Leica has just announced its successor to its full-frame mirrorless camera, and it just might be a sign they are listening to the demands of professional photographers. The Leica SL2 has a 47.3-megapixel sensor, an updated Maestro III processor, and is capable of 20 fps bursts. It can shoot video up to 5K 30 fps, C4K 60 fps, and has 5-axis IBIS.
The original Leica SL hit the market in 2015 with several interesting takes on what a mirrorless full-frame camera could be. Last year, I took the SL for a week in the desert and was surprised just how well the three-year-old camera performed. However, the mirrorless market is a lot different today, with a lot of competition, with even higher demands from photographers.
Full-disclosure, Leica invited me to the press release event at their HQ and made available a pre-release demo model for my testing. However, the opinions and following review are mine alone, and Leica hasn’t had any influence or feedback on my review process or this article.
Before we get to my impressions, let's break down the technical specs. Right away, one of the biggest improvements is the move to a 47.3-megapixel CMOS sensor over the old 24 MP one. There is a new Leica Maestro III image processor with a 4 GB buffer, capable of 20 fps burst capture up to 78 raw DNG files. Raw files have a bit depth of 14 bits and an ISO sensitivity up to 50,000. A new 5-axis image stabilization has been included, using sensor shift technology. This is an improvement over the lens only stabilization on the SL and also adds stabilization to any lens that doesn't have it already.
The SL2 continues the use of the L mount flange and the eight newer lenses, five primes, and three zooms, that Leica has released since the original SL. But it also includes use with Leica TL, M, S, R, and their many Cine mount lenses, totaling more than 170 compatible choices. Also, as part of the L-Mount Alliance, you can now use many of the lenses made by Sigma and Panasonic, creating a considerably large ecosystem for the SL2.
On the video side, Leica has set out to create a mirrorless body that can take full advantage of its growing and extremely high-end Cine lenses. With a dedicated Cine mode you can have the Shutter angle instead of aperture, ASA instead of ISO, and with a Cine lens attached, set T-stops instead of f-stops. You can shoot in a variety of video formats, including 5K 30, 24 fps, Cine4K 60 fps, 30 fps, 24 fps, 4K 60 fps, and 1080p up to 180 fps. It has 8/10-bit recording to SD card and 10-bit via the HDMI output. The SL2 has a lot of other video tools that will please cinematographers, like zebras, focus peaking, safe overlays, and 3.5mm headphone and mic jacks.
Additionally, there is a new, upgraded EyeRes OLED EVF at 5.76 MP and a larger 3.2” Gorilla glass touchscreen LCD display. It has built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and works with the Leica Fotos mobile app. It has dual SD slots that accept UHS-II cards. Like the previous SL, it is weather-sealed, to which I can attest to having used it in the rain multiple times with no concern.
The Leica SL2 will be available beginning November 21, 2019, at a retail price of $5,995.
At first glance, the SL2 looks very similar to the SL, but it has undergone a complete redesign both externally and within. One of my complaints with the original SL was its overall looks; it didn't seem like a Leica. That was something Leica sought to change in their redesign, looking to cameras like the Leicaflex and R3/R4 bodies for inspiration. With this in mind, they adopted several traditional characteristics, like the three-part body split and changed the geometry of the top cap.
Before: Leica SL2 After: Leica SL
The body is now split into three parts, made up of an anodized aluminum top and bottom plate, while the main body is machined magnesium. The main body section is completely wrapped in a leatherette material, similar to how the grip was on the SL. The grip itself now has an ergonomic indent that makes holding it much more comfortable. The aluminum top plate has been changed to have a much cleaner and more traditional Lecia feel. There is no longer a small bump on the left side, and the geometry of the viewfinder is more reminiscent of the older Leica 35mm SLR bodies.
All of these seemingly cosmetic changes do have a purpose, though. Even though the ultimate dimensions of the SL2 are very close, if not a hair smaller than the SL, it feels and looks considerably smaller in your hand. The new grip no longer feels thick and bulky. There is a finesse to the body lines that make it seem thinner and less blocky. The full textured wrap gives it a warmer feel and really ties the overall look together. All of these changes were done to make the SL2 a much more ergonomic design while also adding a floating sensor for IBIS without increasing its size and weight. The internal redesign and engineering that went into accomplishing this is something you don't typically see in other cameras.
The back button controls have changed from four to three in the same style as the new Leica Q2 to maintain consistency across several devices. It still has the minimalistic look you get with most Leicas. Something I noted in my review of the SL was how the controls and dials seemed less intuitive than other cameras, which this new layout I think improves upon a lot. A lot of the controls can still be customized with user profiles, and they kept my favorite feature, the thumb joystick.
