The Leica T features the first new lens mount* from Leica since 1954. It’s a big deal for the company and has been the most hyped and anticipated camera I’ve ever seen. The waiting list for these are insanely long and it took me two months to finally get my hands on one. Like so many Leica products though, the T hasn’t been without controversy. People say that it’s overpriced and say that it’s beauty without any substance. Here are my thoughts.
*Correction: The Leica R-mount (1964) and S-mount (2008) are new mounts predating the T-mount.
All images have been tweaked moderately in Lightroom. Photos taken with the Leica T are labeled as such.
In terms of design, Leica partnered with Audi Design and the result is inarguably stunning. The T is clean, modern and has the unmatched level of craftsmanship you’ve come to expect from Leica. It’s been so popular at our design studio that it hasn’t had a day without being covered in fingerprints.
The packaging is typical Leica. Simple and elegant. The boxes are notably marked “Audi Design”.
If you’ve never seen a Leica unboxing, it’s worth watching one online. The box is organized using drawers and everything comes carefully packed in branded drawstring bags.
Slotting below the M, the T has an 16MP APS-C sized CMOS sensor. If sensor size is important to you, this means that the T is priced significantly higher than you’d expect. I’ve found it to be excellent though, and worthy of the Leica name.
Though full frame sensors are always nice to have, I don’t see it as a necessity. Unless if you’re shooting professionally, nobody really needs full frame, and the T’s sensor seems to do a beautiful job at rendering images. The T may be painting with a smaller canvas than my previous camera, the Sony RX1, but it’s still managing to paint beautiful ones.
Many reviewers have complained about the JPEG rendering of the T but I found its desaturated look to be really likable. Paired with the best white balance I’ve ever experienced on a camera, the T produces really nice neutral images. I’ve been shooting almost exclusively in JPEG only mode and the two images above are basically straight out of the camera.
If there’s one area that a full frame sensor really becomes necessary, it’s low light. But once again, I’ve found the T to do an admirable job. Yes, the Sony RX1 does a superior job at capturing detail, but the Leica seems to have pretty good noise performance and renders images with wonderfully calm color.
Even in the harshest of conditions, the T seems to do just fine.. The image above was shot in a really dark restaurant lit almost exclusively by candle light. Just a bit of noise reduction in Lightroom and you’re good to go.
The thing that’s impressed me about the T more than anything else is the handling of color. I’ve never done so little post processing in my life, and that’s always been my goal as someone that hates “fixing” photos. The results are almost film-like and feel more natural compared to its Japanese competitors.
Leica was fairly conservative in only squeezing out 16MP from the CMOS sensor. I think this was a good move though, as the files are pretty robust with good dynamic range. If neccessary, there’s more than enough detail to be pulled out during post processing.
Leica is offering two lenses at launch: a Sunmmicron-T 2/23 ASPH and a Vario-Elmar-T 3.5-5.6/18-56 ASPH. My favorite focal length is 35mm on a full frame sensor so the Summicron 23/2 ended up being the perfect everyday lens for me. The lens is constructed completely out of metal and comes bundled with an equally well made lens hood.
The one big difference I’ve noticed shooting with an APS-C sized sensor was not being able to achieve the dramatically shallow levels of depth of field. The Summicron 23/2 is still able to do enough blurring for my style of shooting though I can see how some people would want more.
Pairing a Leica sensor with a Leica quality lens designed specifically for it turns out to be a good combo. From my experience, the lens is crisp at any aperture setting. This useful especially for those that want to get as much depth of field out of the lens as possible.
As I’ve said, the lens’ focal length of 23mm makes it a 35mm equivalent on a full-frame camera. It’s great for everyday street photography and is what I personally like shooting with. While the camera does an amazing job of exposure and white balance, it does seem to suffer from inaccurate auto focus in poor light. I haven’t been too bothered as I’m coming from the Sony RX1 and the Fuji X100 before that; both known to lack in this department. I have missed a few shots regardless and hope Leica will address this in future firmware releases.
