Leica SL2 Review

Camera Reviews / Leica Cameras i Now Shooting!
Basic Specifications
Full model name: Leica SL2
Resolution: 47.30 Megapixels
Sensor size: 35mm
(36.0mm x 24.0mm)
Kit Lens: n/a
Viewfinder: EVF / LCD
Native ISO: 50 - 50,000
Extended ISO: 50 - 50,000
Shutter: 1/40000 - 60 sec
Dimensions: 5.7 x 4.2 x 1.7 in.
(146 x 107 x 42 mm)
Weight: 32.7 oz (928 g)
includes batteries
Availability: 11/2019
Manufacturer: Leica
Full specs: Leica SL2 specifications
47.30
Megapixels
Leica L bayonet 35mm
size sensor
image of Leica SL2
Front side of Leica SL2 digital camera Front side of Leica SL2 digital camera Front side of Leica SL2 digital camera Front side of Leica SL2 digital camera Front side of Leica SL2 digital camera

Leica SL2 Review -- Now Shooting!

by Jaron Schneider
Posted: 11/06/2019

Table of Contents

 

Leica SL2 Field Test

The Leica SL2 is a far better camera than I ever expected it to be

by Jaron Schneider | Posted: 11/06/2019

APO-SUMMICRON-SL 1:2/35 ASPH: 35mm, f/8, 1/250s, ISO 50
(Note: This image has been edited from raw. Please click the image to see the original.)

The Leica SL2 is a good camera. It feels good to use, it takes really good pictures, it has some really nice touches to both the physical design and the menu, and it has access to just a ton of lenses from the entire Leica library. It has an okay autofocus system, and it has an okay processor. So while it excels in many places, it only reaches just shy of par for the course in others.

But while the Leica SL2 is just a good camera, it is a spectacular camera experience.

I know how that must sound, and I understand that if you haven't ever used a Leica or come into reading this with preconceived notions about what a Leica camera is or should be, then throughout this review I will probably do very little to convince you away from those preconceived notions. Let's get it out of the way now: this is a Leica, and a lot of what makes a Leica great isn't entirely around the photos it captures. You have to back up and look at it as an entire experience.

APO-SUMMICRON-SL 1:2/90 ASPH: 90mm, f/2, 1/160s, ISO 1250
(Note: This image has been edited from raw. Please click the image to see the original.)

Body Design & Build Quality

Usually when writing reviews, the body design and build quality section is the least interesting to read. "C'mon! Let's get to the photos!" And while I would normally agree, in the case of the Leica SL2, spending some quality time appreciating the design and physical aesthetics of the camera is really important. I held the SL2 for about 15 to 20 minutes the first time it was handed to me before I even looked through the viewfinder, and I think if you choose to pick one up, you'll do the same.

The body is weighty, but not heavy in my opinion. With the large battery inserted, it comes in at 928 grams, which is around 90 grams lighter than the Panasonic S1 and S1R. The body itself is made out of machined magnesium, and the top cap and bottom from machined aluminum. The construction of the camera has no plastic in it at all.

I want to draw attention to the difference between machined aluminum and extruded molded aluminum. When you pick up any other camera, odds are very high it is a body made from an extrusion. Though strong, it's not as strong as when you take a solid block of metal and grind away at it for hours until you achieve the shape you want. That's what Leica chose to do with the SL2. It's a more expensive, more time-consuming process, but the result is a superior product. Is that worth it? I think that's a decision you have to make as the buyer, but for Leica, there was no other way to do it. This was the only acceptable method.

The overall handling of this camera is extremely pleasant. The grip feels great; it's deep and robust and even has a slight dimple on the inside of the grip where your fingers can grab hold. The leather that wraps the entire body is textured perfectly and just feels so nice. When you pick up the camera, you may not even notice it's leather, as they have worked it in such a way as to feel not like the leather of a belt or a car seat, but firmer like a rubberized surface. It's a pretty unique feeling material, especially in the camera market, and I absolutely loved it.

Noctilux-M 1:1.25/75 ASPH: 75mm, f/3.5, 1/500s, ISO 100, -1.3EV
(Note: This image has been edited from raw. Please click the image to see the original.)

On the left side of the camera are rubber doors that hide the HDMI, USB, headphone and mic jacks. On the right of the camera is the memory card door that houses two UHS-II SD card slots.

