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Tiny New Cameras with Big Sensors: The Leica T vs. Sony's A6000

David Pogue

What would you do if you were running a camera company now?

I mean, the writing is on the wall. Camera sales are plummeting. Everybody takes photos with phones now. Who on earth would buy a separate machine just for taking pictures?

Tiny New Cameras with Big Sensors: The Leica T vs. Sony's A6000

Given this tectonic shift, the camera companies are doing exactly what you’d probably do if you were CEO: 

1. Emphasizing things a real camera can do, that a phone can’t. 
Their cameras have huge optical zooms, incredible low-light capabilities, interchangeable lenses, and they make sharp pictures with beautifully blurry backgrounds.

2. Adding wireless. 
Who wants to use a cable to transfer photos? With wireless, you can use your phone to post or transmit a photo that you’ve just taken with your camera.

3. Making really good cameras that are smaller.
Sony, in particular, has attacked this item with a vengeance. It has recognized that the Holy Grail is a big sensor inside, to absorb more light and produce better photos, but a small body outside, to make the camera easier to carry. (Read my column here to understand better why sensor size matters and about Sony’s push.)

Lately, the other camera companies have been following Sony’s lead, with various degrees of enthusiasm and success.

Two of the latest and most delicious cameras in this category — mirrorless, compact, interchangeable-lens — come from Leica and, again, Sony. They have big, semi-pro-sized sensors (technically, APS-C sized) that have been ingeniously engineered to fit into coat-pocketable bodies.

Herewith: a review of the Leica T-System and the Sony A6000. A snapshot, in other words, of the state of the art.

Leica T-System
Leica has a long history of photographic excellence — and nosebleed prices. Last year, for example, it offered a camera that shoots entirely in black and white. For $8,000. You all go ahead.

Its latest model, the Leica T (Type 701), is a relative bargain at $1,850, although that’s just for the body. Most photographers prefer to attach a lens, too; your options are a non-zooming, 23 mm, f/2.0 lens for $1,950 or a 3X zoom (18-56 mm, with an unimpressive f/3.5 to f/5.6 aperture) for $1,750. Yes, that’s right: The lens costs as much as the camera. You’re out at least $3,600 before you can take your very first shot.

An adapter is available, too ($400), that lets you attach existing Leica lenses; of course, then you’re losing much of the advantage of having a small camera.

But, man, it’s delicious. No other camera has ever looked or felt like this one. It was designed by Audi. Its body is carved from a single block of aluminum, then hand-buffed and finished in black or silver. (If you’ve got 45 minutes to kill, you might enjoy watching this YouTube video of the hand polishing in action.) I think unicorns breathe on it before it’s put in the box.

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Every moving part — the rubber neck-strap attachments, the on-off switch, the pop-out flash, the battery-eject system — has the solid, hushed feel of a Lexus car door.

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The design is minimalist in the extreme. The camera sports only four physical controls: two dials (to use in manual mode — for aperture and shutter speed, for example), a movie start/stop Record button, and the shutter button. There’s also an accessory shoe on top, and an on/off Flash ring around the shutter button.

For everything else, you have to use the 3.7-inch touchscreen on the back. (“You mean, you get to use it,” Leica would probably say.)

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The 16-megapixel sensor inside is APS-C, the size found in most consumer SLR cameras. (There’s only one larger, better size: the “full-frame” sensor, usually found in cameras costing $3,000 and up.)

Leica did something very nice: It embedded 16 gigabytes of photo storage right in the camera. That is, you don’t need a memory card (unless you want to add one).

The rubber neck strap is also very cool: It has pins that insert into the camera body. In other words, there are no metal strap loops to clank against the side of the camera.

So let’s just be clear: This is one gorgeous, luxurious hunk of camera. And it’s capable of taking some wonderful pictures.

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For more, see my Leica T Flickr library.

Alas, the rest of the news is not very good.

The theme song of the Leica T is “Slow.”

It’s slow to focus; sometimes, it couldn’t focus at all, even in bright daylight:

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It’s slow in its burst mode — only four shots per second, followed by a distressing period of several seconds during which the camera is frozen. That’s a problem other camera makers solved eight years ago.

The touchscreen manages to be slow, too, at least if you’re used to the responsiveness of today’s touchscreen phones. Sometimes you have to try a couple of times to get a swipe or a pinch to register.

Changing settings is slow, too, because, of course, you have to use the touchscreen for so many things. Exposure control, mode setting, playback, and so on.

And the whole thing is slow because you have to learn some fairly oddball techniques — and there’s no manual.

