Leica SL: A Camera In Search of a Market
Last updated on October 21, 2015
The Leica SL (Type 601) - an interesting camera that no one will buy.
When Leica Camera announced the long-rumored Leica SL (Type 601), code-named "Max" at "Das Wesentliche" event in Berlin on October 21, 2015 - commentary exploded after a buildup of steady derision. The response has been almost universal; lamenting the size and cost of what "should be" a compact mirrorless camera system. Leica is no stranger to haters when it comes to their camera releases. Most have certainly had their fair share of pro/con commentary. Where the Leica SL differed is that most fell into the latter camp. Are people being too quick to judge, or is this camera just misunderstood? Perhaps. But there are bigger issues that aren't being discussed.
It's no secret that we like Leica cameras around here... Especially the M platform. But let's face it - not every camera can (or will be) a hit. Take the T for example. It just hasn't sold well. The most recent offering, the Q - is by Leica standards moving quite well. So for their next trick, Leica has combined the T and the Q and sprinkled it with some S - and announced the Leica SL (Type 601) camera system.
What It Is
Let's first talk about the size, as this is the most often heard complaint so far. Yes, it looks like a big camera - but the lenses are bigger still. In fact, the Leica SL with the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens fitted (the only one available at launch) - appears bigger than most pro-level DSLRs. The problem is that people automatically associate mirrorless cameras with the notion of being compact. It's true that thus far, these cameras have been smaller than their "equivalent" SLR/DSLR counterparts due to the fact that the mirror box and pentaprism are no longer necessary with the advent of the EVF (Electronic ViewFinder).
To be perfectly honest, competing in today's mirrorless market would be hard for any company - let alone Leica, who's late to the game. Even if they did enter the market in a more timely fashion, they still couldn't compete against the juggernauts of Sony, Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, etc. So... Leica has done what they do best - go the entirely opposite direction. Favoring image quality and pro-level features above all else. This approach practically guarantees large lenses due to extreme correction through the use of many lens elements. Let's not forget, also - that this is also a full frame sensor and not APS-C.
The Leica SL is an interesting camera in the sense that it combines a body reminiscent of the S cameras, with touches from the T and the innards of the Q. There's little M camera heritage to be seen here, and that's not really a bad thing. This is a forward-thinking camera that's meant to be a modern approach to an SLR. Indeed, the name SL comes from the Leicaflex SL, an R-lens SLR from a bygone era. If you look at the "hump" of the camera and the spaced-out "L E I C A" lettering - this assertion is spot-on. This camera is Leica's answer to a modern DSLR - one that can easily utilize essentially every lens Leica has ever produced, from the R, the T, S and M. Naturally adapters are necessary for many of them, except for the T mount upon which this camera is based. This mount was designed from the get-go to be full frame; it just wasn't realized in the APS-C format T camera.
In combining qualities of their existing bodies, Leica has given us the best of each. The unmarked, yet configurable controls and display screens are straight from the S and T cameras. Even the viewfinder reminds one of the S (or Visoflex EVF finders of the T and M). The sensor at the heart of the SL is a modified unit from the Q. We've reviewed the Q in-depth and we rather fancied it - including the output. It's arguably a rather popular camera for Leica as well. Though we do question the limitation of 24MP for a "pro" camera.
What It Is Not
So now we have a sense of what the camera is meant to be. But how does that translate into the real world? This is where Leica will have to overcome both perception and reality.
While the Leica SL is meant to represent a pro-level camera, we suspect many "pros" won't be interested. For example, the Canon and Nikon shooters. The most critical component is the lens lineup. Sure, the Leica SL is compatible with most Leica lenses ever made... But bear in mind that most of those aren't autofocus. Or full frame. Or available new. Or in focal lengths many require. Take for example sports shooters. The only "available" lenses that meet their needs are older, discontinued and manual focus R lenses.
Speaking of the Leica SL lens lineup... There is only one lens available at launch - the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH. The next lens due out that's compatible isn't arriving until spring 2016, and it's the Summilux-TL 35mm f/1.4 ASPH. The next true SL lens, the APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 - won't be out until mid-2016. The first high speed SL prime, the Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 ASPH - won't be out until late 2016. So not only is the camera late to the game in general, it won't have a truly usable lens lineup for another year. Yes, you can use T lenses - but bear in mind you'll be cropping a 24MP sensor down to 10MP. Sony has often been derided as having a rather lame lens lineup, but this is taking it to a whole new level. What's being mentioned today, let alone available for another year - still represents a very minimal lineup. Where is the ultra-wide zoom? Other focal length primes? This lack of a clear and comprehensive lens lineup will be an immediate turnoff to many, especially "pro" shooters.
