 400)

Foreground and background DOF is smooth and soft-edged. With minimal levels of distortion and excellent sharpness, the Summilux 28mm lends itself well to portraiture. Exposure: 1/1000sec at f/1.7 (ISO 400) Photography / K Madhavan Pillai

Handling
The underlying principle of the Q is to provide photographers with just the right level of options rather than offer every possible variable to bother about. I personally found this quite refreshing. For instance, DNG RAW is an open format and can be edited in just about any software. There’s just 14-bit (who needs 12-bit anyway). You can select two file format options—JPEG, or JPEG and DNG. By default, a function button (traditionally the AE-L button) lets you quickly toggle between full frame 28mm, or 35mm and 50mm as digital crops. The DNG records the entire frame, in the event you need to redo the crop. Usually, I don’t use digital crops, but I ended up using it more than a few times because it was so simple to enable. If you don’t believe in digital crops, the button can be reconfigured.

There are no medium/small JPEGs or RAW, or compression options to deal with. Image parameters are standard (contrast, saturation and sharpness, a separate monochrone mode… but no tone or range adjustments), and you depend on the camera to deliver it’s palette. In short, I did not really miss the options missed out in the Q, and thought the better of it. No fiddling around. Once you configure menu settings, you will rarely find the need to go back in there, with all other critical controls available on the camera, designed for speedy, intuitive access.

Understated, intuitive, responsive, and quiet... the Leica Q sports impressive street genes. Exposure: 1/2000sec at f/8 (ISO 3200)

Understated, intuitive, responsive, and quiet… the Leica Q sports impressive street genes.
Exposure: 1/2000sec at f/8 (ISO 3200) Photography / K Madhavan Pillai

I noticed a couple of quirks in the rather simplified menu system. For instance, under both AF-S and AF-C, you can enable the same set of area modes, including tracking. On the whole, even though AF-C worked reasonably well, I preferred using single point AF-S almost exclusively for a higher degree of off-center accuracy when I wanted it.

I don’t remember a camera (or lens), in recent years, which I wanted to focus manually (unless I was forced to). In conjunction with the beautifully tactile mechanical rotation, excellent EVF, auto magnification (3 or 6x), and optional focus peaking (that I preferred to leave off in good light), and the excellent optics of the lens, the Q easily has the best manual focus experience among any digital camera so far. I would have preferred the option to shift magnification from the center… but, hey! Let’s keep things simple. No fumbling around!
I also frequently found myself happily shooting at hyperfocal distances, owing to the excellent DOF scale, and the fact that 28mm (more than a 35mm lens) on a 24MP sensor is just the perfect combination to achieve pixel level DOF using hyperfocal distances at smaller apertures, while getting some beautiful out-of-focus blurs wide open.

In the best cameras, design contributes to handling, which, in turn, leads to performance. The Q is exemplary in this.

Performance
Despite the understated numbers and no phase detect pixels, the AF is quite capable. In good light to twilight, it locks speedily without hunting. I noticed some variance in behaviour with multi-point AF, and face detection is not as effective as other recent cameras. Tracking is reasonably good for regular street photography, but falters with very fast moving subjects. But with single point AF, there is little to flaw. I got almost every shot right. Here’s the bottom line. Combined with its manual focus possibilities and performance, the Q is unlike any other compact camera out there.
Traditionally, Leica M cameras are meant to slow you down, where speed then becomes a factor of using constraints as a process of shooting. The Q is the best of two worlds. You can slow down, speed up by limiting options, or simply let go and leave things to the camera. I simply loved this aspect of the Q. You can fire off a series of successive single frames, and the Q’s response is instantaneous. Or you could quickly switch to continuous shooting and let off bursts of 10fps (5fps in AF-C), up to a maximum of about 12 frames in one go. With the buffer full, you will need to wait about 30 seconds before the Q completes writing to the card.

The colour palette of the Q is slightly cool. The camera tends to overcorrect warmer tones (especially sunlit scenes), with no option to retain warmth. Bumping up saturation helps with JPEGs. Overall, both colour and monochrome modes have their own charm, but it does take some getting used to, especially if you’re coming from other brands.

Not having an AA filter means that things are rather sharp by default. This is well-managed, with no visible halos or artifacts. Noise performance is up to the mark, but the sensor lags behind its contemporaries from other brands by about one stop, from ISO 3200 onwards. At high ISO settings, it is always better to get exposures right rather than recover details in post process, with the Leica Q.

