Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Feb 13 2019

A new camera

The first-generation Sony A7r I’d been using for the past five years was showing its age as 2018 drew to a close. More and more error messages, more instances of failing to wake up after sleeping, more having to shut it off, remove and replace the battery and turn it on again before it would continue working. It was maddening.

It was also no great surprise. A couple of years before it had stopped working altogether, and, after Sony demanded a good portion of the camera’s cost to repair it, I left it with a small repair store while the repairman searched for the components he needed in other, discarded cameras. It took a month or so, but he managed to fix it for a fraction of the price Sony had wanted. “Just don’t expect too much,” he cautioned me afterward.

With this in mind, I’d been considering what camera would eventually replace it, as more companies entered the mirrorless fray. Sony’s own full-frame mirrorless offerings had grown appreciably bulkier, without any ergonomic or color science improvements that I could see, in the years since the original A7 debuted. Though they had improved the awful shutter sound/feel and introduced a larger battery, the startup time of the third generation of cameras seemed to not be appreciably better than the first, though the admins of review sites like DPReview claim that this parameter is no longer applicable to the practice of photography*.

As for the other brands, who were seemingly lining up to present new mirrorless options: Canon’s EOS R was even larger than the Sonys, nearly as large as a 6D DSLR, and the controls were a no-go from the time I picked it up, discovered I needed two hands to turn it on, kept accidentally brushing the control bar, and fiddled with the selfie screen. Nikon’s Z series was promising; it felt good in the hand, if a little large, with a fast startup time and good EVF; it would have been promising if they’d had any nice small lenses, but alas, there were none, nor did any appear on the roadmap. I’ve also never been much of a fan of digital Nikon colors.

I could have simply scrounged for another used A7r, but though the files were nice, the hesitant, indecisive shutter that sounded and felt like a large coin dropping through an old payphone, the slow startup time, and the wonky yellows and blues made me itch for something else. The Fuji XT/X-pro series beckoned with its superior ergonomics and color science, but as nice as it is (the X-pro2 shutter in particular is one of the best sounding/feeling shutters I’ve used, up there with the Leica M3), I didn’t want to go back to APSC with no reduction in size; the Ricoh GRII I was also using for wider shots was certainly better than the phone I’d been using before to get wider shots, but I’d become accustomed to full frame.

I’ve also been using a silver Leica M6 classic to shoot film for many years now, as film is how I learned photography back in the day, and I haven’t abandoned it (yet). But a digital M10 would have been prohibitively expensive, as well as quite heavy. As lovely as I’m sure it must be, I just couldn’t justify it, and even though I already have two lenses I could use for it, they are older 35mm and 50mm summicrons, and I seldom shoot 50mm these days.

But then there is the Leica Q, that strange fixed-lens full-frame digital Leica whose f1.7 summilux lens likely costs more than the camera, which itself costs a fraction of a digital M. Not one of the small Panasonic knock-offs with the red dot and huge mark-up, but an actual Leica. I’d gotten a chance to handle my friend Aik Beng Chia’s Q last year when I met up with him during a BME workshop in Bangkok, and I was surprised at how well it handled. A three-year-old model with a fixed focal length? But I used the 35mm on the Sony for pretty much five years, and only when I wanted to go wider, as I’ve been doing more and more these days, did I get the Ricoh. But here was a camera that felt like a camera, much more so than either the Sony or the Ricoh.

So I got a Leica Q of my own, my first digital Leica. Now, I have always been wary of the effusive praise many photographers show for Leica, especially the abstract, oddly indescribable “something” they claim it provides, particularly at the prices these cameras go for. The “You plebeians would never understand” attitude of some people who ooh and aah over Leicas has always irked me, as it seemed like a cover for their lack of ability to say exactly what about these cameras helps them get the photographs they desire.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to spell out in practical terms how this camera has changed the way I photograph, and why I like where it’s taking me.

First off, using exclusively a 28mm frame took a while to get used to; it pushes me into the action. I find myself taking fewer shots, but liking the shots that I do take more. Shots I could have gotten from further away with the 35mm require that I either move towards the scene or forget them. So I notice things closer to me more now than things that are further away; I suspect it might bring a greater sense of intimacy to my photos.

Of course I’d tried the Sony 28mm f2 on the A7r, but it never appealed to me, perhaps because of that lens’s distortion, or perhaps because, while 28mm will bring you into a situation, the rest of the camera, especially the shutter, does not encourage staying there long; you’re left in the middle of a situation with a loud, obnoxious shutter and an awkwardly laggy camera. It’s doable, but not ideal.

The Q, however, rewards you for getting closer; it starts up and wakes up much quicker than the Sony ever did, and the leaf shutter is virtually silent; you’re in the midst of things, but not a bull in a China shop. The wider angle means most people don’t suspect that they’re in my frame, and I often find myself inches from someone who is oblivious to my presence. With the Sony, after waiting awkwardly a few seconds for the thing to finally come to life while the people around me pick up on my anticipation, I’d often get one shot in before everyone in the vicinity was looking around, wondering where all that clacking noise was coming from, as if a slot machine from another realm was calling to them. I’d become used to it, but I think that it translated somewhat into my body language, a sort of telegraphed cringe.

