Every year millions flock to comic stores all over the country for an event called Free Comic Day. During this event parents and kids of all ages can get offerings from their favorite publishers for free. Special comics produced just for this event. Sometimes leading to major events, and sometimes a self-contained story just for this issue. And every year there are fans who go all out, dressing as Batman or the Ghostbusters and driving from shop to shop taking photos with kids and sometimes even the parents. This year while photographing the event for Worlds Greatest Comics in Westerville Ohio, I brought along the Leica CL and the L-Mount 23mm ƒ2 Summicron lens. FCD is a packed event, where comic shops are full, wall to wall of people of all sizes and ages. This was a great high energy event to test out the compact APS-C system from Leica….
I have a pretty large backlog of cameras for reviewing, one of these cameras is the ultra-compact and very attractive Leica CL. This small, compact well built little camera looks like a wonderful addition to the Leica line up. The design, both in style and function, stays very true to Leica’s roots. It even resembles the earliest Leica models. When it was first released I said that if it was full frame it would be the closest Leica model to move towards the original Oskar Barnack 35mm innovation in years, maybe since the original 35mm film CL (a joint venture with Minolta) in the 1970’s. Of course, upon further review, I realized that the CL being APS-C format doesn’t matter at all. The Leica I or Leitz camera was designed to use 35mm cinema film stock so that you would have a whole roll of film rather than have to switch out large plates. So right away, the earliest Leica camera used a film format much smaller than what would’ve been considered the full frame format of its day. The Leica CL is no different.
I’m a Leica M photographer. That is too say that if I had to say I was any one camera type of photographer, that’s what it would be. I use Med Format, I use 35mm and sometimes 120mm film, I shoot a Nikon D800 and D5, I’ve used Fuji X systems and Contax G or Sony. But if I’m going to go somewhere with just one camera… It’s my M. This Leica CL is not going to replace my M-9 Monochrome or M10, but if it was full frame (35mm sensor sized) and there were a few improvements, it very well could. I know saying full frame matters right after saying it doesn’t is contradictory, so let me elaborate…
In terms of working with the camera and achieving the goal of high image quality in a compact package, APS-C vs Full Frame matters very little if at all anymore, especially in the case of such well-made cameras such as the Fuji X-Pro 2 or Leica CL. However, in terms of lens selection, it matters a great deal. I’m highly invested in the Leica M lens lineup and mount. These are full frame lenses designed to be used on full frame cameras. The CL being APS-C, is not designed to use 35mm format lenses in their native focal length. Any 35mm format, or full frame, lens has a 1.5x conversion factor or “crop” factor. This means that a 35mm lens is actually closer to a 50mm lens in terms of viewing angle. There is also a change in compression of the depth of field and change in the draw of a lens from 35mm to APS-C. A 35mm lens doesn’t just look cropped when used on an APS-C format camera, the look or draw of the lens is also changed. So when I shoot my 35mm ƒ2 Summicron M mount Leica lens on the APS-C format Leica CL, it’s closer to a 50mm lens and doesn’t look or render quite the same as on a 35mm format or full frame camera. This isn’t of concern to some, but it could be a major issue when getting discerning photographers to invest in a new system. If the SL had been a more compact system, it very well may have been an easier sell for photographers already invested in M lenses. The CL would be a slam dunk in full frame, but in APS-C none of your 35mm format lenses are consistent in focal length, which makes it a luxury item for many, rather than a working tool necessary in their bag.
So here’s the big question with the Leica CL, just how good is it and is it worth investing in the new system format? Models in the L-Mount range before this were mostly treated as nothing more than luxury items for people with too much cash to blow on the little red dot. But the CL has many if not all the big features a camera needs to be taken seriously and it’s the first APS-C format camera from Leica for a serious photographer. Make no mistake, the CL is a direct competitor to the current king of the APS-C market, the Fuji X-Pro 2. Which just last week I stated was most likely the best APS-C system ever made. Despite the CL being more expensive than Fuji and having a much more limiting lens lineup, it is the only serious competitor for the Fuji X system. Some may say the Olympus Micro 4/3rds systems, but those are in their own market and most APS-C shooters are already using as small of a negative (sensor) as they’re willing to use, so those who would say this are wrong.
