What It Is and What It Isn’t
21 October, 2015
The Toronto Blue Jays lost game four of the ALC against the Kansas City Royals last night. If they lose today they’re out of the running for the World Series of baseball. Also, Canada elected a new dynamic Liberal government the night before, kicking the previous ten-year incumbent Conservatives out on their collective asses with a convincing win.
Not a Canadian? Oh well, then none of this really is of interest to you. But the other thing that happened yesterday is that Leica announced a new camera system, the Leica SL – resurrecting a name from the past but incorporating a lot of future technology. Possibly this is of greater interest to you.
But then again, maybe not. Canada is a niche player on the world stage, though generally a highly respected one. Similarly, Leica is a niche player in the camera and lens world, and again a highly respected one. Thus, the achingly stretched analogy above.
What it Is
Firstly, let’s be clear that as yet I have not alpha tested, beta tested, seen, tried, used and or even fondled a Leica SL. While I have done all of the above for every new Leica introduced in the past decade, for reasons that will not discussed here I haven’t done any of these with the new SL. Like you, I have simply read the press reports and online commentary. Leica’s US web site has all the background info that you might need in case you slept through the day on October 20 and missed the news.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion on the SL. So, based primarily on speaking with people who are familiar with the SL, and also from what I can tell from published material, here are some highly subjective thoughts and opinions.
Let’s get the price discussion out of the way. This is a Leica, the real made-in-Germany (and Portugal) Leica thing. The US price will be $7,450 body-only. Plainly put – it’s expensive. Maybe two to four times more expensive than any comparable mass-produced camera from Asia. So, my suggestion is – get over it. This is Mercedes territory, not that of Ford. It costs what it costs and Leica are smart enough to understand the equation that calculates how many they can build vs. what the market will bear in terms of price.
Main Features – Pro
Of course, this is a so-called mirrorless camera. Mirror boxes are history and within a few years will only be seen on specialized equipment (medium format mainly) and in models designed for die-hard traditionalists. We’ll lose something in the process, but we’ll also gain a lot (like superior manual focusing).
There is one standout feature on the SL. Leica has trumped the Asian manufacturers with a fast-refresh 4.4 Megapixel electronic viewfinder. I’m told that it really is quite stunning, and with the exception of the contrast issue (which all EVFs suffer from), is apparently a real pleasure to use.
The sensor is a 24MP full-frame, which seems to me to be a bit under-speced for a camera in this class. A bit like putting a 2 Liter engine in a S-Class MB. The sweet spot in this class is now 36–43MP. But, keeping the resolution low has allowed Leica to produce high frame rates… 11 frames per second, giving even pro-level DSLRs from Canon and Nikon a bit of a challenge.
There are a number of worthwhile small features, including a built-in GPS and intervalometer. Let’s hope though that the Leica S GPS bug which I reported months ago, where “no recorded location” ends up as 0′ 0′ 0′ in the EXIF, indicating a spot somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, has been fixed.
There are also two SD card slots, which is a feature that pros as well as others will greatly appreciate, as will be the greater battery life offered by a larger (and heavier) battery.
Finally, the SL is capable of doing 4K video, and it appears to offer convincing video features and capabilities.
Main Features – Con
Lenses are the first issue. When the camera ships in mid-November, 2015 only one autofocus native lens will be available, the Leica Vario Elmarit-SL 24-90mm F2.8-4 ASPH which will cost $4,950. There are two more lenses on the announced road map, a Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90–280 mm f/2.8–4 due in about six months, and the Leica Summilux-SL 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH which will appear in about a year.
It’s hard to imagine that Leica expects people to wait so many months for additional lenses, and they don’t. Instead they will be producing adaptors (no word on availability though) for every lens they have ever made; R, M, S and Cine.
The R lenses will likely be popular, because they are excellent, and are available at good prices on the second-hand market (at least the prices are sane at the moment). These will work well on the SL, and the Leica adaptor will pass through lens data so that issues such as vignetting and colour shift can be dealt with electronically. Similarly with Leica M lenses, though these are likely to have more issues with shading and colour shift, particularly the wide angles.
