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Leica T (Typ 701) review

Highs

  • Beautiful aluminum body
  • Clever battery locking mechanism
  • Large touchscreen display
  • High-quality optics
  • Very good image quality

Rating

Our Score 7.5
User Score 0

Lows

  • No tiltable display
  • Unorthodox menu system
  • Slow and unreliable autofocus
  • Wi-Fi connections not stable
  • No exposure lock button
There are more affordable and even better options than the Leica T, but you aren't buying just any ordinary camera.

With the T Typ 701 ($1,850, body only,) Leica introduced its first mirrorless model that is not an M-mount rangefinder camera. With it, the venerable German camera and lens maker unveiled a completely new system featuring its own lens mount and accompanying accessories. But this wouldn’t be a Leica camera if things weren’t a bit different from other mirrorless cameras. And so Leica decided to rid the T of most buttons and dials, and instead put a large touchscreen display on its back – defying the company’s own tradition of intuitive manual operation. So, how does Leica’s innovative new mirrorless system fare in actual use, and can it hold up to the company’s heritage?

Features and design

The Leica T Typ 701 uses an APS-C-sized CMOS sensor with a resolution of 16.3 megapixels, which appears to be the same imager that Leica previously used in its X Vario fixed-lens compact camera. In that regard, it is a pretty standard mirrorless camera and not much different from Fujifilm’s, Sony’s, or Samsung’s mirrorless systems. What makes the Leica T so special (and explains, in part, its premium price tag) is the fact that its body is milled out of a solid block of aluminum and then hand-polished in a process that takes almost 45 minutes. The German-made T Typ 701’s looks, which kind of resembles some of Samsung’s mirorless cameras, was made in collaboration with the design team at carmaker Audi (we’re sure there’s probably some tech borrowed from partner Panasonic). This much attention to detail results in an object that is definitely beautiful to behold – and pleasant to hold in your hand. The Leica T is available in either black or white. No lens is included, so you’ll have to pick up one (or more) of four lenses to choose from, each costing approximately $2,000. If you haven’t figured out by now, based on the Leica name alone, the T Typ 701 is expensive – an aspirational camera for regular consumers.

The shape of the Leica T is similar to other mirrorless cameras that come without an integrated viewfinder. There are hardly any protruding parts on its body, except for the large grip on the right-hand side as well as the lens mount. The rest of the camera is mostly flat and incredibly smooth thanks to the arduous polishing process and the glass-covered touchscreen display. The size of the screen is 3.7 inches – rather large for a camera – and its resolution is 1.3-million dots, which makes it very usable for both previewing and reviewing photos and videos.

Besides the beautiful aluminum unibody design and the prominent (and famous) Leica emblem at its front, what sets the Leica T apart from the competition is its unique menu system that works entirely differently from what we’re used to. Instead of scrolling through the camera’s settings using buttons and dials, every function can be set using the touchscreen, and the menus aren’t so much classical text menus rather than a series of large buttons that come with a self-explaining pictogram and a small text description each. In fact, the Leica T’s menu system reminds us a bit of Windows Phone, only that it’s mostly white-on-black instead of lots of different colors.

The Leica T is an exclusive gear that will set you back, but provides a unique experience and rewards you with beautiful images.

In addition to its rather unique touchscreen operation, the T Typ 701 also has a limited number of buttons, dials, and levers on its top. Around the shutter button there’s a lever that turns the camera on and off, as well as triggering the pop-up flash (it makes an incredibly wonderful and satisfying noise when it pops up. Next to it there’s a movie button that starts recording a movie immediately. There’s no actual movie mode in the Leica T, so all camera settings, such as resolution, frame rate, shutter speed, ISO, etc., need to be set in the menu prior to hitting the movie button. Toward the back of the camera are two “soft dials” that change their function depending on the shooting mode and can be used to set, for example, the aperture, the shutter speed, exposure compensation, or ISO speed. Depending on the direction you dial, they make two different yet pleasing clicking sounds.

