Leica Q (Type 116) Review

April 07, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I want to be upfront on this review: this is going to be rather negative, much more so than many of the quite positive reviews for this camera I found around the web before I purchased it. And, indeed, the Q (Type 116) has a great many admirable qualities, many of which make it a fine camera for some shooters. So as a way to set expectations: if you are reading this and you already own the camera and love it, don't be bummed or bothered. Maybe even skip the rest of the review and just go back to loving your Q and making great photographs. This is a review meant for all those prospective buyers thinking about dropping over $4k on a fixed lens camera: for me this was a disappointing miss, all the more disappointing for how close it came to hitting a home run.

I have high expectations for anything with the red Leica dot on it, and high expectations for any camera that costs as much as this one. As a long time user of the Sony RX1R, I also expected the Q to best that nearly three-year-old (at the time of my writing this) camera in every way. 
 
Spoiler alert: it doesn't.
 
Pros:
  • Gorgeously, bitingly sharp 28mm f/1.7 lens even at f/1.7...in the center 2/3rds of the frame
  • Great feel and haptics
  • Solid, clockwork-precise build quality
  • Fast autofocus in single point mode
  • Responsive, snappy feel
  • Built in Optical Image Stabilization (~2 to 3 stops I would estimate)
  • Accurate metering
  • Near silent operation
  • Sensible menus
  • Auto ISO settings that make sense and work
  • Great battery life for a mirrorless full frame camera (trounces the Sony RX1/R and RX1R mk2)
  • Up to 10 frames per second in continuous shooting mode
  • Two year warranty
  • Makes you want to pick it up and take photos (!)
 
Cons:
  • Busy, distracting "onion-ring" bokeh
  • Too-large AF points result in missed focus all too often
  • Expensive
  • "Baked-in" distortion correction even in RAW files
  • Very heavy barrel distortion when manufacturer profile (software distortion correction) is removed
  • Edges and corners not critically sharp until f/5.6 or so
  • Not weather sealed
  • Optical Image Stabilization is disabled by default (firmware 1.1)
  • Limited dynamic range (handily beaten by the three year old Sony RX1R sensor and the four year old Nikon D800E [also Sony] sensor, much less the newer A7RII sensor)
  • No fast (one-button) way to manually switch between the EVF and LCD
  • EVF is just "okay" with fuzzy edges
  • Power switch too easily slips from off to "c" (continuous), bypassing "s" (single shot and by far more commonly used)
The Leica Q, on paper, is almost everything I was looking for in a replacement for the RX1R: a compact full frame mirrorless camera with quiet, quick operation, shutter speeds up to 1/32000 a second with the electronic shutter, a Leica 28mm f/1.7 lens with optical image stabilization, 24 megapixels, famed Leica build quality, built in EVF, etc, etc. I'm not into cameras as collector's objects or status symbols, so had I kept my Q (spoiler: I did not) I would have purchased the hand grip and blacked out the red dot with gaffers tape. What I want, instead, is a take-anywhere, highly functional tool that allows me to take the photos I want to take - regardless of brand.
 
First impressions are uniformly positive. The external gray box gives way to a lovely black box with magnetic clasps that smoothly open to reveal the series of smaller boxes within, which contain the camera, lens hood, manual, cables, and Leica leather shoulder strap. It all feels like it should for the price you pay for this little camera - high end. When you take the Q itself out of the foam padding it feels solid and well constructed. The buttons and dials have great feedback and when you put in the battery and turn it on everything is crisp and responsive. The one ding that you can feel right away is the power switch, located around the shutter: it takes effort to move it (which is fine) but when you do it is far too easy to flick it to "c" (the continuous, rapid-fire shooting mode) than to keep it in "s" (the much more commonly used single shot mode). A better design - allowing for easy hands-free operation - would be to have "s" be the furthest detent from "off," so you could just click the switch as far as it can go and know you are in single shot mode.
 
The battery is decently large in size and definitely lasts much longer than the RX1R. From what I've read the RX1R mk2 has even worse battery life (measured in minutes rather than hours), and is a major drawback of the Sony cameras right now - so that's a big win for the Q. The Q does not allow you to charge the battery over USB the way the Sony cameras do, but for me that isn't an important feature (I could see how it could be useful in travel circumstances if you hook up the camera to a car charger, though).
 
The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) was a little bit of a disappointment, at least for me. It's fine - the colors are fine, the refresh rate is fine, the viewing size is...fine, albeit with oddly fuzzy edges. Don't expect to be blown away. It is not a Fuji X-T1, though for the price (again) your expectation would be that it meets or beats the best out there. A drawback for me was there is no way (firmware 1.1) to have a one-button switch between the EVF and rear LCD screen. It's either always one or the other OR you rely on the eye sensor to switch back and forth as you raise and lower the camera to your eye. Maybe that works for you, but it bugs me - there's always a slight delay in the switch, and it can be too sensitive or not sensitive enough, etc. The RX1R relies on an EVF attached to the hotshoe - not optimal - but at least it has a nice little button on the side that lets me manually switch between the EVF (for shooting) and LCD (for chimping). Apparently the RX1R mk2 lacks this handy feature as well (unfortunate). For those interested, the rear LCD is not articulating at all, although it is touch sensitive and you can use touch to set the AF point - useful during tripod shooting, for example.
 
