Assumed audience: People who care about photography specifically or the technologies and tools we use more generally — this essay touches on both.
A bit of context: I’ve been having some problems with my Sony α7R IV’s sensor for the last month or so. (it’s intermittently dropping out all but the red or green channels on the sensor, which makes for not great photos), so I rented [disclosure: mutual discount link] a Leica Q2 to have camera coverage for the immediate and extended family Christmases. (I take my role as family photographer seriously!) This essay grew out of that experience.
Leica has a reputation. Depending on which way you squint, that reputation might be one of quality that earns an extraordinary price tag, or one of overpriced hype. You will find no argument, though, that Leica is expensive. The Q and Q2 compact, fixed-lens, mirrorless cameras are Leica’s most affordable and approachable entry point to the Leica system of cameras. The Q system is not, in absolute terms, anything but profoundly expensive; and it brings along a slightly higher learning curve than many of the other mirrorless cameras out there — but it is affordable and approachable by comparison with the rest of their line-up, affordable and approachable enough that they have developed a robust following over the past half decade.
I remember distinctly my two introductions to the Leica Q: from Shawn Blanc and from Craig Mod. Both are people whose taste and opinions I have long appreciated. Both gushed with unadulterated enthusiasm about the camera. When I read those essays, I was still in the long winter of photography that was most of my seminary years: no camera bigger or more capable than whatever a smartphone offered. Still, the raves left their mark. They impressed on me that the mirrorless revolution had changed the scene enormously, and they also left a lingering sense that Leica might actually be something special.
When I first came out of that long hiatus, I started out by testing myself: was I really interested in photography again, or just in the cool new gear? I started taking the mechanics seriously enough to read up and actually interalize how photography works, for one thing. For another, I made myself just shoot with my decade-old Canon DSLR for a few months. Frustrating as that camera was, with its APS-C sensor and a profoundly mediocre kit lens, I did enjoy it, and the hobby did indeed stick.
I thought — a lot — about getting a Leica Q or its then-recently-released Q2 successor. I decided, though, that I wanted greater flexibility in lens choice, so I ultimately bought Sony’s α7R IV instead. It was the right choice: a conclusion I had reinforced by renting a Leica Q2 and using it extensively for a week around Christmastime this year. I loved the Q2, yet it’s not for me.
It is difficult not to think that Leica is — must be — overrated: most brands are. Even when Craig Mod ends up gushing about Leica cameras — more than once! — it doesn’t really feel like the brand could possibly live up to the reputation, could possibly justify the exorbitant(-seeming?) prices of its cameras and lenses.
It was only a little under a week, but I think, astonishingly, that Leica actually does live up to its reputation, and even more astonishingly, perhaps even justifies its prices.
I said to my friend Tim Hopper the day the Q2 arrived, after just a few hours of off-and-on use:
I think… I think I have a problem on my hands.… I like this camera a LOT.
The handling is great, and the lens is just… dang.
Also their phone app isn’t incredible or anything but it beats the PANTS off of Sony’s.
That quickly-jotted series of text messages aptly characterized my experience. From a basic mechanics-of-shooting and quality-of-photos perspective, I love the Q2.
First of all, the fixed-mount Leica 28mm 𝑓/1.7 Summicron ASPH lens is phenomenal. I have a handful of Sony’s prime lenses, including its very solid 35mm, 55mm, and 85mm 𝑓/1.8 “base” lenses and the 20mm 𝑓/1.8 G lens. The prime boasted by the Q2 is noticeably better than any of my Sony lenses. It’s incredibly sharp corner to corner, has no vignetting to speak of, and has impeccable clarity.
Operating the lens is a joy, too. The clicks for changes in aperture are crisp and satisfying and reliable. The fact that the focus ring not only has a linear throw, but a fixed linear throw, was a game-changer. The Sony lenses I am familiar with often have nicely linear focus rings, but none of them have a fixed throw. Combined with the distinctive Leica finger rest for the focus ring, you can learn, even in the short span of a week, what focusing in a given range feels like. I expect to miss that little nub and its fixed start and end points when I come back to shooting with my Sony primes.
Last but not least: the shutter is so quiet that I thought at first something was wrong. I first had to convince myself that I had correctly toggled off the electronic shutter. Then I spent a few minutes double-checking after each snap that I had actually taken a picture. The quiet of the shutter is wonderful. It was just disconcerting. I remember being pleasantly surprised at how quiet Sony’s shutters were compared to my old Canon DSLR lenses; this was far more startling a decrease in volume.
I’ve spent the past few years fairly skeptical of Leica’s claims to fame on this front; color me a convert.
