Hands-On With The New Leica SL Mirrorless Camera

When Leica announced the new Leica SL mirrorless camera system, the company took a bold step into the professional full-frame mirrorless market that hitherto was occupied only by Sony. The Leica SL is a new direction for the company, which already makes the Leica M-system, the digital rangefinder (and therefore mirrorless) successors to their legendary M-system film cameras. With a successful “mirrorless” camera in the M-system, what’s Leica offering with the new Leica SL?

We had unique access to the Leica SL for a week of shooting and came away impressed, though with some reservations.

Built Tough

It’s no mistake that the Leica SL bears the same “S” moniker as the company’s “medium format” DSLR, as the SL is much more evocative of that large, domineering camera than it is of the Leica M. There’s nothing subtle nor compact about the Leica SL, and it feels like the camera is carved out of a block of metal, because that’s exactly how Leica creates the shell for the body.

 

Weather resistant and full of technological innovations, the Leica SL is incredibly important for a number of reasons, even for the photographer that can’t afford the $7,450 price tag, nor the $4,950 of the first dedicated SL-lens, the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90 / f/2.8-4 ASPH. (Neither of those lens specs are a typo, the lens is the usual-yet-welcome focal length of 24-90 and a variable aperture of f/2.8-4. More on that in a bit.)

The first reason that the Leica SL is so important comes down to specifications—the camera marks the first time that a full-frame mirrorless camera hits the 11 fps mark. It’s also the first weather-resistant full-frame mirrorless. By contrast, the leading full-frame system, the Sony a7-series, is not weather sealed, and the camera tops out at 5 fps.

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That brings up the second reason the Leica SL is important, which is because its status as a new contender for market share puts pressure not only on Nikon and Canon (companies the Sony system also challenges) for innovation, but pressure on Sony. Up until the Leica SL launched, Sony enjoyed being the only solution for full-frame mirrorless photographers, and now there’s also Leica. That Leica could more than double the capture rate of the second generation of the Sony system will have to result in a faster performing series of cameras in the full-frame space down the road.

The final reason that the Leica SL is important is its size and weight. The Leica SL is the first mirrorless camera to weigh as much, or more, than a pro DSLR. That size affords it some very quick performance, and also increases the durability of the housing—two things that many pros need. While the Sony system was known for being a lot of performance in a little package, the Leica SL is the first system where form followed function and resulted in a large, solid camera.

That said, there are some drawbacks with the performance of the Leica SL. The camera uses a contrast detection-based focus system, and in our meeting with Leica the company claimed their system was the fastest focusing camera in its class. But contrast detect systems are by definition not as fast as an equal phase detect system, nor are they as able to predict focus on a moving target.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an AF-C mode on the Leica SL, just that a contrast detection system can’t predictively focus as well on a moving target. There are also things that the phase detect systems are very good at in cameras like the Sony a7R II, and that includes focusing in AF-C mode in low light. This was detailed in an excellent article on DPReview.com, the take away being that the a7R II can focus better in low light (with a fast aperture lens) than DSLRs.

So the Leica SL might have the fastest contrast detection system—and we would have to subject it to a battery of tests to see if the claim of fastest AF in its class is true—but it’s not able to focus as fast in low light as the phase detect systems in DSLRs and in the a7R II, which we were able to confirm when shooting with the Leica SL and the Nikon D750 side-by-side at night.

When I brought up the question of having only contrast detection to the Leica product managers I met with, they reassured me that the system was fast, but conceded that the company doesn’t have many sports photographers among its ranks—perhaps that’s the rational behind a system that’s good for targets where there’s good light coverage, as one might find on location or in a studio.

Limited Selection

Being a brand new system, the Leica SL has a limited availability of native lenses, at this point very limited. There is only one SL-series lens at launch, the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90 / f/2.8-4 ASPH, mentioned above. The camera can use the Leica S, T, R and M lenses with an adapter, but if you’re looking to match the weather-resistant SL body with the SL lens, you’ll have to wait a while to see more options.

 

Those options will include the Leica Apo-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90–280mm f/2.8-4 and the Leica Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. It’s especially strange to see that zoom lenses are the first pieces of kit for the Leica SL, and doubly odd to see them be variable-aperture lenses. With a price tag for the lens approaching that or exceeding many professional bodies I’d have expected the company to have a fixed f/stop across the range. I love the versatility of the 24-90mm range on the lens, but I’d gladly trade a bit of reach for faster aperture.

Image Quality

We had several days of good weather (and some inclement weather) in which to test the Leica SL. The first was in New York City on a day with blue skies and sunlight. The photos from that shoot—largely architectural—were bright and dynamic and full of color. The images from this shoot were some of the most detailed and vivid I’ve shot in New York City—and that’s my testing ground for most cameras.

 

Another shoot was at the Jersey Shore on an overcast day. My son, dressed in a vividly color sweatshirt was the test, and he was tracked reasonably well by the camera, but not as fast as the Nikon D750 I also brought was able to track him. The Nikon was outfitted with the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.8 DI VC USD and I found in many cases the Nikon resulted in images with increased saturation and tonal range.

 

The images though where the Leica really shone (pardon the pun) was when the late-day sun fell across the scene. The dynamic range was impressive and suddenly the colors and the vibrance of the images really seemed to pop.

 

This, of course, was just one shoot in one condition and an evaluation of both the in-camera JPEG and RAW files. Both images could be tweaked from the RAW to look very similar to each other, but the images from the Leica SL were, at least at the default DNG import into Lightroom (and in the in-camera JPEGs) different enough to be noticeable.

It’s also impossible to say if the performance on the beach shoot was really due to the Lens. We had no other Leica lenses available (nor adapters) when the SL was given to us.

One interesting thing about the camera’s ISO range, which goes up to 50,000—I shot several high ISO shots at night of the Asbury Park boardwalk against the black sky, and there was almost no noise, muc
h better than the performance of the D750. But when I shot at a lower ISO inside, under sufficient lighting, there was more noise than the shots in the dark. I suspect the camera does a better job smoothing the noise from a consistent tonal range like the black sky than the varying patterns of humans in plaid shirts.

 


Takeaways

To put the Leica SL into a proper context, it’s important to look at the original Sony a7. The camera was a breakthrough, just as the Leica SL is, but it wasn’t as refined and as powerful as the current a7R II. It took quite a bit of development and lens production to get Sony the marketshare it has.

In order to disrupt a market and to create groundbreaking new products, you have to start somewhere. The Leica SL is an incredible first mirrorless full-frame camera from Leica and it’s better by far that many cameras on the market.

Leica has succeeded in creating a solid, high-performance camera with excellent image quality and incredible potential. The camera is a radical departure from the Leica M series, which they will obviously continue to make.

 

By raising the bar in the professional mirrorless space, the company has helped improve the future for all photographers.

That is, after al, part of what Leica does. Their film cameras set the standard for precision and perfection in the photographic world, yet each camera built on the shoulders of the system before it.

The Leica SL is the next major milestone in the evolution of digital photography. Not everyone will be able to afford this beautiful expression of German engineering, but everyone will be affected by its presence in the market. In that regard, the Leica SL is worth praise and admonition and it will be remembered as a turning point in photographic history.

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