Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Leica Q tackles the North Face of the Eiger and blows the...

Leica Q tackles the North Face of the Eiger and blows the alpenhorn from on high

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Last week I took the wonderful Leica Q on an organised railway tour of the Bernese Oberland. It turned out to be a one-camera-one-lens adventure and all the shots in this article are from the Q. Click on the pictures to enlarge

By nature I am not a package-tour traveller. Normally I like to fly my own kite, revelling in planning and arranging and taking off in whatever direction takes my fancy. I usually hate to be tied down to a fixed schedule. Sometimes, though, a very specialised tour can be fun. So it is with overseas trips organised by the Norfolk-based Railway Touring Company. I’ve done a few one-day rail outings within the UK and, two years ago, I did their Bavarian Winter week based in Augsburg. 

 Morning in the village of Wengen with low-lying clouds settling into the Lauterbrunnen valley
Morning in the village of Wengen with low-lying clouds settling into the Lauterbrunnen valley
 Busy Wengen station on the Wengernalpbahn at the start of the steep climb up to Kleine Scheidegg and the Eiger
Busy Wengen station on the Wengernalpbahn at the start of the steep climb up to Kleine Scheidegg and the Eiger

When I saw that the RTC runs a well-established trip to the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland I was immediately hooked. This eight-day trip is based in the village of Wengen, near Interlaken, and it is an area I already know very well from regular visits over 30 years. For years I dutifully spent two September weeks in the village of Lauterbrunnen, down from Wengen, and hiked my socks off. I’ve neglected the area over the past five years so this was a good opportunity to get up close and familiar again.

 The three strong men of the Bernese Oberland—Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau (partly hidden by clouds). See the Jungfraujoch buildings in the saddle between Mönch and Jungfrau. This is Europe
The three strong men of the Bernese Oberland—Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau (partly hidden by clouds). See the Jungfraujoch buildings in the saddle between Mönch and Jungfrau. This is Europe’s highest railway station. This shot taken from near Winteregg on the Grütschalp-Mürren path on the opposite side of the Lauterbrunnental

Trains, trains and more trains

The unusual bit of RTC European adventures is that everything is done by train, not an aircraft in sight. For railway enthusiasts this is a big bonus and even I, a fair-weather track fancier, was attracted by the idea of heading to Switzerland by rail. It’s all too easy to hop on a plane to Zurich or Bern for a ninety minute flight. Quite another to do it by train. 

 The impressive view of the Lauterbrunnen valley from the top of Schynige Platte where you can wander through the fantastic alpine garden. Wengen is just visible immediately under the horizontal cloud formation over the valley
The impressive view of the Lauterbrunnen valley from the top of Schynige Platte where you can wander through the fantastic alpine garden. Wengen is just visible immediately under the horizontal cloud formation over the valley
 North face of the Eiger near to Kleine Scheidegg, overlooking Grindelwald
North face of the Eiger near to Kleine Scheidegg, overlooking Grindelwald

Above: Two shots of the Jungfraujoch. In the full frame you see the edge of the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau. Klein Scheidegg railway station is visible in the bottom right corner.  The second shot is a crop of the first, highlighting the Jungfraujoch complex which adjoins Europe’s highest railway station. Again, remarkable cropping ability from the Q’s full-frame sensor

When I booked up, however, I hadn’t anticipated the sheer number of trains I would have to lug my luggage onto in both directions. Both the outward and return journey saw us clambering into no fewer than six separate trains: Eurostar from London to Paris, TVG to Strasbourg, regional express to Basel, ICE train from Basel to Interlaken, Berner Oberland Bahn (BOB) to Lauterbrunnen and Wengernalpbahn (WAB) to Wengen. Phew, by the end of that I was ready for my alpine cot. But the overwhelming impression is one of efficiency and spot-on connections, particularly in Switzerland where everything ticks along seemingly without a hitch.

 Grindelwald from the station where the Berner Oberland Bahn and the Wengernalpbahn meet
Grindelwald from the station where the Berner Oberland Bahn and the Wengernalpbahn meet

There were 36 of us on this jaunt and, after all the travelling, it was a relief to know that we would be based for the seven nights in the same hotel, the Alpine Sunstar in the village of Wengen, 4,180ft above sea level. It’s a very pretty, car-free town accessible only by WAB’s rack-and-pinion trains—which means all journeys begin and end by rail.

