Leica SL (Typ 601) v Sony A7r II

I see endless 'critiques' of the Leica SL (Typ 601) from people who have obviously never even seen one let alone used it. And often this is accompanied by some comparison with the Sony A7r II, usually about how much better value and specified the Sony is. Having bought both I thought I'd write this post on why I bought the A7r II and sold it pretty quickly and why I think the Leica SL (Typ 601) is the best camera I've ever owned.

THE SENSORS

Sensor size comparison

There is no doubt that the 42.5MP sensor in the A7rII is a thing of wonder. Let's get this out of the way first. I've never seen better results from any camera I've ever used. (Though that may have just changed since starting this post!!!)  Super sharp and with incredible definition. Assuming of course there is a decent lens in front of it and that lens works well with the sensor and the in-camera tweaking. Sony make great sensors, of that there is no doubt and no argument from me.  Now if everything else in the A7r II was as good as that, I would still be using it. However, for me, that was far from the case. 

The sensor in the Leica SL (Typ 601) is no slouch at 24MP, however some, displaying all kinds of prejudicial judgement based on no real experience of the camera, seem to think that this sensor is old, gives poor results and simply doesn't cut it as far as the Sony is concerned. Now this is about as far from the truth as it's possible to be. In terms of colour depth and overall look of the files, this is my favourite sensor ever. Yes the Sony has better resolution and a higher pixel count, but for me Leica have done what they always seem to do. Been conservative in terms of MP's, and concentrated on getting the most 'photographic' looking files they can. They know, as do I, that Photoshop doesn't fix everything and that while many things can be altered, rich saturated colour tone and separation isn't one of them. 

It is possible to upsize the Leica images quite dramatically. 36MP versions look pretty much the same as 24MP and I've even upsized to 50MP and had images accepted by stock libraries and bought by clients. So, the Leica sensor 'punches above it's weight' certainly, but in terms of ultimate image quality, the Sony A7r II is certainly the winner here.

ERGONOMICS

To a certain extent this is personal choice, but for me the Leica SL (Typ 601) feels like it was designed by a photographer and the Sony A7r II by a committee. Leica are well known for their minimalist approach to camera layout and there aren't many controls on the SL. See - http://www.photographyblog.com/news/leica_sl_typ_601_hands_on_photos/  In contrast, the small bridge camera design of the A7r is cluttered and I have found all the A7 / FE series cameras difficult to navigate without at some point pressing something that I shouldn't. See - http://www.photographyblog.com/news/leica_sl_typ_601_hands_on_photos/ Sony made the decision to keep the body small, of which more later and put a lot of external controls on the camera. 

The SL has all the major controls within easy reach of my finger and thumb when I'm taking pictures and the more I use the camera the more I appreciate this. I don't really like small cluttered cameras anyway. For me the back and top of the SL is an exercise in restraint and good design.

MENUS

Likewise Leica take a different approach to menu layout. The four buttons around the live view screen access four different menu sets. These are grouped sensibly and none of the sets are too long. They also have the benefit that I understand them. Not something that can be said for all mirrorless cameras. 

As to the menus on the A7r II, they are usual Sony. And if truth be told usual mirrorless. For some reason most mirrorless cameras come with a complicated interface that requires pressing buttons, turning dials and accessing menu items. This is far from intuitive and often results in confusion and 'loosing' settings. The Leica's minimalist layout works much better for me. I haven't moved far away from Leica's layout, though I can change things around if I want. And of all the cameras I've ever owned, this is the one I've fiddled with least. 

BODY LENS RATIO

For whatever reason, Sony chose to make the A7 / FE series bodies small. Now they must have known that because of the lens real estate needed to service the FF sensor, the lenses would be mostly quite large, particularly when fast apertures are involved. And so it has proved. There is certainly a bit of a mismatch, to say the least, when certain lenses are used. And for me, whereas the Leica SL is beautifully balanced with virtually all the lenses I use with it, the whole of the A7 / FE series cameras have always felt uncomfortable and to be honest a pain to use for what I need a camera for. And it's not just me. See - http://petapixel.com/2016/04/04/sonys-full-frame-pro-mirrorless-fatal-mistake/ 

I really don't go for this small body / large heavy lens combination. And I was reluctant to attach some of my heavier lenses to the A7r II and put the camera on a tripod. I was probably over reacting but I never had full confidence that the lens mount on the Sony would survive the experience!!

