The Leica SL: The Best Worst Mirrorless Camera Ever?

In the mirrorless camera world smaller, lighter and packed with buttons is the trend. But with their pro end mirrorless camera, the SL, Leica decided to provide fewer buttons and go bigger and heavier than any other mirrorless camera in the 35mm format on the market. Milled from a solid block of aluminum, featuring as few buttons as possible with no labeling on any of them and an awkward power switch, the Leica SL seems to kick to the curb any feature commonplace or desired in a mirrorless system, with one exception. The EVF. DSLR users flock to Sony or Fuji for a smaller lighter system that is packed with features but doesn’t force them to make huge compromises in quality. Some users regret the move and some users are quite happy, but one thing they all agree on is lighter is better and they love the EVF. I even made the jump from DSLR to mirrorless to cut the weight. So why do I now find myself using the absolute heaviest mirrorless 35mm format option out there? Because of the EVF. More on that in a moment, lets first take a broader look at the Leica SL.

Leica SL, Leica 50/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ1.4, Exposure time 1/320. Photo, Jef Price
Leica SL, Leica 35/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ2, Exposure time 1/100. Applied VSCO Ilford Pan F 50 B&W Profile Photo, Jef Price

“The robust SL features the biggest. brightest EVF in any 35mm mirrorless system…”

The SL is a strange animal, it’s nothing like what photographers said they wanted and it’s not the camera we thought we were getting when Leica announced it. For more than a decade Leica R shooters have been wanting Leica to release a digital version of the R SLR system. A compact DSLR we could use our wonderful R glass with. When many of us heard Leica was releasing a new system called the SL, we incorrectly assumed this was the moment we’d been waiting for, the R DSLR was on its way. This is of course not the case. Leica instead made us all shake our heads in bewilderment when we saw the first images of a giant, almost ridiculous mirrorless camera with a incredibly steep price tag. The SL body is more than twice the price of Sony’s top model with a kit lens, even after the recent SL price drop. And it’s taller, wider and slightly heavier than the Sony as well. Leica also saw fit in their infinite wisdom to shape the camera more like the R with an awkward handgrip than a modern DSLR, which means it’s not ergonomic… At all. I actually don’t mind this much, as I hate the feel of most modern DSLRs and love the feel of my two R SLRs, but many use the SL and wish that it felt more like their Nikon or Canon. So it’s big and heavy, feels more like an R film SLR in the hand than a modern DSLR, I get confused by which button does what since there aren’t any labels, I’m still not sure how I feel about the shutter release and the lens lineup isn’t exactly exciting… So why do I enjoy the Leica SL so much?

Leica SL, Leica 50/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ2, Exposure time 1/2000. Photo, Jef Price
Leica SL, Leica 35/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ1.4, Exposure time 1/4000. Photo, Jef Price
Leica SL, Leica 35/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ1.4, Exposure time 1/400. Photo, Jef Price

I haven’t made a great case for the SL thus far. I know this, but it really is an amazing camera. No other 24mp sensor produces files this clean. Even at it’s incredibly fast 11 FPS shutter speed, I can’t quite get the sensor hot enough to cut into image quality, something I had no issue doing with the Sony AR7II or the Fuji X-T2. The EVF is huge and bright and although they claim there’s no lag, there is quite a bit in low light. The images are clear with fantastic contrast and crisp bright Leica color that is exactly what you want. But best of all, nothing works better with Leica adapted M and R lenses. I tried the Sony AR7II-R2D2 and it wasn’t even close. The focal plane was uneven and inconsistent with M glass and with R glass it was an even worse experience (this is due to the in-camera OIS and the flange distance). Quite often the Sony’s focus peaking system couldn’t even find a focusing solution in medium to low light. The Fuji X camera work well with R and M lenses, but of course the X-T2 and Pro 2 are APSC format cameras and as such there’s an adjusted focal length of x1.5. So a 35mm becomes closer to a 50mm and so on. So having run out of good options, I traded back the Sony and my M240 for the SL.

