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Leica Q (Type 116) review: Everything you expect from a Leica, from sharp photos to a high price

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The Good The Leica Q produces great photos and videos, sports a stellar lens and a delivers surprisingly good performance.

The Bad There's a lot of moire to clean up in the photos and a real grip would be nice for the money.

The Bottom Line A terrific, if expensive, full-frame compact, the Leica Q is worth every penny for landscape and street photographers.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.5 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Image quality 9

Review Sections

I've never been a big Leica fan: while its cameras' photo quality is great and they feel like tanks, the cameras always felt stubbornly anti-tech and too quirky for their price britches. I only put this out there for context so that when I say that the Leica Q is the first Leica I have ever wanted and that I hated having to give it back after a mere five days of testing, it's not hyperbole.

At $4,250 I'll never own one, but this full-frame, fixed-lens "compact" incorporates all of Leica's traditional quality and aesthetics without forgoing the modern features many of us lower-level beings want, like autofocus, optical image stabilization, a touchscreen and Wi-Fi.

When I reviewed the first camera in this class, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 in March 2013, I dubbed it "a pricey slice of heaven." The Leica Q is really a pricier slice of heaven. In the UK, the Q will cost £2,900 and will go on sale this week. I don't yet have prices for Australia, but that $4,250 price tag converts to about AU$5,500.

Image quality

The Leica Q's photo quality is, of course, terrific; however, Leica's processing decisions and options are not as mainstream as its feature set. You should probably always shoot DNG+JPEG, because the JPEGs have minimal processing and you'll want to edit the DNGs.

Photos display broad dynamic range with accurate but saturated colors, though in its default settings the Standard contrast option will blow out the highlights and shadows of JPEGs. You can always pull them back by editing the raw image. Leica's home-grown, OLPF-free 24-megapixel sensor has very fine-grained color noise through ISO 12500, and combined with Leica's processing the photos retain a lot of detail up through the top of the range, ISO 50000.

Leica doesn't perform any noise smoothing in the JPEGs, however, so the photos look grainy starting at about ISO 6400. I prefer this approach, but it won't be to everyone's taste, as it's different from what we've come to expect from most cameras. Additionally, at the two highest ISO sensitivity settings horizontal striations appear in the noise. If that's a problem for you, I'd wait to see if it's something Leica can (and will) address with a firmware update. It would be great if the camera had some options for the JPEG processing, as just a little smoothing would help at the higher sensitivities.

The 28mm f1.7 lens delivers beautiful bokeh, with smooth out-of-focus areas and round highlights. It displays excellent sharpness, across the entire aperture range and from edge to edge, with little fringing. Although Leica warned me that the optical image stabilization could degrade the corners somewhat,not an uncommon problem, but I didn't see any issues. If you do, you can turn it off.

All that's great; the moire, not so much. (Moire is an interference-pattern artifact that appears in high-frequency patterns, like fabric, as shown below.) It's everywhere. Normally, I have to search for examples of it in my photos, but for the Q I had to narrow down an example from a wealth of choices. While I expect it with a sharp lens and an antialiasing-filter-free sensor, the camera should at least offer some moire reduction for the JPEGs.

The video looks great as well: sharp and relatively noise-free in low light. It's a bit too contrasty, but you can fiddle with that in the settings. The continuous autofocus doesn't work very well here -- it's easily distracted -- but with the viewfinder manual focus works extremely well.

Analysis samples

JPEGs have practically no noise artifacts up through ISO 1600.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Out-of-focus areas start to show some grain between ISO 1600 and ISO 3200, though the Q retains detail extremely well at high sensitivities. However, in the expanded range you can start to see sensor artifacts (the horizontal lines).

Lori Grunin/CNET

The Q renders extremely accurate colors.

Lori Grunin/CNET

The camera has excellent dynamic range (though I think still falls a hair short of that of the Nikon D810), with great latitude in the shadows and decent latitude in the highlights for pulling back detail that's clipped in the JPEGs.

Lori Grunin/CNET

The Q retains a lot of shadow detail even at medium-to-high ISO sensitivities.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Monochrome right out of the camera looks good, though it crushes the blacks with the default contrast setting.

Lori Grunin/CNET

As you'd expect, the lens is extremely sharp. You can see moire in the fur on the left side, though.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Unfortunately, you'll have to do quite a bit of postprocessing to remove the moire from the Leica Q.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Performance

Given Leica's relative lack of experience with autofocus systems, the Q acquits itself very well. It powers on, focuses and shoots in under a second; it's extremely tough to accurately measure startup time because of the camera's design. In practice, though, it never slowed me down and never missed a shot waiting for it to start.

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