Introduction and features
Leica has a reputation for building high quality cameras and lenses, and strictly speaking it was the first company to introduce mirrorless digital system cameras, as its long-running M models are rangefinders – which don’t have reflex mirrors. However, it wasn’t until the Leica T (Typ 701) was introduced in April 2014 that the company had what many would consider a modern mirrorless or compact system camera (CSC). While the T follows Leica’s minimal design ethic, many were surprised by its low button count and the heavy dependance on the touchscreen for making settings selections. This seemed a major departure for a company that tends to make cameras with traditional controls.
Now we have a second mirrorless system camera, the SL (Typ 601) and instead of the APS-C format sensor of the T, inside is a full-frame CMOS device with 24 million effective pixels. What’s surprising is that the new camera has the same lens mount as the T. This means that the existing T lenses are directly compatible, but because they are only designed to cover an APS-C sized sensor, mounting one sets the SL to APS-C crop mode and it produces 10Mp images. It’s like mounting a Nikon DX lens on an FX camera. Leica already has an adaptor that allows M-mount optics to be used on the SL, but there will be new ones to enable Leica S, R and Cine lenses to be used.
Leica is rebranding the T mount the L mount and lenses that are compatible with the T will be labelled TL, while full-frame lenses will be badged SL. It’s also possible to mount SL lenses on the T. Clearly this move was planned long before the SL’s announcement, so it seems a little odd that the rebranding is necessary. The Leica T doesn’t have a viewfinder built-in and unless you invest in the optional external unit images must be composed on the rear screen. When the Leica Q (the company’s full-frame compact camera) was unveiled, Leica showed how good an electronic viewfinder can be. The viewfinder in the SL has an even more impressive specification – it’s a 0.66-inch unit that has 4.4-million dots (the Q’s has 3.68 million) and a magnification of 0.8x (the viewfinders on Sony A7R II and Sony A7S II, the Leica SL’s like-for-like rivals, are 0.5-inch devices with 2,359,296 dots and 0.78x magnification).
If the idea of a ‘serious’ Leica camera with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) has you choking on your tea, I probably shouldn’t mention that it has a 2.95-inch rear screen with 1.04 million dots that’s touch-sensitive. But it does. Naturally both the screen and the EVF can display the live view image with exposure simulation (this can also be turned off) as well as focusing peaking, clipping/zebras and a level. Leica has coupled the SL’s sensor with a Maestro II processing engine – the same as is used in the medium format Leica S (Typ 007). This means it’s capable of handling large files and as a result the SL can shoot at up to 11fps (frames per second) with the 2GB buffer enabling 33 DNG or 30 simultaneous JPEG and DNG file bursts. In addition, 4K video can be recorded in MP4 or Mov format at 30fps. Lower resolution video can also be recorded and there’s a maximum frame rate of 120fps at Full HD for 4x slow motion playback. Images are saved to SD type media. There are two card slots with one being compatible with UHS II and the other UHS I. An HDMI port also enables videos to be recorded externally.
As you would expect with a professional-level camera there are program, shutter priority, aperture priority and manual exposure modes and no automatic scene modes. It’s possible to tailor the look of JPEGs with contrast, saturation and sharpness adjustments while videographers can make use of the V-Log L gamma option to produce flat footage that’s ideal for grading. Like all respectable modern compact system cameras, there’s Wi-Fi connectivity built in and the new free Leica SL app that’s available for iOS and Android enables a smart phone to be used as for remote control and image sharing. GPS technology is also built in for image tagging.
Build and handling
Leica prides itself in the quality of the build of its cameras and the SL exemplifies the company’s craftmanship. The bodyshell is milled from two blocks of aluminium, the first for the front, top, bottom and sides and the second for the back. It gives the camera a very solid feel and there are seals around the joints and controls to make it dust- and splash-proof. Appearance-wise the SL looks more SLR than rangefinder, having a pentaprism-like lump on top where the electronic viewfinder is located. A good sized grip on the front adds to the SLR-like appearance. Although well-sized, the grip could do with having a more ergonomic shape to make it feel more secure in your hand. This is especially true when a weighty lens like the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8–4 ASPH is mounted as the camera becomes very front-heavy.
Leica has used a similar control arrangement on the SL to the one it has adopted for the S (Type 007) – its latest medium format camera. For example, there’s a large unmarked dial on the top of the camera that’s used for adjusting shutter speed and a monochrome LCD that shows key settings. Just above the thumbrest on the back of the camera is a dial that can be depressed to change what it’s used for, but by default is used to adjust aperture and scroll through settings in the menu.
