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The Leica SL - First Impressions Review

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South Jersey wedding photographer Jay Cassario blog. Writer for SLR Lounge and Shotkit.com. 

The Leica SL - First Impressions Review

Jay Cassario

When Leica invited me into their NYC offices a few months ago to see a new camera, I'll be honest, I was really hoping to see the new M sitting there when I walked in. The last time I was brought in like this was for the Leica Q, which was very impressive camera, but not one that I ended up purchasing. As I sat down with a room full of German Leica reps and specialists that had flown in for the presentation, there was a very interesting looking camera, some new looking lenses, as well as a handful of familiar looking M Mount lenses. I had no idea what I was looking at, so I sat back and let them tell me all about the new Leica SL

DISCLAIMER: Please remember, my reviews on Leica gear are always going to be honest, and I get no compensation for them, nor do I get any kickbacks or product discounts. My relationship with Leica is simply this: I have been shooting their M system for a couple years now for my portrait and wedding work. I am also lucky enough to have them as fans of my work, as well as ask me to test their products prior to being announced to give my honest feedback. They want me to be honest in my reviews and first impressions on products like the new SL, because rather than get offended, they will take the criticism and use it to make the product better.

INTRO

I have been using the Leica M for my wedding work for almost 2 years now, and absolutely love shooting with the rangefinder system. Not only for what it offers me as a creative tool but for the Leica glass that offers me quality unmatched by any other system I own. With that being said, as a professional wedding photographer, there are times during the day when a DSLR is just a better tool for the job. Until now, Leica has not offered anything for photographers like myself who enjoy shooting the M but still need the versatility of a DSLR and a solid AF system. 

The closest thing on the market to a viable replacement for the DSLR is the Sony A7 series, but even with new cameras being released more often than iPhones, they still aren't quite there yet. Not only are they not there, they still have 3 different cameras instead of one. One big reason they are the closest to fully replacing the DSLR is the fact that they are the only mirrorless system offering a full frame sensor. Trust me, the Sony's are great cameras, not only for stills but video as well, especially with their built-in image stabilization. I shot with the A7II for over 6 months, but even with it giving me another option for my Leica glass, I ended up selling it. It couldn't fully replace my DSLR's with its shitty native lens selection offering AF, and it didn't replace the love I had for shooting my Leica M. 

It's as if Leica was just sitting back watching Sony release camera after camera trying to get it right, Leica was hard at work trying to get it right the first time. Today, Leica announced the SL, a mirrorless camera that could give working pros who enjoy shooting the M, a camera that could replace their need for a DSLR. After a few weeks of shooting with the SL, I can tell you that price aside, it's the most impressive mirrorless system I've used. With only one lens released so far, its biggest problem right now for a photographer like myself is the lack of lenses offering AF. But, with a 50mm F/1.4 Summilux on its way, things are looking very promising for this new system, as well as the ability to use M lenses with the adapter. 


Leica 50mm Summilux @ f/1.4  ISO100  1/640sec

WHAT IT ISN'T

Before getting into what I thought of the Leica SL and all the details about what it is, let me first tell you what it isn't. It IS NOT the replacement for the Leica M system. I had seen a few rumors floating around the internet that if Leica released a mirrorless system, they would kill off the M line. That is 100% incorrect. One of my first questions to the Leica folks was if the new Leica M was still coming, and they confirmed that it most definitely is. Leica knows how much their rangefinder system is loved and have no interest in killing it off with the SL. 

The Leica SL is also not a way of simply jumping into the mirrorless world and giving Sony a run for their money. Leica knows that at their price point, they are in a whole other league from those shooting the Sony A7 series. They also know that there are photographers out there shooting Leica M Mount lenses on the Sony system, so they made sure that the Leica SL could do the same. They also made it so that the SL could read the 6-bit coding on the M lenses.

The other rumor I've seen was that the SL was simply the Leica Q with a lens mount to change lenses. Although it does have the same sensor as the Leica Q, it is a completely different camera. Very similar image quality but just about everything else is different. 