VIEWFINDERS

The viewfinder on the A7r II is excellent, one of the best out there, but as has been widely written about, the Leica SL (Typ 601) viewfinder is in another league. Simply the best I've ever used, optical or EVF. I find it perfectly possible to accurately and quickly manually focus a stopped down lens without either magnifying the image or turning on focus peaking. Again, something that is designed to make a photographers experience with the camera as efficient as possible.

LENS MOUNT

This may seem a strange category to discuss, but I think it's actually fundamental to many of the FE series 'issues'. For whatever reason Sony chose to give their FF mirrorless camera the e-mount from their smaller APS-C mirrorless NEX / Alpha range. They declined to use their already existing DSLR / DSLT a-mount. And I think this was a wrong decision. For example Sigma make the seriously good ART lens range. However they don't make e-mount versions, only a-mount (plus an adapter. They have in fact stated recently that designing lenses for FE is 'difficult' because of the small size of the e-mount.

This has, I believe led to problems and I suspect that the issue with some wide-angle lenses having corner softness and in some cases with adapted lenses, colour distortion, is down to this. Using the a-mount would have made more sense and I'll bet that Sony are regretting their decision now. Mirrorless can only compete in a declining marketplace if it places itself at the top end as Olympus, Panasonic and Fuji are demonstrating. And though Sony are trying to present the FE system as 'pro', for me this is one of the reasons that fails. 

Leica took a completely different approach. When the Leica T (Typ 701) was released, people noticed that the lens mount was quite big. And that was because it was always meant to accommodate both APS-C and FF sensor cameras. This obviously meant new lens ranges had to be created, but Leica were always intending to make these T-mount cameras compatible with m-mount lenses via very simple adapters. Steve Huff has stated that the Leica SL is the best camera for getting the best out of those m-mount lenses and from my my experience with MF lenses, I have to agree with him. 

This lens mount issue is symptomatic of what seems to me to be the ad hoc, make it up as you go along development of the FE system. If you remember when it appeared there were two cameras and one lens, the very mediocre Sony FE 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 OSS Lens, available for purchase. Hardly evidence of a well planned, well thought out system launch.

VIDEO

For reasons that I find difficult to understand, Sony have never been great at video. Considering that back in the late 80's I was working with a video production company that used, like the rest of the industry, Sony Betamax cameras, you would think that Sony would be ahead of the curve for video. But they aren't. Plus there is this unacceptable battery overheating issue when recording 4K video internally. Despite a supposed firmware 'fix' I still read of people having problems with this, including a wedding videographer who claims to only be able to shoot two minutes of video before the camera turns itself off. !!!

Leica have no history of video, other than making their super expensive range of cinema lenses. But fortunately they know someone who does. Their long term partnership / relationship / mutually beneficial association, or whatever it is with Panasonic, has certainly proved useful in terms of the SL's video output. Certainly the best quality 4K footage I've ever produced. Helped in no small measure by the fact that the Super 35 crop used in the SL's 4K video output matches up really well with the Leica T APS-C lenses, since APS-C and Super 35 are very close in terms of size.

I really do find it strange that what I am actually saying is that Leica seem to be better at hybrid stills / video than Sony. It's certainly not something I would have expected. 

LENS RANGE

Sony would seem to have the advantage here. They have hastily put together a now decent set of options and have an a-mount to e-mount adapter, which I owned and is actually pretty good. Leica only have two AF zoom lenses with another prime appearing soon. However, as mentioned before, they have the entire m-mount range. And with the SL, manual focusing is easy, quick and actually a pleasure. The combination of image magnification plus the best focus peaking I have ever used is easily accessed while looking through the viewfinder. I would in fact back myself to get the image onto the card quicker by using MF than AF in most cases. The system is that good. 

Plus of course, via the excellent and beautifully made Novoflex range of adapters, other lens ranges are available. I currently use Nikon, Voigtlander, Leica R and Canon lenses on my SL and see no reason to even consider the ultra heavy, ultra large and ultra expensive SL native lenses.

However, that advantage that Sony would seem to have with native lenses is not necessarily useful. While things have certainly improved recently, some of the early native FE lenses, particularly zooms, were not very good. And again this is down to Sony choices. They bought up Minolta to give them some access to lens design and indeed used some Minolta designs. Now Minolta went bust for a reason. And part of that reason was they weren't actually very good. Sure they have their fans, but from my experience and every other photographer I've ever known who has used their gear, they never really scaled the heights, particularly with their lenses. When I first bought my A7r, which I actually had for quite some time, I tried a whole lot of Minolta a-mount lenses. (a-mount being the original Minolta mount) and all of them, without exception, had soft corners. Fortunately I bought them ebay for not much money and sold them all again pretty quickly. This unfortunate trait is present in many Sony zooms, APS-C and full frame. 

