The Leica SL (Type 601) Camera Review
The SL (Type 601) is Leica Camera’s first foray into the world of mirrorless cameras. On the surface, this camera looks over priced and unable to compete with the dominance of companies like Sony…… but looks are often deceiving! As it turns out, the Leica SL is just what the photography market ordered and is a masterpiece by the Germany camera maker.
In fact, this isn't just the best Leica ever made, it's arguably the best digital camera ever made for professional photographers.
When I first heard about the Leica SL in the press releases, I was not impressed. The photos provided by Leica made the camera look monstrous and none of the technical specs jumped off the page. I was quick to dismiss it.
After the camera started to ship, some of the regular internet blogs I followed started to discuss the Leica SL and there was a overall sense of pleasant surprise; I wasn’t the only one to write off the camera before using one. Since initial looks and previews were positive, I decided to go play with a demo unit at the Leica Store in Mayfair London during a weekend trip to explore the London winter markets.
I was so impressed, I pre-ordered my own copy that day.
I was having a bad week; a mouse had chewed through plumbing in our house, causing mass flooding. Thankfully nothing was damaged, but it was a close call as the ceiling nearly collapsed in my photo studio. I was lucky to salvage everything without issue!
When the Leica Store Mayfair emailed me mid-week to let me know that an SL had arrived and it was mine for the taking, it did a wonder for my morale. New toys and gadgets can fix almost any problem! I asked Leica if they would charge the battery for me, as I’d come down to London to pick it up on Saturday and would want to shoot around town after I picking it up. True to their word, Leica generously charged everything and had it ready to go so I could enjoy a first day of shooting. Kudos to the Mayfair team for superb customer service!
The SL comes in a large black cardboard box. It’s about the same size as the boxes from Nikon for the D800 and D610. Unlike the M series cameras, which come with a box that is reminiscent of a jewelry box, this one is more straight forward and not as luxurious. But who cares about the box? The SL isn’t made for people who want schnazzy boxes, it’s made for photographers!
Inside the box is a large foam insert with slots for all the components: battery, charger, cables, camera strap and the camera itself.
The only surprise in the unboxing is that the SL does not come with a UK plug adapter as standard. I found this a little surprising considering the Leica M-P (Type 240) includes this and I purchased the camera in the UK. They offer a European two pin and the American two prong plugs, and I have plenty of adaptors, so no problems.
Charger & Batteries
The Leica SL takes a proprietary lithium ion battery that is sealed with a gasket so that, when inserted into the camera body, it maintains the weather sealing. The battery bottom also acts as the door for the battery hatch. Initially I though this was a little strange, but on reflection, I like the design. I have nearly ripped the battery hatch door off my Nikons before, so Leica has just removed a potential failure point.
The charger is like most Leica chargers; it includes lights to tell you when the battery is 80% charged and then fully charged. Batteries are inserted into the charger and then popped down snuggly into the charging station. Unlike the Leica M charger, where the cord is only a few inches long, the cord on the SL charger is long enough to be plugged into a floor level outlet while still resting on a table.
A spare battery runs £95 GBP / $150 USD, which is reasonable.
Leica provides a fairly solid camera strap with the SL. It has a stretchy neoprene neck pad and would probably be fairly strong if someone tried to cut it off you. That said, I won't be using the camera strap provided because I prefer even more solid designs, but what they give isn't terrible. There is no big and obscene Leica branding - of course the camera itself isn’t very subtle about being a Leica!
Provided with the Leica SL is a USB 3.0 cable that is also longer than expected. I don’t shoot tethered to my laptop very often, but it seems like the cable is just barely long enough to permit some tethered shooting.
At the time of launch, Leica announced several other accessories for the Leica SL that could be purchased after market. These include a battery grip, protective cover film for the back LCD screen, and a series of filters for the also released lenses. At this time, I haven’t purchased any accessories for the SL beyond what was provided, so any feedback on those will wait until they are released/purchased.
Construction & Build
Leica makes a lot of collector cameras - sets designed for the obscenely rich to buy and put on a shelf (I feel bad for those cameras). The Leica SL is not a collector camera. It’s not for those looking for a sexy and delicate camera. This is a photographers camera, and it shows.
