It may push the definition of ‘compact’ to its limit, but Leica SL top-end compact system camera has some outstanding features that set it apart from the rest, as Andy Westlake discovers.
There’s something about Leica SL (Typ 601) Mirrorless Digital Camera that makes many photographers go slightly weak at the knees. It’s a name that’s indelibly associated with some of the greatest photographers of all time, including the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Robert Frank, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The company’s most iconic product line, its M-series rangefinders, is more than 60 years old, and took the seismic transition from film to digital in its stride while barely changing in design. Indeed, the current Leica M-P looks more or less the same as the 1954 M-3, while the Leica M-A is just about the last ‘serious’ 35mm film camera still available.
With all this nostalgia as a distraction, it can be easy to overlook another side of Leica that’s emerged in recent years – that of a company aiming to provide unique tools for professional photographers (or perhaps ambitious enthusiasts with very accommodating bank managers). First were the S-series medium-format DSLRs, based around a 45x30mm Pro Format sensor, and now the company’s Leica SL (Typ 601) Mirrorless Digital full-frame compact system camera.
Leica is only the second company to bring out a mirrorless model with a full-frame sensor, after Sony’s groundbreaking Alpha 7 series, although logic dictates that it certainly won’t be the last. The SL stretches the word ‘compact’ in the compact system cameras acronym to breaking point, being as large and as heavy as the average full-frame DSLR. But it’s also a heavyweight in terms of features, being blessed with 11 frames per second continuous shooting, internal 4K video recording and an extraordinary 4.4-million-dot electronic viewfinder, which is easily the best we’ve yet seen on a stills camera.
All this cutting-edge technology might seem alien for Leica SL (Typ 601) Mirrorless Digital Camera , and we rather suspect that the company has spent a lot of time recently picking the brains of its long-time collaborator Panasonic. But no matter where all this know-how comes from, one thing is clear – the SL is a serious proposition. Let’s take a closer look at what it offers.
Usually the first thing we examine with any camera is the sensor, and Leica SL (Typ 601) has opted for a 24-million-pixel full-frame CMOS unit. This does without an optical low-pass filter to maximize acuity, but clearly the SL is still some way behind the latest high-resolution models such as the 50.6MP Canon EOS 5DS R, 42.4MP Sony Alpha 7R II or 36MP Nikon D810. However, Leica is keen to stress that pixel count isn’t the be-all and end-all of image quality, and that the excellence of its lenses should at least partially close the gap. It’s also probably worth pointing out that 24MP is easily sufficient to give highly detailed 24x16in/A2 prints, although higher pixel counts do offer more scope for cropping.
This image was shot at ISO 10,000 and still shows an impressive control of noise
If there’s one thing Leica really has got absolutely right with the SL, it’s the viewfinder. Its 4.4-million-dot EyeRes finder gives exceptional detail, and a larger view than the optical finders on even top-of-the-range full-frame DSLRs. Its 60fps refresh rate means there’s barely any lag, either. In addition to this, it can display a wide range of exposure information, overlay your choice of gridlines and even display electronic levels. The net result isn’t just the most impressive electronic viewfinder yet, but it’s probably the finest viewfinder on any Mirrorless Digital full-frame camera to date, surpassing even the best optical finders such as that on the Canon EOS 5DS R.
Leica SL (Typ 601) Mirrorless Digital Camera EVF is backed up by a 3in, 1.04-million-dot rear screen that also gives a bright, detailed view. It’s touch-sensitive, which means it can be used to select the focus point and change certain settings, including ISO and exposure compensation. An eye sensor allows the camera to switch seamlessly between the two viewing methods during shooting. It’s just a pity that the LCD isn’t articulated in any way, which is a disadvantage compared to the tilting screen on the Sony Alpha 7R II.
There’s no getting away from the fact that the SL is a big, heavy camera, especially with its SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 lens attached. Indeed, it’s as large as full-frame DSLRs such as the Nikon D810 or Canon EOS 5DS R fitted with their 24-70mm f/2.8 zooms. Its build quality appears faultless – the dust and splash-resistant body is machined from two solid blocks of aluminum alloy, and feels totally rigid in your hand. It should shrug off the abuse of daily professional use with ease. Exposure compensation is assigned to the left-side button behind the top dial, and ISO to the button top-left of the LCD; both are unreachable without a significant change of grip. However, I re-assigned these settings to the two buttons on the right side of the screen, which are both easily reached by your right thumb, and found that when set up like this the SL worked well.
