As a new transplant to the state of California, I have a lot of exploring to do. Having spent the last dozen years in Florida, I’ve traded in flat land, palm trees, and beaches for mountains, winding roads, and some occasional snowy weather.
I’m outside quite a bit these days, exploring the new territory. To the west of my home is Whiskeytown, a sprawling national park with plenty of trails, streams, and waterfalls. To the north is Mt. Shasta, a looming presence with a small ski town, resort, and a spring head from which the Sacramento River originates. To the east is Lassen, a park that seems to exist as a perpetual winter wonderland, full of sparkling white snow well into the Californian summer—and to the south is, well, the rest of the state of California, full of too much natural beauty to think about.
It’s with this sheer amount of exploration to do that I find myself in situations like the one I was in recently, clambering up a hill of massive rocks to get a vantage point overlooking a waterfall. Crouched between two sheer pieces of rock, preparing to hurdle myself from one to another, I’m glad to have the Leica Q swung over my shoulder, ready to photograph whatever it is that I’ll see next.
The Leica Q is a camera that feels solid. It’s a device that greatly benefits from a few scratches and scuffs, with a build quality that suggests the occasional accident builds character, and should even be, perhaps, slightly encouraged.
So getting my Leica Q in situations where it might get banged around is exactly what I do, because to leave it at home and not take it to the waterfall would feel like a travesty.
The Leica Q is an explorer’s camera, an adventurer’s camera, a wanderer’s camera. The 28mm lens is made to capture the world around you — the whole of it — in stunning detail and quality. Whatever’s in front of you, the Leica Q is more than capable of taking it in, and the camera’s small body encourages you to never forget it at home.
The Road to the Q
Though I have been shooting for almost a decade at this point, I see myself as a novice photographer who’s still learning to love the art.
I started off, years ago, with a Canon Rebel T3i and a “nifty fifty”, figuring out how to shoot by simply traveling and trying things out. I upgraded my camera once or twice and built out some lenses until I was more confident in what I was doing and felt comfortable behind the viewfinder.
Feeling boxed in by the bulky bodies of DSLRs and unsatisfied with “feel” shooting, I moved to a Micro Four Thirds system and an Olympus OM-D. I immediately fell in love with the smaller camera format and made great use of the format’s built-in image stabilization.
Having a smaller camera was a revelation, in a way. I was no longer worried about packing an entire bag worth of equipment — and the stabilizer meant I no longer even required a tripod. Though the OM-D was (and still is!) an extremely formidable camera, I realized I wanted a small body without compromise. The OM-D has a relatively small sensor and constantly frustrated me due do a few strange design decisions. I found myself fidgeting with settings too often for my tastes and I didn’t enjoy the experience.
Some people enjoy messing with camera settings, considering firmwares, and constantly tweaking their system, but I can assure you of one thing: I am not one of those people. In fact, that experience drains me, causing me to feel totally uninterested in picking up a camera the next time around.
When I found myself shooting less and less, I began considering the Leica Q.
When I began to seriously think of buying a new camera, there were two primary questions on my mind:
- What kind of quality can I expect out of this piece of equipment?
- How does it feel to use it?
For many people, that first question is the only one worth considering (and these people, in my opinion, end up using cameras made by Sony). For others, the latter question plays a huge role in their decision making.
For those who can’t pick a side, Leica exists.
Though the brand has been around for over 100 years at this point, many people I talk to are still unfamiliar with Leica and their products. Though the company was a domineering influence in the world of photography for decades, the age of digital cameras saw their star fade while Nikon and Canon gained dominance and proceeded to clean house.
If you don’t know much about Leica, a good comparison in the world of technology would be Apple. Both companies create bold, opinionated designs with a hard and unwavering stance towards remarkable quality. They also, on occasion, miss the mark regarding what consumers actually want while striving towards some lofty design goal.
Many believe this happened to Leica when they released the all-aluminum ‘T’ model in 2014. This was a product that showed just how much the company has in common with Apple in today’s modern world — both regarding their aesthetic tastes and their practical shortcomings.
The Leica T was a beautiful piece of equipment, with a body machined out of a solid block of aluminum. The camera had a striking design, but the beauty seemed to exist to be used in a perfect bubble. One scratch on the thing would send the entire design into a downward spiral (of both looks and resale value), and its software left much to be desired.