 Blowing the alpenhorn at the top of Schynige Platte
Blowing the alpenhorn at the top of Schynige Platte

Although there were some serious railheads among the group, most of us were there for the alpine experience, the hiking and, in my case, the chance to do some photography in a wonderful environment. 

Camera choice

I had deliberated which cameras to take but eventually settled on the 28mm Leica Q and the new Fuji X-T10 fitted with the great 56mm f/1.2. However, I soon realised that the wider lens was more useful, particularly for the scenic shots, and I ended up carrying the Leica almost exclusively. I had intended to get in some shots with the Fuji but, after the first day, I got tired of carrying two cameras and, clearly, the wider lens was the most able in the circumstances.

 Kleine Scheidegg station which forms the junction between the Wengernalpbahn and the Jungfraubahn. All tourists for the Jungfrau pass through here. This is the highest point on the Wengernalpbahn from where you can travel down to Wengen and Lauterbrunnen on one side and Grindelwald on the other
Kleine Scheidegg station which forms the junction between the Wengernalpbahn and the Jungfraubahn. All tourists for the Jungfrau pass through here. This is the highest point on the Wengernalpbahn from where you can travel down to Wengen and Lauterbrunnen on one side and Grindelwald on the other

When I tested the Q I was blown over by the image quality and the excellent handling. And the week in Switzerland served to confirm these initial views. The quality of the images is indeed truly excellent and the advantage of the full-frame sensor makes  moderate cropping to achieve a narrower view more than viable. As a long-time M owner, I did not feel in any way shortchanged by the Q. Both in terms of handling and quality it is a true M companion and is arguably the best general-purpose travel camera in Leica’s list. 

 Jungfraubahn train leaving Kleine Scheidegg with another load of tourists for the top of the Jungfraujoch
Jungfraubahn train leaving Kleine Scheidegg with another load of tourists for the top of the Jungfraujoch

Strangely, although I had complimented Leica’s designers on the unique frame line implementation of 35mm and 50mm crops, I ended up shooting full frame all the time. This was partly because I had fitted an old Leica M Thumbs Up grip which, while excellent ergonomically, covers the crop control button on the back of the camera. I reckoned this was a good trade off in improving handling. But after playing with and enjoying the cropline feature during the test, I can honestly say I didn’t miss them during the past week. It’s a take-it-or-leave it thing and has absolutely no effect on image quality. It can be an aid to composition, especially for portrait work. What is clear, though, is that a 50mm focal-length equivalent is perfectly usable with the Q.

 Empty terrace of the Eiger North Face restaurant, near Kleine Scheidegg, awaiting a hungry trainload of Japanese tourists trekking up from Grindelwald.
Empty terrace of the Eiger North Face restaurant, near Kleine Scheidegg, awaiting a hungry trainload of Japanese tourists trekking up from Grindelwald.

28mm fan

After a full week with the Q, I really appreciate the wide 28mm lens. I now prefer it to the more common 35mmm focal length employed by most other fixed-lens compacts such as the Leica X, Fuji X100T or Sony RX1. With the full-frame sensor in the Q, a crop to 35mm is barely noticeable in terms of ultimate resolution. On the other hand, you cannot uncrop a thirty-five. Only in portrait work is the wider lens a disadvantage and I find it useful to stand back in order to achieve a more flattering facial perspective, relying afterwards on cropping the image. Certainly for the sort of stuff I was taking last week—trains, landscapes, architecture—the wider image is a decided bonus.

 The path towards Grindelwald from near Kleine Scheidegg
The path towards Grindelwald from near Kleine Scheidegg

The simplicity of the Q shines through. Save for the addition of an electronic viewfinder, this camera is pared to the same essentials as the M240. It has simple minimal controls and options and it is possible to see all essential settings at a glance, even with the camera switched off. The lens, as I described at length in my test, is a masterpiece with its butter-smooth M-like controls and novel dual depth of field scales for both normal and macro use. 

 Rettungshund on duty: If you get lost in the snow, a swig of brandy and a wet nose isn
Rettungshund on duty: If you get lost in the snow, a swig of brandy and a wet nose isn’t far away

Altogether, the Q makes a near perfect travel companion. I dithered over the possible need for a longer focal length but, in the end, I need not have worried. The 28mm did the job and took away a fair chunk of indecision.