The body is milled from a single solid block of aluminum, which makes it extremely solid and rugged. Design graphics provided by Leica show they have included a ton of little rings and gaskets to weather seal the camera from water and dust. In fact, Leica has even produced a video showing the Leica SL having a bucket of water dumped on it! As a landscape and outdoor photographer, this was a tremendous selling feature.
The camera has a very simplistic design - rather than overwhelm the user with a zillion little labelled buttons, they have stuck to their value of “the essentials” and provided intelligently designed controls. I really like this; there are several buttons on the Nikon’s I’ve owned that I have literally never never used. Ever. Of course the risk with cutting buttons is creating cluttered menus, but even here, the construction and design is brilliant. The SL cleverly adds long press functionality like seen on some recent Apple products to give each button a series of options and commands. That allowed them to quickly cut the number of controls needed to a bare minimum without risking frustration from photographers who needed to work hard to change a setting like ISO.
Beyond the physical construction, Leica has taken some steps to appeal to tech savvy photographers by including elements like GPS and wifi into the camera.
The truth is, Leica didn’t design this camera for a woman’s hands. The majority of the people who buy and use an SL are men who will have bigger and longer hands than I do. As a result, I am always concerned that a camera’s ergonomics won’t fit me quite right.
Alas, the Leica SL fits comfortably in my small hands. All the controls are easily within reach and I actually think the size of my hands plays to my favor when holding the SL. My right thumb can easily reach the scroll wheels and joystick control while holding the camera to my face, and my right hand comfortably wraps around the hand grip.
Weight wise, the Leica SL body is lighter than I expected it would be, considering the construction of the body. It’s heavier than a Leica M, so if that’s what you are accustomed to, it’ll seem like a brick, but for dSLR shooters, this isn’t “heavy.” Leica says that, with the battery, the camera weighs 850 grams. I can’t visualize 850 grams, but according to my calculator, that’s the same as holding five Apple iPhone 6’s. It’s also the same weight as the Nikon D800. The lens combination obviously has huge impact on the overall weight of the camera too.
The Leica SL comes with a 24 megapixel full frame (6000x4000 pixel) CMOS sensor. It has an infrared filter, but no low pass filter, which helps ensure maximum sharpness. This is probably the same sensor that was used in the also recently released Leica Q and that has received rave reviews. Side by side comparisons of the Leica SL and Leica Q still show differences in image quality, and that's because image quality is also based on processing, software, and other factors beyond the physical sensor.
Using the camera all day (10+ hours) while walking around London and shooting in a variety of environments with the GPS enabled, I finished the day with the battery still having almost 50% of the original charge. I also used the onboard wifi and connected with the iPhone Leica App during that time, both of which really can tax batteries. In normal shooting conditions, assuming you aren't using too many of these features, a battery will easily last a day of shooting.
Of course I am too paranoid about missing a shot because of a dead battery, so I always carry a backup.
Leica proudly boasts how the Leica SL can, with the right set of adaptors, be used with almost every lens they've ever made. But in reality, most of us will use the newly released SL series of lenses or will mount M lenses.
As part of the announcement of the Leica SL, Leica announced three lenses that would be released over a one year schedule to mount directly onto the SL mount. These lenses are designed to take advantage of all the camera's features, but owners of existing Leica glass can mount those lenses with a series of adaptors, so we aren't stuck waiting for lens releases. The most commonly mounted lenses will probably be the M series glass, so I'll address that below.
Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH
The first lens released with the SL is available at the time of shipping, and it's the most versatile of the lenses announced for the SL to date. A 24-70mm lens is considered one of the gold standards for professional photographers to own and Leica is improving on this common focal length by offering a 24-90mm with extra reach. This is a variable aperture lens, meaning it is f/2.8 at 24mm and f/4 at 90mm. Because it is an electronic lens, the aperture between those focal lengths varies and is digitally controlled; apertures in electronic lenses don't have to move in 1/2 or whole stop increments. Here's the largest aperture provided at some common focal lengths:
- 24mm: f/2.8
- 28mm: f/2.9
- 35mm: f/3.1
- 50mm: f/3.6
- 75mm: f/3.8
- 90mm: f/4
Leica doesn't build a lot of zoom lenses, and the reason is pretty simple - the engineering required to make a zoom lens that maintains consistent image quality through the zoom range is extremely complicated. Leica has very high standards that they have built a reputation on - and that reputation can't afford to release a flop lens. The Leica 24-90mm lens lives up to all of Leica's exacting standards, delivering fantastic clarity, contrast, color saturation, detail and sharpness at all focal lengths. At the same time, it's about the same size and weight as the 24-70mm lenses made by Canon and Nikon, so they achieved this incredible quality in a reasonably sized package.
For folks accustomed to using the M lenses, it will feel like they are hauling around a bazooka with this lens, but if you are like me and are used to the Nikon 24-70mm lens, this will feel very natural. Leica's goal when releasing the SL was to appeal to photographers like me who have always needed dSLRs, but with lenses like the Leica 24-90mm, I'll be ditching my remaining Nikon gear.
When I first heard about the lenses released for the Leica SL, I wasn't sure I wanted to buy the lens. I figured I could continue to use my M series glass and keep the setup more compact. After shooting with the demo body and lens at the Leica Store Mayfair, I changed my tune. The 24-90mm was incredibly fast to focus and staggeringly sharp. The only thing my M lenses offer over this lens is faster apertures and smaller size. Because this lens was really delightful to shoot with, I opted to purchase it, while still maintaining two of my M lenses for those times when I want a more compact and lightweight setup.
Leica APO Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4
Just like the 24-70mm is a standard midrange zoom used by most professional photographers, the 70-200mm lens is considered the professional's telephoto of choice. Keeping with that, Leica has announced, but not yet released, a 90-280mm f/2.8-4 lens to meet the needs of professionals who are considering leaving their dSLR setups. Unfortunately, the lens is probably not going to be widely available until summer 2016, and I haven't seen any reliable pricing information. There have been some photos of demo units floating around at some Leica stores, but otherwise, little is known about this lens outside Leica's promotional materials. The good news is that with a focal length this long, Leica is promising superior autofocus and image stabilization (they claim it can compensation for 3.5 stops of camera shake).
From the photos I've seen, the lens looks to be approximately the same size as the Nikon 80-400mm zoom that I've used for wildlife photography. If that's the case, it'll be larger than the other 70-200mm lenses on the market - but it also offers 80mm more reach than it's competitors. Either way, I will be eager to try one as soon as possible to see if this lens can meet my needs for wildlife shooting.
Leica Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 ASPH
Leica rangefinder users will probably be most excited for this 50mm prime, which is set to release late 2016. Again, no pricing information, but I can assume it will be a pretty penny. The 50mm Summilux lens for the M series cameras costs between $3,500-4,000 (depending on promotions), and it is a manual focus lens. Add autofocus and a much bigger lens (more glass), and I can't imagine this baby will be cheap. For that reason, I'll stick to the M series 50 Summilux, unless Leica blows me away with reasonable pricing.
For those who can afford what I imagine will be a pricey lens, the 50mm Summilux in the SL mount may be the lens that draws Leica rangefinder users to the SL. Those who are accustomed to prime lenses and crave lens speed over zoom will swoon for this lens, so I imagine it'll be a top seller. I also expect Leica will release several other fast primes in the SL mount - I'd guess a 35mm comes next?
The Leica SL is an incredible camera, and unless you really lust over a rangefinder, I suspect many M shooters will ditch their trusty M bodies in favor of an SL. The SL is nearly the same size and weight as an M, but with way more features, so why wouldn't you?
The appeal of using the SL with M lenses is that the electronic viewfinder can display any focal length lens without needing crazy adapters. No add-on field-of-view optics - just look into the viewfinder. What it shows is what you'll get! And if you like to shoot with a narrow depth of field at apertures ranging from f/0.95 to f/2, you're more likely to hit precise focus with a digital viewfinder than blindly trusting the calibration on the rangefinder.
