The Leica SL Typ 601 Camera Review: Leica Gambles Big

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The Leica SL Review: Leica Gambles Big
by Louis Ferreira (

Leica doesn't have many secrets to share depending on how closely you follow LeicaRumors. The Leica SL has been telegraphed since the original measurements of the Leica T mount were proven to be large enough to accommodate a full frame sensor. Since that revelation there has been wild speculation about what Leica might release, but along the way we covered everything of importance about the SL in articles like this, this and this. Therefore, we see almost no down side in working with Leica to develop an early review for readers of LeicaRumors instead of just republishing information that we already leaked months ago. Leica has never been very good at keeping secrets beyond how their cameras and lenses actually perform, which can only be judged first hand.

I'd like to start off by admitting the SL is most likely not a camera for me. It fails at everything I enjoy doing most with my M and Q. It's a very complicated camera compared to the Leicas I love. It's big, it's heavy and, if I were in the market for one, I would likely buy an S because of these issues as I would at least gain the look of medium format for my sacrifices.

But... There is greatness brewing. When shooting around base ISO, the glass shines and I can easily see the SL as an amazing studio camera because its very quick when given adequate lighting. It also has the best viewfinder you have ever used outside of medium format cameras, the body and lens are weather sealed, there’s a dual SD card slot, Leica's unmatched industrial design, and a reasonably fast GPS that isn't an after thought.


Introducing the Leica SL

When I met with Leica they pitched the SL as being a Nikon D4 and Canon 1D competitor, but I do not think that is accurate. The SL, in my experience, doesn't have the low light or auto focus performance to compare. It's also not really fair to compare it to the Sony A7 series beyond them both being mirrorless, interchangeable lens, full frame cameras.

The SL is something very new and different because it seems that Leica is trying to pack everything people love about mirrorless cameras into one body without compromise. The SL has some really amazing video potential that will be difficult to fully explore without a manual and recent cinematography/videography background. As I am writing this review, I am also  trying to bring my video processing skills up to an acceptable level to deal with the flexibility the Leica SL files provide, and I'm finding the cinematography possibilities more exciting than the photographic ones for the first time ever in a Leica camera.


The T\TL\SL Mount

It's no secret that the T mount was designed to be full frame friendly and the SL is the first camera to fully utilize the mounts potential. The SL can use all of the current T mount lenses and accessories for adapting third party lenses for the T mount and the T mount is being rebranded as the TL mount. I think the naming convention and vignette issues that might arise from lenses designed for an APS-C sensor are going to be confusing initially, but I am very happy to see them continue to support and grow the T/TL/SL mount. If you run into any issues with T mount lenses on the SL, you can switch the SL into a crop sensor mode that will make it perform like a 10MP T, but I hope that in the future lenses and accessories will be designed to work seamlessly.


The Glass

The SL is launching with a 24-90mm f/2.8-4 zoom lens that is a monster. In my short time shooting it, I haven't noticed any kind of optical issues, but it's very big and heavy for what I consider to be a slow zoom. I tried street shooting with the SL, but many people noticed the lens and asked me a variety of questions I'm not used to answering. Surprisingly, no one noticed the body or that it was a Leica. I have never had so many uncomfortable conversations with people before, over a camera or lens, and I street shot an S for a few days.

If you can get past the size of the initial zoom lens, it's a great lens that is pretty quick when there's adequate lighting; but when the available light is limited the lens hunts a bit when zoomed beyond 50mm. This can probably be fixed in firmware, but I found it frustrating at times to be able to lock onto a spot quickly at 24mm or 35mm, and then to miss a shot at 75mm or 90mm because the lens took upwards of 4 seconds to achieve focus lock in low light.

If I were to consider owning the SL system today, I would probably adapt lenses for it until the primes hit the market because I think they are going to be the go to glass for Leica photographers. If you're used to zooming with your feet and you want auto focus, the prime lenses will bring the size/weight of the SL down to a very reasonable level. I was able to handle the 35mm 1.4 Summilux in NYC, and it is very nice, but they are still tweaking it like many others.

Which brings up another issue for me at least, I like my lenses to be tactile and manually zooming/focusing, the SL feels great but there are currently no plans to release any lenses for the SL with aperture rings! This might not disappoint others, but maybe in a few generations the SL will attract more M shooters like me by offering lenses with a more classic design like other manufacturers do. I greatly prefer having an aperture ring and focus scale on every fixed focal length lens I own.


The Sensor

Leica still isn't disclosing who is making their sensors, but they have confirmed that the SL is very much like the Q internally. In my opinion, the 24MP sensor is a bit dated for a camera of this class. I think it should have been 36MP at least because, while the Q sensor is solid, the pixel density of every screen around me continues to increase and I think camera sensors are going to have to keep up with that reality. High megapixel isn't just about the ability to print big anymore, it is also about viewing pictures at very close distances with high pixel densities.