Lastly, it's not a viable replacement for the DSLR...yet. With only one SL lens announced with the body, it's hard to buy into the system right now as a DSLR replacement. BUT, with 2 more lenses on the way, one being a 50mm F/1.4 Summilux with AF, Leica is not wasting much time bringing some high end glass to the system. The current M Mount 50mm Summilux is one of the best all around lenses I've ever used, and it's the best lens I currently own. 


THE BODY

The Leica SL is built like a tank, extremely solid and weighing in at 847g with the battery, just 7 grams heavier than the Nikon D750. It's made of milled aluminum and has that nice cold metal feel to it. Unlike the Leica Q which felt more like plastic, the SL feels about as solid as a camera can feel. Much bigger than the small Sony A7 series, it's only slightly bigger than the Leica M body. It's about the same width, just a little taller. The grip is just about perfect, much like the Nikon D750, making it a joy to hold and shoot. 

The look of the body itself is something completely different than anything else on the market. My initial thoughts were that I didn't like it, but the more I used it, the more it grew on me. It's simply very different looking and took some getting used to. The biggest thing for me is the simplicity that Leica stayed true to, much like the M system and Leica Q, it's not covered in knobs and buttons. Sitting next to the Sony A7RII that I had on hand and was testing at the same time, I couldn't help but appreciate the simplicity more. The Sony looked like a cluttered mess next to the SL.

One of the biggest complaints I have with the Sony A7 series cameras is the lack of dual card slots, Leica did it right with the SL. As far as the rest of the buttons and dials, for the most part everything you change the most is extremely easy to adjust. They have implemented one of the most popular features from the DSLR bodies, and that's a thumb joystick for moving focus points. Not only a joystick, but a touch screen making choosing a focus point even easier. But, with that being said, one of my biggest complaints with the SL is in regards to button layout. When using my M lenses, one of the nicest features of the SL is the focus assist which zooms in, making it easier to nail the manual focus. As of right now, the only button to zoom is on the bottom back left which you can only reach with your left hand. This makes it difficult since you need your left hand to adjust the focus. They will need to make it so that you can customize one of the other buttons to be set to focus assist. This is something that can be easily changed with a firmware update. 

EVF, LIVEVIEW, & MENU

One key note I will make about the EVF, it's the best I've seen. Live view is very responsive and works great. The menu is taken from the Leica S system, and is extremely simple to navigate. Leica prides itself on simplicity and being a system that doesn't get your way. The Leica SL is no different. As far as customization goes, there is a lot you can customize. I do have the complaint about not being able to customize the Focus Assist zoom, but I have brought it to Leica's attention and they will hopefully be fixing that with a firmware update soon. 

SOME SPECS

  • Shutter speed: 1/8000s
  • Continuous fast 11fps in 14Bit RAW DNG
  • EVF: 4.4 MP
  • Touch Screen: 2.95" Touch Back light LED with anti-fingerprint and Anti-scratch coating. 1.04 Mio. Pixels. Colors: 16 Million
  • Frame Coverage: 100%
  • Eye Sensor
  • Built in Wi-Fi
  • Built in GPS

Leica 50mm Summilux @ f/1.4  ISO100  1/640sec

IMAGE QUALITY

When I got the chance to test the Leica Q, I was really impressed with its 24mp sensor and the image quality it offered. The Leica SL sports the same full frame sensor, which has no Lowpass filter, an ISO range of 50-50k, and a 14bit color depth. With excellent ISO performance, impressive dynamic range, almost every review I read praised the image quality of the Q. There was a couple reviews that had mentioned banding in the shadows when pushing the DR, so I made sure I tested it head to head with the Nikon D4S during the time I had it. I'll get into those results below, but I can tell you that the Leica SL sensor didn't disappoint. 

(RAW) Leica 50mm Summilux @ f/1.4  ISO100  1/800

Just like all the cameras I test, I pushed it to the extremes and tried shooting it in all different lighting conditions. Even though I had already tested the Leica Q, I tested the SL all over again. Before I get into some of the test results and comparisons, I'll just say that the Leica SL lives up to what I would expect from a new Leica and did nothing but impress me the more I pushed it.

