Hands on: A week with the gorgeous Leica T
By Loz Blain
May 9, 2014
The Leica T is a true supermodel of a camera, a masterpiece of design, engineering and machining perfection that begs to be touched and turns the heads of Leica fans and lesser mortals alike. But Leica is adamant that it doesn't make sculptures, and it wants the T judged on its performance. So let's see if its results stand up to its astronomic price tag. Loz Blain spent a week with a compact camera that costs, coincidentally, exactly as much as his car.
The Leica T is an exceptionally beautiful camera. Milled from a solid block of aluminium and hand-polished for a borderline-obsessive 45 minutes, it's a wonderful thing to touch, hold and look at. The shape is instantly resonant with Leica's iconic M series bodies.
The look is designed to appeal to a fashion-conscious, cashed up younger demographic, and you'll certainly need to be cashed up. Our single body, single lens review kit retails around AU$4,600 (roughly US$4,300).
While it was never part of Leica's design brief, the T has come out looking like the camera Steve Jobs and Jonny Ive would have made. It appeals to the same senses as a Macbook Pro. It's sleek, shiny, precise and cool to the touch.
There are lots of yummy tactile surprises in things like the way the straps click in, the way the flash pops up and the way the battery comes out – truly sumptuous design ideas that we'll skip over to preserve the feeling of surprise and delight they'll give you at first try.
But Leica's German product manager Maike Harbert is keen to point out that it's more than a piece of art, "We don't produce cameras for the cabinet, even though there are rumors that we do." Premium does not mean luxury to Leica, it means maximum performance.
So that's the way we'll review it. Holding the T in your hand, there's no question where your money has gone. It feels solid, precise and perfect. But how does it perform?
Our review system came with the Vario-Elmar-T 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 autofocus lens, which gives a field of view equivalent to 28-85mm lens on a full frame camera. A fairly typical basic zoom lens for a compact body.
The body itself only features four control elements – the off/on switch with the shutter button integrated, two user-assignable dials and a video record button.
The rest of your interactions with the camera will be through its large, capacitive touch screen. Leica has done a nice job with the menu system, which allows you to rearrange its icons to put your own favorite features and functions within easy reach in a quick menu screen. It's fairly intuitive, and instantly switches between languages ... a country mile ahead of most camera menu systems.
Flicking through your shots is less intuitive. You have to swipe your finger vertically up or down the screen to get into the review screen. Once you're looking at a photo, you can pinch or double-tap to zoom in. I found this action a bit laggy, and roughly as fiddly as pixel peeping is on most other cameras.
Focusing and shooting with the Leica T
The T functions fairly well as an auto-mode point and shoot. The autofocus isn't lightning fast, being a contrast detect system and not a hybrid, but it's not too slow, it doesn't hunt too much if you've got a bit of light to work with, and we did find it considerably quicker than the (absolutely awful) system on the Canon M.
You'd best take a bit of time to compose your shots, though. I found myself throwing out a lot of shots where the focus didn't quite make it to the party on a walkaround point 'n' snap trip I took this afternoon. And they weren't complex 3D spaces where the camera was focusing on the wrong thing, I'm talking building-against-sky, focus to infinity stuff that I was very surprised the T would get wrong.
Shooting in manual focus, the T has an optional focus assist mode that zooms in to 3x or 6x as soon as you move the focus ring. It's lovely for fine-tuning set shots, but I'd switch it off in more dynamic situations. Following any sort of movement with manual focus is made more difficult by the fact that you've got to turn the ring quite a long way to move your focal point, but this does mean it's easier to fine tune.
In Program, Aperture Priority, Manual and Shutter Priority modes, the two metal dials come into play, and I really appreciated how easy it was to assign different functions to them. I had a slightly vexed relationship with the Exposure Value wheel when I had one set, the screen doesn't necessarily always display the scene with the same exposure settings as the shot you're about to take. This may be an issue with the pre-launch beta firmware we were running on our test.
One other thing that's worth mentioning is that the info bars, which are your only way of keeping an eye on your camera settings, and thus crucial to keep on, actually obscure part of the image and thus effect your framing and image composition. This happens to a lesser extent with the Visoflex electronic viewfinder attached.
It doesn't seem like you can switch shot review off, and that can get in the way a bit when you're shooting moving action. Holding the shutter down for burst shots, you can't follow the action visually on the screen or through the EVF, you have to guess a little.
The T features Wi-Fi connectivity, which can be handy, and also GPS geotagging. There's a Leica iPhone app that you can use as a remote control for the camera, and it works quite nicely. You can also review and share images to social media directly through the app. An Android version is on the way.
The heart of any camera is its image sensor, and the Leica T takes its sensor directly from the Sony NEX. It's a 16.5-megapixel, APS-C-sized sensor with an ISO range between 100 and 12500 (although things start getting noisy around ISO1600).
The T shoots JPG by default, but can pair these with DNG RAW files. There doesn't seem to be an option to shoot RAW only.
Image quality is about what you'd expect from an APS-C system. Dynamic range appears similar to what comes out of the Canon 7D and its ilk, but won't impress full-frame snappers.
Since we had one on hand, I took a few side by side test shots against Canon's EOS M, using a very similar 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 IS lens – a camera kit that costs about one seventh the Leica's price tag. This was far from a scientific test, but image quality was almost indistinguishable to me. Here's a Leica shot, here's a Canon.
Across several different situations and lighting scenarios, the Leica seemed to hold its sharpness out to the edges a little better, but both showed similar degrees of color fringing, and both seemed to grain up at about the same point when I pushed shadows up in Lightroom, with the Leica holding out a touch longer.
Individual images from each camera were better or worse than each other at the whim of each unit's autofocus system, and 100 percent crops do neither camera any justice, since they rarely decided to focus on the same point.
I think it's fair to declare the Leica the winner, but it's far from a decisive victory. And given that the T is seven times more expensive than the Canon, and Leica want it judged on its performance and not its mouth-watering aesthetics, it's certainly not making as strong a case as I'd hoped.
Having said that, I was quite happy with a lot of the shots I got out of the T. I've put a bunch in the gallery, both from the launch day photo walk and from a motorcycle review shoot I took it out on. Please note, all images have been post-processed in Adobe Lightroom, including my trademarked abuse of the clarity slider.
At the end of the day, a camera is only as good as the shots you get out of it. It needs to beg to be used, and it needs to inspire you to use it. There's no question in my mind that beautifully designed gear like the T can be an inspirational force in itself. Its minimal controls resonate with me; I do all my writing in Apple's TextEdit and can't stomach MS Word because all the extraneous stuff distracts me from the words, which are the important bits.
But my weather-beaten Canon 5D2/24-105L rig takes vastly better photos, and cost me considerably less than the T, even if it is a lot less portable. There's no way to justify the Leica's price tag on pure performance; you'd buy it because you love the aesthetics, the feel and the engineering. Or because you're a fan of the storied Leica brand and its 100-year history of photographic excellence. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Product page: Leica T