photographs by Douglas Herr
the Leica SL (typ 601)

I've had the good fortune to spend some quality time with Thorsten Overgaard's Leica SL and compare it with my current camera, the Sony a7II. Selective reading of the two cameras' spec sheets might suggest they're quite similar: 24MP, EVF, lenses from many legacy camera systems can be adapted to fit. However after several months comparing the two cameras they're clearly very different.

Background

I feel it's important to understand the reviewer when reading an equipment review. My primary photographic subjects are wildlife and I prefer to avoid automation whenever practical: I use manual exposure modes and manual focus exclusively. Call it a quirk, call it insanity, that's how I use a camera. If you would like to see how this all works for me visit my website. YMMV.

The lenses I currently use were made by Canon (FD 500mm f/4.5 L, FD 300mm f/4 L), Nikon (55mm f/3.5 Micro-Nikko AI) and Leica (280mm f/4 APO-Telyt-R, 100mm f/2.8 APO-Macro-Elmarit-R, 60mm f/2.8 Macro-Elmarit-R) and the camera body is basically a digital back for my lenses. The minimum I require of it are a good viewfinder, a good sensor and a means to set exposure and focus. Mirrorless cameras such as the Sony a7-series and the Leica SL fit these requirements quite well.

I began using the Sony a7II about a year ago after 45 years with SLR cameras. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) took some getting used to but now I wouldn't go back to an SLR. There's never any calibration discrepancy between the image viewing and focussing plane and the image capture plane, the viewfinder brightness can compensate for ambient light and lens aperture, the EVF can be configured to show a live histogram, and all of my lenses can be used on one camera by using simple adapters. My previous camera was the Leica R8 with the Digital-Module-R (DMR) which was first available in 2005. It served me well but it had put on a lot of weight (that's my story and I'm sticking to it), the batteries had been unavailable for quite some time and I had nightmares about dropping one off a cliff or in a lake, the 10MP sensor's linear resolution was beginning to limit the marketability of my photos to clients who expect more, and only my Leica lenses were fully usable on it.

General impressions

The SL is a very solid, well-made camera. It's significantly heavier than the a7II, and it fits the hand extremely well especially when wearing gloves (which I cannot say for the a7II). The viewfinder is outstanding, with one complaint which I'll get to. The camera overall is very responsive and reasonably quiet, the files have rich full color and will take a lot of abuse without falling apart and the noise at higher ISO settings is manageable. The noise pattern, unlike the a7II, is quite pleasing.

The Sony is a sturdy, reliable camera. The SL is in an entirely different class of construction: it will take a beating that would destroy many other cameras.

The SL has simple, purposeful controls. The joystick is delightful (user-programmability of its acceleration function would improve it) and the other buttons, dials and such are readily at hand when needed and they stay out of the way when not needed. Very impressive.

Testing the camera

My test photos are not intended to demonstrate the camera's artistic sensibilities. I'm just testing technical performance.

One of the DMR's strengths is the robustness of the raw files, their ability to be manipulated, stomped on and tortured and not whimper. Pulling detail out of shadows is one of my tests; this robustness of the DMR files saved my butt on more than one occasion, for example:

I enlisted the hummingbirds in my yard and made some backlit photos exposed for highlights, then used ACR's 'fill light' function to bring up the color and detail of the bird's gorget (the red feathers). Here's how the SL did (cropped, about 1/3 of the original file):

I'm impressed.

Responsiveness is another test. My Sony a7II is quite responsive when I enable the electronic first curtain feature, but with my non-native lenses this feature's practical utility is limited to shutter speeds no faster than 1/1000 sec. To test the SL I used the Ruby-crowned Kinglet that has taken a liking to my hummingbird feeder. Kinglets are hyperactive bits of fluff and this particular kinglet was jumping from a twig, fluttering up to the feeder for a sip then back to the twig. The entire process takes less than a second. I wanted to see how much total lag there was between the viewfinder, my reaction timing, and the shutter lag. I pre-focussed on the feeder tube and watched the viewfinder, pressing the shutter release when the bird entered the image area. The camera is in single-shot drive mode, no crop:

I'm impressed.