And the Zeiss connection.....? Well Zeiss have already confirmed that they have very little to do with the Zeiss branded Sony lenses, which are entirely designed and manufactured by Sony. Now selling your name to another company for money to add prestige to a pretty average lens range hardly strikes me as putting either company in a good light. 

Which brings me onto.........

ADAPTED LENSES

Many users of both cameras will go the adapted lens route from necessity,  Both the FE and T mount systems aren't exactly overburdened with lens choices and there are significant gaps that need to be filled. Now on my SL I have had nothing but superb results with my adapted optics. All the lenses I use have edge to edge sharpness and yield superb files. However I have had nothing like that experience with any Sony A7 series camera. Wide-angles seem to be a notable example. That old soft corner issue again. There is post after post on the internet about unsatisfactory performance from W/A adapted lenses (including those using Metabones) and I can only add my voice to those from my experiences. 

For example, the Canon 17-40mm f/4 zoom I have produces super sharp across the frame results on my SL, but on the A7r II, the corners were so bad they look out of focus or if I had used some kind of filter. Now whether or not this is down to the size of the e-mount I cannot say, but it was definitely a contributing factor in my selling the camera so quickly. 

PROFESSIONAL OR HOBBYIST?

Though Sony try to push the A7 / FE system as 'professional' in reality it is nothing of the kind. 

1. Battery life on the A7r II is awful. The SL, while never able, because of the EVF and screen, to match a DSLR is much better. I've yet to return from a days stills and video shooting with less than 50% power remaining, whereas with the A7r II I took three spare batteries and often went through them all.

2. Leica build quality is much better. As indeed it should be because of the price differential.

3. Leica has a long term history and many professional photographers have used the brand for years. Sony are new kids on the block. Lots of ambition agreed, but do they really have the gravitas to move into Leica, Nikon and Canon territory? Not for me they don't. Plus there is always the question, how long will they be around? Corporate indulgence doesn't stretch very far these days in a depressed and falling market. 

4. It always strikes me that Sony charge pro prices for enthusiast gear. Sure Leica is expensive, but photographers know what they are getting. Build quality second to none, gear that holds it's price and a product designed by photographers for photographers. 

CONCLUSION

I'm not anti Sony as some have suggested. I've bought a lot of their gear and even given two cameras and one lens my Soundimageplus yearly award. I've bought the cameras because of the specs. which are generally impressive. But using them that cheap, bridge camera feel has always dampened my enthusiasm to such an extent that I've sold them on pretty quickly. Whereas with my Leicas the more I use them, the more I like them.

This is all personal preference of course, and many may be satisfied with a Sony A7r II, certainly the images it produces are pretty special. However, since I can pretty much equal that with my SL (Typ 601) and I afford to pay the difference, for me the Leica is the superior camera. Pixel count isn't everything and handling and 'bonding' with a camera is much more important to me. I've never liked using Sony cameras because of what I see as design flaws and a failure to understand just what makes using a camera a creative and efficient process. I see the problems with the A7r II (and all the FE range) as follows:-

1. Choosing the e-mount for FF mirrorless is I think a serious error. The fact that the mount is so small creates difficulties. The a-mount would have been a much better option in my opinion and the newly announced a99 may well be a better bet.

2. Sony chose the small body route, but using a FF sensor gave them very little opportunity to match that with their lenses, with a couple of exceptions. Small body and big lenses is pretty much the worst of all worlds for camera handling.

3. Sony's reliance on old Minolta patents is not helpful either. In film days there was the 'big 5'. Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus and Minolta. And Minolta was always bottom of the list for cameras and lenses. There are Minolta fans, but self delusion can cover a multitude of sins. Minolta cameras were always ugly and clunky and Minolta lenses were optically mediocre. Unfortunately Sony seem to be carrying on that tradition.

4. Sony are undeniably good at offering a decent package to enthusiast / hobbyist photographers and while professional photographers may use their cameras, as indeed I have, I don't think that though that they can in anyway call the FE range professional. 

So there it is, many will disagree I'm sure, but I've made my choice and unless Sony come up with some dramatic improvements to FF e-mount I doubt I'll be buying any of their cameras anytime soon. But then, as ever, it's the image that counts and if people feel they can realise their potential with a Sony A7r II, then that's a good thing. For me however, that simply isn't the case.