Home L-Mount Alliance Leica T at Six: Hit or a miss?

Leica T at Six: Hit or a miss?

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The Visoflex did nothing for the looks of the T, although it was an excellent performer. Indeed, it soldiers on, still, as the accessory for the Leica M10.

Six years ago today saw the launch of a revolutionary new camera, the Leica T. Hewn from a solid block of aluminium and polished in Portugal to within a micron of its life, this was the camera that Leica hoped would revolutionise photography. In a nod to the growing threat from the smartphone, Leica introduced a touch control system that is still unique. It was a bold step into the unknown, but how has it fared since then?

Taken with the original Leica T and 23mm Summicron
Taken with the original Leica T and 23mm Summicron

From the beach

On the day of the announcement, I was in Greece. In my journal I wrote: “At 4 pm the Leica T was announced so I had to do a quick review and post to Macfilos. The T appears to be a unique camera and, although the body is cheaper than I had envisaged, the lenses and accessories are very expensive.”

Perhaps one of the most unusual digital cameras ever made: Hewn from a solid block of aluminium, the T features minimalist physical controls and relied heavily on a revolutionary touch-screen navigational system.

I followed up this original announcement with a four-year-up reprise in April 2018. I’d just re-purchased, at an affordable price, an example of the original T from 2014. With strong rumours of the arrival of the CL, I decided it was time to get back into Leica’s APS-C system. Unfortunately, I sold the T when the CL arrived but I now wish I had kept it in the same way that I’ve kept the X1 and X2.

Looking back

Looking back to 2014 from 2020, however, it feels like a much longer period. At the launch, most reviewers homed in on the novel hewn-from-the-block construction and the equally unusual touch control system with its now-familiar block menu icons. At the time, this was seen as Leica’s (and the photographic industry’s) answer to the threat of the smartphone. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em with a familiar all-touch control system.

There were just two lenses at the birth of the T – the 18-56mm Vario-Elmar and the 23mm f/2 Summicron
There were just two lenses at the birth of the T – the 18-56mm Vario-Elmar and the 23mm f/2 Summicron

What seemed less significant at the time was the new, massively proportioned mount system, the T. It was clearly big for an APS-C camera and, indeed, the mount almost filled the front of the small T camera. We now know that this mount was designed primarily for full-frame use and that the SL was already well under development when the T was announced.

Now known as the L-Mount, this new design was probably the most significant aspect of the T launch. While the T was heralded as the future for Leica, it was really the L-Mount that fills that role.

The Visoflex did nothing for the looks of the T, although it was an excellent performer. Indeed, it soldiers on, still, as the accessory for the Leica M10.
The Visoflex did nothing for the looks of the T, although it was an excellent performer and offered a convenient hinge mechanism. Indeed, it soldiers on, still, as the accessory for the Leica M10.

APS-C market

In contrast, Leica’s entry into the ILC APS-C market has been less significant. With the T, then the TL, the TL2 and the CL, we’ve seen steady progress but no break-through that would have made Leica a leader in the crop-frame market.

It’s too early to write the obituary of the TL2. Many people love the camera for its bold design and unusual handling. If it had had an integral viewfinder from the start, I suspect it could well have been a much bigger hit.

The accessory Visoflex was a good effort in 2014 and, indeed, it is still the current offering on the M10. Many T owners loved it for its ability to swivel upwards to help with those lower-angle shots, but the majority saw it as an unwelcome protuberance on an otherwise biddable body.

Taken with the original Leica T and the 55-135mm APO-Vario-Elmar
The T takes on the smartphone: Taken with the original Leica T and the 55-135mm APO-Vario-Elmar

The CL was designed to overcome the negative reactions to the T — with a good built-in viewfinder and more traditional controls. It has a strong following among traditional Leica users but in my opinion, it has failed to grow the sector by attracting back Fuji and Sony users.

Price is a big factor, not necessarily the cost of the CL itself – for a Leica, it is a reasonably priced little camera. It’s the lenses that hurt when it comes to building a system. They are all good performers and they are small and light. With the exception of the 35mm Summilux and the 23mm Summicron, they are all slower than we now expect from professional-quality lenses. And the longer zooms, particularly the 55-135mm are tarnished in the eyes of buyers for their lack of stabilisation. Yet, for what they are, they are perceived as being expensive.

Sadly, I see little future for the aluminium T range – although all three cameras will remain desirable as second-hand buys for their unique qualities. In fact, I expect them to become classic digitals in their own right. If you own one, I’d hang on to it.