I had very high expectations regarding image quality, particularly around the lens. Leica is a fabled optical designer, making some of the finest lenses in the world, and indeed in my own personal experience the Panasonic-Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 for micro four thirds is a simply fantastic lens with basically no drawbacks (except being limited by the 4/3rds sensor size, of course). I was a little more concerned about the AA-free 24 megapixel sensor - could it stand up to the Sony behemoths?
 
As it turns out, the lens is much more of a mixed bag than I was expecting, and the sensor cannot stand up to the dynamic range of even my D800E (which uses a Sony sensor that is now four years old and has 12 more megapixels to contend with). Other reviewers have estimated ~13 stops of dynamic range from this sensor. That seems optimistic to me, but I don't have a means of objectively measuring it, so I will only say that it clearly does not have the capacity to claw back information from shadows or highlights the way those Sony sensors can. In processing it reminded me more of the RAW files from my old Canon 7D, requiring careful thought not to get banding or too much artifact noise and to avoid a "crunchy" feel to the results.
 
With regard to the optics of the lens: in the center it is wonderful. Bitingly sharp, high microcontrast, and capable of that 3D-pop you expect from those German Lens Masters, Leica and Zeiss. There are some crucial areas where it disappoints, however.
 
The largest disappointment for me was the rough, busy, "onion-ring" bokeh. This is most likely a product of the three aspherical lens elements used in the construction of the lens (which keeps the size and weight down while enhancing sharpness, but with the common drawback of, yes, hard-edged out of focus elements or "onion-ring" bokeh). I saw this immediately and found it highly distracting, despite not being much of a bokeh addict. I've included a few examples below, all of which are crops from JPEGs generated by the camera (rather than RAWs that I've processed, so I can remove my processing as a factor that might have caused the harshness, even though I don't see my processing affect the bokeh quality on images from the Sony RX1R or from my D800E with my Zeiss ZF.2 lenses):
Note these were shot at f/1.7. An argument could be made that you shouldn't or wouldn't shoot at f/1.7 in broad daylight as I have here...but I think that argument is rendered false by the fact that Leica includes (and advertises) the 1/32,000 second electronic shutter as a way of doing exactly that. Additionally, I've heard/read that disabling the optical image stablization might improve image quality all around...but OIS was one of the reasons I was willing to plunk down this much money on the camera, so I'm not about to turn it off.
 
Interestingly, the Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2 lens in the Sony RX1R does not have this level of onion-ring or busy bokeh to it, even though it too has 3 aspherical elements. In comparison to the Q, the RX1R's bokeh is smooth and pleasantly non-distracting. Perhaps this is a result of the longer focal length (35mm vs 28mm) or slower max aperture (f/2 vs f/1.7). If the latter is the case, and if Leica could have smoothed the bokeh with a max aperture of f/2 I would have gladly made that tradeoff, even if then they couldn't make the stretch of calling the lens a "Summilux" (traditionally a f/1.4 lens).
 
Less concerning to me than the onion-ring bokeh but still a bit disconcerting in a camera in this price range is the huge barrel distortion this lens displays. This needs some careful explanation, so bear with me. Out of the camera - even RAW - the distortion present is negligible. But with Capture One Pro 9.1 you can immediately see something interesting about the DNG (RAW) files: they are cropped via the manufacturer profile. When you remove that crop you actually gain maybe two more megapixels of data, albeit with some heavy vignetting in the corners and even more reduced resolution on the extreme edges. If you then pull back the manufacturer's distortion correction (that is "baked-in" to the RAW file) you can see the surprising barrel distortion that is present optically with this lens design.
 
Here's a series that shows what I mean:
Above is with the manufacturer profile and crop
 
Above has the manufacturer profile in place but the crop removed
 
Finally, the manufacturer profile and the crop removed to show the real "straight out of the camera" image
 
As I noted above, the edge and corner performance never reaches the sterling heights of the center 2/3rds of the frame with this camera, and doesn't reach critical sharpness until f/5.6 or so. I believe this is a direct result of the optical distortion and subsequent software-based distortion correction being employed. Basically the Leica designers have taken a lens that is really 25mm or 26mm with heavy barrel distortion, mated it to a sensor that is really a 26 or 28 megapixels, then used profiling and algorithms to correct the distortion and crop the image to a 28mm focal length, 24 megapixel size. It's an interesting solution (and makes me wonder how many other companies do this and don't have a profile that Capture One Pro can turn off). But the cost is smearing of the edges and corners and a loss of per-pixel resolution. Any software-based distortion correction has this cost, and the greater the distortion, the greater the loss of resolution in the outer parts of the image.
 
All that said, I could actually have lived with all this. So it's corrected with software - so what? It's still gloriously sharp in the center at f/1.7 and critically sharp in the edges by f/5.6. That's what matters, ultimately. The bokeh business bothered me much more. As did...
 
Autofocus inconsistency.
 
