3.28.2021

Is the Leica SL (the first version of the new mirrorless line) still relevant in 2021? Why buy one?


Leica by Leica. I photographed the new (to me) SL with my
(relatively) new SL2. I shot handheld at ISO6400. 
Looks okay to me. 

When the Leica SL camera launched in 2015 it seemed like the whole SL system was a touch-and-go sort of proposition. There were only three lenses available for the system at the time of the launch and only one was versatile enough to form the backbone of a new system. That was the 24-90mm Elmarit zoom lens which currently sells for around $5,500 new. 

The camera body itself was very alluring. It featured a level of camera manufacturing that was far beyond the processes used by competitors, and its level of build quality has, as far as I know, never been equalled. The shell of the body is carved out of a solid block of dense aluminum alloy; it's not a die cast frame. It's not a joining of separate pieces. At the time of the launch the electronic viewfinder was the first to exceed the 4 million-dot bar. And the finder optics themselves were, to my knowledge, the first to use all glass elements instead of a mix of glass and plastics. The body was extensively weather sealed but has been surpassed by it's descendant, the Leica SL2 which is basically the same body structure with a more ergonomic grip, one fewer button on the back, a sensor that is 47.5 megapixels, and the (highly desired) inclusion of in-body image stabilization. 

While the menu controls are not identical in content or layout between the older and newer cameras they are philosophically the same. But the original is a bit more minimalist by dint of not having any of the rear function buttons (excepting the on/off switch) labeled in any way. It's a bit challenging for anyone coming from the button and dial-laden cameras from all the usual camera makers but once you get used to the new interface and button functionality it makes sense and it's fast and easy. 

I have been eyeing the original SL since its introduction in 2015 and, in fact, my move into the Lumix system was partly predicated on the idea that I might one day change cameras, buy Leicas, and have a wide range of really, really good lenses which are interchangeable between multiple camera systems. At the time of its launch I wasn't ready to commit to the Leica way of doing things. But as assignments dried up during the lockdown it became less and less daunting to try new stuff since I would only be messing up my own work or my own flow and not wrecking any photo shoots for clients. 

I had never really handled an SL2 before I walked in to the store last month and bought one. I've been making my way through its learning curve. I like the camera (SL2) but it's too perfect to love. If you point it at things and push the shutter button the camera figures the exposures and focusing so accurately and convincingly that it takes all the fun out of my generally haphazard approach to photography. 

While looking for tutorials about a better approach to setting up and operating the SL2 I kept coming across video after video and review after review from Leica photographers who have been five year long users of the SL and, to a person, the common thread was about the look of the DNG files from the camera. The refrain was about a level of discrimination of color tones that made images seem more like what one sees with one's eyes. The second concept, repeated in every recounting, was about the way the files dealt with sharpness and acutance. There was a lot of conjecture in the early reviews of the SL that so much of the look had to do with the high performance rendering power of the new line of SL lenses but that assessment evolved as people worked with any number of adapted lenses but still reported the difference in rendering between the Leica SL and other makes of mirrorless cameras. 

I found, online,  a barely used SL at a camera store in Miami and had it shipped to me here in Austin. When the box arrived via UPS I opened it and found it packed layer by layer. First was the big, generic cardboard box. Inside were chubby styro peanuts surrounding a thinner, white cardboard box, inside that was the original camera box. Inside that were all the manuals and accessories packed as though the camera was coming straight from new stock. When I burrowed down to the camera and pulled it out of its bag I was surprised to find that it was, essentially spotless.

The camera retailer, Leica Store Miami, did an amazing job packing the camera for shipping and I was even more delighted to find the body had been upgraded to the most current (v3.7) firmware as well.

Even though the reverse is true, the SL felt denser and fractionally heavier than its newer model replacement. 

So, the box arrived on Friday evening and I charged the battery, went through the menus, formatted a card for the #1 card slot, and generally took a stroll through all the menus. Saturday was a busy day and I didn't get to shoot anything. This morning I headed to Johnson City. 

