Leica CL mirrorless camera review

Leica CL quick street review

This Leica CL mirrorless camera review is by Gianni Galassi (Flickr | Blurb):

Thanks to my friend Gilberto Benni, manager of the Leica Store Piazza di Spagna in Rome, I had the opportunity to quickly try the Leica CL just a couple of days after its official launch. As soon as we met, he handed me the camera along with the newly introduced Elmarit 18mm TL and an M-to-TL adapter. I only had three hours to play with the much awaited CL, so I ran out of the store and had a walk in downtown Rome.


Leica CL - Adapted Leica Elmarit-M 90mm - ISO 5000

As a film-era born photographer, Leica's homage to the original CL of the Seventies aroused my expectations. The old CL was a marvelous tiny 35mm film camera with an M bayonet. I recall having owned two of them as back-ups for my M4P bodies, and they were a joy to use. Shortly, the film CL could be considered as a fully featured mini-M: same lenses, same format, same controls, same (more or less) build quality, all in a small, almost pocketable and cheaper package.

Thus my main curiosity was to find out if the digital CL can really be considered as a mini-digital-M. I sat down for a coffee and looked at the camera. Arguably, it's sexy. Leica engineers brilliantly managed to shape a product which fully bears the DNA of the German manufacturer's industrial design. It winks to the older 39mm thread-mount cameras line-up more than to the M lineage, in compliance with the vintage-is-good-hipster-is-better aesthetics mantra which inspires so many consumer products these days, from cars to motorcycles to bicycles, wrist watches and, well, cameras. Not that I dislike this, but it's a point worth to be made. Build quality is on par with Leica standards, except for the battery/SD card compartment cover, which is definitely on the flimsy side. Not a dealbreaker, but we could expect more care in a not-so-affordable product. I do not object Leica's pricing policy, I'm just considering this detail in a value-for-money perspective. This downside apart, the CL is a concentrate of awesome ergonomics and innovative solutions in a classic-ky photographer's tool. The best of which are the two clever wheels/buttons on the top, allowing aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation and mode selection setting, along with a wealth of optional controls. The small but easily readable display in the middle does a great job so that even an M photographer like your humble does not miss old-time dedicated dials and rings.

As far as the menu system is concerned, Leica has made their homework at their best, deserving nothing less than an A+. Like in the recent M10, pressing the menu button once displays a customizable quick menu list. A second press shows the full menu list, which is short, simple, photographer-oriented and handsomely written.

After card formatting, I started taking photographs with the 18mm pancake lens. Autofocus turned out to be fast and reliable. I'm no sport nor action photographer, but what I felt is a camera-lens system which catches focus with no hesitation nor hunting. In this regard, the CL is in a totally different league than the sluggish and now discontinued Xes and XVario. Another brilliant implementation from Leica engineers is the auto-to-manual-focus switching system: you just rotate the focus ring on your lens and are in full manual control, assisted by a magnified portion of the framed scene or, if you prefer, by a color-customizable focus peaking system. Shortly, setting the right distance is a breeze, even with such a short focal lens.


Leica CL - Elmarit TL 18mm


Leica CL - Elmarit TL 18mm

After a while, I realized that I had the M-to-TL adapter in my trousers pocket, so I gave the CL a try as an M-ish APS light body. I happened to have my 6-bit coded Elmarit-M 28mm on me, so I took some shots in this odd 42mm equivalent focal length. This is where things get a little messy, IMHO. I mean, I'm used to deceiving handling (and deceiving image quality as well, most of the times) when mating non-native lenses -even great lenses- to whatever body via adapters. I do not deny the excitement and the fetish value of this procedure, but frankly... Well, the CL is no surprise in this respect. Even with a tiny lens like the Elmarit 28 the camera feels unbalanced. As for focusing, either you zone-focus or resort to manually try and nail the right distance with your lens wide-open, and then remember to go back (manually) to the required aperture value. Unless you always shoot wide-open, which is not the most common way you use a wide -to say so- lens. Moreover, I don't see the point in mating short focal full-frame lenses to crop-sensors: corners fall-off, field curvature, distortion and a lesser speed are a heavy price to pay. Add the cost of a good adaptor and you quickly realize that it's a worthless game. The tune changes with standard or telephoto lenses. A crop sensor uses only the best part of their optics and you can take a worthy advantage of the increased equivalent focal length.