AF is fast with this camera - as fast as any contrast-detect-only system I've used, including the Olympus EM-1. And it was fast even in quite low light. This is a heck of an accomplishment by Leica, and in this way - speed - it destroys the Sony RX1R. The problem? The 49 AF points, spread throughout the frame, are less "points" and more "large rectangles" that you cannot make smaller (at least there was no way I could find in firmware 1.1 or in manuals or only, and I looked hard as this was make-or-break for me). They are so large that the camera would all too often miss focus - focusing on the fence behind my toddler instead of her eyes, for example, or on the wrong part of a tree limb, etc, etc. At f/1.7, even at 28mm, you can and will see these misses. It was frustrating, to say the least. You can instead opt to use face detect AF, but I didn't find it as quick as I wanted (toddler-quick). Manual focus is an option as well, and it works with the Q perfectly fine, but I bought the Q to use with AF (I get enough manual focusing with my D800E and Zeiss ZF.2 lenses).
 
Much cheaper mirrorless cameras like the Fuji X-Pro 2 (with much smaller APS-C sensor size) have many more available sensor points and allow you to increase or decrease the AF rectangle size. I wish the Q could have done this, and even had on-sensor phase-detect sensor like the X-Pro 2 and the Sony RX1R mk2 and A7R mk2 do. At least, unlike the Sony cameras, the Q by default lets you quickly adjust the AF point location with the four-way controller on the back (Sony: make this happen, please, it's a huge usability drawback on your cameras; at least Fuji corrected this with the X-Pro 2).
 
I haven't spoken about color or white balance much because I shoot RAW exclusively and its so easy to adjust both in post that it's almost a non-concern, as long as the camera is reasonably accurate and consistent. I would like to see Leica allow you to shoot RAW (DNG files) only - right now, firmware 1.1, you can either shoot JPEG only or JPEG+RAW, but not RAW only. As much as I'm not a fan of using up SD card space with camera JPEGs, it did allow me to validate that the bokeh issues I was seeing occurred straight out of the camera as well as when I did my usual RAW processing workflow.
 
I would also really like to see cameras in this price range and with this conceptual purpose - a carry everywhere travel camera capable of DSLR, professional level images - be fully weather sealed. Sony has failed here with the RX1, RX1R, and the RX1R mk2, none of which are weather sealed either. I carry my RX1R everywhere I go (unless I've got my DSLR on me), and I would be that much more confident in it's survival if it was weather sealed, though in three years (and multiple trips around the US and around the world) I haven't had any issues with dust or moisture getting into my RX1R.
 
As I've thought about the Q during and after my time using it, I concluded that it was not the camera for me due to the AF and image quality limitations. It's a beautiful camera in design and operation, and feels wonderful to shoot with - it's a camera that begs you to take it out and make photographs, and that's a powerful thing and huge "pro" to me. It is almost the inverse of the RX1R in this way: I am never engaged by the haptics and operation of the RX1R, but I'm almost always very happy - and sometimes thrilled - by the images that result when I get them back on my computer. In contrast, the Q was always fantastic to hold and operate, snappy and responsive and fun, but then I'd get back to the computer and be very let down by an autofocus miss or ugly bokeh or blown highlights/too black shadows that could not be recovered.
 
I returned my Q. It's so expensive that, for me, it had to last me years, at least as long or longer than the RX1R has lasted, and given it's limitations I could not see it satisfying me even for the next few months. You might feel differently, and I can not only understand that but even agree with you, if (for example) the process of shooting is more important to you than printing 36x24in prints or having flawless bokeh. And, of course, one person's ugly bokeh is another person's beautiful highlights...
 
Which is all to say: the Q is not a bad camera, but it is not, for me, the unequivocal home run it needed to be for it's price point.
 
As a bit of indulgence, here's what I wish for from a full frame compact fixed lens camera right now, April 2016 - all of which is entirely technically feasible at this time, since it's basically a cross of the Leica Q and the Sony RX1R mk2:
  • 36 megapixel (or higher) full frame sensor with 14+ stops of dynamic range
  • Optically perfect 28mm f/2 (if f/2 allows for less optical distortion than the Q's f/1.7)
  • 300 or more AF points with user-changeable AF rectangles in spot select mode
  • Phase detect AF on the sensor
  • Four-way controller on back that by default controls AF spot selection
  • Optical image stabilization built in
  • One-button push to switch between EVF and rear LCD
  • Fully weather sealed
  • Lossless RAW compression available (without having to also shoot JPEG)
  • Snappy and responsive processor
  • Dual SD card slots (if enough space)
  • Large battery for 600+ shot life
  • Chunky, comfortable grip built-in without having to buy an overpriced accessory
  • Only as expensive as the Sony RX1R mk2 or, better yet, cheaper (under $3k?)
 
Pentax/Ricoh, Olympus, Fuji, Nikon, Canon...any of these manufacturers could accomplish this. I think Pentax/Ricoh or Olympus, with Sony imaging sensors, have the best chance of hitting all the bullets on my wishlist, but I won't count the others out either. Manufacturers: there is a market here. Professional photographers would love to have a travel, carry-everywhere, backup camera with DSLR quality and full weather sealing, as would general photography enthusiasts and avid amateurs. Make it happen!

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