Why the Leica Q Is the Best Travel Camera: A Hands-On Review

The best camera may be the one you have with you. But that’s especially true if you’re traveling with the Leica Q. The camera was introduced back in 2015, but the Leica Q remains an object of fascination among photographers because there just aren’t many cameras like it. The full-frame, mirrorless camera features a 24MP sensor, a fixed Summilux 28mm f/1.7 lens, and a 3.68 million dot electronic viewfinder.

Those specs are impressive, and the numbers don’t lie, as I learned when the camera accompanied on a recent trip to Doha, Qatar. Sure enough, the Leica Q proved itself as the best travel camera that I’ve ever used. It performed beautifully everywhere from the shaded alleys of the souq to the intensely sunny camel-racing track in the desert. It also surprised me with its accurate auto modes and gorgeous color rendition.

Ahead, here’s what makes the Leica Q the best travel camera — and one that you won’t want to put down when you make your way back home. Photos I shot of Qatar on the Leica Q are straight from the camera, without the light processing or minor cropping that I’d otherwise complete.

1. The camera — and sensor — are the perfect size

The Leica Q is the best travel camera. | Leica

Most people looking for the best travel camera give outsize — no pun intended — priority to one factor: size. Travel cameras should be small and compact. But if the size of the camera were its most important quality, you’d just use the tool that’s already in your pocket: your phone. To capture high-quality images, you have to recalibrate your thinking and consider the size of the camera’s sensor, not just the size of the camera.

The Leica Q has a full-frame 24.2-megapixel sensor, the equivalent of shooting 35mm film. Most cameras at this size — it’s not much bigger than many point-and-shoots — don’t pack a full-frame sensor. The size of the sensor enables the Leica Q to produce photos with a much higher resolution and far more information than you need to share your photos online. Plus, the color rendition yields images that you don’t necessarily have to process before posting to Instagram.

Even with a packed itinerary in Doha (and usually a bag, a water bottle, and a scarf to juggle, too) I never regretted carrying the Leica Q with me. It’s small enough to carry everywhere, and to put away in a bag if you visit a museum or mosque that prohibits photography. Though you can certainly find smaller cameras, the full-frame sensor alone makes it worth carrying.

2. The lens alone is enough reason to buy the Leica Q

Touring the State Grand Mosque in Doha, Qatar | Jess Bolluyt for The Cheat Sheet

The Leica Q’s lens is half the reason — at least — that the Q is the best travel camera I’ve ever used. It has a fixed, 28mm Summilux f/1.7 lens, another factor that makes it almost completely unique among travel cameras. Unlike most cameras in this price range, the lens doesn’t come off. It also doesn’t zoom. That means that anytime you use the Leica Q, you’re shooting at 28mm.

Fortunately,  that focal length will feel familiar to anyone who takes photos with an iPhone. (If you need help with the adjustment, the electronic viewfinder features 3.68 million dots, and is strikingly bright and accurate.) The Leica Q’s wide angle lens is incredibly versatile. If you want a closer shot, you have to move in closer to your subject — something that neither camels nor falcons seemed to mind. And, for the record, photographing a falcon up-close and personal is just as easy as snapping images of expansive dunes in the desert.

Plus, if you ultimately settle for a shot that’s wider than you’d like, the high resolution of the images makes it possible to do some judicious cropping later. The f/1.7 maximum aperture gives the Leica Q’s photos their cinematic look and feel. The shallow depth of field can direct your eye around the image. And sometimes, you can make the image stronger by cropping in your app of choice.

3. The autofocus is fast and dependable

Camels training for a race at the Al Shahaniya racetrack | Jess Bolluyt for The Cheat Sheet

The Leica Q’s autofocus is astonishingly fast and surprisingly dependable. In fact, the responsive autofocus makes it possible to catch shots that you’d otherwise miss. If you prefer to focus manually, you can also do that by unlocking the focus ring directly on the lens. Then, the combination of focus peaking and a zoom feature helps you nail the focus.

The Leica Q can shoot at ISOs up to 50,000. But since the camera has both a full-frame sensor and an f/1.7 lens, I’ve never had a reason to push it anywhere close to that. Whether or not you let the camera handle the focusing, you control most of the camera’s functionality with the lens. (Not by clicking your way through a complex set of menus on the LCD or in the EVF.)

In fact, once you’ve configured the ISO, you don’t have to take a second look at the screen. You can just go back and forth between the lens and the shutter, like you would when shooting film. You control the aperture on the lens, with an aperture ring.  Plus, you can activate and control manual focus on the focus ring. And, of course, you’ll press the shutter release to capture a photo.

