Caveat: this review was produced with a final production beta camera and lenses; this means that whilst we’re probably 99% of the way there, there will almost certainly be some small changes before the camera finally ships. All sample images were shot in DNG and converted via ACR, with the 18-56 and 23mm native T-mount lenses.
Let me say up front that whilst I have been very clear that innovation has been somewhat lacking in the camera industry across the board of late, there have been a few standouts that do so precisely because they push various aspects of the game – be it image quality or more rarely, ergonomics. I’ve long had the feeling that Apple’s latest camera implementations – touch once to lock exposure and focus, again to shoot – have really distilled the essence of the camera down to its bare minimum. It uses technology not to pad out a spec sheet, but to free the photographer to concentrate solely on composition. Shame then, that none of the more capable cameras have really gotten this implementation right – until now. I believe the Leica T is the first generation of a paradigm shift in the way we control and interact with our cameras.
About a month ago, I got a call from the folks at Leica asking if I’d be interested in testing out a new camera – but not just a new camera, a whole new system. That left me doing some head scratching: the S system sits at the top of the pile, with M coming next, and the other various smaller ‘systems’ – I use inverted commas because none of these have interchangeable lenses; just a huge quantity of accessories. That does not qualify them as a complete system, in my book.
In essence, the T appears to share the core technology from the X2 and X Vario – same 16MP Sony-sourced APS-C sensor, without anti-aliasing filter; mid-sized mirrorless body without viewfinder (but optional 2.4-million dot EVF) and lenses that are either a moderate-aperture normal zoom or 35mm equivalent. Frame rate seems to be lower at ~3fps for 13 shots. The T is launched with both the 35/2 and ~28-80/3.5-5.6 equivalents. Unlike the X cameras, the lenses are of course interchangeable – in a new autofocus mount – and trade the high-sync leaf shutters for an in-body focal plane shutter.
The core then, is familiar ground. One could argue that the sensor is hardly state of the art anymore, but then again, the 24MP APS-C sensors currently available don’t appear to deliver much of acuity improvement, but penalize you heavily if your shot discipline is poor. The 16MP unit in the T is therefore a sensible choice – possibly the best currently available one – and one that delivers known excellent results. (The Ricoh GR is a good example of this.)
Where things seriously diverge is in the user experience. Even more so than the M bodies, I believe the haptics and ‘objectness’ of the T takes things to another level. The body is a unibody machined from a single 1.6kg aluminium billet and designed in collaboration with Audi, and available in silver (immediately) or black (in July). It’s solid and hefty but not heavy. The only reason this construction method works is because the innards are put in through the enormous rear screen aperture – it’s about 4” in size, appears to be just slightly lower in resolution compared to an iPhone’s panel, is capacitative touch sensitive and covered in Gorilla Glass. It would appear that some design DNA was donated on a more permanent basis by Apple’s Jonathan Ive after that one-off M collaboration; if you took the red dot off the front and blindfolded me, I’d have sworn Apple had decided to enter the camera business – it’s even got 16GB of internal memory, rather reminiscent of the i-devices.
I think this is a good thing. It means that firstly you want to pick it up and fondle it; wanting to use it means taking more images which in turn means better photographs – eventually. It is one of the most solidly built, if not the most solidly built, cameras I have ever held. It should be, since no others are made from a single piece of metal – there are no external shell or panel seams anywhere; it feels like it’s built to last. The only tangibly plastic bit on the whole camera is the SD card/ USB port door – shame this isn’t metal too, but I suspect it probably has something to do with the wifi antenna.
I have to say I don’t like the strap lugs. Though the mechanism is clever, and the placement doesn’t interfere with your hands, the supplied rubber strap has very sharp metal on the end that goes between your fingers; that combined with the surprising weight of the strap can make it dig in. Please round the corners, Leica, or give us an option for regular attachments to use a strap of our choosing. It might appear in my reviews that I’m obsessed by strap lug placements, but to me, this is one of the most important things for prolonged use when holding the camera in-hand. Finally, all of the controls and detents need to be just a little bit stiffer – dials are too easy to turn, and the power switch goes past ‘on’ to ‘flash up’ a bit too easily.
