Some general and specific thoughts about the Leica SL2. And a short report on what's happening in Austin right now...

A weather/conditions bulletin for the Austin area:

As you've probably seen on the national news we're having a hell of a time here in Texas dealing with the horrible weather and the equally horrible planning on the part of ERCOT, a known den of thieves and charlatans who are responsible for mangling our electrical grid for the profit of a tiny few. So, here's where we are today...

We've had sub-freezing temperatures since Saturday evening. Everything that could freeze has frozen. At one point, just yesterday morning over half of Austin homes were without electrical power. A condition some have been dealing with since early Monday morning!!! What were initially supposed to be "rolling outages" turned into long term black outs. Interior home temperatures for some were down to 20 degrees with no remedy in sight.

The Austin city government opened "warming stations" but many people were reticent to go since just last week we were in stage 5 of the Covid-19 pandemic. But many, many more who would have loved to have been in a "warming station" were stuck in place because the roads were impassable. Black ice layered over black ice. With a dusting of snow as camouflage. Freeze in place or take your chances on a car wreck.

By the third day of the big freeze all of the basic services started shutting down. Grocery stores were without power and closed. Pharmacies closed. A few hospitals ran into low water pressure issues and started sending patients to other facilities. And then the main water treatment plant for the city went down with a catastrophic power failure and the city water service started actually shutting off water to large swaths of town. Imagine it. Your home is freezing. Your pantry is nearing empty. Sure, you have pasta but no stove to cook it on. The city advises you to boil your drinking water but, again, you have no way of heating it!!! The city advises you to seek a warming shelter but the public transportation has been closed for four days and you know you can't make it there in your car. With your kids. This is where about half of the central Texas population finds itself right now. Let your pipes drip? Not if you don't have running water. So next week will be the big reckoning as acres and acres of water pipes burst and ruin home interiors. 

We'd love to help. I helped my elderly neighbors find their water cut off valve and shut it for them. They were decamping to another neighbor's house and wanted to drain their pipes before they left. This morning one of my good friends, and a great video mentor, checked in via text. They've been without power and water for days. They live a 15 minute walk away. Their college age kids are living with them during the cold snap. I made a huge pot of coffee, put it in an insulated coffee jug, put that in a backpack and walked through the snow, on ice covered ground to deliver it do them. We're checking in with neighbors and friends a couple times a day. We're sharing firewood throughout the neighborhood. But the city services are nowhere to be found.

We've sent $$$ donations to the food bank and to various charities that house people in crisis. But this city needs to re-examine our basic infrastructure and spend the money to do things right.

We don't have ANY plow trucks. There is no attempt made to clear or treat any street; major or minor. We are basically being left to our own devices. It's a common sight to see people sitting in their running cars, in their driveways charging their phones and warming up. It should not be this way.

I'm a 65 year old ex-Boy Scout and I've lived in enough northern climes (two years in Ohio, a year in St. Louis and many Decembers in rural Pennsylvania) to know the basics. My house is tight. Well insulated. I went shopping for excess groceries five days before the first of the storms hit. My appliances are natural gas (water heater, heater, stove) and I live on the same grid as the main water treatment plant for the city. We've mostly had power. We lost it all day yesterday. We're now down to a trickle when it comes to water. But we have plenty already treated and put aside. We have buckets next to the toilets with which to emergency flush. We're fine. But my point is that people like me are outliers. We, as a society, need to make sure we build better safety nets for everyone. 

End of preachiness. It's going to get warmer tomorrow. The water is slowly coming back on line. We'll be boiling it for a while. The grid is now (here, near the end) getting restored. But lots of people were hurt and hurt badly. Lots of man-hours lost. Lots of hourly wage workers put into even more financial peril. People have been injured. People have died from exposure or carbon monoxide poisoning. 

Some here have suggested generators and yes, I'll consider one, but it's hardly a solution for people living paycheck to paycheck, especially when there's no paycheck if you can't get to work. Or the large numbers of people living in apartments. We need to renew our idea of the social contract and we need to do it now.

 Now, on to the Leica SL2.

I want to start this by letting readers know that this is “not my first Leica camera rodeo.” I’ve been an avid user over the years but almost entirely during the film era. This SL2 is the first digital era Leica I’ve actually purchased, though I have played with and reviewed the M8 and a handful of recent M lenses; including the Summarit line-up. I don’t really buy that Leicas are magical or mechanically perfect or anything else of the sort. Their real proficiency, and the thing that sticks out for them above the general market, has always been the lenses. 

I really liked the rangefinder Leicas but they just don’t make sense for me anymore. 

