The pluses and minuses of using a Leica SL2 and a Leica 24-90mm zoom lens for event work.


Kirk by Alan Pogue.
Early event work. Back in the 1970s.
Austin style.

I've covered corporate events with all kinds of cameras. In the film days my favorite cameras for event coverage were the Nikon F5 and the Nikon F100. They did AF very well and their dedicated flashes were amazing for their accuracy. Sure, they were big and heavy. Especially the F5 with a lens like an 80-200mm f2.8 on the front. But we were young and spry then and it didn't seem to be a big deal.

In the digital arena I've worked with early Olympus 4:3 cameras, Olympus m4:3 cameras, Nikons, Sonys, Canons and now Leicas. All of them were usable and some were quite good. But for one reason or another the Leicas seem to be stickiest for me. They are the ones I've hung on to the longest. 

But it's interesting to me to actually use the Leica SL system for events since I started buying into the L mount system in 2019 and then Covid struck and we really didn't do any big event gatherings for a couple of years. When the economy and our general (collective) health risk recovered I found that many of the events that had been perennials for me had either ceased altogether or it had been decided that photographic coverage just wasn't as relevant. I got a lot of other use out of the L mount system, and the SL2 camera in particular, shooting advertising assignments and portraits. But that camera and its giant zoom lens didn't see the kind of event work that previous cameras handled. Until this week. 

I spent three long days shooting a nicely produced conference in San Antonio and, except for an afternoon's shoot at two Whiskey Distilleries, the SL2 and the big 24/90mm lens were the only tools I used for the project. 

Here are my observations about the gear: 

First of all we can all agree that with the SL2 fully configured for event work, with a large zoom and a traditional flash, it's a heavy combination. It tips the scales at something like five pounds. That doesn't sound like much and if you were lifting weights it would seem to be nearly nothing. Unless you were lifting weights all day long and into the night... I wasn't used to the physicality of carrying around a package of that size and weight for three days straight. By the third day it became a bit fatiguing. 

Instead of letting the camera package dangle from a neck or shoulder strap (which puts a lot of stress on the lens mount) I tend to hold the lens, with the camera attached, in my left hand, my arm slightly bent at the elbow. For the most part it's a comfortable hold on the system. It's just a bit heavy when handled that way for a long spell. 

On the flip side the mass of the camera and lens lends more stability when handholding the package and actually shooting. Couple that with image stabilization in both the lens and the body and you'll be able to pull off stable handholding down to about 1/15th of a second in the real world. Your ability to achieve sharp images though really depends on the magnitude of subject movement more than camera shake for most situations that include people. 

Miles of type have been wasted describing the SL series of cameras (but not the SL3...) as being very slow to focus. Add in internet hyperbole and the SL2 becomes incapable of focusing. And, of course, none of that is true. The camera, with the latest firmware, is very quick and accurate for a contrast detection AF camera. The only time I thought the camera would have trouble focusing was in some shots of people on a dance floor which was not well lit for photography. And in a situation where I don't want to disrupt the social flow by activating an AF flash assisting red beam. But in the same situations in the past all the other cameras I've used had an equal amount of trouble focusing in the near darkness. 

My solution was to use the camera's innovative zone focusing feature. On most focus-by-wire lenses there is no distance scale and no depth of field scale. And that's not good if you want to use those lenses via zone focusing. If you are using a Leica SL type camera and an L system AF lens you are in luck. If you put the system into manual focusing mode and push down on the shutter release, just to the first stage, you can see, on the top info screen, three numbers stacked one above the other. The middle number is the exact focus distance you've set, manually on the lens. If you want the point of sharpest focus at ten feet you can turn the focusing ring while watching the info changing on the top screen. Hit ten feet and it shows up as numbers on the screen. The number on the top is the furthest distance that will be in focus and the camera knows this because it's calculating depth of field using both the focal length setting, the accurate focus point and the set aperture. The bottom number is the closest point at which you'll get acceptable focusing. A neat feature and very useful when working in near darkness. 

Using zone focusing for fast moving situations or dark scenes is made very easy. Even with the fly-by-wire lenses. Add in a TTL flash or GN flash and you'll have a high percentage of keepers. I have not seen this feature on other cameras but it may be out there. 

