My Thoughts on the Leica SL.

Many reviewers at many photo-oriented sites and blogs have rushed to breathlessly discuss the newly announced Leica SL. The problem with their assessments is they are mostly photographic neophytes who don't understand the Leica value equation. They obsess about camera features that real photographers will find unimportant while ignoring the one dominant attribute a true Leica should possess; absolute image quality. And that absolute image quality comes from the design and manufacturing precision of the lenses and the necessary tight tolerances of the camera and sensor integration with the lenses. That's it. No other magic beans. No vampire killing, secret silver bullets. 

Being a member of an extreme, mercantile culture here in the U.S.A. we need to talk first about the value proposition of the whole package from Leica. The legions of bean counters have trained us as consumers to salivate in reaction to shiny new gear with newly enhanced specifications (not necessarily enhanced performance) and, when they couldn't sell product on merit alone, to follow Dell Computer's many examples and race to the bottom of the pricing ladder. Camera makers are rebating and having sales left and right these days as they try to move low and mid-priced product in today's fragmented and confused markets. But, Leicas are relatively expensive and have never, ever been cheap. They are not traditional bargains. Their real products (M series rangefinders, the MF cameras and now, the SL) are not aimed at casual users or tentative hobbyists. They have traditionally been aimed (excluding "collectable" versions) at working photo-journalists (now almost extinct) and serious, committed image makers. The bodies (with the exception of the Ms during their nascent period) are never breakthroughs or platforms for experimentation. They are, instead, good, solid platforms for what many experts feel are the best lenses on the planet. 

I'll repeat what I wrote in a review of M cameras in 2001, "Everyone seems to have an opinion about the Leica M series rangefinder cameras, yet so few people have actually picked one up and used it for enough time to understand the unique features and benefits that make it one of the finest tools for certain kinds of photography."
(Go read the review here: Photo.net leica m6 review )

It's the same now. People see the fun, relatively cheaper Leicas, based on Panasonic bodies, and dismiss them out of hand. They see that they can buy the same lens, sensor and body from Panasonic for half price. And they extend this logic forward into the more professional tools Leica makes. But the difference is that no one else makes products that are like the top Leica products. 

I started shooting with Leica R and M cameras early on in my career. Up until the late 1990's I never owned a brand new body from Leica, all of them were purchased used. I owned the original Leicaflex which was their very first single lens reflex camera. As budget and supply allowed I moved on to the more efficient Leica SLs and SL2s. These were the most solid cameras I ever worked with until I moved on to the last, real generation of Leica SLR cameras, the Leicaflex SL2. It had a reputation as the toughest SLR ever built. After these hefty, wonderful cameras came a host of cameras based on Minolta camera body designs. Some were quite good because Minolta was not a poor camera company but it was early days for the incorporation of electronics of all sorts in cameras and reliability was an issue for almost every generation of these cameras, right up until the introduction of the R8 cameras. Those cameras were perfect. But they came to market too late. Digital imaging was gathering steam and people began directing their camera buying resources at shiny new product with sensors. Leica dabbled in digital with the R9 but it was half hearted and they could never implement new sensors at the rate required to serve the whims of the market. 

That led to a number of years in which the only professional Leica imaging product for photographers was the M series. No DSLRs. And while M cameras are wonderful platforms for wide and normal focal length lenses they were never conceived or designed to work well (viewing and focusing accuracy) with long lenses. And certainly not with zoom lenses. That has always been the primary reason for owning and using DSLRs. 

I used the Leica R cameras because many jobs require longer lenses and precision framing. I also used them because the lenses I liked (80mm Summilux, 90mm Summicron, 100 Elmarit Makro, 180mm f2.0 apo, etc. were demonstrably better than anything else I could buy and worked well with the types of film and the styles in which I shot.

It was a sad day when I realized that clients were never going to go backwards and accommodate a film workflow again. I traded in many good Leica lenses and bodies for not much money in order to re-tool as a digital shooter with Nikon gear. I have never gotten over the visible difference in lens performance between my Leica R series primes and just about anything else on the market, although I am sure that 50% of my dissonance is due strictly to nostalgia. But if you had ever shot a 90mm Summicron R on a Leica R8....