A friend of mine who shoots for Texas Highways Magazine told me about a Celtic Sports Festival that was supposed to start at 9 a.m. in the Johnson City park. The event was something like Scottish kaber tossing and all the participants were required to wear kilts and stockings. But when I arrived at 10 a.m. I couldn't find the event anywhere (and it's not that big of a town...). I texted my photographer friend and he got back to me a little while later to say that he'd just gotten a notification that the event had been cancelled. Well. It was a lovely drive out. I stayed around the town and snapped a few more images just for fun. Part of breaking in a new camera. 

I stopped by the town of Dripping Springs to wash my car and then headed back to Austin. A bit frustrated by not having ready targets for my new (to me) camera I decided to take yet another walk through downtown Austin. Partly for exercise and partly as an excuse to try out the new camera.

Here's my "first taste" evaluation. Short and sweet. 

The camera is big, heavy and solid. The lack of buttons is, at least right now, a novel thing but also a bit fraught since I am still new to the process and the art of double-clicking to get to different functions isn't second nature yet. If you love light weight and small cameras you will NOT want to buy your own SL. 

It feels much like the heft of something like the Pentax K-1 I owned. Solid and convincing but you will be aware that you are porting one around at all times. 

The camera is fairly fast and responsive when you turn it on. It gets ready to shoot pretty quickly. The surprise to me was the finder. I was expecting it to be as stellar as the SL2's EVF but it isn't as color accurate or as contrasty or visually transparent. I've been spoiled by the newer Leica and also by the three Panasonic S1 variants I own, all of which have higher accuracy finders than the SL. The difference, I believe, is that the SL uses an LCD screen whereas the S1s and the SL2 use the latest OLED screens. I could be wrong but I'm pretty sure I've read that in several places. 

The weird thing is that the rear external screen seems to be perfectly color calibrated and nicely sharp. It's actually a joy to use. But here's a note to those who like their cameras friction free.... The screen on the back of the camera is fixed, built-in, non-rotatable, non-swivel-able, not flippable. It's just right there on the back of the camera. But it's nicely color balanced and looks sharp and well done. 

The newer camera; the SL2, uses Gorilla Glass for its touch screen so it's a bit hardier and more resistant to scratches and other accidental damage than the older SL rear screen. Just something to keep in mind for you folks that like to thrash your cameras around. 

I had the camera on for about three hours today and took somewhere north of 300 images. Most were flushed into the desktop trash can within minutes of reviewing them but my point is that the battery life was better than expected. With a bit of judicious conservation it would be possible to make it through a full, but casual, shooting day with two batteries. And that's a good things since the batteries are currently priced at $275 each. 

I'm a center focusing spot, S-AF sort of photographer so you're not going to get much relevant information  about the camera's ability to track someone running in a zigzag pattern toward the camera. And that's because I've never needed to shoot anyone running in a zigzag towards me and my cameras. If someone were to do that I'd probably decide, at some point, to turn around and run away from them in a zigzag pattern. But anyway, when used the way I like to work with cameras the focus locks on quickly and it seems very accurate. 

I've used adapted Leica R lenses on the camera as well as L-mount Sigmas and even my Contax lenses and I have to say that the camera is able to meter and expose pretty well with all comers. I was a bit apprehensive this morning when I stuck the Lumix 24-105mm lens on the camera and then turned the camera on. I got a message on the screen letting me know that this lens might have higher than normal battery consumption. Interesting. I'd heard a rumor that certain non-Leica lenses drained batteries quicker on the SL and SL2. I turned the camera back off, turned off the I.S. on the lens and then turned the camera back on. This time I didn't get a warning message. I'm guessing that leaving the I.S. on all the time is just more battery intensive and the engineers wanted you to know that. It was good to know. 

So, if the finder isn't as good as cameras I already have and the camera lacks some of the video features as well, why would I want to buy one in 2021? 

In a nutshell, I think the body design is the best industrial design I have ever encountered in a camera. The aesthetics and the feel are unmatched; even by the newer Leica. I'll be happy if, after putting it through its paces, I decide I have other cameras that are better in the field, I just put it on a shelf next to my workstation and admire it for the next decade. But, the reality is that I think the files are different. Maybe not better but different. And I think it's going to pan out as a wonderful portrait camera. But we'll see.