The menu GUI has gotten a major redesign and is now split into two photo/video-dedicated modes. I absolutely love the new design, and it made for switching all kinds of settings on the fly very fast. Making photo and video separate displays is a great way to make sure the exact settings you want are easily and quickly accessible. I really hope we see more camera companies in the future put effort into their GUI.
The autofocus on the SL was already fast, so they improved on the face/body detection with a new object-detection system capable of 480 fps AF control. I tested it out on some flying geese as well as in the studio with a spinning model, and I was very impressed. Admittedly, face and eye detection isn't something I use very often, but it did exactly what it claims, and even when I tried to trick it, I still walked away with correctly focused images. Combined with Leica’s SL lenses with their dual syncro drive focus motors, the AI detection is a powerful combination of speed and accuracy. I unfortunately only had limited time with the camera, but I hope to test the autofocusing system with some more demanding sport situations as well as see how well it works with L-Mount Alliance lenses like Sigma’s.
Full-frame shot and 100% crop
Photo Credit: Michael DeStefano
The larger-megapixel sensor combined with the Leica glass makes for some amazingly sharp and detailed images. I was a fan of the image quality on the SL, but the increased 14-stop dynamic range and flexibility of the larger files really gives you more options when editing. I wasn't able to really push the raw images in post, as at the time, Adobe hadn’t yet released camera profiles, but I’m pretty happy with the images so far with very little editing. It is hard to compare the image quality to other cameras because of the high quality of lenses you can use with the SL2. Putting an M mount lens on it or even one of the SL primes really changes the feel and characteristics of the images. This is something I hear from Sony users who use a lot of older lenses adapted for Sony mount. However, the overall color depth and richness just have a feel I don't see when using other cameras. When I’m working a job, most of the time, I know I’m going to get the look I want in editing, and I don't put much thought into it while shooting. But when I used the SL and now the SL2, it just stands out to me, and I even find myself shooting differently and composing around how the image makes me feel.
My one concern with image quality is whether there was any sacrifice in low-light quality with the larger-megapixel sensor. I didn't have any opportunity to push the ISO and see just what the upper limit was or how much noise there is at 6,400 and higher, that and not having the raw profiles for editing. The SL really impressed me with its low-light capabilities, and shooting low-noise images at 6,400 is something I have come to expect when shooting E-sports events in poorly lit venues.
What I Liked
- Amazing EVF
- 20 fps burst
- New visual design
- iAF object detection
- 5K 30 fps and C4K 60 fps
- Improved haptic feel and ergonomics
- New photo/video GUI
- L-Mount Alliance
- USB-C port
What I Didn't Like
- Fixed screen
- Battery life
- Giant battery charger
If the original SL was early into the mirrorless market, then the SL2 is well timed. When the SL was released, it was priced at almost $7,500 and then lowered two years later to the now $5,995. The fact that the SL2 is being released at the same $5,995 price point shows that Leica is trying to make their pro body mirrorless camera more competitive in the current market. It is priced comparatively to both Nikon and Canons pro-level DSLR’s and has flagship level pro features that many of us have come to expect. If Canon came out with a pro-level mirrorless body today with the Leica SL2’s specs, I’d be pretty happy, and I’d also expect it to be in the $4-5K price range. So, I don't feel like Leica is far off. Leica has never been a budget-conscious photographer's brand, but they do make cameras that last a long time, remaining relevant. They are fully metal constructions that are built like a tank and can take a beating. My Canon can take a beating too, and it does, but after a few years, the wear and tear starts to get in the way of the job, and I have to replace it. The SL shooters I have met don't have that issue, and the SL2 will maintain that quality. Not to mention that the higher price reflects the fact that Leica cameras are manufactured by real people, machined, and assembled by hand in Germany. That is something no other camera manufacturer can say and something that we are often willing to pay a premium for in other industries.
Leica has seen that video features are important to a lot of working photographers these days and not only offered competitive features, but designed a user interface that makes shooting and switching between stills and video more fluid.
The biggest hurdle for most photographers into Leica has been the initial cost of lenses. At a minimum, as a working photographer, I’d need at least three lenses to get by, and with Leica's glass, that is no cheap investment. The L-Mount alliance changes this. Not only does it open you up for more possible lens options, it offers some decent quality lenses at affordable prices. I’m very interested to test and see how Sigma lenses do on the SL2. I could easily see two Sigma zooms with two older Leica primes being a nice setup at a decent price. If you already had a couple of Leica lenses, this would make it even more appealing. Camera bodies are reaching a tech saturation point, where we just don't need to upgrade them that often. The quality of a camera's build and how long it can take a beating is quickly becoming more important to me. As the Leica SL2 ecosystem becomes larger, with much more options, I think more photographers will see it as a viable alternative in the current market.