4. Auto and aperture priority modes make shooting easy

Taking in the view at the Khor Al Adaid | Jess Bolluyt for The Cheat Sheet

Just as the Leica Q features fantastic autofocus, it also surprises with responsive — and easy — auto and aperture priority modes. Both are impressively accurate. I’ve rarely even touched the exposure compensation wheel, relying on it only to intentionally under-expose a photo for processing later, or to capture a particularly tricky backlit image.

During my trip to Qatar, I typically shot on aperture priority. That way, I could leave the lens wide open — even when shooting in the desert. (More on shutter speed in a moment!) Enabling the camera to handle the shutter speed and focusing runs counter to my usual strategy of doing everything manually. But the mode made shooting easy not only for me, but also for fellow travelers whom I handed the camera on the rare occasion that I wanted to be in front of the lens. The automatic capabilities are reliable enough to hand the camera over without instruction.

5. The shutter is silent

Looking down an alley at the Souq Waqif in Doha | Jess Bolluyt for The Cheat Sheet

Some cameras make a loud, unmistakable shutter sound each time you snap a photo. Even if it doesn’t get you in trouble, it can still make you cringe when the sound reverberates in a quiet room. The best travel cameras enable you to be more discreet. Leica made sure that you can set the Q to remain completely silent. (Though it’s worth saying that you should still observe the rules, especially the customs around photographing people in a Muslim country like Qatar.)

The silent electronic shutter proves a major asset when shooting in a mosque or a museum. You can choose between leaf mode, which makes only a faint mechanical sound, and the completely silent electronic mode. If you set the camera to leaf mode, that’s how it will operate at speeds up to 1/2000 of a second. Then, the camera automatically switches to electronic mode when shooting at 1/16000. And speaking of those fast shutter speeds, they make it possible to shoot at f/1.7 no matter how bright the light.

6. Solid build quality lets the Leica Q take a beating

Getting up close with falcons at the Souq Waqif in Doha | Jess Bolluyt for The Cheat Sheet

The Leica Q puts Leica’s signature industrial design on display. The camera, like any other Leica, is beautifully designed. It has a classic Leica silhouette that increasingly shows up in the designs of other camera manufacturers, most notably Fuji. But few other cameras match the clean lines and minimal design of the Leica Q. Nonetheless, some photographers opt to cover the signature Leica red dot to make it less conspicuous on the road.

But more importantly, the build quality of the Leica Q is solid. That means that if you accidentally hit it, your stomach may drop, but the camera probably won’t be any worse for wear. (The only catch is that the camera isn’t weather-sealed, so you’ll need to be careful around bodies of water. I left it behind when we went kayaking in the mangroves, even though I successfully avoided capsizing.)

The optional Thumbs Up grip adds more stability, and as an aesthetic bonus, begins brassing with enough wear. Plus, the camera is weighty without getting heavy. It feels just as balanced slung over your shoulder as it does when you carry it in your hand or hold it up to take a photo.

7. The camera’s software is minimal and easy to use

Exploring the Souq Waqif  | Jess Bolluyt for The Cheat Sheet

The software of the Leica Q plays a critical role in making the Q the best travel camera on the market. The interface is minimal and straightforward. But one of its best features is that it can get out of your way when you want it to. You can even turn off the LCD and effectively shoot as if the Q were a film camera (which wouldn’t be hard to believe if you don’t look too closely at it).

Finally, the feature that clinched the deal and made the Leica Q the best travel camera I’ve used is the WiFi feature, in combination with the Leica Q app. You can connect your iPhone to the Leica (from the WiFi setting, where you’d connect to a regular network) and either transfer photos to your phone or remotely operate the camera. I haven’t experimented with the remote control feature often. But it seemed to work as seamlessly as the rest of the camera’s software features.

Why the Leica Q is the best travel camera

While $4,500 may seem like a lot of money for a travel camera — even the best travel camera — it’s actually a bargain in the Leica world. Factoring in the cost of a Leica body with a full-frame sensor and the price of a 28mm Summilux, you’re getting a great deal when you buy the two together in the Leica Q.

Additionally, the compact body of the Leica Q provides a definite advantage for travelers. You could certainly buy a comparable DSLR and lens for $4,500. But the Leica Q gives you a full-frame sensor and an f/1.7 lens in a package that weighs about the same as a single lens for a DSLR. That’s valuable whether you’re prone to packing overweight hand luggage or if you want to do a lot of walking without your camera weighing you down.

Perhaps most importantly, the Leica Q is genuinely fun to use. It works with you, not against you, when you’re trying to capture the perfect photo. It’s dependable in its functionality and is a beautiful piece of engineering, but it’s also satisfying to shoot with — I’d say that it even makes traveling more fun.

Read more: 12 iPhone Camera Tips to Take Great Photos

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