First Look : The Leica SL

 The Leica SL Type 601

The Leica SL Type 601

Regular readers know that I've looked at a lot of mirrorless cameras, always looking to see if this is a space to expand into.  I've liked many of them, and hoped for more from others.  I guess I'm already a mirrorless user, as I've been shooting Leicas for many years, starting with film, then a substantial gap in time to the M9 and now the M (240).  They are wonderful cameras but different from the "standard" mirrorless in that they are manual focus rangefinders.  The SL however, is something very different indeed.

I wish I could tell you that Leica was thrilled to send me an SL for evaluation, but I cannot.  They didn't, so my hands-on time with the SL was very limited and I really didn't get any shooting in, hence the first look moniker.  That said, it's a very impressive camera.

At first glance in the press releases and magazines, the SL strikes a lot of people as blocky and ugly.  In hand the SL is beautiful and extremely well balanced.  It is a very sparse design with no extraneous bells and whistles.  All the controls are clean and all the buttons programmable to the user's requirements.  

 Top down view of the SL with the Leica SL 24-90/2.8-4.0 lens

Top down view of the SL with the Leica SL 24-90/2.8-4.0 lens

Let's take a deeper dive on the SL

The Leica SL (Type 601) is a full frame mirrorless camera with high performance autofocus that uses Leica SL and Leica T lenses natively.  Owners can mount Leica M mount, Leica S mount and Leica R mount lenses via a Leica adapter.  The camera delivers a 24 megapixel sensor with an ISO range of 50-50,000 that does not have an anti-aliasing filter installed.  Processing is accomplished via Leica's Maestro II processor complex.  The camera includes a 2GB internal buffer and accepts SD sized memory cards in two distinct slots.  In addition to the 24MP stills, the SL also shoots 4K video.  Shutter speed range is from 1/8000 to 60s with a maximum single exposure of 30 minutes.  The camera uses a Leica focal plane shutter system with a flash sync of 1/250s.  The shutter assembly is rated for 200,000 exposures.  The SL has a hotshoe for flash, including Leica TTL flash. The body weighs 847g with battery and is made from a block of milled aluminum.  CIPA indicates a full charge time of 180 minutes and expects approximately 400 images per charge.  Autofocus is contrast based and offers either 37 or 49 focus areas with AF focus assist included.  AF can be single shot or continuous and the user can select from single point, zone (9 points) or full field.  The AF system includes face detection.  The body is weather sealed.

The Leica SL has an incredible Electronic Viewfinder with 4.4M pixels for an outstanding (my word) user experience.  The EVF has a very clear and well sized diopter correction.  You can see this in some of the images.  Live view is on a very bright and clear LCD with 1.04M pixels.   The rear LCD is also a touchscreen that is fingerprint and scratch resistant.  Configuration options include Focus Peaking, Zebra Warnings and adjustable grids and aspect ratios.  Coverage is 100% and an eye sensor is provided for switching between the EVF and the LCD

 Leica SL with Vario-Elmarit 24-90/2.8-4.0 front view

Leica SL with Vario-Elmarit 24-90/2.8-4.0 front view

Files can be stored as 14bit DNG (non proprietary digital negative) or 8 bit JPEG.  Videos can be stored as MP4 or MOV formats.  Internal recording is 8 bit 4:2:0, recording externally via the live feed HDMI port is 4:2:2 10 bit.  Video is VLog L Gamma selectable and available in UHD 4K @ 24fps, 4K @25 or 30 fps, 1080p at 24, 25, 30, 50, 60, 100 or 120 fps and 720p at 24, 25, 30, 50, 60, 100 or 120 fps.   There are two SD slots, one rated for SD Type UHS 1 cards with a maximum bandwidth of 30mbps and the second an SD Type UHS II slot with a maximum bandwidth of 100mbps.  The usual camera limit for video of just over 29 minutes continuous recording applies for this camera.

There are bullt in microphones with a default spec of 16bit at 48khz but the camera also includes a 3.5mm stereo audio in.  A 3.5mm audio out jack is also provided.

Connectivity in addition to full streaming HDMI is via USB3.  The camera includes built in GPS and built in WiFi.  Software includes USB remote, Leica SL Image Shuttle, WiFi Remote as well apps for iOS and Android.

Exposure control includes PASM with metering options being centre weighted, spot and multi zone.  Exposure compensation range is plus or minus 3 stops and there is auto bracketing in 3, 5 or 7 shot counts with exposure shift of 1, 2 or 3 stops between shots.  There is also a built in HDR function using JPEGs.  The Leica SL will fire in single shot mode, and three continuous frame rates of 4 fps, 7 fps and 11 fps.  The lack of a mirror means that the SL is extremely quiet even when blasting away at 11 fps.