Leica CL - Adapted Elmarit-M 28mm

I happened to have my 6-bit coded Elmarit-M 90mm that day as well, so I treated myself with the opportunity to take some street shots (not my piece of cake at all) with a 135mm equivalent. This is the case when a wide-open lens makes the business, and the slender depth-of-field helps the focus peaking system to do the job at its best. Thanks to the good high-ISO performance of the CL I managed to take shots of tourists in front of the Spanish Step quite easily, despite the dim light and the lack of any in-lens or in-camera anti-shake system. Nonetheless, if you allow me a piece of advice, in case you are planning to buy the CL, you better forget all the lenses (vintage or recent) lying in your cabinet, budget a couple of good native TL primes and be a happy photographer. They don't come cheap, I know but hey, you only live once. The 18mm pancake will not get your jaw drop for its image quality (it's a tiny, lightweight and honest piece of optics), but the Summicron-TL 23mm is considered the best APS medium-wide-angle prime that money can buy.


Leica CL - Adapted Leica Elmarit-M 90mm - ISO 1600


Leica CL - Adapted Leica Elmarit-M 90mm - ISO 1600


Leica CL - Adapted Leica Elmarit-M 90mm - ISO 1250


Leica CL - Adapted Leica Elmarit-M 90mm - ISO 1600

At last, after my three hours walk with the Leica CL I could answer my first question: no, the CL is far from being a mini-M. As a long-time M user, both film and digital, I think that we will never see a Third Millennium version of the old time CL. On the other hand, the new CL is a champion in its own league: it's handsome, brilliantly designed, almost perfectly built and delivers great image quality. APS at its best, definitely. It comes at a price, of course, like good wine, food, cars and hotels do. And 24 megapixel is more than most of us will ever need in its photographic life. The recent hi-definition race is no more than an interesting tech exercise IMHO or, at worst, an insane marketing trick.

I read blogs stating that the CL in kit with the Elmarit 18mm could be a credible alternative to the Leica Q. I don't believe this either. Although lacking lens interchangeability, the full frame Q is a more powerful photographic tool than the CL. I had a very satisfying experience with the Leica Q last year when shooting an architecture and landscape portfolio in Arctic Norway, the outcome of which is the subject of my next solo exhibition in Rome, opening next February. And I only sold that awesome camera when I could manage to find a second hand M Typ 262 at a reasonable price. The latter, along with a Monochrom CCD and 21, 28, 35, 50 and 90mm primes makes my perfect kit.

Nonetheless, if I was on the market to buy a new no-frills and photographer-oriented crop-sensor system camera, with the Leica red dot on it, organic color rendition and great flexibility for black and white conversion, along with a better-than-average out-of-camera jpg, I wouldn't hesitate: the new CL would be my choice. Especially if I was a street photographer (which I'm not, as PhotoGraphia regulars certainly know).


Gilberto at work in Leica Sore Roma Piazza di Spagna
Leica CL - Adapted Leica Elmarit-M 90mm - ISO 2500

This review was originally published here, reposted with permission.

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  • Gary Craggs

    May I ask, where did you get the idea that “the Summicron-TL 23mm is considered the best APS medium-wide-angle prime that money can buy”? I had a thorough search online and can find only one review: PC Mag gives it 3.5 out of 5 and says it needs stopping down to avoid softness… I’m genuinely curious because the CL and a couple of primes would make a nice, lighter and cheaper alternative to the SL and it’s as-yet unavailable 35mm and 75mm. But not if the optics aren’t up to it.

    • Robert Falconer

      The Summicron-TL 23mm is easily bested by the Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4 R.

      • Gary Craggs

        Again, what are your sources? Certainly the X-system is well built, responsive and produces images that are sharp and rich in colour. Its also significantly cheaper than the CL/TL. But in what ways is the XF 23mm better than the TL 23mm? I have the X-Pro2, so it’s a genuine question.

        • Robert Falconer

          The reviews are freely available online. Go and have a look and you’ll soon discover the aggregate conclusion. Here’s just one example >> https://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2460618,00.asp

          Also, the Summicron is way overpriced, relative to its performance, autofocus is poor, and it’s not really an f2 lens (when you get close to your subject the camera automatically stops down to 2.8).

          The Fujinon, on the other hand, is almost universally highly regarded.

