This Is Leica 2.0 — Some Thoughts on the Designer Leica T

Specs aside — it’s a “typical” Leica with relatively noisy upper ISO levels and unsurprisingly moderate AF speed — the new Leica T is quite a stunner. Well the ISO and AF judgment I got from people who shot preproduction models, so it can only get better. But as with any Leica, you don’t buy a Leica for its specs. This new T system camera with interchangeable lenses, APS-C sized 16MP CMOS sensor and 16GB internal storage is less about the latest specs and more about style and iconic design. The traditionalist camera maker confidently moves into the modern world of photography with a bold new product — which is, above all, designed as a very high quality fashion item rather for the affluent than the pro or photojournalist.

Crafted from an aluminum block -- the T, Leica's new generation system camera.
Crafted from an aluminum block — the T, Leica’s new generation system camera.

Says Leica photographer Kristian Dowling:

This is a very simplistic camera and is clearly aimed at the newer generation of photographers that have grown up with touchscreen communication tools like the iPhone and Android devices.

I don’t attempt to pretend to “review” the camera. Read Steve Huff‘s great in-depth hands-on. It’s a nearly mature product right at launch with few hitches. Steve calls it a “fabulous mirrorless solution from Leica” and something that “will never be cheap,” hey well it’s really made in Germany. The lenses are made by Panasonic in Japan to, quote, “Leica specifications.” With German prices. Each of the two lenses at launch costs about as much as the body.

Still, $1,850 for body only is not too bad. Leica’s certainly attempting to go more mainstream — one of the main reasons they built the new Wetzlar factory in the first place. They couldn’t market the T with the M production constraints. Nevertheless, this first generation of this MILC Leica is a lot about design — well have a look at all the stylish leather holster accompanying the T. You can literally become a T shooter from tip to toe…

Leica is also making an adapter ($395) for M mount lenses, so virtually any Leica rangefinder lens from the last 60 years can be used, albeit with crop limitation. Plus you lose autofocus and there’s no microlenses to offset corner distortion.

With cameras becoming more and more similar, on the computer screen even smartphones deliver hardly distinguishable quality. Design is the about last frontier of identification and differentiation. The T is the company’s first non-rangefinder mirrorless camera with a completely new industrial design and all-new lens mount. Even the pop-up flash that hides seamlessly into the camera’s chassis is stylish. Overall, the Leica T bears a striking resemblance to the one-off Leica M auctioned off last year that was designed by Apple’s Jonathan Ive and Marc Newson.

Clean, simplistic, pure -- the Leica T's LCD back with the old "Wetzlar" coming back to life.
Clean, simplistic, pure — the Leica T’s LCD back with the old “Wetzlar” coming back to life.

Every Leica T is designed from and carved out of a solid 1.2-kilo aluminum block, which is what gives the camera its final uniform, sleek finish and timeless premium look. Don’t believe it? Here’s the proof, world’s most boring Leica T camera polishing ad (you wonder why they have no machine for that…):

Writes The Verge:

Leica partnered with Audi’s design team to come up with the T’s stark, modern look. (This isn’t the first time the German companies have joined forces: Audi was responsible for 2013’s Leica C P&S shoot and the stunning Titanium M9 from 2010.) It’s the first interchangeable lens camera to have a true unibody aluminum frame, which Leica machines out of a single block of metal. It’s not unlike Apple’s manufacturing process for the MacBook, though the Leica T is being manufactured in a brand new factory in Wetzlar, Germany built specifically for it. And in true, hand-built Leica fashion, each T chassis is subjected to 45 minutes of polishing by a skilled Leica employee before the electronics are added to it. By hand, of course.

The Titanium-clone T — same leather holster! — looks very solid and the cold touch of the aluminum is supposed to feel great in your hand.

Aside from its clean minimalist lines, what separates the T from the rest is the lack of buttons and physical controls. You’ll get (a Leica first!) touchscreen LCD that according to early testers is very smooth and intuitive to operate. There are two thumb dials, a shutter key surrounded by a power toggle, and a key for movie recording. The chassis abstains from unnecessary markings clutter. It’s all clean and you’ll even get a Leica iOS app for remote control and image transfers.