On the top of the camera, there’s a flash hot-shoe covered by an insert that is also made of solid aluminum. The hot shoe also serves as the socket for the add-on electronic viewfinder, the Visoflex (which is sold separately, for around $600). On the right-hand side of the camera there’s a flap that covers the SD card slot and USB port. The battery is located inside the T’s grip and is accessed via the camera’s bottom. In order to remove it, the release lever has to be pulled, which lets the battery pop out of the camera body. In order not to accidentally drop it, however, the battery can only be fully removed after it’s been slightly pressed inward again – a very clever mechanism.

Leica T

If you forget to pack an SD card, don’t worry. Packed inside the camera is a 16GB hard drive, which is good for everyday shooting, and you don’t have to fret about getting a fast-enough card for video. And being that this is a 21st-century camera, the camera has built-in Wi-Fi for pairing with an iOS device (via the Leica T app; sorry, no Android). Like Wi-Fi in other digital cameras, you can operate the T Typ 701 remotely, or transfer photos to an iPhone or iPad for sharing. You can also pick a shooting mode, and adjust settings for ISO, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, and white balance. However, you can’t create a direct Wi-Fi connection, and requires both the camera and smart device to be on the same Wi-Fi network; this is unfortunate, since it means you can’t pair with a smart device anywhere, which is the appeal of smartphone connectivity.

Another unique feature of the Leica T is the way its rubber strap is attached. Yes, that’s right, the camera comes with a rubber strap. While that may sound like Leica is cheaping out, it actually makes a lot of sense as the slightly sticky surface of the strap makes sure that it doesn’t slip from your shoulder easily – actually pretty clever when you think about it. The strap is attached to the camera via a proprietary lug system that can only be unlocked with a very thin tool, such as a hairpin; the system effectively prevents the strap from getting loose, but also means that, unfortunately, you can’t use third-party straps with the camera.

What’s in the box

Leica sells the T Typ 701 body-only, which means that alongside the camera, all you get are a couple of standard accessories. Just like all other Leica cameras, the T comes in a very fancy box that features a top compartment with the camera as well as a series of drawers (yes, drawers) that hold the manual, battery, charger with various adapter plugs, cables and strap. Inside the Leica T’s high-quality box, everything is neatly arranged with the same care that Leica seems to exercise with all its products.

Warranty

Leica offers a limited two-year warranty, but since Leica cameras are meant to last, it also has an extensive maintenance and repair service.

Performance and use

In actual use, the Leica T fares nicely, although we had our gripes with it during testing. (Leica Germany provided our review unit, but globally all T Typ 701 models are similar.) The innovative menu system of the camera, which can be customized, needs some getting used to, especially when coming from a camera that has a button or dial for almost every function it offers (we struggled at first to find things like photo playback, realizing that we needed to swipe up or down on the screen to enter playback mode). While all of the camera’s settings are easily accessible, the strong focus on touch-operation requires that the camera be lowered from the eye (when you’re using the Visoflex, wich we did for this review) each time a setting needs to be changed that is not accessible via one of the two top dials – which can become rather annoying. Also annoying is the fact that there is no way to uncouple autofocus and exposure lock, as there is no AEL button on the camera. So if the exposure needs to be set independently from the focus, the camera must be switched either to manual exposure mode or manual focusing mode. If you don’t feel like messing with settings, the camera does have program, full auto, and scene modes.

The Visoflex viewfinder is an absolute must for anyone who likes to take pictures from a lower perspective, thanks to its tilt capabilities. It also has much better visibility in bright daylight and has a higher resolution than the rear display, which works favorably when focusing manually. Which leads us to another point of critique: the display of the Leica T isn’t tiltable. We already mentioned that it is very large compared to most other cameras, but, in our opinion, it wouldn’t have hurt if Leica had kept its size down a bit and instead made it tiltable, which would’ve been a huge benefit to the camera’s overall usability.