 Schynige Platte Bahn at Wilderswill station: A journey into the past. Ralf Meier of  Trainphilos , über railway fan, grabs some technical stuff for the present. In the Berggasthaus up on Schynige Platte you can spend the night as in grandmother
Schynige Platte Bahn at Wilderswill station: A journey into the past. Ralf Meier of Trainphilos , über railway fan, grabs some technical stuff for the present. In the Berggasthaus up on Schynige Platte you can spend the night as in grandmother’s times. Oil lamps, probably.
 Above: Settling in at Wilderswill station for the spectacular one-in-four climb to the remarkable Schynige Platte. It was worth the 50-minute climb to see the fantastic alpine gardens. Below, the Q in macro mode grabs a thistle on Schynige Platte
Above: Settling in at Wilderswill station for the spectacular one-in-four climb to the remarkable Schynige Platte. It was worth the 50-minute climb to see the fantastic alpine gardens. Below, the Q in macro mode grabs a thistle on Schynige Platte

Lightweight companion 

The camera is relatively light, at just under 700g ready for the road. This is 80g lighter than the M240 body alone. Add a 28mm Summilux to match the Q’s optic and the M tips the scales at a hefty 1,100g. For potentially similar performance, the Q is just so much more handleable and convenient as a travel camera. If you can cope with the single focal length, I would recommend the Q any time.

A trip on the steam-powered Rothornbahn from Brienz. Built in 1892, this was a turnkey system purchased by the citizens of Brienz. Some of the original steam locomotives are still in service, although newer versions were built in the 1990s.  Note how the engines are angled to complement the track as it rises. 

To my surprise I used auto focus almost exclusively. It is a very fast system, probably the fastest I have used, and I had no more than a couple of misses in the week. This doesn’t mean that the manual focus system is wanting in any way. In fact, it is the best manual focus I have found on any modern automatic camera. it’s just that there didn’t seem to be much point in taking the extra time to focus manually.

 Lake Brienz and the Bernese alps seen from the top of the Rothorn
Lake Brienz and the Bernese alps seen from the top of the Rothorn

This Swiss adventure is just one of many railway-centered holidays organised throughout the world by the Railway Touring Company. In Europe, travel is entirely by train. This particular outing also includes a week-long Berner Oberland regional travel pass. Normally this costs over 300 francs (£200 or $310) but is excellent value in view of the very expensive walk-up individual tickets. It means that if you do not want to join the planned excursions (there are two free days, by the way) you can travel extensively throughout the region, on trains, buses and trams, for a set advance cost.

You can find the full itinerary here. Another excursion to the area is scheduled for August 19

 Dining in style on the Rothorn
Dining in style on the Rothorn
 Lunch at Kleine Scheidegg. Almost time to get your tongue around a Schweinsgeschnetzeltes Zürcher Art with Spätzli and almond broccoli. A snip at 19 Franken and 40 Rappen
Lunch at Kleine Scheidegg. Almost time to get your tongue around a Schweinsgeschnetzeltes Zürcher Art with Spätzli and almond broccoli. A snip at 19 Franken and 40 Rappen
 Yet more tourists returning to Kleine Scheidegg from the Jungfraujoch
Yet more tourists returning to Kleine Scheidegg from the Jungfraujoch
 The only way is down—the rack-and-pinion WAB line to Alpiglen, Brandegg and Grindelwald leaving Kleine Scheidegg station
The only way is down—the rack-and-pinion WAB line to Alpiglen, Brandegg and Grindelwald leaving Kleine Scheidegg station
 Our very own tram awaits in a side street near Bern railway station. As part of our organised tour, we spent two hours trundling around the Swiss capital in this 1935 vintage tram
Our very own tram awaits in a side street near Bern railway station. As part of our organised tour, we spent two hours trundling around the Swiss capital in this 1935 vintage tram