Leica SL 24-90mm f/4 lens @ 29mm  f/4  ISO100   1/400

One of the first tests I did was put it head to head with the Sony A7II, using the same Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux lens, since one of the benefits of the SL is the ability to shoot M mount lenses with a Leica made adapter that can read the 6-bit code. Since a lot of photographers shoot Leica glass on the Sony, it was a good head to head test to see how the two 24MP sensors compared when shooting the same glass at the same settings. One thing that I have written about in the past was that I had noticed a flatness to the images when I shot my Leica glass on the Sony A7II. Testing the SL and Sony A7II head to head, I only proved my point more. The biggest point to make here is that for photographers that currently shoot the M system, the SL gives you impressive imagery with your current lenses while you wait for the new SL lenses wtih AF to be released. 

RAW IMAGES - No Processing Done

Sony A7II @ f/1.4  ISO100  1/640sec

Leica SL @ f/1.4  ISO100  1/640sec

Sony A7II Crop

Leica SL Crop

DYNAMIC RANGE

Leica SL 24-90mm @ 24mm  f/2.8  ISO800  1/125sec

Pushed +2 stops in Lightroom

100% Crop

The Leica SL at ISO100

Pushed +5 stops with no noticeable banding 

The highly praised Nikon D4S at ISO100

Pushed +5 stops - noticeable banding and color noise

HIGH ISO TESTING

The clean ISO performance is one of the most impressive characteristics of the Leica SL sensor

ISO6400

ISO12500

ISO25000

ISO50000

COMPARED TO THE NIKON D4S

ISO25600

ISO32254 (Hi1)


AUTOFOCUS

I tested the AF as best I could during the time I had it, using the only lens announced with the SL, the Leica 24-90mm f/4. Without getting too much into detail and keeping this as a first impression post rather than a full review, I'll just say that I was surprisingly impressed. Not knowing what to expect, I tested the tracking, face recognition, and most importantly its low light focusing since that is what's most important to me. I used it during dark receptions where most DSLRs struggle to lock focus, and with its AF assist lamp, I had little trouble locking focus. Being able to move focus points with the joystick and touch screen makes it extremely easy to quickly move from one side of the frame to the other. I used the tracking during a wedding ceremony, in a low lit church, and it nailed the focus every time. I was able to very confidently catch every moment, not missing a beat. One key point I will make for those who know the difference, the Autofocus uses contrast detection rather than phase detection. Some say phase detection is better, but I have yet to notice a real difference. I had no trouble locking focus with the Leica SL using contrast detection. 

Leica SL 24-90mm f/4 @ 90mm  ISO800  1/100

VIDEO

Since I don't shoot video, I can't tell you that I tested it, cause I didn't. While video isn't important to me, I can tell you that Leica didn't cut any corners here either. The video specs are pretty impressive as well, making this a very viable option to anyone out there shooting both stills and video.

SPECS

  • File Format: MP4, MOV
  • Resolution: 4K (4096 x 2160) @ 24fps / 4K (3840 x 2160) @ 25fps and 30fps
  • Bitrate: 8bit (recording); 10bit (HDMI not recording)
  • Color: 4:2:2 / 10bit (HDMI only); 4:2:0 / 8bit (recording on SD card)
  • Movie Length: Max duration - 29min - Max size 4GB

The L-Mount 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH Lens

I didn't want to go too much into the lens, as it's exactly what I would expect from Leica glass. Its AF is zippy fast, has impressive image stabilization, and the only downside I found was the size and weight. It's big and heavy. I included a few sample shots at the bottom, and for a zoom lens, it was excellent. It will cost you $4950, exactly what I would expect it to be. Obviously, you will only be able to take advantage of the Leica SL's auto focus with an L-Mount lens, this being the first. The next in line will be a 90-280 f/2.8-4, then the one that I am most excited about, the Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 ASPH


Leica 50mm Summilux @ f/1.4  ISO100  1/200

CONCLUSION

This is the most difficult review I've written, and for a few different reasons. This is a new line of cameras, the very beginning stages of a new direction for Leica. I absolutely love what they did with the SL and that they waited until they had a winning product rather than start a new line just to get in the race only to release upgraded models every year after. The SL is a model that can last new tech for a few years, and they really did design a full package mirrorless system that does it all and does it very well. They don't need 3 different models to appeal to every different photographer out there. With that being said (the big BUT here), is that with only one lens available right out of the gate, it's a tough sell to photographers like myself. 

