Friday, May 16, 2014

Preview: Is the Leica T the Future for ILCs?

Change is strange. Some embrace it, others hate it. Some don't mind change, but it depends on what and how much. There are some things that are best untouched, while others need to change or else they will disappear (think of Latin as a language). What is the future of interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs), especially the mirrorless market? DSLRs have a general layout and design familiarity between the brands (due to certain functional restrictions and preferences), but the mirrorless camera ergonomics, shape and interface is pretty much wide open. Manufactures have been testing the waters, some with more radical designs, while others have taken the more conservative (even retro) route. 

When Leica announced an upcoming and all new ILC system, we all pretty much thought we could guess how it would look and function. It would be a cross between the recent X series cameras (X1, X2, X-Vario) with a splash of old school M styling (we were all hoping for an integrated EVF though). This is what we came to expect from a reasonably traditional and conservative camera brand. Unlike Sony or Canon who could afford to have a camera or two flop, Leica is a much smaller company who can not afford to make a mistake. It would only make sense to produce a camera that was built on previous successes. Why take the risk? Then Leica announced and revealed the all new Leica T...

Leica T w/18-56mm @ 28mm. JPEG. 1/640th F/4.4 @ ISO 800

What was Leica thinking? Audi design? It looked like the first generation Sony NEX cameras. Where are the buttons? No buttons on the back? Oh, it has a touch only interface, other than two dials and a shutter button. This sounds a lot like an iPhone. Did Jony Ive design this phone... err I mean camera? He did help design the ridiculously expensive (ok, it was for charity so that's cool) Leica M, but this? What's this? Who's idea was this?

All these thoughts, all these questions were running through the minds of many industry insiders (and outsiders) and camera reviewers. The biggest question I've been asked is if this camera is just for show, or can it take good pictures. I can tell you right now, yes, this camera can take great and wonderful pictures. If a serious photographer decided that this would be their work camera, they would be fine (albeit with limited selection of T lenses). It has the same sensor and basically the same processor that's in the Leica X-Vario, so this is a serious camera with real Leica DNA (look at the below JPEG image).

Leica T w/18-56mm @ 18mm. JPEG. 1/250th F/3.5 @ ISO1600
As I showed on my comparison review between the Leica T and Fujifilm X-E2, the Leica JPEGs are very different than the RAW files. The JPEGs are very neutral and almost grey, but does really well in the shadow areas. The RAW files are very good and I recommend to shoot RAW in general with all Leica's, as you will get the most out of the images. The 18-56mm lens is very good as well. It's small, compact (not OIS though) and sharp wide open. I can't wait to review the Summicron 23mm F/2, but for most, I think this compact zoom is great for a compact system. I think a fast 35mm F/1.4 prime and a wide angle zoom (10-24mm) would round out the system very well. Overall, very good image quality, as I expected. 

Ok, so the Leica T can produce good images. That's great. But what's up with the design? Yes, I must admit when I first saw it in pictures, I wasn't too excited about it. It looked like a Sony NEX. However, unlike many things that have great design, it's hard to photograph it. When I saw the camera in person for the first time, and I looked at it from the angles that I wanted to look at it from, I realized how beautiful the camera really is. Yes, it's carved and hand polished from a solid block of aluminium, and that's great. But holding it in your hand, it feels so luxurious, and so smooth and sleek. The strap system is amazing, and the EVF looks pretty cool too. This camera looks like its from the future, and the future is now.

Is this essential to taking great pictures, how it looks? No, not directly. But I do believe that aesthetics of anything helps with the emotional factor when it comes to any tool. That's why even cordless powertools and airplanes are still designed to look sexy, even though it has nothing to do with functionality. Who wants to drive an ugly car? Why does a car seem to drive better after it's washed? 

unique T strap system. Don't lose the keys though.
I do recommend that you shoot this camera with the very cool rubber strap system. It's not a great camera to just hold in your hand. I'm sure people will start coming up with grips and half cases and hand straps that utilize the plug system of the Leica T, but until then, play it safe. A solid piece of aluminium is slippery, so keep the camera safe and around your neck. The cool things about this camera is that if you scratch the body, there's enough metal on it that you can get it polished out... just don't scratch it near the Leica engraving!!