Photographers felt underwhelmed by the device and it seemed clear Leica needed a camera that would truly usher their brand into the modern digital era.
If you ask me, they did just that with the Q.
The Leica Q is a very different beast than the T.
Where the T went for minimal perfection, the Q harkens back to another era of photography, with a design that feels like the definition of “classic”. The camera would look great on a shelf next to your grandfather’s rangefinder and many people have mistaken my own Q for a film camera when seeing it in passing.
This design is not only an aesthetic decision, but a functional one. Where other cameras (including the T) have decided to bury major features in a software menu or behind a touchscreen, the Q relies on the physical, giving the camera a tactile feel that’s both extremely inviting and surprisingly nostalgic.
The Leica Q is a fixed-lens camera, meaning the lens on the body is the only lens you’ll ever be using. It’s a prime wide-angle with a 28mm focal length backed by a 24MP sensor. That means every time you pick up the camera you’ll be capturing a good chunk of what’s around you at an impressively high resolution.
Not only is the Q’s photo quality astoundingly good, but the experience of taking a photo is just so pleasurable. Leica has managed to infuse every photo taken with a certain look, giving a slightly subdued contrast and oh-so-perfectly-sharpened clarity.
I am of the opinion that the Leica Q isn’t meant to be packed away in a bag. It isn’t meant to require any setting up. It’s simple and streamlined, but ready for anything. All it requires is you and the scene in front of you.
A camera is nothing without a good lens, and this might be doubly true for the Q. In many ways, the camera feels entirely built around the Summilux 1.7 28mm, with the lens itself taking up half the camera’s size and weight.
If you could remove the lens (and again, you can’t) I imagine the Q’s body would feel hilariously insubstantial and feather-light. Pick up the camera with a single hand, and you’ll feel the weight in the glass. It is not uncommon for me to carry the camera with the leather loop around my wrist and my hand around the lens itself.
The 28mm will be a joy for those who enjoy street style photography and who enjoy capturing the world around them in crisp snapshots. It’s also great for those who travel often (a description which I fit the bill for), photojournalists, and the like. This can’t be said enough — it just feels good to take photos with this lens. It’s sharp, the autofocus is instantaneous, and the world looks beautiful through it.
The Q feels perfectly equipped to capture the story unfolding around you, with beautiful quickness. Take one shot and you’ll understand just what a lens it is. While many might be a bit put-off by a camera which only has a single fixed lens, the 28mm is more formidable than you might expect. It’s so formidable, in fact, that I was able to shoot an entire wedding with only the single camera. Admittedly, I don’t believe any full-time wedding photographers will be following in my footsteps, but I use this specific example of just what can be done with this modest looking camera.
Using the Q exclusively allowed me to worry less about the settings I was shooting and enjoy the moment with the rest of the crowd. I snapped during the ceremony, transferred some of my favorite shots to an iPad during dinner at the reception, and had photos on display at the gift table before the night was over.
That kind of seamless experience never felt possible before I had the Q. It allows you to be a one-man-show, without the muss and fuss typically required. I had always dreamed about having a camera that was able to capture what I was seeing, with no editing necessary.
The Q is, in many ways, that dream come true.
Using the Q
Photographers will be happy to know the Leica Q offers both a beautiful screen on the back of the camera and a viewfinder which offers an equally bright and high-resolution look at what you’re about to capture.
A setting in the Q’s menu allows for four modes: “LCD”, “Auto”, “EVF Extended” and “EVF”. When the LCD mode is implemented, the viewfinder is non-functional, while “EVF” renders the exact opposite true. “Auto” turns the viewfinder on whenever the proximity sensor activates it. “EVF Extended” is a great compromise, which makes the viewfinder the primary source for photo composition but activates the LCD screen for viewing captured images or navigating the camera menus.
This is the mode I almost always use.
The LCD screen itself feels top quality, providing a crystal clear (and fairly large) copy of what’s been captured. The screen is one of the better implementations I’ve seen on a camera body, provide a precise and quick response to touch. That being said, I still find myself using the physical buttons more than the touch screen, as it’s simply more precise when trying to pick a focus point or scroll through images.