Leica SL, Leica 50/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ1.4, Exposure time 1/1600. Photo, Jef Price
The Leica SL with mounted SL 24-90/ƒ2.8-4 Vario
The Leica SL with adapted LTM Nikon 28mm with the SL M-Mount adaptor, which works quite well. 
The SL M-Mount adaptor, while pricey, is the best available adaptor for the SL and works wonderfully. It feeds information to the camera from the lens. Shown is the Leica 35/ƒ1.4 M.

Now for the EVF…

About the size of the Leica R3: The robust SL features the biggest. brightest EVF in any 35mm mirrorless system, and if you’re into this sort of thing it has a decently nice touchscreen. I personally would have rather have had a tilt screen or even a tilt touch, but Leica thinks touch screens are some new innovation that they needed to include. The truth is, I’ve found the touchscreen/display is too small to be much use. My fingers have just been in the way anytime I’ve tried to make good use of it, the result is I just don’t bother anymore. I’m not sure what serious uses a touchscreen on a mirrorless camera have anyway. Sure you can touch focus with AF lenses, but that’s too much of a bother to be a faster focus method.

“The SL is a strange animal, it’s nothing like what photographers said they wanted..”

Leica SL, Leica 35/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ1.4, Exposure time 1/1250, ISO 50. Photo, Jef Price

Leica SL, Leica 35/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ1.4, Exposure time 1/250, ISO 3200. Photo, Jef Price

The real win with the SL is with M system users. If you’re already invested in an M lens lineup, you’ll find the SL to be a wonderful companion. Using the M along with the SL was a wonderful shooting experience and led me to rethink my whole bag around these two cameras. A working photographer can quickly and confidently find their focus wide open on a fast lens in med-low light with the SL’s focus peaking. The only real issue I’ve had is with the 60mm f2.8 Macro R lens, with which the SL doesn’t seem to find the peak focus areas with quite as much ease as the 50mm f2 Summicron R. The SL also works very, very well with R glass. But it doesn’t feel quite as nice as with the M lenses as the depth of the sensor isn’t as deep inside the camera as the depth of 35mm film in an R camera. This results in a larger adaptor which as I said doesn’t feel as nice as the M adaptor which sits nearly flush with the SL.

Focus peaking is more sensitive than any other I’ve used, wide open I can reliably nail the focus in the same time or less than the very fast AF SL 24-90mm lens. Which is a very fast, very silent lens. In fact, it may be the fastest, most silent normal zoom I’ve ever used. So my bag has changed again. Most days I find myself with only two lenses in my bag, the 35/1.4 and 50/1.4. Combined these two cover almost all the work I’ll do on any given day, and with the SL I find I have a much higher hit ratio with my photographs. I widely attribute this to the focus peaking and live view showing me exactly what part of the image is in focus and exactly how the final image will look. I’ve even started shooting JPEG with the SL now that I have the color dialed in a bit.

The Leica R4 shown with 24/ƒ2.8
The Leica SL shown with attached R to SL adaptor. Notice the increased distance from the camera body.

Looking at the SL, I see a strange gamble on Leica’s part. A big camera, big enough it’s fooled some into thinking it was a medium format or a DSLR and still others into thinking it was an old R. It can be called by some under spec’d with only a 24mp sensor, compared to the growing industry standard coming up on the 40mp mark. And Leica seems to be marketing the SL as though they created mirrorless technology, when in fact they were years late to the game. There are no labels on the buttons, and many complain there are not enough buttons. Though once you have it set up, there’s very little you need to change. Recently Leica added the ability to change the functions of these buttons, a feature than before now was lacking. This seemed likely an oversight by Leica in my opinion. The SL is a contradiction, it’s a mirrorless camera, but not at all compact. It has incredibly high-end specs such as a 4.4mp EVF and 11 FPS shooting, as well as just about the fastest AF I’ve ever used. But it suffers from not refining the concept art and poor battery life, due mostly to the EVF being the big screen TV equivalent of EVF’s.