The back of the camera has the on/off switch, the Play, Function and Menu buttons below that, and a multi-directional joystick across on the other side to the right of the viewfinder.

The rear of the camera is, at first, almost hauntingly blank. Coming from using a Panasonic S1 for a good part of the last year, this is almost a jarring experience. Where is the rear command dial? What about an info button or a delete button? It has none of this, yet after a few minutes you realize it has none of these things because it needs none of these things. After about 10 minutes using the camera, I never missed them.

Everything you need to do can be done from the touch screen, and done so quickly and easily. This is where Leica have really done their homework. Where many companies overcomplicate the menu system, Leica's is wonderfully direct. It's easy to understand, easy to find what you're looking for, and is overall efficient yet attractive. You can tell they've thought long and hard about how the camera would operate through a touch screen, and the result is a navigation experience that I think ties with Panasonic S-series for best in the current full-frame cameras available.

The top of the camera is also beautifully simple: a couple of buttons, one command dial on top, one ridged dial that can be used as a button on the back.

There are a couple more buttons on the face of the body, and all of these are unlabeled so that they can be programmed to anything you as the photographer wants.

And that's it.

I think it takes a lot more guts as a camera designer to be this conservative with button options than it does to put 100 buttons on a camera. This makes a Panasonic or a Fuji look ridiculous with the number of dials and buttons they employ, and given how much I love the SL2's design makes me question if I really ever needed so many buttons to begin with.

The last thing I would like to note is that the rear LCD does not tilt. It is fixed in place. Leica chose to keep it flush to the body for a number of reasons, ranging from how it looked to making sure the body didn't get any thicker. For pure photographers, this isn't a big deal. But if you shoot video, it can be a pain, especially for low angle shots. Just something to keep in mind.

SUPER-VARIO-ELMAR-SL 1:3.5-4.5/16-35 ASPH: 16mm, f/10, 5s, ISO 50, -0.6EV
(Note: This image has been edited from raw. Please click the image to see the original.)

Operation and Autofocus

The Leica SL2 has the same outstanding viewfinder display found in the Panasonic S1 and S1R as well as the new Sony A7R IV, and as expected, it's fantastic. OLED, bright and pixel-dense, it's the best viewfinder available for a reason.

Unfortunately, the way that the SL2 captures focus is going to make that viewfinder feel like it's lesser quality than the other cameras that employ it.

Leica chose a fully contrast-based autofocus system for the SL2 and packed it with body, face and eye detection along with continuous autofocus functionality and up to 20 frames per second (up to 6 fps with AFc/AE/WB). If you combine the need to continuously autofocus at those levels, you can imagine how much work a contrast-detection system would have to do in order to keep up. And while I can say that it does a decent, perhaps at par level, job with continuous focus and capture, what unfortunately isn't great is the viewfinder feedback to you as the shooter.

Because the system has to adjust continuously, and the only way for contrast systems to do this is to "wobble" quickly back and forth between foreground and background, images through the viewfinder can appear low resolution when using continuous modes. The wobble is happening so fast and all the time, and as such, everything feels out of focus to you as the shooter. The camera is actually doing a nice job of sharply focusing, but you have to trust the camera more than I think many of you would be comfortable doing.

VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 1:2.8-4/24-90 ASPH: 47mm, f/3.6, 1/320s, ISO 100, +1EV
(Note: This image has been edited from raw. Please click the image to see the original.)

I made a similar complaint about aggressive contrast focus systems when I reviewed the Panasonic S1 and S1R earlier this year. I just wasn't used to it, and after a while it no longer bothered me, and I have been happily using my S1 since. However, side by side with the S1, the Leica is a noticeably worse focusing experience visually despite employing depth mapping. The wobble you see is significantly more noticeable in the SL2, and shooting with the Leica in continuous modes made me really step back and appreciate how much work Panasonic has done in combination with Depth From Defocus. I can argue that, eventually, you will also get used to the Leica focusing system, but I cannot in good faith say it's going to be as good of an experience as with Panasonic. And it's noticeably worse than any camera from Sony, Nikon or Canon which utilize phase-detect AF.