The Summicron 23/2 has a limited focus distance of 30cm. It’s not unusual and Leica has done this to maximize image quality but it leaves me wanting more. I’m currently considering investing in a M lens that’ll let me get the macro shots I’ll end up wanting to take.
Now we’ve got to address this issue of price. The T costs $1850 and the Sunmmicron-T 2/23 ASPH $1950. Yes, the Leica isn’t exactly a bargain. For just $2800, you could buy a Sony RX1, which I’ve been shooting for the past year. It’s a phenomenal camera and takes photos that can rival the Leica M. The Sony is a brilliant camera with incredible clarity but lacks soul and comes off as being purely engineering driven. There’s nothing wrong with these things, it’s what makes Sony great.
In many ways, the Sony RX1 reminds me of the Nissan GTR. A brilliant, precise tool designed to achieve its goal effortlessly. Despite being amazing products, both the RX1 and GTR lack a certain ability to stir your emotion. You’re most likely to feel a sense of respect for them, rather than fall in love. The 2014 GT-R reaches 60 from a standstill in just 2.9 seconds and costs under $100,000. It’s a number the Ferrari 458 can’t match while costing twice the price. But you’ve got to admit, life isn’t always about numbers and there’s something about that sexy red body.
If you’ve been a long term reader of Minimally Minimal, you know that specs aren’t what get praised here. In addition to the beautiful images, there are three key reasons why I’ve fallen in love with the camera.
First is handling.
Yes, handling, like what you’d read about in Evo Magazine. Despite being a fan of photography, I find the camera community too focused on specs and little else. Like driving, shooting with a camera is so much more than performance figures. It’s an intimate experience and just like cars, there are cameras that provide a more tactile, connected experience that cannot be defined by a spec sheet. Is the Leica T overpriced? Well, in the same way you’d say a Porsche is overpriced. But let’s be honest here, if you really love the sensation of driving a Porsche, you’d feel that it’s worth every penny.
The back of the Leica T is dominated by a touchscreen. The display is optically bonded and uses higher quality films than what you’d find on a iPhone. The T’s screen has an impressive image quality but still has a long ways to go to match the responsiveness you’ve come to expect from a smartphone. Simple taps seem to register fine but things like multi-touch gestures feel awfully unresponsive.
Leica has been historically bad at software so it’s been quite ambitious to create something that is so software heavy. It’s no surprise that I’ve noticed a number of software bugs with the T. The camera has already received a new firmware (1.1) that addresses a bunch of issues that early evaluators had noticed. The company has promised more updates in the future so I’m optimistic for the future of the system.
Despite having a few bugs and being less responsive than a smartphone, I found the touchscreen easier to live with than the complex menus you’d normally find on a camera. The Leica T lets you customize a “home screen” with your most frequently used settings. It’s one tap away and super legible.
Thankfully the T’s controls aren’t exclusively touch based, Leica provides two tactile dials that can be customized to various functions. I shoot almost exclusively in aperture priority, set the camera to auto ISO and have the second dial set to exposure compensation. This is the exact setup I’ve wanted for the longest time.
The second reason I love the T is its design and attention to detail.
There are of course people that dismiss the merit of the Leica’s gorgeous body. I really don’t have a way of convincing these people that there is value to craftsmanship and design. As a designer that designs products for mass production everyday though, I can only be envious of what Leica designers were able to achieve here. Products this well crafted are truly rare.
Many reviewers have said that the T feels like an Apple product. This is only so if you think the new Range Rover is Apple-like because it’s made of aluminum. The T is machined out of an aluminum block like many of Apple’s products but that’s where the similarities end.
The most notable difference is the stunning finish of the aluminum. Silver Leica cameras have traditionally been painted brass*, seemingly the best way to achieve beautiful satin finishes. But this time, they’ve achieved a lot of that aesthetic using aluminum. As you may know, the Leica T is hand polished for 45 minutes before the final finishing stages. As far as I can see, this isn’t marketing bullshit and there is a clear visual and tactile benefit.