Leica’s APS-C hopes are focused on the CL and I have a shrewd suspicion that we could see a revised CL2, taking the design forward in the same subtle but meaningful way as did the SL2. We might even see in-body stabilisation, something which would put new life into the existing lens range.

Revolutionary or slavish copying of the smartphone? Back in 2014 we imagined that one day all cameras would eventually move to on-screen operation. But it hasn't been so. Instead, we've seen more intellingent touch-screen technology complementing more traditional control systems.
Revolutionary or misguided effort to jump on the smartphone bandwagon? Back in 2014, we could imagine one day all cameras might eventually move to on-screen operation in this smartphone-like tiled fashion. But it hasn’t been so. Instead, we’ve seen more intelligent touch-screen technology complementing traditional physical controls.

Unfortunately, with the absence of alternative L-Mount cameras from other manufacturers, there seems little possibility that we will see a range of excellent and affordable lenses such as the Art series produced by Sigma for the full-frame cameras from Leica and Panasonic.

Of course, all full-frame L-mount lenses can be used on the CL but this rather defeats the object of going for a smaller sensor. In the main (with the exception of that Sigma 45mm f/2.8 – which becomes a useful 68 mm on the CL), they are all too big and heavy. In a way, it is a pity for Leica that Panasonic has definitely decided to ignore APS-C.

Back to today, the sixth anniversary of the Leica T. It is also the sixth anniversary of a new mount, the L, which has succeeded in breaking out into a wider world of alternative cameras and high-quality affordable lenses. The L-Mount is destined for success, aided by both Panasonic and Sigma. Whether or not it will continue to serve APS-C systems in the future is less certain. Let’s hope that the CL2, when and if it arrives, will inject some new life into the system.

What’s your view? Was the T revolutionary or just a bold misstep on the way to the modern digital camera? And what do you think of the future for the CL and a possible CL2? Love it or hate it? Leave your comments below

More Macfilos articles on the Leica T

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20 COMMENTS

  1. I own both the TL2 and the CL; I much prefer the TL2 for its rugged compactness and simplicity – a perfect high end IPhone! And the TL lenses -especially the 35/1.4 and the 55-135 are designed for it and look much better on it than on the CL. I used the CL a lot around Europe when it first came out – but it doesn’t excite me. Its design has a hybrid air – as opposed to the classic X1 for example. The TL lenses are much lighter than their full frame equivalents – and on the SL2 and Panasonic S1R offer nearly 20mps. So I’m not giving up on them yet!

  2. The TL camera’s alongside the CL do add to the conundrum of what Leica does with its APS-C line up. I still believe there is a market out there if they strike a price balance for an X with EVF, at price to take on the Fuji X100 series. In addition I think there is a smaller market for the CL2 or the TL3, but I suspect Leica would need to make a decision about which one it supports – perhaps there is an opportunity to merge the two cameras, and have a CL type camera with the TL’s touch interface.

  3. Thanks for the article! There are multiple challenges Leica faces:

    The T/TL/TL2 may have a nice UI and form, but I’m not sure it gives the majority of would-be photographers enough of a desirable step up from the 2 x 12MP lenses on the iPhone 11. Or…it needs to be a Sigma FP challenger in terms of form but at a significantly lower price than the FP with an APSC sensor.

    A CL/CL2 would likely conform to the expectations of what people think a camera should look like and do. In other words it’s not trying to be something it’s not. If it can incorporate IBIS that would be a good marketing point even if a lot of the time you really don’t need it.

    Leica has a problem in the APSC market in that it has no easy-to-understand tree and branch model map in the way Fuji has. I can pretty quickly figure out which branch is going to be the most interesting and appealing for me, but still recognize I have choices within other branches. And obviously I have many more lenses to choose from. The CL and TL “branches” don’t easily relate to each other so can confuse the browsing camera shopper when they come across both. It feels schizophrenic and in the end do retailers want to support both lines in terms of stocking and selling them?

    Unless there’s a viable financial position where a TL2/3 could compete with Fuji while still commanding a respectable premium, I’m not sure I would keep the line. Perhaps it would be more advantageous to put my R&D and marketing resources behind a CL2 and future CL3.

    • Fair points, I do think there is a market for an X100v challenger from Leica, even if they charge £3-400 more for it, it could even sell like the Q did if it has a similar charm.

  4. I bought/sold 2 T’s, tried the CL, repurchased a TL. The T has the large back screen and the
    a viewfinder that can be used like a TLR. They can be had for a song. I like to use the older M lenses on the T, the edges that are poor on some lenses are not a concern with the T. A 1941 35mm Elmar LTM is fun, a low contrast lens that can be used on a camera made over 60 years later.

