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Camera Reviews

Date: 22/10/2015 | By: Mathieu

Not an A7 or DSLR competitor – Hands-On with the new Leica SL (Typ 601)

DMC-GX8, 1/100, f/ 4/1, ISO 200

Not an A7 or DSLR competitor – Hands-On with the new Leica SL (Typ 601)

Two days after the announcement, Heather and I had the chance to see the new Leica SL in London. There is still a lot of talk surrounding this camera, as well as many questions related to its dimensions, price and real target user. As with every press event, one hour was not enough to arrive at a definitive conclusion. However, the title of this article already gives you a big hint as to where my impressions are headed.

What is important to understand is that first of all the SL fills the gap between Leica’s T system (APS-C) and S system (medium format). It can also stand alongside the M rangefinder cameras not so much as an alternative but as a complement. It has been designed for Leica users and aficionados above all.

Then we can consider the main specs that you might have already read: it’s mirrorless, it’s full frame and it’s been designed for professional photographers. Leica actually calls it the “first professional mirrorless camera.” All this sounds pretty exciting until we see the price, the purest reminder that this system is not for everyone.

So the real question is: how can this new system fit into the existing mirrorless market, where every camera brand is now involved to some degree?

leica sl review
SL (Typ 601), 1/50, f/4, ISO 250
Click to open the high res version.
The Leica SL (typ 601) Main Specs
  • Sensor: 24 megapixel Full Frame CMOS
  • Lens system: L-mount
  • Weatherproof: Yes
  • Internal Stabilisation: None
  • Autofocus: Contrast detection AF with 49 autofocus points
  • Continuous shooting: 11 fps (speed priority), 7fps (focus priority)
  • ISO Sensitivity: 50 – 50000 ISO
  • Shutter Speeds: 1/8000 to 60 seconds
  • Viewfinder: 0.66” 4.4 million dots viewfinder with 0.8x magnification and 60fps of refresh rate
  • LCD Screen: 3″ LCD touch sensitive display (1280k dots), 1.28” monochrome LCD panel
  • Movie recording: 4K up to 30fps, Full HD up to 120fps
  • Built-in Flash: None
  • Extra Features: Wifi, GPS
  • Dimensions: 147 x 104 x 39mm
  • Weight: 847g (including battery and memory card)

Hands-On Video

You can find a summary of our hands-on with the camera in the video below.

 


Design, ergonomics and ease of use

The Leica SL weighs around 850g which puts it on the same level as cameras such as the Nikon D750 (840g). Concerning the dimensions, the only major difference is simply that by lacking the flipping mirror, the Leica body is slimmer, so you lose the extra bulkiness DSLRs have. Put it side-by-side with the mirrorless Sony A7r II and the latter definitely seems smaller and it also weighs less (625g).

leica sl vs sony a7r ii
The Leica SL vs Sony A7r II

But how does the SL feel in hand?

I would be lying to you if I said it didn’t feel good. The grip is large and comfortable to grab. The camera feels rock solid but that doesn’t come as a surprise. It is a Leica and we know that the German brand spares no expense. We get a full weather sealed body crafted from milled aluminium. The dials and buttons are excellent. Like the M and the Q, the SL feels like a true Leica. More than the dimensions, I would say that, unlike other mirrorless systems, it is the weight that doesn’t offer any significant advantage over a DSLR.

leica sl typ 601 review
The weight and feel of a DSLR camera.

As mirrorless photographers, we are used to having lots of buttons and dials confined to small areas on the camera body, so when you first see the abundance of space between the various buttons on the SL, it almost looks like a waste. Why not add a few extra? Well, it’s because Leica has a different idea about the button layout of its cameras.

What surprises you from the start is the lack of any markings on or near the buttons.

Unlike other cameras, you need to go through the user manual at least once to be sure not to miss anything. For example I didn’t realise at first that you have to press the rear dial to switch from one shooting mode to the other (PSAM). There is also a Fn button on the front and two silver buttons on top (video mode and video recording).

leica sl typ 601 review
The button layout is very simple but with no markings.

The rear of the camera tells us how much it has been inspired by its big brother, the S type. There are four rectangular buttons around the LCD screen and each one will activate different functionalities. If you press once they will display different options and the main menu. If you click and hold you can bring up some specific settings that can be customised. I have to say that while this button layout was confusing at first, I don’t dislike the concept. If the SL were to become my workhorse, I could see myself learning to use everything at a glance just by getting used to the position of the buttons. That’s why having lots of space between them becomes essential. At the same time, I can’t stop thinking that a complete lack of markings is more a design choice than a real benefit to the user. One thing I do like very much is the AF Pad that allows you to change the focus point instantly. It is very similar to the one you find on DSLRs.

leica sl typ 601 review
The rear looks very familiar to the S camera

The viewfinder is definitely one of the main strengths of the SL: it didn’t impress me for its resolution or refresh rate (60fps like the X-T1) but for its size (0.66”).

