Rethinking the Leica Q By David English

After shooting with a Leica Q for a year, I’ve found that I’m using it differently than when I first began shooting with it. I carry a Leica Q and Leica M Monochrom with me almost everywhere I go, so part of the shift has been figuring out which camera would be best in a particular situation.

Compared with the Monochrom, the Q is more compact. It captures color that’s both realistic and painterly (not an easy combination for a digital camera). Its macro mode is easily accessed and intuitive. And most surprising, I’ve come to rely on its fast automatic modes. As a result, I reach for the Q when I think that color would be a key component of the shot, when I need to focus closer than an M-mount lens would allow, or when I need to shoot quickly, especially in low light.

My previous default setting for the Q was for manual focus. When necessary, I would change it to autofocus. Immediately following that shot, I would switch it back to manual. Now I do the opposite. The default is autofocus with the occasional switch to manual. I’ve also moved from manual exposure to auto-exposure (mostly using the Shutter Speed Priority setting). That was surprising, because shooting manual on a Leica M8 helped me understand the tradeoffs with aperture, shutter speed, and ISO values. So why give up that manual control if you want the best shot?

You don’t have to give it up completely with the Q. You can set the function button on the back of the camera for exposure compensation. Then when the auto-exposure seems off, you can press the FN button and adjust that setting six full stops (from -3 to +3). Combining auto-exposure with a manual override is the best of both worlds. This is practical only because the Q’s autofocus and auto-exposure modes are unusually fast. Otherwise, you might as well shoot manual all the time.

The autofocus was a harder sell for me, as I had no reason to think that it would be more accurate. It isn’t more accurate, but it is faster than focusing manually. The Q has six autofocus modes, including a one-point option and a multi-point option. I had assumed that I would prefer the one-point over the multi-point. However, the visual array of active focus points is useful for thinking about the scene in three dimensions. Since the focus system is looking for objects that are the same distance from the lens, the illuminated points function as a kind of sonar map. And by softly pressing the shutter release button repeatedly, you can re-slice the scene to shift the three-dimensional map. This instant feedback helps you conceptualize the relative positions of objects in the image.

© David English

Sometimes an amazing photographic subject is right in front of you. In fact, it may be just millimeters in front of your face. The trick is to look at everything around you as a potential photograph. Unfortunately, most of the M-mount lenses focus only as close as 0.7 meters. The Q’s lens, on the other hand, can focus as close as 0.3 meters without having to switch to the camera’s macro mode. With the macro mode engaged, you can go even closer—to just 0.17 meters. That’s 6.7 inches. The photo titled Desk Lamp was shot in a hotel room in Las Vegas. I was sitting at the desk, when I realized that the lamp in front of me (and the shadows behind it) would make a nice photo.

© David English

The Q’s built-in 28mm Summilux lens is comparable in quality to many of Leica’s M-mount lenses. The photo titled Manhattan Buildings #26 has the kind of sharpness and clarity that we’ve come to expect with high-end Leica glass. Not having a color-separating Bayer filter does give the Monochrom an advantage for film-like rendering. However, the Q’s compact size and fast auto features make it an equally fine choice for street photography. For this particular type of image, where the reflected light and clouds were constantly shifting, having high-speed auto-exposure can mean the difference between getting the shot you first saw, or settling for something that’s almost what had caught your attention.

© David English

I’ve also altered my approach to color versus black-and-white when using the Q. Previously I would process the image first for color. If the color didn’t add anything, I would process it again for monochrome. Now the steps are reversed. I process the image first for black-and-white. If that doesn’t work, I bring up the saturation to see if color might enhance the subject. It may seem counterintuitive, but I end up with more top-notch color images this way. That’s probably because I’m adding color only when needed, as opposed to removing it only after it has failed.

For the photo titled Manhattan Store Window #22, the mannequins didn’t stand out when the image was processed for black-and-white. The grays from the background were too similar to the grays from the mannequins, which created a muddle. By bringing up the saturation on the already processed black-and-white image, I could see the exact saturation point where the colors help to define the various tones and forms, as opposed to distracting from those elements, as color can sometimes do.

© David English

I often have a slower wide-angle lens mounted on my Monochrom. Current favorites include the 18mm Super-Elmar-M (f/3.8), 21mm Super-Elmar-M (f/3.4), and 24mm Elmar-M (f/3.8). In a low-light situation, especially when there’s movement that requires a relatively fast shutter speed, it’s good to have a second camera with a Summilux lens. In the photo titled Merry-Go-Round, a fast lens was needed because the merry-go-round was moving at the time. The Q was able to freeze the action at 1/250 of a second while delivering a sharp, high-contrast image.

