Why Leica - Why Not?

In the words of John Belushi from Animal House ~

Bluto: Kroger, your Delta Tau Chi name is Pinto.

Pinto: Why “Pinto”?

Bluto: [belches] Why not?

A Little Leica History

I think you should know a little about Leica. In the forums, some may connect Leica to wealth, snobbery, and elitism. That Leica’s price point is for the rich and shameless. That a Leica is hardly worth the money. And … that there are far superior cameras on the market at a fraction of the cost. All potentially true statements. Well, except for the elitist attitude from Leica itself. This may not necessarily be true of SOME of its owners.

I learned a few things about Leica when researching this article. Ernst Leitz founded Ernst Leitz Optische Werke, in the early 1900’s as an optical research company. They were essentially creating microscopes. The Leica Camera was the creation of an employee named Oskar Barnack. The word Leica is derived from the first 3 letters of Leitz’s surname and the first 2 letters of the word camera – Lei … Ca.

Over the course of the company’s first 100 years … they made it through two world wars and survived major economic depression from massive war reparations for Germany due to those wars. With these hardships, Leitz/Leica was still the first company to institute an 8 hour work day for its employees back in the early 1900’s. So Leica is a company that is tough, actually cares about its people and possesses a drive to survive. Leica has always focused on manufacturing quality and design. Their company grew at the same time that the Bauhaus School of Design grew. Which many speculate is the reason Leica Cameras have a very modern aesthetic. Design is a very meaningful word for me – more on that later.

The Marketplace

Today’s camera marketplace is an interesting one at best. It follows an almost yearly update cycle and competitors seem to one-up each other on a regular basis. Do you really need a new camera that often? Does all of this technology really benefit you as a photographer? Or does this sort of update schedule benefit the manufacturers?

It makes me think about photographers long gone – like Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is remembered for his book and term, The Decisive Moment. He did in fact shoot a Leica, and here’s the kicker, his photographs are absolutely amazing – still today. Did he need the fastest autofocus? Or the latest and greatest motor drive? Nope. He needed his vision, an open mind towards the world, and the ability to bear witness.

So why do photographers focus on so much technology now? Shouldn’t we be focusing on creating the photo? And if we are focusing on the photo, how much does technology really matter. The concept of the camera really hasn’t changed since its invention in the late 1800’s. You still need aperture and shutter to control light even though the recording medium has changed.

Me

If you have been following this blog for a while, you probably have noticed that I have been testing the shit out of technology lately. There are a few reasons for this, some of which will remain silent. For starters though, I truly believe the photography world needs a less technical testing forum. A forum that highlights gear in real world scenarios, not laboratories and not just taking sample photos that mean nothing. Essentially, can this gear produce in a real-world working environment. Next, I am a selfish SOB. I can do this for me and find out exactly what works best for me and only me before spending a penny.

You Are Going to Talk About Cameras?

On this camera tour right? Yes, yes I am. So why Leica? It’s not the fastest. A Leica SL is not the latest and greatest at this point, and it is definitely the most expensive. I can hear the rantings … You should have waited until the next Leica SL is released. It’s been three years since it came out. There will be a new one soon. These are all statements of what photographers have come to expect from technology. While I do understand technology and I am often tempted by technology’s Sirens, I think we need to take a step back. If for nothing, but a mere second in the space time continuum.

Let’s begin with where I was. All my gear was really old, used and abused massively since the release and my purchase of the 1DX. So I was in need of replacement. I based all of my new gear decisions on a step above where I was. Every camera tested on this blog, basically exceeded performance and manufacturing of what I owned. This meant that I really couldn’t go wrong with anything that I tested. Here’s where it gets interesting though.

The Leica SL

The Leica SL was released in 2015, now over 3 years ago. Why hasn’t Leica replaced it yet? Well, probably because it’s not really that out of date. 3 years since its release the SL still boasts the highest resolution mirrorless viewfinder on the market at 4.4 million pixels. Many claim that the SL has slow focus, but it isn’t slower than the 1DX I just sold. Sony beats it at this point, but again 3 years old! Its sensor is 24MP, pretty much the growing standard amongst cameras these days. And finally its 11 FPS shooting rate is still very usable and respectable. The SL does cost $5995, which was cheaper than the Canon 1Dx Mark II up until about a week ago.

Leica’s lenses are another story though. They cost just as much and in some cases more than the SL. Yes, that is correct, they are super expensive. There are currently 5 prime lenses and 3 zooms specifically made for the SL. I have two of the zooms, with a third coming soon. These lenses are unbelievable works of art. The build quality is unlike anything I have gotten my hands on from any other manufacturer. The glass produces amazingly crisp photos and the focus and zoom rings are as smooth as teflon oiled glass (if that’s even possible).

