Leica SL: First Impressions

Introduction

Being a long-time Leica M shooter, I am a firm proponent of mirrorless camera designs. So, when in 2014 Sony Russia gave me their at the time breakthrough full-frame a7R, I was very intrigued. Unfortunately, the camera, which is ideally suited for landscape photography, was not fast enough for what I do. Not only it had shutter lag, its rather convoluted controls layout was really getting in a way.

After more than three decades of using rangefinder cameras, I got so used to their clean and intuitive layout, which places main controls in one’s both hands, that holding Sony a7R felt like being in a cockpit of a military helicopter. So, Leica’s announcement of their own  entry into the mirrorless camera market, it certainly got my attention. Memories of Leica S2, which I reviewed in 2011-2012 made me very excited about an opportunity to try the SL, which technologically was supposed to be light years ahead with its image stabilization, super fast Maestro II processor and a CMOS sensor capable of ISO 50,000. Moreover, according to Leica press-release, SL was developed for professional use.

According to Leica press-release, controls on the SL were supposed to be very intuitive. So, to test this claim, I decided to do it without reading the manual. In fact, this is a real life situation, as most photographers think of reading the manual as something of a measure of the last resort.

4K video, which is must certainly a great feature, was not a part of this test. I am a still photographer, and my experience with motion picture is tremendously modest. Therefore, it is better to leave it to professionals.

First impressions

From the data sheet and pictures of the camera already flooding Internet, I knew that Leica SL was big. However, not until I opened the box I realized how actually big it was. Both the body and the Vario-Elmarit 1:2.8-4/24-90 lens were big and heavy enough to compete with some medium format systems. If I needed to characterize Leica SL with just one word it would be “formidable”. It is large, heavy and built like armored vehicle.

Big or not, it took me a second to realize how great its ergonomics was: it just felt like it was built for my hands. The only thing that I really did not like was that the lens had no aperture ring.

Handling has gotten even better with a Leica 1:1.4/50 Summilux R mounted instead of the kit lens. It was smaller, lighter and put the aperture control in my left hand, which I find much more convenient than having everything congregated around the shutter button.

Viewfinder and focusing

A viewfinder was another pleasant surprise. It is way better than the one that Sony a7R has, both in latency and resolution. Perhaps my vision is not as good as 20 years ago, but the picture in the viewfinder looked indistinguishable from what would it be if it was optical. Its clear advantage vs optical was a capability to adjust brightness according to an ISO setting.

I did not like, however, how it was set up originally: half-pressing the shutter button would give a preview of an actual exposure (this is a good part), but to change exposure settings, I had to remove my index finger from the button, which resulted in the preview to disappear instantly. It made setting the exposure by eye extremely inconvenient, especially with a kit lens. It worked better with an R lens, as the aperture could be adjusted with the left hand, without taking a finger off the shutter button. Changing the shutter speed, however, still required removing the finger and losing the preview.

Focusing is easy, both with AF and manual lenses. Focus peaking is reliable, yet unobtrusive. I would not rely on just the picture for focusing, especially in low light. Just turn focus peaking on and live with it.

It may seem like hairsplitting over a minor annoyance, but it is not. In a fast paced situation with rapidly changing lighting condition, like a wedding, for instance, this could be a reason of losing a number of precious moments.

Layout and ergonomics

To put it simply, I have mixed feelings about handling the camera. It is very convenient to hold, despite its boxy look, but it is just too much of it. Why is it so huge? What technological advancements were stuffed in it to demand this body size? Bodies of Sony a7 family are the size of Leica M, and this is what was one of the main advantages of mirrorless design. Leica SL being so truly gargantuan, in my opinion, defeats the purpose of mirrorless. Of course, for someone converting from Canon, or Nikon professional lines, this size and weight will not be an issue, but for a photographer who worked with Leica M system, or smaller DSLRs, this is a serious factor to consider.

Another thing about ergonomics: I have not found controls to be terribly user-friendly. They are not intuitive at all, especially when the camera is off. This part of design was inherited from Leica S2, and it was the only thing that I did not like about that camera. In an effort to make the back of the camera look clean, Leica designers put all explanations on the LCD screen. Of course, after using the camera for a month or so, no captions would be necessary, but for someone who just got the camera it makes a learning curve much steeper than it should have been.

The body being so tall has another unpleasant consequence on ergonomics: the right thumb has to travel a lot between a wheel, a joystick and buttons on the right side of the LCD, and it takes more time than on, say, Leica M240, which has a similar layout, but on a smaller area.

As I have already mentioned, handling with R lenses is superb, especially the later ones. They were built for R8/R9 bodies, which were just as big as the SL, hence the perfect conformance of their form factor to the SL body. I cannot stress more how much better it feels to have an aperture control on the lens vs a wheel on the camera body. Understandably, all camera manufacturers are trying to do away with aperture rings in favor of an electronic iris control, but this was one of the things that killed Contax G1/G2, if you remember those.