The body of the Q2 is genuinely great, too. Its smaller size is really nice, and the simple grip works well in a way that surprised me. On the Sony cameras I have used, I have always wanted a somewhat larger grip — in part because the distribution of weight in it is quite different there from the Q2, and the more so as you add in heftier lenses. The Q2 is solid, even dense, but its grip shape and size felt really good, and its weight is incredibly well-distributed. As a consequence, while the metal body is less textured, and certainly less contoured, it actually feels better to hold than the Sony. The cumulative effect is that of a really solid tool in the hand.
The only issue I had with it — and the only place it really felt less good than the α7R IV — was in the ISO dial. It requires, somewhat oddly, that you click the button on top of it, then use the dial to cycle through the range of options. The Sony body just lets you cycle directly through ISO settings without the additional clicks. In practice this isn’t a huge issue, because I find that letting modern cameras choose ISO settings from a predefined range and adjusting aperture and shutter speed makes for a good default workflow anyway. It was odd, though, given how well-considered the rest of the physical controls on the device are.
Finally, the Fotos app is be nothing to write home about in terms of innovation or design, but it does its job well and gets out of the way. That might sound like a bare minimum, but is actually quite praiseworthy. For one thing, neither “doing the job well” nor “getting out of the way” is not a given — Sony’s horrible phone and desktop software being the number one piece of evidence here. For another, that is exactly what an app like this should do. It is a companion app, not the star of the show. This does not mean its design does not matter — again: Sony’s apps are loud evidence to the contrary. Rather, it means that the app’s design should be focused on reliably supporting and enabling the things you want to do with the camera. Fotos does just that — from its (blissfully notification-free!) GPS tagging to its ability to pull off either small previews or full-sized raw images via WiFi. As with most WiFi-powered connections, the latter process is a little bit slow, but it is reliable and straightforward to use.
This is a good place to say that exactly the same things hold for the software and menu system of the camera itself. They are easy to navigate and easy to make choices in. They are, in fact, easier to work with not only than my α7R IV’s menus (Sony’s infamously difficult previous menu system) but even than the current, much-improved menu system Sony has shipped on more recent models like the α7 IV and α7R V.
The Q2’s body and lens come together to make for a viscerally pleasant experience — caveat about its ISO dial notwithstanding. Every twist of the focus or aperture rings, every click of the shutter, felt good: irrepressibly smiling at it good, exclaiming aloud over it good. Shooting with the it was nice, in a way that very few things are nice.
The Q2 is not perfect, of course; it has a few significant drawbacks. More than that, though, it makes some strong choices — choices which may cash out as strengths or weaknesses depending on your preferences.
First and foremost among these: The lens is a trade-off — dare I say, a compromise. That might come as a surprise given my raving about it above. I stand by those raves, but the choice of 28mm does not suit me. for all its glories, this particular fixed-length choice is a non-starter for me. I can imagine a different fixed length lens suiting me quite well, but 28mm is too wide for me: I very much prefer
Having such a wide angle as the baseline means you will only rarely feel like you wish things were wider. At the same time, you can crop in significantly from 28mm to get a still-usable shot with the effective viewing angle of a 35mm or 55mm or 75mm lens (to name just the three crops which the Q2 will show you on screen). It would not be possible to do the inverse: given a 55mm lens, there is no “cropping out” to 35mm. You can shoot quite wide architecture or landscape views with this lens that you simply cannot get with a 50mm. This one, for example (shared via my photos feed the other day):
I therefore understand and respect the choice. It’s still just too wide for me for a go-to camera, for three reasons.
One: for all that the lens is incredibly sharp edge to edge, it’s still a wide lens. That means that there is real, if subtle distortion out at the edges, and that particularly shows up in portraiture. In some cases, it doesn’t matter. A landscape or a couch cushion will not suffer noticeably. An architecture shot will show it up a little more. Faces, though, can be trouble: the human visual system is hyper-attuned to how people are supposed to look. The distortion is not terrible, and you can manage it by keeping human subjects away from the edges of the frame. Unfortunately, in practice, that meant I noticed it in many of my photos. Groups are hard to keep entirely in the middle of the frame.
Two: cropping in to a 55mm field of view from a 28mm lens is not actually the same as shooting with a 55mm lens. The (lack of) compression in the depth of field is significantly different between the two, and that shows up most of all in portraiture, which is one of the main uses to which I put my camera — the contents of my Glass feed notwithstanding!2 As a result, this lens does not easily produce flattering portraits. That isn’t really a surprise: going wider than 35mm for portraiture requires you to really know what you’re doing. I don’t doubt there are many photographers who can still flatter their subjects with this lens, but it’s beyond my skill to do it consistently.