Hyperfocal distances are easily set. Along with the operational breadth of the sensor, the decisive moment gains a lot of meaning. Exposure: 1/250sec at f/11 (ISO 3200)

Hyperfocal distances are easily set. Along with the operational breadth of the sensor, the decisive moment gains a lot of meaning.
Exposure: 1/250sec at f/11 (ISO 3200) Photography / K Madhavan Pillai

The other part of the equation is the lens. The Summilux is a cracker! It is able to produce tack sharp images at f/1.7, at the central 2/3rds of the frame, with edges trailing, but with a respectable performance nonetheless. At this aperture, the out-of-focus blurs are beautifully soft especially for a wide lens, and this combination of excellent sharpness and soft blurs is quite brilliant. At f/2.8, edges improve to be consistent with the center. The best overall performance, center to edge, is from f/5.6 to f/8. Stabilisation and general ergonomics is good enough for handheld shooting, camera to the eye, at 1/8th of a second with 4 of 5 frames free of camera shake. Distortion is barely noticeable, and flare, as expected, is very well controlled.

Conclusion
If you think a price tag of Rs. 3,30,000 for the Leica Q black edition, and Rs 3,40,000 for the silver edition is eye-wateringly expensive… Well. It is. It allows me to be sacrilegious enough to suggest the Sony A7 III (just announced… you may need to wait a few months to buy one) with the exceptional Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2. While the combination is not as minimalistic in design and handling, you can be sure that the A7 III will out-perform the Leica Q on more than a few fronts. Besides, you should have enough money left over for some nifty accessories, a lens, or perhaps a consolation party with like-minded friends for not buying the Q. If 25mm seems a bit too wide, and if a smaller, full frame, fixed lens device is more appealing, you could consider the Zeiss 35mm f/2 Sonnar T* equipped Sony RX1R II. Or any high-end options that might better suit your palate at an equivalent or much lower price. In any case, none of these would be the Q.

Some highlight and a lot of shadow detail in this image was retrieved from this backlit portrait... testament to what the sensor can achieve at lower ISO settings. Exposure: 1/500sec at f/11 (ISO Auto, 160)

Some highlight and a lot of shadow detail in this image was retrieved from this backlit portrait… testament to what the sensor can achieve at lower ISO settings. Exposure: 1/500sec at f/11 (ISO Auto, 160) Photography / K Madhavan Pillai

If the Q was an interchangeable lens camera, the M may well have been on its way out of business. It would be interesting to see how Leica takes the Q forward. As loaded as that statement may be (especially to conservative M owners), Leica is to be lauded for the effort. It is perhaps Leica’s most well-rounded camera (pun intended), as far as its value for money proposition goes, and certainly a very capable performer indeed, by any reckoning. In terms of handling to speed, focal length to features, superb optics married to a performance oriented sensor, (and let’s not forget the conversation starting big little red dot factor) there is nothing else out there that immediately competes. Let me put it this way… I have made more satisfying photos, with a much higher level of success with the Q than I’ve had with other cameras in the recent past, even if some of those were technologically superior. There is more to photography than technology. If this is exactly what you need, look no further. The price is as good as it gets with a Leica. I already have an ache from a symphony played on heartstrings and purse strings.

FINAL RATINGS
Features
24MP, 28mm f/1.7, DNG, 10fps, leaf shutter
13/15
Performance
Optics, speed, aggressive WB, excellent MF
40/45
Build Quality
Magnesium/Aluminium, no weathersealing
19/20
Ergonomics
Intuitive controls, rangefinderesque,
14/15
Warranty & Support
One-year warranty, wide service network
 4/5
MRP Leica Q Black : Rs. 3,30,000
Leica Q Silver : Rs. 3,40,000
OVERALL 90%
VALUE FOR MONEY 3/5
Who should buy it? Advanced street photographers and portraitists who want an evolved, speedy, minimalist full frame camera (sporting the red dot, of course).
Why? Its autofocus speed is great, and it offers shooting at
A brilliant lens attached to a capable sensor, Leica M-type design, and ergonomics come together extremely well.
Tags: better photography, Camera, EVF, K Madhavan Pillai, March 2018, the Leica Q, The Question of a Q with a Red Dot