In March 2018 my wife and I headed off to San Francisco. She planned to eat her way around the city's restaurants and cafés, I planned to shoot photos, visit the Peak Design flagship store and sneak into the Leica dealer! But before we set off I faced the all too familiar photographer conundrum: which gear should I bring?
I have approached travel gear selection the same way for years: one camera and 2 or 3 prime lenses. The overwhelming majority of my work is shot on the Sony A9 and although its body is compact some of my favourite e-mount primes are not (I'm looking at you FE 35/1.4!). The weight of glass alone can be bothersome on prolonged trips. Despite this, I could never bring myself to travel any more minimalist for fear of missing 'the shot'. Until now.
For San Francisco I decided to set myself a challenge: ditch the Sony gear and pack only the Leica Q.
So, I left my A9 and primes in the office and slipped the Q into my backpack. Anxiety set in. How would I see the world in 28 mm? Would 'the shot' evade me? Will I miss the A9's stellar eye-autofocus? I decided that thinking was bad for me. We headed to the airport, Q in tow.
Before I get to my experience in San Francisco I want to touch on how I ended up with the Leica Q to begin with. The simple answer is that, in 2017, I decided I wanted to declutter and simplify my travel/personal photography setup, while retaining:
- Excellent image quality on a full frame sensor,
- Great autofocus,
- A fast prime lens,
- A light and compact body,
- Simple and quick camera operation.
Only two cameras made the shortlist, the Q and another Sony.
When Leica released the Q in 2015, it was the company's first attempt at an autofocus, (reasonably) compact, fixed prime lens, mirrorless, full frame camera, with an EVF - quite the mouthful! Leica offered this package in a svelte form factor which mimicked their venerable rangefinders; highly desirable. But it wasn't without competition.
Before the Q, in 2013, Sony released the RX1/RX1r, sporting an exceptional fixed Zeiss 35/2 lens. These cameras were replaced two years later by the monstrous 42 mp RX1rii. As a Sony shooter the RX1rii was tantalising. Its autofocus 35/2 lens didn't (and at the time of writing still doesn't!) exist in Sony's FE lineup. Could this be the compact package I was after? What's more, by 2017 Sony had already proven their ability in this market and garnered a large fan base, ranging from enthusiast to professional; reviews were hot and plentiful. This made my decision to go for the Q all the more challenging.
For me, the appeal of these cameras is their unique use of a single fixed prime lens perfectly married to a full frame sensor. On paper they should be the benchmark for optimal prime lens performance and, in my opinion at least, they are.
I have always paired my full frame systems with prime lenses. Compared to zooms, primes (typically) offer faster apertures (think low light and bokeh), are normally sharper wide open and offer their performance in compact packages. But, above all, prime lenses demand my full attention when composing shots. They slow me down and make me think before hitting the shutter button.
So, as a prime shooter looking to streamline, you can understand why the RX1rii and Q peeked my interest. But! I hear you cry, Ryan, if you wanted to simplify your gear why didn't you just glue a smaller prime lens (like the FE 35/2.8 or FE 28/2) to your A9?! Yes, I could have but that's not what I chose to do. I wanted something that would feel different to my day-to-day professional shooting.
The clear design intent of these cameras resonated with me. They hark back to days gone by when photographers scoured the streets with nothing but a 35 mm or nifty-fifty. When, to street photographers, careful consideration of their subject and composition was everything. There were no shortcuts.
I had to choose, I made objective and subjective arguments in favour for and against each camera: 24 mp vs 42 mp, tiny battery vs very tiny battery, simplicity vs compact computer, red dot vs no red dot (joke) etc. In the end I settled on the Leica. Subjectively its restrained, elegant and simple design won me over. It offered all the manual controls I needed at my fingertips: shutter dial, manual focus tab, aperture, and dedicated ISO button. Even the manual focus throw had hard stops, making muscle memory possible for manual focusing. Additional winning factors included:
- It wasn't a Sony and should offer the different shooting experience I was seeking,
- Its simplicity was refreshing (no endless customisation and confused menus here).
- The rendering of the Leica's lens appealed to me more.
- F1.7 vs F2.0.
- One of my favourite lenses was a 35 mm so the challenge of a new focal length was exciting.
- The 28 mm lens would force me to get closer to the action but allow for wider shots of city and landscapes when wanted.
- I didn't need large 42 mp raw files.
- Man was the titanium grey edition sexy!
So the decision was made. I picked up the Q in April 2017. I know, it's taken me a while to write a blog about it...
Freedom to create
Landing in San Francisco the challenge was on, it was too late for a gear change. So, how was it?
TL:DR: I had a blast!
For most of the trip I left the Q in aperture priority with max auto ISO set to 3200. My aperture choice ranged from F1.7 to F8 but mostly floated between F1.7 and F3.2. On rare occasions I would manually set the shutter speed to 1/250 or 1/500 sec and bump up ISO; if shooting street in lower light and the camera was defaulting to 1/125 sec or slower.