Three: I rely heavily on the ability to crop in even when using a longer lens (a point I noted when doing my mini-review of the α7 IV as well). Especially at family gatherings, I will lean on the high resolution of the α7R IV to get a useful image from across the room with my go-to 55mm. The wider your field of view is, the harder that is, because that wider field of view inherently means a subject across the room occupies fewer of the pixels on the sensor. You can still crop in, but you will have much less to work with.
There’s a (likely totally-unfounded, alas) rumor that the forthcoming Q3 might have a 50mm variant, which would significantly change the calculus for me. If they shipped a 40mm variant of the Q3, I would be hard pressed not to empty my pockets instantly. (“Shut up and take my money,” as the meme goes.) As things stand, though, I cannot imagine using this camera on an everyday basis, despite how often I found myself saying things like “Wow, I really love this camera” and “I don’t want to send it back.” My wife can attest: both of those phrases came out of my mouth repeatedly.
I said above that the Q2 makes choices, and nowhere is this more clear than in committing to this specific focal length. Choosing 28mm gave the camera a very specific personality. If that suits you, you will love it. If it does not suit you, as it does not suit me, you will feel — constantly — that choice, rubbing up against your own photographic instincts.
Another weakness: auto-focus. The Sony α7R IV I’ve been using for the past few years is of the same vintage as the Q2 (the Q2 came out March 2019, the α7R IV in July 2019), but the difference between the two in auto-focus capabilities is night and day.
…there’s a fascinating, if somewhat artificial joy of mastering range finder focus. I’ve only fumbled a few shots — amazingly — because of missed focus at f/1.4.
That “somewhat artificial joy” is a real dynamic with the Q2 as well. I found it consistently more enjoyable to use in manual focus mode than with auto-focus. In fact, I found I ended up using manual focus when taking a lot of our extended family Christmas photos — because it was easier to make sure I actually got the shot I wanted in manual than with auto-focus. Consider: that was true with small children running around.
The Q2’s auto-focus performance reminded me of nothing so much as the Canon DSLR the α7R IV replaced; that camera was an entry-level DSLR in 2009. Not good!
In fairness, it is not a surprise, either. The Q2 is clearly a spiritual descendant of Leica’s M-series of range-finder cameras, which are by definition only manual-focus.3 The fact that the Q and Q2 have auto-focus at all is, like the EVF and live view back panel, a huge shift for Leica in this form factor. Too, it is a much smaller body and a much smaller lens than Sony I am comparing to; Leica’s SL2 is far more directly comparable to Sony’s α7 line.
When I picked up my α7R IV and snapped a few pictures of the family before heading out to drop it off for repairs, I was immediately grateful for how easy it made it to nail focus. While there is a certain pleasure to nailing focus with the Q2 in manual mode, there is a totally different kind of pleasure to the effortless focusing that is part and parcel of shooting with any recent Sony camera and lens.4 What is more, that effortlessness extends to one of the key factors in nailing focus: eye tracking. It is one thing to find the right focus for a single shot; it is something else to be able to keep it up as a subject moves around. With the Q2, I was always fighting to keep up, whether in auto or manual focus mode. Sure, I could have stopped down, but that comes with its own downsides, especially in dim rooms.
At the same time, that work to focus was enjoyable. Increasing mastery of a fine-tuned machine — a bicycle, a camera, etc. — has its own very real pleasures. There is a place for both effortlessness and effortfulness in our use of technologies. Some of the very best technologies require just enough effort from us to make their bionic rewards truly satisfying: you can feel the boost they give you, because you can feel how your own effort translates into something much greater. By the same token, though: no effort, no sense of boost.
The Q2 delivers that sense of boost in spades, because its focus ring is so very usable. That does not make up for its failings of auto-focus, though, so much as it does give you something else to think about instead.
A dream camera: Sony’s auto-focus tech married to Leica’s sense of style and sheer quality of lens-making.
It would be impossibly expensive, of course. Sony hardware isn’t cheap in the first place, and Leica makes Sony look like a bargain.
It also isn’t clear how such a thing would happen. Rare is the company that has the trifecta of great software chops (menus and operating systems), great firmware chops (auto-focus and friends), and great hardware chops (lens and sensor performance). Not just rare: surpassingly rare. I cannot think of any company with all three. Sony has mediocre software, great firmware, and good hardware. Leica has good software, mediocre firmware, and great hardware. It is not impossible to imagine Leica closing the gap on auto-focus and the like, but those capabilities simply are not in the company’s very traditional wheelhouse. Likewise, one can imagine Sony getting its act together on its menus and doubling down on its lens-craft, but it would be a significant change, and the return on investment doesn’t seem like it would be that high, so the question would simply be, “Why?”