I think that Nikon and Canon are both capable of making lenses that are every bit as good as the Leica SL lenses; if they want to. But I also think that Nikon and Canon have different philosophies from Leica and design their optics to meet price points while Leica’s prime lenses seem to be designed with a “no holds barred” mandate. They have a much smaller line-up of lenses and one can readily see that their real focus is on making exemplary prime lenses while C&N are more interesting in making a “big tent” of lenses so that they can own nearly every category with at least a workable representative. I also think the more mainstream the camera market a maker aims at the more emphasis will be placed on popular zoom lenses while single focal length lenses are very much an enthusiasts and professionals niche. I think it’s becoming rarer and rarer to find new photographers or casual hobbyists (that’s not us, friends) to consider buying prime lenses when those same focal lengths are included within a single zoom lens. 

And from an economic point of view the entry level zoom lenses are very good, dollar for dollar, while the best primes are incrementally better. It makes sense for most people, whose final use targets are web-oriented, to stick with an all purpose, wide range zoom lens and be done with it. For these users their financial resources are probably spread over a wider range of goods and services while I will go without eating for days to afford just the right focal lens and lens design if I had to. (Not sure this is really hyperbole…).

What is the SL2 camera all about?

Probably best to start with the original Leica SL. In 2015 Leica launched their first mirrorless camera, the SL. (don't be pedantic and write to tell us that all M series cameras are "mirror-less"; you know what I mean...)

The SL was such a departure from the M cameras. It is a large and robust body with a new (at the time) lens mount and a very good, 24 megapixel sensor. The claim to fame for the SL at the time of launch was its tremendously robust build quality (carved from a solid block of unobtainioum) and it's weatherproofing. Even the most jaded fan boy from other camera brands would have to admit that it was built to a very high standard with premium materials.

The EVF finder was gorgeous and set a new, higher megapixel standard than any of the other cameras on the market at the time. It featured DNG raw files which makes the files a lot more "universal" than proprietary ones from other makers. And it was all wrapped in a beautiful body which featured elegantly minimalist control interfaces. 

It used contrast detect auto focusing so it was not a speed demon although the S-AF was always very accurate. Most importantly, it became a great platform for a new family of Leica SL lenses which their designer (modestly?) suggests may be the best lens line ever created. I can't speak to that because I don't scientifically test lenses but I can say that the lenses I have shot with from the SL system are extremely good. Even when used wide open. 

After four plus years on the market Leica felt that it was time for a refresh and it's obvious who they've been partnering with on their technology (Panasonic's S1 line up)..... And that brings us to the SL2.

The 47+ Megapixel SL2 is the second generation, professional, full frame mirrorless camera from Leica so it slots in with cameras like the Nikon Z7ii, the Sony A7R4 and the Panasonic S1R. All  of these are very capable, high resolution cameras and any one of them is equally capable of making great files. If we stick to only raw files most of the different output styles and parameters could probably be massaged enough in post processing to somewhat match each other. I’m sure there is a fair amount of color science choices, noise reduction, sharpening, and other ingredients included even in the most pristine or basic of raw files so there will be differences between the cameras no matter how much re-tweaking is done. 

So, if all the cameras in this class are equally able to make good images why would I chose a more expensive Leica SL2 over any of the others? Especially when I already have a Panasonic S1R which, based on most specs, shares a lot of image engineering and operational engineering with the Leica. Both the Panasonic and the Leica share the same lens mount so a convincing case can be made, if you believe Leica lenses are a cut above, and the reason to buy a Leica to just get the Panasonic body and spend your real cash on the glass. It’s a strategy that makes a lot of sense. 

The Leica offers some features that others might consider intangibles. Consider an analogy with Apple computers (and phones); the two reasons most people spend more $$$ to buy an Apple computer is to be able to use their very powerful and user friendly operating system, and also to own a product whose industrial design brings daily visual and operational joy. No other reasons. The OS makes computing very intuitive and straightforward and “hides” most advanced settings and constructs in order to allow the users to concentrate on the “why” of owning a computer —- to get work done, to consume entertainment, to create stuff; instead of dicking around with the technical plumbing. The fewer controls, menus and wonky stuff the more focused a user can be on their own tasks and less focused on maintaining the system. 

And in Austin I wouldn’t be caught dead using a non-Apple computer in a coffee shop. Talk about a boomer generation “marker”….it’s called a Dell.  (Remember when we used to be able to go to a coffee shop and sit for a while? With decent wi-fi? And people with smiling faces?).