Battery life

Battery life was much better than I expected, considering that the camera is constantly in a live view mode. I took more than 400 pictures on a freshly charged battery and had no need to recharge.

Image quality

Image quality is great, as expected. It is so good that it is hard to judge it on objective grounds. Speaking of DNG files, my preference is M240, but it is marginal. I am sure, there are quite a few photographers who would beg to differ.

What can be judged objectively, though, is SL’s ability to deliver an image that does not need any post-production. Its white balancing ability is beyond strong. AWB works really well in most situations where both M240 and M9 would fail. Image below was shot under a real photographer’s nightmare: Energy Star compliant LED lights in a room with peach-c0lored walls. Yet, look at skin tones.

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Angelique Abachkina, France ice dance champion resting after her morning practice

SL’s low light capability is also quite impressive. At this point, almost all professional camera manufacturers offer models with high ISO capability. A common problem of most of these cameras is inability to maintain color fidelity above ISO6400. With Leica SL I did not notice any color loss, or shift with increasing ISO all the way up to ISO12500. I did not go higher just because there was no need on assignments where I decided to use Leica SL. Most welcoming improvement over all previous M cameras was no noticeable trace of magenta in blacks, even upon lifting shadows in Adobe Lightroom up to +100.

Image below was shot just to illustrate the point:

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Leica SL black-and-white performance is also impressive. Shooting at ISO3200 produces a noise structure very similar to something like Ilford HP5 developed in Rodinal while delivering excellent tonal gradations.

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Vario-Elmarit-SL 2.8~4/24-90 at 90mm, f/4, ISO4000

Interestingly, unlike newer M lenses that are corrected to the point of becoming almost characterless, Vario-Elmarit-SL 2.8~4/24-90 zoom lens managed to retain the look characteristic of earlier Leica designs. While being sharp, it is gentle, and has some glow in highlights (below).

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Vario-Elmarit-SL 2.8~4/24-90, f/4.5, ISO3200

Compatibility

Mirrorless design makes it possible to use a wide variety of lenses from different manufacturers. Leica SL takes it even further with electronic adaptors that make Leica R ROM lenses and Leica autofocus lenses fully compatible, including auto functions and transferring lens information into EXIF. Moreover, just recently NOVOFLEX released an adaptor capable of autofocusing Canon EF lenses on Leica SL body. This certainly makes wait for SL prime lenses wait less painful, and allows for a much smoother transition for professional Canon shooters.

Using Leica M lenses is a breeze. M-adapter-L recognizes 6-bit coding, and if a coded lens is used, the camera automatically records its data. While all M lenses are compatible, SL is especially great with super-fast and tele lenses. Its peak focusing feature makes adjusting focus with Noctilux just as reliable as with an optical rangefinder, but easier in low light when exposure preview is turned off.

Leica Noctilux 1.0/50, f/1. ISO3200
Leica Noctilux 1.0/50, f/1. ISO3200

The ability to use Leica R lenses is especially welcoming, as quite a few photographers have vast collections of R optics. All these lenses have distinct signatures, and most of them have Lightroom profiles for distortion correction.

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Vario-Elmarit-R 4/35-70 ROM, ISO3200, AWB

Conclusions

Leica SL is a great camera, without a doubt. It comes with everything that professional camera should: dual SD slots, USB3.0, weather seals, image stabilizer, 2GB of RAM capable of holding 33 DNG files, geotagging and Wi-Fi capabilities. If you are into video, SL’s ability to shoot 4K in APS-C format (24 and 30fps) and up to 120fps in 1080p on full frame will not disappoint. However, like any camera system in the world, it is not ideal.

Pros

  • It is dependable, durable and definitely can withstand rigors of professional use
  • Image quality is in line with what we expect from Leica
  • Works great with any Leica lens and many others (Thanks to people at Novoflex)
  • Electronic viewfinder just as good as the optical
  • Long battery life

Cons

  • Big and heavy
  • No own prime lenses (at least at the time of writing)
  • Image stabilization works only with SL lenses
  • Non-intuitive controls, hence steep learning curve

This is a real deal professional rig: sturdy, dependable, weather-sealed. Two zoom lenses and the Summilux-SL 1.4/50 ASPH prime available at the time of writing are more than enough for most jobs from close-up photography to landscapes, from portraits to fashion to advertising. It is great for outdoors work, yet just as good in a studio, given its tethering and wireless control capabilities. For those who still own Leica R lenses, this is a godsend gift. It also may be an attractive option for photographers and videographers who realize that they need higher image quality that other professional camera manufacturers can offer. However, for someone who is used to smaller and lighter equipment and has no use of autofocus and zoom lenses, this camera is probably of less interest.

Irakly Shanidze © 2016

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