With the Q, since I know that nobody will hear the shutter, when I raise the camera, I do so with a nonchalance that slips under people’s radar. The relative lack of shutter lag meant that at first I was taking shots too quickly, getting the moment before the one I wanted for a while before getting used to the Q’s responsiveness. The lack of the Sony’s long blackout, replaced in the Q by a barely perceptible stutter as the EVF holds on the moment of capture for a split second before resuming, also works much better for me. The viewfinder on the Q is also larger than that of the A7r, brighter (you can’t change it) and more detailed. The diopter ring turns too easily, however, so I had to tape it up.

The Q controls are simple and effective, i.e. standard Leica. Like the Fujis, the aperture, shutter speed and shooting mode are right there at a glance, regardless of whether the camera is on or not. The Sony does show exposure compensation on the camera body, while the Q requires that to be something you do in the viewfinder, which works for me as I tend to use it once or twice and then go back to normal. I’d gradually come to know how the Sony metered in its priority modes over the years, how it stuck to f4 and 1/60 in shutter and aperture priority modes, respectively, right up until it no longer could. But to know exactly what the major settings were exactly meant that the camera had to be on and that I’d have to read them in the viewfinder (as I kept the backscreen off most of the time). I originally took issue with the mode placement of the off/on-single/on-continuous button, but when I think about it, it makes sense. Turning it to single shot is just matter of getting used to it. Should Jimi Hendrix suddenly descend from his UFO for a split second and I need to shoot more than one frame, I will be mashing the lever as far as it will go, right to continuous.

With the Sony I would occasionally take high and low shots with the tilting screen; I do that far less with the Q because it lacks such a screen, and I’m still on the fence as to whether that’s a good or bad thing. I suspect shooting what I see with my own eyes may be better in the long run, rather than guessing what I would see if I were taller or shorter and spending time approximating those perspectives. But there are advantages and disadvantages to both ways of doing it.

The Q is in crazy mad love with f1.7, I found while shooting it as I had the Sony using priority modes. It’s better, I soon realized, to shoot it like a manual M camera. The body already feels like an M; even the lens feels like an M lens, buttery smooth focus ring and all, so it’s not a huge difference. The AF is fine, snappy and accurate, but if you enjoy hyper focal and zone focusing with no lag, the Q is just as ready and willing to play, with the distances marked clearly on the lens barrel.

As for the resulting files, I’ve been happy so far, though the Q’s DR isn’t as malleable as that of the Sony, and the resolution less (though sufficient). But the colors…oh, the colors are far nicer. It tends to underexpose in auto modes, which suggests Leica knows how ugly the blown-out bits can get. The preview files, be they viewed in the EVF or on the backscreen, are quite ugly, full of blotchy greens and purples instead of greys. This, I’ve been assured by Leica, is a known issue and possibly one to be addressed in future firmware updates, but it’s obvious from my inquiries on Leica forums that most Q owners don’t really mind, or at least go to great lengths not to think too much about such things. Fair enough, I suppose; the files do really need to be viewed on a large computer screen in any case.

The battery life is slightly better than that of the A7r, which admittedly isn’t saying much. As the wakeup/startup times are much quicker, it’s easier to let it go to sleep or even turn it off, instead of continually prodding the shutter to keep it awake as I had to do with the Sony (occasionally taking unintentional shots in the process). The camera is also not designated as “weatherproof”, although to date there don’t seem to be any actual standards other cameras are held to with such claims, and the Sony’s claims in this regard are rather suspect. For such an expensive camera that also begs to be used in all kinds of conditions, I would think that would be desirable.

I never use the macro mode, and personally would have preferred a smaller lens without that option. The Q also features optical image stabilization and an electronic shutter, neither of which I’m entirely sure I’ve utilized. I’m sure they might come in handy at some point, but they’re not musts for me. In fact, while trying out other systems with IBIS, I’ve been annoyed at the frame not shifting with my aim due to the IBIS, but I haven’t observed this phenomenon in the Q.

A new version of the Q will most likely arrive in the near future, possibly updated with an M10 sensor, but I am quite happy with this camera as it is. Should Leica wish to attract current Q owners to add the new version to their collections, they could implement a different focal length, e.g. 40mm, in the next model. But the Q still sells so well that I imagine they could do very little and still maintain robust sales.

On paper, moving to the Q may seem more like a step sideways from the Sony, for appreciably more money. Who in these fast-paced times would spend so much on a digital camera that came out that long ago? But cameras can’t be rated so broadly on fixed parameters; as I tell my students about “good” and “bad” light, there aren’t so much “good” and “bad” cameras as much as there are suitable and unsuitable cameras, based on what the individual photographer needs to achieve their vision. For my purposes, the Q is more suitable than the Sony; even if it is lower resolution and more expensive, it’s better where it counts.

Some have observed that Sony makes computers that take photos, whereas other manufacturers such as Fuji and Leica, make cameras. Such absolutism feels rather extreme to me, as any box with a hole in it will do the job, but after using the Q for a few months, I can understand why people say this; the companies approach the task of building a camera coming from different places.

And that’s fine; if a Sony, Fuji, Hasselblad or a goddamn Transforming Barbie-cam does the job for you, brilliant! I’m truly happy that you can get past this stupid gear-centric phase and get on with the vastly more important business of developing your photographic vision. This is simply my experience based on my personal style of photography, as well as an effort to delineate why I like this particular camera rather than issue some half-assed “It’s just that Leica look/feel/glow/aesthetic/whatever” we’re always seeing. In short, it works for me.


*I was told by an admin that they dropped it when “start up times ceased to be an issue with most cameras.”

posted by Poagao at 3:10 pm  

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