In the next week or so I’ll be posting direct comparisons of the Fuji X systems and the Leica CL, but today I want to focus on the CL. The CL is small, fast and light. It’s faster than its big brother the SL at starting up and getting to work. The EVF is big and bright, giving you a clear view of what you’re photographing and I was impressed with image quality. Although there does seem to be an issue with nailing the focus. Multiple exposures where I was focussed on the face, the focus is shifted to objects just behind the head or ears, sometimes even the shirt. This may be a settings issue, I’m exploring this further.
I’m using the CL with the Leica 23/ƒ2 Summicron TL lens (full format eq of a 35mm ƒ2 lens), this is an AF (auto focus) lens design to use with the CL, and as with all L-Mount lenses, it also works on the T series and SL cameras. The lens will get it’s own review next week, but it’s fast, focusses softly and very sharp as expected. Even wide open, I was very impressed and may have a hard time letting this little package go. Like the rest of the L cameras, the CL takes a minimalist approach to buttons and has a lot of fancy technical features, which we will get into in a full more technical look at the camera later on.
“I think it’s quite possible that if Oskar Barnack were alive and photographing today, this may very well be a camera he’d use.”
Using the CL was easy. Not because I know the Leica systems well, but because they’ve fixed all the issues I had with the SL in this compact little wonder. It’s faster to get moving, it’s quieter and sounds better when the shutter is released and the image quality is amazing, as are the colors. The EVF is offset, much like the M’s finder, which made using it with the M very natural and easy. It’s a very tiny package with a lot of wonderful features, which means something had to go. And that would be battery life. The Leica CL is worse than the Sony AR7II! I took about 300 photos with it and it was dead. This was with it running the whole time and shooting the whole time with autofocus, which is a direct comparison to what I did with the SL and AR7II. It breaks down about like this…
• Sony AR7II: About 450-600 photos with AF lenses before the battery was dead. 600-800 with manual focus lenses.
• Leica SL: About 400-500 photos using AF lenses, up to 650 with manual lenses.
• Leica CL: About 300-350 with AF lenses
So it’s pretty awful. Even charging it fully and turning it off after every exposure I couldn’t get more than 300 or so photos. When you’re shooting a gig and shooting everything, that’s just not enough. I can get a whole day of shooting in with the M10 with the EVF, and that’s with it overheating all the time (more on that in an M10 review). So the CL may seem to have most everything you want in a high-end compact systems camera, but it’s falling very short on battery life. I’m glad I brought my M10 along for this shoot or I’d have had a lot of kids that just didn’t get their photos taken. Of course, this isn’t the only mirrorless camera with battery issues. Every single one has varying degrees of awful battery life. So as much as I hate to say it, if you’re making the move to mirrorless poor battery life is just something you have to live with.
Quality of images
I’m impressed with the images from the Leica CL for the most part. The big tones and wonderful contrast produced by the teaming of a great sensor and great lenses is no surprise to anyone who’s used a Leica system before. Still, the images produced here are impressive. The files blend well with files and work from my M10, the M9, SL or anything else Leica has or currently does put out. They’ve done a very nice job calibrating their sensor to really produce those tones images people want from their Leica system cameras. The files are crisp, sharp and require very little tuning of the RAW images. I used no sharpness increases in LR for these images. The sharpness is directly representative of the RAW files right out of the camera.
“Despite the CL being more expensive than Fuji and having a much more limiting lens lineup, it is the only serious competitor for the Fuji X system. “
So how do I like using the CL? That’s the important question, isn’t it? And I like it, maybe more so than the SL, in fact, it’s convinced me that Leica is trying to create a serious system for serious photographers in the CL. There’s some small issues, such as AF having difficulty focussing up close or the too easy to move wheels on the top of of the CL, but it’s fun and when you get it right, the images are very nice.
If you’re not having fun shooting your camera, why do you use that camera? I don’t use the SL for anything but lens tests anymore. It’s just not fun. The CL, on the other hand, is a blast. I think it’s quite possible that if Oskar Barnack were alive and making photographs today, this may very well be a camera he’d use. It feels to me as though it’s a digital version of my Leica IIIf, and that my friends, is a wonderful thing. FP