A feature that works well in concert with more traditional manual focusing is the quality of the EVF and the EVF optics. On the SL2 the EVF "screen" is nearly 6 megapixels of resolution but more importantly the precision, glass optics of the finder yield an images that makes manual focusing easier than any other mirrorless camera I have owned. In addition, all the function buttons on the camera are programmable. You can choose the buttons you'd like to make accessing features such as exposure compensation and image magnification second nature for you. There are two buttons on the front of the camera, well above the lens release button, that I've programmed for the way I like to work. The top button activates the exposure compensation control while the button just below it activates focusing magnification. This makes manual focusing very, very accurate. Add in focus peaking and it's a piece of cake. 

One point of friction with the more niche cameras systems is the (un)availability of useful accessories. In the Leica SL system that shows up most (at least for me) in the scarcity of dedicated flashes. Leica lists two current flashes. Both are re-badged Nissin flashes and, for what they offer they are extremely pricey. 

Not that it matters because, at least here in the USA, they are generally always on back-order. 

Several weeks out from my project I decided I'd just bite the bullet and buy their top of the line flash. But it was out of stock everywhere. I knew I could use an automatic (non-TTL) flash but I also knew from experience that there were many situations in which TTL and TTL/HSS would come in handy. I'd read about it in a book somewhere...

So I started the research dive into compatible Leica flashes that have been discontinued but might be available used. I finally zero'd on on the 2010 version of their top line flash, the SF58. Over the course of a week I found two that were in pristine condition and bought them for less than the asking price of one out of stock lower-end offering of new product. My only misgiving with the SF58 is the plastic foot that attaches the flash to the camera. Most makers, including Leica, have moved on to metal feet --- which inspire much more confidence. Even Godox's $60 TT600 flash uses a metal foot. But sadly, not the SF58. 

Having a back-up was reassuring but, in reality, neither flash suffered any kind of failure through the week. Again, I was worried about something that might happen and didn't. A waste of time. 

The SF58s, when attached to the SL2, were accurate and easy to use. When in the hot shoe the flash turns off manual setting preview which means even in dark situations the finder maintains a bright image which allows you to see the frame for composition, etc. But in a neat touch once you trigger a full power or nearly full power flash the manual preview kicks back in and the finder becomes darker (accurately reflecting the actual manual exposure setting) until the flash fully recycles, at which time the preview is turned off and the bright finder image returns. In this way you always have an obvious cue to wait for full recycle.

I used the SF58 flash with the SL2 for the outdoor reception shots and was happy with how easy it was to shoot in TTL/HSS and have more control over the backgrounds of the images via quick rotation of the dial that controlled shutter speed. I was also happy with the consistency of the flash when used indoors in a banquet area with high, dark ceilings, when being forced to use some direct flash on the subjects. The flash was also good with power savings settings and quick wake ups. 

There are two things about the SL2 that annoy me. One is that you can't use different resolutions with the raw files. If you shoot in raw you're going to get the full 47 megapixel file (about 90 Mb) every time. The SL3 fixes that by offering three different raw resolution settings. That pushed me into shooting everything except the (vital) board of directors groups shots with the camera set to Jpeg. 

In an interesting design decision you don't have many choices in the Jpeg menu either. Sure, you can shoot in different image sizes (47 Mb, 22 Mb, or 10 Mb) but unlike most other modern cameras there is no ability for the user to set different compressions or qualities of the Jpeg files. No "super fine" or "fine" or "standard" or "basic." You get what you get. And, as I'm sure you know, the grainier or more detailed the Jpeg file the larger the size of the file. Some of my medium resolution Jpegs were clocking in at around 18 Mb; which is a lot, relatively speaking. 

In the "old days" I defaulted to using Raw files for most shoots because the review abilities of cameras just weren't precise enough to show problem areas with color balance and contrast. With the SL2 finder and rear screen I find the images a near perfect match with final computer files and so I've moved to doing events with Jpegs. After all, when shooting 1500-2000 images, I don't want to spend a lot of time making post production corrections if I can get the images right in the camera. With good custom white balances and accurate profile white balances it's so much easier to get as close as possible to perfect these days. In either format. 

