Leica SL Field Test Part II

Testing performance, manual focus, 4K video and more!

by Eamon Hickey | Posted

This neon sculpture is constantly rotating, so I used the SL 's burst mode to try to capture a moment when it was exactly perpendicular to the lens axis.
Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2: 50mm, f/3.5, 1/320s, ISO 200, +1EV
[EXIF shows an estimated f-stop of f/3.5, but it was actually shot at f/4.]

Leica SL is fast and responsive, but buffer & C-AF could improve

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.

The Leica SL's slow RAW buffer clearing caused me to shoot this juggler in JPEG only. This image has been brightened by about 2/3rds of a stop, and cropped to a square.
Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2: 50mm, f/2.4, 1/250s, ISO 100

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. (As we noted in our Performance section, the buffer essentially never stalls or slows the camera down when shooting JPEGs.)

To photograph the most interesting "person" at this lunch get-together, I used the SL's joystick to quickly move the focus patch to the bottom of the frame.
Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4: 90mm, f/4, 1/80s, ISO 250

Over the course of nine different outings with the Leica SL, I used Single Autofocus (S-AF) for the majority of my shots. It's extremely fast and decisive in good or moderate light, and its accuracy was top-notch. I got nearly instant, perfectly focused pictures almost all the time when using S-AF. The system is also pretty good in low light, but not noticeably better than other high-end mirrorless cameras, at least in my tests with it. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this Field Test, the joystick provides fast and reasonably precise control over the position of the active AF box.

The SL's autofocus system was extremely quick and sure on this grab shot of one of the many, many colorful characters at this chess tournament.
Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4: 90mm, f/4, 1/200s, ISO 50, +0.6EV

In Central Park, I also did some tests of the Continuous AF (C-AF) system of the Leica SL on moving subjects such as bicyclists and runners. The SL was not completely hopeless at acquiring and tracking moving subjects (as many first and second generation mirrorless models were in the past), but it certainly wasn't very impressive either. Typically, my sequences included a handful of sharp images, but a majority were out of focus, with the hit rate diminishing rapidly as the subject got closer to the camera. One modest plus for the SL is that the viewfinder does a better job of keeping up with the action than just about any other EVF I've used. Even so, there is still a noticeable lag or slideshow effect, which makes it hard to keep your subject framed correctly, compared to an optical viewfinder on an SLR. All in all, I think the SL is okay for light, non-critical action/sports shooting, but I'd use something else for any serious photography of that kind.

This image is from the middle of a 25-shot sequence taken with C-AF that had about a 35% hit rate.
Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4: 90mm, f/4, 1/1000s, ISO 200

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
A very impressive native lens and excellent manual focus features

As I said in Part 1 of this Field Test, the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH that I received with the Leica SL is an awfully big hunk of glass and metal, albeit a superbly built one. In my first shoot with it, I discovered that it focuses very fast and basically silently. The zoom and focus rings are smooth and very well-damped. Mechanically, it's just top-notch. It was the perfect lens for shooting the crowded and fast-changing scene at a huge chess tournament that I stumbled upon in Central Park, where I could easily switch from shot-to-shot between shooting wide panoramas and close-ups of individual players. It's also equipped with optical image stabilization, which came in handy for me on several shots on subway platforms and in Grand Central Station. I didn't test it formally, but I felt confident handholding the camera at shutter speeds about 2 EV slower than I would have tried without stabilization.

I relied on the image stabilization of the VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 24–90 for this 1/8 second handheld shot of a train pulling into the 42nd St./Grand Central subway platform.
Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4: 24mm, f/10, 1/8s, ISO 1000

My subjective sense after more than 600 shots taken with the 24-90mm lens is that it's extremely sharp for a zoom, while aberrations and geometric distortion are very low. To my eye, though, it renders out-of-focus backgrounds just a bit harshly. My test shots with this lens did, in fact, remind me of the fast, premium 24-70mm aspherical zooms that I've used from Canon and Nikon, which are also extremely crisp but which sometimes seem to have a slightly harsh effect as well.

The VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8–4 ASPH may be big, but it's undeniably a terrific optical performer.
Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4: 81mm, f/8, 1/125s, ISO 400, -1EV

Because I like to carry a more compact camera system and because I was interested in testing the manual focus functions of the Leica SL, I also arranged to get a Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2. This is one of the classic M-series lenses made for Leica rangefinder cameras, and it fits on the SL via an adapter. I shot over 800 pictures with this lens on six different outings, and the camera and lens worked very well together. Because the SL's EVF is so sharp, it's fairly easy to get well-focused images even without any manual focus aids, at least when you're using medium or narrow apertures that give you some margin for error. When I used the Summicron wide open, focus errors were more often visible in my results, but I quickly found that I could avoid this by using the SL's focus magnification function, which allows for very precise manual focusing. In manual focus mode, you can activate the magnification aid by depressing the joystick button, so it's quick and handy.

