It is only last year that the German underdogs (as far as high-level, sophisticated photography is concerned) made ripples in the market by venturing into the ILC bracket with the revolutionary T (Typ 701).
Frankly speaking, despite the spirited efforts and the hullabaloo generated by this next-gen camera, it later turned out to be a flop – at least to a big percentage of experienced photographers. However, this year they return bigger and better with the much publicised Leica SL (Typ 601) that was unveiled at the just concluded Photoplus Expo (October 2015) held at New York. Now, full-frame mirrorless enthusiasts can add another item on their wishlist as well as ILC tech aficionados.
Leica SL Stands Out
Like the Leica T before it, the Leica SL represents an up-to-the-minute piece of tech loaded with features that make it stand out exceptionally from the rest of the full-frame pack. Particularly, the Sony A7 series can easily be said to be one of the major competitors of this new Leica line mirrorless technology bracket, having dominated the interchangeable-lens camera arena for two years now.
But the Leica thrusts some new pro-oriented features in the market including a redefined high-res EVF, clear-resolution LCD and an entirely buttonless and clean user interface. But being a Leica, and a first-rate at that, expect to pay more than a premium for these equally top-grade specs. For starters, going for over $7500 / 6750 euros (body alone), the Leica’s price tag is almost double of that you would find on its nearest competitor – the Sony A7R II. And for fast continuous shooting, expect to pay up to $3500 / 3050 euros for the specially crafted Leica lens recommended for this full-frame DSLR.
Leica 601 – The Image Quality
When it comes to outstanding images and stellar quality photos, the label Leica has its reputation here. And in the new SL, Leica purports that the processor and image sensor used is similar to what you would find on other high-end shooters such as the Leica Q. From a general perspective, the photos are as terrific and outstanding as you would expect from any top-of-the-class continuous DSLR juggernaut. But if you need your JPEGs to appear professionally done (above average quality) you might need to tweak the settings a bit, especially the white balance and exposure times.
You will probably also want to underexpose your high contrast scenes as it is easier to recover shadow details compared to highlight details when working with this shooter.
As for the colour balance, it teeters around what you would term as reasonably accurate and neutral composition. Well, that’s until the sun goes down. After that, the difference starts to show. Low light performance has never been exactly Leica’s strongest virtue, and the script doesn’t read any differently with the newest SL. Even though the company has tried to improve the level and degree of detail preservation as far as low-light shots go, it has done so at the expense of the introduction of ‘noise’ and purplish hues. As a result, the pictures look a bit grainier than those you would find from DSLRs in this price bracket.
But it is not all doom in this department. The camera’s 4K video output is way above the average mark of most full-frame DSLRs. Nonetheless, again it is advisable to reduce the contrast balance when shooting in bright light conditions to avoid washed out images or overly-exposed clips. Other than that, the camera suffers less from motion blur, and clips captured of moving subjects look as life-like and real as you would expect from a high-end pro camera.
However, considering that it is rated at only 24fps, and then it is easily one of the best 4096 * 2160 recorders on the market today.
The preview feature, which reminds me of the previous Leica V-Log L, makes shooting video with this compact camera even easier. In fact, anyone with minimal basic photography skills can shoot almost pro-like clips with this camera.
The Design Specifications and Build Quality
The SL is one of the few full-frame DSLRs with a built-in SXAG 4.4MP resolution X-note EVF. And backing this up, is a 3″ multi-touch sensitive IPS LCD panel with more than 1.04M pixels. It is complemented by another top panel that houses a 1.28″ monochrome LCD status screen. Thanks to this duo-screen combination, and the soft contextual-like buttons (rather than labelled, rigid buttons), the Leica SL mirrorless camera remains one of the most premium looking shooters we will see in a long time. If anything, the cam exudes nothing short of industrial brilliance and professional aesthetics – typical Leica manufacturing signature.
Further, autofocus lovers are treated to an ingeniously placed joystick for quick and convenient AF selection. Couple that with a 4:2:0 internal USB recording or a 4:2:2 over HDMI, then you have yourself a capable continuous shooter that can record up to 11fps to an external HDD or USB stick.
The culture of introducing the latest smart connectivity features to handheld shooters has also been adopted by the Germans’. Spotting inbuilt WiFi capabilities, the Leica SL makes it to the list of next-gen cams that are future-proofed against any possible communication developments.
Above that, being a full-frame mirrorless camera, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the all the SL-mount lenses to be used with the Leica’s frame will include advance rugged features such as weather sealing and adjustable flash units.
Broadly speaking, the Leica SL performance is quite above average standards. It is arguably faster than other top-of-the-line cams such as the Sony A7R II and even beats the Nikon D750 in some operating conditions.
Nonetheless, courtesy of the above described ‘smart’ features such as the inbuilt WiFi capabilities, the camera is one of the slowest ones in the mirrorless category as far as booting on, focusing and shooting goes.
Not too slow, as per se, but if you’re already used to cameras that power on almost instantly, then you’ll obviously notice it.
The Bottom Line
There’s nothing remarkably bad about the Leica SL (save for the uncomfortable grip and mediocre low light performance). But on the other side, expect a fast continuous shooter, stellar image quality and, of course, a prohibitive price tag.