The Leica Q3 Has a Special Power That You Might Not Have Heard About

The Leica Q3 Has a Special Power That You Might Not Have Heard About

Even a lot of the people who purchased the new Leica Q3 might not be aware of a feature this camera has that can greatly expand your creative possibilities for using flash. Within the Q3’s beautiful magnesium alloy body lies a secret hidden in plain sight.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must start by saying that I purchased my Leica Q3 with my own money and that my opinions about this camera are entirely my own. This is not in any way a sponsored review.

I fell in love with the Leica Q Series after owning a Leica Q2 for a while. It quickly became my camera of choice when I was going on a trip or just heading out of the door to go for a walk. I enjoyed it so much and was so impressed by the quality of the images that it produced, that I soon started using it for my personal photo projects as well. The image below was shot on the Leica Q2 as part of a personal (and ongoing) project to explore in all six of New England’s states, the visible legacy of the region’s industrial past on its landscape.

The paper mill on the Sugar River, Claremont NH - Leica Q2, Gordon Webster

When the Leica Q3 came out, I knew I would want to upgrade. There were several aspects of the new model that I thought were worth the upgrade, but the Q3 also happens to have a 60-megapixel sensor compared to the 47-megapixel sensor in the Q2. When you’re working with a wide angle, fixed focal length lens, every extra pixel can come in really handy if you find yourself needing to crop your images in post production.

One feature that all of the Q Series cameras have in common is a leaf shutter. Most modern cameras have a focal plane shutter that consists of a pair of curtains that open and close one behind the other in a staggered sequence to expose the light-sensitive sensor or film emulsion behind them. A leaf shutter, by contrast, is an annular arrangement of metal blades that are usually built into the lens, and are able to rapidly open and close somewhat like the iris of your eye. This is not to be confused with the aperture of the lens, whose construction is quite similar, although if you examine the arrangement of the metal blades in your lens aperture, you can get a pretty good sense of how a leaf shutter is constructed and how it functions.

So why is this a big deal?

Leaf shutters are more complex and expensive to manufacture, but they have a number of advantages over focal plane shutters. They’re typically quieter and produce less camera shake, but the big advantage they have is that they allow you to sync your flash at much faster shutter speeds.

Most cameras that are equipped with focal plane shutters have a maximum flash sync speed somewhere in the region of 1/200 of a second. If you try to use a faster shutter speed with your flash, the moving curtains of the focal plane shutter do not have time to get fully out of the way when the flash fires. What you get as a result is a shadow cast on the image by one of the shutter curtains as it crosses the frame. This effect is demonstrated in the photographs below which were taken with a camera that has a focal plane shutter. In the left-hand image at a shutter speed of 1/100 of a second, the flash exposure works just fine. In the right-hand image at 1/500 of a second, you can clearly see the shadow of the shutter curtain in the lower part of the image.

Left: flash at 1/100 sec. shutter speed, Right: flash at 1/500 sec. shutter speed

Unlike a focal plane shutter, a leaf shutter does not have elements that must traverse the entire frame during the exposure—rather, it opens and closes radially about its center in a manner that is mechanically similar to the way the iris of your eye opens and closes in response to changing light levels. This allows you to use much faster shutter speeds with your flash without the risk of catching the shadow of your moving shutter in the frame.

For cameras with focal plane shutters, there is always the option to use a high-speed sync strobe for faster shutter speeds. Instead of a single flash during the exposure, a strobe capable of high-speed sync will produce a series of pulses of light of very short duration throughout the exposure. This does circumvent the problem of catching the shutter shadow in the frame, but—not all cameras and strobes support high-speed sync; the setup is a little more technical; and the biggest drawback is that you often end up needing a more powerful strobe because the pulsed light output of high-speed sync is significantly less efficient than the delivery of the light in a single flash.

Thanks to its leaf shutter, however, the Leica Q3 is able to pull off this trick without the need for high-speed sync—working flawlessly with regular strobes even at extremely fast shutter speeds.

This can be incredibly useful when you want to use flash outdoors. If you’re photographing a dynamic scene with rapid movement—dancing or sports, for example—you might want to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion, in combination with a wide aperture to get some nice separation of the subject from the background. Even if there’s little or no movement in the frame—when shooting portraits, for example—you often still need to separate your subject from a busy background, and this can require the use of a wide aperture. This is especially true when shooting outdoors where you have much less control over the background than you might have in a studio.

When shooting outdoors, however, the ambient light levels can be so high that it is very difficult to use wide apertures in daylight without needing to go to faster shutter speeds to prevent overexposure—shutter speeds that are often beyond the flash sync speed of your camera.

And this is where the Leica Q3’s leaf shutter really shines.

The following series of images was shot on a beautiful, bright afternoon here in sunny Cambridge, Massachusetts. One of the landscaping experts from my wife's gardening company, and our youngest son, who is a confirmed soccer maniac, kindly agreed to be the models for this brief test of the Leica Q3’s flash sync capability at high shutter speeds. For the flash, I used a Godox AD200 strobe triggered from the camera hot shoe with a Godox X2T flash trigger. Everything was done with the camera and the strobe in fully manual mode (no TTL), with the camera shutter speed set to 1/1000 of a second and the strobe at full power.

