Some Thoughts On The Leica SL

October 22, 2015 ·

Sean Reid

By Sean Reid of Reid Reviews

Before I begin this, I should explain that I have been beta-testing the Leica SL (which was code-named “Max”) since August of this year. I’ve worked with both pre-production and production level versions of the body with the newest test firmware being 1.1. So I’ve gotten to know the camera pretty well and have used it under a lot of different circumstances. The following is not a review, it’s just a collection of some thoughts I’ve put together at Michael’s request. A very extensive review of the camera, and articles about testing it with M and R lenses, can be found on my site www.reidreviews.com.

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The key thing to understand about the SL is that it is intended to be the market’s first full-on professional 35 mm format digital camera with an electronic finder. Many people use the term “mirrorless” for these cameras but I don’t do that because it isn’t a very good descriptor (it’s actually a marketing term Panasonic invented many years ago for a set of press releases). We define other cameras by the ways they allow us to see and focus the subject: SLR, rangefinder, window finder, etc. We don’t try to define them by what they don’t have. There are reasons why we don’t still refer to automobiles as “horseless” carriages. There are several camera types that don’t use mirrors. The SL is one of them – an electronic finder camera, an EFC.

And quite an electronic finder it is. With a large and high res. 4.4 MP view, the SL has the most detailed EVF I’ve seen. The refresh rate is also excellent though in very, very low light there can still be some motion blur. Still, as EVFs go, this is probably the current state of the art. Electronic finders are very popular right now and they do have a number of advantages. They don’t create vibration, they potentially make a camera smaller, they can boost viewing brightness in low light, preview exposure (sort of), preview white balance (also, sort of), display overview information, etc. In many ways they make great use of technology.

But current EVFs couldn’t handle high subject contrast even if their lives depended on it. Every electronic finder I have ever used, including the one in this SL and the ones in various excellent Sony A7 series cameras I’ve tested, have limited dynamic range. Michael wrote about the problem here a couple of years ago. Faced with a bright and sunny subject (or a lit stage near an audience in dim light, etc.) an EVF’s shadow areas go to black or the highlights go to white or both.

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It’s for this reason that I, personally, don’t normally use EVF cameras. But I know that many people really like them (the cameras certainly seem to sell well) and many seemingly do not mind the viewing contrast issue. I’m not sure how other professional photographers feel about them but, over the next few years, we’re going to find out. I think it is certainly not an accident that major pro camera makers like Canon and Nikon are sticking with SLRs right now. It’s not just conservatism; I’m not so sure their core pro bases are asking them to abandon that finder system. Those who argue that the SLR is hopelessly outdated might want to spend a day shooting a professional assignment in bright sunlight for a demanding client.

So the most accurate thing I can say regarding the EFC vs. SLR debate is that each system has its pros and cons. Which one is better, for a given photographer, depends on how that person weighs those different pros and cons. With that in mind, I suspect that a professional level camera with an electronic finder is going to be very interesting to some photographers.

So what makes the SL a professional camera? It’s built like a tank, just like an Leica S (007) and with very similar controls. Environmental seals (on the body and lens) are serious. My colleague Jono Slack tells me he shot with the SL in four hours of heavy rain without a problem. I haven’t been so lucky (?) to shoot in that kind of weather but the sealing does seem robust. There are two SD card slots under a solid door. The camera provides both 24 MP and a claimed continuous frame rate of 11 frames per second. I clocked it at just under 10 FPS with a fast card but maybe it could squeek out 1 more FPS with an even faster card. Autofocus (I use single point with all cameras) is fast and reliable. And so on…this camera really is designed for people who need to make a living from photography. It also has some pretty promising video features (for the pro who is asked to shoot stills and video) but I’m no expert on video so I’ll leave the evaluation of that to Michael.