However, the most impressive aspect of the camera by far is its UI: it’s responsive, and more importantly, uses the touch screen in sensible ways – making it fully customisable. You can drag and drop the icons for settings you want in a 3×3 grid; touch to change them – have as many or as few as you want, and put them wherever you want. I’ve put my most used three under the arc of my thumb (metering, focus mode, exposure compensation) and left the rest of the secondary functions under my left thumb. You can of course then save all of these to a user profile for later recall. There’s a full menu with everything, too. It’s fairly mature for a first generation product – no doubt there will be improvements in future generations, but it’s very usable now, and quite refreshing. One side benefit is that you can actually find the button you’re looking for in the dark. I have to say at times I feel as though I’m using a smartphone though, and there’s simply no way you’re going to use this camera with anything other than thin leather gloves because of the touch screen. There have been other touch screen cameras before – but to my knowledge none that allow this degree of customisation (the recently announced Lytro Illum remains to be seen; and as usual with that company, you have to use their software to view – with all of the usual ‘we own your images’ caveats.)
The downside is that you don’t have the haptic feedback of real buttons, but the upside is that you can configure the camera’s shortcuts absolutely any way you want. It can be as simple as possible for beginners, or fully-featured for more advanced users. Two physical control dials for exposure (or anything else) are on the top right corner of the top plate, under your thumb. The T lacks a proper thumb grip, sadly – it feels as though it’d benefit from a ThumbsUp, except you’ll then lose your ability to attach an EVF. Once configured, I find the camera extremely fluid indeed in use – and unlike other cameras with configurable buttons, it’s impossible to forget what they do.
There are some gotchas, though – and some of these may be firmware related (my camera was not running final firmware): the camera not remembering the secondary dial setting (and defaulting to ISO), for instance; slightly buggy playback mode (swipe downwards to enter – that’s the single non-intuitive function on the whole camera, actually) which moves your AF box if you’re in touch focus mode. Playback mode itself is fine, if a little slow to enter – tap twice to magnify, one of the dials skips between images magnified, the other controls zoom. It’d also be nice to not be able to set the shutter speed past the max flash sync of 1/160s in Manual mode – the camera will fire, but you’ll get a black frame. Finally – and perhaps most importantly – information is always overlaid over the frame in black bars; you can lose the information entirely, but then you also can’t see what exposure parameters have changed when you turn the dials. It’s a little frustrating; either deal with imprecise edges or guess-the-ISO. Finally, if you’re the kind of person who likes to decouple the shutter button and AF and/or AE – you’re out of luck. Half press does everything; there are no more physical buttons to assign, and holding the screen doesn’t work, so that’s not really surprising. It’s not a big deal anyway; I’d much rather have AF/AE/shoot on one button because it’s faster.
Leica have added yet another EVF (with eye sensor, built into the camera body itself) to their growing collection – this time with a proprietary connector that’s buried down the deep end of the hotshoe a la Sony; perhaps to prevent people from going with the Olympus option as on the M240 and X cameras. The new viewfinder resurrects the old ‘Visoflex’ designation (to see one in use, see this article). It has a 2.4m-dot panel, and reminds me largely of the A7’s finder – though dynamic range doesn’t seem to be quite as good as either the A7/A7R or the E-M1. The refresh rate could be faster, too, especially in low light. In good to moderate light, it’s excellent – even if it does add considerable height to the camera and not quite match it visually (black plastic instead of aluminium). I wish the locking detent – it flips up by 90 degrees for waist level shooting – and the diopter dial were tighter though; it’s too easy to knock both accidentally. It’d also be nice to have somewhere to store that lovely little square of machined aluminium that’s the hotshoe cover – given the immense amount of thought given to the rest of the design, it seems like a surprising oversight. It’d also be nice to have a display mode where when the EVF is attached, the rear panel stays permanently lit as shortcut buttons since you can’t change anything on screen.