To use an M lens on the Leica SL, you'll need the Leica M-Adapter T (aka a M to T adaptor). The adaptor is pretty small and reasonably inexpensive and, as an added bonus, can read 6 bit coding on M lenses and transfer that information to the camera.
Camera functions like autofocus are disabled when you mount an M lens (for hopefully obvious reasons), and you can choose to shoot in aperture priority or manual mode. Features like focus peaking in the electronic viewfinder make achieving tack sharp focus much easier and turning those features on and adjusting them is easily done in the menus. Firmware update 1.2 also enabled a super zoom in for focusing by just pressing down on the joystick while looking through the EVF. It's a fantastic feature!
....And it Makes Some Fine Images!
I always shoot in RAW (14 bit color depth) and edit my images to get the maximum quality in the finished result. Since RAW images assume no sharpening, contrast, color saturation, etc, RAW images tend to look dull until edited. The RAW images from the Leica SL are far from dull!
The first time I downloaded the images into Adobe Lightroom, I kept excitedly telling my husband how great they were. Although they were still RAW files, there was incredible dynamic range, color, and detail present. A few selective adjustments and the images really popped - easily the best quality I have natively seen from a camera. The image results totally dominate the RAW files created by the Leica M-P (Type 240). Likewise, they far exceed results I’ve seen from any of my Nikon’s.
I don't do scientific reviews, because I also don't shoot with a lab coat and clipboard. I shoot in the real world and use real world photos as the basis for my review, and I have been nothing but impressed by the image quality that comes from the SL. Leica's engineers clearly have worked very hard to squeeze every drop of goodness out of this sensor and it makes the sensor of the Leica M-P (Type 240) look like a kids toy. Lenses like the 50mm Summilux f/1.4, which have a distinctive "Leica look" only look better with the SL!
If you are a landscape photographer, then this is your camera. I am totally blown away by the quality of this camera, especially with the 24-90mm lens. The following images were all taken with that combination, and required minimal editing in Lightroom to deliver the results you see here.....
Like I previously mentioned, I am not a scientist, so I don't shoot crazy side-by-side comparison photos. But I am a real photographer that shoots in real environments, and the ISO performance of this camera, when used in the real world, is incredible. I normally shoot at auto ISO settings and only override the camera if I want something like a long exposure via neutral density filter. Using manual ISO, the Leica SL did a nice job maintaining a low ISO while balancing a shutter speed I could hand hold; when shooting in Aperture Priority, I normally found the camera would prefer ISO 50 while maintaining shutter speeds above 1/80th. I did shoot some photographs of my Christmas tree and found unbearable noise didn't show until above 25,000 and 50,000 was pretty noisy - but it's also stupid crazy ISO to really shoot at. If you are shooting at ISO 50k, you've made the decision to sacrifice quality in favor of getting an image, so who cares?
One of the features that appealed to me on the Leica SL is the video functionality built into the camera. Video features never made sense to me on the Leica M series - it’s not the kind of camera I would use to film anything beyond a 10 second memory clip. For that reason, I still had been holding onto my Nikon D610 for video work.
Now that I own the Leica SL, I’ll be selling the Nikon D610 as the SL has met and surpassed the video capabilities. I am not a professional videographer, so I’d be speaking out of turn to evaluate the video quality, but 4K video should be more than enough for me to film short snippets for YouTube videos.
The video specs are as follows:
- Resolution: 4K (4096 × 2160) @ 24 fps; 4K (3840 × 2160) @ 25 and 30 fps; 1080 @ 24, 25, 30, 50, 60, 100 and 120 fps; 720 @ 24, 25, 30, 50, 60, 100 and 120 fps
- L-Log gamma selectable
- HDMI video output (enabled recording via external monitor)
- Compatible with Leica Cine-Lenses
- Record in MP4 and MOV formats
- Stereo microphone, 48 kHz
- Audio in/out via additional connector
- Up to 29 min recording duration
The EVF has to be one of Leica’s crowning achievements in this camera and I suspect it will force other camera manufacturers to step up their game when it comes to viewfinders.
