Leica SL Hands-On

On November 18, 2015, I was invited to Leica Store Miami to get a hands-on session with newly released Leica SL. The Leica SL is the first full-frame, mirrorless system camera from Leica. Aimed at professional photographers, the camera sports a lot of very interesting features. But will it make professional shooters switch systems?

Build

The Leica SL, like its smaller sibling — the Leica T, has a body that is milled from a solid block of aerospace-grade aluminum (or aluminium for my British readers). This gives the SL a solidity and heft that is unmatched by any other brand. My Sony A7 II felt flimsy beside it. The SL uses the T-mount as well. I always wondered why the mount on the Leica T was so huge considering it is an APS-C sized camera. The Leica SL is completely weather-sealed as long as you use the full-frame SL lenses.

The back of the Leica SL is a minimalist’s wet dream: a fixed 2.95" touchscreen display with four unmarked buttons. All four buttons are soft buttons whose function varies with the screen you are displaying. The buttons also distinguish between short-press and long-press, doubling their command capacity. Along the top-plate you have (from left to right):

  • The on/off switch
  • The eyepiece (more on that later)
  • The display switch button
  • The control joystick
  • Rear control dial (clickable)

The door on the right side houses the dual SDXC card slots. The door is weather-sealed as well. The battery is similar to the one used on the Leica Q: the end plate of the battery seals flush to the body negating the need for a battery door. There is an optional grip that allows the mounting of two batteries.

The grip also adds balance for the use of large lenses. Mind you, the design of the Leica SL targets the professional 35 mm photography and is reflected in the near-DSLR sized body. The body, sans lens, is very light, but will be an issue for photogs with smaller hands. Add the grip and it really gets big. Just to give you an idea, here is a size comparison between the Leica SL and the Sony A7r II (courtesy of Camerasize.com):

Lenses

The native SL lens lineup includes three lenses:

  • Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90mm f/2.8-f/4.0 ASPH (available now)
  • Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90–280mm f/2.8-f/4.0 (mid 2016)
  • Leica Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 ASPH (late 2016)

As you can see from the first image in this review and the last one in the Camerasize shots that these are not small lenses. While some pros will bemoan the fact that the lenses are not fixed aperture, these are by no means some crappy kit lens. I was only able to see the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90mm f/2.8-f/4.0 ASPH in action, but AF on this lens is lightning fast. David Farkas of Leica Store Miami explained to me that the focusing element of the lens only has to travel a very short distance. Thus, the “zeroing-in” algorithm used by contrast detection AF can very rapidly acquire focus.

Now, three lenses (of which only one is available) does not make an enticing argument for a professional photographer to jump ship to this platform. However, this being a mirrorless camera means that lenses can be adapted. Leica makes an adapter for their M and R lenses, while Novoflex makes 13 T-mount adapters that work with the Leica SL adapting a wide variety of legacy glass.

Images

I was allowed to take test images using my own SD card. However, being a dual card system (not common on Leica) I wrote most of my test images to somebody else’s SD card. My bad. Here are the few I managed to write to my own card:

At this stage of the game most RAW converters do not have custom profiles for the Leica SL. Leica’s choice to use the Adobe DNG format means that RAW files can be processed right away, but it is going to take a version or two to get the conversions optimized.

I found this most evident in the ISO 3200 images (the one’s shot with an M-lens), I found the images much grainier than similar images taken by my Sony A7 II. Again optimization will help greatly in this regard, eventually.

The next two shots were to compare color rendition between the Leica SL and Sony A7 II. The Leica SL was sporting a APO-Summicron 50 mm f/2 ASPH lens via M-mount adapter and the Sony A7 II had a Zeiss Loxia 50/2 Planar (courtesy of Carl Zeiss USA).

The first image was shot with the Sony. As I have an optimized workflow, my system color corrected the image. The second was shot with the Leica SL. This image had to be cropped because the APO-Summicron 50 mm f/2 Asph has a much longer minimum focusing distance than the Zeiss Loxia. I will be honest and say that the Leica got the color right without adjustment, however, this is not an objective test. This is more a test of the AWB sensor than the image sensor’s color rendering ability.

Early Verdict

Based on my extremely short hands-on time with the Leica SL, I can safely say that this is the most professionally oriented Leica digital 35 mm camera to date. That being said, the lack of native lenses, lack of a system flash, non-existent 3rd party eco-system of accessories and equipment, and all of the other baggage that comes with a new camera system, working professionals will probably adopt a “wait-and-see” attitude regarding the use of this camera in the job. Remember, working pros need a camera that can get the job done reliably and the company has to have the chops to support them quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately for Leica, Canon and Nikon have sent the support bar pretty high. Sony is now growing its professional support services and they vastly larger resources than Leica. Also, the $12k entry fee does not help.

So who is buying this camera?

Professionally, I see fine art photographers purchasing this camera. These are pros who shoot images to be displayed in galleries. They are beholden to no one but themselves and (as DigitalRev’s Kai states) often wear hats. They often print their own images. As a professional photographer myself, I can safely say that the vast majority of my customers cannot tell the difference between images taken with a $1600 camera or one costing 8x as much. Fine Art photographers (and amateurs caught in the Leica Reality Distortion Field) can spot the differences that justify the additional expense.