The next biggest issue is the interface. How effective is it? It depends on what you're use to. Do you hate using the smart phone touch-based interface? If so, you won't like this camera. It's all about using the touch screen, and I think Leica did a good job integrating it into how most photographers will shoot. The first thing I like is the main camera function screen. It's similar to the Fuji's Q-button, but Leica allows the user to choose what icons appear and also be able to rearrange the order of the icons. To add new icons from the main function menu into your custom menu, all you have to do is easily drag the icon and drop it into your camera menu folder. How smart is that? Are you paying attention Fuji engineers?

Leica T with 18-56mm lens take as JPEG. 1/80th F/5.6 @ ISO 1600. Image taken by John Mackie 
RAW converted in CS5 into JPEG. Kurt Dahle of the New Pornographers.

Even when in the main function mode menu (AV, TV, P, M, Scene), the two dials are logically programmed. For instance, in AV mode (aperture priority), the outer right dial is to adjust your aperture, and the inner left dial is defaulted to ISO, although by touching the ISO icon on the top right of the screen, you can quickly change the dial function to 5 other common functions (exposure comp., WB, AF mode, self timer, flash mode). In program mode, the right dial is to shift the aperture-shutter speed combination, and the left dial is again to your choosing. Very smart.

When viewing your images, the dial layout is again logical: the right dial is to zoom in and out of your image (although you can pinch and spread your fingers on the touch interface as well) by using the right dial, and the left dial to change to the next image. Again, well thought out and intuitive. The dials did exactly what I thought it would do. I didn't have an instruction manual to figure everything out, but I didn't have to. The only function I couldn't figure out was how to play my images. There is no play or view button, either dedicated or on screen. How is it done? You swipe the screen up with your finger, just like a smartphone! Smart! Again, if you don't like the smartphone interface, you won't like this camera. If you do, you won't need a manual to figure out the functions.

Leica T with 18-56mm @ 34mm RAW and converted in CS5. 1/160th F/4.9 @ ISO 400

So the images are great, the interface is great, but how about shooting? It's very good, and much better than the previous attempts by Leica with the X1, X2 and X-Vario. The AF is reasonably fast, and continuous shooting is fast for a Leica. Low light AF is good, and bright light AF is decent. It's no OM-D EM1 or Fujifilm X-T1 level, but for the average non-sports photographer, it's fast enough. The EVF is pretty good, and I recommend it for those who like to manually focus. It's not easy trying to focus off the back LCD without focus peaking, and even with the EVF, I found I used the scale focus bar with DOF indication more as a quicker way to focus. I'm sure Leica can include focus peaking on a firmware update. When you manually focus, the image automatically zooms in, and once you tap the shutter button, it zooms back out for composing. I wish the focus distance scale didn't disappear when it zooms in to help with focus, but maybe there's a custom function to keep it on screen at all times? I won't know until I review the camera again.

Leica T w/18-56mm @ 18mm. JPEG. 1/125th F/8 @ ISO 400. 

Overall, I think the touch screen interface is a success for those who wish to use touch screens. It's quick and intuitive for the smartphone generation. I think it would be cool if you could buy apps and have the camera and your phone work together for things such as editing and sharing on social media. This might be the future of the digital camera interface. 

I'll conclude here since this is just a preview of the Leica T. I only had it for 3 days so there's so much more to figure out and try out. I couldn't figure out how to trigger the manual pop-up flash. The pop-up button is built into the on-off switch around the shutter (it pops up even with the battery out, so it's a mechanically connected, not electronically). I put the camera to Flash On, but it still seemed to decide for itself when to trigger it, and I couldn't figure out why. Also, when I first got the camera, the salesrep sent me a firmware update version 0.0 which made no sense, since how can you upgrade to v0.0? I'll find out what the upgrade was for... maybe it was some factory way to waken up a demo version of the camera for pre-production release? Who knows.

For such a small camera company, Leica had courage to try and innovate with a touch based interface camera. It would have been easy for them to make an X-Vario based ILC camera with improved AF, but they didn't. They even decided to build it differently by carving and hand polishing the body from a solid piece of aluminium. Why? Are they crazy? Maybe. But that's Leica. They are the same company that still don't have AF on their top M body cameras and lenses. They are also the first (and still the only) company to come out with a black and white only digital camera. Are they crazy? They are Leica. Love them or hate them, I don't think they are going anywhere soon. Let's see where this Leica T system takes us, and I'm sure they will continue to do 'crazy' things....

Thanks to Eric Kerwin and Leica Canada for loaning me the camera. I look forward to reviewing it again soon for a full review, perhaps with the new M-adapter as well!!


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