Leica SL Field Test Part I

The big Leica SL goes to the Big Apple

By Eamon Hickey | Posted: 10/13/2016

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.

VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4.0 ASPH OIS: 45mm, f/3.7, 1/250s, ISO 640, +0.3 EV
An example of the Leica SL's colors and (very pleasing, to my eye) skin tones when converted with Adobe Lightroom using the embedded DNG profile. I set a custom white balance using a WhiBal card.
(Mouse-over the above links to compare the Lightroom conversion to the matching in-camera JPEG and click on the links to access the full-resolution files.)

[A note on the images I shot for this Field Test: With my first test shots, I discovered that the default JPEG images from the Leica SL are unusually flat even with the latest firmware as of this writing (v2.1), and they don't reflect well on the camera, in my opinion. However, the camera's raw files, which are saved in Adobe's DNG file format, include a default profile for Adobe Lightroom. This “embedded DNG” profile is supplied by Leica and, when the raw file is developed in Lightroom, produces an image with much better color and tonality than the in-camera JPEGs. Accordingly, all images in my field test are JPEGs developed from the raw files using the embedded DNG profile with all default settings, except for sharpening, which I have carefully tried to match to the in-camera default sharpening. Any deviations from this formula are noted in the captions, and all converted files contain a "-LR" suffix in the Gallery thumbnails page. Also, for images shot with the SUMMICRON-M 50mm f/2.0 manual focus lens, the camera records an estimated f-stop into the EXIF data for the image, and this is noted in the captions also.]

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.

The shape of the Leica SL is blocky, but I immediately liked the feel of it in my hand. The grip is very comfortable and secure for me. The SL's extremely high build quality was also obvious from the first time I picked it up. It's just a superbly constructed, rock-solid camera with impeccable fit and finish, and the 24-90mm lens feels every bit its match. I had no way of testing the Leica SL's weather resistance, but based on the feel of the camera's construction alone, I wouldn't hesitate to use it in conditions as wet as a moderate rainstorm.

SUMMICRON-M 50mm f/2.0: f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 800, +1.0 EV
A lifeboat on the vintage lightship, Nantucket. [EXIF indicates an estimated f-stop of f/2.8, and I believe that's correct.]

The Leica SL's thoroughly modern, customizable controls work very well

The control system of the Leica SL reflects the very modern direction the company has taken with its recent digital models. It comprises twin control dials, a joystick, and at least 8 highly customizable buttons, all unlabeled. It's far beyond the scope of this Field Test to go into all the permutations of this system, but it gives you a very high degree of flexibility and scope for customizing the camera to work the way you prefer. Within 30 minutes, I had the Leica SL set up to give me nearly instant access to every important function I care about, including all my exposure, white balance and focusing options.

VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4.0 ASPH OIS: 42mm, f/13, 1/50s, ISO 50
I definitely felt the weight of the Leica SL with its 24-90mm f/2.8-4.0 zoom lens during five hours of walking around Central Park.

For my first extended outing with the Leica SL, I took it to Central Park where I could really give the controls a workout. For the most part, their placement worked extremely well for me, providing a very fast, efficient shooting experience. The feel of the shutter release is terrific, with no slop or vagueness, and the shutter itself is extremely quiet -- so quiet that very few of my subjects ever heard it, both in Central Park and in other, later shoots. And the VARIO-ELMARIT 24-90mm lens makes effectively no sound at all when autofocusing.

SUMMICRON-M 50mm f/2.0: f/4.0, 1/160s, ISO 50, +1.0 EV
The Leica SL's quiet shutter let me grab 3 shots of this couple, and they never even looked up from their map. The Statue of Liberty is in the background. [The f-stop estimated in the EXIF is f/4, but I think I actually shot this at f/2.8.]