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While photographing at the Tunbridge World’s Fair this year I decided to give the SL and 24-90 a combined challenge: night time low light, lens wide open, fast moving subjects and an ISO of 12,500. As with all AF photography I do, I used single center spot AF only. That meant the camera had to lock focus and release the shutter in milliseconds while the subjects, people on amusement rides, zoomed in and out of the frame. The EVF also had to refresh fast enough, with little blur, to allow me to see what I was doing.

The SL nailed it.

Out of 65 pictures in that series, focus was off for just 6 of them. That’s a hit rate of about 91 percent for circumstances under which some cameras have trouble locking focus at all. I was blown away that the camera could pull this off. The last camera I remember using that performed like this was a Canon 1Ds Mark III with a 35/1.4 and 50/1.2. And that Canon is an SLR which, of course, has no finder refresh rate challenges. So not only could the SL lock focus but its EVF was actually able to show fast movement in low light. We know that good pro DSLRs can handle this kind of thing easily. But a lot of EFCs I’ve used choke even under the much milder demands of photographing folk dancers in a fairly well lit room: the finder image blurs, AF can’t keep up, etc. Not true for the SL.

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Please ignore the funny reds in the picture above. Lightroom doesn’t yet have a color profile for the SL so any SL image we see on the web right now (that was converted from DNG) will show some inaccurate colors. The SL sensor is similar to the one used in the Leica Q, a camera with good color rendering, so I think color from the SL should be good once it is profiled by LR and other converters.

The 24 – 90 Vario is an excellent lens but it is big and heavy indeed. A professional level auto-focus zoom with built-in image stabilization (which it has) and a range this broad is going to be big and we see that in many DSLR lenses as well. An SL with 24 – 90 mounted is a large, weighty, serious beast just like most of the cameras currently doing news and other professional photography all over the world. I’ve done a lot of work with DSLRs and heavy zooms and, not surprisingly, I prefer smaller and lighter cameras. But it is often a “big rig” like this that gets the job done when the pace is fast and there’s no time to be switching lenses. Scan a press conference or football game sideline some time and you’ll see what I mean.

The SL body itself, however, is actually a good size (at least for my adult sized hands) and the weight is reasonable given the build quality. It’s the 24-90 lens which really makes the whole package bulky and heavy. I’ve spent many hours shooting with the SL, adapter and an M lenses (like a 28/2.8 Elmarit ASPH or a 35/2.0 Summicron ASPH) and the weight of the camera was just fine.

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So who is the camera for? First and foremost, it is designed for professional photographers who want to use an EFC instead of a DSLR and who want to work with Leica lenses. Those lenses, for good reason, have a rather strong reputation. It is true, however, that as of the SL’s launch in November, only the Vario-Elmarit SL 1:2.8-4/24-90 Aspherical will be available. A 90 – 280 is expected to be available in the middle of 2016 and a 50/1.4 is expected to be available near the end of 2016. An adapter for S lenses (with AF functionality preserved) is promised as well and the SL can also use T/TL lenses such as the TL 35/1.4 Summilux pictured above and below (but only with the APS-C cropped area those lenses are designed to cover).

But there’s no escaping the fact that the SL, as an auto-focus camera, is competing with DSLRs that have very extensive lens systems and Sony A7 series cameras with a modest lens system that has grown each year. Ya gotta start somewhere and, for Leica, things start with the SL body and a wide range zoom. The only antidote to this situation is time. Over time, more lenses will be introduced and the versatility of the SL, as an AF camera, will expand. Until then, the full frame AF lens situation is what it is.

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But, for manual focus work, things get very interesting. The SL was designed to have some compatibility with R and M series lenses and it includes lens menus for both types (manual for the R lenses, automatic and manual for the M lenses). That’s a very significant feature. For the R lenses alone, there are currently 58 different lens menu settings available to correct for luminance vignetting and color drift. M lenses are mounted using the same adapter already available for the Leica T (which detects lens codes). R lenses are currently mounted using that same adapter with another M to R adapter mounted as well (this combination tells the SL to make the R lens menu available). Leica will, however, be releasing a direct SL to R adapter next year. Until then, both Jono Slack and I have been seeing excellent results using R lenses with the double adapter set up.

