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Leica T review: form minus function

Germany's high-end camera company shoots and misses

For 100 years, Leica has stood for both photographic precision and overpriced extravagance. The company has been revered by working photographers for its rock-solid cameras that take tremendous photos in virtually any environment, yet it’s also been panned by critics for building cameras that cost far more than the sum of their parts. A prime example is the Leica M, the company’s flagship digital camera. It costs nearly $7,000, and that’s before you add a lens to the equation. Yet there are many photographers that wouldn’t shoot with anything else. The M offers an intangible emotional appeal, which is one of the reasons it’s able to sell for many thousands of dollars.

As a result, Leica has become a “lifestyle” brand, a status symbol for those wealthy enough to afford to pay five figures or more for a camera system. The company has fully embraced its image, expanding through partnerships with companies far removed from photography and opening up boutique stores across the world.

Now Leica is expanding its line of cameras with the T, a brand-new, completely modern mirrorless camera system that costs far less than the flagship M line. It’s still expensive — the camera and a basic zoom lens will set you back a steep $3,600 — but it doesn’t carry the astronomical price commanded by the M.

The T has all the trappings of a modern mirrorless camera: a 16-megapixel, APS-C size sensor, autofocus, built-in Wi-Fi, and the ability to record 1080p video. Where the M line is firmly fixed in the past and Leica’s tradition, the T is a notable step towards the future.

But can you really get a true Leica experience without spending over $10,000 for a camera and lens? Leica claims that you can, so I spent a few weeks with the Leica T to see if this new, (slightly) more affordable philosophy can carry the company for another 100 years.

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Hardware / design

The T’s radical new design is by far the most unique part of the camera. It’s a striking block of solid aluminum, designed in partnership with Audi. Its clean lines and lack of adornments are in stark contrast to the utilitarian beauty of the M, which hasn’t changed significantly since 1954’s M3.

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The T has just two control dials, a power switch that doubles as a shutter button, and a dedicated movie-recording button. There are no patches of exotic leather, no buttons on the rear, and no viewfinder (save for the optional electronic viewfinder attachment). It’s about as different from an M as Leica and Audi’s designers could get while still making the T look like a camera. It’s reductionist to the ultimate extreme.

The T's design is reductionist to the ultimate extreme

All of that metal (which gets polished by hand for 45 minutes straight by a Leica technician, your thousands of dollars have to go somewhere) makes the T exceptionally dense and heavy. The body alone weighs 13.5 ounces, and when you attach the basic zoom lens, you’re lugging around nearly a pound and a half of camera equipment. Compared to other mirrorless cameras, the T is a tank.

The T’s minimalist aesthetic extends to the back of the camera, which is dominated by a 3.7-inch touchscreen. Virtually everything you do on the T requires interacting with the touchscreen, but I’m not yet convinced this is the best way to control a camera.

There are some really nice touches to the T’s design that aren’t found on lesser cameras. The cartridge-style battery-release latch pops the unit out softly. The strap lugs are an unconventional peg-and-socket type, which keeps the body clean when you remove the included Leica strap. Unfortunately, removal of the strap requires a special key tool (not unlike a SIM card tool on a smartphone), and the camera can’t accept straps from companies not named Leica.

Controls

Taking pictures with a Leica M camera has always been a unique experience. All of the important photographic controls are at your fingertips and it is up to you as the photographer to make all of the decisions, from exposure to focus. It’s a methodic, slowed-down shooting approach that requires an understanding of photographic principles. But people who prefer Leicas wouldn’t have it any other way. It engenders a love for the camera, a connection between you and your tool that isn’t easily replicated. And the results that are produced are usually well worth the time spent learning to use the camera and shooting with it.

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Unfortunately, none of that really happens with the Leica T. The camera’s minimalistic design has effectively removed all of the tactility that photographers treasure on the M. It favors an automatic, point-and-shoot style of shooting rather than the manual, take-control method that Leica’s classic cameras offer.

The twin dials on the top of the camera control various exposure settings, but they aren’t always predictable or intuitive. You have to dive into the touchscreen to change what each dial adjusts. Leica designed the T’s on-screen interface to mimic the apps on the home screen of your smartphone: each option is a big, square, finger-friendly button that cycles through its modes when you tap on it. The most commonly used settings can be placed on a quick-access screen, while the full gamut of controls are available a level deeper. Changing the options on the quick-access screen is much like dragging and dropping apps around on your smartphone. But I’m not sure both levels of controls are really necessary — I found that I moved most of the controls to the quick-access screen anyways, defeating the purpose of having two levels of control menus.

A touchscreen is just not as good as physical controls

Yet no matter how easy Leica makes it to touch the screen with your finger, a touchscreen just isn't as good a control mechanism for a camera as physical buttons are. Everything that you do on the touchscreen requires you to look at the back of the camera, separating you from your subject and your scene. Not everything is intuitive, either — reviewing your images requires a swipe down from the top of the screen, while the function of the left command dial resets to its default (ISO) every time you power off the camera.

The issue is compounded by the slow response of the interface — it behaves more like a low-end Android phone from three years ago than a high-end smartphone of today. If you were thinking a viewfinder could fix those issues, think again. The optional $600 electronic viewfinder includes GPS, but it’s clunky and, unsurprisingly, expensive. It takes a half-second or more for the camera to switch to the viewfinder from the rear display when you hold it up to your eye, making it all but useless to grab spontaneous shots.