Until demo-ing the Leica SL, I had never used an EVF. The Nikon’s, Leica M, and analog film cameras that I’m most accustomed to using are optical viewfinders - either a rangefinder or a mirror with prism. I had never been drawn to an EVF because it seemed like it would introduce problems; a mirror doesn’t use any battery power! My experiences using Live View features has never been all that great - it’s a "nice to have" feature but lags and is slow to start. Installing a small Live View screen into a viewfinder just struck me as opportunity to fail, not to succeed.
What I’d failed to consider was the benefits of an EVF. Most notably, the EVF allows you to preview and review images in the viewfinder. I don’t have to take my eye away from the eyepiece to check if the camera captured the image correctly anymore. I don’t have to consult with the back screen for any detailed information. While I shouldn’t have been so surprised that an EVF offered more functionality than a traditional optical viewfinder, I had never put any thought into the issue. So if you are used to an optical viewfinder, try an EVF just to see if it changes your life like it did mine!
The EVF in the Leica SL is 4.4 megapixels and is very sensitive. According to Leica, it has a 37 degree field of view and is full frame. There is an external diopter control for those with glasses, and folks with glasses can also adjust the eyepiece auto-on sensitivity. I found that it did a nice job adjusting to ambient light and was easy to use in near total darkness later a night. It is also very fast and responsive to the human eye and automatically turns on/off when you look through it. Unlike most Live View functions, which need a second or two of startup time, the EVF is almost instant, so if I miss a shot, it’s not because of the EVF!
While I can tell it isn’t an optical viewfinder, the EVF is nearly life-like in the quality, colors, and rendition of the image. I appreciate the various in-screen information that can be displayed via the EVF, including a histogram to see clipping, focus peaking, or zooming for precise focus. Again, none of these features should surprise me, but coming from an optical viewfinder world, I find the ability to access this information via the eyepiece really wonderful.
We will talk about pricing later in the review, but this EVF is incredibly well built and designed, and I think the difference in price between this and competitor cameras can easily be justified by considering the EVF’s clarity and performance.
Leica did away with the extra buttons that clutter the back of other SLR cameras by utilizing a series of smart controls. One of these controls is a little joystick near the viewfinder. The location of the joystick is such that you can use your thumb to control the joystick while still looking through the viewfinder, which is great, because the joystick can allow you to move a focus crosshair around. The joystick was also very fast and smooth; it reminded me of the joystick on a video game controller with the smooth operation.
One of the cool features is that with firmware 1.2, you can click in on the joystick with a manual focus (M series) lens and the camera will zoom in the EVF to help you achieve pinpoint focus. If you are shooting a lens like the f/0.95, that'll be a huge focus assist.
The joystick also controls functions in the menus, which makes it a breeze to zoom through the menu screens.
Leica SL App
Many people dislike the Leica apps that allow integration with a smart phone, but, for me, the app is actually one of the surprises of this camera and shouldn’t be overlooked. Like the EVF, this app will change the way I shoot.
The Leica SL app is found in the Apple iTunes or Android app stores and using it requires the camera to be put into wifi mode (which probably shortens the battery life) and it then broadcasts its own wifi signal. To connect your phone to the camera, you either enter a unique password, or scan the QR code that comes up on the back of the camera. Once connected, the app serves as a remote control for the camera.
Using the app, you see a real-time preview of what the camera sees. You can touch the screen on the app to move the focus point or adjust shooting settings like aperture or shutter. There is a capture button that then lets you take the image remotely. Virtually all major camera controls are adjustable via the app.
Why is this important? Let me tell you how many hundreds of dollars I’ve wasted on remote controls and other external operations for my other cameras..... None of them worked as well as this did. If I had owned this camera on my recent trip to Wales, I would have used it to shoot long exposures without having to touch the camera and risk introducing camera shake. It’s completely brilliant and very easy to use and allows me to forgo more gadgetry like shutter releases.