I want to make it clear that you will get a keeper rate of approximately 80% or more when firing continuously, however. The experience has nothing to do with the camera's ability to make great images. My complaints here are simply about visual feedback to you, the shooter, and how it feels overall to take images with the Leica SL2.

I found that when shooting in single-point focus and manual focus, my shooting experience was much better. This makes sense, since the problems only arise when the camera is trying to make multiple adjustments quickly and repeatedly.

Noctilux-M 1:1.25/75 ASPH: 75mm, f/2, 1/400s, ISO 100, -1.3EV
(Note: This image has been edited from raw. Please click the image to see the original.)

The Leica SL2 captures in JPEG and DNG RAW and offers every method you could want for how it writes that information to memory cards. Speaking of memory cards, it's a good thing that the card slots are both UHS-II because the file size of 47-megapixel images is quite large, and especially at max burst rate, that's a lot of data to handle. Even with the benefit of UHS-II cards, it can take a bit of time to clear the buffer, and while that is happening, it can be hard to review images as the processor seems only able to do one task at a time. So while the Maestro III is a solid processor for most of what it is tasked with, it does have limitations.

In addition to all that, Leica built in a five-axis image stabilization system that, though they wouldn't outright confirm was due to the partnership with Panasonic, feels strongly tied to that relationship. I say that because the IBIS in the SL2 is spectacular. Multiple times through testing, I found myself asking if I thought it was better than the Panasonic S1's IBIS, which I have to this point contended is the best in the business. Though I am not sure if it is better, or worse, it's because everything I do with my S1, I did with the SL2. I even did long exposures of water handheld in a crouched position, and they came out tack sharp. So while Leica said they had to work with a much more constrained space due to the slimmer body of their SL2 than Panasonic did with the S1, I honestly, in use, could not tell you there was much of a tradeoff. This IBIS is in line with the best I've ever encountered.

This photo was captured handheld for 0.3 seconds at 75mm.
Noctilux-M 1:1.25/75 ASPH: 75mm, f/2.4, 0.3s, ISO 200, +03EV
(Note: This image has been edited from raw. Please click the image to see the original.)

One note: the battery life of the SL2 might be one of the worst in the industry for a full-frame mirrorless camera. It probably would have competed well against the Sony A7R II, but it's pretty bad when compared to what's out there new today. You can get a full day's use out of it if you're just casually shooting, but I saw multiple people have to swap batteries during our studio session with the camera. If you like to fire off a ton of shots, you will wipe the battery quickly. It will go even faster if you do long exposures or shoot video. What's worse, the batteries are pretty expensive.

But aside from the contrast-based AF wobble, that slightly slow playback after burst shooting, and the battery, the Leica SL2 is a dream to use. The controls are smooth, the camera is responsive, and the image capture features offered are top of the line.

Summilux-M 1:1.4/35 ASPH: 35mm, f/1.4, 1/320s, ISO 100, -1.3EV
(Note: This image has been edited from raw. Please click the image to see the original.)

Image Quality

If Leica as a company could be distilled down to one word, I think it would be "quality." They care about the tiniest details of everything that goes into their products, and of course, that extends to the image quality.

The photos I captured with the SL2 are nothing short of spectacular. From street shooting to studio work, to manual focusing with M glass to autofocusing L glass, the photos I've gotten from the SL2 are some of the most visually striking I've encountered in some time. And while I love the Sony A7R III and IV, and still love my Panasonic S1, I have to tip my hat to Leica: there is something special about these photos.

I am not sure if the praise lies in the special microlenses they have installed in front of the sensor or perhaps its the methodology with which they build their lenses, or both, but I think the color reproduction, sharpness and dynamic range of the camera are all great. If you've seen the S1R, you have a basic idea of how the camera should work with regards to dynamic range. It's not industry-leading, but it is very good and honestly more than most professional shooters will ever need.

APO-SUMMICRON-SL 1:2/90 ASPH: 90mm, f/8, 1/250s, ISO 50
(Note: This image has been edited from raw. Please click the image to see the original.)

The fact that the Leica uses a DNG RAW format is nice. It's an open-source RAW file that is readable by anything immediately -- no need to wait for an update to your editing software to get support a proprietary raw format from a new camera. I had a great time working with these files in Photoshop and Lightroom, though your image editing software of choice should work just fine.

