Learning the Leica Q

I’m on the road with my Leica Q. It’s still new to me.  I’m learning how to best configure it and maximize the tech on offer. This camera makes it so easy to leave everything on Auto the entire time you almost don’t feel like you need to learn much more. It’s by the far the most capable point-and-shoot I’ve ever owned, however it’s not a point and shoot. It’s not a fully manual camera like my Nikon D810, either. With the D810, to get the best shot I always like to control everything, from ISO, Aperture and Shutter.

The Q fits somewhere in the middle. That’s kind of the point why I purchased it in the first place. Last year I took my Sony RX100 on a 800km hike through Spain and onwards to Africa to see the Gorillas. It performed well, but lacked the quality I really want, especially in low light, or broad contrast ranges. When you have to carry everything on your back for a month, hiking 30km a day, I simply couldn’t justify the weight of my beloved D810.

Early morning along the Camino de Santiago. The RX100, under perfect conditions is great, but with challenging highlights, and mid shadows, the quality just isn't enough for me.

 What I’ve learned so far

Aperture

The lens on this camera, 28mm fixed, is gorgeous. I’m comfortable shooting with a fixed lens as the 40mm Nikkor has been my go-to lens for years. The 28mm is wide on the Leica Q is probably too wide for street photography in my opinion. You can auto crop to 35mm or 50mm in camera, but I don’t really see the need yet. It’s a digital crop you could easily do post processing and still have the original 28mm shot. I haven’t experimented with the in camera crop yet. It’s too early to report much on this. With 24megapixel, cropping isn’t going to be problem. I’d prefer too wide and the ability to crop rather than a focal length that is too narrow. It’s a trade-off.

Aside from focal length, the lens is fast! Wide open at f1.7 is not something I would typically shoot with. With the Nikkor, shooting wide open at f1.8 produces such a shallow depth of field I struggle to get everything that I want in focus. Initially, I was skeptical of shooting the Leica wide open, but it performs beautifully. Perhaps this is part of the reason why Leica chose the 28mm focal length. The camera does a marvelous job of blending a sharp foreground and soft bokeh of the background Whatever it is, shooting wide open on the Leica Q is a treat.

Cherry Blossoms ISO 100 f1.7

Even at f1.7, the gradual blurring of the foreground and background is smooth and pleasing. If you look at the yellow bike, and then the blue bike in this picture below, you can see where the depth of field is transitioning to the blurred bokeh. For f1.7, there is still a lot of sweet spot for tack-sharp foregrounds. Most of the silver bike in the foreground is beautifully rendered. And, oh those Leica colors!

Bikes shot at ISO 100, f1.7

When in the auto setting for Aperture, the Q likes to shoot at 1.7. As the pictures above demonstrate, it does an amazingly good job at it. After a while however, I started to manually set the aperture using the aperture ring on the lens. In auto model, I  found that, even in bright light, the Q would set itself to 1.7 leaving the shots a little washed out. By switching the aperture to manual, gave me a little more control, and also enabled the thumb dial where I could adjust exposure stops.

Even in bright conditions, the Q likes to default to f1.7 resulting in slightly washed out colors. (Note: I adjusted the saturation and contrast in jpeg settings in the camera, which may explain some of this. All photos in this piece are unedited jpegs directly from the camera. Once I get home I can play with the DNG files and see what spread there is)

 

Shutter Speed

I’m still getting used to the shutter speed settings on the Q. My natural instinct is to adjust shutter speed using the top dial. The physical location of the shutter speed dial, directly on top of the camera, doesn’t make it as erganomic as on the Nikon to change. Thankfully though, I have found the best setting is to leave it in auto and adjust exposure stops via the thumb dial instead. Mix this with the ability to set min/max shutter speed in the system menu and you never miss a shot because of blur or camera shake.  I’ve set my min shutter speed to 1/125 to ensure that I always get sharp photos.

Even in lower light settings, auto shutter speeds work fantastically.

