A recent launch event in Paris gave me the opportunity to hold a Leica for the very first time, and I quickly broke it. Leica’s brand new SL2 is a 47-megapixel beast that shoots 20 frames per second. Despite my capacity for crippling technology, I learned that there’s a lot to love about this camera and that Leica — with the SL2 in particular — might be more than a luxury brand for those with too much money.
I knew that Leica made beautiful and expensive cameras long before the soirée that I attended with fellow writer Wouter du Toit, but I’d never so much as touched a Leica prior to the SL2, and this was an excellent opportunity to rectify this huge hole in my photographic experience. There’s only so much you can learn from picking up a camera in a shop, but here are some impressions from my brief experience with the SL2, how I broke it, and what I’ve learned about Leica more broadly.
The SL Cinder Block
Tied with security cables to a smart white plinth were four SL2s, each with different lenses, for attendees to pick up and play with. The first thing that struck me was the weight; this thing is a cinder block of a camera, and Leica has a reputation of ruggedness, with tales of how their bodies have saved lives by taking the occasional bullet on behalf of their owners. This is an object that you want to hold, and as someone who appreciates the physical and tactile experience of taking a photograph, I didn’t want to let go of it.
Something that caught me slightly unaware, however: this is a utilitarian design that does not offer an ergonomic experience. For such a weighty camera, I was surprised that the shutter release did not fall naturally under my forefinger, meaning that I only had three fingers with which to squeeze this behemoth into my palm. This is by no means unique to Leica, but for such a substantial camera, its readiness to escape my grip was a little unnerving. While any camera of this size would demand two-hand operation, I’d hope for a little more ergonomics, though I appreciate that Leica’s aesthetics do not lend themselves to that — a design decision that I respect.
That's Quite the View(Finder)
The EVF is phenomenal, as you’d expect given that it’s the same used by Panasonic and Sony for their top-end mirrorless cameras. When manual focusing wide open, I felt that I barely needed to punch in or use peaking to ensure accuracy. The rear LCD is also truly impressive. The sensor is also pinched, lifted from the Panasonic S1R, albeit with some extra Leica goodness thrown in.
An Exceptional User Interface
I’ve been complaining about menu systems for what feels like years, with Japanese manufacturers completely oblivious to the fact that a camera does not need to feel like you’re programming a VCR in the 1980s. To all those who tell me to get over it and just learn how to use my camera, I say this: when I sit down to write, I place my backside on a chair that offers comfort, support, and doesn’t take me away from what I’m doing. I don’t choose a wobbly wooden stool that’s so camouflaged that I occasionally can’t find it, and with hidden spikes that attack me when I’m at my most vulnerable.
European manufacturers seem to understand this. Hasselblad is ahead of the game, Zeiss has it in the pipeline, and Leica has now demonstrated how it should be done on a 35mm camera. From my brief toying, the interface is an intuitive work of art, though I appreciate that as a Sony user, my oven probably feels that way too. The touchscreen is sharp, responsive, and uses a typeface that looks like it was designed today, not 15 years ago.
Some will feel that the design has been taken a bit too far. While the menu system and touchscreen functionality are phenomenal, it’s notable most of the few buttons on this camera are not labeled — and that includes the big control dial that sits on top. If I want to figure out how to use it properly, I should probably go back when there’s not a queue of fellow geeks behind me waiting eagerly to be equally confused by it, or convince Leica that I should be allowed to try and break it outside of the shop too. Speaking of which…
How to Break a Leica
As someone with a passing interest in sensor technology and frames per second, one of the first things I did was to crank up the SL2 as fast as it would go. As it turned out, this was a mistake, as the card inside the camera was definitely not suited to that level of performance. The amount of data being thrown around here is a little bit ridiculous: these are 14-bit, 47-megapixel raw files being captured at 20 frames per second, and apparently, you can grab 78 of them before the SL2 says that it's had enough.
Unfortunately for me, the slow SD card inside the camera caved in long before the SL2, effectively causing the entire machine to give up. Perhaps the SL2 was simply disgusted that such a cheap piece of tat had been casually inserted into its beautifully machined, elegantly styled interior, and was registering its objections by switching itself off and refusing to come out to play again. "Fair enough," I thought.
The Best Value Leica of the Digital Era?
I’m used to spluttering whenever I read the price of a Leica, but for the first time ever, at six grand, this does not strike me as an insanely expensive camera. Don’t get me wrong, like the vast majority of us, I can’t afford it and nor could I ever justify it. I'm repeating myself, but this is a six grand camera that’s taking 14-bit, 47-megapixel raw files and churning them out at 20 frames per second. However you see Leica, and however much it is a luxury brand, that is outrageous. Of course, its autofocus is not a patch on the flagship sports shooters made by Canon, Sony, and Nikon, and without it, the 20 frames per second might seem a bit pointless. However, this is completely new territory, and even if you took the Leica badge off and had it bodged together, swapping out the aluminum and magnesium for loo rolls, pipe cleaners, and old washing up bottles, it’s is still a piece of tech that’s worthy of a sizeable chunk of cash.
What’s more, the lens lineup is becoming less ludicrous. You can attach a ton of glass to the SL2, and that’s only going to get better with the expansion of the L-mount alliance, as seen with Sigma’s newly announced 24-70mm f/2.8 Art. That said, I’m not sure any self-respecting Leica owner is going to be able to bring themselves to attach a non-Leica lens to their precious, red-labelled body, but at least the choice is there.
What I Learned
I would have taken more photos, but it’s hard to shoot when you’re trying to juggle glasses of champagne and the smallest bowls of soup I’ve ever seen. Apologies for that. I’ll try harder next time.
If you want to read a more constructive overview of the SL2, be sure to check out this article by Fstoppers’ Michael DeStefano, who has both experience as a Leica shooter and actually spent some time using it. Otherwise, by way of summary, consider this: the SL2 isn’t anywhere near as expensive as it should have been, and Leica sure knows a thing or two about user experience. They also like champagne and have a penchant for a well-presented amuse-bouche, so thank you, Leica for a lovely evening. If you have any other gear that you'd like me to flummox, please get in touch.
I welcome your thoughts in the comments below.