  5. The T came out when Leica, or Andreas Kaufmann, was in thrall to Apple ..or to Apple’s designer Jonny Ive. (How odd, though, that no new Ive-designed camera has since been announced by Leica – apart from that modified ‘charity’-designed model.)

    The slim MacBooks were milled-&-drilled from one block of aluminium, so needing fewer parts and having more strength, and so Leica went with the trend ..instead of leading.

    Some dim-wit at Leica thought “everyone’s using smartphones for photos, so let’s [stupidly following the trend again] make a camera which works like a smartphone!”

    But a smartphone – like, say, an iPhone – does everything for you: it focuses, sets the aperture and speed, decides what the colours should be, adjusts its sensitivity. To get more control over that, you download and install photo apps.

    But when people want more than a smartphone offers ..then they buy a camera! Leica, however, got it the wrong way round, and decided to dumb-down a camera to make it more like a smartphone ..so where would the customers come from? ..Not from people who wanted something more than a phone!

    That’s the trouble with following trends – unless you’re Steve Jobs, who could re-invent a trend (..such as the pocket MP3 player, or the cellular phone).

    Leitz/Leica pretty much invented the pocket rangefinder camera, but then thought they’d better follow the trend for SLRs ..and where did that get them? ..huge, clunky, undistinguished, re-branded Minoltas. They followed the trend to digital, and produced the under-performing M8.

    Where’s the Leica ‘visionary’ who can say “these technologies are available or emerging ..what can WE do with them which will distinguish our products from everyone else’s? Are our strengths in cameras or lenses? Let’s find a slim holographic way to make photos!”

    In 1925 Leitz took cine film, and made it mainstream for pocket stills cameras. Leitz made exceptionally reliable cameras, with excellent lenses. Their products were leap-frogged by Zeiss (..the 2nd wave of Contax cameras..) and by Nikon (..the first wave of super-reliable SLRs..) and then Leitz/Leica lost their way.

    APS is a silly idea for Leica, as people think of blur-background f1.4 and f0.95 pictures as ‘Leica photos’, and those blurred-background ‘full-frame’ pictures aren’t easily achievable with smaller APS sensors.

    Leica should take what they’re known for (sharp, blurry-background photos; small cameras and lenses; easy-to-use cameras) and make a new breed of small-body, small-lens, easy-to-use ‘full-frame’, wide aperture, wide-to-medium zoom, completely novel cameras.

    It’ll need a lot of R&D, but not simply R&D in lenses, nor R&D in manufacture, but R&D in – above all – usability.

    That’s what Steve Jobs did: refine, and refine, and refine ..till there were minimal buttons to press, fewer actions to perform, fewer decisions to make, and so Apple devices became intuitive to use. (That’s what engendered this Macfilos blog, if I remember right.)

    It shouldn’t be a matter of “shall we put a touch-screen on it?” (..the idea behind the T). Or “shall we hew it out of aluminium?” ..Or “do we put a larger lens mount on it?”

    The question should be “How can we make the high quality, quickly-snapped photos with soft backgrounds which we’re known for ..how can we make those available, at a tolerable price, for a greater number of people?” (..And incorporate cordless re-charging, and lowest-possible battery-drain) ..USEFUL things, not gimmicky hewn-from-a-block, shiny aluminium eye-candy!

    (..What was the question again?..)

    • Excellent overview, David. You are quite right, Leica should stick with what it does best — or what its buyers expect From it. Your reference to Apple is also spot on. I suspect Leica felt that Apple and the iPhone would be the natural home for their optical excellence but, of course, Apple doesn’t do that sort of thing.

      • Apple would try to buy the smaller company, and then asset strip it to suit whatever need it had, but make good use of the bits they wanted. Thats what they do, when they want something that is technologically useful to them. Or gives them a new technological advantage over their competitors.

        Thankfully so far, Leica has steered clear of this one. As it would potentially spell the end of the brand if bought up by someone like Apple.

