Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Leica SL (Type 601) Review: With Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8-4 ASPH

"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me..."
                                                              - F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rich Boy

It is difficult to enter any discussion regarding Leica without at least once visiting the reality of the prices that they charge. That has never been more true with the SL (Type 601), which commands one of the starkest prices of any Leica south of the medium format S series. For the purposes of this writing, it will remain the elephant in the room.... these days, one merely has a Leica or one does not. It's not rational to justify it. If you come across somebody and this is their camera, then there will probably be some truth to the fact that they will be "different from you and me".

The SL is like the Leica Q in that it is a surprise. The Q is a harbinger of a more automated and user-friendly form of the M-series rangefinder format... the surprise was how willing Leica was to go in this direction given it's history. Likewise, the SL is ostensibly another dive into uncharted waters for the company; the Leica T was one experiment, and the SL feels like another. For a "conservative" company, the SL shows a surprisingly willingness to be modern. That said, even if the concept of the SL feels like a grand experiment, it's form and operation are already evident in the S-series medium format cameras: the SL is that in miniature. This is a camera with a much heft as a Nikon D810 or Canon 5Ds, and it's "kit" lens is just as imposing. As cliché as it is, this is a camera that would not be out of place in a fashion shoot out on the streets of Monaco.

Build and Design

In size and mass, there is not appreciable difference  between the Leica SL and a professional grade DSLR. The design is more minimalist and focused, but the fundamental controls are within easy reach. It's a bit "Bauhaus" and betrays an obvious German sensibility in terms of design language.

Alone with the camera itself, there is also a tremendous heft to the 24-90mm lens. The build quality and tactile feel is solid, but the actual usage is stately and measured.  Zoom and focus rings action are smooth but like many things Leica, they tend to slow you down to a deliberate pace. If you crank the the zoom ring and try to extend out as quickly as possible, you will feel the amount of mass that is moving when you do so. If you manually focus with the focus ring, the resistance will remind you to take your time in the same way that a M-Mount lens would.

This isn't like using a Canon or Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 pro-zoom; those lenses can be thrown into fast-moving event situations with aplomb. This Leica lens can work in the same environment... the basic focus speed is fast, but it's the rest of the little things that don't quite bring it up to DSLR territory. This camera feels more at home in the measured control space of a studio environment. It's not too difficult to image the SL as a fashion photographer's camera rather than the primary tool of a wedding professional.

Like the Q, the SL uses a contrast-detect autofocus system that nevertheless operates in a phase-detect AF like manner. Lock-on is quick and sure without hunting. However, the overall operation is not as spontaneous as with a DSLR. As with the Sony A7 cameras, the minor lag times in waking up the camera from power-save mode or with activating the EVF when held to the eye do slow down the operation for spur of the moment shooting.  If you go "shot-to-shot-to-shot" then the camera is quick... just as quick as an mirrorless camera. If you are used to DSLR's and go "shot-wait-wait-shot" then it will still feel a tad bit slow.

The top LCD is minimalist and easy to read. It's a highly reflective LCD-type, meaning that the more light you throw at it, the brighter the white lettering becomes. It's surprisingly readable in harsh mid-day sunlight.

Holding comfort is good for something this heavy. The grip is ample enough and the controls simple enough  that the camera can be comfortable operated with gloves on. There isn't a front lip to hook your middle finger onto as there would be in a Canon or Nikon camera, but that is for the best as this is definitely not a camera to be used one-handed. The textured grip material is reminiscent of the covering used on the Leica X2, and in this case it looks better than it feels. It helps you grip the camera, but it does feel somewhat plastic-like compared to the sleek metal of the rest of the camera.

Diving into the menus is deceptively challenging. This isn't a camera that will be intuitive and easy to use from the very beginning. Most of that is due to the fact that the buttons are minimalist and un-labeled. Their operation becomes apparent with the rear screen one and menu indicator icons, but the flow of operation is curiously like navigating "quadrants" rather than going down through a vertical list like on a more mainstream menu structure. It's not completely un-intuitive, but it does take some getting used to.

The rear-LCD is touch sensitive, though this isn't a camera that encourages touch-operation. Unlike the Leica T or the Leica Q, the heft of the SL makes button operation a bit more comfortable. Much of the camera's operation will be conducted through the rubber-covered nub-joystick. It works, but for some, joystick controls never feel quite as reassuring as a traditional 4-way pad.

The viewfinder is a joy to use, and at 4.4 million dots, it is difficult to ask for more in an electronic viewing mechanism. Manual focus is a joy to use with such high resolution. Refresh rates are quick and tearing with fast pans is minimal. However there is visible lag in low light situations, something that happens with all electronic viewfinders. If there is a quibble, it is that the font used for the EVF information display is small and narrow... a bit too small and a bit too minimalist for comfort. For those who wear glasses, the eye-point is usable but a tad bit lose for comfort. You'll find your eyeglass lenses rubbing up to the eyecup often; not a deal breaker but a bit of a nuisance if you are fastidious about keeping your spectacles clean.The EVF is the one detail alone that probably excites M-users, as the rangefinder patch in a M9 or M240 is smaller than you think it is the first time you use it, and not exactly conducive to the eyes of those getting on in years.