The design becomes perfect when it touches on a product’s essence and the task’s most inner philosophy. Wise Ming Thein Leica T words:

Let me say up front that whilst I have been very clear that innovation has been somewhat lacking in the camera industry across the board of late, there have been a few standouts that do so precisely because they push various aspects of the game — be it image quality or more rarely, ergonomics. I’ve long had the feeling that Apple’s latest camera implementations — touch once to lock exposure and focus, again to shoot — have really distilled the essence of the camera down to its bare minimum. It uses technology not to pad out a spec sheet, but to free the photographer to concentrate solely on composition. Shame then, that none of the more capable cameras have really gotten this implementation right — until now. I believe the Leica T is the first generation of a paradigm shift in the way we control and interact with our cameras.

Designed by Leica Germany, produced by Panasonic Japan -- the Leica T's initial Summicron and Vario-Elmar.
In the end, photography is always about the optics: Designed by Leica Germany, produced by Panasonic Japan — the Leica T’s initial Summicron and Vario-Elmar.

Beautiful Apple-like design yes, but the more I wonder about the plasticky look of the two lenses at launch: an 18-56mm F 3.5-5.6 (28-85mm in 35mm equivalent) Vario-Elmar zoom and a 23mm (35mm) F2 Summicron prime lens. We’re talking style here. However stellar the optics are, let’s assume it’s only a matter of time until the truly beautiful silver body is matched by the appropriate lenses. At launch only the silver body is available, expect the somewhat less classy looking black anodized version by mid-year.

While this new Leica certainly marks a milestone for the German camera maker, the Leica T might be more be about style than substance. Sure thing this aluminum T could last forever! But everything in these digital days is more perishable than in the past. The T no less is a lot about fashion accessory. Great looks, farseeing concept, alright insides. And costing an arm and a leg. Never expect anything “cheap” from Leica, even when not assembled in Germany. The Visoflex viewfinder for $595? Complaining is futile. This is and will always be Leica. In return you get something partially handcrafted that’s not only nice to look at.

While the Leica T might be more about being seen than seeing, I still prefer a good looking camera with mojo over the boring top of the line model with no character. Neither speed demon nor resolution champ, his T certainly has character. Leica’s on the right track. A new lineup is born that’ll bless us with many more incarnations to come.

What about the future of the M system? Someone with company insights told me to not expect an M Typ 240 update within quite some time. There’s not much to add to or improve the M with — except for a new sensor and electronics. The M now is as good as it get, as perfect as the M can become. That’s why the T is not full-frame. Again Kristian Dowling:

The camera is aimed at a new niche market — consumers who appreciate fine quality products but want something with modern design, simplistic use and a strong brand status. These customers do not “need” a full frame-sensor — in fact most people do not “need” one.

With the T Leica has finally arrived at the present day. The new lens mount allows the Germans to break new ground. With its minimalist concept and “essential” approach and the T might even become more intuitive to operate than the M. Well done Leica, now just give me a fast prime metallic silver/silver combo.

For more on the T system visit Leica.

+++ You can order the Leica T from B&H Photo (silver / black) and Adorama (silver / black). Check for availability on Amazon.

Available lenses are the 18-56mm F3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar zoom (B&H Photo / Adorama) and 23mm F2 Summicron prime (B&H Photo / Adorama).

  • The aluminum body is actually made and polished in Portugal. Leica won’t say who makes the lenses, except that it is neither Panasonic nor Cosina. Fuji? Sigma? Hoya?

    As for the ungainly EVF, it is not that much more expensive than the one Sony makes for the RX1, and it includes GPS to boot.

    I think this camera is designed for those who want Leica (whether for the optics or for the cachet) but can’t deal with the M’s rangefinder. A T system with EVF is not that much cheaper than the M-E aka M9.

