Leica SL (Typ 601) Field Test
Leica SL Field Test Part I
The big Leica SL goes to the Big Apple
Ever since I started taking pictures 35 years ago, I've always appreciated the mostly consistent (there have been exceptions) mechanical and optical excellence of Leica products, especially the company's core professional interchangeable-lens systems. I also think the company has an interesting take on camera system design, which often (though, again, not always) produces gear that works really well. I threw my hat in the ring to field test the Leica SL Typ 601 because I was interested in seeing how Leica would apply those qualities to the task of designing an entirely new platform for professional photography in the digital age.
Smaller size and lower weight is not the name of the game with the Leica SL system
To many veteran photographers, the Leica name means compact cameras and lenses, but compactness is clearly a much lower priority for the SL system. The body itself, while big for a mirrorless camera, is not huge -- about the size and weight of an enthusiast DSLR -- but the VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH OIS lens that I got with it is a beast. It's obvious that Leica is giving greater weight -- no pun intended -- to performance, versatility, and top-tier image quality in the design of this system. Fair enough -- that's an understandable tradeoff. That said, hanging a Leica that's this big from your shoulder takes a little getting used to.
Leica SL Field Test Part II
Testing performance, manual focus, 4K video and more!
Except when I'm reviewing cameras, I don't shoot a lot of action or sports, per se, but I've always appreciated a highly responsive camera -- you just don't want to miss a shot because of a sluggish camera. (A sluggish photographer is another matter altogether.) To me, this is often an underappreciated quality in a camera. With one important exception, the Leica SL performed extremely well in all my shooting with it. It responds instantly to command inputs, and I'm positive that it would never slow me down from shot-to-shot, waking from sleep, switching modes, starting up, or other such operations. In our performance tests, the lab encountered mediocre "power on to first shot" times, but in the field, this wasn't an issue for me.
I did, however, run into the other performance issue that the lab found: very slow buffer clearing when shooting Raw or Raw+JPEG images. In my view, this is the one significant performance black mark for the Leica SL. At 11 frames-per-second burst speed, when shooting Raw files, you only get about 3 seconds of shooting before severe buffer stall sets in, and then you're stuck at 1 or 2 fps for as much as 45 seconds or a minute afterwards (even with fast UHS-II cards). That means a lot of action subjects -- even set-up action like a skateboarder or a bicycle trickster that a pro might shoot for a commercial lifestyle assignment -- must be shot in JPEG only. That's a notable drawback for a camera intended for professional photographers. It forced me to shoot JPEG only when I didn't really want to on one occasion when I came across a juggler in Washington Square Park.