As I’ve written on my own site, I would like to see Leica, or someone else, develop an AASD (auto-aperture stop down) SL to R adapter. Such an adapter would use a simple ring motor (such as AF lenses use) to trip the lever on R lenses which moves the aperture between wide open and wherever the aperture ring is set (F/5.6 for example). That would allow the SL to work very much like an R camera. Viewing and focusing the subject would be done with the lens wide open and pressing the shutter would move the lens to the selected aperture setting (just as SLR cameras have done for the past 50 years). It’s mechanically/electronically possible and I think it would be enormously useful for photographers.

I’m currently in the process of doing side by side tests, for my own site, of various M and R lenses on both the Leica SL and M-240. Photographers who are interested in using R lenses on a digital body might want to give the SL a close look. With a typical M or R prime mounted, the SL is no longer especially large or heavy. M cameras remain, in my view, the best bodies for M lenses but photographers who prefer EVFs to window finders might also want to think about the SL as an M lens body.

Not surprisingly, the SL is expensive. It’s a solidly made, high performance, full-frame, environmentally sealed professional camera made by Leica. Such things never come cheap. Nor are Leica lenses cheap. The SL will sell for $7450 and the 24-90 Vario will sell for $4950. At $12,400 for the pair it’s a significant investment. We know that the Nikon, Canon and Sony bodies cost less and currently have access to larger (or much larger) AF lens systems. There’s no arguing that. But the SL does bring its own unique mix of strengths to the table.

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I think that, long term, the SL system is going to be important for Leica. Some people might have been expecting this camera to be a Q with a lens mount. It’s obviously not that. Instead, I see the SL as two things. One is the first component in a new electronic finder professional camera system which Leica is establishing lens by lens. It will take time to build this from an initial camera and lens to a full system. But, these two components are where things start.

The SL is also a very interesting electronic finder body for M and, especially, R lenses. Those lenses, made for decades, are available right now and people can start using them on the SL in November. I think the camera has significant strengths as a platform for those lenses and so this is a direction I am exploring quite a bit on my own site, Reid Reviews. As of now, I have a very extensive full review of the SL completed (with over 100 illustrations including side by side studio tests with the Leica M-240) as well as an introductory/overview article discussing using M and R lenses on this new camera. Tests of quite a few M and R lenses (on the SL and M-240 side by side) are currently in progress.


Sean Reid
Sean Reid Reviews
October 2015

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Sean Reid

Sean Reid has been a commercial and fine art photographer for more than thirty years. He studied photography at Bard College under Stephen Shore and Ben Lifson. In the late 1980s he worked as an exhibition printer for Wendy Ewald and other fine art photographers. In 1989, he was the first American photographer to receive an artist-in-residence grant from the Irish Arts Council in Dublin, Ireland and his work is held in their collection. That same year he gave a guest lecture at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art in Dublin. In the early 1990s Sean met occasionally with Helen Levitt to discuss and edit pictures he was making in the subways of Budapest and New York City. These were exhibited in New York in conjunction with performances by Jens Nygaard's Jupiter Symphony. Sean's work for clients is often of weddings and architecture. His editorial work has appeared in magazines such as Motorcyclist, Rider and The Robb Report. His personal work is primarily of people in public places -- especially in rural New England where he resides. In 2004, Sean began reviewing cameras and lenses for Luminous Landscape. The following year he began Reid Reviews (link: www.reidreviews.com), a site -- of equipment reviews and essays on photography -- that accepts no advertising and is paid for entirely by subscribers. Written primarily for professional and serious amateur photographers the site has become known for its in-depth analysis based on both field and studio testing. Sean also serves as an unpaid consultant, advisor and sometimes beta tester for several camera and lens manufacturers. http://www.reidreviews.com

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