Leica has gone down the same pathway, simplifying the physical interface, making the menus logical and navigable, and concentrating on design an industrial design package that brings joy when handled and used. 

The SL2 is built around a large and robust body. In terms of size and density it’s more like the Lumix S1R; larger and more robust than the Sonys or Nikons. I haven’t played with a new Canon mirrorless so I don’t have a point of reference there. If you go to the Leica website I’m sure you can find a page that discusses how the top and bottom sections of the camera are milled out of a solid block of an aluminum alloy rather than being die cast. It’s a very dense and solid camera and the only camera of it’s type on the market today with a true IP54 weather sealing so it’s truly designed to work in the elements and take a beating. The alloy body also makes a great heat sync so stills are never compromised and video can run all out for 30 minutes at the highest settings.

One example of their attention to build detail? The large, multi-function dial on the top right side of the camera has no shaft and no physical intrusion into the guts of the camera. Instead it transfers position information via magnets. No hole drilled in the top plate to create a point of potential failure of weather sealing. 

There are a total of seven controls on the back of the camera. One is the on/off switch. One is a thumb dial used to set modes, etc. One is a joystick. One right next to the EVF is a control for going to the EVF versus the rear screen. Then, as on current M cameras, there are three buttons on the left side, in a vertical orientation. The top is “play”. The middle is “FN” or function. The third is menu. That’s it. It’s a much cleaner camera back than I’ve seen in a long time. That means it’s easier to quickly learn what each control does and there’s a lot of space for your fingers to actually grip the camera while shooting and not having to worry about accidental button pushing. There are two programmable buttons on the top plate, along with the multi-function dial, and two on the front of the camera. This design is almost the exact opposite of most competitors who offer many more function buttons and individual controls for just about anything you can think of. 

Making something both simple and ultimately usable is, I think, harder to do that sticking controls everywhere and expecting photographers to devote a ton of brain power/memory to accommodate the camera interface. The exterior is very clean, Spartan and evocative of stripped down street shooting cameras of the film days. 

One of the features I appreciate is the 5.7 megapixel EVF along with Leica optics for the EVF finder. The huge diopter ring is wonderful and it’s great to see the exact setting you’ve arrived at so it can be quickly re-set should some else use the camera and change your setting. The view through the finder is wonderful. It’s the same resolution as the S1R but it seems a bit more crisp and contrasty. I think the viewfinder optics are better tweaked.

The menus are really good because they are more brief and less overly featured. For instance, I think the camera was designed to be a “raw only” device but that the Leica marketing people screamed and kicked and demanded Jpeg capability in order to be able to sell the camera to a wider audience. Even professionals like to use Jpegs from time to time. Not every file created needs to be endlessly tweaked and corrected in PhotoShop. In fact, if you are doing this photography thing well you should be getting exposures and color balance pretty nicely set in your original file.

At any rate I went into the menu on the first day to look for picture profiles, or “looks” or whatever they are called (depending on the brand). I could not find them in the regular, top level menus. Very odd? But there is a menu item called, “Jpeg Settings.” In the sub menu you now have choices including: JPG Resolution, Noise Reduction, and Film Style. “Film Style” is what other makers would call “Profiles”. Once you go into the Film Style menu you find only five choices and two of them are for black and white. The color settings only include three basics: Standard, Vivid and Natural. 

If you want to modify any one of the “Film Styles” you go to the bottom of the Film Style menu and hit: “Film Style Settings.” You can then modify each of the styles individually. You can change Contrast, Sharpness and Saturation. And each setting only has two setting points above null and two settings below null. Not a lot of choice, right? But I have to say that it’s refreshing not to be burdened with the idea that I need to make many exceedingly fine adjustments in the Jpeg menus. 

So, the menus as they are presented at the top level take up six pages. You need only go through them once or twice to know where everything is and how it’s labeled. If you need more detail you are welcome to go into very logical submenus. 

The menu button is another example, in itself, of a simple and logical execution. Instead of having a separate button for a “quick menu” you push the menu button once and you are presented with a basic (and user programmable) quick menu. It’s default settings work well for me. They include a top panel that shows: Mode, f-stop, shutter speed, ISO and EV setting. 

Just below them are: frame rate, AF mode, focus area, AF profiles (to fine tune AF-C), metering mode, WB, File type, an icon for re-formatitng your memory card without having to menu dive, a dial lock setting, a communication setting icon, and a button that takes you to the main menu.

It’s all touch enabled and easy to use. The idea, I am sure, is that once you have your sub-menu controls set you might never again have to dive into the main menu again.

