Venerable German camera manufacturer Leica entered the modern world of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras earlier this year, and while the results are impressive from a design standpoint, they’re somewhat underwhelming in terms of image quality.
The Leica T was developed in collaboration with German car maker Audi—the two companies collaborated on the Leica M9 Titanium model four years ago—and features a striking aluminum unibody design, not unlike Apple’s Macbook Pro laptop. The Leica T has a Spartan control set, with just two dials, a shutter, a video button and a large 3.7-inch touchscreen on the back.
Inside, the Leica T is equipped with an APS-C-size CMOS sensor, similar to what you’d find in competing semiprofessional mirrorless cameras and digital SLRs. Although the Leica T isn’t intended as a camera option for pro photographers on serious assignments, the company is clearly hoping it will find a place in Leica lovers’ bags, perhaps next to their M9 digital rangefinder or Leica S medium-format camera.
The Leica T setup I tested included the Vario-Elmar-T 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH lens, a versatile if unexceptional compact zoom. For photographers with a stash of Leica M-series lenses, the company is also selling the Leica M-Adapter T that will let you use your rangefinder glass with the Leica T.
The Leica T comes in two colors: silver or black. I preferred the style of the silver version, because it gave a better sense of the aluminum unibody construction.
The Leica T looks quite elegant and feels comfortable and solid in the hand. Dimensions are 5.2 x 2.7 x 1.2 inches and it weighs 13.5 ounces, so it’s relatively lightweight but doesn’t feel flimsy like some competing mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. The Leica T is nicely balanced and its handgrip is comfortable to hold for long periods of time. I walked all over my neighborhood in upper Manhattan, discreetly shooting test shots with the camera, and never felt weighed down. Along with its unique design, the Leica T has several minimal but stylish accessories, including a rubberized, silicon camera strap (included) that cleverly clips on to the camera body so that there’s no fussing with threading it through tiny eyelets, as is the case with most cameras.
An optional tilting Leica Visoflex electronic viewfinder (EVF) goes on top of the camera, if you don’t want to compose images using the rear screen. I found the Visoflex EVF to be a decent tool for shooting photos outdoors in bright sunlight, where the rear screen would otherwise wash out. But as with most EVFs, it had some downsides. The coarse, digital read-out on the EVF made it hard to judge details in the shadow areas of images, and the proximity sensor that automatically turns the EVF on when you put your eye to it was a step slow. This caused me to look at a second of blackness rather than the subject I was shooting, which made me miss capturing some choice moments.
I liked the minimal layout of the camera, which gives it an Apple-like simplicity. The hidden, oval-shaped pop-up flash was a nice touch, as were the subtle but useful recessed control wheels. Most of the adjustments on the camera are made via the 3.7-inch touchscreen, and it’s a good one. It has 1.3 million pixels of resolution and receptive touch capacity and functionality. While it’s not exactly as responsive as an iPhone, I had no trouble touching my way through the menu system, which you can customize to put the most-used functions front and center.
Images are played back by swiping down on the rear screen of the camera, which, while counterintuitive, is effective. Scrolling through images and pinching and enlarging them was a relatively fast and efficient process as well.
The Leica T’s touch controls also extend to focusing, and there are ways to focus track subjects just by touching them on the screen for both still and video recording. The camera can shoot full 1080p HD video at 30 frames per second, and there’s a built-in stereo microphone on top. To start recording a video, just touch the small, recessed video button on top and you’re rolling with HD. If you want to share your images wirelessly, the Leica T has built-in wireless connectivity, and a new app in the iTunes store allows you to wirelessly control the camera.
Performance & Image Quality
The Leica T was not the fastest camera I’ve ever used, nor even the fastest mirrorless interchangeable lens camera I’ve tried, but it was quiet, inconspicuous and got the job done. As mentioned, I used the camera to shoot cityscapes and street scenes and drew very little attention as I stealthily snapped away.
The Leica T uses a contrast detection-based autofocus system and like most similar systems, it had trouble locking in on fast action. For straight- on portraits, however, the Leica T performed fine. Either way, the camera, which can shoot at up to five frames per second in continuous burst mode, was a much faster performer than Leica’s manually-inclined M-series rangefinders.
Image results from the camera were good, though not great. Colors were a bit too muted for my taste and the photos had a flat quality. Part of this was due to the mixed lighting conditions, resulting from spring weather that was occasionally overcast.
In some cases, skin tones looked on the gray side, particularly in images shot inside a coffee shop. Outdoor portraits, on the other hand, were much more consistent and life-like.
The Bottom Line
Leica has taken a modern turn with its new Leica T (Typ 701). This is a classy-looking mirrorless camera with some well-considered design choices, including its unique aluminum unibody design. I appreciated the simplicity of the Leica T, with its minimal control layout and attractive curving lines, proving that form can follow function. The large 3.7-inch touchscreen on the back was also a nice feature, and it was almost as easy to use as an iPhone for changing settings and scrolling through images. Even if the Leica T isn’t as fast a performer and its image quality doesn’t rival a decent DSLR, this camera is very well-designed photographic tool that makes shooting photos fun and stealthy.
Leica t (typ 701) www.leica.com
Pros: Snazzy aluminum unibody design; stealthy and inconspicuous to use; nice 3.7- inch touchscreen on back.
Cons: Average image quality and speed; mediocre 18-56mm kit lens; expensive compared to other cameras in this category.
Price: $1,850 (body only)