Leica styles the full-frame SL as a truly “professional” mirrorless, implying that all other mirrorless systems are mere pretenders to the throne. That’s a characterization many companies, not to mention many photographers, would certainly balk at. Does Leica have a case? We tested the SL and new 24-90mm lens to find out.
The 24-megapixel SL has no optical low-pass filter to coax out that much more sharpness from the sensor. The SL features a 3-inch display and a very high-resolution electronic viewfinder, plus a backlit display of settings on the top of the camera. Shutter speeds top out at 1/8000 sec. with a bulb mode option for a 30-minute exposure.
It has a pair of SD card slots with support for fast UHS II memory in the first and slower UHS I cards in the second, in addition to a USB 3.0 port and HDMI output. You’ll have Wi-Fi and NFC, plus built-in GPS for geo-tagging images.
As for lenses, the SL will directly mount Leica T lenses, of which there are four currently on the market. The SL system will also get its own dedicated lens line—the L mount—though the roadmap here is very conservative. There’s just one native L lens for now, the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4, which sells for a hefty $4,950—at that price, we’d have hoped for a constant f/2.8 throughout the zoom range. If 90mm isn’t long enough, the SL does have an APS-C crop mode. You’ll drop down to a 10-megapixel image but gain some extra reach while you wait for the SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4, which is set to arrive in 2016. Leica also plans a Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 lens for the end of 2016. Prices on those weren’t available at press time but if history is any guide, they’ll probably make your accountant weep. With adapters, you’ll be able to mount Leica M, S, R and cinema-series glass. Exposure metering and aperture priority shooting will be supported on M-mount lenses.
The SL is one solid chunk of aluminum. It’s dust and weather resistant (splashes, not downpours). Ergonomically, the SL isn’t as comfortable to shoot with as Sony’s redesigned A7 series, but it also feels sturdier and more durably constructed—although the SL’s shutter is rated for 200,000 cycles while Sony’s A7R II is rated for a whopping 500,000. Don’t be fooled by the “mirrorless” designation, the SL is hardly lightweight. Body-for-body, it’s about 2 ounces heavier than Sony’s A7R II and ever-so-slightly heavier than DSLRs like Canon’s 5DS. Mount the mammoth 24-90mm lens and you’ve got a beast in your hands.
The camera has no mode dial. Instead, you have to press down on the back scroll wheel to change your mode settings. Almost no button or dial has any marking on it, so out of the box you’re forced to read the menu (gasp) or fiddle aimlessly until it makes sense (our preferred approach). There is a joystick on the back of the camera for quickly toggling through menu settings or moving the AF point. There are four soft keys on either side of the display which break up the camera’s menu system into four categories, one of which is a programmable favorites section for quick access to needed settings. The 3-inch display is a touch screen, so you can flip quickly through saved images and use your finger for touch focus/touch shutter release. Touch is disabled for some menu navigation, but the joystick is more efficient anyway.
The SL’s “EyeRes” viewfinder was one of the major selling points when Leica announced the camera, and rightly so. It is a thing of beauty. It has a resolution of 4.4-megapixels and a refresh rate of 60 fps. It’s so bright and sharp it’s almost surreal to gaze through it. It’s a great advance for photographers looking for a responsive viewfinder, though in areas of high contrast it would still lose a bit of shadow detail. However, the EVF’s circular viewfinder is so prominent that it can often obscure the touch screen display, especially if you’re looking down on the screen and holding the camera closer to your body.
Almost no button or dial on the exterior of the SL is marked, so it takes a bit of trial and error to get your bearings, unless you read the manual. But who does that?
The SL captures 14-bit RAW files in the DNG format, with solid dynamic range for recovering detail lost to shadows and decent leeway to remove noise without sacrificing detail. Low-light performance was on par with what we enjoyed in the Leica Q. JPEG color reproduction was usually consistent, though we did notice a tendency for some colors, like pinks and reds, to appear a bit over-saturated.
(This DNG didn’t need much processing in Lightroom to get its colors popping.)
Noise creeps into JPEG images at 3200 when viewed at 100 percent, but still very useable for smaller prints and digital displays. Image noise is well contained in JPEGs at ISO 6400 but is visible at 12,500. The native sensitivity of the SL is ISO 50-50,000 though you’d be advised not to max it out.
While the SL doesn’t have an optical low pass filter, we didn’t catch much in the way of moiré in our time with the camera.
Our previous experiences with Leica cameras have always left us wanting more from the video. Pleasantly, the SL marks a major step forward in both video quality and available features. It captures 4K at 4096X2160p24 or 3840X2160p30 plus Full HD at up to 120fps. Using the HDMI output, you can send a 10-bit 422 4K file to external recorders; there’s also a Log file option for desaturating video. Colors reproduced beautifully, if a bit heavily saturated, for both HD and 4K video recorded direct to card using a normal color profile. The only caveat is that to add audio recording, you’ll need an optional audio adapter to connect an external mic.
The SL is a barn burner, scorching Sony’s A7 models by delivering 11 fps at full resolution with focus fixed on the first frame. Even with continuous AF engaged, shooting drops down to about 6 fps. The 2GB buffer is enough to capture 33 RAW images or 30 JPEG+RAW files before slowing down.
Leica says the contrast AF system in the SL is the fastest of any full-frame camera in the class, although this is not a particularly crowded schoolhouse. The SL does acquire focus quickly, but not always accurately in continuous AF mode. In APS-C mode with tracking AF engaged, the SL was more hit-and-miss than we expected when focusing on distant objects at 90mm. The camera often struggled to lock focus. In full frame mode and at smaller focal lengths with closer subjects, we had more consistent and speedier results. The camera was very quick to focus indoors and in lower light environments.
Battery life is CIPA-rated for 400 shots—poor by DSLR standards but better than the A7R II.
Pitted against its most obvious rival, the A7R II, the SL lacks the resolution as well as the in-body image stabilization and tilting display. It’s low light/high ISO performance is good, but at this price, really needs to be spectacular. Speaking of price, the SL body is about double what you’d pay for an A7R II. Throw in the SL 24-90mm lens and your upfront cost for the SL system is several thousand more than what you’d pay to get started with the A7R II. What do you get for the extra money? A substantially sharper EVF, significantly faster continuous shooting, better battery life and a sturdier (if a bit heavier) camera body that’s weather resistant. Compared to the A7 II, the SL is also much quieter to shoot with.
If you’re willing to venture outside of the mirrorless market, DSLRs from Canon and Nikon offer greater resolution and vastly better battery life and ergonomics for a fraction of the price, but you’d have to go to top-of-the-line models like the Canon 1D-X or Nikon D4s to match the SL in the continuous shooting department.
PROS: High-speed continuous shooting; high-resolution viewfinder; excellent image quality; touch screen; 4K video; good battery life for a mirrorless.
CONS: Tracking AF can be hit-or-miss; no tilting display; pricey next to competition.