As an aside, while testing the SL I learned that my FD-to-M adapter is a cheap POS and I'll need to use tape or jam some shims into the adapter's aperture stop-down ring in order to use my FD 500 L at any aperture other than f/4.5. To use the 500 L on the Sony I've purchased a Novoflex adapter. Much better.

So now I get to the 0.5% I'm not thrilled with. The camera's viewfinder defaults to automatic brightness mode, with 'exposure simulation' mode enabled with a half-press of the shutter release or by pressing the exposure simulation mode button on the front of the camera. The viewfinder reverts to the default automatic brightness mode after each exposure.

WTF were they thinking? One of the really huge advantages of the EVF is real-time exposure feedback. Automatic viewfinder brightness in these scenarios makes the bird go so dark I can't see any detail for focussing or for catching the desired posture:

and makes the bird go alternately too bright or too dark when I shift the camera's field of view left or right:

Very distracting, breaks my concentration, makes focussing and seeing what the bird is doing very difficult. In polite company I'd call the automatic viewfinder brightness feature an 'epic fail', and it can't be disabled. It can be turned off in the Leica M (240), why not the SL? Re-enabling the exposure preview mode after every exposure reminds me of the days before SLRs had instant-return mirrors. This one feature is a deal-breaker for me.

I've set up the a7II for full-time exposure preview (Sony calls it Setting Effect ON); this way I can use the entire viewfinder as an exposure meter in manual mode. It makes spot, full-field and matrix modes look like primitive relics of obsolete technology, and IMHO is among the really big advantages of an EVF. Leica needs to do a firmware update to fix a few other issues so I hope they fix this and SOON. Needless to say I've e-mailed Leica about this stupid f***ed-up feature, and I've filtered my language for this report.

My other big complaint about the SL is no sensor stabilization. I'm smitten with the a7II's sensor stabilization. The SL's native lenses have optical stabilization, but I can use any of my old affordable lenses as well as the spectacular Leica-R APO lenses, stabilized, on the a7II. It's allowed me to push a lot of boundaries while my muscles have weakened with age and abuse, and are no longer as steady as they used to be.

For example in good light when I use a big Series 5 Gitzo my FD 500mm L is brilliant on the SL. Gorgeous colors, easy to focus, and with software correction for lateral chromatic aberration it's sharp sharp sharp sharp sharp.

OTOH using the lens on the a7II, I can brace the lens against my truck's window frame in dim rainy light with wind shaking the truck and the images are nearly as good as with the SL in good light on the Gitzo. The Sony's colors aren't as rich, the files don't take as much abuse, but they're sharp in conditions that don't work with the SL.

I can partially compensate with the SL's excellent high-ISO capabilities (ISO 3200 in this case) which allow me to use a faster shutter speed. This is about 1/4 of the original 24MP image:

and this is a 100% crop of the file with no sharpening, re-sizing or noise reduction:

I invite you to draw your own conclusions, but to my eye the noise pattern in the SL's files is much more pleasing than in the a7II's files at the same ISO.

OTOH... the Sony's stabilization makes magnified focussing with the 500mm lens much easier, and using fast shutter speeds on the SL reduces my options for using a slower shutter speed to show rain streaks like I can with the Sony (i.e., the Northern Harrier photo above).

Colusa NWR

I visited Colusa National Wildlife Refuge north of Sacramento, a target-rich environment. I didn't expect great art from this day's photography so I was not disappointed ;). I wanted to see how the SL's raw files looked in a context I was familiar with when using the DMR and a7II.

In a nutshell, I'm delighted with the raw files. Aside from conversion from .DNG to .jpg all I did was use a Photoshop curves layer to adjust black point and (infrequently) white point. That's all. The colors are rich and full with excellent gradation.