Beyond photography, Leica has given the SL all of the tools necessary to produce top notch video if you know how to, but there is a learning curve. The SL has a pretty substantial advantage over the Q in the video department with its proper 4K and internal 8-bit 4:2:0 video and external 10-bit 4:2:2 output in addition to a great default flat profile. I wish Leica would at least patch the flat profile and codec of the SL into the Q if they can't make the Q do 4K, but they have not hinted at any plans to improve the Q's video yet. It would be a great way to introduce Leica users to proper video editing.

Leica seems to have set up the SL sensor to offer better dynamic range around base ISO, which might have sacrificed some high ISO performance when compared to the Q, because 12,500 ISO is not as usable as it was on the Q. The SL has the potential to be sharper and has greater dynamic range than my M240 at low ISO, but I still would greatly prefer my Q and M240 when walking around a city at night.


File Quality

The RAW files seem to be just like Q files. They are 14 bit, can be pushed 2-3 stops pretty comfortably, and have plenty of dynamic range. The DNG files are 43MB apiece, which is the same as my Q and almost twice that of my M240 compressed files, which come in around 23MB. Storage really isn't a problem in today's world, but the SL can shoot RAW only, unlike the Q which is appreciated. Now the Q just needs a firmware update.


The Body

The SL body is milled from a single block of aluminum and is very light. If Leica could get their lens size/weight down, it might become a very light camera system, but at the moment the primes are the only lenses that make the SL a carry around town camera for me. People tend to go mirrorless to get away from a back breaking bag of lenses and I would love to see Leica be the first to design light full frame mirrorless zoom lenses.

I easily shot 400 pictures on a charge with the SL while using the EVF full time and reviewing select pictures on the back screen. The battery for the SL is great and I love that it uses the same battery locking system as the one on the S. The SL has a slightly larger rear screen than the Q, and it is a touch screen, but I really didn't use it beyond for review and setting up the camera. Setting up the SL is a bit of a chore. If you're a DSLR person that likes getting out the book and learning to tweak every setting, then you're going to love the SL because you have a ton of control over how the camera operates; but for me this spoils some of the Leica simplicity. The SL menus have more in common with a Sony camera than a Leica camera and I dreaded every time I had to dive into them.



Think of the biggest view finder you have ever used on a digital camera and it still would not begin to compare to the viewfinder on the SL. The 4.4MP EVF is monstrous, and very much like using the S. The viewfinder on the S almost made me buy one it is so good; so if a large, high quality viewfinder is important to you then this is your camera. I know many rangefinder and DSLR owners that buy based on the viewfinder, and if you are one of them, you're going to love the SL.



It took me a while to figure out the video features on the SL and even when I did I wasn't sure what I had until I was able to load it into my computer and color grade it, but when I did I was happy with the results. The SL is arguably Leica's first digital video camera and I could easily see directors pursuing the Leica look with this camera once they have had the time to master what the SL has to offer.

I haven't been big into video in quite some time, but I was tempted to bring my Final Cut Pro license up to date to see how far the SL can be pushed. The SL seems to have all the bells and whistles a serious cinematographer could ask for, but the confusing menu structure makes it difficult to fully exploit the camera’s potential. Maybe in the future I'll be luck enough to review a SL/Summilux-C combo, but there will be a learning curve because I haven't kept up with the video world.

Short Comings

The single biggest issue I have with the SL is its weight with a zoom lens attached. The 24-90mm is massive and Leica needs some lighter options for this camera to be viable for someone like me. The menus also need to be greatly simplified to be more intuitive so that anyone can pick the SL up and use it for photos/video. Finally, I wish they included a higher resolution sensor because a 24MP sensor is not going to do newly designed Leica glass justice. Nikon and Canon only recommend specific lenses for their highest resolution sensors and I would really like to see if Leica glass continues to perform with 50MP sensors and beyond.


The Future

The SL has potential as the system ages, and Leica is known for standing behind their mounts and having the best glass on the market. Therefore, I think the SL is a safe investment when it comes to building a glass collection, but I think future generation SL bodies are going to be the ones to blow our minds. As of right now, the SL is just a system that refuses to make compromises, and that has made it seemingly less than impressive in some areas. The lack of aggressively supporting the Q makes me worried that we will only see this system grow through hardware revisions, and that's not the best way to pursue autofocus based mirrorless systems.


To Buy or Not to Buy

At the end of my 4 days with the SL I still felt there was more to discover about the camera because of the overly complicated menus, but this is not a camera designed for me. In many ways the SL screams Leica, and those are all the ways I want to love it, but it's largely designed for a photographer that I do not understand no matter how hard I try.

In my opinion, this camera is for studio photographers and videographers, until the prime lens selection gets flesh out, unless you are a diehard DSLR fan that's ready to jump ship and go mirrorless. The Sony A7 is a very impressive camera, but they have done nothing to address the throw away nature of their product. Unfortunately, Sony seems more interested in selling sensors to other manufactures than trying to build up their brand among serious photographers. Leica might be positioned to capture the few professionals ready to go full frame mirrorless, but I wish they were competing in the price department a little more.

Video samples:

The Leica SL Typ 601 camera is now available for pre-order at Adorama and B&H.

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