Leica Q – Impressions from a Sony RX1 Shooter
By Chad Wadsworth – Visit his website HERE
Over the past few years Sony has disrupted the DSLR industry with their full frame a7 mirrorless line, but the camera that started it all was the original RX1. Since its release in 2012, the RX1 has been labeled a modern classic – a full frame compact that you could use as your main tool without compromise. But technology moves fast and today there is competition in the space from both the Leica Q and the just released update to the RX1, the RX1RII.
The Leica has received praise from the online community so I was curious about how it would compare to my beloved RX1. The 28mm Summilux presents a wider fov compared to the classic 35mm of the RX1 – a positive to some, negative to others. The Q has a touch screen, built-in high-resolution EVF and Leica claims one of the fastest AF systems on the market. It was all certainly enough to have me interested. At the same time, I hoped the RX1 replacement would be announced soon and sure enough, Sony revealed the RX1RII in October, sporting the potent 42mp sensor of the a7RII, 399 phase detect autofocus points, a new pop-up EVF, tilt screen and the worlds first variable optical low pass filter – quite a feature set.
Finding a Leica Q to play with proved difficult but a couple of weeks ago a good friend purchased Ashwin Rao’s camera and allowed me to use it to shoot the Fun Fun Fun Festival in Austin, TX. Two days of intense shooting with the Q definitely informed my opinion on the camera.
No denying it, the Q is lovely. In comparison to the bulky, Bauhaus on steroids design of the new SL, the Q pays closer homage to the M line with classic rangefinder sensibilities. It looks and feels as if it was carved out of a solid block of aluminum with fine workmanship throughout the build. I particularly like how the thumb grip is inset into the back of the body. I received many compliments on the camera and even ran into one other shooter backstage.
Comparatively, the RX1RII hews to the same retro aesthetic but with a more modern twist. Build quality is similar but the design adds a unique pop-up EVF and a tilt screen for a more stealthy experience on the street. There is also a direct control dial on the front for focus settings – including a continuous mode with advanced features like AF Lock (tracking) and Eye AF (eye tracking). Even with these modern features an RX1RII shooter is going to field regular questions from strangers on whether the RX is an “old film camera”.
Initially I was surprised at how large the Q is, but it fits the hand well and isn’t so big that I wouldn’t use it in the same capacity as the RX1. The Sony is smaller and lighter (507g vs 640g), more of a jacket pocket camera. The size of the Rx1 is a major positive if you are looking to travel as light as possible with a full frame sensor. The Q actually weighs more than the original a7 with the FE 28/2 lens mounted (only 604g for that combo).
The 28mm Summilux f/1.7 permanently mounted in front of the Q’s sensor is wonderful. The highest praise I can give it is that when I first loaded images into Lightroom I thought, “wow, they look like they came from an RX1.” Of course the RX1 sports a Zeiss Sonnar 35/2 – the fifth highest rated autofocus lens in the DXO Mark database – and many feel it to be one of the finest 35mm lenses made, but I have no doubt that if scored, the Summilux would do very well. So pick your poison, 28mm or 35mm, both are truly excellent. I prefer 35mm so my choice is clear, but the Q does have a nifty digital zoom feature that lets you auto crop your images (even in RAW) to either a 35mm or 50mm fov. In typical Leica fashion, this digital zoom doesn’t result in a true magnification within the viewfinder, instead digital frame lines are overlaid in a quasi rangefinder effect. A novel implementation, but composing at 50mm with just a small portion of the scene within the frame lines was not ideal. I would at least prefer a menu option to select whether the frame lines or a full screen zoom were activated. Keep in mind that with the plentiful pixels of the RX1RII (42mp), that camera also shares the ability to crop into longer fovs (50mm or even a 75mm), greatly expanding the usability of the fixed 35mm prime lens.