So now Leica launches a new, non-rangefinder body. A "mirror-free" body. A camera for the well heeled AND serious photographer. What is it? Simply put it's a platform for a line of R series lenses. Lenses we can't buy from other vendors. Apochromatically corrected 90mm, 180mm, 280mm primes that are wicked sharp, and contrasty and possessed of true nano-acuity (sufficient even for my stringent requires for my patent pending HYPER-PRINTS) that deliver really wonderful quality in a field dominated by the compromise of zoom lenses. There's no reason you can't use the R lenses with adapters on Canon bodies but newer Leica lenses will work well, one supposes, on their native cameras. 

Given the size of the lenses shown at introduction with the new SL it makes sense that the body is bigger. One needs true purchase on the camera body to use it effectively. But the bigger, heavier lenses are always the price one pays for the best performance. 

In a nutshell the body offers four things: Tight integration with new and older Leica R series lenses. An absolutely state of the art EVF (shot over the bows of Nikon and Canon -- for sure!). A sensor and software combination that is certain to be tweaked for Leica color and tonality (color purity and depth instead of the passing obsession with high ISO noise - if the MF camera is an example of their POV). 
A totally different way of looking at high end work tools; EVF and mirrorless versus flipping mirror and optical finder (with all of the EVFs efficient shooting features) and, finally, great 4K video in the body.  Those are the selling points in a nutshell. 

If you make professional videos for people the selling price of the system is in line with what you'll pay to get an entry level, state of the art, video camera like the Sony FS7 (the current, under $10,000 darling). But the FS7 is a super 35mm sensor instead of a full frame sensor so the Leica offers more depth of field control (in one direction). And consider that Leica makes very, very good and much coveted "cine" lenses for big time productions.  If the look of the files is wonderful then no one in that industry will bat and eye at the price of the body. Or the lenses. Does the 28-90mm zoom look expensive? Compared to a similar product by Nikon or Canon --- then yes. Compared to a $35,000 cine prime? Or a $40,000 Angenieux zoom? Not very. 

For me, if I were a risk taking fan of new technology, the single feature that would tip the scales for me between something like a Nikon D5 (coming soon, I am sure) and the Leica SL would most certainly be the integrated, 4.4 megapixel EVF and all of its associated optical parts (eyepiece magnifier, etc.). For a couple thousand more dollars over the Nikon I'd have the finder I want (and predicted five years ago) and all the video advantages of a mirrorless implementations as well (focus peaking, punch in, zebras, WYSIWYG real time color, tone and exposure evaluation. 

Just looking at the specs, the images and talking to dedicated Leica fans who have been privileged to use the new body I can say that Leica got most everything I was interested in just right. If I did not have a child at a private college I would already be in line for the camera body and the current lens, with the announced, longer zoom on order. But life isn't always logical, easy or straightforward. I worked with a D750 for most of the weekend and it work just fine. Can I justify the Leica on more than nostalgia and the IDEA of "ultimate image quality"? Naw. 

But I am certain that a group of working pros who value the fluid back and forth between video and stills, who relish the best image quality, who want the look and feel of their images to differentiate from they competitors and rivals, will embrace the camera and they system. And, for the most part they will be correct. For them. It's not a toy but a tool for creativity, and in that regard visual design of the product is a part of the mix. To some a very important part of the mix. And the cohort that admires and respects this will like this camera. 

A final note. Leica understands the shift in the market. I conjecture that they've given up the middle and bottom of the markets; written it off as deceased for serious camera makers. What other company is better positioned to go after the remaining high end photographers and photo enthusiast with unfettered budgets? The others have already screwed up their reputations by trying to embrace every step of the demographic ladder with some sort of product. They've damaged their brands in the eyes of the last, remaining consumers with money. They'll pay for that...


Dave Jenkins said...