I used autofocus 99% of the time but the beauty of this camera is how easy is it to slip into manual focusing when required. There is a small button on the focus tab which, when depressed, allows you full manual control. Barrel inertia felt much better than my Sony lenses, and the use of hard stops at close and infinity focus was welcome. Focus peaking and automatic x 3 zoom when engaged, made accurate focusing effective. I had no reservations about using this option.
From the beginning the Q felt different to my A9. Sure, the Sony has a different grip, more customisable buttons, a joystick etc. but it was deeper than that.
The overall 'Q experience' felt more engaging somehow. It felt elegant too. The A9 is my professional workhorse and I wouldn't replace it for the world but I could sense the Q was shaping up to becoming my personal sidekick. It felt at home in my hands and on the streets amongst the crowds.
The Q is a discrete camera. It looks like an old rangefinder rather than a modern mirrorless/DSLR. Although I have no way to confirm whether its appearance had any influence on how it was perceived by the public, I found that almost nobody took notice of me. This cannot be said of the A9, which, although stealthily covered in black tape, still gets a few sideways glances when used on the streets. But that could be down to the large prime lenses.
The Q's manual controls felt reassuring and solid, although I would prefer a little more resistance in the aperture ring. The viewfinder was big and bright, satisfactory for my use but it definitely falls short of the one in the A9. Around town I found a single battery would get me anywhere from 350 - 400 shots; which was usual enough for one day. Although I always carried a spare I only needed this once. I have gotten into a habit of turning my cameras on and off between shots; a carry over from my A7ii days. Perhaps my frugal use of power helped me along a bit.
28 mm: close and far
I normally shoot 35 mm and 85 mm, which I find to be a good separation when shooting professionally. But part of my decision to go for the Q was it's 28 mm field of view. I soon found that 28 mm was wide enough to capture the amazing views of San Francisco but it also forced me to get closer to the action on the streets.
Getting close to the action is something I have struggled with for many years, and I know from reading forums and blogs that I am not alone. Yet, with the Q I found it natural and comfortable to slip into a scene. Take the picture above, shot at an outdoor food stall along the Wharf. As I composed the shot in my head I knew I had to get close. I was able to pop in and out without any notice taken. I wish I could assign this explicitly to the Q's stealth factor, but it could have been because the crab dish these gentlemen were eating was just far too delicious!
Time to take a short break from the text. Feel free to sweep through the gallery below. These are just some of the shots taken over my ten days in the city. I have attempted to show use of the 28 mm in both wide and close compositions.
So the Q was encouraging me to get confident and get creative and its simple operation allowed me the freedom to do so. I guess, at the end of the day, I also had no choice!
St. Patrick's Day
Thanks to my Irish luck, St. Patrick's Day took place during our time in the city. This was a happy coincidence as both my wife and I had always wanted to be in the USA during this time, though we had overlooked this when booking! We both live on the Emerald Isle and were astounded by the turnout in San Francisco for our homegrown day of [drinking] celebration!
This was the perfect opportunity to get some street photos with the Q. A small gallery of the day is below.
A place in my bag?
So, has the Leica earned its place in my travel bag? Yes. Will it replace my Sony gear? No, though that was never my intention - the systems serve different purposes. OveraIl I was extremely pleased with the Q's performance and the way it felt to shoot on the streets. I can't think of many missed moments that I would otherwise have captured with my Sony. After San Francisco I can say that the Q provides all I need in a travel camera.
Although I did not set out to replace my professional gear with the Q there are some negatives about the Q which would make me think twice about using it on a paid contract. These don't have to be mentioned but it's prudent to to do so, if only to balance the praise:
- Autofocus was good but not excellent. There were several occasions when the Q would latch onto foreground subjects when I didn't want it to. I used single point AF, which mitigated this for the most part, but it still happened.
- Shooting people was OK but I did miss the A9's continuous eye-AF for critical focus.
- The aperture ring felt at permanent risk of slipping. This never happened but the clicks into new apertures didn't feel that reassuring.
- In lower light conditions I found neither the live view or histogram would correctly preview over exposure; however, under exposure would be correctly shown. The only workaround for this was to enter manual focus and depress the AEL/AF button. Strange behaviour which I need to test further.
- The camera would hang for several seconds if a large burst of photos was taken (5 - 10) in quick succession. In my opinion the buffer takes too long to clear for such an expensive camera, but I am spoilt by the A9.
- On two occasions the camera froze and had to be restarted by removing the battery. I'm not sure why this happened...it seemed completely random.
- I would prefer 1/3 stop increments when manually controlling ISO, not the default 1-stop increments.
- Files tend to show banding if shadows are pushed in post. It was rare that I ever felt the need to push a raw file that extreme though.
Like the blossoming bud above, my photography has someway to go before it matures, if it ever does. But the Leica Q has secured its place on this journey. At least until the next version!
All photographs were captured on the Leica Q and processed in Lightroom.
All images are Ryan Diver ©.