My obsession with the Leica SL began shortly after my friend Alan Sund sent me home with his father’s 1955 Leica M3. That’s right a 62-year-old camera that was still completely operational. It didn’t take me long to realize why this was the case. The construction of this Leica M3 film camera was essentially bomb-proof. Which makes complete sense, since Leica cameras have been the camera of war journalists since the company’s beginnings in 1914. The Leica SL & Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8–4 ASPH don’t fall far from the historic tree.
Two Days with the Leica SL & Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8–4 ASPH lens
A few days before Christmas I received an email from the western Leica pro rep. He told me that a Leica SL body and Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8–4 ASPH lens were on their way to me. I had two days to give a try before I had to ship it off to the next photographer. While two days isn’t a ton of time, it would be enough to actually get a feel for this camera.
When I opened the box, it was an early Christmas! Inside was a brand new Leica SL and a Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8–4 ASPH lens. They were both in their original packaging! This whole experience became somewhat of a dream. I would say that the packaging of the Leica SL reminds me of the precision that Apple Inc. focuses on with the delivery of their new devices. Everything had its thought out place and there wasn’t any room for things to move around during shipping. It quickly became evident that I had discovered the Porsche of the camera world.
Leica SL and a Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8–4 ASPH lens
The styling of the Leica SL and accompanying Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8–4 ASPH lens are simple and clean. They are an unbelievable achievement of industrial design. Coming from a design background made me appreciate all of the thought that went into these two pieces of equipment. The manufacturing quality of the Leica is simply the best that I have handled to date. Canon, Nikon, and Sony don’t even compete on this level.
The Leica SL body is machined out of a single core of billet aluminum. If you were a war journalist I think you could use this camera to defend yourself. Then continue shooting photos with it. Even though the camera comes from a solid block of metal it still only weighs 1.87 pounds with battery.
The Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8–4 ASPH lens doesn’t skimp on this craftsmanship concept either. It’s tight. Unlike my Canon lenses, nothing rattles or jiggles. When you attach this lens to the Leica SL body, it clicks in place and doesn’t move. The tolerances are astonishing here.
Our society has become so bargain and deal dependent that I don’t think we consider the craftsmanship concept when purchasing something new. I say this because I know that most people’s immediate reaction to this test is going to be that Leica equipment is way too expensive. When you take into the account the construction of this gear, Leica is selling their products for too little.
The Leica SL Controls
The controls on the Leica SL are fairly simple and straightforward. The setting’s display is extremely easy to read. The menus are well thought out. Four of the buttons surrounding the back LCD are programmable by the user and there are two additional function buttons that you can customize as well. I thought the function of the back dial was fairly unique. Scrolling the dial adjusts the shutter speed and then you press the dial in and scroll to adjust aperture. This functionality took some initial effort, once I got used to it, I could switch camera settings pretty fast.
The Leica SL currently has the highest resolution Electronic View Finder (EVF) in the industry at 4.4 megapixels. It still betters Sony’s brand new a9 which comes in 3.6 megapixels. This tells me that Leica was thinking as far ahead as possible with the tech engineering on this camera. I just finished a test of the a9 as well and I can attest that the EVF in the Leica looks more realistic than the a9.
The Leica SL body is a bit larger than a Sony a9, but considerably smaller than most other DSLRs in the industry. While the SL is about a pound lighter than my current Canon 1Dx and even more so than the Canon 1DX II, I think the volume is a more valuable savings than its weight. I can use a smaller pack with this camera because it takes up less space.
The Leica SL Joystick and Autofocus
The Leica SL autofocus system is set up similar to today’s professional cameras. There is a joystick on the back panel that allows you to switch between the 529 individual autofocus points throughout the viewfinder. The joystick is simple and easy to move using your thumb. It also has a very different feel to it than my Canon. I don’t think it functions any better or worse, it just feels different.
In addition, I didn’t get the chance to shoot the SL in a high-speed action scenario, but camera/lens combination didn’t have any trouble acquiring focus on the subjects that I pointed the camera at. I definitely want another test session where I can try the auto focus on a fast-moving subject.
Leica SL Sensor and Noise
The SL comes with a 24MP sensor 6000 x 4000 effective pixels. This sensor size seems to be the new norm in 35mm full-frame sensors. I know many of you base your decisions on the ratings that DxO Mark gives to cameras in their scientific laboratory tests. NOTE – I use the laboratory tests as a basic, starting-point guide, because numbers have never translated into usability for me. The SL scores an 88 – the same as the Canon 1DX II and below the new Sony a9 which comes in at 92. These scores are out of 100. This tells me that all of these cameras are really close from a photo quality standpoint. So close that the end user may or may not be able to notice the slight differences.
I personally didn’t mess around with lower ISOs and went directly for the mother load – 12,500 and 25,000 (click to enlarge).
The two attached shots are 100% examples of those photos with and without noise reduction on in Adobe Lightroom. I see a significant increase in noise between 12,500 and 25,000. I also feel that the 12,500 ISO photo is usable for print publications. All ISOs below 12,500 are substantially better than my 1DX, making them ALL usable in a publishing situation.
I should also mention that the Leica SL sensor does not have a lowpass filter.
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Leica SL Frame Rate and Motion
The SL shoots up to 11 frames per second. 11 frames per second is perfect for action photography. The faster rates that do exist in the market today just create more editing for the photographer in my opinion. The camera also has the ability to shoot up to 30 minute still photos in-camera. This feature removes the need for an external intervalometer for me.