It is really large and comfortable to use, which is in part thanks to the rounded eye cap. The LCD screen on the rear is touch sensitive and allows you to perform the same operations available on the Leica Q: change the focus point, take a shot and play back the images. On top there is another clue that tells us this camera is professionally orientated and that is the LCD panel. It too has some interesting functionalities. In addition to showing you the main settings and shooting mode selected, in manual focus for example it will display the distance scale when you half-press the shutter release button.

leica sl review
The top LCD panel can also show you the distance scale.

Then there is the dual SD card slot. Some might be indifferent to this but I can assure you that I’ve heard professional photographers lamenting the lack of such an option on other mirrorless system time and time again. I also know that it is one of the reasons some of them hesitate to switch to a CSC. Personally I’ve only ever used cameras with one slot for work and never had a single issue. Many other photographers will tell you the same. With the SL you can do pretty much what you can do on high-end DSLRs. You can use the second slot to back up what’s being recorded on the first card or decide to save the JPGs on one and the DNG (Raw) files on the other. You can use the second card to keep shooting when the first one is full. The latter is very useful for video.

leica sl typ 601 review
Dual Slot for SD card, a feature that some pro photographers will definitely appreciate.

The battery is large and very similar to DSLR batteries in size but I am not sure about the life span. The official specs state 400 shots with a single charge but Leica confirmed that it doesn’t count extensive use of Wifi, GPS, 4K video or continuous shooting. So spare batteries will be needed and they aren’t coming cheap!

leica sl typ 601 review
The battery with last for 400 shots but without counting Wifi, GPS or 4k recording.

Image quality and L lenses

The Leica SL has pretty much the same sensor as the Leica Q (you can check out our review here). However it has received some tweaks to enhance the performance slightly. The most noticeable is the base ISO that starts from 50 instead of 100. I had the chance to take a few shots but I won’t go into too much detail about it for now. I love the image quality from the Q although I found some banding issues when I pushed the Raw file and at high ISOs. Personally I don’t expect a huge improvement in comparison to the Leica Q.

leica sl review
SL (Typ 601), 1/50, f/4, ISO 250
Click to open the high res version.
leica sl review
SL (Typ 601), 1/100, f/5.6, ISO 100
Click to open the high res version.
leica sl review
SL (Typ 601), 1/125, f/4, ISO 100
Click to open the high res version.
leica sl review
SL (Typ 601), 1/200, f/8, ISO 100
Click to open the high res version.
leica sl review
SL (Typ 601), 1/50, f/3.8, ISO 12500
Click to open the high res version.

Along with the camera I also had the chance to test the new 24-90mm f/2.8-4. This lens is definitely “guilty” of making the camera look bigger than it actually is but the combo definitely gives you the feeling of holding a DSLR. The lens offers an interesting focal range but given its size I wonder why Leica didn’t go with a constant f/2.8 aperture (perhaps by cutting down a few millimetres at the telephoto end). The internal focus mechanism and high quality optical performance seem to be weak arguments to justify the very high price of this “kit lens” (more than $4000). It is definitely very sharp and I am sure the optical quality is high but if you look at the environmental portraits of Heather below, the bokeh doesn’t impress me, for example.

leica sl review
SL (Typ 601), 1/50, f/3.7, ISO 100
Click to open the high res version.
leica sl review
SL (Typ 601), 1/60, f/4, ISO 100
Click to open the high res version.

Unfortunately the other new lenses weren’t there. The second zoom, the 90-280mm f/2.8-4, will be available in the first quarter of 2016. Judging by the official photos, it really looks big and heavy and again it is not an f/2.8 constant even if it offers another set of very interesting focal lengths. The 50mm f/1.4 Summilux will be available at the end of 2016. These new lenses all offer optical stabilisation. There isn’t any additional information about future lenses for now.

The SL shares the same mount as the Leica T but it has been renamed the L-mount. This means that the new full-frame lenses are called SL while the T lenses have become TL. Leica demonstrated in the presentation that the camera can be used with the TL lenses (four are available already, two more to come next year) but the camera will automatically work in APS-C mode (10MP). This is no different to how the Sony E-Mount works. I only see this option as being worthwhile for someone who already owns some TL lenses.

leica sl review
An M adaptor for the L-mount (ex T-mount)

Leica will also release a set of adapters to allow the use of its manual focus lenses from the M series, the now discontinued R series and even their Cinema lenses. Note that the last group is very expensive and are usually rented for big Hollywood productions. But sure, why not, it is an extra option!