Details: I used the Canon FD 500mm L at f/5.6, ISO 400. Manual focus without magnification is not difficult, and in challenging cases magnification is available at the touch of a button. I'd like to see a firmware update to enable two-step magnification on the joystick like the bottom left button has. The first magnification step is usually more than sufficient for critical manual focus and is easier to track a moving target.

the pix:


(full detail in blacks and no highlight clipping with full sunlight, a first for this bird!)

The adapter stack (FD -> M, M -> SL) causes some corner shading when using a long lens like this 500mm L and with R long-focus lenses like the 400mm and 560mm f/6.8 Telyts. The small diameter of the M mount in the middle of this stack is the culprit. This was a problem long before the SL when using Visoflex-mount Telyts on R cameras. I expect the promised R Adapter SL will solve this problem by eliminating the M mount.

What the SL can do the Sony can't touch: the camera is quick and responsive at all shutter speeds. For those who were writing software in the 1980s it's like the difference between optimized assembly language and interpreted BASIC. I can make the a7II adequately responsive by enabling electronic first shutter curtain but with my adapted mechanical lenses it's good only up to 1/1000 sec. At faster shutter speeds in this mode the Sony produces uneven exposure. The SL is quick, quiet and responsive at every shutter speed. The Sony's electronic first shutter curtain function can be switched on or off only by diving into the inscrutable menus. It can't be assigned to a function button.

The SL's LCD doesn't show nose prints. I deliberately tried to make nose prints. Can't do it.

There are numerous little differences that come down to personal preference, for example the SL allows me to change shutter speeds while in magnified view, with a dial that's almost a real shutter speed dial. The Sony's dial moves the magnified box. The SL allows the user to change the 'direction' of the shutter speed and aperture controls. The Sony allows the user to choose which dial performs either function.

The Sony leaves a lot more stuff in my wallet. Aside from the purchase price, spare batteries don't cost US$250 each and I can walk into an electronics retailer like Fry's to buy them.

I'm struck by a comparison of the a7II with the Canon FD 300mm f/4 L and the SL with the 280mm f/4 APO-Telyt-R. Either lens can be used on either camera but this is an extreme for illustrative purposes. The a7II + FD 300 L is a decent camera; the lens now, with digital image processing not available in 1990, is better than when it was new. It's not an APO-Telyt, but quite good. The a7II+300L is about 2 kg. The SL+280 APO is about 3 kg, 50% heavier than the a7II combo.

Did I mention the Sony leaves a lot more stuff in my wallet? There's an order of magnitude difference in the entry ticket. An ORDER OF MAGNITUDE. Is there an order of magnitude difference in the output? An order of magnitude difference in image sales potential? Given the dismal sales lately for photography I'd have to answer an emphatic NO to the last question (i.e., zero * 10 still equals zero), which leaves the subjective and unquantifiable differences. Not to mention being able to say "oh shucks" and head over to eBay if I drop the camera in the ocean instead of panicking about the expense of repairs and the months of downtime as I do when my beloved 280/4 APO develops a sticky aperture.

Both of these cameras have numerous capabilities that I haven't begun to try, but for my uses the Leica SL isn't quite "there", and I say this as a Leica user for the last 35 years. A firmware update with an option to make the 'exposure preview' mode sticky would be a serious threat to my wallet; with this firmware update and a hardware upgrade with a stabilized sensor resistance would be futile.

My Conclusion

For a first-generation product it's outstanding and with the two fixes I've mentioned I'd be ecstatic. As it is when I grab a camera to head out the door it's most likely the a7II for the lower weight, the stabilized sensor, the exposure preview viewfinder and the much lower worry about loss or damage. And I'll put up with the fiddly buttons and inscrutable menus, and curse the 1/1000 sec shutter speed limit.

For those using any of the auto-exposure modes and either of the SL's two excellent native lenses, the biggest obstacle to loving this camera could be the initial cash outlay. Once my two objections are fixed I'd put up with the weight and find a way to make it happen.

26 May 2016 update: EF lenses on the Leica SL

15 Septemer 2016 update: Nikon E lenses on the Leica SL