For the portraits, I did close down the aperture somewhat to demonstrate how you can separate the subject from the background by lowering the background exposure instead of blurring the background with a wide aperture. This also creates the kind of dramatic light that you see in the two portrait photos.

Flash portrait in bright sun at 1/1000 sec. shutter speed - Leica Q3, Gordon Webster
Flash portrait in bright sun at 1/1000 sec. shutter speed - Leica Q3, Gordon Webster
I shot the soccer photographs a little later in the afternoon when the sun was lower and less intense. Without using an ND filter, I could shoot with my aperture open to f2.8. I was also able to really leverage the high resolution of the Leica Q3 sensor by shooting wide to make sure I captured all of the action, and then cropping the images in post-production. As I said in my introduction, this is one of the features of the Q3 that makes it a very versatile camera, capable of handling many different shooting scenarios in spite of its fixed focal length lens.

Soccer player in bright sun at 1/1000 sec. shutter speed - Leica Q3, Gordon Webster
Soccer player in bright sun at 1/1000 sec. shutter speed - Leica Q3, Gordon Webster

In closing, it’s worth mentioning that the Leica Q3 is not the only camera that sports a leaf shutter. If you are looking for an alternative to the Q3 that also natively supports fast flash sync, look no further than the new Fujifilm X100VI, or indeed any of its X100 predecessors. With the X100 cameras, you even get a built-in flash which the Q3 lacks, but its output is tiny compared to a strobe like the AD200 I used here. If you’re using the Fuji built-in flash outdoors during the day, don’t expect it to be able to serve as much more than a close-up fill flash to reduce shadows. You're probably still going to want to hook up a more powerful, external strobe if you find yourself shooting in bright light.

Gordon Webster's picture

Gordon Webster is a professional photographer based in New England. He has worked with clients from a wide range of sectors, including retail, publishing, music, independent film production, technology, hospitality, law, energy, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, medical, veterinary, and education.

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Oh, for God's sake, my Panasonic LX100 has a leaf shutter and a hotshoe, as did its predecessors the tiny LX3, LX5 and LX7, as well as many other advanced compacts and travel/superzooms with fixed lenses. This is not some special feature of the Q3. It can be useful, but the Q3 ain't first or unique in this regard.

The special “feature” seems to be my unfilled back order languishing at B&H for many months 😩

Yeah, I don’t think even Leica anticipated such demand for something that is supposed to be a ‘niche’ camera.

Then again, artificial scarcity is a good way to inflate prices and create buzz.

From the title it seems that by reading it we will discover something special about the Q3, but instead it is a characteristic of the Q3, the Q2, the Q and other machines.

Is the author of this clickbait so dense they don't realize leaf shutters have been in MANY other cameras, not the least being the Fuji X100 line, and at a FRACTION of the price?

The article quality these days is such shit...

Maybe you'd like to contribute.

I just did

Said the guy who barfed at the party.

I appreciate your affinity for the Leica leaf shutter, yet it does not appeal to me at all, as I have used my f1.4 ,f1.8 or f2.8 lenses wide open or closed down using a shutter curtain in bright daylight, setting my flash at HSS...with the same effect and result as your very good B&W and color samples ...btw, good to see your son enjoying the beautiful game of "real football" maybe a future top notch player, as the USA has for sure cought up with the European and south American powerhouses.
Greetings to you and may the light always be with you...

HSS sacrifices a fair bit of flash power. A leaf shutter enables higher sync speeds and maximizes the flash' output potential. I bought a Panasonic fixed-lens camera for doing paid family portrait work outdoors specifically for this reason.

Well thank you for the info, but I have always understood that when I shoot at HSS to take my external battery power pack with me...if not, then a lot of extra AA batteries will be fine...

It's not about how many batteries you need. When using HSS, the maximum usable output from the flash is significantly lower (possibly several stops) than, say, getting 1/2 power from a speedlight at 1/600s or 1/4 power at 1/1200s with a leaf shutter. The reason for this is that HSS works by pulsing the flash several times as a focal plane shutter traverses the frame, and each pulse is much weaker than the full potential of the flash, whereas a leaf shutter remains fully open for the entire exposure, making flash duration the only limiting factor in how much of the flash's maximum output can be captured. Most speedlights have a flash duration around 1/300s at full power, 1/600s at 1/2 power, 1/1200s at 1/4 power, etc.

The upshot is that a given flash is effectively more powerful at faster than X-sync speeds with a leaf shutter rather than a focal plane shutter. At least, this is true with flashes that use IGBT power management to control flash output (which almost all speedlights and now many more powerful strobes do). There have been some studio flashes that used different technology that created an inverse relationship between duration and power, producing full output at the shortest duration and lower output at longer durations. I don't know how many, if any, current studio strobes are like this, but I have the impression that most flashes small and large now use IGBT.

I had an old film camera that I acquired from my grandfather when I was a teenager, which had a leaf shutter. Unfortunately that camera was too frustrating to experiment with a lot due to the cost of film and processing even back then (especially for a teen). But it is interesting to learn that there are digital cameras that still employ this type of shutter. I have not looked past my current set of equipment. I enjoy these technical articles the most on this site, so thank you for that. It is timely with the article about the flash and global shutter on the new Sony body.

Thank you - I'm glad you enjoyed this kind of article and I will definitely be writing more of them.