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Leica Q – Impressions from a Sony RX1 Shooter

 

Over the past few years Sony has disrupted the DSLR industry with their full frame a7 mirrorless line, but the camera that started it all was the original RX1. Regular readers will know that I’m a longtime user of the Sony RX1, – I’ve written about my extensive history with the original here on the blog. Even with the excellent a7 bodies in my bag, I still prefer the concept of a compact, FF camera to have by my side for those definitive moments. Since its release in 2012, the RX1 has been labeled a modern classic – a full frame compact that you could use as your main tool without compromise. But technology moves fast and today there is competition in the space from both the Leica Q and the just released update to the RX1, the RX1RII.

Click through for thoughts on how the Q stacks up to the Sony cameras.


 

The Leica has received praise from the online community so I was curious about how it would compare to my beloved RX1. The 28mm Summilux presents a wider fov compared to the classic 35mm of the RX1 – a positive to some, negative to others. The Q has a touch screen, built-in high-resolution EVF and Leica claims one of the fastest AF systems on the market. It was all certainly enough to have me interested. At the same time, I hoped the RX1 replacement would be announced soon and sure enough, Sony revealed the RX1RII in October, sporting the potent 42mp sensor of the a7RII, 399 phase detect autofocus points, a new pop-up EVF, tilt screen and the worlds first variable optical low pass filter – quite a feature set.

 

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Finding a Leica Q to play with proved difficult but a couple weeks ago a good friend purchased Ashwin Rao’s camera and allowed me to use it to shoot the Fun Fun Fun Festival here in Austin, TX. Two days of intense shooting with the Q definitely informed my opinion on the camera.

No denying it, the Q is lovely. In comparison to the bulky, Bauhaus on steroids design of the new SL, the Q pays closer homage to the M line with classic rangefinder sensibilities. It looks and feels as if it was carved out of a solid block of aluminum with fine workmanship throughout the build. I particularly like how the thumb grip is inset into the back of the body. I received many compliments on the camera and even ran into one other shooter backstage.

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Comparatively, the RX1RII hews to the same retro aesthetic but with a more modern twist. Build quality is similar but the design adds a unique pop-up EVF and a tilt screen for a more stealthy experience on the street. There is also a direct control dial on the front for focus settings – including a continuous mode with advanced features like AF Lock (tracking) and Eye AF (eye tracking). Even with these modern features an RX1RII shooter is going to field regular questions from strangers on whether the RX is an “old film camera”.

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Initially I was surprised at how large the Q is, but it fits the hand well and isn’t so big that I wouldn’t use it in the same capacity as the RX1. The Sony is smaller and lighter (507g vs 640g), more of a jacket pocket camera. The size of the Rx1 is a major positive if you are looking to travel as light as possible with a full frame sensor. The Q actually weighs more than the original a7 with the FE 28/2 lens mounted (only 604g for that combo).

Speaking of 28mm lenses, the Summilux f/1.7 permanently mounted in front of the Q’s sensor is wonderful. The highest praise I can give it is that when I first loaded images into Lightroom I thought, “wow, they look like they came from an RX1.” Of course the RX1 sports a Zeiss Sonnar 35/2 – the fifth highest rated autofocus lens in the DXO Mark database – and many feel it to be one of the finest 35mm lenses made, but I have no doubt that if scored, the Summilux would do very well. So pick your poison, 28mm or 35mm, both are truly excellent. I’m a dyed in the wool 35mm aficionado so my choice is clear, but the Q does have a nifty digital zoom feature that lets you auto crop your images (even in RAW) to either a 35mm or 50mm fov. In typical Leica fashion, this digital zoom doesn’t result in a true magnification within the viewfinder, instead digital frame lines are overlaid in a quasi rangefinder effect. At first I thought the implementation novel, but composing at 50mm with just a small portion of the scene within the frame lines was not ideal. I would at least prefer a menu option to select whether the frame lines or a full screen zoom were activated. Keep in mind that with the plentiful pixels of the RX1RII (42mp), that camera also shares the ability to crop into longer fovs (50mm or even a 75mm), greatly expanding the usability of the fixed 35mm prime lens.