  • Impossible that Panasonic has no role in the production of the T lenses. After all the X-Vario is in essence a Panasonic design and Leica has a longstanding collaboration with the Japanese electronics multi, just to mention the Leica-branded P&S Panas…

  • fiddlergene

    Emporer’s new clothes!

  • David Holliday

    Yes it looks nice . It would be really good if this camera hewn from I piece of aluminum could be up dated from the guts out. I mean as technology gets better you get to keep the body. I can buy a XE2 for the same price as the view finder plus 100 dollars. Also does any one remember the noisy Panasonic FZ30? A kind of super zoom bridge camera ? Well it was made by Panasonic but Leica had another version more expensive with the red dot on it. To me that made Leica cheap. Also the lenses with this new camera are limited and very slow and very expensive. Also they do not match the style of the body. I can use my Leica lenses on my soon to be purchased XE2 and I save 300 dollars on the adapter. I pass on this camera . I would rather wait and actually buy a full frame second hand M9 in about 18 months than invest in this sleek looking machine..

  • Omer

    The over-sized lens mount is interesting. Is it possible the rangefinder focusing method is passing, along with the last generation of full time M users? Also interesting is how cleanly designed both the new Lytro and this new Leica are.

  • genotypewriter

    Another stupidly priced Leica digicam for those hipster types wanna-be photographers with more money than brains…

    And none of the 4 color skins excites me…unless it comes in creamy pink I’m not interested. LOL.

  • Malik Tintilinich

    Add to that “stupidly priced” Pana optics. Crazy what they get away with, these days.

  • One More Thought

    I don’t get the anger towards this or any other camera. It’s just an object. I wish people would channel that energy into charity work, fighting poverty, etc…or at least, taking better pictures.

    It’s also become rather predictable with Leica: people criticize it for being what Leica is. Leica will never be state of the art with regards to tech specs. They will always be high priced. They will always pay attention to fashion, feel, and design. As the author of this article so perceptibly notes, digital goods are more ephemeral in nature, and more alike than ever, and so it’s difficult to gain some perceptible differentiation in the market.

    Leica, to their credit, has achieved their unique status in the market, which also happens to be very profitable. Why let it worry you if you don’t like it, or cannot afford it? There are plenty of other high priced fashion items on the market: bags, watches, eyeglasses, shirts, cars, jewelry, etc…that seem far more ridiculously priced. So why the anger at Leica?

    As to this Model T…it seems intriguing. Most who have used one like it. The touch screen could work, if it is quick and responsive. The menu seems simplified, which is refreshing. The optics of the new lenses will be stellar. I give credit for Leica for trying something different for Leica. And while not cheap, Leica has priced this more aggressively than most anticipated.

    So don’t worry…be happy.

  • mrj

    Glad to see that you have no prejudices. Shows how much judgement you have.

  • This is an upper class camera. Bear with it, proles :)

  • thanks, I agree 100%

    * how many of those bashing the T or even Leica ever used a product from Leica and know, what they are talking about?
    * how many only post pictures in the web and use more than 6 MPixel?

    * how many use a car, that can go 100 mph in a state with speed limit of 65mph?
    * how many spend there money on things or gadgets in there huge car, that are completely useless (instead investing it in modern hybrid technique), when a car from Korea brings them where they want?
    * how many “must have” the newest iPhone?

    This Leica T is the most beautiful camera next to the Leica M Monocrom!

  • you mean full frame M? :-)
    I would bet my M9, that we will see a FF Leica one day and some new FF lenses with AF – and hopefully a good built in finder. This would be my camera for sure!

  • It has some interesting technology and it is nice to see Leica pushing the boundaries rather than recycling ancient technology, but … somehow it makes me feel uncomfortable. I want tactile controls, not touch screens I have to look at and which distract me from photography. Maybe it does actually work well, but whatever, I’ll never find out unless I strike oil in my garden or something…

  • Omer

    I wasn’t very clear. Yes, I can’t help but think interest in the M rangefinder cameras is beginning to wane. Designing a digital lens mount that will accommodate both APS-C and FF is a smart move. And having a touch screen LCD only for the back is not only reminiscent of Apple removing floppy drives from their computers, and not only a clever design touch, but an acknowledgement of our changing approach to making photographs. I would not be surprised to see a similar look soon by Samsung and others (for the “proles.” My hand is up!)

