Hands On With Leica's Brilliant But Back-Breaking Mirrorless Camera

Leica's New Mirrorless Camera Is Brilliant but Back-Breaking

You have to marvel at the way Leica dives in to things unapologetically, even when its choices seem like those of a madman. Consider the Leica SL, an entirely new full-frame mirrorless camera. Bundled with a lens it runs over $US12,000, and it weighs more than some small boulders. I got to use it for a weekend, and here's what it's like.

Leica is famous for its M series cameras, those classic rangefinders with manual focus and timeless looks. But clearly it is thinking to the future by developing new and modern cameras that aim high in terms of performance and, well, price. The results have been mixed (the blah Leica T and the awesome Leica Q).

The latest is the SL. It's a big huge ol' thing with a 24 megapixel full-frame sensor. It uses a new SL mount for which there are three native lenses: a 24-90mm f/2.8-4, a 90-280mm f/2.8-4, and an upcoming 50mm f/1.4. They are all rival the size and weight of Germany itself.

There's no doubt that the SL is a high performance camera. In my time shooting with it, I was really impressed with the level of detail produced by the 24-90mm lens and the low light abilities of the sensor. It's not any giant step forward from today's leading DSLRs or mirrorless cams, but it holds its own. It even shoots some really beautiful 4K video in good light, but with a cropped portion of the sensor. Dim light is another story, where quite a bit of muddy noise comes through.

Leica's New Mirrorless Camera Is Brilliant but Back-Breaking
Leica's New Mirrorless Camera Is Brilliant but Back-Breaking
Leica's New Mirrorless Camera Is Brilliant but Back-Breaking
Leica's New Mirrorless Camera Is Brilliant but Back-Breaking
Leica's New Mirrorless Camera Is Brilliant but Back-Breaking

At ISO 6400:

Leica's New Mirrorless Camera Is Brilliant but Back-Breaking

Focusing is fast, but even though Leica claims it has the fastest focusing of any full-frame mirrorless, it is pretty clearly not as fast as the recent Sony A7r Mark II or A7s Mark II. The difference was enough to for me to notice in casual use, especially in low light. The SL shoots 11 fps bursts, is weather resistant, has dual SD card slots, and a really lovely and large electronic viewfinder.

But really we need to talk about the physical makeup of this thing. When I first picked it up in front of a room of Leica execs, I had to swallow hard to stop from shouting "holy fuck this is heavy." This isn't a DSLR, remember. It's a mirrorless camera — the existence of which is primarily to make quality cameras that are small and light. Oh well! The biggest offender is the 24-90mm f/2.8-4 lens. It's heavy artillery. The optical quality is outstanding, yes. But it's enormous.

Leica's New Mirrorless Camera Is Brilliant but Back-Breaking

Don't get me wrong. The SL is very attractive to look at. It's minimal approach is handsome, but does make for a steep learning curve. The buttons are completely unlabeled and work dissimilarly to most popular cameras. It's the same user interface as the Leica S, apparently. One terrific standout is the little rubber joystick that moves around your focus point. Man, I love that thing.

Leica's New Mirrorless Camera Is Brilliant but Back-Breaking

The Leica SL is highly capable. I just truly don't understand who it's for. Any professional who doesn't mind carrying the weight of multiple bricks will surely choose a DSLR with more lens options and controls. Any non-professional who wants something even somewhat portable is going to go with the better-performing and much much (MUCH) cheaper Sony A7 series, Fujifilm X series, or Olympus OM-D series.

Pricing isn't final, but it will land around $US7500 for the body, and around $US5000 for the 24-90mm lens (!!!). If you want to save a bit you can use the SL with M-mount manual focus lenses with an adaptor, or Leica T lenses which will crop to APS-C size when used.


Comments

    The people I know with current model digital Leica cameras buy them because they are a Leica. I think the same principle applies to old Alfa Romeo's, people buy then because of their character and how it goes about things, not what they are technically capable of - because if we're honest, any modern Hyundai would probably be faster and more reliable.

    The M9 has sold well, and yet it has no autofocus and write speeds reminiscent of a floppy disk. It's basically a digital back for a film based M - this Leica is technically advanced by their standards! Target market = middle aged photography enthusiasts who like owning nice things. Think Eames lounge rather than an Ikea special.

      Some of those old Alfa's are pretty good looking cars!

        Buy a photograph then.

        lol.

      An old (well cared for) Alfa would absolutely obliterate a modern Hyundai in terms of speed. Reliability may be another story though..

    Man up for goodness sake...

    just truly don’t understand who it’s for. Any professional who doesn’t mind carrying the weight of multiple bricks will surely choose a DSLR with more lens options and controls. Any non-professional who wants something even somewhat portable is going to go with the better-performing and much much (MUCH) cheaper Sony A7 series, Fujifilm X series, or Olympus OM-D series.

    I'll be buying an SL when I can save up the cash. Over the other MILC camera options, it's a Leica. It's not covered in a million buttons, it's clean, minimal. What do you pay for with Leica? You pay for getting a camera that is made by people who are passionate about photography, not engineering teams trying to fill out tech spec lists with as many points as possible.

    This is a camera where you pay for less. Like the M series, like the R series.

    Congratulations Micheal,
    this is the most objective review of the Leica SL I have ever read. Instead of gushing like a fan boy (over every new Leica-which invariably fails to sell) you have hit the nail perfectly on the head.
    I have been a Leica user for more than 20 years Had a huge range of Leica lenses. Had every model from the R3 mot till the R7. The dropped it because of the humungous R8 and the need for auto focus
    Waited for 20 years for a proper Leica with auto focus. The Leica Q gave me great hopes. Imagine an interchangeable lens Leica the sixe of the Q with dials like the R series Leicas.
    Leica has lost touch with who uses the brand and which market keeps it alive serious amateurs and those who just want the "red dot". Not professionals.
    11 frames per second for professionals? Sports and wildlife pros? (bird photography mostly). where are the long (300mm to 800mm autofocus lenses?). By the time Leica releases them the Leica SL would have become a technical dinosaur.
    Built like a tank is another favorite fan boy review comment. What is the realistic useful life of a digital camera these days? Do we need and want to pay for a camera that can last 30 years but is obsolete in 3 or 4 years?
    The Q is nice but seriously how many people would pay $4250 for a camera that will be obsolete together with the lens in a few years? I can afford it but I wouldn't buy it.
    Please Leica - give us a Q size body with interchangeable lenses and dials not menus. Price the body cheaper like about $3500 (hey you did it with the Q including lens at $4250). Charge more for the lenses as they can be kept for 20 to 30 years. True Leica users can then upgrade faster and the used cameras will allow the less well heeled to enter the Leica world (and be hooked forever).
    Do that and you Leica will have a perpetual queue waiting to buy their cameras. Profits will be limited to your production capacity and not just limiting your sales to fan boys who slop up whatever you dish out - even Panasonic rebadged cameras at inflated prices. This market is too small to keep your brand going. And it is too valuable a brand to see go under.

      Could not have said it better.

    What is it to say that the other camera makers aren't passionate about photography. Just because they have a lot more features doesn't make it any lessor of a camera. Don't get me wrong, I love Leica and may be putting down an order for SL. But no need to put down other camera makers.

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