One thing that's always irked me about the SL and SL2 cameras is the lack of fine control over ISOs. ISO values are presented only in full stops. 100, 200, 400, etc. On nearly every other camera I've used one can set ISOs in 1/3rd stop increments. 100, 125, 160, 200, 250, 320, etc. I like the ability to get one third to two thirds of the way in between the full stops. Probably just a habit but at one point I read that the 160 and 320 settings were really low noise, comparatively. Might just be urban legend. But it still seems like a such a simple thing to offer...

Most SL system users have complained about the short battery life in these cameras and I have to admit that it's true. True but requiring historical context. In early days of digital 100 shots from a fully charged battery was pretty darn good. Now I'm getting 400-500 shots, or half a day, out of the newest Leica batteries (which added power and dropped in price by $85 here in the USA). I have four cameras that take the same format batteries. All of the cameras work with the SCL4 as well as the newer SCL6 batteries so I've started stocking in (gradually) the newer batteries. But I have a bunch of the last generation batteries too. And they still have long lives ahead of them. The EVF takes more power than the rear screen. If battery life is vital the "power saving" setting shuts the camera off quickly between shots and comes back with the touch of the shutter release. It's a mixed blessing because it takes a couple seconds for the camera to come back to life. 

In working with cameras everything is a system. Including the lenses. I wish the 24-90mm lens was half the size and weight that it is but I'm pretty sure that overall performance (optical performance) would take a hit. As it is, if you don't carry around the back up body (instead keeping it close by with the AV guys...) or any other lenses then the camera and the one lens are probably less weighty than a more extensive system in a camera bag. 

In my experience, borne out by thousands and thousands of images, the 24-90mm is the equivalent of having a whole set of Leica quality prime lenses all in one lens. I use the lens most of the time at the widest aperture and have never seen an image that took a sharpness hit as a result. It's an impressive optical system. And it perfectly integrates with the bodies. And, aside from overall image quality, the range of focal lengths available to me fits the way I shoot nearly perfectly. I wish the lens was 10mm longer on the long end but with 47 megapixel files you have lots of resolution with which to crop. 

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had scouted a location for a group shoot but on the morning of the shoot we had rain and drizzle and I had to move around quickly and find a dry location that still allowed us to shoot a photograph with a lush, outdoor background. I went out for a quick scout with the camera and lens, both of which are highly weather resistant. I came back in with a soaked camera and lens but I was confident that they would be fine. I looked on the bottom of the camera and noted the IP54 rating for the camera. A direct, gentle rain should be no match for the camera's dust and moisture sealing. And it wasn't. 

Now to the idea that the camera brand is somehow impressive to clients. Here, I laugh with gusto. In a ballroom filled with professional guys over 50 years old not a single person gave either of the Leicas I was using a second look. No one asked a single question about the cameras. No one raised an eyebrow. Since the internet assumption is that the "red dot" is like a highway flare of brand notoriety I presumed that I would entertain at least some interest in my "Veblen" camera choice I was curious. Here's what I figured out: bankers and shareholders in the 8th largest banking organization in the USA are well off enough not to think of price or brand for devices in which they have little or no interest. To them these cameras are a workman's tools. Nothing more and nothing less. They trust the craftsperson to choose tools that help them do a job. That's the whole of it. The only people who ever note the presence of a "red dot" are other photographers. 

At the end of the week I found myself absolutely comfortable with the camera and lens. I guess I should be since I've been shooting projects, jobs and mannequins with the gear since 2020. We're nearly four years in now.  I would hope that all the operational stuff would be second nature by now. Right?

What will I likely change when I do this project again in 2025? Over the course of the year I'll keep working on finding the perfect flash to use with the SL system. I'll most likely add an SL3 to the camera bag to take advantage of the variable raw file sizes. I like shooting at 24 megapixels. It's a great compromise. There are some really dark areas in which I'd like to continue shooting without resorting to flash or other artificial lighting and being able to do so with a reasonably sized raw file means I can use Adobe Lightroom's A.I. DeNoise feature to clean up noisy files. The SL3 is also supposed to be faster at focusing and slightly less weighty/bulky. 

On the other hand I may be just as well off buying one of the SL2-S cameras since it's supposed to be a low light champ, has the 24 megapixels I like, and is starting to show up on the used markets for around $3,000 --- for a really clean copy. 

Finally, I would like to find a really nice 135mm f2.8 lens for the L mount system (come on Sigma, you can do it...) that I can use for tight close ups of speakers at podiums. That would be icing on the cake. 

