Leica SL (Typ 601)

20 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Hands On with the Leica SL.

Leica has earned a reputation for being behind the times in the modern digital world. Inside the sleek, weather-resistant aluminum frame of the SL (Typ 601) is a 24-megapixel full-frame sensor powered by Leica’s Maestro II image processor. For years, its flagship M line lagged behind others in tech and features, and its more affordable D-Lux and V-Lux lines were simply Panasonic cameras with Leica logos. The video is captured using the V-Log L gamma profile, ensuring as flat an image as possible is captured to retain as much dynamic range and information as possible.

I’m not ready to call it our Editors’ Choice—the much more affordable Sony Alpha 7 II is an easier sell if you’re looking for a mirrorless full-frame camera. 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. For composing and viewing your images, Leica has included a 0.66“ 4.4MP EyeRes electronic viewfinder (EVF), which has a refresh rate of 60fps, magnification of 0.8x and a field of view of 37°. Its body is slimmer than an SLR—there’s no mirror box after all—but the handgrip is just as substantial as that of a full-frame SLR like the Nikon D810. 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.

On the back of the camera is a 2.95” 1.04M-dot LED touchscreen that features an anti-fingerprint and anti-scratch coating along with a viewing angle of 170º. 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. It’s a larger and higher-resolution viewfinder than found on any other mirrorless camera, and in the brief time I had to demo the camera, I was consistently impressed with it.

The SL is sealed against dust and moisture, and native lenses incorporate a gasket at the mount point, so you can feel comfortable photographing in inclement weather. The follow-up Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90–280 mm f/2.8–4 is set to go on sale in early 2016 while the Leica Summilux-SL 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH will get released in late 2016.

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. And you can make it larger still by adding an optional vertical shooting grip (and if you pair the camera with a big lens, you may want to consider adding the grip). I was able to spend a couple of days using the Leica SL before its official announcement, and though I didn’t really have the time or opportunity to put all of Leica’s claims to the test, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the imposing SL.

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. Focusing is fast, but even though Leica claims it has the fastest focusing of any full-frame mirrorless, it is pretty clearly not as fast as the recent Sony A7r Mark II or A7s Mark II.

Leica plans to add a telephoto zoom, the Apo-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm, in mid-2016, which is even larger—big enough to necessitate a tripod collar in its design. 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. 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 doing so the camera will automatically crop images to match an APS-C sensor, so photos will be about 10 megapixels instead of the 24 you get when using the entirety of the sensor.

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. Uncoded lenses can be selected from an internal menu so your images will show proper EXIF data (and corrections can be made to certain wide-angle optics). 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. Voigtlander has released an updated M-mount version of the lens that works better with digital sensors, but it’s always interesting to see how a digital camera handles the original version of a lens.

It will provide electronic aperture control and autofocus, but it won’t be able to fire the leaf shutter that’s included in CS lenses; you’ll still be able to use those via the camera’s focal plane shutter, of course. Images seem to pop when shooting with a shallow depth of field, and you’re only a button press away from two levels of frame magnification for precise manual focus. Focus peaking, which highlights areas of the frame that show sharp focus, is also available as a manual focus aid, but I found magnification to be more precise. The shutter release is located atop the handgrip, with the top control dial (which sets the shutter speed), a still/video toggle button, and a Record button for movies behind it. When the shutter isn’t pressed, the Live View feed shows a properly exposed image, so that you can focus and frame just as you would with an optical viewfinder, regardless of settings.

The sensitivity of the eye sensor can be set via the menu; by default it isn’t as overly sensitive as the eye sensor that Sony uses in its full-frame mirrorless cameras, but you can increase or decrease the sensitivity to taste. It is used to navigate through menus, and can also set the active focus point when the focus system is in Static or Dynamic (Tracking) mode, and when pressed in it activates the autofocus system. Each has a set function—moving counterclockwise from top left the buttons access the menu, magnify the frame, change the amount of information displayed on the rear LCD or in the viewfinder, and switch to playback mode. You can add either a live histogram with exposure clipping warning, or a grid overlay and dual-axis digital level to this view—but not both at the same time. If you don’t have any interest in seeing one or several of these views when toggling through using the information control button, you can customize which options are available to you via the menu.

There’s also a built-in Web server mode, which allows you to view and save JPG images (but not video) stored on the SL’s memory card via any device with a Web browser. The only quibble is that it takes a few seconds to acquire a signal, so if you turn the camera on and immediately capture an image, the location data will be absent. You don’t normally think of a Leica as a camera for capturing fast-moving action, but the SL keeps pace, and with at least one telephoto zoom coming in the future, it’s an appealing choice for action shooters. The camera uses a pure contrast autofocus system, which is surprising when you consider that competing models use more complex hybrid phase and contrast systems to manage quick burst rates. And, if you just want the SL to select the point of focus for you, there is an automatic mode—it puts an emphasis on face detection, but doesn’t require faces in frame to function.

Its native range is ISO 50-50000, which gives you the flexibility to capture long exposures during daylight as well as sharp images in dim conditions when paired with a wide aperture lens. The SL supports two aspect ratios for its highest resolution video footage—16:9 (3,840 by 2,160) video can be shot at 25 or 30fps (for use on PAL and NTSC video systems), and wider cinema 4K format (4,096 by 2,160) is available if your footage is destined for use in a 24fps project. The SL won’t constantly hunt for focus like a camcorder (unless you half-press the shutter button when recording, but that’s not recommended as the contrast AF system tends to hunt back and forth when you do that), but when you do use AF to refocus it does so quickly. The internal mic is adequate for shooting short clips, but I did notice wind noise (even with the camera set to remove it automatically) when shooting outdoors.

I shot my test footage handheld with the 24-90mm and found its stabilization system to be effective—there’s still motion, of course, but it’s smooth and not sudden. You can simply use the second slot for expanded storage, or set the camera to write images to both cards in order to create a real time backup copy of your photos. It does some things better—direct control over the AF point being a big one—but omits others, like a dedicated EV compensation dial and in-body stabilization.

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