Leica Launches Leica T (Typ 701) Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera System (Hands-On Review)

Posted by on Thursday April 24, 2014 | Camera

Venerable German camera manufacturer Leica entered the modern world of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras this morning by introducing the new 16-megapixel Leica T (Typ 701) system. We got to test out an early production unit of the Leica T, which is being touted as much for its unique design as for its picture-taking skills.

The Leica T was developed in collaboration with German car manufacturer Audi — the two companies worked together on the Leica M9 Titanium model four years ago — and features a striking, aluminum, unibody design, not unlike a Macbook Pro laptop from Apple. (Leica is not shy of this comparison, either.) Like many Apple products, the Leica T has a Spartan control set, with just two dials, a shutter and a video button, and a large 3.7-inch touchscreen on back.

Inside, the Leica T is equipped with 16MP, APS-C-size, CMOS sensor, similar to what you’d find in competing, prosumer mirrorless cameras and digital SLRs. So, while the Leica T isn’t really aimed at pro photographers as a first-choice camera option for serious assignments, the company is clearly hoping it will find a place in Leica lovers’ bags, perhaps next to their M9 digital rangefinder or Leica S medium-format camera.

Street Shooter
After a few days of testing out the snazzy and compact Leica T, I actually found it to be quite a good camera for street photography, with a responsive but sublimely quiet shutter that makes it a solid alternative to Leica M rangefinders. And at just under $2,000 for the Leica T camera body, it’s approximately $5,000 less than a full-frame Leica M9 digital rangefinder.

The camera is being offered with two new lenses for Leica’s mirrorless system: the Vario-Elmar-T 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH  (which converts to a 28-85mm lens because of the APS-C sensor’s magnifying “crop factor”), and Summicron-T 23mm f/2 ASPH lens (35mm equivalent), each of which will sell for $1,700-1,800. The Leica T set-up I tested included the 18-56mm lens, a versatile if not exactly exceptional, compact zoom.

Leica says more lenses are in the pipeline for the T system, including 55-135mm and 11-23mm zooms, which will be coming out around the time of the photokina show in Germany this September. While the Leica T is manufactured in Germany, the new lenses are produced in Japan under Leica’s supervision. (In the past, some of Leica’s compact cameras were manufactured by Panasonic in Japan under Leica’s watch, and one would suspect the same is the case with the new T-series lenses but we could not confirm it.)

For those photographers with a stash of Leica M-series lenses, the company is also selling the Leica M-Adapter T (approximately $300) that will let you use your rangefinder-glass with the Leica T. (Leica did not have final pricing at the time of this story for the lenses and adapter.)

As is typical in the Internet age, a great deal about the Leica T system has leaked out ahead of this morning’s official launch, including basic specs and some images, but since PDN had the unique opportunity to actually test the camera out in the wild, let’s jump in and tell you what we thought.

You can also scroll further down to see some sample images we shot with the Leica T (Typ 701) and Vario-Elmar-T 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. (Editor’s note: Aside from some cropping, our Leica T sample shots have not been edited or enhanced. They are, in effect, “straight out of the camera.” See full resolution versions of our sample images HERE.)

Hands-On Test with the Leica T camera system
The Leica T comes in two flavors: silver or black. The silver model, which we tested out, will go on sale at the end of May 2014, and the black model will ship three months later. Leica also gave me some hands-on time with a black Leica T, but I preferred the style of the silver version, because it gave me a better sense of the aluminum, unibody construction.

Leica is making a big deal about this aspect of the Leica T, with many promotional images showing the Leica T and the block of aluminum that it was built from. The company is even sharing a 45-minute video showing the camera’s one-piece unibody being laboriously sculpted and polished from aluminum at a factory in Germany.  (And yes, I’m sure there are some obsessive Leica fans who will watch the video to the end.)

The Leica T looks quite elegant and feels comfortable and solid in the hand. Dimensions are 5.2 x 2.7 x 1.2 inches (134 x 69 x 33 mm) and weight is 13.5 ounces (384 g), so it’s relatively svelte but doesn’t feel flimsy like some competing mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras. And, considering its aluminum build, the Leica T doesn’t feel cheap and plastic-y like some competitors either.

In some ways, the Leica T is the camera Leica fans may have been hoping for when the Leica X Vario launched last year. That compact camera resembles a Leica M rangefinder but features a non-removable 28-70mm (equivalent) zoom lens. Some had expected Leica to release a mirrorless “Mini M” with interchangeable lenses, and while the Leica T doesn’t look quite like that, it fits the bill in other ways.

The Leica T is nicely balanced and its handgrip is comfortable to hold for long periods of time. I walked all over my neighborhood in upper Manhattan, discreetly shooting test shots with the camera, and never felt weighed down. Along with its unique design, the Leica T has several minimal but stylish accessories including a rubberized, silicon camera strap (included) that cleverly clips on to the camera body, so there’s no fussing with threading it through tiny eyelets, as is the case with most cameras.

There are also optional silicon camera jackets, in multiple colors, to protect the Leica T’s camera body and its rear LCD display. There are leather half-jackets for the Leica T available as well. A tilting Leica Visoflex electronic viewfinder (EVF) goes on top of the camera, if you don’t want to compose images using the rear screen. I found the Visoflex EVF (approximately $650) to be a decent tool to use when shooting photos outdoors in bright sunlight when the rear screen would wash out. But as with most EVFs, it had some downsides.