  6. I bought the Leica T + 18-55 mm + electronic viewfinder, as a kit here in Bangkok, when its price was half of the initial price.
    The idea was to use it as a travel camera, later on buying the 55-135 mm.
    I was initially not pleased with the results – colors lacking of punch in JPEG – and it took me a significant time to set it the way I like, eventually using the “Vivid”colors setting reduced to 2/3
    I was then more pleased by the results, as the lens is indeed excellent and the colors were up to my liking, but I had a problem when shooting with flash: the camera would freeze after a couple of shots and I had to remove and replace the battery and reboot the camera each time!
    I then considered the possibility to sell the T back and buy the TL2, or the CL, but in view of the prices,I eventually went for Fuji (XT2 + 18-5m5 mm and 52 mm) and I am quite happy.
    I eventually sold the T to buy the D-Lux 7,itself successor to the D-Lux, as go anywhere camera.
    As a conclusion,the T was definitely an interesting concept, but its development was clearly not up to the expectation from a brand like Leica, and I still fins that the Leica APS-C cameras are far too expensive compared to the competition, even if the lenses are excellent,

  7. I loved my T and think Leica were 100% right in introducing something so very different, visually lovely, and with a albeit small range of truly superb optics, though I will admit I would not have been at all happy with it if had I only shot JPEGs, which I suspect is what the previous commenter Shhwarzie has been doing.

    My T has long gone however, replaced though with a CL plus the even better performing TL2 (Which does not suffer the dreaded focus point wanderings unlike the CL) and those same wonderful original T lenses perform even better still with the TL2 and CL’s increased to 24 m/pixel sensor.

    In short for me if anything failed or fell short it is the CL rather than the T, TL or TL2, with the latter being my absolute favorite. Don

    • Good to hear such a positive view of the TL2, Don. This seems to be the one to go for as a keeper example of the T range. The point about lack of focus point movement applies to all the Ts and it is one of the big advantages of not having disruptive physical buttons. Unfortunately, the CL is one of the worst offenders in this respect.

  8. I’m into my third week with the TL2, bought ex-demo from Leica with a decent discount. I’m using it with the 7Artisans 55mm manual and the Sigma 45 Contemporary lens (thank you Mike for the reviews). At some point I may purchase the Visoflex but right now I’m enjoying using the big screen on the back.

    In use my only comments are positive. I find the camera to be well balanced and the controls intuitive. I like the honesty of the design; it’s not trying to be retro. It’s simple, sturdy and exactly the camera I need.

    • Another accolade for the TL2 which seems to be the one to go for if you like the overall design. I would be very surprised if there is ever a TL3; we are much more likely to see a CL2, if anything. Good luck with the new camera and consider writing a review if you feel motivated.

  9. Hoping the CL2 comes out soon. CL is a great little camera but there are a number of improvements they could make:

    1) Fixate the single AF point to the centre.
    2) Make the two spinning dials on the top plate stiffer and not protruding so far on the edge of the body.
    3) Have the two spinning dials dedicated to shutter speed and aperture, with the appropriate engravings, a la X bodies. You can then remove the top LCD screen.

    Point number 3 would in my opinion would bring the CL closer to the traditional philosophy that Leica seems to be aiming for with this model. Having unmarked, do-all-you-can controls that spin and press down are, at least for me, unnecessary. As an M shooter, I like having dedicated dials that I can confidently operate based on feel and without thought. As much as I enjoy the CL, there’s always a period during the shoot where I am looking down trying to figure out how and why my settings got inadvertently adjusted.

    The simple, strightforward controls inspire confidence, and is one of the main reasons why the Q and X cameras have achieved legendary status. Why not continue that with the CL?

    The TL line (if they keep it), could be the unmarked fully customisable camera for those who want the modern interface, and in that respect it does a good job. It’s just screaming for a built in EVF, faster AF, and more prime APSC lenses! A few more summilux’s and a 90mm Summicron (135mm equivalent) would be wonderful.

    • Jon, thanks for this contribution. You speak a lot of sense. It’s interesting that you raise the fixed focus point issue because it is something almost everyone I have spoken to finds annoying. Yet the factory studiously ignores so many complaints. It is my major gripe with the CL and should have been fixed long ago. I also agree with you on having clearly marked physical dials. However, I suppose this is wishful thinking because Leica has made soft controls a stand-out feature, as on the SL. But clearly marked physical controls are one of the reasons why the Q, for instance, is such a delight to use.

  10. I recently purchased a used CHEAP T, and it is an absolute dream to use. I have been a film photographer for several years, drawn to the simplicity of taking pictures without mind-numbing menus and options. Simplify photography to make it accessible. Boil photography down to only the essentials. The Leica T does this. It’s not a about “being like an iPhone” but it is about making the essentials of taking a good photograph less than five-layered menus and 400-page manuals.

    • Hi James,

      The Leica X’s do this too. Its what I bought an X typ 113 for. Simplicity over form. Menus so easy a child can navigate them. Pure photography in essence.

      Dave

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