I think the older camera is a bargain for anyone who is interested in sticking an exploratory toes into the Leica SL system waters right now. It's still relevant in terms of its 24 megapixel, full frame sensor, and it's useful selection of 4K video options. It's a fast and sturdy shooter and a great entry into the L-mount alliance systems as well. Worst case scenario? At least I have one more battery I can use in my SL2...

The purchase price of this used, premium camera was $2.000. A huge drop from its original selling price of $7450. And less than one third the price of it's 2020 replacement. 

An interesting point about the SL2. I paid $5995 for mine, new from an authorized dealer. I've just been informed that the price is going up to $6500 on the first of April. Yes, a price increase on a camera that's been out for a year. Not a price drop. Seems like it's also going to affect the price of used SLs. Maybe I got my copy just in time. Chalk it all up to nostalgia but the older camera makes me grin while the newer model just makes me smile. Yeah, it's worth it.

Added the next morning, after more reflection: There is a certain psychological momentum pushing the buyer of any longed for product to see it in the best possible light; to ward off cognitive dissonance by looking for the positive attributes of an acquisition instead of being objective. 

I haven't answered the question posed in the title as it relates to someone who is "not me." So here goes:

Would I recommend that you, or anyone looking for a good, utilitarian picture taking machine buy a Leica SL in 2021? Absolutely not. While the camera is a manufacturing and design marvel, and might well be appreciated just for that, as a picture taking device it's got a lot stacked against it when compared to more recent cameras. It is very heavy, other camera makers have caught up and surpassed the SL in terms of EVF resolution (which was a big feature in 2015 --- less stunning today), and the 4K video shot in APS-C is a dated approach. 

As long as we're on the subject of hybrid use I would counsel would be buyers to look carefully at video production considerations if considering this one. The 4K files written directly into the camera are all Long-GoP and 8 bit. But the real rub, if you want to use this as a compact and reliable production tool is the absence of a direct and permanent input for a microphone and a permanent output for headphone monitoring. There is a remote control port on the camera and one can buy a device for an additional $175 that will allow the attachment of headphones and a microphone but it's a small input/output port and a non-standard dongle which means that if you lose it or it becomes non-functional mid-shoot, you are out of luck. Unless, of course, you have multiples of the device sitting around...at $175 each.

After shooting and reviewing files yesterday I would also join the almost unanimous chorus of writers and SL users who've cautioned people away from using the camera as a Jpeg photography generator. It may be that I have yet to zero in the controls for Jpegs effectively but there are no "profiles" to select and the three parameter controls are coarse; with one step between neutral and "full on" for contrast, sharpness and saturation. I find the look of the Jpeg files a bit dated. They are less nuanced and subtle than the Jpeg renderings of the newer cameras, not just from Leica but from nearly all the competitors. But I guess you have to go into it understanding that you are comparing a model from six years ago with current, state of the art stuff. In reference to Moore's Law that at least three full generations back. And given Leica's stately pace of innovation I'd make it more like four gens.

So, big, heavy, slow, under-featured and still selling at a price that will get you a more modern and facile camera. And that's before you factor in the size and cost of Leica brand lenses. 

In retrospect I might have been more satisfied, long term, by waiting and saving a bit more money and buying the newly introduced Leica SLS, if I really needed a 24 megapixel adjunct to the SL2. If I was starting from scratch and not interested in the L mount system I would certainly be looking at something like the Nikon Z6ii. I've been bitten by the ergonomics of the Sony A7 series camera bodies too often to consider them even if they boast the best spec sheets. 

So, would I recommend this camera to you? No. Not unless you had money to burn, were into Leica or Panasonic L mount stuff and came from a long background of shooting medium format film, focusing manually, working deliberately and were the kind of person who enjoys or even invites a little friction into your process. If you were a sports shooter convicted of some heinous crime, and I could mete out a bit of justice to you, I would consign you to shooting fast action sports with a Leica SL for the rest of your career.....

Let's leave it right there until I've had more time to evaluate this camera in the studio. Doing the holy work of portraiture....











Good red seems to be tough for some sensors. The SL nails red.