The sensor is almost a known quantity – image quality appears to be similar to the X2 and X Vario. I’d put the high ISO limit somewhere between at 1600 and 3200, depending on how much noise you can accept or how much NR you’re willing to do afterwards – there is a 12500 setting, but this looks like a storm of jellybeans. In practice it feels about a half a stop to a stop slower than the GR (which shares the same sensor) in terms of shooting envelope. This means in the dark, you really need to be using the 23/2 – or be prepared to give up two stops on the zoom. There’s an auto-ISO function with sensible limits; about 1/1.5x focal length. Given you’re probably going to be holding the T at arms’ length, it makes sense. That said, I still saw camera shake – especially at the longer end of the zoom. I really hope their forthcoming telephoto zoom has a stabiliser, otherwise the EVF and/ or a tripod will be a must. Usable dynamic range in good light is 11-12 stops, again comparable to its sister cameras; I don’t want to form any firm conclusions on image quality yet as my unit is not running final firmware – no doubt there will be some tweaks to color profile, high ISO performance etc. prior to launch. I’ll revisit that later, but suffice to say expect the output to be at the level of the X cameras or slightly better. This is also one of the reasons for the large number of B&W images in this review – there’s no ACR profile for the camera yet; I’ve made my own but not had the time to properly refine it.
Pixel quality is of course lens-dependent; the zoom is sharp throughout the range and across the frame at all apertures, peaking at f5.6-8; however it seems to lack the microcontrast ‘bite’ of the prime, which performs surprisingly well even at minimum focus distance and maximum aperture. The prime does display some longitudinal chromatic aberration wide open*, which I didn’t see with the zoom. I’m told it works well with M lenses (but lacks offset micro lenses) but have not had the opportunity to try this. I have used some of my Nikon mount glass as an experiment, and so long as the lenses were solid on the D800E, they were also solid performers on the T. One surprise is that the lenses themselves are not made in Germany; they’re made in Japan – you cannot tell this from the zoom and focusing rings or mount/ shells, but the extending part of the zoom is plastic, as are the hoods. (The body is made in Germany, though.) Autofocus is quite fast; not blindingly fast like the Olympuses and later Panasonics; a definite notch up over the X2 and X Vario. I’d say it’s just a hair slower than the GR with the prime attached. And there is a very short but noticeable freeze before locking focus, like the Fujis. Unsurprisingly, the prime is a bit faster to focus than the zoom – it is getting more light into it after all. What would have been nice is if the lens focusing rings adopted the same design as the X Vario – there’s an detented A(utofocus) position at one end, and a distance scale if you wish to manually override; it’d also simplify two more menu items (AF/MF and MF magnification – no peaking here). Hyperfocal heaven!
*Curiously, I saw this with the Otus too when mounted and shot wide open – I’ve not seen this behaviour on the D800E, which has the same pixel pitch. It might well be down to adaptor planarity, though resolving power doesn’t seem to be at all affected.
It’s interesting to note that the mount on the T is enormous – about the size of an EOS mount – which suggests the body could certainly take a full frame sensor. Presumably the size has something to do with tele centricity of the lenses, backward compatibility and so on. For those who do have M lenses, there will be an electronic M adaptor available too – it has the photodiodes required to read the 6-bit codes on the lens, and transmit those via electronic contacts to the T’s mount. I would assume there are some software corrections going on internally to compensate for vignetting, CA, magenta/cyan shifts etc.
Battery life is rather impressive. The cell itself is physically quite large – nearly the size of a D800E’s battery – but has half the capacity; the camera will still easily go for 600-700+ shots per charge, which is impressive given the size of the display it’s always powering. It’s also worth mentioning the battery mechanism itself is rather neat – a little lever makes a featureless rectangle drop out of the bottom a few millimetres; push it again and the battery releases itself. Similar to the S2, actually.