I do have a couple of relatively minor quibbles. The top-deck control dial is harder to reach than I'd prefer, and the same goes for the joystick controller. (For reference, I'm 6'2" tall with hands proportional to my height.) The joystick allows you to instantly move your active autofocus zone, and it works pretty well. It can also act as a button when you press it in, and I set this up to activate back-button autofocus. Unfortunately, it's a little too easy to accidentally activate the controller's lateral commands when you simply want to press it in. Several times on my Central Park shoot, I inadvertently moved my focus zone when I was trying to activate AF.

Leica SL's top-notch electronic viewfinder is a real step forward

Another thing that became clear to me on my Central Park walk is that the Leica SL really and truly wants to be used at eye-level. Although it's possible to compose and shoot using the LCD monitor, this was clumsy for me. Obviously, the main obstacle is that the LCD does not tilt. But there are two other factors: the prominent eyepiece of the electronic viewfinder (EVF) partially obstructs the LCD (when looking from above) and the camera's grip and overall shape are really optimized for an eye-level hold. This an important drawback for me because I've come to really enjoy waist-level (in reality, it's more like solar-plexus-level) shooting on digital cameras with tilting LCDs, but if you prefer shooting at eye-level -- and plenty of photographers do -- the SL is really at home when used this way.

VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4.0 ASPH OIS: 90mm, f/11, 1/80s, ISO 100, -0.6 EV
For this shot, the Leica SL's superb EVF made it easy to focus manually very precisely and also to get a good sense of depth-of-field.

The excellent “Eye-Res” EVF of the Leica SL is a big part of why shooting the camera at eye-level works best. This EVF gives a far better overall representation of the scene and the picture that you're going to get than any other EVF I've ever used.

SUMMICRON-M 50mm f/2.0: f/9.5, 1/125s, ISO 12500, -1.0 EV
The Leica SL's EVF gave me a bright, clear view of this night street scene.

After half a dozen shoots with the SL, here's what I've found. The EVF gives a very good preview of depth of field, and a fairly good preview of exposure. The viewfinder image is big, and it's extremely sharp, which makes it easier to judge focus and to focus manually. (I'll have more to say about manual focus in Part 2, and also about EVF delay as it relates to tracking fast-moving subjects.) The EVF is unusually clear in low light, although the refresh rate does slow down if it gets really dark. I can't give a quantitative report on its color accuracy, but the image has a richness to its color and tonality that I haven't seen equaled by any other EVF. Ultimately, the sum is greater than its parts, I think. This EVF gives a surprisingly naturalistic sense of the scene. To my eye, it is for practical purposes as good as an optical viewfinder in many situations (and perhaps better in very low light). That said, when the sun finally came out for one of my shoots, I found that with high contrast scenes, the dynamic range of the Eye-Res EVF is still lagging compared to an optical viewfinder.

SUMMICRON-M 50mm f/2.0: f/2.0, 1/250s, ISO 3200

I also shot several times with my glasses on, and I could see nearly all of the image and viewfinder information in the EVF -- eye relief is pretty good. Plus, the diopter adjustment control on this EVF is the best I've ever seen on a camera. It's easy to operate, stays where it's set, and is nicely marked so you can easily remember your correction settings.

The LCD monitor of the Leica SL is very good, but unlike the EVF, it didn't seem like a standout to me -- I've used many cameras with LCDs of roughly equal quality. I don't have all that much to say about it primarily because I didn't use it for composing pictures very often (for the reasons mentioned above). For reviewing pictures, it works very well, but that's not really a hard job.

SUMMICRON-M 50mm f/2.0: f/3.5, 1/50s, ISO 6400

Like some other top-level professional cameras, the Leica SL also has a small LCD on the top deck for displaying critical shooting settings. For my style of shooting this is not a must-have feature, but the top-deck LCD is definitely handy for making quick checks of your settings, and the SL's worked fine for me in both overcast and bright outdoor light.

SUMMICRON-M 50mm f/2.0: f/5.6, 1/50s, ISO 1600

In Part 2 of my Field Test, I'll take a look at the Leica SL's performance and how it works with both its native 24-90mm autofocus lens and also an M-series 50mm f/2 Summicron manual focus lens, among other things.

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