It won't be long now. . . You'll figure out a way to do it. Bye-bye Nikon, bye-bye Olympus. . . It's been good to know ye.

amolitor said...

That's an interesting take.

This thing definitely feels a lot more Nikon D4 than luxury bauble, definitely (plenty of other people have pointed this out, it's not me being especially observant). This feels like a camera you could issue to an employee and expect to get it back in one piece.

The size and the price are largely irrelevant to the people this thing is aimed at, I think. It's not *actually* that big, it just looks big, and $12,000 (or whatever, system cost), while not pocket change, is within reach of all but the smallest viable businesses. It's a working camera, all steak and practically no sizzle, as far as I read it. Which ain't that far.

The question in my mind is, who are these people who'd buy it? The Nikon D4 and friends is sold, I think, largely to people who need no such thing. They buy it because it's what the pros use. Also, those cameras are halo products that don't really need to make much money, or even any money at all. Or at any rate, they didn't have to in the past. This thing's gotta pay its own way out of the gate.

The point about video is well taken. I am convinced that Zeiss isn't making expensive DSLR lenses, they're making very cheap cine lenses. Is Leica going after the same? This guy Tuck, who is pretty plugged in, seems to think the market for very high quality video is in fact expanding. You'd have to ask him who's asking for it!

I do know my employer (an enormous tech company) is choosing to do a huge percentage of its corporate communication with video. "Hi, so and so, who has been leading the Widget Transformation Division to such great heights is moving over to help revamp out Transfomtion Widget Division, click here for a video!" and maybe that's it.

If this camera is designed to make videos to torture me with, I hate Leica to the very core of my being!

Kepano said...

They had me at full-sized HDMI port ;-). Seriously, I make great use of my A7s for client work, but in pursing the smallest packaging possible, Sony had to make compromises that are a pain. I'm one of those guys you've critiqued with a pair of pro body DSLRs and cliché 2.8 zooms (though I can't stand the double shoulder harness). They are of 12MP vintage and still see regular use. I share this as a point of reference when I say I'd love to see the A7s' capabilities in a pro body. Or any larger body. Bigger ports. Bigger battery. Better handling. More physical controls. Better heat dissipation. More robust lens mount. Dual media card slots. All shortcomings of the A7 line that could be addressed by a larger body.

As others whined at the price, I saw the HDMI port and dual card slots. Not the sexiest of features, but sooooooo welcome to a working pro. Someone even snarked at the PC sync port - well, I happen to gang my hot-shoe mounted TTL flash (typically bounced) with a remote flash triggered by a Pocket Wizzard attached to my D3s' PC port.

My camera bag has seen multiple Nikon, Panasonic and Sony bodies - at the same time - for the multimedia jobs I do. I also usually have a comprehensive lighting kit (thank goodness for LEDs) and sound (lavs, wireless, shotgun, hyper). To top it off, I'm flying with all that gear. If I could at least clean up my camera bag with a pair of SLs, I would be VERY interested.

Gato said...

I like the look and the specs of this camera, but the price was keeping my lust under control. Was until you went and mentioned that damn 90mm R Summicron. I never owned one but did have a chance to use a friend's a few times. Lord I loved that lens.

Why did you have to bring that up?

Kepano said...

One more thought: the SL is a gutsy play, but one that I think demonstrates value beyond fanboy brand drafting. Rehousing a Panasonic (or a Sony in the case of Hasselblad) body and sticking a red dot on it may appeal to some people who want a Leica for the sake of the brand, but those are just veneer products. What should appear from B&H in my inbox? A deeply discounted HV. Over $8000 off the original price. Still a bit expensive for a blinged out A99.

The SL by comparison is a bold move that could well pay off over time.

Unknown said...

Its not just nostalgia, buying for example Leica R 28mm f2.8 v3 is near impossible, cause its highly sought after. Not mentioning really expensive as its one of best 28s. They serve more than well even on 36 mpix sensors (saw quite a lot of them modified for Nikon F mount).

Maybe not old R lens are perfect but some of them are about as great as before. Thats if one is ok with manual focus.