ISO performance on the SL2 is... good. It's not great, definitely not industry-leading, but it's good. The most I pushed the camera in my limited time with it was to ISO 6400, and the noise that is visible there showed me that as you go above that, you're going to notice it quite a bit. The good news is that the noise has a very "natural" grain look to it. It's not smudgy or detail-wrecking like some high ISO files can be, but it's also not "clean." I think for optimal use, you're going to want to stick below 6400.

After launch, sometime in early 2020, the SL2 will get support for a compositing feature for creating massive 8-frame 187-megapixel photos. This multi-shot style of image is already found in other cameras, but even more advanced in some cases (like Sony's pixel shift feature). It'll be a nice addition when it comes out, but don't expect the world of it either.

Noctilux-M 1:1.25/75 ASPH: 75mm, f/1.7, 1/500s, ISO 100, -1.3EV
(Note: This image has been edited from raw. Please click the image to see the original.)

Video Features

I shot very limited video with the SL2 in my time with it, but did familiarize myself with the interface and the specifications. To start with, I want to talk about how brilliantly Leica integrated video into this camera.

The SL2 has both a photo mode and a video mode, and to switch between them, you have to use a button on the touch screen. With many cameras out there, it can be very challenging to, at a glance, see what mode your camera is in. You may accidentally toggle the switch from photo to video mode, or forget you were taking a video and try and start taking a photo. It certainly has happened to me, and it's a bit annoying but never a huge problem.

Until I saw how Leica addressed the issue. Now I think it's a problem retroactively, since the way Leica has solved this tiny pain point is truly so simple, but so brilliant.

When you are in photo mode, the rear LCD uses white text and outlines on a black background. When you are in Cine mode, that inverts to black text and outlines on a white background. The difference is immediately noticeable, and will within a fraction of a second remind you what mode you're in, and allow you to decide if that is correct.

One time while out shooting with the camera, I accidentally bumped the rear LCD while it was on and swapped from photo to video mode. The next time I brought the camera up, I immediately noticed the white background on the menu and quickly tapped back to photo mode. It was a seamless and beautiful experience, and I love it.

Beyond that, the SL2 features internal 4K (DCI or UHD) 4:2:2 10-bit 24p/30p video capture using the full width of the sensor, along with 4:2:0 8-bit 4Kp60 internal recording with that same full-frame view. If you want 4:2:2 10-bit 4K at 60p, you can get that using an external recorder. If you want to, you can also shoot in cropped 4:3 aspect ratio 5K, which might be useful if you need more resolution.

The camera also features Leica's log profile, which looks great. I spoke to Jordan from DP Review, and he was pretty happy with the Leica SL2 as a video camera, albeit he was a bit upset it didn't have a tilting screen (really his only major complaint). For video yeah, that's a lame thing to not have, but if you're mainly a photo guy you probably won't notice too much.

All in all, this is an incredibly impressive hybrid video camera, with features that even exceed what Panasonic offers on its cameras. It is the only hybrid full-frame video camera that I can think of that offers log capture in 4:2:2 10-bit 4Kp60 using the full width of the sensor. With any other camera, there are crop factors or lack of bit depth or no slow motion options at all. To think that in 2019, Leica was the first to offer all that in a hybrid camera sort of makes your head spin.

VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 1:2.8-4/24-90 ASPH: 63mm, f/3.8, 1/640s, ISO 100, +1EV
(Note: This image has been edited from raw. Please click the image to see the original.)

Overall

Back when the Sony A9 II was announced, I thought that we had seen the best from 2019 when it came to full-frame mirrorless cameras. I did not think I could see another camera from anyone that would really make me think, consider and reframe my judgment on the current mirrorless full-frame landscape.

I was wrong.

The Leica SL2 gets an astonishing number of important things right, while asking for only a scant few things in return. It's not the best camera for every shooter for every situation, but it is a darn good camera in many categories. The quality of the images is breathtakingly good, and the video features on offer outclass almost everyone in every category. It's a near-complete package, and I think if I didn't have my issues with the autofocus, I would have no problem saying this was my favorite camera of the year.

