Once in a blue moon a camera comes along that is so rare in its concept, construction and price that critical assessment is made complicated because it has no peers with which to make comparison. After all, who but Leica would dare to create a compact camera with a fixed focal length, non- interchangeable lens, and charge nearly $6000 for it?
This is the Leica Q we are talking about – a 24 megapixel full frame camera with a bolted-on 28mm f1.7 Summilux lens. You can change the angle of view of the lens, just as you do in a phone, by cropping the recorded image. There is a switch on the camera that reframes the image as a 35 or 50mm focal length, but at the 50 mm crop you are getting an 8 megapixel file. Consider it as posh digital zoom which we would normally disparage as a poor substitute for true optical variable focal length lenses. The good news: the lens is optically stabilised, although Leica prefer you to leave it switched off for the teeny bit of extra sharpness.
So, what do you get for your $5900? The cynic might say that you are getting a very expensive red badge, but that would not be entirely fair.
First, let’s consider the lens. We did some not-quite-scientific comparisons (we don’t have a 28mm prime so we used a 20mm prime and a 28mm zoom) and there is no doubt that the Leica is sharper, has better resolution and contrast and produces better colour than our comparison lenses. It is also free of the barrel distortion expected from wide angle lenses.
The viewfinder on the Q is stunning. This is the highest resolution electronic viewfinder that we have used and, as the man from Leica says: “…is as close to an optical viewfinder as an EVF gets.” The touch-sensitive LCD is also brilliant in its brightness, colour and contrast. There is one-finger touch on the LCD to focus and fire the shutter and there is a phone/tablet control app which provides for a greater control of camera functions than we have seen from any other maker. As things stand the Leica is slightly better than the Japanese state-of-the-art in this department, except that the LCD doesn’t swivel.
The construction quality is in a class of its own, with its milled solid metal top plate and the luxurious feel to all its controls. The use of a leaf shutter means that the Leica is silent in operation and yet you feel, by the subtlest feedback, when the picture has been captured. It is hard to find a word to describe the sensation of using the Leica except to say that by comparison all other cameras feel a little crude.
There is an austere purity of form and function in the Q which thumbs its nose at the past few decades of camera development. Where the other companies have laboured to make the camera a device that can be accessorised to bend to the photographer’s intention Leica’s approach is to create a camera that compels conformity to itself. You do it the Q way or you don’t do it at all. The Q does just one thing and it does it perfectly.
Now comes the famous bottom line: can any fixed lens compact camera be worth an amount of money that will buy a superb Nikon D810 36 megapixel DSLR with the professional quality 24—70mm lens? For most of us mere mortals the answer is obviously no. But for the photographer with a serious, single-minded commitment to landscape, architectural or (perhaps) street photography the answer is “hmmm…maybe.” Or for the well-heeled, status-conscious person who can afford and appreciate the best (of its type) that money can buy the decision is easy. In other words, if money were no object we would by a Leica Q immediately.
The Q uses Adobe’s universal DNG RAW file format and the camera comes with Adobe Lightroom – look on it as a $200 discount.
One word of warning: when Leica aficionados paid over the odds for their 35mm film cameras they justified the purchase by telling themselves that the camera would last forever and be a valuable heirloom to bequeath to the kiddies. Well, that doesn’t apply to any digital camera. As soon as the 36 megapixel Q2 arrives in the shops the Q will be obsolete. Digital cameras are not good investments – it is unlikely that any digital model will ever become a classic like, say, an M6. It is painful to think of the Q as future landfill.