When I do my next event I am already making a resolution to pack less. Much less. Winnowing down to two flashes only, two camera bodies only and one main zoom plus a back up zoom, only, would be the great way to proceed. That and my ThinkTank roller case and I'm set. 


Biro said...

Nice to know the Leica kit does well on professional shoots. I’d love an SL3 but I think I’ll wait for the Panasonic variant. My bank account will thank me.

On another subject, what’s going on with nasty comments that you need to moderate? It’s not like you post anything controversial.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Biro. Some people be bitchy. You know?

And yeah, the Panasonic will probably be really great and half the price.

Paul Kelly said...

If you were using the flash off-camera, would you be able to use a Leica version of a Godox trigger with a generic Godox flash to get full Leica TTL? If so, I suppose the flash could always go on a bracket beside the camera - old-fashioned style.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Paul, Sadly...no. I have the Leica Godox trigger and while I can trigger the Godox flashes I don't get TTL. We'll need to wait until Godox comes out with a Leica compatible version of one of their flashes. If I had to bet I'd say that maybe we'll get one in the V1 dress. That would make a lot of sense. You could use the flash with a Nikon off camera cord and get TTL since the shoe configurations are the same. Yes TTL with a Leica flash on Leica, via the cord but NO for TTl with a Nikon Flash on the cord with the SL.

A bit frustrating for flash shooters...

Craig Yuill said...

Is manual focusing with focus peaking possible in low light? Might that be a way around slow autofocusing in low light conditions? Just asking.

Anonymous said...

You should share that smile more often.

Kenneth Tanaka said...

Re: shooting multi day events with the SL2 and the 24-90, you’re clearly a better man than I. That lens offered some beautiful renderings but, ugh! For me it presented a PGR (Pain to Gain Ratio) of > 2, so I gladly sold mine long ago. I’ve been using the Sigma 24-70 F2.8 but will be switching to the Limix 24-105 F4 next week.

Re: a 135mm for shooting speakers, may I suggest Leica’s APO-Telyt 135mm F2? It’s a wonderful medium tele lens! Yes, it’s MF, but your subjects will be mainly stationary and the SL2 camera’s good IBIS makes it a perfect mate for the platform. Plus it’s quite small and light. I absolutely loved mine with the SL2, and even more so now with the SL3. You should be able to find an excellent used copy for a good price, as they’ve been around for many years.

Eric Rose said...

Ahhh, the Nikkor 80-200 f2.8 AF. A beast, but oh SOOO sharp! I still have mine and use it on my D800e. Beats having to buy a gym membership ;). I bought a 135mm f2.8 back in the early 80's, I think I have made less than 10 exposures with it.


Chris Kern said...

You can’t fool me. That’s not Kirk Tuck in the photo at the top of this essay: it’s obviously a photo of long-forgotten actor from central casting auditioning for a role in a B movie as a 1970s photographer.

(By the way, the partially-occluded sign behind him reading “Vote Republican. For a Change.” was the slogan used during the 1980 campaign of a somewhat better-known B movie actor, Ronald Reagan.)

Derek said...

I much appreciate the info about zone focussing Kirk having recently picked up a minty and well priced SL2S - which I heartily recommend. Images taken in low light are just as good as my Lumix S5. I look forward to reading more about your ongoing flash research findings... presently I am shooting manually with a nicely compact Nissin i40.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Kenneth Tanaka, Nice to see your comment here. As to the APO Telyt, I looked all over the web and couldn't find an f2.0 version. It looks like all the APO Telyts were f3.4, which is still very usable, even in moderately low light. I'll start scrounging around.

You won't be disappointed with the 24-105mm Panasonic. It's probably half the weight of the Leica zoom and it's a very well designed lens. I have owned two of them and found them to be quite sharp and well corrected. Trying to remember why I sold the first one but I remember the second one going to a friend who had a greater need for it.

The Panasonic optics are surprisingly good.

Kenneth Tanaka said...

Kirk: My typo. Of course the 135 Telyt is an odd F3.4.
BTW, for a -real- bargain, look for its predecessor, the "Tele-Elmar" 135mm F4. Equally superb optics, an unusual hood, about the same size and weight. Pristine copies may cost $300-400.