Old Contax CY (MM variants) are pretty decent too. Not that perfect as Leica, but they do add something special to image. Zeiss look if one believes in that. :) Modern ZF/ZE and others kinda lack this.

amolitor said...

Wait, this thing as a sync socket? SOLD. (not quite, but it's a serious nod and tells you a lot about their thinking)

Chuck Albertson said...

The thing is built like a tank, like its namesake. You could bash a charging rhino in the head with it, and still be able to photograph the poor beast as it staggered about, retching. Remember Mark Meyer, and his Leicaflex SL that survived bailing out of a Phantom II over the Mojave Desert.

Adam said...

In the tradition of Lecia reviews on the net I thought I should leave at least 6 lines of vituperative assertions about your parent hood, camera knowledge , and that the SL was an act of over priced digital Lomography. Sadly I can't do this , as your comments are the first sensible ones I have seen, and get that this is not an M on steroids but a pro DSLR on a diet. My camera history though amateur is similar, used Ms for 50mm , sometime 90mm , and the odd wide , when I felt depressed and needed a laugh would use the Visoflex. I moved to digital Ms, really like the Monochrome but digital Ms are lardy in the hand compared to svelte film Ms. Like you I did long lenses on DSLR Nikons. So a Leica Sl on which I can use all my Lecia glass plus a decent zoom will reduce the size and weight of my travel kit. So my SL is on order ,and thank you for the insightful comments

amolitor said...

I recall a possibly apocryphal story from some PJ who said that he always carried two cameras (a Nikon and a Leica) so that if one of them breaks he'll still have the Leica.

Mark the tog said...

When I saw it had a headphone jack I thought of you.

atmtx said...

Love your take, Kirk. Your reference to HYPER-PRINTS was not lost and made me LOL.

Dr.Nick said...

More hagiography for the company that hasn't been able to do much since its lunch started being eaten right in front of it in the 1950s. A company whose clientele moved from professionals to well heeled amateurs. Can Leica's brand carry a remarkably large, middling megapixel count performer for an impressive price multiplier? Can Leica glass + 24mpixels threaten Zeiss + 42 mpixels? The M has always been Leica's talisman, let's see how they do selling a camera that's not the icon for iconic pricing.

Unknown said...

Absolutely right on the money, Kirk. I couldn't agree more.

I've been collecting and hoarding Leica R lenses while prices were low in anticipation of this camera. And although I can afford it, it's still a stretch that I've planned for, for some time to be sure. I am so looking forward to receiving it and going to work with it.

Thank you for the first and best, sanest articulation of my thoughts about the SL. I could not have said it any better or with your credibility.

Hugh said...

What if the 5D4, or the D750 replacement, has a really good evf, and no mirror?

Unknown said...

I love the big sensor because everybody knows a pro needs a big sensor. I'm afraid this camera just doesn't have enough megapixels though. Imagine what kind of pictures could be taken with 42 mpixels. It's really the sensor and the megapixels that counts. All that stuff about color, blur, contrast, unique look, handling, complete system design, etc. what does it even mean? That stuff isn't scientific. 42 mpixels is physics.

padam said...

Really, the difference between 24 and 42 megapixels is far less than the PR stuff would let you believe, especially if there is no AA filter involved. And it is kind of the ideal balance between photo and video, noise, processing speed, etc. so they did nothing wrong with that choice (not that they had a choice anyway from their sensor supplier)
The main problem with this camera (if there is one) is that the expense does not stop with buying that body. It is just the beginning.

Unknown said...

My Leica R8 has been working happily with me since its production, together with the R 28-90, R19 and the R80-200. What I really want now is getting these three lenses to go digital. So it is a good news Leica makes the SL, though, some further reviews from the actual users are appreciated before any actions I take. I do not have any M lenses or S lenses, I just want a R-SL adapter, so I do hope the coming Leica X-U Typ 113 is a more relevant body for my R-lenses.

arbus said...

Can you repost the M6 review? The link does not work. Thanks!

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Arbus. I fixed the link. Thanks.