But what needs to be borne in mind is that all of these R and M lenses will only work as manual focus and with manual diaphram. Manual focus is one thing, but manual diaphragm is another. It will mean that either one will need to focus with the lens closed down to shooting aperture, or focus wide open and then manually close down for the shot.
I should note that Leica S lenses will work fully automatically once an adaptor is available, but then given the cost and bulk of these lenses one would likely prefer to simply buy an S body instead of the SL. Current S body and S lens owners may well consider an SL body to be a good and somewhat less expensive second body for certain applications.
I should add that the one available autofocus lenses, the 24-90mm F2.8-4, is quite big and heavy, coming in at 1140 g / 2.5 lb. This is definitely not a street shooting lenses. On a tripod in the field or in the studio it’s likely to be great though.
The other main concern which I have is the user interface. The SL is very similar to the S in this regard, which means that there are unlabeled soft keys surrounding the rear LCD that make quick settings and navigation time-consuming and non-intuitive. I found the new S very difficult to come to terms with for this reason, and I would expect the SL to not be much different.
The rear LCD is just 1.04M-dot and is not articulated, though it is a touch-screen for focus selection and image review. I am surprised that with its industry-leading EVF in the SL Leica would put a mundane, moderate resolution LCD on the rear.
What It’s Not
The inevitable comparison, like it or not, is going to be with the Sony A7RII. Even though the SL is more than twice the price of the A7RII, these appear to be natural-born competitors.
When it comes to a battle of the specs, there really isn’t one. The Leica has a better EVF and higher frame rates (and GPS and intervalometer) but that’s about it. The A7RII offers a 43MP sensor, in-body stabilization that works with any mounted lens (native Leica SL lenses have stabilization in the lens), an electronic front curtain shutter for the complete absence of shutter vibration, and the Sony is capable of fully electronic shutter operation for totally silent operation.
Leica claims that the SL has the industry’s fastest AF. We’ll have to wait to try this for ourselves. It is contrast detect only, while among mirrorless cameras the A7RII has phase as well as contrast detection, as do DSLRs. Also the Sony’s eye detect AF is actually a very useful feature which will be hard for the Leica to compete with.
But then these are not really competitors. Right? Or are they?
Certainly on the lens front Sony has an edge, with a good spread of zooms and primes in native FE mount, with Sony G and Sony/Zeiss labeling. More are on the way soon. Zeiss has also decided to fully support the Sony FE mount on its own and has three different lens lines for it. Other third party makers are jumping on the bandwagon.
Parenthetically, three of the top ten lenses ever tested by DxO Labs are Sony G or Sony/Zeiss, so, while Leica glass is almost always superb, it’s not as if what Sony offers is chopped liver.
There are also lens adaptors which allow fully automatic operation on the A7RII with Sony’s A series lenses, and third party adaptors which allow Canon EF lenses to work fully automatically, with high-speed autofocus. Whether third party adaptor makers will support the new SL’s mount remains to be seen. Sony has made their mount open-source, while as far as I know Leica’s mounts are propietary.
Finally, Leica naturally understands the competitive landscape. They must see the Sony A7RII as a target, but then again Sony probably manufacturers more A7RII’s in a week than Leica will make SL’s in a year.
Leica aims at a defined market niche, while Sony makes products intended to appeal to a broad constituency of buyers. Comparing the Leica SL to the A7RII will be fun for some forum denizens, but I doubt that Leica will be too concerned. My guess is that they will make as many SL cameras as their manufacturing capacity allows.
I just wish that they had been able to bring out a broader lens line at the time of launch. One big heavy zoom, and then another lens six months later, and a third in 12 months, without a further road-map just doesn’t inspire confidence. Yes, when an R lens adapter and an M adaptor arrive a wealth of lenses will be accessible, but all without autofocus and with manual diaphragm operation only. No third-party AF lenses or AF adaptors for the SL are on the horizon at the moment.
We have been told that a review sample of the SL is not too far off, and when we have one in-hand we’ll do our usual field report style of testing. In the meantime, our friend and well respected Leica tester and reviewer Sean Reid will have a report for us shortly. Watch for it.
21 October, 2015