A minimalist "carry everywhere" camera system for going out and just living "through" the moments I'd like to photograph. Nothing fancy. Nothing big.


the two lens system.

At one point in most photographers' tenure of exploring the world around them they will wish for a smaller and lighter system than the one they've been using. They'll want to move away from large and ponderous cameras and the attendant fat zoom lenses toward something that's less of a burden to carry and also more fun to use. 

There are a number of good options for building a "minimalist" kit and some of them are very good choices for careful photographs who want the lighter load but still value higher resolution,  color rendering and overall performance. I am still fond of the Fuji X100V as a single piece solution. While I wish the lens were longer --- 40mm full frame equivalent --- would be just about right, the camera is lightweight, the images quality delivery far exceeds most expectations and the camera is fun to shoot with.  The only factor that kept me from totally committing to that camera for the long terms was the lack of lens interchangeability. But I'm flexible. I'd be keenly interested in an updated version of the X100V that had a two position (real, optical) lens that would give me something like a 35mm view and also a 60mm view. 

That would cover the range that I use most often and if it doesn't need to zoom, just supplying the two focal lengths exclusively, I think it could be engineered without adding too much bulk or complexity to the camera. It would change the X100V and I think there is a huge embedded base of customers that would hate the change, resist the change, and skew the future market for that camera. 

When I came across the digital Leica CL I knew the small camera had much promise as a street shooter's every day carry camera. I've tried it with a number of lenses and there are several options that really work for me when making this camera into a small system that I'm happy to carry with me. The "upgrade" from the Fuji was the ability to use different lenses. The "upgrade" for me was I could use the L mount lenses I was already buying for my bigger, full frame cameras. 

The camera is very straightforward. It's a basic mirrorless camera with an easier to understand menu and menu interface. It uses a very good 24 megapixel sensor (circa 2017) that's augmented by Leica's Maestro II processor and the camera provides a good interpretation of Leica's color science. There is, even in this less expensive model, the same detailed color discrimination one finds in Leica's flagship SL2 and their medium format S3 camera. 

Unlike most current Leica cameras the battery is not exclusive to Leica. The camera uses a stock BLC-12 type battery which is used in a number of Panasonic cameras, several Sigma cameras, and a handful of other Leica cameras that are variants of Panasonic long range zoom cameras. The benefit is that instead of paying a fortune for extra batteries one can buy "generic" versions for a lot less money.  While a Leica SL2 battery is currently $285 per one can get a Sigma branded battery, made by Panasonic, for about $40. If you really are on a tight battery budget you can source this battery type from several well known third party packagers for around $20 each. 

The CL takes all of the L mount lenses. That didn't seem like a big selling point at the time of its introduction but now, five years later, the number of L mount lenses has increased dramatically and the line up now also includes some L mount lenses made specifically for the cropped sensor sized APS-C Leica cameras. 

Sigma's high value Contemporary lenses in 16mm  f1.4, 30mm f1.4 and 56mm f1.4 are all very good choices that do a great job on this camera. But in addition all of the other Contemporary i-series lenses are also good complements to the CL. I don't own all of the i-Series lenses but there are two that I would use to make a favorite kit with. Those are the 24mm f3.5 which seems to be a near perfect size match for the CL, and also the 45mm f2.8, which is inexpensive and, at all f-stops from f4.0 onward, is an amazing optical performer. It's also just the right size for the diminutive camera body. A third lens which I am just coming around to using on the CL is the Sigma Contemporary i-series 90mm f2.8. I like it because it's a throw back to the very popular (in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s) 135mm  lens on a full frame camera. 

The 90mm used on an APS-C camera is a very sweet combination of telephoto compression, subject isolation, ability to easily toss the background out of focus and lightweight/easy to handle mechanics. 

The one sticking point that many regard as a deal-killer for this camera is the fact that it does not include image stabilization and, while I wish it did, I'm not so attached to that feature that I personally would disregard the CL. Although I understand that for some folks I.S. is a necessity. 

I'll admit that I'm not as steady as I'd like to be with the 90mm f2.8 (135mm equiv.) on the camera but my workaround is to lean on the Auto-ISO and set 1/250th as my lowest shutter speed for normal shooting activities. 

I think the lack of I.S. is important to note because the camera doesn't really lend itself to tripod use. The tiny size of the body makes mounting on a tripod seem awkward. Of course it's easy enough to do but it just feels "off" to me. 