Leica T, Vario-Elmar 18-55mm @ f/9, ISO 100

Leica T, Vario-Elmar 18-55mm @ f/9, ISO 100

Image quality of the Leica T is very good, with lots of detail and a lot of information in both the highlights and shadow areas, which makes the DNG Raw files very flexible for post-processing. Noise is very well-handled, thanks in part to the moderate resolution of 16 megapixels, and up to 3,200 ISO the results are entirely useable. ISO 6,400 can be used when it’s the only way to get the shot, but 12,500 ISO is pushing things and needs so much noise reduction that there is little detail left in the end. The two lenses that we used with our review unit, the Summicron-T 23mm f/2 and the Vario-Elmar-T 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, provided stellar results under all circumstances, though suffering from noticeable color fringing in high contrast situations.

What we weren’t overly impressed with in the Leica T is the autofocus – which, honestly, we didn’t expect to perform extraordinarily well to begin with. Just like that of previous Leica-exclusive digital cameras such as the X, X2 or X Vario, the T’s autofocus is rather slow (especially so when light gets sparse) and frequently fails at locking onto the desired subject (again, especially so when light gets sparse). So if quick and reliable autofocus is a necessity for your photographic style, the Leica T probably isn’t the camera you’re looking for. If you’re all about pure image quality, though, you will very quickly fall in love with the camera’s output.

Image quality is very good, and noise is very well-handled.

With video recording at Full HD 1080 at 30 frames per second, we didn’t expect much. Recording video is easy: just press the red-dot movie button on top. The camera doesn’t offer much in terms of adjustable settings, as everything is automated. You can switch between 1080p and 720p, and turn video stabilization on or off. Video quality is OK, and focusing is responsive. Colors, however, look flat, and the camera suffers from noise and pixelation, and panning judder. As nice as it is to have video, the Leica T is all about still photography, and you’re probably better off using a smartphone for casual videos.

As for the Wi-Fi, in actual use, Leica needs to improve its implementation. The problem is not with what it has to offer (albeit fairly basic when you compare it against Samsung or Sony), but with performance. The T Typ 701 had no issues scanning for Wi-Fi networks and logging onto one, but it stumbled when it tries to pair with an iPhone 5S. The Leica T app couldn’t find the camera, despite being on the same network. Eventually, after reconnecting both devices to the network and restarting the app, the two paired up. But the camera could not keep a steady connection, and each time we attempted to access Live View for remote operation, the connection would break. The camera was also slow to connect to the phone. We tried a different connection by logging onto a Wi-Fi network that’s less often used, and while the pairing speeds improved, the camera still suffered from stability issues. We hope Leica can fix this issue via a firmware update, but if you splurge on this camera, know that wireless connectivity is not the strong point.

Conclusion

The Leica T, like many Leica products, can be a mixed bag. It raises expectations about unprecedented quality with its shiny metal body and high retail price, but quickly disappoints when it comes to the most basic functions such as the lack of an exposure lock button or the slow and unreliable autofocus. On the other hand, the camera is extremely nice to hold and use, especially when paired with the Visoflex viewfinder and the 23mm prime lens, and delivers images of outstanding quality with lots of detail, beautiful colors, and very good dynamic range that will satisfy even the most demanding of photographers.

Whether or not the Leica T is the right camera for you is mostly a question of how deep you’re willing to dig into your pockets. It’s an exclusive piece of gear that sets you back a considerable sum when paired with even the most elementary accessories, but it also provides a unique experience and rewards you with beautiful images. On the other hand, you can get almost the same kind of image quality from the competition, which is usually not only much more affordable, but also much better in terms of performance and usability.

With the Leica T, it isn’t so much about need, but the desire for handcrafted luxury – you are buying more than just a camera, and you don’t buy a Leica because it’s a bargain. It’s a one-of-a-kind product that, despite the quirks, delivers beautiful photography from an equally beautiful instrument. What it really boils down to, then, is this: Do you want the Leica T? In that case then, it’s the only camera that’ll cut it.

(Digital Trends’ lead camera reviewer David Elrich contributed comments to this article.)

Highs

  • Beautiful aluminum body
  • Clever battery locking mechanism
  • Large touchscreen display
  • High-quality optics
  • Very good image quality

Lows

  • No tiltable display
  • Unorthodox menu system
  • Slow and unreliable autofocus
  • Wi-Fi needs improvement
  • No exposure lock button

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