The battery is like the delightful integrated design in the Leica T; the bottom of the batter is also the battery compartment door. Pull the release to unlock the battery, then tap the battery to un-click it and remove it. Though the release mechanism takes up extra room, this is an intelligent design as it eliminates the possibility of damaging or losing a battery compartment door. The battery itself is roughly 1900mA in capacity, which is roughly on par in capacity with the M240, Nikon D810 or Canon 5D Mark III, and significantly more than the Sony A7r Mark II. If you are keeping track, this also means that the Leica Q, M240 and Leica SL all use different batteries.

As this is a mirrorless camera with electronic displays to power, the CIPA rating is 400 shots per charge, or about half of what a DSLR would do. Real world usage seems to bear this out, as the figure seems achievable with the camera's power-management software. In other words, you don't have to constantly power-down the camera to conserve battery life. By comparison the Sony A7r II is rated at a paltry 290 shots per charge...

General Image Quality and Operation

Ostensibly, this is the same sensor as the Leica Q, meaning that it is better than the M240 sensor, but not as good as a Sony sensor in overall image quality. Dynamic range is ample, with a native ISO of 50, and image quality in the middle of the ISO range is as good as any full frame sensor. Compared to Sony, and especially Nikon, the high ISO noise reduction isn't as sophisticated, and there is more banding in the deep shadows. File malleability in post-processing is better than with a Canon 5D Mark III or 5Ds but not as good as a Nikon D750 or D810. With the SL (and like the Q), the limiting factor to how much you can bend the file is the pattern noise in the shadows, whereas the Canon's are a bit more limited by clipping.

Another trait that the SL shares with the Q is that colour rendition is a bit more neutral than the M240, which natively produces somewhat strong reds for some people's tastes. In fact, the SL's default tone curve is a bit flat, giving images out of the camera with a somewhat flat and dull rendition. Of course, this is ideal for adding and shaping contrast during post-processing.

In case you are wondering, this is not an easy camera to take with you. It's not so much the camera as it is...you. This comes back to the idea of how riches change you... if you are the sort of person who can afford this, then maybe you would feel less self-conscious. It's not just the conspicuous consumption aspect of it either, it's the fact that there is so much capability in it you feel compelled to get the greatest out of each shot you take. You can be more discrete with the SL if you choose to adapt M-lenses to it; but it will never be as stealthy as a true rangefinder. The camera is a tad too big and the shutter, though quiet, does have an audile "click" whereas a M240 has more of a softer "snick".  Truth be told, the Canon 5Ds and Nikon D810 in quite mode are just as audibly stealthy.

The 24-90mm lens is sharp and contrasty in the center. While the images don't "feel" subjectively better than what you would get with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 USM or a Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G (to these untrained eyes, at least), the lens is fairly resistant to flair and colour fringing. In this regard, the Leica 24-90mm is like it's Canon/Nikon counterparts; it's a true professional lens in that there aren't any obvious weaknesses to avoid; the use of the lens is "transparent" in that regard.

Does the SL have the "Leica look"?  No... mostly because that was never a real thing. What the SL does have is adaptability. If you want a modern look, then the 24-90mm fits the bill... optically consistent, highlight corrected. If you want the M-range finder look.... contrasty, not necessarily perfect but with lots of character.. then you can adapt M-mount lenses to it. Most Leica cameras are built with an eye to their mission, typically around the street-shooting zeitgeist. The SL takes a different path to image making that is a little less mission focused. The joke is that using a M240 us like dating a supermodel: beautiful to look at, very good at what it does, but not so great with the everyday mundane things. The SL can do many things well... but ultimately, its probably just as unapproachable as its supermodel sibling.

Concluding Thoughts

If the Leica Q gave a sneak-peak of where the next generation M-camera is heading, the SL also does so, but in a deceptively sneaky way. If there will be range-finer without a range-finder mechanism (hearsay!) then it would do no better than than to pick up with the SL's EVF. Furthermore, the Q and the SL are statement cameras; the Q is a statement that Leica can and is willing to bring the rangefinder into the future despite its weighty legacy. The SL is something different; it's a statement that Leica is capable of producing a thoroughly modern camera platform, in the way the Sony A7rII is, or the Panasonic GH4 before it. Capable with stills, capable with video, highly adaptable to a range of lenses... this is where the leading edge of the industry is going. If digital photography is about collecting data, then the SL does this well, both in processing and throughput... 11fps, 4K video... this is processing horsepower that is state of the art for 2015. (Shoot in 4K with a 0.95 Noctilux on a T-M adapter? Sure why not!)

This is quite a feat for a what amounts to relatively small camera company, especially in comparison to the corporate/industrial  resources that the Japanese manufacturers have at their disposal. Statement pieces only go so far, though. The SL will find its niche...probably not a big one... but it isn't the future of the M-series that everybody is anxiously waiting for. "Beyond the scope of this blog" is a phrase that is used occasionally around here... and never did it seem more appropriate than when discussing the ultimate uses and capabilities of the Leica SL.

1 comment:

  1. I've looked at many SL samples and it seems to be able to enhance the "3d pop" of its glass more than any other cameras or a7 adapter-solution.