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The EVF in the Q is high resolution and comfortable to view, with little to no visible lag. There is some smearing deep in the corners but it isn’t too bad. I personally find the EVF too flat and with poor color balance compared to the Sony EVFs, which tend to have more contrast and very accurate color. I noticed that shadows often had a blue tint while highlights were yellowish. When I had a chance to try out the Leica SL with its huge EVF I noticed the very same color and contrast issues.

Where I was most impressed with the Q was in the autofocus performance category. One of my first shots of the day at Fun Fun Fun Fest was an image of a skateboarder flying up a ramp and past me. He was traveling at a high rate of speed and I had a fraction of a second to capture the moment. The Q’s AF was very quick and nailed the focus perfectly. My original RX1 could not have done the same. The a7RII with the FE 28/2 felt like it came close to matching the speed of the Q, but we don’t yet know if the RX1RII is blessed with all the same AF capabilities of its big brother. I did get a chance to try the RX1RII at Photo+ a few weeks ago and the AF seemed very speedy inside the Expo but I couldn’t test it in a wide variety of environments. As long as your subject has good contrast you can count on the Q to grab focus very quickly and accurately – we are talking faster than SLR speed in many circumstances. Having a contrast detect system, the Q will struggle a bit in low contrast scenes, but overall the focusing experience with the Q in the field was a non-issue and that is a very good thing.

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So we have established that the Q is a handsome camera with great build quality, a stellar lens, a nice EVF and exceptional autofocus capabilities. The original RX1 had only three of those five characteristics, lacking a built-in EVF and excellent autofocus, and the new RX1RII looks to have all five. A camera is worth more than the sum of its parts though and the most critical aspect of any comparison is image quality.

I’m not going to be subtle about this, the Leica Q produced files that disappointed compared to the output from my Sonys. Specifically, dynamic range was relatively anemic (Ming Thein quotes 12.5-13 stops in his detailed review of the Q) and color balance was erratic in cloudy weather. With over 14 stops of dynamic range, the Sony RX1 and a7 bodies dominate when it comes to shooting in challenging light conditions where one would desire to recover highlights or pull detail from shadows. With the Q files I simply could not recover to the same effect and it wasn’t really close. Working with the files felt like I was a generation behind – I don’t like going backwards. Was I happy with many of the Q images? Absolutely, but the overall experience of editing Q RAW files and the number of images rejected due to a lack of depth in the data was dispiriting.

I also witnessed an alarming problem with banding in some Q files. In the image below, note the horizontal banding at the top of the image over the black tarp of the stage. This photo was taken at a moderate ISO and I did not heavily edit the shadow or black levels so I can only surmise that the banding is due to the electronic shutter feature of the Q. Using silent shutter on the Sony a7 cameras will result in similar banding but with the Sonys you have the option to turn the feature on or off. On the Q, whenever your shutter speed exceeds 1/2000th of a second, the camera automatically activates the electronic shutter which enables faster speeds. There is no option to turn off this feature so if it is indeed responsible for the banding, you are stuck with it. On the RX1 and RX1RII there is no electronic shutter feature and the cameras are limited to 1/2000 when shooting wide open (1/4000 when stopped down).

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Compared to the a7RII

On day two of the festival the weather was particularly nasty so I left the Q home and packed the a7RII and the little Sony FE 28/2. That lens is sensationally sharp with great bokeh for a 28mm so I was curious to see how it would stack up against the brilliant Summilux on the Q. I have to say that I see little difference in sharpness between the two which is impressive considering the $450 price point of the Sony lens. The mix of photos in the slideshow below are from both Q and a7RII, you would have a hard time discerning which camera they came from. Go ahead try…

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After shooting over a thousand frames with the Q in a challenging environment, even with the more limited dynamic range and banding problems, I was still impressed with many of the images that the camera produced; but at the end of the day I still prefer the Sony RX1 files with their rich depth and malleability. Given the killer 35mm Zeiss Sonnar lens, the smaller size and weight, the increased resolution, more advanced AF, class leading dynamic range and lower cost, my RX1RII order is safe. Tune back for a hands-on once the camera arrives.

