Leica SL Conclusion

Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4: 73mm, f/3.8, 1/250s, ISO 320, +1.3EV

Leica SL: A thoroughly modern professional mirrorless camera

There’s no doubt that the Leica SL really is a “new Leica experience” -- the mirrorless design and the camera’s impressive list of features and specifications guarantee that. That list includes a 24-megapixel full-frame (35mm format) sensor without an optical low-pass filter; a superbly built, weather-resistant metal body; fast autofocus; an ~11 frames-per-second burst rate; a remarkable 4.4M-dot “Eye-Res” electronic viewfinder (EVF); and a new “L” bayonet mount that supports, at this writing, 3 native FF lenses as well as Leica’s T/TL-series of lenses made for APS-C format cameras. It can also accept a range of other Leica and third-party lenses through adapters. Finally, the SL does video -- really nice 4K video, to be exact.

Leica SL is big for a mirrorless ILC, but handles well with a great EVF

All you have to do is pick up the Leica SL, especially with one of its native lenses mounted, to know that compact size and light weight are not primary design goals with this mirrorless system. But we found the SL very comfortable to hold and use despite its DSLR-like size and bulk. We also liked the camera’s very modern, extremely flexible control design, which comprises twin control dials, a joystick, and at least 8 highly customizable buttons, all unlabeled. Once set up, this system allowed us to shoot very quickly and efficiently in all circumstances. One minor quibble we had is that the top-deck control dial is harder to reach than we’d like. Also, we occasionally fumbled with the joystick, activating its lateral commands, which move the active autofocus zone, when we were trying to simply press it straight in to activate a different function (you can customize which function it performs when pressed in).

In our Field Test, we found that, unlike some other mirrorless cameras, the Leica SL is really best suited to eye-level shooting. Partly that’s because the EyeRes electronic viewfinder (EVF) is so good. It’s easily the best EVF we’ve seen so far, providing a very sharp image that’s much more naturalistic than other EVFs we’ve used.

SL has fast performance overall but notably slow Raw buffer clearing

On the performance front, we were generally impressed, with two exceptions. In use, the Leica SL responded very quickly to control inputs, and never slowed us down from shot-to-shot, waking from sleep, switching modes, and other such operations. In the lab, we recorded mediocre “power on to first shot times” compared to DSLRs, but I didn’t notice that in the field. However, in both the lab and in the field test, we encountered very slow buffer clearing when shooting bursts of RAW or RAW+JPEG images, even with very fast UHS-II SD cards. This meant that we could only shoot 2-3 second bursts when recording RAW images before the buffer would stall and slow us down to one or two frames per second. We think this is a notable drawback for a professional camera. If you’re shooting JPEGs only, the buffer is essentially limitless.

This slightly back-focused image was the best in a 4-shot sequence taken with C-AF.
Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4: 90mm, f/4, 1/800s, ISO 100

Fast AF on stationary subjects but it’s not our choice for sports

We were very pleased with the Leica SL’s Single Autofocus (S-AF) when using the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens. It’s fast and decisive in good light, and maintains quite respectable performance in low light. The joystick works well for controlling the position of the active AF zone. We had much less luck with Continuous Autofocus (C-AF) on moving subjects like bicyclists and runners. The SL isn’t hopeless for these subjects, but it wasn’t very impressive either -- this camera wouldn’t be our first (or even second) choice for shooting a lot of sports.

Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4: 81mm, f/8, 1/125s, ISO 400, -1EV

A good native lens, high quality images (from RAW), and excellent manual focus

The Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens is a big beast, but it’s extremely versatile, superbly built and equipped with an optical image stabilization function that gave us confidence shooting handheld with shutter speeds about 2 stops slower than we would try without stabilization. Combined with the SL’s 24-megapixel sensor it produced top-notch images -- sharp, with good dynamic range, and fairly low noise at high ISO settings. The images we saw from the SL are generally competitive with other leading FF cameras with similar resolutions, though perhaps not quite as good at higher ISOs. We did notice that the camera’s default JPEG settings produced somewhat flat and undersaturated images. But when we developed RAW images in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw using the embedded DNG profile provided by Leica, we got noticeably more pleasing colors and tones. We also shot hundreds of pictures with a manual focus M-series Leica lens, which worked very well. The SL’s mirrorless design, top-notch EVF and manual focus aids make the camera an excellent platform for using older manual focus lenses.

4K video (from a Leica!), average Wi-Fi, handy built-in GPS

In our video tests, we got very sharp 4K clips with the Leica SL, and we noticed few artifacts in the subjects we shot. Because it relies on the camera’s default JPEG look, however, the footage looks flat. (A likely even flatter L-Log gamma profile is also available.) Filmmakers should be prepared to do a lot of color grading with this camera’s clips. The SL also provides a decent array of video features -- exposure zebras and focus peaking, for example.

Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4: 24mm, f/10, 1/8s, ISO 1000

We’d characterize the Leica SL’s Wi-Fi features as pretty much par for the course these days -- no better or worse than other high-end cameras, meaning it can definitely be useful but it’s not as easy and seamless as it should be. On the other hand, the SL’s built-in GPS is very handy. It just works, straight out of the box, and provided accurate location information on essentially every test shot we took.

Like anything Leica, the SL comes at a very high price. But for those willing to foot the bill, it’s a versatile, beautifully built, high-performance professional mirrorless camera whose only significant weakness would be sports photography. With that in mind, the Leica SL is a definite Dave's Pick, if you can afford it.

Pros & Cons

  • Top-notch electronic viewfinder
  • Superb build quality
  • Weather-sealing
  • Excellent image quality from RAW files
  • Good high ISO performance for its class
  • Very good dynamic range
  • Very low shutter lag
  • Fast autofocus on stationary subjects
  • Very fast ~11fps burst shooting
  • Generous buffer depths considering the speed
  • Can autofocus in extremely low light (albeit slowly)
  • Excellent manual focus features and performance
  • Ability to use a wide range of lenses
  • Flexible and efficient control system
  • 4K DCI and UHD video
  • Video L-Log Gamma profile support
  • Clean 4:2:2 10-bit HDMI out
  • Built-in Wi-Fi
  • Built-in GPS
  • Dual card slots
  • USB 3.0 port
  • Touchscreen LCD
  • Top panel display
  • Decent battery life for a full-frame mirrorless (but no where near DSLRs)
  • Large and bulky for a mirrorless camera
  • Relatively poor autofocus on moving subjects
  • Very slow buffer clearing
  • Joystick prone to unintended commands
  • Sluggish startup compared to DSLRs
  • Some users may need higher resolution
  • In-camera JPEGs are muted and dull, with poor handling of tonal transitions when clipping occurs
  • Lack of AA-filter coupled with sharp glass means its susceptible to moiré and other aliasing artifacts (true of most ILCs these days)
  • Fixed-pattern noise at highest ISOs
  • No build-in mic and headphone jacks (an adapter is required)
  • Very limited native lens selection (however well over 100 Leica lenses are compatible with adapters)
  • Expensive

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