(Pocket-lint) - Leica is one of those brands that's been around for donkeys years, and for good reason: it makes such exceptionally good optics for its high-end M-series rangefinder cameras that it's in a league of its own. But while the photographic elite might wax lyrical about such cameras, for the majority of us they will probably just seem like hard-to-use, overpriced, overly angular slabs of German engineering.
The Leica Q represents a brand in the throes of change, one looking to appeal to both new and existing customers. This full-frame fixed-lens compact, which pairs a 28mm f/1.7 Summilux lens with 24-megapixel sensor, isn't a rebadged and renamed Panasonic like so many of Leica's compact cameras are. Instead it's a bold, niche, yet thoroughly exciting solo venture.
Full-frame fixed-lens compacts are rare beasts. There's the Sony Cyber-shot RX1, which is a valiant 35mm effort, but one that Leica has ultimately surpassed in so many ways with the Q – not least thanks to its built-in electronic viewfinder.
So no, there's no zoom. But having used the Leica Q for a week and soaked up just how good its 28mm optic is, we have been more than a little bit bitten by the Leica bug. Can this specialist camera do no wrong?
The Leica Q can't pretend to be a normal compact camera. It's not by any stretch of the imagination. Large, heavy, and barely "compact" by what such a definition implies, it's not a camera that will suit the masses. Indeed, it sounds like the kind of camera we'd usually criticise into the ground.
But it's just so Leica-ble. The no-nonsense design, the precision engineering, the manual shutter speed dial, the reassuring heft of the milled aluminium top and base plates holding together that magnesium body. It's gorgeous in its own way; everything feels purposeful and fuss-free (except for the foolish position of single and continuous shooting on the on/off dial making it far too easy to slip into continuous from the off).
In terms of scale the Leica Q is akin to a compact system camera; think something like the Panasonic Lumix GX8 and you're not far off. Thing is, while such scale may seem excessive, it's logical given the f/1.7 aperture of the lens – it needs to be a given size to accommodate an image circle to cover the full-frame sensor on board. And, actually, we don't care that it's big for a compact: the Q slots well into the hand, the single-sided shoulder strap is comfortable and, really, its only lacking is no protruding front grip (you'll need to pay around £100 extra for an accessory handgrip).
The lens protrudes significantly from the from of the camera body, ensuring it's well-positioned for access to the aperture control and manual focus rings. Releasing the aperture ring from its auto "A" position is a bit stiff, but once onto the f/1.7-to-f/16 ring it reassuringly (yet subtly) clicks between the third-stop aperture positions with ease. This stiffness acts as a resistance to accidentally push the ring back into the auto setting when stopping up too.
For manual focus control there's a press-to-release lock (which is a bit fiddly given its size on a protruding nodule), opening the lens for free rotation throughout its infinity-to-30cm focus distance. It feels every bit the Leica in this department, with buttery smooth rotation, the perfect amount of resistance for precision focus, and all the focus distance information displayed on the lens barrel itself.
If 30cms from the lens isn't close enough then a 17cm minimum focus distance (with f/2.8 maximum aperture restriction to maintain sharpness) is possible by activating the macro mode. But rather than this being a push-button activation, the Q has a third rotational lens ring tucked against the body (a little too close, really) which, upon twisting, motions an interior ring to push forward and reveal all the new hyperfocal information. It happens so effortlessly that the sheer quality of such engineering almost skips the mind. It's a beautiful thing.
Out on its own
All these rings, knobs and dials spell out that the Leica Q isn't like many other cameras. Indeed there's little to compare it against, with the most obvious comparison being the Sony Cyber-shot RX1, with its slightly longer 35mm fixed lens.
Compared to the Sony, however, Leica has an ace up its sleeve: a built-in electronic viewfinder. It's no rangefinder, and there's not the same inventiveness of something like the Fujifilm X100T – with its wider-than-100-per-cent optical finder with electronic overlay – but the Q's 3.86-million dot LCOS panel (that's liquid crystal on silicone, acronym fans) is exceptionally detailed.
It needs to be too, as manual focus wouldn't happen so seamlessly otherwise. It's possible to setup 3x or 6x digital magnification to assist with precision focus, including the option of focus peaking to highlight in-focus areas. We thought that it would be a little fussy to observe proper focus, but the level of detail on offer helps. Unlike Fujifilm there's no mock digital rangefinder focus to be found, but with that precision manual focus lens, the Q is every bit the Leica if manual focus is of the utmost importance to you.
Viewfinder moans? The automated eye-level sensor could be a spot quicker to initiate finder activation. There's ghosting lag in low-light (but that's a standard thing in any viewfinder really, although the refresh rate could be upped to help counter). Oh, and we found the narrow eyecup could steam up on occasion. So really we're clutching at straws here, as the Leica Q has implemented the highest-resolution electronic viewfinder to date; one that's large, accurate and, on the whole, shows other finders how its done.