Even after a year, I’m still learning my way around the Leica Q. Given their combined size and weight, I’m happy to carry the Q and Monochrom nestled side-by-side in a small camera bag. Like two siblings who begin to form their personalities in relationship to each other, I’m slowly getting a feel for how these cameras can coexist and adapt to each other’s strengths and limitations.

About David English:

This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky, and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2. He is currently using an M Monochrom, X Vario, and Q. You can see his photos at protozoid.com. His main website is davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is classicfilmpreview.com.

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11 comments

  • Imagine if Leica made a Q mono how grand that pairing would b w your Q normal! Thank you for your continuing my education of Leica!

    • I’ve imagined that one, too. A Q Monochrom would be a great addition. Both versions of the Q could fit into a very small bag. Or someone might want to pair a Q Monochrom with a color-capable M.

  • David, thank you. I was second-guessing the Q I have on order (being a more ‘traditional’ M shooter), and this re-confirms that it can offer a nice balance. For the first time ever on a project, I was missing shots because of the 0.7M issue with rangefinders. Also, thank you for combining real-life situational explanations as well as ‘the tech stuff’ — most examinations of the Q tend to steer to only on or the other,

    J.

    • Glad to help. I don’t use a close focus that often, but the Q’s macro mode sure comes in handy when the situation calls for it. I just have to remind myself that it’s there, as I’m so used to the more limited focus on the rangefinders.

  • David,

    I believe this is the first that I have seen some color work from you (nicely composed and subtle color), previously I remember your Monochrome street images on this blog (very nice indeed). You speak of color processing with the Q as now secondary to converting to B&W, and increasing saturation. Am I correct in saying that you are reprocessing a raw file in color after B&W fails for you, and increasing saturation to a point of departure from the norm? I also note one image where B&W and color are combined. Perhaps you could clarify how you manage color. Also, how Q color and this Summicron differs from M color and comparable lens character. The Q is drawing my attention for new acquisition. Thank you for the fine composition.

    • Previously I processed the Q files for color first, in the hope that I might have more color photos that I would be happy with. Because I’m biased towards black-and-white, I would almost always end up processing each one again for black-and-white. Now I process each image first for black-and-white, since that’s where I’m likely to end up. I first reduce the saturation level to zero. Then I process the image from there. If I don’t feel that the image is working in black-and-white, I’ll bring the saturation level back up to see what color might add to the equation. So I’m not starting over again with the RAW file. I’m taking the previous monochrome processing and adding back the color to the same file.

      Processing color this way tends to alter the colors in odd ways, because when processing it for monochrome, I have no sense of how those changes might affect the hidden colors. This approach wouldn’t work for all types of color shots, but it does seem to work well for shots that have a strong compositional structure. Processing it first for monochrome tends to bring out that structure. It also works well for shots that are surreal or dreamy. That’s because the altered colors from the monochrome processing can be a creative jolt to send the photo into an unexpected direction. And you can always try to work the processed image back to the original (more realistic) colors.

      My experience with M color is limited mostly to the M8 and M9. I think that the sensors in these cameras contributes more to the color differences than the lenses attached to the cameras. The design of the sensor can significantly affect the color palette and dynamic range of the captured images. The Q has a CMOS sensor, as opposed to the CCD sensor found in the M8 and M9. I don’t know if the Q’s CMOS sensor comes from a different manufacturer than the current-generation M cameras.

  • Leica Q was my discovery of the year. This feeling of ‘it just works!’ and touch screen experience is simply addictive. Can’t wait for the version with different focal length though 🙂

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  • I used the Q for almost a year. Nice camera, but I was unable to find a satisfactory carry case for it, like the ones I have for the D-Lux and D-Lux6. In any case, I have a strong bias toward shooting between 35 and 50 mm – mostly toward the wider 35 mm view. One other camera I used for at least a year was the Nikon Coolpix A, whose sensor is APS-C and focal length is effectively 28 mm (calculated from the Full-frame to APS-C sensor difference). The Nikon did a great job given the very small size, but the Leica Q images show what a difference the full-frame sensor makes. The ‘painterly’ comment above says a lot about why I like Leicas, and I encourage people to try a Leica occasionally to see for themselves.

    • Have you come across the Angello Pelle? They do half cases with the grip as well, something Leica doesn’t make for Q. Either you get the grip, or the half-case separately from Leica.

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