In the meantime, see below for more samples from the Q

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19 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review Chad! I think you have me convinced on the RX1RII. 35mm is my favorite focal length so I think once I can convince my wife to let me get it, I will do so…

    It’s too bad the Sony doesn’t have the touchscreen like the Q. But, after sticking it out with Canon for so long, and then experiencing the flexibility of Sony RAW files when it comes to dynamic range, I don’t think I could go to a Q.

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    1. Hah, I didn’t even think about the Q’s touchscreen! I would much rather have the tilt screen.

      And yes, we are completely spoiled by the dynamic range of these cameras. I immediately noticed the disparity in the Q files. I just can’t accept dealing with less dynamic range when the goal is to have the full 15 stops of film (maybe more?).

      If image quality is paramount over the speed of the AF and price is an issue, I would suggest a lightly used RX1R. The cameras are considered classics for a reason…

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  2. Hey Chad, great insight! I’m actually debating the Q and Rx1rII myself and was wondering about your experience shooting the RX1. Is it a major drawback to shoot wide open at f2.0 with a max 1/2000 shutter … as in … have you had many instances where you needed to take an ND filter with you?

    Thanks again,
    Emil

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    1. Hi Emil,
      Candidly, the 1/2000 shutter speed is the greatest weakness of the RX1 cameras. However, it is generally offset by the incredible dynamic range and ability to recover highlights. So I routinely will overexpose at 1/2000 and just recover. I do also use an ND filter on occasion and don’t find it a hassle. I would be more nervous with shooting the Q and getting that nasty banding when I least expected it. RX1RII all the way!

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  3. thank you Chad – i have always regretted selling my RX1 for the A7 – question on VSCO presets: which packs do you find as the most useful starting points for editing your images (they are terrific, BTW)

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    1. you are welcome and thank you! I actually use the most generic of presets as my base – Fuji 400H

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  4. Not even remotely interested with the Q. The RX1RII? Now you’re talking…

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  5. […] (part one) by Drasko Stojadinovic. Comparing my experience with the Leica Q to my Sony cameras (Chad Wadsworth). Pigeon Force by Craig Litten. A7RII, Foo Fighters and live concert by Alessandro De Vito on […]

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  6. h my goodness! an amazing article dude. Thanks However I am experiencing matter with ur rss.
    Don’t know why Struggling To subscribe to it. Is there anyone receiving equivalent rss problem?
    Anyone who knows kindly answer.Thanks

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  7. I currently own the Sony rx 1rII for about a week and have not been as impressed with it as I was hoping. It’s autofocus is still not impressive compared to the a7 II. It’s auto white balance is also crap if you want to quickly download a photo from your camera to phone and post or send. Luckily my local camera shop was friendly enough to loan me their q for a few hours. The q was much more responsive, much better autofocus and drastically better white balance and jpegs for quick posting. Looking at raw imagines latter I did notice their is less dynamic range. About a full stop but looking at printed images everyone agreed the Leica has a distinc color and much more pop of certain colors. Giving the photos a much more interesting look, the Sony certainly has more data available to play with if your a pixel peeper but on paper most people liked the Leica shots better. The Sony will remain in my closest once my Leica arrives but I’ll keep the Sony for now. Sony downfalls are poor autofocus with too many missed shots, would rather the camera struggle to focus than take the shot completely out of focus. Second the high megapixels in low light show too much blur, smearing and grain. Third color rendition from Sony is poor in jpeg and in camera conversion for quick posts is useless. Fourth the pop up evf is great in use but gets in the way in use and feels like it might get snapped off if left in up position but constant opening it requires putting on and off its guard since I’m a glasses wearer. While the leica main downfall was its lower dynamic range but proved to be less of an issue in print, Leica images were sharper at edges than Sonys but Sonys high megapixel might have hurt it there unless your using a tripod on a travel camera. Good luck both are great cameras but I liked the usability of the Leica better and the quick posting ability of the Leica verse the very bland Sony jpeg. Sony jpeg actually have 1.5 stops less dynamic range from Leica even though the Sony raw has 1 stop to 1.2 stops better range here. Not sure what happened to Sony in camera conversion but it’s awful, dropping 2.5-3 stops from raw to jpeg in camera, verse a .5-1 stop drop for the Leica. Good luck they are both built well and have amazing lenses, one just works better for my uses.