For now I definitely see the M and R lenses as the best alternative for the lack of native lenses.

In part it is because they can be found second-hand but it is mainly because manual focusing with that EVF should be a real pleasure (peaking and magnification are also available). Plus, I bet that people interested in buying this camera likely own some M or R lenses already.


Autofocus and video capabilities

Now if there is one thing that didn’t impressed me about the new Leica SL, it is the autofocus.

Leica claims it is the world’s fastest, something we’ve all read from other brands as well. (Namely one beginning with F). Okay, so it’s marketing and we are all used to it but how does it actually perform? Well let’s start by saying that this is very likely (it is) the DfD system that Panasonic uses on its newest Lumix cameras. The same AF points, the same contrast detection type AF, and I would say the same behaviour.

Overall the AF locks fast enough but a few times I had out-of-focus results even in good light, such as for example the model below. In worse light, it failed to lock a few times when switching quickly from one person to the another. With Heather I did a quick continuous shooting test and here again I was expecting better results. I definitely need to test this in various conditions but as a first impression of the “world’s fastest” AF, I have to say I am not impressed.

leica sl review
SL (Typ 601), 1/50, f/4, ISO 250
An example of misfocused shot and it isn’t the only one I got.

When it comes to video, the SL is definitely the first serious camera from Leica in this department.

We get 4K format up to 30fps and Full HD at 120fps for slow motion footage. There is zebra, audio monitoring and S-Log V gamma to record a flat image and it works at low ISOs as well. The latter is actually very interesting because combined with the full size HDMI output that is 10 bit 4:2:2 (like the Panasonic GH4), there is definitely the potential to record very nice footage with this camera and have lots of colour grade versatility.

Below you can watch a very short video giving you an idea about the 4k capabilities with the V-Log L gamma.

 


Conclusion: a new Leica camera for Leica users?

Everything else I have to say will have to wait for the full review. The last thing I can talk about is of course the price. Now we know that when it comes to Leica cameras, things just aren’t cheap. The brand wants to stick to its own standards of quality and doesn’t aim to sell to the masses. The problem is that I’m personally starting to see some discrepancies in Leica’s strategy.

The M series is not just a camera but a symbol, designed and built with very precise and high quality criteria. It provides a different user experience. Whether you embrace it or just ignore it, the system still has a place in today’s photography world in my opinion.

Leica is also one of the only brand that still fully supports film in the sense that it still produces film cameras, and therefore pays tribute to the past.

The S system is medium format so it is situated in a market where there is less competition, and the APS-C series (X and T) cost too much for what they offer, although there are aspects of the Leica T I really like. If that camera had been released a few years earlier, I’m sure it could have had more success but unfortunately it came out when there were already plenty of offerings from other brands in the APS-C sector.

Then this year they came out with the Leica Q, a beacon of “hope” that the brand was changing direction. It is a great camera with great performance, with a high price, yes, but definitely more accessible and worth its weight in gold. That’s probably why Leica is having trouble keeping up with the demand for the Q right now.

Where does the Leica SL stand then?

Well, not to sound like a broken record, but the problem is once again the price. It puts the camera on a different level than other brands such as Sony in the mirrorless segment and Nikon/Canon in the DSLR segment. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting something cheap but I was hoping for something a little more competitive. The SL costs double a D810 or A7r II. The same goes for the lenses. It simply appears to me that Leica doesn’t want to compete and that is where I find the discrepancy.

Why organise an event in Germany with hundreds of guests, introduce a camera that claims to be the first professional mirrorless with the world’s fast autofocus, just to aim at its own market? Why not challenge the other companies for real?

The truth is that the SL doesn’t seem to offer outstanding and game changing performance. Right now the EVF is the best on the market but that will only last until the next brand releases a new camera with even better EVF specs. The sensor is excellent but doesn’t beat other cameras like the A7r II or the D810. The AF is good but in the end it is what Panasonic started to put in its cameras two years ago and it is still in need of some improvement. The 4K capabilities are nice but again many others already have it. So what is left then? Okay, it’s the first mirrorless camera with a dual SD card slot but that isn’t exactly slogan material.

