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

Leica's fab new full-frame, fixed-lens camera is its most mainstream to date, excluding the Leica-branded Panasonics. It's still Leica-expensive, though.

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice

I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.

Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
8 min read

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.

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8.5

Leica Q (Type 116)

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.

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.

Leica Q photo samples

See all photos

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

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JPEGs have practically no noise artifacts up through ISO 1600.

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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).

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The Q renders extremely accurate colors.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

It takes 0.2 second to focus and shoot in good light and 0.3 in dim, good performance for this type of camera, as is its 0.4 second time to shoot two consecutive photos in both JPEG and DNG+JPEG formats.

Continuous shooting speed with autofocus for JPEGs is great for its class. In testing it sustained a rate of 4.7 frames per second for over 30 shots. While it can burst DNG+JPEG at 5fps, it can only do it for nine shots before slowing. The camera doesn't offer a raw-only mode.

The tracking autofocus is a little rough, though. Like most older contrast-autofocus systems, the focus areas are in the center of the frame and it loses the subject easily. However, using center-area autofocus and panning I got a reasonable number of in-focus shots, and it locked focus quickly while street shooting. Its manual focusing is everything you'd expect: smooth and easy, with accurate focus peaking to aid you.

(Although the Sony and Panasonic cameras I've listed here aren't serious competitors for the Q, I've provided the numbers for context in fixed-lens enthusiast compacts. I haven't tested the Sony RX1R.)

Shooting speed

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III 0.3 0.1 0.5 0.5 2.0Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 0.2 0.2 0.4 0.5 2.5Leica Q 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.9
  • Shutter lag (typical)
  • Shutter lag (dim)
  • Typical shot-to-shot time
  • Raw shot-to-shot time
  • Time to first shot
Note: Seconds (smaller is better)

Typical continuous-shooting speed

Leica Q 4.7Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 4.1Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III 2.1
Note: Frames per second (larger is better)

Design and features

While it doesn't share the exact design of another Leica, it certainly shares the design aesthetic of all the company's cameras. It's somewhat large and heavy thanks to the all-magnesium-and-aluminum construction. Though solid, it's not dust or weather-sealed.

The main body is textured to help you hold it; one of my few complaints about the design is the lack of a grip, though there's a carved-out thumb rest in the back that makes it just comfortable enough to shoot single handed. Leica offers a clever optional grip with a silicone finger grip that makes dangling the camera in your hand more secure and comfortable.

It takes a 49mm screw-on filter on the lens and comes with a lens hood that you'll probably just want to leave on the camera if you shoot a lot in daylight. The lens cap fits over the hood, which is nice, but it has a velveteen lining that had already begun to peel off in the short time I had the camera.

On the top is the shutter button, with a power switch that rotates to single and continuous shooting modes, a movie record button, an adjustment dial and the shutter-speed dial; as with most cameras that have physical shutter speed dials, you can dial in the third-stop increments with the adjustment dial. Also a common convention, rotating the dial to A puts you in full automatic mode if the aperture dial is also set to A or into aperture-priority mode if it's not. There's also a hot shoe; the camera has no built-in flash. One notable spec for flash photographers: it has a fast sync speed of 1/500 second.

In back it has play, delete, menu and ISO sensitivity buttons down the left side of the LCD, along with a programmable button which you can set for white balance, exposure compensation, program exposure modes, file format, metering, wireless and self timer. The lack of direct-access buttons for these would be more annoying if it weren't so easy to switch the Fn button operation by simply pressing it and holding it. On the right is an oddly small but functional four-way navigation switch. A small, flat button by the thumb grip controls autofocus/autoexposure lock.

I really like the viewfinder -- it's big and bright with a shallow rubberized eye cup, and when you're shooting in one of the 28mm or 35mm crop modes it displays framing lines (as does the LCD). It can strobe a little when you're shooting video, but that didn't bother me much. The fixed touchscreen LCD can be difficult to see in direct sunlight but is responsive to swiping through images in playback and touch focus.

Under the right cover are standard Mini-USB and Mini-HDMI connectors. It's too bad that Leica put the SD card in the battery compartment. It's close enough to the tripod mount to make it inaccessible if you have a large mounting plate, though a small one should be okay.

