First Impressions: Leica SL

Question: What makes the ‘perfect camera’?
Answer: The one you use.

For some time, I have been searching for the perfect camera to replace my Nikon D800. I absolutely loved shooting with the D800, but my photography was moving a different direction, and I wanted a smaller specialized system that fit my style of shooting. Earlier this year, I sold the Nikon setup and moved into a Leica M rangefinder system. Since then, I’ve been in love with the Leica system, which emphasizes “Das Wesentliche” - the essentials. 

While I have enjoyed shooting the Leica M series, it’s not the prefect camera for me; at times I’ve been left lusting for a feature omitted in that camera. I follow some of the internet rumors sites and heard discussion of a new Leica camera, dubbed the SL. After the camera was released, like many other Leica users, I was quick to dismiss it. The camera seemed like it was 5 years too late to hit the market. Some of the cameras have since started to ship, and initial reviews were glowing, so I decided to pay the London Mayfair Leica Store a visit to demo a Leica SL for myself.

What follows is my first impressions of the Leica SL using it in store at Leica Mayfair; this is not an exhaustive review. I’ll save that for once I own one. But I hope that the following information helps someone who may not have access to a local Leica store or may not have the opportunity to demo before they buy.

Shooting the Leica SL in the Mayfair showroom. You can get a sense for the ergonomics with the 24-70mm lens mounted on front.

Shooting the Leica SL in the Mayfair showroom. You can get a sense for the ergonomics with the 24-70mm lens mounted on front.

*Disclaimer* There’s no point in even getting into the pricing of the camera. Leica makes expensive cameras, but I actually don’t think this is priced all that crazy….. It’s expensive, but I actually think Leica will sell tons of these cameras!

Features Snapshot:

    - 24 megapixel CMOS sensor

    - 4.4 megapixel electronic viewfinder

    - Continuous shooting up to 11 frames per second

    - Ability to mount Leica T, M, S, and R lenses (with adaptors)

    - Solid body construction

    - Fully weather sealed

    - Dual SD card slots

    - Built in wifi and GPS

    - Touch screen on the back

    - Top LED screen for camera controls

    - ISO up to 50,000

    - Lots more - read the full specs here

First Impressions:

Before going to see the Leica SL for myself, I read the entire internet’s worth of information about the camera (Links: Steve Huff and Kristian Dowling have the best reviews) . So I knew how to work it and what to expect in terms of unlabelled buttons and functionality. What the internet doesn’t offer is a really great understanding of the “in hand” experience of holding and using the camera. 

Electronic Viewfinder

This is a logical place to start, because it’s one of the first places you look. I have never used a camera with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) before, but I understood appeal of the concept. Part of my reluctancy with them was that I didn’t feel like that technology was good enough at this point to justify buying. People like Steve Huff spoke very highly of the EVF, but lacking in experience with these, I still needed to see it to believe it.

The EVF automatically detects your eye and turns on instantly. I had been nervous that the EVF would be like live view on the back screen of the M where it needs a moment to start up. Thankfully, this is not the case! Missing a shot because you were waiting for the EVF to turn on is a non-concern. Phew.

Once on, it’s a very bright and extremely clear screen. I was immediately impressed. Having never used an EVF before, I had never taken the time to consider the extra value of having a screen vs a mirror. For instance - the camera can display information via the viewfinder that normally I have to look at the back screen to see like a histogram or clipping information. I used to take my eye away from the camera viewfinder to look at the back screen to determine if I had a good image, but Leica has enabled me to continue to look through the viewfinder and get that information. Holy cow, that’s going to change the way I shoot!

The viewfinder is also very fast and had almost imperceptible lagging. It was easy to use features like focus peaking to quickly achieve sharp focus on a manual lens, which would be great for something like the f/0.95 Noctilux series.

The EVF turns on automatically when you bring your eye up to the viewfinder. Even from this far away, you can tell how bright and beautiful this EVF looks!

The EVF turns on automatically when you bring your eye up to the viewfinder. Even from this far away, you can tell how bright and beautiful this EVF looks!

Look at that big bright viewfinder. Lot's of useful information displayed on screen. You can also see the focus peaking (the neon blue on the display cases) indicating what is in focus.

Look at that big bright viewfinder. Lot's of useful information displayed on screen. You can also see the focus peaking (the neon blue on the display cases) indicating what is in focus.

This is the closest view I could get of the EVF. Look how incredibly sharp it is!

This is the closest view I could get of the EVF. Look how incredibly sharp it is!

Joystick Toggle 

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. I never really used single point focus on my Nikon D800 because the four-way toggle on that camera made it slow and cumbersome, but the joystick would allow you to move the crosshair very quickly. The joystick also controls functions in the menus, which makes it a breeze to zoom through the menu screens. I didn’t really put much stock into the joystick when I had read about the camera before, but found it was one of my favorite controls.

The touch screen LCD with four control buttons, all of which are programmable. The joystick is located just right of the viewfinder. Ironically, the only labelled button is the on/off switch. I guess Leica assumed we weren't smart enough to figure out that switch!

The touch screen LCD with four control buttons, all of which are programmable. The joystick is located just right of the viewfinder. Ironically, the only labelled button is the on/off switch. I guess Leica assumed we weren't smart enough to figure out that switch!

Back LCD Screen

Leica did something very cool when they made the screen on the back of the camera touch enabled. Again, I didn’t appreciate this until I got to use it, and I almost forgot to play with it because I’m used to the screen being just a screen. But with the touch screen, you can easily control the focus points, or quickly swipe through photos. I don’t think it will be long before the rest of the industry follows Leica’s example to include smart screens on their devices. 

