Leica’s new Q3 sacrifices some good looks for functionality

Did Leica make a camera slightly uglier for the sake of (gasp) functionality and convenience? Is the sky falling in Germany? Has anybody checked on Lenny Kravitz? I think I’m feeling faint…

With the new Q3 camera, Leica seems to have done just that. The Q3 is the latest version of the German manufacturer’s fixed-lens full-frame compact camera, and in addition to matching the M11 at 60 megapixels, it offers an updated electronic viewfinder, 8K video, a new hybrid autofocus system, Qi-compatible wireless charging support via an optional handgrip, and — yes finally — a flip-and-tilt articulating LCD. The $5,995 camera, which launches today, looks exactly like the Leica Q2 from the front, but the rear was entirely redesigned to accommodate the new screen.

Inside the Q3 are logical performance upgrades from the last-gen model, like the 60-megapixel full-frame sensor (up from 47 on the Q2) and a new Maestro IV processor with 8GB of buffer memory to help push along those big images averaging 70 megabytes per RAW DNG file. This puts the Q3 on par with the Leica M11 / M11 Monochrom in terms of resolution, though Leica says it’s a different sensor, evidenced by its wider ISO range of 50 to 100,000. Sensor similarities and differences aside, one of the reasons Q cameras have been so popular for Leica is they have autofocus — which the Q3 now improves upon with a combination of phase detection and contrast detection with subject tracking for animals as well as human eyes, faces, and bodies.

Leica’s first in-house articulating screen flips up or tilts down for easier waist-level or overhead shots.
Image: Leica Camera

Other performance improvements include 8K video, Leica’s first foray into that video resolution. To utilize this feature, Leica took the same battery housing of the Q2 and increased its capacity by 340mAh for the Q3. The older battery is still compatible with the Q3 (and the new one is backward-compatible as well), but using it will lock out the 8K filming option. That may be perfectly fine, though, as Leica says there is a slight crop when shooting 8K. Plus, it tops out at 30p and is limited to 4:2:0 color subsampling unless you’re outputting to an external recorder. The Q3 seems more poised for 4K video, where it can go up to 60p and record for up to 29 minutes. In 8K, the camera is limited to 20 minutes, and it quickly ramps that down to as low as three minutes when filming in temperatures about 104 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The Q2 wasn’t really best equipped for video, but since the Q3 sees the addition of ports like Micro HDMI and USB-C 3.1, it should be more capable as a hybrid. Like the M11, the USB-C port is Made for iPhone certified (MFi) for easier connectivity to iPhones, and it now also means the Q3 can even be shot tethered to a computer.

The 28mm f/1.7 lens remains unchanged

One thing unchanged is the macro-capable Summilux 28mm f/1.7 lens that’s permanently attached to the Q3. It’s the same optics as the original Q, which Leica says is up to the task of resolving the higher resolution of the new sensor. The 28mm focal length is roughly similar to the field of view of a smartphone camera, but just like prior models, there’s a built-in crop button that now zooms the frame to 35mm, 50mm, 75mm, and a new 90mm equivalent crop — the latter of which cuts the resolution down to six megapixels.

Outside of all the spec improvements, one of the Q3’s most interesting features is its support for Qi wireless charging by way of a $195 handgrip. That may sound pricey if you’re not familiar with the cost of Leica accessories (spare batteries are an eye-watering $170, by the way), but it’s in the ballpark of other Leica grips that don’t add any functionality. Wireless charging in a camera may sound a little strange, as it’s a novel idea, but it kind of makes sense for an everyday-carry camera like a Q3.

The Leica Q3 is the first camera to incorporate wireless charging.
Image: Leica Camera

The idea of plopping your camera down for a charge at the end of the day or getting a small top-up while at a Starbucks is kind of neat. Just keep in mind that you absolutely do not have to buy Leica’s fancy $175 charger, made for it by Native Union, as any Qi charger that outputs 10W or more will do the trick.

And speaking of new tricks, we have to address the elephant in the room of the Q3’s new flippy-tilty display. While articulating screens on cameras are commonplace on most models these days, the Q3 is the first time Leica has implemented it on one of its in-house models (sorry, rebadged Panasonics, but you don’t count). This has been a long-demanded feature from both Leica fans and haters alike, and well, it’s here. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look and feel like an awkward compromise. I welcome the functionality, but the rear of the Q2 had a clean look that’s been disrupted in a jarring way on the Q3.

The new screen looks and feels like an awkward compromise

I got to borrow and use a Leica Q3 for a very brief window ahead of its announcement, and overall, I was left with a mixed first impression. I personally own a Leica Q2 as my go-anywhere, “fun” camera that I sometimes take with me on photo jobs in support of my Sony mirrorless system. The Q3 feels like a fine step forward, but the new autofocus system and design leave a lot to be desired. When I heard the autofocus system sounded a lot like Panasonic’s new hybrid implementation in the S5II, I got excited for a leap forward in performance. But at first, it seemed a lot like what I was used to on the Leica SL2, with lots of focus wobble and unreliable tracking that was not up to snuff. I’ll reserve full judgment when it’s on final firmware, but this preview didn’t instill confidence.

That’s quite the protrusion from the body. And no, I don’t mean the lens.
Image: Leica Camera

As for the screen, while the hinge on the Q3’s display feels robust, it’s also harder than normal to pull down or tilt up (that’s the limit of what it can do — you can’t flip it around for a selfie view). But the worst part of the screen, aside from it looking like it’s just been grafted on and makes the camera appear and feel bulkier, is that there’s no groove or grip on its left side to dig your nail into or grab with your finger. It has grooves on its top and bottom, meaning you have to make a much bigger reach to move it. It’s something you may get used to, but it’s definitely a detriment if you’re working quickly and trying to capture that “decisive moment.” I presume the screen’s left side was kept bare for a cleaner design, but it looks a bit weird in its side-profile view regardless. Fujifilm’s X100V may not have the sensor size and resolution of the Q3, but its near-flush tilting screen has the design I wish was here.

The rear controls of the Leica Q3 (left) and the Leica Q2 (right). One of these has more versatility, and one of these looks and handles better.
Images: Leica Camera

A byproduct of the new tilting screen is that the buttons have been moved to the right, above and below the D-pad, with Play awkwardly close to the carved-out thumb rest. I raised the camera to my eye on a few occasions to discover I was in playback, having accidentally mushed the Play button with the base of my thumb — slowing me down. Again, another thing you may get used to, but Leica cameras are supposed to all be about the user experience. Perhaps this first go-round with an articulating screen is a learning process for Leica, as it had to make some sizable compromises without making the camera bigger all around.

I can appreciate that Leica is trying to give its users what they want on the Q3, but this implementation of a tilt-screen feels like a slight misstep or an awkward growing pain. Sadly, when it comes to versatility and design, you can’t always have your cake and eat it, too — even when you pay $6,000 for a nice slice.