For this review, I tried my best to give you a good insight as to what the SL system can do. I know there are photographers that are tired of seeing dynamic range tested to extremes and pushed 5 stops, and sensors pushing crazy high ISO with reviews pixel peeping which one edges out the other. With this review, I wanted to show you exactly what this sensor is capable of, and bottom line, it gets the job done. It also makes it extremely simple to get it done, making a system that is a joy to shoot, unlike the Sony which feels more like a small computer in my hands. 

Leica 50mm Summilux @ f/1.4  ISO400  1/100sec

Being that my photography pays the bills and puts food on my family's table, justifying new gear purchases comes down to several factors. Price is a big one, and I wasn't told the price of the SL until a few minutes ago. I know some of you look at that price, shake your head, and say no way. However, if you understand Leica and know the quality of products they offer and know the craftsmanship that you get for that price, $7450 should be exactly what you should expect. Each SL is put together by hand, just like their M models. Remember, I shoot the M system and invested a lot into it. If anything, this price comes in $500 cheaper than the Leica M-P (240) back in August of 2014. Yes, I completely understand that sounds high to a lot of you, it is, when compared to less expensive systems.

Leica obviously understands this, and they pride themselves on being a high-end product designed for professional photographers that can afford to invest into it. Just like high end sports cars, they know that not everyone can afford them. They know there are cars at a quarter of the price that have 4 wheels and an engine that can perform very well. Leica is cool with that; they charge more money for other reasons, and high end performance is all part of it. So, while I know there will be those who criticize the price, it's exactly where I expected it to be. 

The biggest question... will I be buying one? Like I said in my disclaimer, I don't get any type of discount, I have to pay full price like everyone else. With that said, even if I did, I won't be buying the SL. While I can buy two Sony A7RII's or A7SII's for the same price as one SL, I won't be buying those either. If I had to choose, though, I would much rather spend the money on the SL. The SL does just about everything that all 3 of the Sony's do together, and in my opinion, does a much better job of it, while being less complicated to setup and shoot. My biggest reason for not buying into the Leica SL right now is simply the lack of SL lenses. I am a prime lens shooter, I don't own a single zoom lens, and prefer to shoot mostly everything I can wide open. I like that I can shoot my M lenses on the SL, but I have an M for that, and I love shooting a rangefinder. Once Leica releases a few more lenses, including the 50mm Summilux f/1.4 with AF, I may consider it as a true alternative to my DSLRs. If the SL 50mm Summilux is as good as the one I currently own for the M, it's going to be like shooting the Zeis Otus but with AF. 

I'm personally still looking forward to the release of the new M that is coming, and I'll most likely choose to invest in that when it comes out. Seeing what Leica has done with the SL and Leica Q, only makes me more excited for what they will do with the next M. I would be very happy if Leica implements a lot of what the SL offers in the new M, and hopefully I will be testing one very soon. Thanks for reading! 

NOTE: The awesome looking leather bags in the background of the product shots are ONA bags, my favorite bags to shoot with. I have one Prince Street and one Bowery, both distressed leather. 

SAMPLE IMAGES

Leica 50mm Summilux @ f/1.4  ISO100  1/800sec

Leica 50mm Summilux @ f/1.4  ISO100  1/500sec

Leica 50mm Summilux @ f/1.4  ISO100  1/800sec

Leica 50mm Summilux @ f/1.4  ISO100  1/800sec

Leica SL Lens @ 90mm  f/4  ISO600  1/1250

Shot into direct sunlight - 50mm Summilux @ f/2.8  ISO100  1/1600sec

Leica 35mm Summilux @ f/1.4  ISO200  1/750

Leica 35mm Summilux @ f/1.4  ISO200  1/750

The Blood Moon - Leica SL Lens @ 90mm  f/4  ISO800  3sec

Leica 50mm Summilux @ f/1.4  ISO100  1/200sec

Leica 50mm Summilux @ f/1.4  ISO100  1/400sec