 Bern streetscape from the rear trailer of the 1935 tram
Bern streetscape from the rear trailer of the 1935 tram
 More modern vehicles lurking in the Bern city tram depot
More modern vehicles lurking in the Bern city tram depot
 The Q
The Q’s quick autofocus perfectly captured the downward gondola from the up car at converging speed on the Männlichen Gondolbahn
 Winding gear at the Männlichen Gondolbahn (an example of ISO 12500)
Winding gear at the Männlichen Gondolbahn (an example of ISO 12500)
 Folkfest in Wengen. Ring out the bells.
Folkfest in Wengen. Ring out the bells.
  Trachtenfest —traditional alpine clothing and entertainment—at the top of the Männlichen last Sunday
Trachtenfest —traditional alpine clothing and entertainment—at the top of the Männlichen last Sunday
 Yodelling at the Trachtenfest—this is a heavy crop from the Leica because I had only a 28mm lens. It is probably the digital equivalent of using a 75mm lens.  The result is still very usable, further evidence that you can get by with just one focal length
Yodelling at the Trachtenfest—this is a heavy crop from the Leica because I had only a 28mm lens. It is probably the digital equivalent of using a 75mm lens.  The result is still very usable, further evidence that you can get by with just one focal length
 Above and below: Joint proprietors of the Laughing Cow cheese factory
Above and below: Joint proprietors of the Laughing Cow cheese factory

 Pesky little cropped critters just won
Pesky little cropped critters just won’t leave poor Brünnhilde alone. She needs a tail at both ends
 Immaculate engine room of the paddle steamer  Berner Oberland  on Lake Brienz, built in 1914 and still chugging around the lake
Immaculate engine room of the paddle steamer Berner Oberland on Lake Brienz, built in 1914 and still chugging around the lake
 A medley of merry monks prepares to visit the Mönch and the Jungfrau
A medley of merry monks prepares to visit the Mönch and the Jungfrau
 Above and below: Modern Trachtenfest at Bern railway station. No yodelling and poncy dancing nonsense here. Switzerland isn
Above and below: Modern Trachtenfest at Bern railway station. No yodelling and poncy dancing nonsense here. Switzerland isn’t all cowbells and edelweiss.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Very nice Mike. Fabulous scenery! My Q is on order from Ivor at Red Dot. I fear it’s going to be a long wait, now that the Wetzlar folks are heading to the coast for August!

  2. ’28mm fan’

    Mike, this was the reason I sold my X100S, I just missed the little extra that the 28mm lens gives (especially as my old but still wonderful Digilux 2 has the 28-90mm range). My answer, as you know, was the very under-rated X-Vario, which I like more and more each time I use it, but I must admit the Leica Q is very tempting. Maybe once the supply of cameras is better I will give one serious consideration, but in the meantime the X-Vario is fine. (There is/was one for sale at Harrisons in Sheffield if you’re still after one, by the way, c/w Leica EVF etc; I’ve no connection with them, other than as an occasional customer).

    Regards,
    Geoff Morgan

    • Thanks Geoff, I’ll bear that in mind. But I can definitely recommend the Q as one of the better cameras in the Leica range.

  3. Hi Mike
    Very nice piece. Had my first fondle of the Q at RDC this morning when I (finally) collected my M246 Monochrom (my delay, not Leica’s!).
    Very nice the Q feels in the hand, and it clearly delivers, as demonstrated by your lovely Swiss images.
    Very tempted. Speak soon.
    John

    • Missed you by minutes this morning, so heard all about the doings. I’m glad you have your hands on the Monochrom at last. The Q seems to have ever-lengthening queues all round the world and it really is a superb camera. In fact, it’s an ideal colour complement to the M246, so polish up your credit card.

      Mike

  4. As a new M Monochrom owner, who lacks a wide angle lens and wonders if he’s made a mistake going all-in with black and white, this article was particularly interesting. Plus, being a swiss resident, you’ve presented our charms well.

    I’ve been up to Kleine Scheidegg many times – almost exclusively wearing snowboard boots. While I’m not a train freak, I do possess a national train pass. I need to see how the weather is on the weekend!

    Thanks for the excellent article.

    • Thanks for your comments. I love the Berner Oberland and have been visiting for 30 years, hence this train trip was like a homecoming.

      As for the Monochrom, I am also getting to grips with it. I loved the original M9-based MM and the new 246 is better in most respects. I’ve been using it mainly with a 50mm lens and the results are superb. I see the Monochrom as a companion for a more main-stream camera (which bill the Q fits very well). I think if it were my only camera I would become frustrated by the lack of colour when needed. I did think of taking mine to Switzerland but decided on the Q because of the wide-angle lens and the colour. As it turns out, I am glad I did. I think in Monochrom the impact would have been less.

      Mike

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