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Performance

But if there’s one word to describe what it’s like to shoot with the Leica T, it is "slow." The camera is slow to turn on, slow to focus, slow to review pictures, and slow to navigate menus. The slowness of the camera further separates the T from the M, which is instantaneous to use because of its manual approach. All of those things might have been excusable five years ago, but when cameras like the Sony A6000 sell for under $800 and run laps around the T, they are impossible to ignore. I missed numerous shots just because the camera couldn’t get ready to take a picture quickly enough. That’s frustrating for a digital camera from 2010; it’s downright unacceptable for a camera in 2014.

The T uses a completely new lens mount and there are only two autofocus lenses available for it right now. There is a bright, 23mm f/2.0 prime lens priced at $1950, but I tested the T with the more pedestrian 18-56mm zoom lens. The $1750 18-56mm lens provides a standard range of slightly wide angle to slightly telephoto, and has a rather dim f/3.5-5.6 aperture. It’s not bright and unlike many similar lenses from other makers, it doesn’t have image stabilization, making it not particularly suited for low-light photography.

The lack of speed is unacceptable for a camera in 2014

But since the T is a purebred Leica, the company is also offering an adapter to put M-mount lenses on it. The $400 ring of metal and plastic will let newer M lenses communicate their aperture and focal length to the camera, but aside from that, it’s a completely manual experience and in my testing I found focusing to be more of a chore than it is on the Leica M. The T does have a magnification feature that lets you digitally zoom in 3x or 6x to confirm focus. But it's too is slow and has to be activated manually every single time you want to use it (which is every single picture when you’re using a lens that only supports manual focus).

The T has built-in Wi-Fi that works with an accompanying iPhone app (sorry, Android users, there’s no option for you at this time). The app allows you to transfer images from the camera to your phone or remotely control the Leica with your iPhone. It’s a smart inclusion and table stakes for any camera today, but Leica’s execution is just completely wrong. Unlike every other camera with Wi-Fi, you can’t connect the phone directly to the camera. Rather, both devices need to be on the same existing network before they will talk. That completely eliminates the possibility of using the feature on the go, which is when you’re most likely to want to transfer images to your phone.

Image quality

If there’s an upside to all of my negative impressions of shooting with the Leica T, it’s that the pictures its produces are generally quite good. Colors are accurate, if a bit muted, in a variety of lighting conditions, and Leica’s approach to noise reduction is to pretty much not do it, leaving a lot of detail alongside some pleasant-looking grain in higher-ISO shots.

Image quality using the older M lens was not as good, as the T had trouble getting accurate white balance with the vintage lens for whatever reason (the same lens on an M camera exhibited no such problems).

Leica’s aren’t usually a first choice for shooting video, but like most cameras today, the T is capable of recording 1080p HD video. It has a dedicated button for shooting video just to the right of the shutter key and shoots at 30 frames per second. The video quality is average, but it’s not like most people will buy this camera for the video features.

The T doesn’t give you anything you can’t get in a much less expensive camera

Overall, however, the image quality from the Leica T isn’t any better than a good mirrorless camera from another manufacturer, such as Sony or Fujifilm. Unlike the M series, which can use image quality as a justifier for its high price tags and steep learning curves, the T doesn’t give you anything you can’t get in a much less expensive camera.

One hundred years is a long time for any company to survive, especially in an industry that’s gone through as much change and upheaval as cameras. Leica’s been able to thrive, however, even though its products are exceptionally expensive and serve a niche user base.

The Leica T is the company’s insurance policy for the future, the camera that it hopes will continue to grow its customer base and bring the Leica brand into many more hands around the world. (Leica even built a brand-new factory in Wetzlar, Germany to build the T because it’s anticipating such a high demand for the camera.) But the T is so significantly different that the Leica romance is all but lost.

Sure, the build quality is tremendous and there’s something to be said for shooting behind that iconic red badge. But those things take a back seat when the camera’s controls and performance (or lack there of) mar the experience of shooting with it. I think Leica could improve a number of the T’s faults with software updates, much as Fujifilm has done to improve the autofocus and performance of its cameras over time. After I sent back the review unit, Leica issued a firmware update for it, but the company couldn’t confirm if it improved performance.

The reality of the matter is that if you were hoping to get the real Leica experience in a digital camera for the bargain price of under $4,000, the T isn’t going to cut it. It’s a fine camera, if a bit slow and heavy, but it doesn’t really provide any different or better of an experience than any other mirrorless camera you can get for far less money (and in many cases, it’s a worse experience).

But Leica expects you to judge its cameras differently. It’s as much about the overall experience of using (and owning) a luxury product as it is about features and performance. The T is a beautiful camera that will surely look good on a display shelf or around the neck of a well-heeled vacationer. Just like a five-figure Rolex tells the exact same time as a $30 Timex, but looks a whole lot better while doing it, the Leica T takes the same pictures as almost any other mirrorless camera, but looks a whole lot better doing it.

But the real problem is that the Leica T doesn’t live up to that standard of luxury. It carries many costs and compromises, yet it lacks all of the emotional appeal that comes with a traditional Leica.

Product photography by Sean O'Kane.

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