A brief side note... Yes, you can adapt some great R lenses (for example) but consider you'll have to go out and find one, hopefully in good condition and pay whatever the going rate is. But in the end, it's just not a native lens with auto focus. And what happens when it breaks or needs service? They're all discontinued, remember. This is not a situation a "pro" will want to be in. Those looking for an upgrade path for R/T cameras or those with a multitude of Leica lenses perhaps. Let's also keep in mind that adapted lenses are rarely representative of their native performance.
Let's quickly revisit the size issue while we're talking about lenses. When the ultimate image quality is your goal - lenses tend to be large. Very large. So we can overlook the size of Leica's SL lenses, to a degree. Then there's the body. A lot of the early reviews, especially one from a certain site - made the camera look comically huge. Whether done on purpose or not, it has fueled the cries of many, complaining of the nearly medium format stature of the Leica SL. When put into a proper context, the body is actually not that large! In fact, side-by-side with the M, it's nearly the same. Same width, same depth - it's just a bit taller. The large grip and squared design doesn't do the SL's figure any favors though. So really, it only looks huge by itself and without context. But yes, it's markedly larger than a Sony α7. The lenses are really what's freakishly large here.
Then there's the sensor. As we said, we're fond of the Leica Q sensor's output - and this revision is tweaked to be even better. Early sample photos do show this to be largely true. But it's also the same 24MP resolution. While fine for most shooters out there, we're talking pro-level spec here - and entering a market that Sony clearly owns when it comes to resolution. Their top of the line, the α7R II - offers 42.4MP. Sony also leads the pack when it comes to ISO, at least on paper - the α7S II offering a ludicrous (and unusable) top-end of ISO 409,600. Curiously, there's scant mention of the base ISO of the SL anywhere, which is ISO 50. This would make using the somewhat slower, variable aperture zooms (f/2.8-4) less than ideal in poor light - though it seems you can shoot images at higher ISOs with impressive results. They just won't be at the optimum ISO and image quality.
Ergonomics are a touchy subject; everyone will prefer something different. The Leica SL is clearly styled, loosely, after Leica's own pro camera - the S. At least on the back and top deck. The skin is that of the Q; while comfortable, it's not particularly grippy and time will tell regarding longevity and the ability to hold up to use and abuse. Then there's the front. A peculiar, bland square that is the body - with a Bauhausian grip. The location of the shutter button atop it - and behind a large dial - is equally curious. For a pro camera, most people we know prefer a more sculpted body similar to Canon or Nikon, which are almost entirely rubberized. What's also strikingly different is the dearth of analog controls for fast adjustments of various settings. Certainly everything can be accomplished via EVF/LCD and the various buttons and dials on the camera... But when it comes to speed, it's arguable that nothing beats muscle memory and an appropriate dial, button or lever under your fingers - that can be utilized practically sight-unseen. Granted, Sony is hardly a benchmark of ergonomics; neither in body design nor UI. Though we'd argue that Fujifilm got a lot of things right in their offerings.
A quick moment to mention video. Yes, the Leica SL can take cine lenses (by way of adapter). But will anyone seriously consider the Leica SL for video work? We're not convinced. This market is already rather saturated with excellent offerings from Sony and Canon, RED and others. The Sony and Canon offerings have a lot of advanced features while their price tags are dramatically lower - and are already quite entrenched in this space. Though the SL does have some promising features... 4K format up to 30fps and full HD at 120fps (for slow motion). There is zebra, audio monitoring and S-Log V gamma to record a flat image and it works at low ISOs. There's also a full size HDMI output that is 10 bit 4:2:2.
Finally, there's the cost. The body alone is $7,450 USD. The 24-90mm lens another $4,950 USD on top of that. That's $12,400 USD just for a usable combo. Batteries are $250 each. Lens adapters around $350 - each. Most pros we know can't afford that... Or most amateurs, for that matter. Just as the Leica M is a niche product - the pricing of the SL almost guarantees it will be as well.
The Leica SL camera is a bold entry for Leica in the mirrorless market. They're betting big - rather than small. The right approach, to enter a market where competition among diminutively-sized camera systems is in full swing. But the wrong approach to capture the intended market; "pros" looking for a high-spec mirrorless camera. The competition in this segment is less fierce but has two contenders that already have this niche well in hand... Sony and Fujifilm. Both companies offer cameras that feature high-ISO specs, high-resolution sensors, a variety of bodies from point and shoot to retro/pro-style configurations and well-established lens lineups. Leica seems to be trying to take on their shortcomings - but not in a persuasive enough way, in our opinion.
While it's clear why Leica chose this format to enter the market - the question is if there are really consumers there willing to buy into the Leica SL system.