A strange setting that has actually come in handy from time to time is the Leica Q’s “digital zoom”. This allows the user to switch the camera’s perspective from 28mm to 35mm or 50mm by automatically cropping the image by the necessary amount. In some ways, this setting feels a bit like training wheels for those unaccustomed to exclusively shooting with a prime lens, and was deemed important enough to gain a physical button on the camera. I found the mode interesting at first, and have used it on occasion when shooting something at a major distance. However, the same thing can be done just as easily (and with more nuance) in post-production. Thankfully, the button can be swapped out for another feature (but more on that later).
The Q has the expected autofocus features, with “face detection” being a nifty bonus which has actually proved useful when shooting portraits. When using manual focus, the Q provides options for both focus peaking and auto magnification. I turned the former on and the latter off.
I have my camera set up in a very specific way, and it’s a setup intentionally created to keep me from fiddling with any settings or dials. While other people take sincere joy in constantly changing things around, as I mentioned before, I don’t.
The reason I have such a distaste for fiddling with settings is because doing so will make me less likely to start shooting in the first place. The Q becomes the perfect camera for me, as it allows me to capture the world without having to worry about dialing it in.
The Leica has a menu called “Auto ISO settings” where, when all the dials are set to auto, a maximum exposure time and a maximum ISO can be set. This is great because it means that you’ll keep the camera from slowing down the shutter too far or dialing the ISO up too high.
I have my Q set to never go below a 1/125th shutter speed and never go above ISO 12500. It’s my experience that the very-wide-lens of the Q can handle the slow speed of 1/125 and that 12500 produces a minimal amount of noise.
Though you won’t be shooting on a moonless night in the darkest of settings, a single source of light will allow you to get some beautiful shots. The versatility of setting is one of the best features of the camera.
The other showstopper, to me, is its durability.
Years ago, I decided that I don’t want to baby the items I own. My first iPhone was something I carried with a near-paternal sense of protection. I made sure it was as pristine as the day I bought it, without a scratch or dent.
That didn’t last long.
After my iPhone received its first scratch (caused by a single grain of sand which made its way into my pocket at the beach), I realized this level of protection was not only untenable, it was entirely limiting.
Items like my phone and my camera are tools — and tools can only be used when you allow them to be. If a camera is hidden away in a protective bag or case, it will be used less entirely.
I’m not comfortable with that reality.
The Leica Q is a camera that can take a beating. I’ve climbed the arduous steps of Santorini, Greece with it hanging from my wrist. I’ve sat it down in the freezing cold snow of Lassen Volcanic Park while I kicked the frost out of my shoes. I’ve dropped it onto the harsh pavement of an LA street.
That last one was bad.
The back of the camera has a thumb indent which (complemented by a strap, naturally) makes me feel reasonably in control of the camera at all times. Through it all, the Leica Q has proven no worse for wear except for a dent or two in the lens hood and a beautiful wear on the edges.
Speaking of the lens hood, the Q’s is one of my favorites. Instead of a bulky cone surrounding the lens or a more traditional flower design, Leica opted to use an octagonal shape which provides some hard edges to the camera’s otherwise soft shape.
This being said, the Q could be greatly improved by legitimate weatherproofing. Though my own Q has withstood its share of trials, the Q is not a weatherproofed camera, and as such should be cared for in extreme conditions. In my opinion, this is the camera’s greatest flaw. This camera exists for exploration, and the fact that certain adventures might damage the camera is a real shame. That won’t stop me, but I hope to see future versions of this camera give its owners even more confidence.
Buttons and Dials
The Leica Q has done something which feels like a rarity in camera design these days: expose all the main controls via a physical button.
On the top of the camera are three dials. The first controls are the camera’s power and drive modes, with three settings: off, single shooting, and continuous shooting. The second dial controls shutter speed, with a setting for Auto and a range between ‘2000-‘ and ‘1+’. The third dial — the thumbwheel — is slightly customizable, in my case controlling the exposure composition.
On the lens itself is an aperture ring (which also has an Auto setting) and another ring at the base of the camera which switches the camera into a macro mode. Implementing this mode is a thing of physical beauty, as twisting the ring hides the distance meter and physically slides out another, with appropriate markings for the now much smaller range of view.