The design aesthetic of both the SL and the SL lenses includes everything you need and nothing that you don’t. It is simply modern design at its best. Coming from an architecture background this speaks to me. This is the siren calling me in and forever hypnotizing me. Leica has followed an architectural standard in their creation of the SL system – “Form follows function.”

There is something about the image that Leica SL produces.

The Kicker

So here it is. The main reason that I chose the Leica SL as my new camera. It’s the image. The photograph that comes out of the Leica SL is different. It has a look to it, that no other camera that I have tested on this blog has. I truly cannot explain it to you in words. You have to go borrow one of these cameras and see for yourself. It reminds me of my film days, yet it doesn’t. My only thought is that because Leica chose to use Adobe’s DNG file type as their RAW, there is a seamless integration between Lightroom and Leica. My photos just look right to me. So in an economy so dependent on the “deal” and scientific reviews, I chose a feeling, a mood, and a style. The Leica SL produces art.

More Leica

While I love what Leica has done with the design of the SL and accompanying lenses, I also love the function of it. Most of the buttons on the camera are programmable and none are labeled with a single letter or number. In fact, other than the Leica logo, the only label on the camera is “on” and “off” for the power switch. This is a very different approach from all the other manufactures, but I totally get it. The more I shoot with the SL, the more I tweak the settings to work with my shooting style. Because I know what buttons I programmed and how I programmed them, they work just like I do.

Another important factor for the SL is that Leica’s firmware updates are not just bug fixes, but are also upgrades to things like focusing speed, card write speed, and other added value options. Their firmware updates have given the user substantial control and multiple options since the initial camera release.

The Price

I couldn’t leave the price out of this discussion. While a brand new Leica SL is expensive, the used market is producing a price point that competes with a new Canon 1DX system. Remember the Leica SL is 3 years old and two of its lenses are of similar age. The VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 24–90 f/2.8–4 ASPH. was released with the SL and the APO VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 90–280 f/2.8–4 was shortly thereafter. I purchased my entire SL system used and in perfect condition with boxes and all original accessories for cheaper than I could replace my 1DX and accompanying lenses. The body had a mere 5000 photos taken with it.

Now let’s just touch on the expense of this system new. There are a few things to consider about Leica’s price point. The craftsmanship is exquisite. When comparing Leica to Sony, Fuji, Canon or Nikon, its like comparing a Porsche to a Toyota. In addition, Leica produces a fraction of what the major manufacturers produce, thus that raises the price. Third, Leica treats its employees like the professionals they are. This is not Foxconn.

I can actually email Leica’s head of marketing and get a reply back. Who’s is the head of marketing at Canon? The day I bought the camera their western region rep called me to answer a question I had instead of just emailing me back. This makes me feel like a professional. The brand I chose to create with, actually cares about me too. That is really important when photography is paying your bills.

Finally though, the Leica SL came out 3 years ago and it is still a viable photography tool for the professional. Leica doesn’t seem to be tossing everything into the wind ever 18 months. What if, I could keep using my current SL lenses for a decade? That makes the price point even better than a $2500 Canon lens replacement every 2 years.

No, no, he didn't slam you, he didn't bump you, he didn't nudge you... he *rubbed* you. And rubbin, son, is racin'. ~ Days of Thunder

Conclusion

The Leica SL system isn’t for everybody. Value seekers will scoff at the price. DxO Mark readers will chuck it for the 88 point rating. Sony people will justify their existence with significantly more speed.

However, for me, a person who has literally tried them all, the Leica SL produces a file that I cannot ignore, nor explain. You truly have to see it for yourself on a Retina 5K iMac Pro. Photos are like they are film, but not. They are digital, but some kind of digital that rides a skew line. The camera functionality is other worldly too. Its design makes me want to take better, thought provoking photos. The lenses zoom and focus like butter. Everything is extremely tight yet not.

You may hate me for saying this, but it is as if Leica is the German counterpart to Apple.

A gap in the horizon.

LEICA SL – POSITIVES

Amazing design aesthetic.

Amazing customizable functionality.

Unbelievable craftsmanship.

Bombproof construction.

24MP DNG file type.

11FPS drive speed.

More compact than traditional DSLRs.

Highest viewfinder resolution still.

Leica’s people, care about my people.

LEICA SL – NEGATIVES

Higher price.

Heavier body and lenses for a mirrorless.

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