Another added bonus of the app is that it allows you to view photos on the memory card and download them to your phone. Awesome. Now I can use the app to grab that photograph I just took and upload it to Facebook before I’ve even left the site. With the improvement of Adobe’s Creative Cloud system, this type of technology will change the way photographers share images with clients in near-real time.
Leica did something very cool when they made the screen on the back of the camera touch enabled. I actually forget that the back screen is touch enabled because I am not used to a feature like that! But with the touch screen, you can easily control the focus points, or quickly swipe through photos. It's a handy bonus feature built in - one I didn't need to be sold on the camera, but that only makes it that much better!
The Leica SL includes built in GPS functionality, which I rather enjoy. As an outdoor and landscape photographer, this enables me to view images spatially on a map and not have to worry about keyword tagging the location of the photo. I always wanted to play with GPS accessories for Nikon, but was too cheap to buy the accessories to enable GPS tagging. I wouldn’t have blamed Leica if they didn’t include the GPS, but the fact that they did is just another great bonus. I found the GPS acquires a signal in surprisingly fast time, but I haven’t been able to accurately evaluate the impact to the battery life. Using the GPS all day walking around London, I only half drained the battery, so as long as I carry a spare battery, it shouldn’t be an issue to use for a day of shooting.
Problems & Complaints
No camera is perfect, but the Leica SL is damn close... that said, I can offer one problem and two complaints:
SD Card Issue
There seems to be an issue where using a large memory card in slot 1 causes a slow start up. As far as I've been able to diagnose, the problem is that the camera wants to index the memory card before being ready to shoot. When I put a 128GB card into slot 1, it takes almost 7 seconds to be ready to shoot. If I put a 16GB card into that slot, it takes 1.5 seconds. Using that same 128GB card in the Leica M-P (240), it starts immediately, so that tells me the problem is software based. I recorded a video of the issue and have swapped emails with Leica - they confirm the issue can probably be fixed in a future firmware update. If Leica fixes this (which I believe they will), then I won't have any issues with the software.
So this will sound crazy, but the Leica SL is the first camera I've owned where the on/off switch isn't located where accessible with my right hand. As a result, it takes two hands to get the camera 'ready to shoot' - my right hand holding the grip while the left flips the power switch. This is a muscle memory problem, but it will take me a few weeks to get used to this arrangement.
Camera Strap Lugs
I love the way the Leica M camera straps attach with the little lugs on the side. The SL has slots where the strap feeds through, and that irritates me because I can't use some of the great straps I own already. Even when I buy a new strap, I don't like the way it sits on my body with the straps fixed in that position. Sure, I can use a sling strap that attaches to the tripod mount on the bottom, but then that blocks access to the tripod mount. It may seem fickle, but its the little things that make the biggest annoyances. Of course, that's not a reason NOT to buy the SL!
When it comes to Leica, pricing can be an awkward subject.
“Oh, that’s a nice camera, what does it cost?”
Holding a Leica, I always feel like I’m being judged. Is she filthy rich? (No: I sold all my Nikon gear and some other old stuff to purchase this)
When you really break apart this camera and compare it to some of the ‘competition’, I think Leica actually priced this camera very fairly. Sony doesn’t make a body like this, and neither does Nikon or Canon, so determining the market value is a bit tricky. The Nikon D4S, which is the top of Nikon’s line and is presumably the type of camera competing with the Leica (despite differences like EVF, sensor resolution, shooting speed, etc), costs $6,500 at the time of writing. That’s $1,000 less than the Leica. But no one is gawking at that saying “wow, Nikon is just inflating their brand!”
Bottom line, I won’t pretend that at $7,500, the Leica SL is a cheap camera, because it’s not. But I also will stand here and say with a straight face that Leica priced competitively when compared to other top-of-the-line cameras from Nikon and Canon. I think the Leica SL will also sell very well because there are far more features built in for the price than something like the Leica M, which lacks EVF, auto focus, etc.
About this Review
I buy all the gear I review - no freebies, no demo units. This camera was paid for with my own hard earned bucks, and therefore I'm not indebted to anyone to say nice things. The fact that I've paid this much for the camera and am absolutely silly stupid in love is 100% genuine based on the goodness the Leica SL has delivered!