As such, it comes close. I think it would fit nicely next to my Panasonic S1 in my camera bag, and the best part about that is that it definitely can. Since they share the same mount, the two systems can be used together without any issue. I really appreciate that, especially since I would only have to buy one set of lenses. If I wanted an absolutely killer studio camera for top-tier photos, I would grab the Leica. If I wanted a faster focusing, more fiddly less obvious camera, I could grab the Panasonic. I think what's important to note is that I'm saying I want to own the Leica, and I don't say that about a lot of cameras.

The Leica SL2 gets one thing very, very right: experience. Though I have to dock them a few points because of the autofocus issues and the poor battery life, I'm willing to overlook those flaws because the rest of the package is so complete. After I sent it back to Leica when my time with it came to an end, there is one unassailable fact remaining: I miss the Leica SL2.

 

• • •

 

Leica SL2 Review -- Product Overview

The Leica SL2 is only the company's second foray into the full-frame interchangeable lens mirrorless category (the technically-mirrorless Leica M rangefinder series notwithstanding), and yet this new camera clearly shows the growth of their relationship with Panasonic and the L-mount alliance. Though it's clearly still very much a Leica product, the new SL2 jumps leaps and bounds ahead of the first generation SL, offering modern improvements like a higher resolution sensor, a superior viewfinder, a better and more ergonomic body as well as a new image stabilization system.

Key Features and Specs

  • 47.3-megapixel full-frame sensor equipped with unique microlenses for increased sharpness and clarity
  • 5-axis image stabilization through sensor-shift technology
  • Improved ergonomics and new leather wrap for better grip and shooting experience
  • IP54-level weather sealing
  • Body constructed from die-cast and machined magnesium and precision machined anodized aluminum on the top cap and bottom plate; zero plastic parts in the body construction
  • EyeRes OLED 5.76-million dot viewfinder
  • 2.1-million dot LCD viewfinder
  • Leica Object Detection Autofocus
  • Near edge-to-edge contrast-based autofocus system with body, face and eye detection
  • ISO range from 50-50,000
  • 14 stops of dynamic range
  • Maestro III series processor
  • Multi-shot mode up to 187MP (8 frames internally merged) - Not available at launch, firmware to follow at beginning of 2020
  • Up to 20 frames per second continuous shooting

Video Features

  • 4K/60fps and 5K/30fps
  • 4:2:2 10-bit 24p, 4:2:0 8-bit 60p internal, 4:2:2 10-bit external for all (MOV only, MP4 is limited)
  • Full ISO range
  • 4Kp60 in 10 bit via HDMI, 8 bit internal
  • Bit depth of 8/10 on SD card and 10 over HDMI
  • Graphical improvements to the menu show quickly and clearly when video mode is activated
  • Video captured in MOV format which allows for photo extraction
  • Video gamma Rec. 709, L-Log Rec. 2020, HLG Rec 2020
  • Cine Mode: shutter angle instead of shutter speed, ASA instead of ISO, and cine lens T-stops instead of F-stops

CMOS sensor with 47 megapixels for superior image quality

The Leica SL2 utilizes the same Tower Jazz-produced 47.3-megapixel full-frame sensor found in the Panasonic S1R. In addition to the sensor, Leica uses only two glass surfaces in front of the sensor to minimize stray reflections and enhance clarity. This is not specifically something only Leica can do, but as far as we understand, it is currently only done by Leica in a camera like this.

The 47-megapixel sensor also provides 14 stops of dynamic range with a color depth of 14 bits per RGB channel, with a maximum ISO sensitivity of 50,000. When combined with Leica TL lenses, which are designed for the APS-C sensor of the Leica TL2 and CL, the SL2's sensor still delivers an image resolution of over 20 megapixels. Additionally, the SL2 can also be used with Leica M lenses. Going further than just adapting the mount, the SL2 uses a unique array of microlenses and there is a special sensor on the body for metering when using M lenses, features unique to the SL2.

Leica also has allowed the user to turn off long exposure noise reduction, a much-requested feature from the original SL.

Image stabilization through sensor-shift technology 

One of the major new features of Leica SL2 is the built-in 5-axis sensor-shift image stabilization system, which is said to offer up to 5.5 stops of stabilization compensation. This in-camera method makes image stabilization available to lenses that are not equipped with optical stabilization.

Additionally, in the forthcoming multi-shot mode, the camera will be able to record up to eight consecutive frames, whereby the sensor is shifted in half-pixel increments in between every exposure (tripod use required). This will result in images with an incredible resolution of around 187 megapixels.

