In late 2015 the luxury camera company Leica released the Leica SL (Type 601) a full-frame mirrorless camera that came packed with top of the line features ready to compete with Canon and Nikon’s flagship DSLRs. Roughly two years later, and with several new advancements in camera offerings, how does the Leica perform? Can it still compete with other flagship models?
To find out I took the Leica with me on my recent trip to Las Vegas for WPPI and put it through a solid week of shooting in the Nevada deserts. In this review, I’m going to cover my impressions, show sample images, and try to give you an idea of just who this camera is for. If you want a much more detailed look at the specs then check out this great break down Fstoppers writer Ryan Mense did back when the camera was first released. Also, it goes without saying that like most Leica products this camera is a luxury item and with that comes a higher price tag. That being said, taking in to account the features built in to this particular body the price at $5,995 is in line with Canon’s 1Dx Mark II and Nikon’s D5.
It seems fair to say that the Leica SL (Typ 601) was Leica’s attempt to bring to market a camera system that has competitive and modern features that the average user would expect as well as maintain the minimalist and traditional look of a Leica body. To that point, it has a full-frame 24-megapixel CMOS sensor, impressive 4.4MP Electronic Viewfinder with 60fps refresh, a 3” LED touchscreen display, and is capable of shooting up to 4k video. Not to mention 11 FPS burst, built-in Wi-Fi, GPS, full weather sealing, and two SD card slots.
Along with the SL body, I was provided the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens. Both of these are built like tanks and not quite what you would expect from a modern mirrorless system. The body is solid aluminum and considerably heavier than it looks. The grip, although not ergonomically shaped, did feel good in my hand but between the weight and design but if you have smaller hands this may be uncomfortable. Using the SL body with the much smaller M mount lenses does make the overall size and weight better. My first impression looking at the body was that it wasn't very attractive; somewhere between the rangefinder looks of other Lecias and a modern DSLR. A camera's overall look doesn't really matter in my opinion and since reviewing I've spoken with a few Leica owners who prefer this simple and blocky look. So unless this is something that really bothers you, it doesn't seem like too big of an issue.
Leica has continued their minimalistic approach to controls providing very few actual buttons and with no labeling. At first, I found this very frustrating and not intuitive at all. Having used many DSLR cameras throughout my career I can't remember a time I couldn't pick up any camera and immediately figure out all the basic controls. Once I gave in and took a look at the manual I realized that each control had multiple purposes depending on whether you single pressed, double pressed, or long pressed it. Even the thumb dial can be pressed in to change shooting modes, a feature that took me a shameful amount of time to figure out. Having gotten passed this difficulty by the end of my review period I started to see its appeal. Most of the controls are completely customizable even letting you set several profiles for different shooting situations. And the speed at which I could make adjustments on the fly was very impressive.
My two favorite control features where the thumb AF joystick and EVF/display toggle button. The joystick similar to ones found on other cameras was super fast making selecting focus points or moving through menus super fast and smooth. The tiny toggle button located just right of the EVF lets you switch between three view modes: EVF only, back display only, and the third mode switches between the two depending on whether you are looking through the EVF or not. I used this a lot both to conserve battery usage but also because I found in some conditions I wanted only one or the other but also needed to occasionally switch back.
EVF and Display
Both the EVF and back display are extremely impressive. I found myself using the display more often than I would normally on one of my Canons as the quality and accuracy was just so good. What you saw in both displays was literally what you got, allowing you to quickly judge under and overexposures. Shooting in the high noon desert sun with little shade had no effect on being able to clearly see the display. The only downside is that it is fixed and not variable like a lot of mirrorless cameras. Battery life seemed excellent as I was able to shoot all day on just the one. I would have thought with the bright display and EVF that it would have been an issue but I shot equally with my 7D Mark II and had to change batteries several times.
Finally, the entire camera is weather sealed. Being a Leica, I was hesitant to bring it into the Mojave sand dunes with sand blowing constantly into my face but the camera really is a workhorse designed to be pushed in rugged conditions. I had zero issues and eventually stopped treating the camera like it was made of porcelain.
The Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm lens is probably one the sharpest zoom lenses I have ever used. It consistently outperformed my other similar lenses which is what I expected coming from a Leica lens. It was fast and the little extra zoom at 90mm was nice to get more reach than the standard 24-70mm. It is a very large lens however much larger than any other equivalent ranged lens weighing 2.5lb. Combined with the already heavy SL body it looks and feels like a behemoth. Leica does make an adapter for the SL allowing all of there famous M mount lenses to be used with it. So if you are an existing Leica owner this is probably a huge advantage. Also just recently Leica announced two new lenses for use with this camera. The APO-Summicron-SL 75mm f/2 and 90mm f/2 Lenses.
I can't say enough good things about the image quality of the SL and 24-90mm lens combo. The experience felt like I was shooting medium format. Viewing the images later on the screen and even in large prints, you could definitely believe you were looking at a medium format image. In fact, I would bet that if Lecia were to produce a high MP version of this camera it could give several medium format cameras a run for their money. The sensor renders contrast beautifully and has vibrant 14-bit color depth. There is no low pass filter so the sharpness is as crisp as I could imagine. During post-production, I was able to push dynamic range quite a bit even salvaging images I thought would never come out when taken. I didn't shoot above 6400 ISO but I also didn't feel the need to. At one point after the sun had set and we were done shooting I found I could still get pretty good results handheld even at a low ISO of 1600 with the optical image stabilization. I would have no issues shooting at 6400 and bet you could push it even further in certain circumstances.
What I Liked
- Image quality similar to medium format
- Accurate EVF and Display
- Easy use of most Leica lenses including M mount
- Full Weather Sealing
- Built-in Wi-Fi and GPS
- Solid full metal body
- Battery life
- 11 FPS
What I Didn't Like
- Overall size and weight (not as big of an issue with M lenses)
- Fixed screen
- Visual design
- Balance with 24-90mm lens
Two years after release this camera is still relevant. In fact, I won't be surprised if it's still an amazing camera in another 2 or 3 years from now. If it wasn't for the cost of switching all my lenses to Leica I would love to own this camera. Once I adjusted to using it, I couldn't put it down. I used it for every single assignment I had during the review period. I shot a few personal shoots just to get some more interesting images before I had to send it back.
Prior to doing this review, I hadn't used many Leica cameras, especially newer digital ones. Although I have seen the quality of imagery produced by cameras in the M series, I have often thought of Leicas as expensive niche cameras. The cost and feature set making them not align with the average user's needs. However, the SL is clearly a workhorse camera designed to be used professionally and put through its paces. With features and a lowered price point comparable to any flagship pro body and a wealth of compatible lenses with new native glass still being produced. The SL series isn't going anywhere. Leica did not produce a new camera that would need to be updated within a few years. They looked at the market and took their time to get it right straight away. I know Leica's M mount lenses are popular with a lot of Sony Mirrorless users and I think this might be a great upgrade for anyone looking for a more robust and weather sealed option. Especially if they have already invested into Leica lenses. I, unfortunately, won't be switching to Leica anytime soon, but that has never been Leica’s goal. They have a healthy customer base with increasing profits. With this camera now they have an option for working photographers who already own a Leica camera and some lenses to also have access to a more feature rich and robust modern platform for professional use. I wouldn't want to bring an M9 to the beach on a rainy day to photograph surfers, but I wouldn't hesitate to with the SL.