My prevarication about getting the Leica SL (Typ 601) was finally ended as the dealer I buy all my cameras from these days - Richmond Cameras on ebay had a mint hardly used S/H one for sale. As a regular customer I got a deal on the price as well, so it was too good to miss. Plus as I have now sold my Canon 5DS, I have achieved my goal of becoming an exclusively Leica photographer.
If anyone had suggested in the days since the Panasonic G1 changed our perception of what a camera should be like, that Leica would be the first company to produce a truly professional mirrorless camera that could equal a DSLR for functionality and speed, most photographic commentators would have laughed. But that is exactly what Leica have done. I haven't had the SL long, but it's already obvious that this is a seriously well built, seriously well specified camera that challenges notions of how a 'pro' camera should go about it's work but nonetheless gets the job done. All will become clear in my posts about the cameras, but let me start with just two examples of what this camera can do.
USING MANUAL FOCUS LENSES
The Leics SL (Typ 601) is without doubt the best (and fastest) camera I have ever used for manually focusing lenses. This is the result of three things. The extremely good EVF (at last as good as an OVF) One touch magnification and Focus Peaking. Of the three the EVF is the most significant. It is actually possible to accurately focus a wide-angle lens stopped down to f/11 in a very short space of time without either magnifying the image or stopping the lens down. The EVF is so sharp that it shows the point of focus clearly, even when that might be very small in the viewfinder. This is obviously designed so that SL users who have a collection of M lenses can use them with no issues. It's a better system than the outdated and somewhat inefficient rangefinder system on the M series cameras. It also allows the use of other lenses, such as the Leica R lenses and Zeiss, Nikon, Contax etc, as well.
4K VIDEO QUALITY
It almost goes without saying that the SL would produce high quality stills, but who would have thought that a Leica would produce simply amazing 4K video footage. This is the best I've ever produced and by some distance. Forget the highlight flickering, over sharpened output that most 4K mirrorless cameras turn out and welcome to beautiful, broadcast quality straight out of the camera. You may have heard some stories about the V-Log option, but with firmware 2.0 that has been fixed. However, the output is so good, I doubt I'll use it much. Plus this has an unexpected bonus. Again, forget the smeared soft nonsense that Panasonic promote as '4K photo' which is virtually useless, the SL enables video frame grabs (via VLC and it's 'snapshot' function) that are usable as publishable images. Sharp, with the ability both to lift shadows and upsize.
Having had the camera for a few weeks here are some other observations.
- Battery is decent for a mirrorless camera. Though because of the screen and EVF, this will never equal a DSLR, unless battery technology improves. However I can shoot an afternoons worth of stills and 4K video and still have 50% power left, which is fine.
- The camera is quite heavy, though it is built like a tank.
- AF is good, though not lightning fast. For this I'm using my Leica T APS-C lenses.
- Those lenses work well on the camera. 10MP only, but the sharpest files I've ever created and easily capable of some dramatic upsizing.
- Those APS-C lenses work brilliantly for 4K, since the 4K output is cropped. However since this crop is very similar to APS-C size, the lenses give almost the same framing as they do for stills. The 11-23mm zoom is particularly useful here for genuine wide-angle functionality.
- Leica missed a trick by not using the Leica T screen. Unfortunately the one on the SL is just as bad in bright sunlight as most other cameras.
- The four button split menus took some getting used to, but I'm now familiar with it and it does work well. No 'clutter' and buttons / knobs / dials hit by mistake.
- Unlike virtually ever camera I've used, this one needs some attention to the manual as some functions are not obvious.
- Video stabilisation is a menu item, though it is actually completely useless.
- Using the Leica R lenses I've bought to use on it, stills are incredibly sharp across the frame. The lenses may be a bit battered, but boy are they good.
- It's a very different camera to what I'm used to. There are some similarities to the T, but it really isn't that close. Pius it's nothing like a Leica rangefinder.
WHO IS IT FOR?
All those pro news and sports photographers with their identical Canon DSLR's standing in the same place taking the same pictures won't be switching to this anytime soon, despite Leica's pitch at the professional market. It's just too different for them. Plus there are only two 'native' lenses available as yet, which are VERY bulky, VERY heavy and VERY expensive. It is really for Leica lovers, varied as they might be, though the 4K video WILL impress many and make hybrid photographers, who see the footage the SL outputs, think very hard about what they are using.
DO I LIKE IT?
Is the Pope a Catholic? I don't like it I LOVE it! and other enthusiasm cliches. I've used enough Leica's by now to realise that they are on my wavelength as far as cameras are concerned. The virtues I like in photographic gear - minimalist design, lack of bloat, uncluttered bodies, sharpness and image quality before everything, attention to detail, no compromise construction and an 'inspiring' feel are all there with the SL. As I expected. Add in the sublime image files this thing produces and the quite brilliant, cinematic video and it' s the best camera I've ever owned. It and me are about to embark on a long-term relationship and it joins my Leica T (Typ 701)'s and my Leica Q (Typ 116) on my now exclusively Leica camera shelf. It's the final piece of the jigsaw I've been searching to complete for for years.
Professional Mirrorless - Without doubt and while it won't be everybody's dream camera, it's pretty close to mine. It's unique and certainly breaks the mould as far as mirrorless is concerned. And those of us who choose it are embracing the only way that camera manufacturers will survive the smart gadget onslaught. If I'm going to choose to continue with an interchangeable lens photographic tool, then I might as well go for something special. And special is what the Leica SL (Typ 601) is. It's an old cliche that buying a better camera doesn't make you a better photographer. Well, this one might just disprove that, if what I've produced with it so far is any indication.
This is by no means the last post you'll read by me about this brand, so Leica haters might think about finding somewhere else to get their 'photography fix' because this blog is now very firmly 'red dot' fixated. And I can't think of a better direction I would rather take.