The EVF let me get a very good sense of the depth of field for this wide-aperture portrait.
Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2: 50mm, f/2, 1/125s, ISO 640
[A custom white balance was used.]

The SL's focus peaking feature helped me focus accurately on the man with the camera.
Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2: 50mm, f/3.5, 1/50s, ISO 250, +0.6EV
[EXIF shows an estimated f-stop of f/3.5, but I believe it was actually shot at f/ 5.6]

There's also a good focus peaking feature on the Leica SL, which worked well for me on several shots. That said, I generally prefer to use magnification, and it gave me more consistently excellent results. Bottom line on all this is that the Leica SL works really well as a manual focus camera and could be a nice modern platform for photographers who own high quality manual focus lenses. On a totally subjective note, I really liked the look and character of the images I got with the Summicron lens on the SL body -- I didn't encounter any drawbacks using this non-native lens on the SL.

I used the magnification function to focus manually on the central raindrops on this window looking out on Astor Place. The edge softness is due to depth of field falloff (I was not perpendicular to the window.)
Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2: 50mm, f/3.5, 1/125s, ISO 125
[EXIF shows an f-stop of f/3.5, but I actually shot this at f/4]

Leica SL has seamless built-in GPS & pretty standard Wi-Fi capabilities

One nice touch on the Leica SL is that it comes standard with a GPS receiver built in. There's nothing much to it -- I just started shooting with the camera, and all my pictures include location coordinates in the EXIF data. I have no way of precisely measuring the accuracy of a GPS system, but I used Lightroom's Map module to informally check the recorded locations. Shots that were taken as little as 10-15 ft. (3-5m) apart are accurately positioned and differentiated on the map.

The Leica SL also has built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, and I ran this system through its paces at home one day. Connection procedures for the SL are neither better nor worse than nearly all the other Wi-Fi-capable cameras around. In addition to letting you browse and transfer images from the camera to your smartphone or tablet, the system provides fairly extensive remote control capabilities. In my tests, direct connections between my iPhone 6 and the camera were responsive and reliable. When I connected the camera to my existing home Wi-Fi network, however, the system was more sluggish, and I experienced fairly frequent dropped connections.

Sharp 4K movies, but be prepared to do some color grading

As we noted in the overview, the Leica SL can also shoot 4K video, so I went to Astor Place to shoot a few test clips. In video mode, the camera gives you control of all important focus and exposure parameters, as you would expect on any advanced camera these days. The excellent EVF is obviously a big plus for video, and you can also activate video-centric features like focus peaking and exposure "zebras." My test clips are very sharp, and I don't see much in the way of artifacts with the subjects I shot. I used the standard JPEG profile for my tests. As I noted in the introduction to Part 1 of this Field Test, this profile is somewhat flat and unsaturated. I didn't try it, but I imagine the V-Log Gamma profile is even flatter. The bottom line is that I wouldn't shoot any serious video with the Leica SL unless I was prepared to do some color grading in post.

Leica SL 4K Sample Video
UHD: 3840 x 2160, 30 fps
Download Original (732 MB MP4)

Leica SL Field Test: Summing it up

So what's my verdict on this very modern Leica? As a shooting machine, it's a definite winner -- extremely capable, highly versatile, beautifully made, and very efficient to use. As of now, I see only two major drawbacks. The native lens lineup is obviously very thin at this point, and the SL doesn't autofocus well enough for sports photography. Those points aside, the SL is an exceptionally capable and usable camera.

An example of the SL's skin tone rendition with the embedded DNG profile. I set a custom white balance using a WhiBal card for this shot.
Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4: 73mm, f/3.8, 1/250s, ISO 320, +1.3EV

I've intentionally avoided the subject of price until now, and I don't want to belabor it, but it merits a comment. Judged on a strictly cost/performance basis, I think the SL system -- camera and lenses -- is not worth the price premium over competing, generally superb pro-level gear from Canon, Nikon, and possibly even Sony. I've never seen any evidence of some mysterious magic that only Leica possesses, and this Field Test didn't change that. Speaking personally, I really enjoyed shooting with the SL (especially with the Summicron lens), but I would not pay the price premium even if I had money burning a hole in my pocket.

An example of the SL's skin tones using the embedded DNG profile and a custom white balance (set with a WhiBal card). The red shirt is oversaturated and shifted towards magenta, which seems to be characteristic of the DNG profile.
Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4: 69mm, f/3.8, 1/60s, ISO 50, -1EV

But Leica has always occupied its own niche, with distinctive ideas about camera design, and the SL fits that mold. Nothing else available right now is made quite like it. Not every purchase needs to be based on a strict cost/performance analysis. For photographers who like the specific characteristics of the SL, or the way Leica conceives and builds cameras and lenses, the higher price may be a satisfying investment. And one thing cannot be denied: anyone who buys an SL will be getting an absolutely top quality piece of gear.


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