So: a dream camera that is fated, I think, to remain a dream. It’s too bad, because a camera with Q2 (or M10/M11) sensibilities and style married to Sony’s auto-focus system would be an unbelievably compelling piece of hardware.
In closing, now, a hard right turn — riffing on two notes from Mod and some thoughts I have had bouncing around my head for a while.
Here’s Mod writing on the M10 (in the same piece quoted above):
In the end, though, it’s an affront to all that is good in the world that Leica makes you wait in line for months to plop down such a large sum of cash for a camera body. But you have to think of the company as it is: A fairly tiny artisanal maker of highly precise yet capricious image tools; William Gibsonian to the max. Framing it as such makes the tax they exact a little less difficult to swallow. Thankfully, the machine delivers the goods, feels great in hand, and is more fun to shoot with than an iPhone.
Leica Ms are still the simplest, smallest, most optically performant full-frame cameras on the market. That’s a crazy trio: Simplest, smallest, most optically performant. Of course that’s not going to be cheap. And to boot, they’re assembled by well-paid humans in Germany. Also rare. I am happy to pay to support that.
Even with the Q2, these same points hold. A new Q2 is $5,795. Granted that that comes with the best lens I’ve ever used, full stop. Granted that it feels amazing to shoot with. Granted that as a piece of hardware is it not only functional but beautiful. Granted that the trio of size and weight and performance is best-in-class and it isn’t even close. Granted, as Mod notes, that the people who make it are well compensated. Granted: all of it. It’s still almost $6,000 for a camera with a single, fixed-focal-length lens.
Is that reasonable for them to make? Is it reasonable for me to buy? Is it ever reasonable for anyone to buy? In particular: for a Christian who is serious about the very real dangers of materialism to his soul, who would take heed of the warning that the desire to be rich is the root of all kinds of evil, who would earnestly aim to store up treasures in heaven rather than here on earth: Does it, can it, ever make sense to buy something like this, for the sheer goodness of the thing?
I have been mulling on this dynamic a lot lately.5 I have reservations (significant and serious) about the allure of expensive things, including some of those I already own, including the camera I already own. Love of this world is antithetical to love of God. Whoever would keep his life must lose it. The rich are in danger of hell if they do not give generously of what they have to the poor.
Being an incredibly well-compensated senior engineer at LinkedIn has given me occasion to mull at greater length and in greater detail on these concerns than I could have imagined half a decade ago. Money can be a gift, yet it also comes with burdens: of conscience, of time spent managing it, of temptation to use it on ourselves, of responsibility to use it wisely and well and for the good of others. In this case, it comes with the burden of considering whether, and if so when and how, it can be appropriate to spend money on something like a camera. The same concern goes, mutatis mutandis, for a watch or a car or many other such items: When is it good or right to spend money on a particularly nice thing for your own pleasure, rather than to give that money away?
An easy answer to the question is simply “It is never good or right, never buy good or nice things.” Put plainly, I think that cannot be right. If it were, there would be no room in this world for the kinds of beauty and craftwork which can only come into existence through long labors, which in turn can be afforded only through generous recompense. That simply flies in the face of what I take to be one of the chief human vocations God has given us: to sub-create.
There is no easy answer here.
Is Leica “worth it”? If you are a professional, it might well be. Those are different considerations. If you are a hobbyist, a person picking it up for the sheer love of the art, I think the question is more complicated. The question is more complicated all the way down, though, not specific to Leica or the Q2. This particular example just shows it up more clearly because it sits so strongly on the high end of both price and quality: The Leica Q2 is a phenomenal camera — and yes, Leica earns its price point.
It is not for me, though. Maybe for multiple reasons.
I’ve had similar annoyances with my iPhone cameras for years. ↩︎
There’s a reason for this: my portraiture is almost entirely of my family, immediate and extended, and therefore includes many photos of my and my siblings’ small children. Those photos are wonderful for us to have; but they aren’t especially appropriate to share to the world at large. My daughters don’t need their faces plastered all over the internet; nor do my nieces or nephews. As they get old enough to have well-formed opinions, I will ask them — as I do my wife when I post the occasional portrait of her — whether I can have their permission to share a photo from time to time. For now, though, those all stay private. ↩︎
I played with an M11 at the Leica shop in NYC back in October and it is an incredibly appealing device. I can see why people love it! ↩︎
The same is reportedly true of recent Canon and Nikon mirrorless cameras, but I have no experience with them and so cannot comment! ↩︎
I hope to come back to it in some expanded form — another essay here or in another venue. But I also might not, given my track record of essay-publishing, and this seemed a good place to air out some of these thoughts. ↩︎