If I'm going out for a walk with no photography subject in mind I usually take the camera with only one lens. Lately I vacillate between taking the 24mm or the 45mm. The 24mm gives me the same angle of view as a 35mm on a full frame camera while the 45mm gives me about a 68mm "look." If I'm feeling uncertain about which way to go I have a different small system mentality I fall back on. 

If it's a hot, sunny day and I might want to photograph some objects as details and then other images require more wide angle imaging (a sky line of buildings, as an example) I'll default to the Sigma Contemporary 18-50mm f2.8 zoom lens. This gives me a 27mm to 75mm range (f.f. equivalent) with a fairly fast maximum aperture. 

If I want to go out in the late evenings and photograph at the theater or in a music venue, or perhaps just a beautiful model in a coffee shop. I switch to fast lenses. The two I really like right now; as a pair, are the TTArtisan 23mm f1.4 and the Sigma Contemporary 56mm f1.4. The speed is great and allows me to keep the shutter speeds high enough to ensure sharp frames. Both lenses are sharp and the 56mm is most likely the sharpest of all the APS-C, L mount lenses I've used. 

Circling back to my original premise, the combination of the 24mm f3.5 and the 45mm f2.8 is my idea of t he perfect two lens kit. The wide lens give me a conservative wide angle point of view which is the most comfortable of focal lengths beyond "normal" for me to compose in. With 24 megapixels of resolution the image can be cropped to a 50mm equivalent with little if any loss of image quality. The 45mm gives me enough reach to make good environmental portraits and to isolate details and smaller objects well. 

The camera and two lenses fit into my smallest Domke bag and the whole system, along with a couple extra batteries, weighs next to nothing. It's the system I would bring along on vacations with B. and other times where photography is possible but not the "main event" on the schedule.

Street shooting with the little Leica CL is a wonderful thing. The camera seems made for quick, discreet work in crowded places. Used with either of the two basic lenses it's not at all obtrusive or even noticeable. The AF is quick and accurate. The shutter is quiet and can be set to a silent, electronic-only shutter when needed. The lenses, when used correctly (stop that 45mm down one stop if you are closer than five or six feet from your subject!) are clinically sharp but also have some nice character to them. 

I can generally shoot all day long with three batteries but if I was on a photographic tour of a major city and shooting from dawn to well after dusk I would carry four or five batteries --- mostly because I'm a battery worrier. A condition bequeathed to me by my old Kodak DCS 760 cameras which would average, on a good day, about 100 exposures per (big and heavy) battery. You would probably be comfortable with the Leica CL and three batteries if you thought about it....

I won't wax philosophical about "the Leica Look" or the "specialness" of Leica but I will say that after having spent a century designing cameras for really picky and demanding users they do seem to be able to make cameras that fit just right into certain niches and to provide a value of operability that's sometimes missing from cameras from those who are just lately arriving in the game. 

A Leica CL can mostly only be had used these days and you'll end up paying between $1800 and $2000 for a mint condition unit. A bit more if it comes with all the original trappings. 

Is it worth it? I can only speak for myself. All cameras now in the market should be able to hit a baseline of image quality from which most users cannot differentiate one model from another. The value then will be in what "features" are available, how the handling works out and how you feel about your relationship with pleasing industrial design. I like using the Leica cameras because I like the fact that they have relentlessly simplified the user interface and seem to have resisted adding so much complexity that the camera becomes unusable by people not habituated to working with endless menu choices and "custom settings." I think "custom settings" is another phrase, used in photography, for "punishment." The more custom settings a camera offers me the more I feel as though I'm being punished for not being able to memorize hundreds of settings a what dozens of unmarked buttons have been assigned to do. 

To have a camera that's quick and easy to use for the kind of work I'd like to do with it is a major selling point for me. You have to remember that many of us came from a time when we could only set a few things on any cameras. Those were: focus, aperture, shutter speed and ISO/ASA. All the "color profiles" were set when we decided on the film stock we would use. .  Those are four things to think about in order to make a photograph. 

Now Sony, Canon, Nikon etc. users have dozens of buttons at their disposal, all of which can be programmed to do dozens of different "tasks." I can't imagine having to set and memorize all that stuff just to be able to make a simple exposure. So, for me the Leicas check a very important box. They help me to focus on the real task at hand. Not programming rarely used crap into a menu but the pushing of a shutter button to make an image. Over time it's a big brain and time saver. 

The CL isn't the "everything" camera. If I used big, heavy zooms I'd choose something else. If I wanted to shoot more video I'd definitely choose something different. If I were s sports shooter....same. But if I wanted to walk around Austin, Rome, Berlin, etc. and photography the endless reveal of daily life this would be my choice.