Unusually, I didn’t find the touchscreen to be very useful while shooting; mainly because I was working with the Leica SL (Typ 601) Mirrorless Digital Camera EVF all the time and only a few shooting settings have been given a touch interface anyway. The screen can at least be used to browse through images in playback, although it isn’t as responsive with this as it could be.
Leica SL (Typ 601) has made very bold claims about the SL’s autofocus, saying it’s the worlds fastest in any full-frame camera, and while this should be taken with a pinch of salt I had few complaints in real-world use. In fact, the autofocus behaves much as I’d expect from a modern contrast-detection system; it’s very fast, essentially silent and near 100% accurate. It also works well in low light, so long as you pay attention to where you place the focus area (which is made very easy by the Leica SL Typ 601 joystick controller).
Effective image stabilisation allowed me to handhold at 62mm and 1/6sec
Manual focusing is a breeze, too, due to the huge clear viewfinder and optional focus-peaking display. For the most accurate focusing, live-view magnification can also be engaged in two steps, by tapping the button lower left of the LCD. This is a bit awkward when shooting with the heavy 24-90mm kit zoom, but it should be less of a problem for those using manual-focus lenses via a mount adapter.
In practical use, the Leica SL (Typ 601) performs very well. With no anti-aliasing filter, the sensor is capable of recording loads of detail, and its impressive noise performance means that sensitivities up to ISO 12,500 are quite usable. Metering tends to be accurate, and it’s easy to preview the effects of your exposure settings in the viewfinder and apply any necessary changes before even taking a shot.
Image detail is stunning; this shot is cropped from a portrait-format frame
I was a little disappointed by the camera’s JPEG output, which gives muted colours and white balance that errs to the cool side. To be fair, though, I’d expect almost everyone using this camera to be shooting raw, and the DNG output means you can get to work straight away with the software of your choice. Indeed, the raw files are impressively malleable, with lots of scope for pulling detail from deep shadows at low ISOs.
Currently, the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Asph is the only autofocus full-frame lens that can be used on the Leica SL (Typ 601), and will therefore be a major determinant of its image quality for most early adopters. Fortunately, it’s exceptional, as we’d expect given its price tag. It’s superbly sharp, with minimal chromatic aberration or vignetting.
Highlights and shadows adjusted: Lots of shadow detail can be pulled up by processing in Adobe Camera Raw
Leica SL (Typ 601) has fitted the SL with a 24-million-pixel full-frame CMOS sensor, which it says is related to that inside the Leica Q (Typ 116) full-frame compact, and is not the Sony unit used in several other full-frame cameras. Specifically, the design of its pixels means that they can accept incoming light from more acute angles, which according to Leica means it should be less prone to the colour shading and corner smearing that can be seen when shooting with certain M-mount wide angle lenses.
With no low-pass filter, the sensor resolves a lot of detail, although this means it can occasionally be prone to giving image artifacts in return. As we’d expect from a modern full-frame sensor, low ISO dynamic range is very high and high ISO noise performance very commendable, too.
At low ISOs of 50-200, the SL gives an impressively high dynamic range of 12.5EV or more in our Applied Imaging tests, indicating that raw files should offer significant scope for manipulation and recovering shadow detail in particular. Beyond ISO 400, it starts to fall more rapidly, and by the time we get beyond ISO 3,200 it’s rather low, indicating that at this point noise will start to have a more serious impact on detail. At ISOs 25,000 and 50,000 we see very low readings, suggesting these settings should be avoided.
From the moment you set eyes on the Leica SL (Typ 601), it’s clear this is no ordinary camera. With its slab-sided design and minimalist unmarked controls it looks like nothing else on the market, particularly when kitted with its huge 24-90mm zoom. The spec sheet is impressive, too; no other full-frame camera has quite the same combination of resolution and speed.
There’s little to complain about in terms of image quality, either, with the sensor and lens combining to deliver superb results. The addition of 4K video shooting is the icing on the cake.
Unfortunately, though, the Leica SL (Typ 601) eccentric control system with its unmarked, dual-function buttons marks it out as one of the least intuitive cameras to pick up and use that we’ve seen for a long time. Indeed, it’s almost the antithesis of Leica’s other recent design, the rangefinder-like Q, with its traditional control dials. But after spending some time studying it and re-configuring it to my liking.