*Correction: A better word to have used would have been plated. The silver M cameras’ brass bodies were plated with nickel then in chrome.
Also, because Leica is able to get away with producing a less compact product, the T has much thicker wall thicknesses and a sense of rigidity that you won’t even get from Cupertino. Trust me, this may be the best execution of aluminum you’ll find in any mass produced product and it’s a beautiful thing.
Even the bundled silicone strap is a thing of beauty. I don’t like neck straps in general so it hasn’t been getting much use though.
The strap connects to the camera using a proprietary locking pin that simply clicks into the camera. It looks brilliant and is a satisfying alternative to those fussy lanyard loops cameras always have. You can remove the strap the same way you would an iPhone SIM card; using a paperclip or the included tool. Leica is expanding the lineup of accessories that make use of this system and I put in an order for a wrist strap.
The T even has built-in Wi-Fi and can connect with an iOS device using the Leica T app. It can be a bit fiddly to set up but came in really helpful when I wanted to upload a couple of photos from the camera to Instagram.
Like the $22000 Leica S, the T has a door-less battery compartment design. The battery is ejected using a latch on the bottom of the camera. Releasing the latch only partially ejects the battery though and as it has a safety mechanism that requires you to push the battery in slightly to fully release it. Clever.
Turning the power switch beyond the on position will eject the built-in flash. It’s so much more of an elegant solution than the ugly hinged doors we’re used to.
Leica has released a ton of interesting cases and accessories to accompany the T. I went for the Protector Leica T ($140) in stone grey leather. It’s a bit on the thick side but the leather is absolutely beautiful and was something all of my designer friends immediately noticed. The case is mounted using a coin screw so be sure to have a coin with you at all times.
Lastly, it’s the philosophy Leica has taken.
As a designer, the Leica T’s immense sense of restraint is something I find admirable. It’s easy to make a product that does everything. Focusing on the essential is what’s difficult. And the Leica feels like the essence of what a camera should be.
The T refuses to battle in the megapixel wars or include gimmicky features. Everything about the T is about removing the extraneous and getting the best performance out of the materials at hand. The CMOS sensor, built-in 16GB memory and simple controls are all about taking this stance.
So many products lack of focus and an opinion today and respect for the craftsman has been replaced with a chase of fads. There are so many craftsman that I see everyday, with the potential of making masterpieces. But we are all reduced to making more of less rather than more with less.
Along with the underlying foundation of quality materials and construction, the Leica is also a camera that looks forward. It’s one of the few cameras that actually looks like something that belongs in 2014. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I’m sick and tired of nostalgic products that take us backwards rather than looking ahead. We need to create an optimistic view of the future and we as a society are failing to do that. The T certainly thinks we can look forward to the future, where everything is essential, honest and has a sense of dedication.
When Steve Jobs first launched the iPhone 4 he said:
"You gotta see this in person. This is beyond the doubt, the most precise thing, and one of the most beautiful we've ever made. Glass on the front and back, and steel around the sides. It's like a beautiful old Leica camera.”
Leica has always been a brand of uncompromised quality and craftsmanship. The reason Leica’s products are expensive isn’t because of a deliberate attempt to overcharge for the products. It’s a side effect of making a beautiful object of desire. For this reason, I don’t see the biggest fault with the Leica T being its price tag or lack of functionality. It’s that Leica produced a camera that people think Apple would make instead of making something Tim Cook mentions in his next keynote.
To truly understand the T, you have to fit into the type of photographer that the camera really aimed at. You have to know what you’re doing but the camera is also going to be underpowered for a pro. It’s a niche product for a specific consumer but also aesthetic preference. If you like smooth, neutral images over purely detailed, plastic ones and hate dealing with ugly, complex interfaces, this may be the camera for you. It sure is for me.
More shots from the Leica T. Every post following this review will be shot using the camera.