The lens also, of course, has a ring for focusing, which is ‘locked’ while the camera is set to autofocus. On the bottom right of the lens is a protruding focus tab, which fits your thumb and has a small button which requires a click before the camera is moved into a manual mode (or back into auto). With a camera this small and light, a focus tab makes a huge difference. It allows for incredibly fine-tuned focusing without losing sight of what you’re trying to capture.
On the back of the camera is a set of five buttons, labeled “Play”, “Delete”, “Fn”, “ISO”, and “Menu”. These buttons are mostly self-explanatory, though the FN button is worth talking about. With technology that is as opinionated as the Leica, it is a rarity to find customizable features which are worthwhile. Thankfully, the Q’s FN button is a fount of opportunity, and can be set to control:
- White balance
- Exposure composition
- The scene mode
- The file format
- Exposure meter mode
- Wifi connectivity
- A self timer
- User profiles
I have personally found options 6 and 8 are most interesting. As of writing, I have “FN” set to move between user profiles, the first shooting in both DNG and JPEG, the second shooting in JPEG only, the third shooting in a stylized/low saturation JPEG, and the fourth shooting in monochrome.
Though I almost always use the first setting, it’s nice to be able to change between the different profiles on a whim, and I’ve found myself exploring black and white photography more than ever before due to this simple setting.
Finally, to the right of the screen is a directional pad and center button. These work as you would expect, and are given just the right amount of depth to be easy to find while looking through the viewfinder. Above that pad and to the left is the clumsily named “Zoom/Lock-Button” which can control either the “Digital Zoom”, “AEL”, “AFL”, or the latter two at once.
I neglected to talk about a single button on this camera, situated between the power dial and thumbwheel. It’s a button to record video, and in my opinion, is the worst design choice Leica has made. This camera takes incredible photos. It does not take incredible video. To give such priority to this functionality is a mistake, and I’ve accidentally invoked it more than enough times be frustrated. Not only is recording video when you’re attempting to take a photo a huge bummer, it also destroys the Leica Q’s battery life, a tragic mistake when you’re already running low.
It’s worth noting that Leica’s latest camera, the M10, does away with not only the button but the ability to record video as a whole. That’s probably all that needs to be said about the Q’s recording capabilities.
With other cameras, I’ve found myself wishing for the ability to change this or that to accommodate the way I shoot. With the Q, Leica has done something commendable: They’ve managed to create a near-perfect combination of buttons, right off the bat.
On the software side of things, the Leica Q has a companion app available for the iPhone (which, I might add, has a beautiful and bold red icon for your home screen) which allows you to grab photos off the camera and take them remotely. The app is not as highly polished as I might like, but it certainly does the job.
The End Result
I have found little need to modify the Q system, but I do have a recommendation or two that has come in handy from time to time.
The camera has some heft to it and would be uncomfortable to hold for long stretches of time without a strap of some sort. I’ve opted for a wrist strap from Hard Graft, a thin but formidable solution to lugging the camera around with me everywhere.
Though many people enjoy sticking UV filters on top of their lenses, I’ve never found one necessary with the Q. The lens hood offers more than enough protection in my experience, and the glass is too perfect to cover up. I do, however, use a B+W circular polarizer from time to time when shooting in bright daylight, which makes wide landscape views far less blown out. Its worth noting a filter like this placed under the Q’s lens hood will keep the camera from adjusting to macro mode because of its size.
Speaking of size, a very strange nitpick about the Q as a whole is that it’s actually imbalanced when resting. The lens of the camera is so large (and the body so small) that, when sitting on a flat surface, the Leica tips forward. This makes no significant difference to the camera and does no damage, but it’s one of those details you might not expect from a top-tier camera like the Q.
I am a firm believer that photography isn’t supposed to be about the stats. It’s supposed to be fun. The Leica Q makes that a reality for me, and has made the camera inseparable from me.
When I travel (and I travel quite often), I try my best to stay in the moment of what I’m witnessing. I know that, quite often, I may never come back to the site I’m seeing, and to experience the world entirely behind a camera or phone is a lackluster experience.
Where other cameras require me to think about camera settings, the Leica Q allows me to only think about the world around me. I can pick it up, point the camera, and start shooting, knowing what comes out will be representative of what I’m seeing with my eyes.