Along with the coarse, digital read-out on the EVF that made it hard to judge detail in shadow areas of images, the proximity sensor that automatically turns the EVF on when you put your eye to it, was a step slow. This caused me to look at a second of blackness rather than the subject I was shooting, which made me miss capturing some choice moments.

While I admired the user-friendly design of the Leica T, I had a few quibbles. For one, the battery compartment release feature on the model I tested had problems. A side-swing latch at the bottom of the camera released the battery, but it didn’t come out all the way and I had to shake the camera to free it completely. Also, there was a way to accidentally put the battery in partially the wrong way so it would get stuck.

On the other hand, I liked the minimal layout of the camera, which did give it an Apple-like simplicity. The hidden, oval-shaped pop-up flash was a nice touch as were the subtle but useful, recessed control wheels.

Most of the adjustments on the camera are made via the 3.7-inch touchscreen, and it’s a good one. It has 1.3-million pixels of resolution and receptive touch capacity and functionality. While it’s not exactly on par with the responsiveness you’d get from an iPhone, I had no trouble touching my way through the menu system, which you can customize to put the functions you use most front and center.

One touch control I had to ask Leica for help on — I was not given a manual with the test camera I received — was how to play back images and videos. That’s done by swiping down on the rear screen of the camera with your finger, which while it wasn’t exactly intuitive, was effective. Finger swipe scrolling through images and pinching and enlarging them was relatively fast and efficient as well.

The Leica T’s touch controls also extend to focusing and there are ways to focus track subjects just by touching them on the screen for both still and video recording. The camera can shoot full 1080p HD video at 30fps, and there’s a built-in stereo microphone on top. To start recording a video, just touch the small, recessed video button on top and you’re rolling with HD.

If you want to share your images and videos wirelessly — it’s what all the kids are doing these days! — the Leica T has built-in wireless connectivity and there’s a new app in the iTunes app store that lets you remotely control the camera without cords.

Performance & Image Quality
The Leica T was not the fastest camera I’ve ever used — nor even the fastest mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera I’ve tried — but it was quiet, inconspicuous and got the job done. As mentioned, I used the the camera to shoot cityscapes and street scenes in my neighborhood and I drew very little attention as I stealthily snapped away. I then handed the camera off to my frequent co-testing partner, photographer Jordan Matter, and he used the Leica T to shoot portraits. You can see a handful of our test images at the bottom of this story. (Full resolution versions of the images can be seen HERE.)

The Leica T uses a contrast-detection based autofocus system and like most similar AF systems, it had trouble locking in on fast action. Matter frequently photographs dancers, athletes and performers and, as part of the test, he tried to capture an aerobics instructor doing a headstand but the camera had trouble getting sharp results of the set up for the pose.

For straight-on portraits, however, the Leica T performed fine. Either way, the camera, which can shoot at up to five frames per second in continuous burst mode, was a much faster performer than Leica’s manually-inclined M-series rangefinders.

Leica_T_Ur-LeicaImage results from the camera, which was an early production unit with updated firmware, were good if not great. Colors were a bit to muted for my taste and there was a flat quality to some of the photos. Part of this was due to the mixed lighting conditions, resulting from Spring weather that was, at times, overcast. Also, the Vario-Elmar-T 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH wasn’t particularly sharp, and the slow-ish maximum aperture of f/3.5 had trouble completely blurring out the background for portraits. (I suspect the Summicron-T 23mm f/2 ASPH lens will be much better for this.)

In some of Matter’s portraits, skin tones looked on the grey side, particularly ones that he shot indoors in a coffee shop. As a side note, the coffee shop is a location that Matter frequently uses to shoot headshots in and he’s often at odds with the cafe’s ownership who don’t always appreciate him unleashing his big Nikon D3S in their store. With the small and virtually silent Leica T in his hand, however, they hardly noticed him.

Final Thoughts
Leica has taken a decidedly modern turn with its new Leica T (Typ 701) mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera and we like the results. This is a classy looking camera with some well considered design choices, not the least of which is its unique, aluminum, unibody design, that recalls Apple’s Macbook Pro laptop computers. (The Leica T’s $2,000 price tag also puts it in line with some of those fully loaded laptops.)

We appreciated the simplicity of the Leica T, with its minimal control layout and attractive curving lines, proving that form can follow function. The large 3.7-inch touchscreen on back was also a nice feature, and it almost as easy to use as an iPhone for changing settings and scrolling through images.

If the Leica T wasn’t as fast a performer and if our early test images didn’t produce image quality that would rival a decent DSLR, this camera is a very well designed photographic tool that makes shooting photos stealthy and fun. While we wouldn’t recommend it for all pros, any photographer who appreciates Leica’s storied camera craftsmanship, should take this metal marvel for a spin.

Leica T (Typ 701) and Vario-Elmar-T 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH Sample Photos (Aside from some cropping, our Leica T sample shots have not been edited, sharpened or enhanced. See full resolution versions of the below images HERE.)







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