Size and Weight

For being a company that specializes in photographic equipment, Leica did themselves a disservice by making the initial advertising materials make this camera look huge. I have shot a Leica S before and know how big and cumbersome that camera can be to carry all day. The first photographs of the SL looked equally huge and bulky. Thankfully it’s just poor photography on Leica’s part; the camera is actually rather small and compact. I like the ergonomics better than the Leica M; the hand wrap around grip makes it feel secure when holding one handed. It also weighs far less than I expected, especially if you use it with M series lenses.

Two cameras - one of which is already a piece of history (the Hasselblad), while the other is likely to become one of Leica's greatest achievements. Side-by-side size comparison.

Two cameras - one of which is already a piece of history (the Hasselblad), while the other is likely to become one of Leica's greatest achievements. Side-by-side size comparison.

Size comparison next to the iPhone 6 plus. I realize this isn't the best comparison photo for size, but work with what ya got, right?!

Size comparison next to the iPhone 6 plus. I realize this isn't the best comparison photo for size, but work with what ya got, right?!

Construction

I didn’t take their demo camera into the bathroom and run it under the sink, but Leica claims the SL is fully weather and dust sealed, which is critical for me as a landscape and outdoor photographer. I could tell just from holding it that the camera is very well made; things like the SD card door had more heft and substance to them than any other camera I’ve ever used. This camera is designed to be used in tough environment, and it shows. You aren’t paying for a fru-fru look but don’t touch camera here, this is a photographers camera!

Ergonomics

I played with the camera using both M series lenses and the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH lens that was introduced with the camera. I actually prefer the feel of the camera with the 24-90mm lens! Yes, the lens is far bigger than an M lens, but it gave balance to holding the camera. While my right hand is busy holding the body, my left hand felt like it didn’t have a job but to move the focus ring on the M lenses. With the larger 24-90mm lens, I felt like I could really get a good solid grasp on the camera and it had nice weight and balance.

Likewise, I really like the button placement. With small woman hands, this is always a point of concern - my hands aren’t the ones Leica built this camera for! Yet it fit perfectly - all the controls were easily reached and natural. I have to assume Leica spent countless hours with German engineers in lab coats debating every single button placement to make sure it was intelligent, correct, and fit with the Leica philosophy. Bravo.

The Leica SL App

This was something most other reviewers skimmed past. It was mentioned like “oh yeah, and they have an app.” 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.

I installed the app onto my iPhone 6 while at Leica Mayfair. The camera has to be put into wifi mode (no idea what affect that has on 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 controller for the camera.

The connection screen for the Leica SL app

The connection screen for the Leica SL app

The camera controls section of the app. Touching the screen moves the cross hair for focusing around the image. There is very minimal lag between this app and the camera.

The camera controls section of the app. Touching the screen moves the cross hair for focusing around the image. There is very minimal lag between this app and the camera.

The synchronization between the app and the back of the camera is quite good - the same image is displayed on both. I can think of many applications for landscape photography!

The synchronization between the app and the back of the camera is quite good - the same image is displayed on both. I can think of many applications for landscape photography!

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. While I didn’t explore the entire depths of the app in my demo, it seemed like most major camera controls were accessible 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 Nikon D800. 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.

Viewing the images already on the card via the Leica SL app. By selecting any photo, you can download it to your phone in full resolution.

Viewing the images already on the card via the Leica SL app. By selecting any photo, you can download it to your phone in full resolution.

Downloading an image from the app onto my iPhone

Downloading an image from the app onto my iPhone

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. I’m excited by the prospects!

Image quality

I obviously didn’t do an exhaustive test of the image quality while in the Leica showroom, but I did use the previously mentioned app to download a few shots I took of my husband, who patiently read the Leica LFI magazine while I played. Considering they are JPEG files, they rendered very nicely! I also converted one to black and white using Nik Silver Effects.

With the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH lens, there was nice smooth bokeh effects - the below images were shot at f/3.7 and you can see the soft focus on the jeans and magazine pages, but sharpness on the jacket and face.

The .JPEG image that I took of my husband as it came off the camera.... no adjustments

The same image, but with quick edits in Adobe Photoshop. The biggest adjustment was for white balance.

A crop from the above image. Here you can see the soft focus on the magazine and jeans, but sharp focus on the jacket and chin.

With a 2 second conversion in Nik Silver Effects. Beautiful results, considering I didn't even compose enough to get the bottom of the display case out of the bottom of the frame!

The EXIF data on the above photographs

One last shot - again without any edits. This is the full size file, so feel free to download and peek more closely. Or click on the image for a full size preview.

Overall

I was totally blown away by the Leica SL. A mirrorless camera also introduces new opportunities that I had previously not considered; for instance, I was able to shoot at 1/25th hand held and still get crisp images. Normally I can’t get below 1/60th without introducing camera shake. Furthermore, features like the EVF, app integration, and controls like the joystick worked better than I expected. I now understand that, while on paper this camera may look like it was introduced too late to keep up with Sony in the mirrorless camera department, it actually comes at the perfect time.

Having tried the camera with the new Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH lens, I plan to purchase the lens too. I originally was considering only the body and continuing to use the M lenses, but that lens was incredibly smooth, sharp, and really brings out the best in the SL body. I’ll still use M lenses, but I think I’ll sell most of my M lenses to help pay for the 24-90mm lens.

I am now on a wait list with Leica to get my own camera and hopefully will have it in the coming weeks. As soon as I do, I’ll take more test shots in “real world” environments and post a full review. Stay tuned!