There is, for example, no playback button. A group of fellow photographers and I spent half an hour trying to figure out how to play back the pictures. We even found a PDF manual online, which says that you enter playback mode by “tapping the shutter release.”

Except you know what happened whenever I tried that? I took a picture. (Duh!)

Eventually, a Leica rep explained that you can enter playback mode by swiping your finger down the back of the screen. Well, thank you.

More disappointments: Leica couldn’t squeeze in an eyepiece viewfinder, so you have to use the screen to frame your shots. Or pay $600 more for an external viewfinder that clips goofily onto the top of the camera.

There’s WiFi built in, which you can use to send pictures to your phone. But it doesn’t work unless your camera and your phone have both joined the same WiFi network. (Most other WiFi cameras can transmit pictures to your phone even when you’re in the desert or on a beach. They create a temporary WiFi network for that purpose.)

The Leica lets you down far too often. Sometimes, as noted, it can’t focus. Other times it has no clue what exposure to select. This is the exposure it chose for a nighttime harbor scene:

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Only by manually adjusting the exposure did I get it to produce something like life:

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A camera this expensive, designed by a company this famous for superb photographic instruments, should not generate this many unusable photos.

The timeline of tech history is well populated with products like this: Insanely expensive luxury items, more objects of art than objects of utility. There was the Twentieth Anniversary Mac, underpowered but cool-looking, for $7,500. The Vertu Signature phone, $6,500 and just as likely to drop a call as a free phone.

That, sadly, is the Leica T. It’s a truly beautiful piece of engineering — but a disappointing piece of photographic equipment.

Sony A6000
The Leica looks even worse when you compare it to Sony’s new A6000. It’s the latest in the series of cameras that Sony originally called NEX (the company will retire that name now), and it’s spectacular.

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And cheap. The camera costs $650, or $800 with a 3X lens (18-55 mm). That’s a powered zoom lens, meaning that you can zoom smoothly while capturing video.

Sony has been working on this “smallest interchangeable-lens camera on earth” project for several years now, and it shows. This one has the eyepiece viewfinder built in. It offers a full line of compact lenses — 20 of them so far.

And whereas the Leica T is noticeably slow to do anything, the Sony A6000 is noticeably fast.

Fast in burst mode: 11 shots a second.

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Fast to frame a shot, because the screen tilts up or down.

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And fast — OMG is it fast — to focus. Sony says it focuses in 0.06 seconds, claiming it to be the fastest focusing APS-C, interchangeable-lens camera in the world.

Turns out camera speed makes a difference. Where you’d never dream of using the Leica for sports photography, the Sony is perfect for it. That insta-focusing is handy for video, too; the A6000 refocuses smoothly and silently as you point it at different subjects.

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More goodies: built-in flash, 24-megapixel sensor, stereo microphones, shoots JPEG or RAW. Three buttons that you can program to do whatever you like. Two control dials. NFC or WiFi wireless transmitting to phones. Remote-control phone apps. Incredible focus tracking (the camera locks onto a runner, or car, or bike, even as it moves through the scene).

A terrific Fn button that gives you instant access to your choice of 26 settings: drive mode, ISO (light sensitivity), focus mode, flash mode, and so on.

An absolutely incredible panorama mode, where you just swing the camera around you and get this (but much, much bigger):

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For more, see my Sony a6000 Flickr library.

And hey! A revised menu system that, at last, jettisons the much-hated icon-based design of all previous NEX cameras.

All of this gravy is poured on top of the Sony’s killer feature: huge sensor, tiny body (4.7 × 2.6 × 1.8 inches).

Here and there, you can find some things to complain about. There’s no headphone jack or microphone jack (although you can attach a mic to the hotshoe on top). The viewfinder’s resolution isn’t as high as last year’s NEX-6 model. And the dedicated video start/stop button is tiny, recessed, and hard to press. 

The screen goes black when you hold the camera up to your eye. That’s good. Unfortunately, it also goes black when other things get near the eye sensor, like your hand, the camera strap, or even the tilting screen itself.

But otherwise, holy jeez, is this a terrific camera.

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In my month of using it, there were several occasions when I had only a fraction of a second to capture an image. There were no second chances. And the A6000, with its blistering focus speed and beautifully designed controls, nailed it each time.

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There’s nothing quite like the flood of gratitude you feel at those times.

Yes, gratitude for a machine.

After having used the Sony A6000, I can tell you this for sure: Real cameras aren’t dead yet.

You can email David Pogue here