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The lens is very well designed.

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Unsurprisingly, the lens is beautifully designed and operates fluidly and precisely. The clicky aperture ring (f1.7 to f16 and auto) sits on the lens end, with the focus ring in the middle. There's a button you press to rotate the ring into and out of autofocus, and the button doubles as a rest so that the camera sits flat when you put it down rather than leaning forward on the lens. On the mount side is a macro toggle ring; when enabled, it switches the distance indicators for closer shots.

The Leica Q's menu system is pretty sparse -- no tabs here. It comprises four top-level screens that scroll continuously. More mainstream options include various autofocus modes (multipoint, single point, tracking, face detection, touch autofocus and touch shutter AF) and a handful of scene program modes plus a tilt-shift effect, panorama, time lapse and a Digiscoping mode for working with Leica's spotting scopes. The panorama mode, which shoots continuously while you move the camera and then automatically stitches the shots together, isn't very good. But the basic time lapse, which builds a movie, is fine.

You can set many video settings separately from still options, including focus mode; constrast, saturation and sharpness; and image stabilization. there's also an option for shooting stills during recording, a wind filter and microphone gain.

The camera supports Wi-Fi with NFC for both image transfer and remote shooting, but the app wasn't available to test when I had the camera. It ships with a download coupon for a free version of Adobe Lightroom.

Conclusion

The Leica Q's most notable alternative is the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1R, a similarly designed full-frame compact with a 35mm f2 lens which costs over $1,000 less ($2,800, £2,600 or AU$3,500). The Sony is about two years old now and its feature set isn't nearly as good as the Leica's, plus it doesn't have a built-in viewfinder. The Q's only serious drawback for some people is the moire you'll spend a lot of time eradicating. So while the Q is expensive, it's not unreasonably expensive. Just sadly unreachably expensive for many of us.

Comparative specifications


Leica Q Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1R
Sensor effective resolution 24.2MP CMOS
n/a
14-bit
24.3MP Exmor CMOS
n/a
14-bit
Sensor size 36 x 24mm
35.8 x 23.9mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.0x 1.0x
OLPF No No
Lens 28mm
f.1.7
35mm
f2.0
Closest focus 6.7 in
17 cm
7.9 in
20 cm
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 50000 ISO 50
(exp)/ ISO 100 - ISO 25600
Burst shooting 10fps
n/a raw/unlimited JPEG
2.5fps
24 JPEG/15 raw
(with fixed exposure and focus)
Viewfinder
(mag/ effective mag)
Electronic
100% coverage
3.68MP LCOS
n/a
Optional
OLED EVF
Hot Shoe Yes Yes
Autofocus n/a
Contrast AF
25-area
contrast AF
AF sensitivity
(at center point)
n/a 0 - 20 EV
Shutter speed 1/2,000 to 30 secs (to 1/6,000 with electronic shutter); bulb; 1/500 sec x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb
Shutter durability n/a n/a
Metering n/a n/a
Metering sensitivity n/a 0 - 20 EV
Best video H.264 MP4
1080/60p, 30p
AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28Mbps, 1080/24p @ 17MBps
Audio stereo
stereo; mic input
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Yes
Maximum best-quality recording time n/a 29 min
Clean HDMI out n/a n/a
IS Optical Optical
LCD 3 in/7.5 cm
Fixed touchscreen
1.04m dots
3 in/7.5 cm
Fixed
921,000 dots plus extra set of white dots
Memory slots 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC
Wireless connection Wi-Fi, NFC None
Flash No Yes
Wireless flash n/a Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) n/a
(1,200 mAh)
270 shots
(1,080 mAh)
Size (WHD) 5.1 x 3.1 x 3.7 in
130 x 80 x 93mm
4.5 x 2.6 x 2.8 in
113 x 65 x 70 mm
Body operating weight 22.6 oz
640 g
17 oz (est.)
482 g (est.)
Mfr. price $4,250
n/a
$2,800
£2,600
AU$3,500
Release date June 2015 June 2013
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8.5

Leica Q (Type 116)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Image quality 9
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