At the top of the window you see “PHOTO” and “VIDEO.” Touching PHOTO brings up photographic specific readouts and controls (as I have described above) while touching video brings up the video specific readout and controls. The quick menu changes tone when you move from PHOTO to VIDEO. In video it’s black type in a white background while in PHOTO it’s white (grey) letters on a black background. You’ll see in an instant if you are in one mode or the other. 

The overall effect of a very logical and initially simple menu interface is that you have an almost intuitive sense of how everything works and how to access it. And that’s something I think is missing from most other cameras; including my beloved Panasonic S1R.

The camera has a number of video features that allow one to make very good content. It will shoot 4K at 60p and does record in 10 bit, 4:2:2 to the memory cards. It will shoot All-I .Mov files, even in a wider cinema format, at 400 mb/s, up to 30p. Following a standard set by Panasonic all the way back to the GH5 cameras, the Leica offers a full sized HDMI port as well as 3.5mm headphone and microphone ports. The camera comes with L-Log which is a low contrast log file meant for color grading. 

The camera seems to have been tweaked, as far as files and colors go, to appeal to a professional filmmaker, and the wide range of file types indicates that Leica have put a lot of thought into providing video producers with a very competent camera. If I was engaged to do serious video I still think I would default to the Panasonic S1H as it is even more video enabled, has no-limits run time, allows for the use of the very good Panasonic XLR interface and has all the exposure control feedback (vector scope, waveforms, V-Log LUTs) that a serious filmmaker wants. But for solo work or a very fluid movement back and forth between video and photography the SL2 is nearly flawless. And the video coming out of the camera is very good.

But, if you can duplicate all of the video and photography features just as well in competing cameras why might you choose an SL2?

Everyone has a different reason for choosing the cameras they like to work with. For my work use the Panasonics (going into year two with them!) are perfectly sorted for me. It’s pro paradise to have three perfectly sorted cameras; one for killer video, one for ultimate resolution and one all around, great high ISO, 24 megapixel, full frame work horse. But I’ve always liked making a demarcation between work and play/art so I was looking around for a camera that would provide that. When it’s not just a tool but also a companion then haptics and aesthetics become a bit more important. I’ll be clear, I can do anything the Leica can do with any one of my Panasonic S1 variants. All four cameras vastly exceed my real, day-to-day needs in photography—-or video, for that matter. 

But when I use a camera for my own pleasure entirely I want something that feels just right. You probably know that I've tested a lot of camera in my time. Many of them very good. And there are a few current ones that I'd settle for, happily, if I couldn't swing the budget for the SL2. It's just that the SL2 ticks all the right boxes for me. And it works with the gaggle of L mount lenses I already have splashed out for. 

As a personal camera the SL2 combined with a couple of the new Sigma lenses is just perfect. The 35mm and 65mm lenses are right-sized, nicely sharp and photographic and not budget busters. Eventually I want to get a Leica SL 50mm f2.0 just to see what the difference is for myself. A long term test. 

People routinely buy silly stuff. I have a friend with a passion for Panerai wristwatches. I can't understand why he loves them so much but he does. For him it's never about how well a mechanical watch keeps time but always about how beautifully designed they are. Some are frightfully expensive. $25,000 and more. It's a choice. 

A 70+ year old guy down the street from us just bought a bright red Ferrari F8 Spider. It cost more than most North American's houses. He didn't buy it for basic transportation; that's for sure. He bought it because he always wanted to own one and, if not now, when? 

I don't think the Leica SL2 falls into the same lux class as those watches or that car. The camera isn't really priced stratospherically high compared to a Sony A1 or a top of the line Nikon. Yes, the glass is expensive but the available lenses can be very cost effective if you like the Sigma L lines. 

I think the difference between luxury goods and the SL2 is the usability of the camera and the fact that you can use it in day to day situations to make art, document stuff and fulfill other photographic tasks. It's value is beyond the value of branding. 

Everyone seems to have different priorities. I know tons and tons of people who think nothing of spending fifty or sixty thousands of dollars on pick-up trucks. Others who spend that much on boring (to me) SUVs. I'm dismissive of their choices and happy with my under $30,000 Subaru. On the other hand, cameras have always been a priority for me. The Leica was something I've wanted for a good, long while. It's fun for me in a different way than my Panasonic cameras are. And I'm also finding out that it's a great photography generator. 

I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy this one long after I forget the purchase price. 

I was bored and constricted to hanging around the neighborhood. I thought I would pummel you, dear reader, with a bit of writing. I hope you enjoyed it. Stay safe, stay warm and do good. I'm betting you are already doing well.