I think Leica must firstly be given credit where credit is due: to shoot with this camera is a completely new experience. It requires you to recalibrate the way you think of interacting with a camera to get the most out of it; there may be some discontinuity experienced when switching between the T and more conventional cameras. Iphone users, on the other hand, will be right at home. And it pains me to say this, but the camera now also includes wifi and a matching smartphone app for both control and social media sharing – it appears this is now a necessity for cameras.
It is not perfect; no camera is. I think whilst build-feel and materials are absolutely top notch, the ergonomics could still be better; there are a few awkward angles and sharp edges – especially around the strap. The proprietary strap attachments might be clean and neat, but they do severely limit strap choices – what if you want a padded neck strap, for instance? And a rear thumb hook is really a must to stop the camera from twisting out of your hands – they even added one to the M240. The next generation needs proper IS – ideally in the body, or failing that, in the lenses (especially since it’s a lot sleeker to use without the EVF) and a sensor cleaner.
This camera had – has – two big hurdles to overcome: a lack of native lenses, and fluidity/ workability of the UI. Spending some time with it has convinced me that the latter is mostly a non-issue; Leica are reasonably good about filling in lens holes, but I just hope that given the target audience, we get some fast primes, too – not just slow-aperture zooms (the brochure shows wide and telephoto zooms in the roadmap too); no matter how good the optics may be. Sometimes you just need more light. In the meantime, the ability to use M lenses may be a good solution if you already have some from your M bodies.
Which leads us to the question of who this camera is really targeted at: I think it’s too expensive for the casual enthusiast, and the price puts it out of reach of most of the lifestyle crowd; I can certainly see Apple fans buying it because it’s a product in the same gestalt (and much like a first generation Apple product, the idea is very solid but will improve significantly with a couple more iterations). M owners might well pick up one if the M240 is too rich for their blood, or they need a better telephoto solution – that 1.5x crop factor does give you a little effective boost. In fact, I can see a lot of people who have trouble focusing their Ms going over to the T for the AF alone – if the AF lens lineup is there to match. I can’t help but feel it’s made the X-lineup somewhat redundant: you can buy the T with a 35/2 equivalent, instead of the X2’s 35/2.8; and or you can buy it with the 18-56 zoom and gain a bit of maximum aperture on the Vario. What it lacks over the X cameras is the ability to set everything before turning the camera on – especially on the Vario, where you can set focus distance, too.
The final question is one of where the T fits in with the rest of the ecosystem and mirrorless pecking order. It’s not a speed demon (albeit somewhat crippled by shutter shock) like the E-M1; it’s not a resolution champ like the A7R (also crippled by shutter shock). It’s middle of the pack for responsiveness; comparable to a GM1 and kit lens, I’d say – but with better optics and a better sensor (comparable to the Ricoh GR). It’s priced well above any of these options – what did you expect, it wears a red dot – but it’s also built a cut above them, too. I suppose it’s like buying a German car: you might pay a bit more, and the spec sheet isn’t quite as full as a Japanese one, but it does just feel that little bit more enjoyable to use. Also as with cars, there’s absolutely no justification whatsoever for buying this over the competition. But the problem is, once you’ve handled it, chances are you’ll just want one – and that’s not something I can say for the vast majority of cameras I’ve handled. Haptics and build-feel do make a difference!
Overall, it’s a solid performer in every way – but the UI and build quality really set it apart, and make it a more interesting experience to shoot with than a lot of competing mirroless cameras. It’s a shame then that the price will probably be the limiting factor in adoption, even for people who want it. But who knows: it’s been a good 60+ years since the first Ms, but they may well have started another major shift in the way we interact with photography. Now, what I’d really like to see is a Monochrom version of this camera…MT
The Leica T is available to preorder here from B&H.
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