          • Gary Craggs

            Thanks Robert, but this thread is already becoming circular. My original comment referred to the absence of reviews online. I had a look, and there was nothing to aggregate. The PCMag review you referred to being the one I mentioned as the only one I could find. And that one is critical not celebratory. I’m aware of how highly regarded the XF is; but that’s not a comparison and doesn’t support the original article. Back to square one.

          • ZMWT

            There isn’t a single honest, thorough review of the Leica TL system nor its lenses. The system is a bit obscure, no one knows its real capacity. You will have to do all homework yourself, like I did. After all the efforts, I concluded that YouTube reviews by the The Camera Store TV and by Big Head Taco are the best, and brutally honest.
            I tried all TL cameras, tried CL, tried several lenses (18, 23, 35, 18-55, 11-23, handled 55-130), talked to one of Leica’s ambassadors, especially regarding the CL, and I found out I knew some information better than him. Although, he did say he worked with the wide-angle lens for the TL system, and it seems to be quite good. I also saw A2 prints from the CL. However, I tried the CL with the new 18mm lens, and the lens is not fast focusing. My 5 yo m4/3 camera locks faster with a prime lens. 23mm lens is even slower. Zooms are all finely built and decent. Handling-wise, and feature-wise, value for money etc., the CL is *the worst of all cameras* Leica released in the last 10 years. I absolutely hated it. On the other hand, TL2 is much better, and the Q is excellent.

          • William Bridge

            My opinion is that reading reviews can give a rough idea about what does the camera, how it is made to interract with the photographer etc. But to me it is pointless to decide to purchase or not on this basis.
            It is better to try the camera yourself to make a decision and also check the pictures on your own computer and not just look at image bench reviews with numbers about how many lines a lens is supposed to resolve etc. To decide if it is good or not.
            If you want to see a lot of content, pictures, conparisons, opinions about Leica stuff your best bet is to register on “l camera forum”. This is the forum with the biggest Leica user base. Lots of pics, lots of people talking about Leica gear, but also lots of people who compare with other systems they own like sony or fuji. This is very instructive and it is much better to have a real conversation with real owners. Just my opinion 🙂

      • RodneyKilo

        We don’t know the full quality of the Fuji because final lens correction is not done optically, but via firmware in the camera. Thus the final apparent result- from a Fuji body- can appear much better than the lens itself would render. This is done of course to reduce manufacturing cost and hence to preserve margin.

        Certainly Leica M lenses are optically corrected to a T. But I don’t know about these CL lenses. Are these also firmware corrected?

        • Robert Falconer

          I would be very surprised if the CL lenses were not firmware corrected; most lenses are today, because the instant we moved to digital there was no longer any such thing as pure optical performance anymore. Everything — from capture right on down the chain to final processing in your favorite developer — is *processed* from the original light converted to binary data. The only thing that matters is the final output. A truer test of a lens’ actual performance would come by comparative evaluations using film, which eliminates any intermediary digital conversion steps.

        • TL lenses are digitally corrected, so is the lens in Q, so are 6-bit coded M lenses on a digital M or when used with the TL adapter

          • RodneyKilo

            Does that mean then, that if I use a 6-bit M lens on an M6 film body, that the result will not show the full benefit of the lensmaker’s craft vs my using a non 6-bit M lens on the film body?

            In other words, M lenses have always been optically corrected to the final mile. But now 6-bit M lenses do not go as far with optical correction as do the prior versions?

          • There’s no simple answer to this since part of the problem is in the digital sensor.

            The glass cover and Bayer filter add depth to the sensor. If you use older lenses, particularly those wide angle lenses, you may have severe vignetting and colour shifts, which do not happen on film. The micro lens array on the sensor should in theory alleviate these ill effects already, but the six bit coding allows thorough digital correction of these artifacts.

            Being designed for high resolution sensors, modern Leica lenses should be no worse than older non-coded lenses, quite the contrary they appear to be more contrasty and sharper. Whether you like that look or not is another story.

          • RodneyKilo

            Seems like it would be easy to answer just by grabbing an M6 and first shooting away with a newish 6-bit Summicron and then with a 20 year old version.

            It sounds like you’re saying however that the firmware lens correction is correcting issues with the onboard digital conversion and processing itself, not with the light passing through the lens. That’s fine, but I wouldn’t consider that lens corrections then, just part of normal image processing, AFTER the light has passed through the lens?

