Friday, April 25, 2014

Leica T Type 701 Launch Review: Hands on First Impressions

Leica T Type 701

Leica, the company, is about superlatives. To some people, Leica is all about being the very best in lenses, but in truth, the brand is no longer merely about photography. It has solidly crossed over into the luxury goods market, sometimes unashamedly so. This is a different commercial space with a different clientele, but luxury only goes so far in the consumer electronics space without credibility or distinction to back up the premium pretensions. Leica has built up the bottom end of their business with "affordable luxury" compacts and the X1/X2 and X-Vario cameras, but the problem with this portion of the market is that products quickly show their age, no matter how beautifully they are crafted. To that end, the Leica T does an end run around the issue of whether or not it is distinctively better than other cameras by being conspicuously distinct in design.

Body and Design


If you've had a chance to play with the growing number of mirrorless cameras, the first thing that jumps out at you is how much the Leica T resembles a Samsung camera like the NX-300. However, both cameras are playing against type; the NX-300 has a faux-leather wrap that apes the traditional Leica look, whereas the Leica T is ostensibly looking forward into the future. The body is strikingly modern; were it not for the red dot, this could easily have been a design that Apple could have come up with. There is very little in the way of physical intrusions that break up the monobloc form of the camera; on the top there is the shutter/power switch, two control dials and the pop-up flash housing, plus a movie recording button. That's it. The front of the camera is dominated by the expanse of satin-finished aluminum that makes up the grip area, where as the back of the camera is one large(ish) 3.7" LCD touch screen. There are ports (SD card slot, micro-USB) hidden in a compartment on the right-side of the camera, but an annoying omission is the lack of HDMI. The access flap on the right side of the camera is black plastic to match the black bezel of the LCD screen, but it stands out as a island of cost cutting in a seas of "expensive." Another area of cost cutting that is not so apparent is the pop-up flash; the mechanism is built into the power/shutter assembly. Tugging all the way back on the lever releases the flash, which is a simple black plastic stalk. The design of the flash itself seems extremely space-inefficient, but the way that it is executed is a design statement in itself; the problem is that the statement isn't carried all the way through by matching the material of the flash assembly to the entirety of the camera shell. However, in a fit of forethought, Leica made sure that the flash can be deployed even if the optional EVF is attached.

The flash pops straight up when the on/off lever is pulled all the way back.

In your hands, the Leica T is larger and heavier than your typical mirrorless camera, as is befitting something that was literally carved from a single block of metal. Unlike typical cameras where the shell is assembled from multiple stamped pieces, the Leica T body is one contiguous aluminum structure CNC-milled to size. This makes the camera chassis extremely rugged, as there are no seams where the shell could bend or flex. This is overkill as far as metal fabrication processes go; most parts that need to be milled in this way either have to be durable and/or need to be built to very close tolerances... much more so than even the most rugged professional cameras. As to why Leica chose to do it this way... the only reasonable answer that makes sense would be "Why not?"


The over-engineering extends to how the battery is incorporated into the camera body. The bottom of the battery is a metallic panel that is the same silver colour as the camera body, and which sits flush with the bottom plate. Pulling the deployment lever once releases the battery, which doesn't immediately come out. Tapping the battery inward then releases it from the chamber. It's elegant in that it does away with the traditional battery compartment flap, making the chamber smaller and a more mechanically simple affair, but it does raise the specter of how expensive the Leica T's batteries will be now that part of the camera shell is incorporated into their construction.



The control wheels seem too small  proportionally compared to the rest of the body, but they at least give good tactile feedback by turning with a measured (but not excessive) amount of resistance. The dials have a soft click to them when you turn them, but in all honesty, the Sony NEX-7 did the double dial layout first and did it better. In full manual exposure, the left dial controls aperture and the right controls the shutter speed.


