Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Leica SL Review: Love or Hate, or Both?

Leica SL with 35mm f/1.4 Summilux

I love the new Leica SL. Ok, I didn't have to actually buy it by selling my car and half my belongings to get it, so my opinion is slightly skewed. However as a camera reviewer I am obligated to to try my best to give an unbiased opinion based on my user experience as well as an understanding the current market place and where it is going. First of all the market is going mirrorless. Brands like Nikon and Canon who laughed at the idea that the future was mirrorless are now clamouring to enter the mirrorless market for the mid-level photographer. The market is also going higher end since the smartphone camera has decimated the sub $500 point and shoot market (except for waterproof and action cameras). The Leica SL is definitely mirrorless and it is premium. It's built like a tank, it has the highest resolving electronic viewfinder, it's weather-sealed, it's autofocus (unlike the Leica M system), and it's full-frame. This camera should be loved by everyone, but it's not. At $7450 USD body only (as of February 2016), many are up in arms about the SL. I've gotten more hate comments on my Instagram and YouTube comment section for reviewing this camera than any other camera I've reviewed in the past 4 years. Does this camera deserve the angst that it's receiving from many? Let's find out.

Leica SL with 35mm f/1.4 Summilux

As an image making tool, the Leica SL does not disappoint. It uses a similar but slightly improved full frame (36mmx 24mm) sensor and processor from the Leica Q at 24 mega-pixels. It is more sensitive with ISO 50 as the minimum setting (maximum ISO 50,000), great for those who wish to shoot at maximum resolution and details with the least amount of noise. I found a bit of trouble in the shadow areas at low ISO (like the Leica Q) so I recommend to shoot between ISO 400-800 when dealing with a wide exposure image. The SL can also shoot a maximum of 33 RAW files at 11fps bursts, or unlimited JPEGs due to the large 2GB internal buffer.

This camera also has full sized HDMI and USB 3.0 output connectors built in, great for those who wish to either save or view with an external monitor and/or computer. Think of a studio or location photographer who needs to display or view instant results. This goes the same for using this to capture video. The SL can do full 4K video at 30 and 24fps (4:2:0 8 bit sampling internal or external 4:2:2 10 bit sampling output via full size HDMI connector). Even at full HD mode progressive (1920 x 1080) the new Leica can shoot a maximum 120 fps, great for slow motion capture.

Leica SL with 28mm f/2 Summicron

So far so good right? Not so fast. Although the SL is an autofocus mirrorless camera, currently there is only a single lens available, the Vario-Elmarit 24mm-90mm f/2.8-4 lens. At 1140g (2.51 lbs) and a 82mm front filter thread, this lens is nothing like the M-mount lenses we have come to associate with the Leica brand. Although the image quality is first class and the autofocus is very quick and accurate, this lens is too big and unsightly to be practical for many photographers. I can see event, studio and wedding photographers using this type of lens, but many Leica photographers are street photographers at heart. If any lens will succeed with the SL, it will be the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux, available at the end of 2016. That's a long time to wait to shoot a mirrorless Leica with an AF prime lens. The solution? Since the Leica SL and T share the same mount, you can use the 4 currently available T mount lenses, although these lenses will only produce 10mp images due to the cropping of the native 24mp sensor. What I found more practical was to use the existing M-Adapter T (for the Leica T system) and use M mount lenses on the Leica SL. Does this make any sense? I think it makes a lot of sense.

The Leica SL is primarily targeting existing Leica customers, the majority of them with M bodies and M mount lenses. Until the SL system has more lenses available (especially primes), the new SL owner will want more lens choice besides the 24-90mm zoom. It's a great lens but not practical in many situations and I can see some SL owners forgoing this lens. My guess is many Leica owners will still prefer the compact manual focus lenses of the M-mount system, and extreme focal length lenses (21mm wide or 135mm tele) will actually work really nice with the SL's brilliant EVF. I found I shot more often with my Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm f/4 on the SL due to the ease in which I can frame and focus with the viewfinder.

Leica SL with 24mm-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit

After having the Leica SL for a few weeks shooting it in a variety of situations and with a variety of lenses, my overall impression is this camera is the beginning of a strong category for Leica. Let's go over quickly the pros and cons of this new camera. Let's start with the pros:
  • solid professional build quality with high level weather-sealing. The sturdiest mirrorless camera currently available on the market
  • highest available electronic viewfinder (4.4 million pixels) with high refresh rate
  • quick and accurate autofocus system with very functional manual focus features
  • simple Leica operating system with logical placement and customizable buttons
  • highest quality Leica digital images with a full-frame (36mmx 24mm) sensor with low ISO 50 sensitivity
  • the most compatible Leica camera to-date with multiple (upcoming) lens adapters 
There are a few cons, but these are significant cons that will make even current Leica owners to pause for a moment before purchasing:
  • very expensive (although reasonable within the Leica eco-system)
  • very heavy and large, especially for a mirrorless camera
  • very large lenses with average aperture speed for its size and weight
  • very strong competition (especially from the Sony A7 series)

