Leica’s fast full-frame mirrorless delivers, but needs some design refinement

20 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Hands On with the Leica SL.

The Leica SL is sure to make a big splash in the sea of mirrorless cameras, thanks to an impressive list of specs that will leave the most discerning photographers satisfied. Last year it launched the Leica T (Typ 701) aimed at fashion-conscious professionals, and earlier this year the Leica Q (Typ 116) premium full-frame compact, with its M-like styling and extraordinary electronic viewfinder.

This is Leica’s first full-frame mirrorless camera, and it features a 24MP CMOS sensor with no low-pass filter and the Leica Maestro II processor, which combine to enable 11 fps burst shooting at full resolution, and a native sensitivity range of ISO 50-50000. With its central viewfinder, the new Leica SL (Typ 601) full-frame CSC looks like an SLR, and specifically borrows much of its design and control layout from the firm’s S (Typ 007) medium format SLR. A built-in microphone records stereo audio with manual or auto level controls, and a 3.5mm mic input and a 3.5mm headphone output give you further control.

With its flocked lens hood attached, the whole thing measures about 9 inches from the camera body when fully extended, so don’t expect to go un-noticed while walking around with one. As an alternative to the LED display, the 0.66″ 4.4MP EyeRes electronic viewfinder offers 0.8x magnification for optimized eye-level viewing and composition. Leica says it developed an entirely new electronic viewfinder for the SL that has a resolution of 4.4 million pixels and comparable magnification to a medium format camera.

The chassis is largely covered with a texturized leatherette that has the feel of canvas and its deep right-hand grip makes holding this beast a delight. Apparently it was designed with full frame in mind from the start; it’s noticeably larger in diameter than the Sony E mount used by the Alpha 7 series, so the full-frame sensor doesn’t seem anywhere near so squeezed in, as you can see from the picture below. You’ll find plenty of real estate for setting information and a small histogram although you can turn most of these off for a more “natural” shooting experience. Leica will also offer adapters for T-, S-, M-, and R-system lenses, allowing photographers to use virtually any Leica lens ever produced on the SL body. A square monochrome screen at the top of camera offers at-a-glance info about the camera settings: mode, f/stop, shutter speed, ISO, battery life, and shot count.

Leica boldly asserts that it’s the fastest of any full-frame system camera, either CSC or DSLR, and while it remains to be seen whether this claim stands up in the real world, in our time spent hands-on with the camera it certainly seemed very snappy. The 3 inch touchscreen display on back of the body displays images with accurate brightness and color rendition that is easy to view even when in near-direct sunlight. Both the back screen and EVF can play back your images or operate in live view mode, switching handily via a sensor in the eyepiece when you hold it up to your face. This new L-mount is identical to the T-mount seen on the Leica T; however, being a full-frame camera, when using existing and future T-series lenses it will only operate in APS-C mode. Files are recorded to dual SD card slots; they can either be duplicated to both cards simultaneously, or recorded to the second when the first is full.

The 24-90mm lens features Optical Image Stabilization to reduce the appearance of camera shake, a fast and precise AF motor, and a minimum focus distance of 1′. Leica has also announced the upcoming arrival of two more L-mount lenses in 2016: the APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 and the Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. Aside from the standard click-wheel and shutter-speed dial, you will find a small rubberized “joystick” that aids not only in quickly locking down your AF point but also in breezing through Leica’s truncated menu options.

For adapting lenses, the M-Adapter-T allows you to attach any of the 48 M-mount lenses, while upcoming adapters will allow use of medium format S-mount lenses, R-mount lenses, and PL-mount cine lenses. Four long plastic buttons flanking the rear screen are very much your sandbox to choose how you’d like to review and delete images or switch between menu options. When I first picked it up in front of a room of Leica execs, I had to swallow hard to stop from shouting “holy fuck this is heavy.” This isn’t a DSLR, remember.

Slightly disappointingly though, microphone or headphone sockets can only be added via an adapter that plugs into the camera’s proprietary multi-connector socket. Interestingly, the price for the body is right in line with the Canon 1D and Nikon D4 that Leica is hoping to compete with, so pro photographers might not be scared away either. As the world’s largest source of photography, video and audio equipment, B&H Photo Video is known worldwide for its attentive, knowledgeable sales force and excellent customer service, including fast, reliable shipping.

Wi-Fi and GPS are both built in, and a free Leica SL app will be available for both Android and iOS offering image sharing and full remote control over the camera. Leica says this construction method is stronger than using a conventional magnesium alloy body shell, but more expensive to manufacture, The prominent handgrip is rather chunky, though, and I didn’t find it especially comfortable to hold. You can even view the B&H Event Space presentations from many of the world’s foremost photographers and interviews with some of photography’s most dynamic characters.

Featuring the newest cameras, the kiosks are manned by manufacturer representatives, who are there to guide you and demonstrate the latest photographic technology. Any non-professional who wants something even somewhat portable is going to go with the better-performing and much much (MUCH) cheaper Sony A7 series, Fujifilm X series, or Olympus OM-D series. If you want to save a bit you can use the SL with M-mount manual focus lenses with an adapter, or Leica T lenses which will crop to APS-C size when used. More importantly, it can use almost any M-mount rangefinder lens via the adapter that was introduced with the T, which includes 6-bit coding for lens recognition. With a price tag of £5,050 (body only) and another £3,150 needed for its 24-90mm lens, it’s aimed squarely at working photographers prepared to pay a premium for quality.

The Leica kit is also heavy and bulky in comparison, especially the huge 24-90mm lens, although it brings the advantage of a longer telephoto end for shooting portraits. According the Stephan Schulz, Head of Product Management for Leica’s Professional Camera Systems, this is in part because the camera is aimed at professional photographers who are used to working with SLRs. Like many others we’d have loved to see an interchangeable lens ‘QL’ with traditional control dials and a rangefinder form factor, but we suspect Leica is wary of making a modern compact system camera that treads too heavily on the M system’s toes.

However we can’t help but feel that such an L-mount version of the Q that’s also capable of using M-mount lenses is a camera Leica should really be making.

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