  • the mount on the Sony NEX and A7 looks even smaller, and they do FF with it.
    I would order a T-FF on the day of announcement.
    I had the M240 for two days, but I did not like it at all.

  • All praise aside, this T is a very “gadgety” phone, marking a clear break in Leica’s approach to photography.

    Many diehard users will follow but guess they’re in for a kind of awkward operation.

    And not sure if the younger generation at ease with the operation forks out nearly $2k for a single lens only… This being Leica, it’s not about quantity. Yet the X-Vario predecessor was a flop. Not a risk-free path they’re taking.

  • One More Thought

    A few features that I wish all manufacturers would adopt or learn from:

    1) having 16GB of built in memory; useful for when your card unexpectedly runs out of space, or you forget one, or even it’s cold outside and difficult to open up the memory card compartment to change the card. It’s just a very nice user friendly feature, and probably adds little cost.

    2) The menu layout, and the fact that you can easily customize your “home” screen to only have those menu categories you want. A nice antidote to the usual confusion of menu systems that most cameras have.

  • One More Thought

    IMHO, this will be a huge hit. The smartphone like operation will hit home for many.

    First, Leica isn’t after huge numbers here.

    Second, many older people now use smartphones, esp. iPhones. Apple doesn’t just sell to younger people these days; they appeal to all ages. This camera will have appeal for its simplicity and for its new futuristic direction.

    Third, there are enough well heeled younger people to make a great market for Leica. Among these would be the silicon valley millionaires, etc. They will buy this camera.

    I bet this will be a hard camera to find for quite some time.

  • JakeB

    “This Leica T is the most beautiful camera next to the Leica M Monocrom!”

    …and you totally discredited yourself by making this statement.

  • Michael Deniz

    He ain’t far from the truth, though. Time will show of course, but for now this isn’t looking much different from the other overpriced camera gizmos we all see plenty thse days.

  • Your full-frame Leica would kill the golden goose… not there yet, and for the years to come APS-C will be Leica’s main focus.

  • Carlo Zanetti

    Uper class camera, you say…?

    Measured by Apple-like exterior i-styling?

    Maybe good idea to take those blinkers off from te to time, non-prole ;-)

  • Michael Reichmann: ” I should mention that I see the Leica T as not a camera for photojournalist or other pros. Instead it is more appropriately marketed to the affluent amateur who wants a simple to use, and elegantly designed camera”.

    More than an impression, then. BTW, what are ‘blinkers’? LOL

  • Why “impossible”? There are plenty of contract lens manufacturers in Japan, most better qualified than Panasonic, all of which know how to make AF lenses: Fuji, Hoya, Ricoh, Sigma, Kyocera Optec, Sony (with which Leica has a historical relationship via Minolta, and of course they also buy the sensors from).

    According to Michael Reichmann, Leica explicitly denied the T lenses are made by either Panasonic or Cosina.

    “According to Leica these lenses are made to their design and specification in Japan, and – FYI – they are notbuilt by Panasonic. When asked directly, I was told that Leica uses an OEM manufacturing company which also makes high-end lenses for a number of other top companies. Is it Cosina? They make Zeiss lenses, no? No, not Cosina.”

  • Thanks for this Fazal.

    I guess this is mostly about semantics and saving costs while trying to keep the brand name as pure as possible…

  • anonymous_A

    Panasonic and Olympus has been long time partners, And all Leica lenses are Hoya glass block, so Cosina is Zeiss’s OEM. Is it logical to Olympus can make super high end Leica? Or how about Sigma? LOL

  • Both Kyocera and Sigma used to make Leica R mount zoom lenses for Leica.

    The Japanese makers are all perfectly capable of making super high-end lenses if they chose to, they just decided not to because the market is too small for them to market to profitably.