The final con really isn't a con for many who are considering this camera, since most potential buyers of the SL are current Leica owners who can be fiercely loyal to their German brand. However, sensor based image stabilization, 1/4 the price of the SL, and more compatible lenses and 3rd party mounts makes the Sony A7 series a very, very strong incentive for even loyal Leica fans to buy a Sony and get an M-mount adapter. The final con is also a 'controversial con' for some Leica customers. The currently available 24-90mm zoom lens is not made in Germany but made in Japan. For many this isn't a big deal, but for others this can be the deal breaker. I would assume more than 50% of the innards of the new SL body probably comes from Japan or other Asian countries, which I believe many Leica connoisseurs are willing to accept, especially when final assembly is still done in Germany. But what about the almost $5,000 USD lens? Are they willing to accept 'Made in Japan' etched onto the lens barrel? I don't know. I don't think they will question the build or optical quality since it's still German design and engineered, but when you buy luxury you want to see it made in the home country of the brand. I have spoken to a few Leica owners and they are split on this 'issue'. Let's see what happens with the 50mm Summilux when it comes out later this year.

**I was just informed that the SL 24-90mm lens is in fact made in Germany and not Japan, which is a relief to many. I did have a pre-production copy initially so this is where I made the mistake. I apologize for this error.
Leica SL with the 35mm Summilux

Since this is only my mid-review, I do not have a final conclusion. I still want to test the SL's video capabilities, the upcoming R-mount adapter, and a critical test between the upcoming AF 50mm f/1.4 Summilux versus the M-mount equivalent. I have tested the sensor up to ISO 6400 and I found it better than the M240's sensor (mostly in high ISO performance), but I want to see how it compares against the M246 Monochrom at higher ISO. For now let's say that I'm pretty impressed by the capabilities of the new mirrorless Leica camera. This is the right direction for Leica and I am happy they decided to use the existing T-mount as the foundation of this new interchangeable full-frame mount. Now let's get some modest aperture compact AF lenses into the mix (35mm Summicron would be great) and some shorter range wide angle zooms (21-35mm f/4 range) at reasonable prices (for Leica). I look forward to seeing Leica grow this new category of mirrorless camera for their existing customer base and perhaps even attract new Leica users who have the money to afford these luxury pieces of photographic art... I mean equipment.

For more information on the new Leica SL, please check out my first impressions, unboxing and mid-review on my YouTube channel. Thanks for visiting and happy shooting!

BHT




7 comments:

  1. On my Leica SL24-90f2.8-4 the lens and the Box is markt with : "Leica camera Wetzlar , Made in Germany" it is nr. (11176)?
    I think you have wrong information!

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    1. yes thank you for the information. The lens is in fact made in Germany and I have corrected that in the review. Much appreciated!

      BHT

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  2. If you had a pre-production lens with the "Made in Japan" inscription, then is logical that also "Made in Germany" inscription is printed in Japan :P

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    1. to be honest since I returned the pre-production equipment I can't remember what I saw or didn't see. I take notes and I was working off them months after I published the article. My guess is that I could not find any labels, which is common on pre-production, and like the T series, I assumed it was made in Japan. But I just can't remember. Either way, I think everyone is happy that it's made in Germany. As I mentioned one of my colleagues didn't care if it was made in Japan, as long at the IQ and built quality was there.

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  3. Interesting review..I spent a day shooting with the Sl, with the current 24-90 lens...I got to say I was impressed with the results...but ...there is no way I could live with the weight. I would have loved to have tried it with some m glass, as really I see this as a far more practical solution. It has a lot of positives...and price, if you start questioning Leica pricing then really they are not the camera for you...personally if you hold one, use one, you will appreciate the build and quality, all be it at a premium price...

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    1. thanks for your reply. Yes, I don't like zooms even on my DSLRs or mirrorless cameras unless absolutely necessary, so the Leica SL zoom is just way too big and heavy for daily shooting. The interesting lens to look out for is the 50mm f/1.4, although I wish it was f/2 and make it smaller and more compact.M glass works well on the SL, especially since focus peaking works well in daylight situations. As for price, yes, if you're buying a premium product, you're paying premium pricing. There's no way around it. Thanks again for your comment!

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  4. I'm on my 3rd weeks of owning the SL and I have discovered a big flow on this camera; it can't take astro shots. Despite the SL's high ISO capability, for some reason all my milky way shots came out JUNK... I even wrote to Leica Camera USA but they have not gotten back with me on any answers. so someone please try take a shot at the milky way tonight and see if you are having the same problems.

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