In the James Bond novels and films, Q is the oft-exasperated purveyor of high-tech gadgets that inevitably help 007 escape impossibly tight spots. Leica’s Q probably won’t foil an international criminal conspiracy, but it sure packs an awful lot of high technology into an elegant package. Bond would approve.
The Leica Q is an advanced compact boasting a 24-megapixel, full-frame sensor with a native sensitivity range of ISO 100–50,000 and 13 stops of dynamic range. It uses a fixed, 28mm f/1.7 Leica Summilux lens with optical image stabilization and macro focusing capability.
You’ll frame your scene through a 3-inch touchscreen or an incredibly sharp, 3.7-megapixel electronic viewfinder. While the Q isn’t a rangefinder, Leica did incorporate a rangefinder-style framing grid that presents either a 35mm or a 50mm crop of the sensor for digital zoom purposes. If you choose the crop option, the Q will save the image as a JPEG while simultaneously saving a DNG file of your entire 28mm field of view. Shutter speeds top off at a fairly slow 1/2000 sec, though an electronic shutter kicks in for speeds up to 1/16,000 sec and the top flash-sync speed is 1/500 sec.
Finally, there’s built-in Wi-Fi for remote control and image transfers to mobile devices.
Reminiscent of Leica’s M and X-series, the Q continues Leica’s tradition of well-considered, if spartan, design. While there are few curves or grips to speak of, the Q is quite comfortable to shoot with. Leica carved out a gently curving surface on the back of the camera to rest your thumb during shooting and we often found ourselves holding the camera by the large textured surface next to the lens when not shooting. The markings on the camera are laser-engraved for extra durability and the camera’s build is reassuringly sturdy. At 1.4 pounds, it’s heftier than its principal competitor, Sony’s Cyber-shot RX1.
The lens barrel has a focus ring that operates smoothly and can be locked into place during AF. The aperture ring at the end of the lens barrel also turns with just the right amount of tension. You can drop the Q into macro mode and enjoy a 17 cm focusing distance and new set of focal length markings on the lens barrel, simply by rotating a dial on the lens.
One issue we encountered was the lens cap. It slides into place, but can be rotated once it’s on the lens barrel if you’re not careful. Often when we removed it, we wound up turning the aperture ring to a different setting.
The Q’s image quality is first-rate. Color reproduction was consistently excellent while the Summilux prime lens delivered tack sharp images without visible optical imperfections. We shot extensively indoors—including in a cave—and found that the combination of high ISO and the bright f/1.7 lens did an excellent job coping with the lack of illumination.
We enjoyed fine results at ISO 6400, and we frequently pushed the Q’s sensor to ISO 12,500 and ISO 25,000 with decent results. Using Adobe Camera RAW, Leica’s 14-bit DNGs provided a good amount of latitude to dial back some of the noise without trading away too much detail.
(ISO 12,500, f/6.3, 1/60)
While the still performance of the Q is superlative, video continues to be something of an afterthought in Leica cameras. The Q does offer 1920x1080p60 video, a step up from the X2 which topped out at 30p, but it lacks a 24p frame rate for a more cinematic feel. There’s no mic input, and you’ll surrender control of aperture, ISO and shutter speed during shooting. The overall video quality is solid, but not class-leading.
The Q delivers continuous shooting at 10 fps up to about dozen RAW+JPEG frames before our UHS-1 SDXC card slowed things down. A more generous buffer would have been nice. The camera doesn’t start up all that quickly, but shot-to-shot times were quite speedy. Street photographers looking to grab that fleeting frame should have no trouble snagging it with the Q. We shot it extensively in low light and found the 49-zone AF system quick to lock focus. Tracking focus for moving subjects was a bit more prone to misses but performed well overall.
When you’re ready to slow down, there’s focus peaking and a zoom assist feature which briefly magnifies the scene during manual focusing. The peaking effect isn’t as strong as we’d like, but does come in handy. Using the touchscreen, you can use a speedy touch focus as well as a touch focus release, which automatically triggers the shutter when you touch an object in the frame to focus on. You’ll lose touch control when you enter the menu, but that’s fine since it’s a rather simplified system. Indeed, the menu is quick to navigate and very intuitive. Another major highlight is the electronic viewfinder, which is extraordinarily sharp and doesn’t swim nauseatingly out-of-focus if you turn too suddenly.
Leica doesn’t provide CIPA-certified battery ratings for its camera, but after five hours, 350 stills and roughly six minutes worth of 1920x1080p60 video, we still had about half a battery left, so we think it’s an excellent performer in the stamina department.
There’s no question that the Q is an amazing camera. It’s fast, responsive, impeccably constructed and takes beautiful images. What’s more, it’s fun to use.
The question, as always, is whether it’s worth the steep premium Leica imposes on its products. It is, at the end of the day, a fixed lens compact camera that costs more than most full frame DSLR bodies and quite a few body/lens kits. It costs almost $1,500 more than Sony’s RX1R, which also packs a full-frame sensor into a compact body. For that extra cash, though, you’re getting a camera that’s twice as fast with a brighter, wider-angle lens, superior build quality and a super-bright EVF. If you spring for the Q, you’re unlikely to go away disappointed.
PROS: Super fast; gorgeous image quality; good low-light performance; responsive AF; Wi-Fi; touchscreen display; sharp EVF.
CONS: Limited video features; pricey; lens cap can inadvertently rotate aperture dial.