The touch screen menu is extensive and at first glance, quite well thought out. Would you have expected differently? Some would have... software and programming are not easily done at smaller companies where it's not the primary focus. A good example is Nikon; though their camera interfaces are clear, they are technically unambitious, and in every area where Nikon has stepped outside the confines of traditional camera control... touch interfaces, mobile apps, standalone software... the results have been mixed to put it charitably. However, as readable as they are, the Leica T's interface isn't as innovative as what you would find in the latest iteration of Android or iOS; despite the large expanse of glass, the menu structure is still decidedly camera-like rather than full-on mimicking what is going on in the smart device arena.



There is a light sensor at the top of the LCD display that measures the ambient light conditions for automatic brightness adjustment; depending on how you use the camera, this is a useful feature or bit of a distraction. In practice, the LCD display does adjust appropriately with ambient light conditions, but this can be a bit confusing if you don't have the histogram turned on, as the varying brightness can occasionally be confusing if you are eyeballing your exposure. 

Because modern photography is as much about specs and numbers as it is about taking pictures, the sensor choice is sure to be a bone of contention for the Leica doubters. It's the same 16mp APS-C part that is used in the X2 and the X-Vario, as well as in various Nikon, Sony and Pentax cameras. Unlike the Sony NEX-6, it does not have the added benefit of phase-detection elements. This is a proven sensor, and even though the state of the art for APS-C is now 24mp, 16mp is a more appropriate pixel count for the typical user. The problem with today's ultra-high resolution sensors is that they are less forgiving to flaws in user technique; to that end, it makes no sense to market a Leica camera with excellent optics to a non-enthusiast crowd that may not have the experience to take advantage of that. To that end, 16mp is still good enough for the Leica. Nevermind the fact that their cameras are far less expensive, 16mp is also still good enough for Fujifilm. However, this does highlight an uncomfortable fact: this sensor has been in production for so long that it has long since realized all the benefits of production scale; if anything, it's inclusion should make for a cheaper Leica... but we all know that isn't going to happen.

Accessories


As is common for Leica nowadays, the camera is at the core of a constellation of accessories. Probably the first accessory that prospective buyers will be looking at will be T-Protector/T-Holster case/covers which come in a number of different colours. Because of their austere flat-front designs, most Leicas are not as comfortable to hold as cameras with built in grips, and the Leica T is doubly so because there is only polished metal to grab onto. It's not slippery and hard to hold on to, but if you truly wanted to make a camera that was the best at being able to hold on to, this would not be it. Hence, the Leica T covers serve two purposes:  the first is to establish the traditional revenue stream for grips and accessories that the other Leica cameras currently have. The second is to function as an extension of Leica's à la carte program for the Type 701. Some variants of the X and M cameras can be customized with different finishes and leathers, but the Leica T being a solid block of metal is not readily amenable to the same program. Hence, the potential for a steady business in custom half/full cases and covers. The downside to this approach is that it's all to easy for a third party to step in, whereas you can only get a factory customized à la carte camera from Leica themselves.

A useful accessory is the Visoflex (Typ 020) EVF, which includes a GPS receiver. This unit has a higher resolution than that used by the M Type 240 (2.36M dots versus 1.4M), and probably to the consternation of M users, is not compatible with the M240.

The view through the Visioflex EVF

Speaking of the M system, a M-to-T adapter was announced at launch, and is designed to read the coding on modern M lenses for optical corrections. In an unfortunate case of system-lock-in, the Leica T cannot be shot without a lens attached, meaning that the camera would need more than just a simple mechanical adapter to use with non-Leica lenses. (In fact, this raises the question of whether the T would be able to work with older non-coded M lenses). Update: Follow this thread and this  thread; apparently the T adapter does work with non-coded M lenses; the camera won't fire if a lens isn't detected, but it will fire if it detects the M-to-T adapter on it. So apparently, it's possible to put the R-to-M adapter onto the M-to-T adapter and use R lenses... or for that matter a Nikon F to Leica M adapter onto the T adapter. The likelihood of anybody doing so for an extended period of time is probably low.