ISO

Take it out of auto mode immediately. The camera loves to crank up the ISO to usually high settings, even in bright conditions. To it’s credit, the Q handles high ISO very well, however, you are much better off setting and forgetting the ISO. I have pushed conditions much yet, having only really shot in daylight and some mid-low light conditions and set my ISO at 100. Even at a low ISO, thanks to the ease at which the lens handles f1.7, the Q is incredibly capable. Just look at the photo below. This was shot in a dark hotel lobby at ISO100 / f1.7. When I switched to auto ISO, the Q wanted to shoot at 3200!

Beautiful low light shots can be achieved with manual ISO, manual aperture, and auto shutter settings. This photo was shot with ISO 100, f1.7 aperture and auto shutter settings. Even in the low light, it is tack-sharp.

Travel Tricks

The Leica Q is a mirrorless camera. It’s much smaller than my Nikon D810, that’s for sure, but it’s not what I’d call a compact camera. Unlike some of the other comparable mirrorless cameras, it really doesn’t fit in your pocket, especially if you have the lens hood on. With that said, it’s more than half the weight of my Nikon, which comes in at a whopping 5.7lbs with the 40mm fixed Nikkor lens. Size and weight matter a lot when you are hiking. For what I am getting with the Q, I’m ok with it. Hey, after all, it has a full frame sensor shoved inside its magnesium and aluminum body!

It’s disappointing that I can’t charge the battery via a USB cable connected to the cable. I’m hoping a future firmware update supports this. For now, I have to carry the battery charger. My advice, leave the overly long power cable at home though and save a few ounces by repurposing your laptop power adapter for true MacGyver style charging.

The wifi capability has really come in handy. Make sure that you set the camera to shoot DNG + JPEG as the wifi transfer to your phone only supports transfer JPEG. This makes sense due to the size of the DNG files, but it took me a while to work out why I couldn’t see any photos to transfer. I could never get the backup setting to show any files. I had to use the remote camera setting for the app on the phone to connect and show me photos to transfer. It would have been nice to have an app for my Macbook too. Right now I have to transfer the photos to my phone, then send them to my laptop as a attachments to an iMessage. It works, but is kind of a pain.

Part of the pain is my fault. I travel with a Macbook, which frustratingly doesn’t provide a USB port. I can’t even plug my iPhone in without a separate adapter that, when going on a long hike, is one of the first things that gets the cut when I am shaving weight. (Unfortunately I have to bring the laptop as I often work on the road). The wifi transfer saves one cable that I have to bring, however, if the Q supported USB charging, I’d be bringing a USB cable anyway, so it’s kind of a wash.  At least with the wifi capability, I can transfer jpegs whilst on the road to share.

Speaking of JPEGs, I’m still experimenting with in-camera JPEG settings. I always leave quality as high as possible (SD cards are cheap these days), and have set contrast and saturation to Low, and sharpness to Mid-High. I found the default contrast and saturation of Medium had a little too much pop for my taste. The JPEGs will be used for on-the-road sharing, so it’s not a big deal, and a quick change of the settings leaves me with photos of quality easily outstripping those of the DNG files from my RX100, and far superior to my iPhone 7. All of the photos in this article are unedited JPEGs directly out of the camera. If that doesn’t convince you how good the JPEG quality of the Leica Q is, the photos below gives a great comparison of iPhone 7 photo quality.

Generally I am pretty impressed with the quality of iPhone7 photos, however, bright lights, or dark shadows really show it's weaknesses. This photo, shot on the iPhone7 highlights (no pun intended) that well.

 

Compare the same shot, cropped after transferring to the iPhone, from the Leica Q, and the differences are immediately apparent. The Leica colors and contrasts are so vastly superior. Of course, the Leica costs a hell of a lot more, and can't make phone calls 😉

Summary

It takes time to learn all the nuances of a new camera, the Leica Q is no different. It’s a beautiful camera that creates exceptional photos, even when left in full auto mode. I’m still experimenting with the exact settings that suit my style. So many of the auto settings are just fantastic. The auto focus (after setting to back button focus) for example is lightning quick, but like many settings on the Leica, everything is just that much better with a little manual tweaking.  The best thing about the Leica Q is just how much fun it make learning these settings. The camera is a pure joy to shoot with.