Of course, we’ve yet to mention the elephant in the room… The incredibly big, heavy, expensive and slow AF SL lenses. The SL lenses, of which at this time there are only three, are all incredibly large and heavy. The 24-90/2.8-4 Vario comes in at just under $5000, which is a ton of cash for a slow normal zoom. As Andrew was quick to point out, you can buy a whole Nikon setup for under this price. The APO 50/1.4 is also huge, heavy and extravagantly priced. And then the 3rd lens in their lineup, the 90-280/2.8-4 looks like a howitzer. I own a lot of camera bags and I don’t think I have a single one this monster lens will even fit in. And last but not least is the SL’s pricing. Even with the latest price drop, an SL system will cost you around $21,000 for the three lenses currently out and the body itself. Then hundreds more for the extra battery you will very much need, a battery grip if you want that, and whatever other odds and ends you may want.

Leica SL, Leica 35/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ2, Exposure time 1/5000. Photo, Jef Price
Leica SL, Leica 50/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ5.6, Exposure time 1/1000. This image is an out of the camera JPEG without any editing. Photo, Jef Price
Leica SL, Leica 50/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ2, Exposure time 1/5000, ISO 50. Photo, Jef Price
Leica SL, Leica 35/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ1.4, Exposure time 1/800 ISO 3200. Photo, Jef Price

$21,000 will buy you a lot of camera gear. It’ll buy you an M10 and if you’re smart about it, every lens you could want for the M system. It’ll buy you a D810 or D5, and just about every lens you’d ever actually need for that system.

If you look at the SL on paper, it looks doomed to fail. But when you use it…

You’ll be left wondering why you like it so much.

Leica SL, Leica 50/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ2.8, Exposure time 1/10,000, ISO 50, JPEG. Photo, Jef Price

Maybe the SL is doomed to fail, I don’t know. Sales haven’t been as high as they were hoping, and it’s not likely to see a replacement model anytime soon. And that 24mp sensor really does bug me, but the SL does more with 24mp than many do with 36mp. Depending on what you’re photographing the ISO can be found usable through its entire range. And the Leica SL features an ISO of 50! That combined with shutter speeds that stop just short of breaking the sound barrier, allow the photographer to use a fast lens like the 50/1.4 Summicron wide open on a bright sunny day without any worry at all. In fact, there have been those who have tested it wide open in very intense light with the 50/.95 Noctilux. This is a feat previously unknown to digital users. I have to admit, having the freedom to use full subject isolation on a bright day without any worry of blowing out the highlights, is a feature that alone makes me excited about the creative possibilities.

In many ways, it’s the mirrorless R I’ve always wanted. The SL design shares many of the same lines, it’s wonderful to use with M mount glass and decent to use with R glass, in fact in my opinion that’s what it’s best at. And it makes a truly wonderful companion to the M camera system. It is, in fact, a true tool for the discerning photographer when used with M lenses. Although I have a lot of R glass, I find myself most often using the SL with M glass. Something I think it’s quite good at. The short flange distance between the sensor and the lens makes it very M friendly. The longer flange distance on the SLR R system requires correction when adapting these R lenses to the SL. This requires a longer adaptor which significantly changes the feel of using R glass on the SL from its native R SLR film system. This is (in my opinion) a major drawback with the R lenses. And another reason to prefer using M lenses adapted to the SL.

Leica SL, Leica 50/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ1.4, Exposure time 1/2500, ISO 50. Photo, Jef Price
Leica SL, Leica 50/ƒ1.4 Summilux M at ƒ4, Exposure time 1/160. Photo, Jef Price

While toting around the M240 and the SL together I noticed how nice it was to move between the two, much more like using an SLR and an M together with the 35mm film format. And I love the idea of only having one lens system in my bag. A couple M lenses and the two cameras providing two vastly different but not altogether separate tools to create photographs.

For me, the SL works. I don’t know if I’m in love with it yet, but I do love the work I create with it. Would I recommend it to anyone looking to get into the mirrorless world? No. But I would say that if you’re near a Leica store it’s worth your time to set up an SL experience. If you’ve been holding onto that R lens collection, maybe check the SL out, and if you’re an M photographer with a nice collection of M glass, it’s a no-brainer. The SL works best with M glass, better even in many ways than it does with its own system glass. And if you enjoy shooting wide open no matter what the lights like, the SL seems built for you. FP

 

Interested in getting your own Leica SL? Use our eBay link and you’ll be supporting Field Photographer. 

Author: JefPrice

Former this & that. Exploring & Photographing since I was 11. Founder of FieldPhotographer.org

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