Leica's choice of a 28mm lens is wider-angle than the Sony RX1 too, which we find a preferable choice. There's a built-in 35mm and 50mm equivalent crop that's cycled through by pressing the Set button (it's on the rear just behind the shutter speed dial) which activates crop marks on the display. So if 35mm is your preference, in many ways we prefer having the crop marks present to see the bigger picture beyond the captured frame, which shows in either viewfinder or on the rear 1,040k-dot screen. Of course it does mean lower resolution capture, at 15MP and 8MP respectively.
The one thing we do somewhat lament is that the Q's rear screen is fixed. Now we know this is very much "Leica" and wouldn't have really anticipated a tilt-angle screen, but as we have become accustomed to an increasingly modern standard it's a shame not to benefit from the waist-level shooting possibilities it could have offered. And seeing as the Q has a touch-sensitive screen, used for focusing (in some modes), selecting through options, or even pinch-to-zooming on captured shots to confirm focus and detail, a tilt-angle screen would be the one major addition on our wish-list.
Wish-lists aside, it's about now we should address the Leica Q's not insignificant £2,900 price tag. Because for many this camera is so ludicrously expensive that it'll never be more than a pipe dream.
A fixed lens camera close to £3k might sound absurd, but the Sony RX1 was £2,600 at launch and didn't have a viewfinder built-in. In many respects that makes the Leica Q good value, or at the very least competitive. A Leica being competitively priced? That's pretty much unheard of, the red dot prestige of this brand isn't something many have the option to buy into.
You might think we're bonkers for suggesting that this much money is acceptable for a compact camera. But read on and you'll see why, given the quality of its results, the Leica Q is truly worth every pound.
We've seen stacks of high-end cameras with hefty price tags, which often lack the kind of performance you might expect. When the Fujifilm X-Pro1 launched, for example, we were left wanting more from its so-so autofocus system. The Sony RX1, on the other hand, has issues with barrel distortion and chromatic aberrations.
Try as we might, we've not found any such weaknesses with the Leica Q. Its 49-point autofocus system – with multi, 1-point, tracking, face-detection, touch AF and touch AF with release options – is really snappy across the board. Even low-light conditions haven't proven to be an issue. We would like to see a more precise Panasonic-style "pinpoint" option, but then with manual focus override the Leica Q has you covered.
But what really makes the Leica Q worth its asking price is the quality of the lens. It's astounding. We don't use that word lightly, but we'll say it again for good measure: astounding.
Having shot into oncoming sunlight the absence of distracting lens flare is not only uncommon, it's a wonderful thing to work with. We've not spotted any untoward fringes, aberrations, and the distortion control is minimal-to-nil when comparing raw and JPEG files.
Looking at our shots at 100 per cent scale and the level of sharpness is incredible, which adds further reinforcement to using the in-camera 35/50mm crop modes without fear of the results lacking enough bite (like some smaller sensor cameras might). It's optical quality and image quality where the Leica Q really shines, proving that despite its modern touches this Leica benefits from a long history of professional expertise to the full.
Having an f/1.7 aperture available to use has rarely seen us slide up the ISO sensitivity scale even in dimmer conditions, but should you choose to – there's an Auto ISO setting to automate control too – then you can do so without fear of excessive image noise.
Having shot a variety of images at the mid-high ISO sensitivities we're impressed with how the 24-megapixel full-frame sensor handles everything. Even at ISO 6400 shots match or surpass what we'd expect from a pro-spec full-frame DSLR.
There's a caveat to that, though: the JPEG standard settings push contrast to excess. However it (along with sharpness and saturation settings) can be set to low, medium low, medium high or high to suit your needs.
We've spent most time editing the DNG raw files, however, which we've found far flatter and more neutral to work with as a starting base. And as they're universal DNG format they'll work with any editor right from the off.
In addition to stills capture, there's also 1080p video on offer, and built-in Wi-Fi shows this Leica is very much the most forward-thinking camera from the company yet. One that doesn't sacrifice a single drop of imaging capability for the sake of such additions.
Leica cameras are known for being out of this world. Not just for their no-nonsense build and super-sharp picture quality, but astronomical pricing too. The Leica Q encompasses all of those things and yet despite its near-£3k price tag it's still an incredible camera, certainly the best full-frame fixed-lens compact ever made.
That bold statement does need some context though: the Q hardly has similar competitors snapping at its heels, with only the Sony RX1 or, on a smaller sensor basis, the Fujifilm X100T in contention. But even within this small specialist circle the Leica Q is king because its capacity for exceptional imaging thanks to that super-sharp optic is unparalleled (ignoring the standard JPEG contrast settings anyway).
Sure, it's not a mass market product, as is the case with any fixed-lens camera. But whether you're a staunch Leica fan, or simply a photography fan, the Q is that rare Leica that will transcend users old and new thanks to its combination of classic and modern features. A rare yet wonderful thing indeed.