A week after I thought there were no more cameras coming for the year (except possibly for an irrelevant Leica SL2), the surprising Leica SL2 arrived. What surprised me isn’t that an SL2 came, but that it isn’t irrelevant. Until it actually arrived, it was broadly assumed that the SL2 would be essentially a Panasonic S1r in a nice metal shell, for about $8000 – there are more differences from the S1r than expected, and it’s $6000 instead of $8000. The idea of simply putting a new skin on an existing camera has been tried before, notably by Hasselblad in the 2012-2014 timeframe when they rebranded a bunch of very capable Sony cameras and doubled or tripled the price. Sometimes the Hasselblad variant was ergonomically better, sometimes it was essentially unchanged, sometimes it was ergonomically worse.
Even the most ergonomically improved version was the Stellar, a Sony RX100 with a great grip on it – for $2000. The RX100 was selling for about $800 at the time – leaving a lot of extra money to figure out how to attach the grip! Fotodiox promptly figured out how to put a nice grip on the (admittedly gripless) little Sony – for $40. The other Hasselblad versions of Sony cameras were either more or less unchanged from their Sony parents or else worse. The very worst of them felt like trying to operate a Sony in an underwater housing…
Leica themselves have been guilty of rebranding Panasonic cameras in the past. Some of their rebrands have had a better lens than the original Panasonic. Others have been identical cameras, but featuring a better warranty or additional software. At various times, Leica cameras have included Lightroom or Capture One, while the Panasonics have shipped with an old version of Silkypix. Still others have literally been Panasonic cameras with a red dot glued to the front of them and no changes in included accessories – except a nice Leica box.
With this history, I didn’t hold out much hope for the SL2. The S1r is a very capable machine, and there was no reason that the SL2 would be less so – but a S1r for twice the price? Leica surprised me, though… The SL2 appeared at $6000 instead of $8000 or so, and it is much more distinct from the S1r than I expected. It shares the (excellent)sensor and basic focus/exposure/stabilization electronics of the S1r, but apparently not the image processing hardware, because some of the still and video modes are substantially different – mostly in favor of the Leica.
The difference in image-processing hardware means that the output from the two cameras could be different – especially in JPEGs. The raw files should be very similar, although raw processors might very well handle them differently. Notably, the Leica’s raw file format is DNG, which is a public format. It should be easier for raw processors to support, although there is still work involved in writing custom camera profiles and the like. The one thing the Panasonic offers that the Leica does not is a huge number of in-camera crop modes. At this level, many photographers are going to be cropping in the image editor anyway, so the Leica’s lack of crop modes should not be a major deterrent.
The Leica has quite a few interesting modes that are not on the Panasonic – for many photographers, they won’t be worth the $2300 difference, but they may be for some. The two most interesting are that the Leica has additional video modes, including 4096×2160 pixel Cinema 4K (up to 60p) and 5K (up to 30p), and that the Leica has a 20 fps still capability (with exposure and focus locked). The SL2 is the only high-resolution full-frame camera to support video resolutions above 3840×2160 pixel TV-standard 4K as of this writing (well, technically, the $50,000 RED Monstro would also qualify). The 24 MP Panasonic S1H supports up to 6K, as do several Blackmagic cameras – but none also offer high-resolution stills.
The Leica also has quite a different user interface from its Panasonic cousin. It is slightly smaller and lighter, and it has many fewer buttons, levers and dials. Two dials, a joystick, a total of five programmable buttons and three buttons next to the touchscreen (plus the shutter button and the lens release) create a clean, minimalist interface. The Panasonic, by contrast, has something like five knobs and dials, twelve buttons, three switches, a joystick and a 4-way controller plus the shutter button, lens release and a dial-locking button. Which one you prefer is very much up to the individual photographer, but that’s certainly not “same camera, new cosmetics”.
The SL2 is rated to have IP54 weather resistance – one of the few cameras to actually state compliance with a standard, and the highest standard I am aware of (of course, outside of underwater cameras). It should be more resistant to rain and splashes than the already sturdy Panasonic, although I am not aware of anyone who has tested this. Unlike the S1r, both of the Leica’s card slots are SDXC – the Panasonic has one SDXC slot plus a newer XQD slot. XQD cards are faster and more reliable, but you probably don’t own any, and they’re twice the price even of expensive UHS-II SD cards.
There is one final difference between the Leica SL2 and the Panasonic S1r. The Leica has a modified pattern of microlenses over the sensor, improving support for older Leica M and R mount lenses. Older lenses were not made with digital sensors in mind, and light rays strike the imaging surface at a variety of angles. If the surface is film, it doesn’t matter – film can record light arriving at different angles. Digital sensors, however, need the light to arrive more nearly perpendicular to the surface of the sensor, or the photons might bounce off without reaching the light sensitive pixel, which lies at the bottom of a well.
Leica has had success in the past using microlens design above the sensor to improve recording of non-perpendicular rays – and they claim to have done the same thing on the SL2. If all your lenses are modern L-mount designs (which are, by definition, optimized for digital, since no L-mount film camera has ever existed), it doesn’t matter. If you have R-mount lenses or older M-mount designs (and M lenses are not redesigned all that frequently, so there may even be M lenses sold today that are based on film-era designs), the SL2 may very well be more compatible with your lenses than the S1r.
Is the SL2 worth it? That is, of course, a question for each individual photographer. It will depend to a large extent on your existing lens collection. If you have only L-mount lenses, it would take either placing a very high value on the additional features or simply preferring the feel or interface by a huge margin to consider the Leica given the price difference. If you have and treasure M or R mount lenses, the SL2 is very likely to be worth it, especially if your lens collection is either very valuable, hard to replace in L-mount, or includes lenses that draw in unusual ways that a modern digital-optimized lens simply can’t replicate.