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    1. Hey Peter, thanks for the detailed comment. Your views reflect why I always recommend hands on with a camera before purchase. With the great online rental houses or perhaps local rental, there is no reason to skip a tryout before laying down hard cash for these expensive niche cameras. Your needs (quality JPEG conversion) are not even on my radar but you needed to try the Q to learn it was more suited to your style of shooting.

      I just finished up a week with the RX1RII in Iceland and will be posting on the experience soon. All I will say at this time is that the results were stunning.

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      1. Did you find the autofocus on the Sony to focus on the right area for most shots? This drove me up the wall since the Sony did not hesitate to take the shot but looking at them later I realized a great number of them were not focused on the people in the photo but some random item or just missed focus all together. Also noticed the zeiss lens appears not as sharp and much more distortion (still easily correctable in Photoshop) when it has 42 megapizels verse 24 to capture. The Leica lens I would presume would respond similarly if the megapizels were pushed up to the same. Had the same issue with many lens on my d800e, d810, lens were great with 16 megapixels than just ok with 36. Can’t wait to see your photos with the Sony, thanks, going to hold onto the Sony and hope they put out an update on the jpegs some time soon or a better in camera conversion to jpeg.

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  8. I enjoyed the banter and opposing opinions, but I’m still confused in deciding whether RX II, or the Leica Q is the better choice. My subject matter being nature photography, (landscapes, wildlife,etc). I do have a full DSLR system,and wish to supplement it with a quality compact. I do not shoot people, and tend to favour the 28mm lens, any advise ? Noel.

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    1. Noel, yours is actually one of the easier advisements, even with your preference for 28mm. The RX1RII is just too good for landscapes – the high resolution sensor, extra dynamic range and the Zeiss Sonnar are a killer combination. See my Iceland Travelogue for some examples. I did some handheld 160mp panoramics that have insane levels of detail – really mind blowing.

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  9. Hi Chad, really great shots!
    I believe that the “banding” you see is due to the fact that the wavelengths from the LED stage lights doesn’t sync with the electronic shutter. If you look at the singer’s black t-shirt and his black hair there is no trace of banding, because he is mostly lit by the daylight from the front. Also the “banding” only occurs where the smoke is hit by the LED stage lights not on the backdrop not lit by them. You’ll experience the same phenomena if you shoot video lit with the same typ of LED lights. Then it will manifest itself as flickering and to avoid it you have to lower the shutter speed to around 1/30th of a second or lower, for video. So it’s not the Leica Q nor its sensor that causes the problem. It’s the LED stage lights in combination with the electronic shutter that are the problem in this case. If they had used other kind of stage lights you wouldn’t have experienced this. Using an ND filter (or smaller aperture) and only the mechanical shutter would also have eliminated the problem. Again, great shots with lots of feeling!

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    1. Thanks Jan. Yes, I believe this is exactly what I said in the article. You see the same issue with other cameras using electronic shutter. The Rx1 and RX1RII don’t have an electronic shutter so thus, no opportunity for this type of banding.

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      1. Ok, maybe I miss understood, but you wrote: “I did not heavily edit the shadow or the black levels” why I assumed you thought that the banding had something to do with the darker areas of the image (which I have seen others report on).
        And since no banding was to be seen in any dark areas not lit by the LED lights I thought I could shine a light on the real problem being the LEDs and not the electronic shutter per see… Keep up the good work. :o)

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      2. Jan, I attributed the banding in the article to the electronic shutter – the fact is, the electronic shutter is the issue, not the lights, as a mechanical shutter has no problem with LEDs and banding.

        “I can only surmise that the banding is due to the electronic shutter feature of the Q. Using silent shutter on the Sony a7 cameras will result in similar banding but with the Sonys you have the option to turn the feature on or off. On the Q, whenever your shutter speed exceeds 1/2000th of a second, the camera automatically activates the electronic shutter which enables faster speeds. There is no option to turn off this feature so if it is indeed responsible for the banding, you are stuck with it. On the RX1 and RX1RII there is no electronic shutter feature and the cameras are limited to 1/2000 when shooting wide open (1/4000 when stopped down).”

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  10. Chad, but the LEDs are to blame too, since there is no banding where there is no LED light illuminating the scene. Let’s just compromise and say that LED lights and electronic shutters don’t work well together… ;o)

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