First Look Experience

 Leica SL top deck.  You can see the clean layout, clear reverse illumination LCD and comprehensive diopter correction

Leica SL top deck.  You can see the clean layout, clear reverse illumination LCD and comprehensive diopter correction

When you look at the camera it seems blocky right until the second you pick it up.  In my hands, it felt like it was made for me.  It feels rock solid and even the large 24-90 lens did not feel unbalanced at all.  As a test, I handed it to my frequent shooting companion Isabel who is a much smaller person than I with smaller hands and she was impressed at how well it fit and how easy it was to handle.  Fellow photographer Blake Zimmerman and I had just been talking about his challenge with most mirrorless cameras being the grip, or lack thereof.  I wish I had the opportunity for him to try the SL and offer his feedback.

The top deck LCD reminded me immediately of the LCD on the awesome Phase ONE XF camera.  The white lettering on black field is highly visible and would be much more usable in dim light because you would not have to go hunting for an illumination button.  Despite the lack of labeling, I found the SL very easy to navigate and use.  Even my Leica M has more labels.  I suspect that the new user would have a slightly longer time acclimating to the camera, but its clean design and lack of clutter with myriad buttons will make this very easy.  The grip is large without being blocky and my right index finger fell readily across the shutter release.  The EVF is the best I have ever seen with great brightness but none of the TV screenish fake look found in so many other EVF units.  Coverage is great and all the viewfinder information is crisp and easy to read.

The menu system is very Leica, very precise and not particularly expansive.  I personally like this style having become used to it in the M9 and now the M.  It's not festooned with a rainbow of colours and makes some expectation of the user that they are paying some level of attention.  It's not a menu system for pure beginners, but the simplicity of the user interface keeps the learning curve nice and shallow.

All the controls feel very precise.  It would be easy to call this Germanic and create the mental image of vaunted German precision.  Certainly the camera is made in Wetzlar and Leica has for years been known for precision in workmanship, I just wanted to avoid cultural metaphors.  That excuse being done, I wish more products got a lot closer to this level of precision.

 Vario-Elmarit 24-90/2.8-4.0

Vario-Elmarit 24-90/2.8-4.0

I was limited to a single lens in my first look, the new Vario-Elmarit 24-90/2.8-4.0 zoom.  I'm not a big fan of 24-70 focal lengths, wanting a bit more range.  The 24-90 gives just that bit more reach that I would prefer.  Some people are not happy that the lens is a variable aperture, I don't really care that much since f/4 is not that slow and the camera has excellent low light capability.  Other SL lenses include a Summilux 50/1.4 and APO Vario-Elmarit 90-280/2.8-4.0 that are coming later in 2016.

 APO Vario Elmarit 90-240/2.8-4.0

APO Vario Elmarit 90-240/2.8-4.0

 Summilux 50/1.4 ASPH

Summilux 50/1.4 ASPH

I have a Metz SCA Leica foot that I can use with multiple different Metz flash units.  I don't know if Leica changed their TTL layout with the SL but I hope not as adding yet another speedlight would not enthuse me should I find myself in the position to own an SL.  Very good news that the SL includes a standard PC sync port and of course I could always trigger my strobes using a Profoto Air Remote that I already own albeit not in TTL.

 Leica SL with the optional battery grip HG-SCL4

Leica SL with the optional battery grip HG-SCL4

If you want more battery life from the SL, and given the way I shoot, I would, there are Leica accessories coming in 2016 for the SL.  If I were buying (I wish) the first one I would get is the battery grip.  In addition to the additional battery space, it incorporates a vertical shutter release and additional interfaces.  Spare batteries are available called the BP-SCL4.   I am very glad that the core interfaces are on the SL body and not only in the grip as Leica did in the M.  I find having to get a Grip M just to get USB out to be very inconvenient.  The handstrap shown in the image is another option.  Since I already have invested in and love the Peak Design system, I would likely go with one of those, but absolutely advocate the idea of a hand strap regardless.  Other accessories include a pair of Leica branded TTL speed lights, some straps, an audio interface cable, filters, a Leica branded HDMI cable, LCD protector and a Remote release.  I have not seen the remote release but it bears a solid resemblance to the non-timing remotes that end in a standard mini-USB connection.  Leica accessories have a history of being rather pricey so we will see what happens as these accessories become available.

I like the stills capability and the video capability is very impressive.  I remain a bit confused over the decision to use SD card slots of different performance levels, thinking it would have been simpler to make both slots UHS II ready.  I'm sure that there's an argument supporting the decision but I don't see it.

The Leica SL looks big, but in real life it isn't nearly as big as my DSLRs are.  Even the enormous looking 24-90 is smaller than a Canon 24-105 a lens that no one considers to be a gross monolith.  I've owned three Leicas in my life, an M4P, the M9 and now the M.  I've never had a problem with any of them.  Both the M4P and the M9 returned their value in use and resale.  The M is the only Leica I have now and while it is a manual focus rangefinder, you can tell its images right away.  My only frustration with the M9 was that it wasn't particularly great in low light, a problem that the M resolves.  Having looked at a variety of "SLR look" mirrorless cameras I was very impressed with the Leica SL in my limited time with it.  

Hello Leica Camera AG, I would be very pleased to do a long form review for you, just give me a shout at ross@thephotovideoguy.ca !!!

Thanks for reading and until next time, peace.