The problem with talking about price is that I generally don’t like to just sum up a camera by saying “it’s too expensive”. With the other Leica cameras (especially the M series) the price is somewhat understandable but here I struggle more.

All in all, the Leica SL seems to be a very good camera and I am sure it can excel at different genres. Plus, being the start of a new system, I am more than willing to give it time to prove itself. But if Leica doesn’t plan to challenge the competition and simply sees the SL as an alternative for M users who wish to drop their current DSLR and use the same brand for all their work, I am going to need some motivation.

On a closing note, I’d like to leave you with a quote (non-verbatim) from the official Leica presentation: “I know that many people were waiting for an interchangeable Q camera, but we created the SL instead.” I think this synthesises what I’ve been trying to say throughout the article: that Leica doesn’t want to compete outside its own niche but rather, it wants to complete it.

What are your thoughts about the Leica SL after reading this hands-on review? We welcome your thoughts!


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About the author: Mathieu Gasquet

Mathieu Gasquet is a professional photographer with French and Italian origins. Besides running his own video and photography studio 3Dit Lab, he is also the official photographer for the National Cinema Museum in Turin. You can follow him on Google+, Twitter or Facebook!

  • Bo Dez

    Good review. It has a particularly well written paragraph which sums things up for me.

    “…The truth is that the SL doesn’t seem to offer outstanding and game changing performance. Right now the EVF is the best on the market but that will only last until the next brand releases a new camera with even better EVF specs. The sensor is excellent but doesn’t beat other cameras like the A7r II or the D810. The AF is good but in the end it is what Panasonic started to put in its cameras two years ago and it is still in need of some improvement. The 4K capabilities are nice but again many others already have it…..”

    I’m in two minds about the camera. I think the design is exceptional but it is far too lacking for a professional camera. It’s the all singing, all dancing camera that offers nothing over and above cameras half it’s price does. 24MP is not enough, there are no lenses and the one there is is a bad choice for “professionals”. The next lenses, maybe just one, are not coming for a year. a year?! The 4K is good but it’s not amazing, and it looks like, again, it’s killed by rolling shutter. I want to love this but it just leaves a strange taste in my mouth. I found myself wanting to buy it and trying to tell myself that what it is is enough. But it isn’t.

  • http://www.mirrorlessons.com Mathieu

    I haven’t noticed that but to be honest given the limited time with the camera I might just missed it.

  • Franc Sanka

    Thanks for the answer Mathieu. By the way, when you press half way do you also see this DOF information in the viewfinder? That would be a great feature.

  • ricciarmani

    Thanks for this very complete review. I tested the Leica SL yesterday for some hours and I found it incredibly fast and precise. But it won’t be my camera, too heavy and big: my feeling is that the SL can be the right camera for sport photographers, and maybe fashion photographers (de facto replacing the well known Nikon D4s and similar). I do not see it in the hands of wedding photographers, not to mention street ones. These are my conclusions…
    I wrote some ideas here: http://photographingaround.me/2015/10/24/leica-sl-camera-and-vario-elmarit-sl-24-90-mm-f2-8-4-0-asph/

  • yudi_hilmawan

    Better AF??? It seems you don’t read the article.

    “Overall the AF locks fast enough but a few times I had out-of-focus results even in good light, such as for example the model below. In worse light, it failed to lock a few times when switching quickly from one person to the another. With Heather I did a quick continuous shooting test and here again I was expecting better results. I definitely need to test this in various conditions but as a first impression of the “world’s fastest” AF, I have to say I am not impressed.”

  • http://www.mirrorlessons.com Mathieu

    When I get a sample for the full review I’ll definitely try that as well 😉

  • http://www.mirrorlessons.com Mathieu

    Yes that is probably the case.

  • http://www.mirrorlessons.com Mathieu

    Hi Franc, yes I could have explain it more in-depth. Indeed it is a nice feature and actually I wish you could activate it all the time and not just when half pressing the shutter button. It is similar to what the Batis lenses shows in their OLED screen.

  • Franc Sanka

    Good preview! However, You missed something very interesting here: “in manual focus for example it will display the distance scale when you half-press the shutter release button”.
    On your picture, more than a distance scale, I can see a Depth of field indicator:
    While focussing at 0.66m the Depth of field is from “Front 0.64m” to “Back 0.67m”. This is a great feature, most interesting than the rest of the camera.