In another obvious case of attempted system-lock in, the camera uses a non-standard way of attaching its proprietary straps. The end result is that the sides of the camera appear especially sleek because of the lack of strap lugs, but attaching the Leica T's straps requires the use of a special tool reminiscent of a microSIM tray extractor for a smartphone.


Lenses


Lenses are where the Leica T`s price really begins to climb. The initial MSRP is close to $2000 USD, but that is without  lenses. In comparison, the X2 with a fixed 35mm equivalent fé2.8 lens is not much more. In typical Leica tradition, the T`s lenses are expensive and (on paper at the very least) optically excellent. Because the initial lens offerings aren't chasing after large maximum apertures, they are small and compact in size. The build quality is not up to the levels of the M lenses, but they are instantly recognizable as Leica glass by their design and the markings. Unfortunately, that's where the resemblance ends. The focus rings are focus-by-wire, and like the zoom rooms of these lens, the turning resistance feels sub-par compared to the best of what is available today, notably from the Sigma Art lenses. Like the Sigma lenses, the Leica T-mount lenses are made with plastic/composite shells, but unlike the Sigma ART series, the Leica material does not give off a metallic quality. In all honesty, the initial batch of T-series lenses are a disappointment in comparison to the jewel-like M lenses... apples to oranges of course, but a letdown nonetheless.

In all likelihood, the majority of Leica T owners will chose the Vario-Elmar-T 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6, which retails for over $1,700 USD. This is extraordinarily expensive for a lens that gives the same focal length and aperture range as a plebeian  entry-level DSLR kit lens, and is even more expensive when you account for the fact that neither the lenses nor the Leica T body has any form of image stabilization. (There is an electronic stabilization option in the menu, as with the X-Vario. Avoid.) However, if the Leica T follows in the path set by the X-Vario, the underwhelming lens specifications will likely be made up for by gains in sharpness and contrast. The Vario-Elmar-T 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 is listed with 4 aspherical surfaces; though it isn`t clear from the literature, this appears to mean two double-sided aspherical elements rather than 4 separate lens elements.

The more interesting choice is the Summicron-T 23mm f/2 ASPH. Other than the slow aperture, the zoom lens option basically turns the Leica T into something that already exists, namely the X-Vario. However, the 23mm f/2 option creates something that doesn't currently exist in the Leica lineup, as it moves the Leica T one full stop brighter than the X2.


Leica Summicron-T 23mm f/2 ASPH

The Leica T lenses are made in Japan, unlike the M system. There's a very simple reason for why that is: there simply isn't capacity in Leica's European facilities to build out a brand new lens-mount system. The source of the lenses is a bit of a mystery at the time of the launch. According to Michael Reichmann of Luminous-Landscape, the lens manufacturing is neither by Leica's long-time partner Panasonic, nor is it by Cosina, who also do OEM work for Carl Zeiss. Curious.
 

Concluding Thoughts


This is a distinctive camera that, cost notwithstanding, is well executed. Touchscreen interfaces aren't usually done well in the camera world, so it comes as a surprise to see such a small company like Leica so thoroughly embrace the concept. It's tempting to think of this as Leica's version  "Apple iCamera", but the design language is not completely unheard of from Leica. Even though the M and X cameras trade on the company's heritage, the S system is very forward looking in it's minimalist design; the T system is now another such camera that isn't solely resting on the legacy of Henri Cartier-Bresson. The clean minimalist design language echoes the clean lines of another famous German brand, Braun. 

There are better photographic choices that you could have instead of the Leica T. (The full frame Sony A7 with Zeiss 35mm prime for a similar amount of money or a Fujifilm X-camera for less.) Regardless, to see the merits of the Leica solely in technical terms is to ignore why the brand is flourishing at a time when the rest of the camera industry is stagnating. The Leica T: a rich person's camera, but with the virtue of being genuinely interesting rather than merely ostentatious.



Based on a pre-production unit. The hardware is set, but firmware is not finalized.
With thanks to Broadway Camera

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