Even thought I am a beginner at best with DSLR video, the SL’s motion features follow the growing market trends. The SL shoots 4K at a resolution of (4096 × 2160) and at 24 fps. It will also capture 1080 and 720 HD quality footage up to 120 fps. It will record within the 4:2:2 color space as well. The internal stereo microphones do not have internal adjustable levels, so you need to rely on your external mic to make sound adjustments. Movie recording is limited to 29 minutes as well.
Leica also has an adapter this gives you the ability to run their award-winning Cine lenses on this camera.
Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8–4 ASPH lens
Now for a little bit of lens talk. The Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8–4 ASPH lens is a testament to Leica’s commitment to quality manufacturing. This lens isn’t a 24 – 70 nor is it an f/2.8 or f/4, it’s both and more. The filter diameter for ALL of the current SL lenses is 82mm. In fact it appears that all of the lenses follow the same manufacturing process. They appear as if they were all cut from a giant pipe of the same diameter.
The Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8–4 ASPH lens has built-in O.I.S. or Optical Image Stabilization of 3.5 stops in the 90mm focal length. There is a setting in the menu to turn the O.I.S. on and off, but from there the system automatically senses your need for stabilization and activates it accordingly. For tripod work Leica recommends that you set the O.I.S. to the off position. You can set this feature up to one of the 6 customizable buttons as well. Then you won’t be searching for it within the menu structure.
Leica has also coated the exterior lens element so that water has trouble collecting on the surface. I noticed that snow didn’t collect and melt on the lens when shooting with it like it does with the Canon lenses in the same conditions.
Like I mentioned earlier this lens is bombproof. Nothing wiggles, giggles, moves or rattles unless it is supposed to. There isn’t any play with the lens mount either. The craftsmanship is a work of art in itself.
Leica SL Lenses
There are currently only 3 native lenses available for the Leica SL. Leica has:
Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8–4 ASPH
APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90–280 mm f/2.8–4
Summilux-SL 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH
Late in 2016, Leica announced that new lenses are coming:
APO-Summicron-SL 75 mm f/2 ASPH
APO-Summicron-SL 90 mm f/2 ASPH
Super-Vario-Elmar-SL 16-35 mm f/3,5-4,5 ASPH
Summicron-SL 35 mm f/2 ASPH
Leica SL Adaptability
In addition to the basic 3 lenses available you can natively run Leica’s medium format L and TL system lenses on the SL. In addition, they have adapters for their M-Lenses, S-Lenses, R-Lenses and Cine lenses.
But wait there is one more adapter. The NovaFlex adapter for EOS lenses. I have read a few reviews of this adapter. For many of the Canon lenses it does allow for autofocus. Most are claiming slower autofocus. The kicker is that all of the reviews have discussed how sharp and crisp the photos are through this adapter. Some believe it is because the SL doesn’t have the lowpass filter as mentioned above. I have yet to test it to confirm this though.
Leica SL Additional Features
I am pretty amazed by the feature set that Leica has included into this camera. While Canon has added native WiFi and GPS to their new 1DX Mark II, they have done so by increasing size and weight of the camera body (3.36 pounds battery included). Leica has integrated both WiFi and GPS into the SL which weighs in at 1.5 pounds lighter than the Canon.
One other feature I feel is worth mentioning is that there is NOT a proprietary RAW file in play with the Leica SL. The camera records its RAW files in native Adobe DNG. This is a huge step forward for camera manufacturers. You can use the free Adobe DNG converter to turn the Leica SL files into any file type you choose without additional software.
Leica also seems to be updating the functionality of the SL too. They have recently released firmware update 3.0 which adds speed for file recording and autofocus. Again, this highlights future usability of this camera.
For the Interested
In my opinion, Leica has entered the mirrorless pro camera body market with a winning device. The few photos that I shot with the Leica SL look really crisp. I am not sure if this is because of the quality of the glass, the lack of a lowpass filter, or the fact that the Leica SL shoots a native DNG as its RAW file, or all of the above.
I see the major camera brands continuously competing for the ‘NEW’ in the retail marketplace. Leica appears to run at its own pace while quietly beating a special drum. They are a profitable company and they have never shown a desire to compete in the continual upgrade retail market. Craftsmanship is definitely a priority. The SL body and lens that I used are testament to that.
I know most people shy away from Leica because of price. Leica recently dropped the price of the Leica SL to $5995. This puts it at the same price you can expect to pay for new Canon 1DX Mark II. The caveat comes in with the price of the lenses. Leica’s APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90–280 mm f/2.8–4 lens actually costs more than the SL body with the recent price drop. Again, you are definitely paying for craftsmanship here. In addition, Leica probably produces a third of the product numbers that Sony and Canon produce. Does that care translate to price though?
That is a question only you can answer for yourself. However, if a Leica built in 1955 can still render quality photos 62 years later, will a Leica SL do the same 62 years from now? If the sensor lasts, the rest of the camera definitely will. Now if you carry that initial investment across 62 years…
I always tell clients to buy the best glass they can afford, it updates much less frequently then the camera bodies. So if this is the case, will Leica’s SL glass stand up to my suggestion? I think it does and will. Leica has always been know for the sharpness of their lenses.
Here is one other thing that I noticed when shooting with the Leica SL. I felt more photojournalistic. I felt like I focused more on my surroundings. While this can probably be attributed to the “placebo effect”, I also feel it had a little to do with the handling of the camera. Because Leica put so much effort in crafting the Leica SL, I subconsciously felt that I should craft a photo worthy of the camera.