  • Chas

    Much like Canikon has refused to contribute to the legitimization of mirrorless for pros by not answering the A7 series, Leica refuses to dilute the red dot for those in their bubble. That bubble must be much larger than I had previously thought. Kudos to Leica for not selling out…I just hope the bubble doesn’t burst :)

  • https://www.marcosartoriphoto.com MarcoSartoriPhoto

    It’s their strategy. Talking to someone in the “high castle”, he said that the Q surprisingly ate a lot of M sales. A Q with a mount would kill the M system. Btw, the M system is not going to disappear.

  • ovidiu

    I would love to see a FF equivalent of GH4

  • Boston C

    Can you test AF tracking in video? That’s where both GH4, A&** failed badly compared w Samsung NX1. Wonder w the fat paycheck (i.e. cut from SL development), Panasonic stepped up its game in that regard.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/dierktopp/ dierk

    I understand the higher price for the complicated and expensive range finder of the old M cameras, but in this “monster” there is only electronics, that everybody else has but better (the finder may be a bit better).
    No IBIS, no really high ISO, in camera correction of M lenses??, world’s fast autofocus AF? not shown jet!
    My M9 is collecting dust, after it got the 3rd sensor, my MM is collecting dust too since I have the Sony A7RII.

  • belfastbiker

    Quite happy with my D800 – fail to see any point in this oversized, underspecced, quirky, simplistic behemoth.

  • http://www.mirrorlessons.com Mathieu

    I don’t see arrogance in Leica’s strategy. It looks like they are in their own bubble and they don’t want to step outside.

  • http://www.mirrorlessons.com Mathieu

    That probably depends on the contract details between the two companies :)

  • https://www.marcosartoriphoto.com MarcoSartoriPhoto

    49% of TowerJazz is owned by Panasonic. I would not say it’s a Panasonic sensor..

  • CN

    “I just don’t see this VERY expensive system offering anything over Sony, Lumix, Panasonic, etc. ”

    To play devils advocate, you can say that the SL offers the best of those manufacturers in one body – FF + better performing AF. All in what is likely one of the best built cameras ever made.

    This camera is seriously expensive, but I am gradually understanding it’s price point compared to the competition.

  • Chas

    Leaves me wondering if it’s arrogance, stupidity or some sort of brilliant German marketing strategy that I just don’t understand yet. A Q with a mount would have made much more sense to me.

  • http://www.mirrorlessons.com Mathieu

    App

  • Frank

    So, most certain, the SL has a Panasonic sensor, and so, Panasonic will have a FF camera soon, maybe next year … a Panasonic FF mirrorless would be great!

  • http://www.mirrorlessons.com Mathieu

    “why not make something that totally blows away the completion, even within its own system?”

    That’s exactly the problem for me. I am sure that with a more competitive price, there would be lots of people interested in this camera and it would encourage other brands to do better. It will stimulate more competition especially on the full frame segment where from now there is Sony only (mirrorless speaking).

  • http://www.mirrorlessons.com Mathieu

    Thanks Luciano!

  • COSYSPEED

    Yes, the best “preview” so far and excellent analysis of camera and philosphy

  • http://ottorascon.com/ Otto Von

    Thank for the honest preview for a camera I will never own, for both its price and lens selection. Every market needs its high and low end, so Leica fills that high end for sure. But I just don’t see this VERY expensive system offering anything over Sony, Lumix, Panasonic, etc. And that’s the confusing part for me, why not make something that totally blows away the completion, even within its own system? Thanks again!

  • soundimageplus

    ‘Why organise an event in Germany with hundreds of guests, introduce a
    camera that claims to be the first professional mirrorless with the
    world’s fast autofocus, just to aim at its own market? Why not challenge
    the other companies for real?’

    Really excellent article and without having one in my hand (which is when it gets dangerous, as I’m sure I’ll get tempted!!) I was coming to much the same conclusion. I’ve been looking at the raw samples on Dpreview and to be frank, the images I’m getting from my Canon 5Ds + 40mm f/2.8 FF pancake lens are just as good when downsized to 24MP and actually better at high(er) ISO’s.

    All companies seem to exist in their own ‘bubble’ but some seem to see out of it better than others. As you indicate this may well be the case that Leica have produced an advanced, impressive camera within and for the somewhat insular world of Leica owners, but any aspirations to gain new customers has already been sabotaged by pricing all the gear at ‘M levels’ when it clearly has significant competition from Nikon, Canon, Sony and m4/3 (which the M doesn’t.)

    They aren’t the first to adopt this attitude and they won’t be the last. Fortunately, there are people like you two who seem unwilling to ‘play the game’ when it comes to being invited to review cameras by these companies. I’m sticking with my T and Q.

  • Luciano Espirito Santo

    Thank you Mathieu. The best “preview” of this camera I have seen so far.

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