            In other words, does “lens correction” in this context refer to normal digital processing workflow, or does it refer to elimination of various aberrations and flaws that are inherent in all optical lens designs, the final mile of whose correction adds significantly to the cost?

          • In essence you can just test coded and non-coded lenses on a film body.

            The firmware correction is all digital, not optical. For very well optically corrected lenses, look no further than the 50 APO summicron. If we’re not restricting ourselves to Leica, Zeiss Otus lenses are good examples.

    • William Bridge

      The optics aren’t up to it ?
      Errhhh…we are talking about Leica here so I think you should not make such fast conclusion. I think the global rating also reflects the fact the lens is very expensive relative to its spec : APSC lens.
      Look for samples in Flickr and also read reviews online that reflects the real performance of the lens wide open (in your case) and you will soon notice that the need for “stoping down” is all but relative.
      Good reviews with big and detailed pics are hard to find but there are some.
      Maybe there are better and cheaper options but the 23mm f2 is by no means a “so-so” lens. 🙂

      • ZMWT

        Lens in Leica X 113 kicks this 23/2 Cron in the butt. It is a thoroughly superior lens, and perhaps best ’35mm equivalent’ lens ever made for the APS-C. If you can find X113 camera, GET IT!

  • ZMWT

    Leica camera reviews by Leica store employees, and by the Leica ambassadors? You gotta be kidding, right?

    • Yes, why not? It’s a guest post. Is he not allowed to say anything about the camera?

      • ZMWT

        Of course he can. And that is about the level of reviews that makes Leica happy, but leaves users in utter darkness.

  • ZMWT

    First of all, I don’t trust Leica store employee ‘review’.

    I tried all TL cameras, tried CL, tried several lenses (18, 23, 35, 18-55, 11-23, handled 55-135), talked to one of Leica’s ambassadors, especially regarding the CL, and I found out I knew some information better than him. I don’t blame him – he uses Leica SL exclusively. Although, he did say he worked with the wide-angle lens for the TL system, and it seems to be quite good (minimal to no distortions). I also saw A2 prints from the CL and that wide-angle lens; fine, but the results from the M are superior even in print.

    However, I tried the CL with the new 18mm lens, and the lens is not fast focusing. My 5yo m4/3 camera locks faster with a prime lens. 23mm lens is even slower. Zooms are all finely built and decent.

    Handling-wise, and feature-wise, value for money etc., the CL is *the worst of all cameras* Leica released in the last 10 years. I absolutely hated it, worst value for money ever. It is convoluted to use, looks technologically as is from the 2007! Rudimentary crop camera, with *zero* digital features, and is worse to use than the Leica X. While X was rudimentary camera, but excellent in use, the CL is not even that! On the other hand, TL2 is better made, better value, fun to use. The Leica Q camera is excellent, perhaps their best all rounder.

    The TL lenses are way overpriced for what they offer, (no WR, no scales, just basic fly by wire focusing) but they do deliver satisfactory, above-average image quality and with great micro-contrast.

  • RodneyKilo

    “Nonetheless, if I was on the market to buy a new no-frills and photographer-oriented crop-sensor system camera, with the Leica red dot on it…”
    Well, that narrows it down.

    • ZMWT

      There are too many presumptions in that sentence, like “market”, “no-frills”, “crop-sensor”, “system camera” etc. Do normal people buy on those buzzwords? No, only salesmen from the camera shops. Panasonic-made and Leica-rebadged Typ 109 camera is a no-frill, real camera for real people that beats CL in usability, compactness, and overall satisfaction. Best camera with a red dot to buy.

  • John-F

    Peter,

    FYI, in the current issue number 400 of the French photo magazine Chasseur d’Images, there is a complete test of the Leica CL (along with a hi-res comparison shootout of the Sony A7RIII, the Nikon D850 and the Canon EOS 5Dsr…). CI magazine is one of the best and most reliable photography magazine in Europe. They call a spade a spade (even if the spade carries a Red Dot…)

    ref: https://www.chassimages.com/index.php/2017/12/14/ci400/

    As soon as I get my copy (we get them 3 weeks later than in France…), I will let you know the conclusion(s) of CI on the Leica CL. Unless of course some readers in France would be willing to share (some of the) info with the rest of us. Thank you – Merci !

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