Improved ergonomics

Despite significant technical improvements, the Leica SL2 is neither larger nor significantly heavier than its predecessor due to the fully redesigned camera body, whose handgrip and the edges have been subtly refined for easier handling. Improved body design paired with increased durability and an IP54 certification ensures enhanced weather sealing for more rugged situations. Though the SL2 looks the part of a luxury camera, it acts the part of a rugged field body.

New status menus, continued simplicity

The Leica SL2 offers an intuitive user interface that aligns with the existing M and Q systems. Using these cameras side by side will now offer a more consistent experience. The main recording parameters can be viewed on the rear display and adjusted quickly and easily with a simple finger tap. A click wheel, a joystick and three customizable buttons around the body also contribute to a straightforward operation. Thanks to two dedicated status menus for stills and video recording, the parameters for either shooting mode can be adjusted entirely separately from each other. The SL2 is remarkably free of "button clutter" without feeling like it is devoid of options. It is highly customizable, and only the rear buttons are labeled to allow the user to completely make the camera his or her own.

L-Mount and adaptation

Featuring an L bayonet lens mount, the Leica SL2 is not only compatible with the ever-growing portfolio of L-Mount lenses from Leica themselves, but thanks to the L-Mount Alliance, SL2 photographers have access to L-mount-compatible lenses from both Sigma and Panasonic. Additionally, the SL2 is compatible with lenses from the crop-frame Leica TL-System and with legacy lenses from Leica's M, S and R-Systems via adapters, providing more than 170 Leica lens options.

Autofocus and performance

Powered by a new Maestro III image processor, the SL2 should offer superior operating speed and performance compared to its predecessor. According to Leica, the autofocus is significantly faster and allows for a virtually lag-free shutter release in any shooting situation, which is further complemented by the new Smart AF mode, which automatically switches between focus priority and shutter release priority.

Full-resolution image capture is possible at up to 10 frames per second with the mechanical shutter, and 20 frames per second with the electronic shutter. Continuous AF/AE is supported at up to 6 frames per second. The SL2 has 4GB of memory which Leica says can buffer up to 78 DNG files or more than 100 JPEGs. Thanks to two UHS-II-compatible SD card slots, files can be saved simultaneously in both formats.

Leica "EyeRes" viewfinder with even higher resolution

The camera's electronic viewfinder now boasts a resolution of 5.76 million dots, allowing for a large, entirely natural-looking viewfinder image. Simultaneously, the experience is further enhanced when using the touchscreen, which has increased in size to a 3.2-inch diagonal display, and now offers a significantly higher resolution of 2.1 million dots.

Expansive options for cinematographers

In addition to its great appeal for photographers, the Leica SL2 offers a wide range of impressive specs for cinematographers, such as the ability to record Cinema 4K video at up to 60 frames per second and Full HD at up to 180 frames per second. The SL2 also offers 5K-resolution video recording at up to 30fps, 4Kp60 in 10-bit externally recorded via HDMI (8-bit for internal recording), and Log video.

Activating Cine mode transforms the SL2 into a manually controlled cine camera as ISO becomes ASA, the shutter speed is marked in degrees on the rotary disk shutter, and the F-stops indicating the aperture ratio are replaced by T-stops, which measure the actual amount of light transmitted through the lens. Connecting audio equipment to the Leica SL2 no longer requires the use of adapters, as the camera now features built-in 3.5mm headphone and mic jacks, complemented by a full-sized Type A HDMI connector for external monitors.

In-camera USB charging is supported via the USB-C connector (USB 3.1 Gen1), as is USB Power Supply. Battery life is CIPA-rated at 370 shots with the LCD. No word yet on battery life when using the EVF. The SL2 also features built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but loses the SL's built-in GPS receiver though geotagging is still supported using a paired smartphone via the Leica FOTOS app.

Leica SL2 price and availability

The Leica SL2 will go on sale beginning on November 21, 2019 at Leica Stores and Leica Boutiques, with a recommended retail price of $5,995 USD. The Leica Multi Function Handgrip HG-SCL6 adds a vertical shutter button and dial controls, making extended portrait shooting more comfortable, and can also house a second BP-SCL4 battery to double the battery life of the camera. The new handgrip will sell for $995 USD.

 

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