In addition, there are four long buttons at the sides of the screen on the back of the camera and their function changes depending upon whether you use a short or long press. It’s also possible to customise their function to reach the options you use most often. By default, pressing the button to the top left of the screen brings up the menu screen. The other three buttons can then be used to access your stored menu Favourites, the image parameters (sensitivity and white balance) etc, and the Set-up menu. It speeds up navigating the menu. A long press of the top left button reveals the sensitivity options and this can be adjusted either using a finger on the touchscreen or either the mini-joystick controller or the dial above the thumbrest.
While the short and long pressing on buttons makes good economic use of the controls, it takes a little getting used to and this could be an issue for anyone swapping between different camera models on a regular basis – unless they’re swapping to a Leica S of course. There’s a button on the top of the camera that’s used for switching between stills and video mode and accessing exposure compensation. I found this very awkward to reach and set the bottom right button near the screen to access this key feature. Like the S, when the SL is in manual focus mode and shutter release is depressed halfway, the top LCD indicates the distance to the focus point as well as the back and front focus points, which could be very useful all sorts of photography, but especially landscapes.
I really liked the Q’s viewfinder when I tested it and I need to use the one in the SL a bit more and in a wider range of conditions than I have so far, but my first impressions are that it is superb. It’s smooth, responsive and clear. Similarly, the main screen seems very good, showing lots of detail and responding to a touch quickly. However, I think Leica could have made more use of the touch control and made it possible to navigate the menu with swipes and taps on the screen. Nevertheless, I love how quickly the screen zooms into an image following a double tap.
Using the auto white balance setting has produced a reasonably good result in the overcast conditions, switching to the daylight setting injects a little more warmth. The true position is somewhere in between. Click here for a full size version.
There’s a suggestion of banding in the bottom right corner of this ISO 50000 image.
It’s not visible in this ISO 25000 version.
I’ve used the Leica SL on and off for a couple of days, but I haven’t been able to shoot with it extensively yet, – that will come in the near future. We have also yet to put it through our full range of lab tests. However, it’s clear that the SL is capable of resolving the level of detail that we’d expect from a high quality 24Mp sensor.
In the default settings the JPEG files also have a pleasant level of contrast and saturation and colours are handled nicely, with subtle gradations. In my limited experience to date, exposure is handled well by the SL’s Multi-zone metering system and the exposure compensation facility isn’t required more often than I would expect.
Leica likes to put the photographer in charge of the image and it’s clear from the high sensitivity images I have shot that the company doesn’t apply a heavy noise reduction treatment. Although there’s not masses of coloured speckling (chroma noise) there’s quite a bit of luminance noise visible in JPEGs at 100%. The simultaneously captured raw files (conveniently they’re in DNG format) look a little crisper, but the JPEGs don’t have the heavy smoothing or watercolour-type effect that we sometimes see.
I noticed in the viewfinder that some images shot at ISO 50,000 have visible banding. Happily this seems less noticeable when the images are examined on a computer monitor, but there’s still a suggestion there and the JPEGs are worse than the raw files. Naturally this is something that I’m planning to investigate further when we have the camera for longer.
Leica is making bold claims about the speed of the SL’s autofocus (AF) system and while it is fast, it’s not up to the speed of a DSLR like the Nikon D4s or Canon EOS-1D X in reflex mode (i.e. when the viewfinder is used to compose images). However, it is certainly faster than a DSLR in live view mode and it compares well with that of many smaller format compact system cameras. I want to investigate how well it copes with fast moving subjects, although there isn’t currently a directly compatible long telephoto lens that would be the natural choice for sports photographers.
Leica is an integral part of the history of photography and although it has innovated with digital cameras like the Q, its full-frame compact camera, and the Monochrom, which is specifically designed for shooting black and white images, it has a reputation for being rather stuffy and old school. The SL puts the company right at the cutting edge of photography and makes it only the second company to have a full-frame compact system camera, with Sony being the first.
While the SL is more expensive than any of the Sony Alpha series it has a better specified viewfinder and is the first full-frame interchangeable lens camera to feature a touchscreen. The Sony Alpha 7R II, however, has almost twice as many pixels on its sensor so it can resolve a huge amount of detail. Meanwhile, Sony’s current 24Mp model, the Alpha 7 II, is much less expensive than the SL.
The SL feels like a very solid piece of kit and its interface is very well thought out, but it’s bigger and heavier than the Sony Alpha 7 series and less ergonomically shaped than than a professional-level DSLR from Canon or Nikon. It’s also a little disappointing that the first lens in the full-frame L mount is so bulky. We’ve become used to Leica producing very compact, very high quality lenses and while the M-mount optics are manual focus only, after the compact size of the lens on the Q, I was hoping that Leica might keep the SL’s optics small. That said, the quality of the results from the SL looks very good – apart from the concern about a little banding at ISO 5000.
The SL is aimed squarely at professionals and Leica enthusiasts. Some of the latter may be shocked by the modern features with the company’s latest camera, while others will love them and appreciate the step forward that has been made, not just for Leica but for photography. Leica is leading the way once again.