The EVF in the Q is high resolution and comfortable to view, with little to no visible lag. There is some smearing deep in the corners but it isn’t too bad. I personally find the EVF too flat and with poor color balance compared to the Sony EVFs, which tend to have more contrast and very accurate color. I noticed that shadows often had a blue tint while highlights were yellowish. When I had a chance to try out the Leica SL with its huge EVF I noticed the very same color and contrast characteristics.
Where I was more impressed with the Q was in the autofocus performance category. One of my first shots of the day at Fun Fun Fun Fest was this image of a skateboarder flying up a ramp. He was traveling at a high rate of speed with only a fraction of a second to capture the moment. The Q’s AF was very quick and nailed the focus perfectly. My original RX1 could not have done the same. The a7RII with the FE 28/2 felt like it came close to matching the speed of the Q, but I at the time of this article I don’t yet know if the RX1RII is blessed with all the same AF capabilities of its big brother. I did get a chance to try the RX1RII at Photo+ and the AF seemed very speedy inside the Expo but I couldn’t test it in a wide variety of environments. As long as your subject has good contrast you can count on the Q to grab focus very quickly and accurately – we are talking faster than SLR speed in many circumstances. Having a contrast detect system, the Q will struggle a bit in low contrast scenes, but overall the focusing experience with the Q in the field was a non-issue and that is a very good thing.
So we have established that the Q is a handsome camera with great build quality, a stellar lens, a nice EVF and exceptional autofocus capabilities. The original RX1 had only three of those five characteristics, lacking a built-in EVF and excellent autofocus, and the new RX1RII looks to have all five. A camera is worth more than the sum of its parts though and the most critical aspect of any comparison is image quality.
I’m not going to be subtle about this, the Leica Q produced files that disappointed compared to the output from my Sonys. Specifically, dynamic range was relatively anemic (Ming Thein quotes 12.5-13 stops in his detailed review of the Q) and color balance was erratic in cloudy weather. With over 14 stops of dynamic range, the Sony RX1 and a7 bodies dominate when it comes to shooting in challenging light conditions where one would desire to recover highlights or pull detail from shadows. With the Q files I simply could not recover to the same effect and it wasn’t really close. Working with the files felt like I was a generation behind – I don’t like going backwards. Was I happy with many of the Q images? Absolutely, but the overall experience of editing Q RAW files and the number of images rejected due to a lack of depth in the data was dispiriting.
I also witnessed an alarming problem with banding in some Q files. In the image below, note the horizontal banding at the top of the image over the black tarp of the stage. This photo was taken at a moderate ISO and I did not heavily edit the shadow or black levels so I can only surmise that the banding may be due to the electronic shutter feature of the Q. Using silent shutter on the Sony a7 cameras will result in similar banding but with the Sonys you have the option to turn the feature on or off. On the Q, whenever your shutter speed exceeds 1/2000th of a second, the camera automatically activates the electronic shutter which enables faster speeds. There is no option to turn off this feature so if it is indeed responsible for the banding, you are stuck with it. On the RX1 and RX1RII there is no electronic shutter feature and the cameras are limited to 1/2000 when shooting wide open (1/4000 when stopped down).
Compared to the a7RII
On day two of the festival the weather was particularly nasty so I left the Q home and packed the a7RII and the little Sony FE 28/2. That lens is sensationally sharp with great bokeh for a 28mm so I was curious to see how it would stack up against the brilliant Summilux on the Q. I have to say that I see little difference in sharpness between the two which is impressive considering the $450 price point of the Sony lens. The mix of photos below are from both Q and a7RII, you should have a hard time discerning which camera they came from.
After shooting over a thousand frames with the Q in a challenging environment, even with the more limited dynamic range and banding problems, I was still impressed with many of the images that the camera produced; but at the end of the day I still prefer the Sony RX1 files with their rich depth and malleability. Given the killer 35mm Zeiss Sonnar lens, the smaller size and weight, the increased resolution, more advanced AF, class leading dynamic range and lower cost, my RX1RII order is safe.
See below for more samples from the Q.