Leica SL: Taming the wayward joystick to allow a fixed centre focus area
A byproduct of modern camera design is that these electronic wonders take some getting used to. Every manufacturer has its owns quirks in menu design and newcomers can find it difficult set up the features to their liking. Wouldn't it be great if there were some international standard for camera menu design?
A lot of different mirrorless cameras pass through my hands and, often, I struggle to get to grips with the simplest settings. I know they are there somewhere, but where to find them? I think it is a common issue which most people experience when they pick up a new digital.
When I first met the Leica SL I was intrigued by the new-fangled joystick. At first, it made me anything but joyful as I struggled to avoid nudging it in error. After years of criticising easily pressed D pads, here was a whole new world of frustration opening up.
Unfortunately, by default, the SL's joystick moves the focus point around the screen. Alarmingly, as it turns out. With the 24-90 zoom mounted and in autofocus mode, I was disturbed to find the focus point always in a different part of the screen every time I looked through the viewfinder. I lost count of the number of shots I lost because the focus was in the bottom left-hand corner or somewhere equally unhelpful.
Call me a traditionalist, but I like a fixed centre area focus, as I am used to with the rangefinder M. I prefer to focus, hold and then recompose, it just feels more natural. It's no wonder I was frustrated by the joystick's unpredictability. I thought to myself, easy peasy, I'll set the menu to fix the focus. But could I find how to do it? No, I couldn't.
As soon as I discovered this sad fact I asked around, including among dealers and existing owners, and all thought there was no option to freeze the focus point in the centre of the screen. Some wondered why I would even want to do it. I spent a further couple of hours searching the menus without success and resigned myself to having to put up with this annoying feature. I was on the point of calling Jonathan Slack. If anyone knew, he would.
However, I had already arranged to meet Leica's Robin Sinha over a coffee in the company's Cafe Optik in Bruton Place. The main reason was to take a refresher course on the camera's options to help with my forthcoming review of the camera. But I decided to put the wayward joystick on the agenda, albeit without a great deal of hope.
Unlike many digitals, the SL has a relatively simple and intuitive menu arrangement dominated by four large unmarked but customisable buttons arranged around the screen. As Robin points out, the SL system is very similar to that on the S (which I have not used) and it is therefore second nature to anyone who is familiar the medium-format Leica. For those who have grown up with mainstream digitals or, even, Leica's own X cameras, the layout is at first confusing. However, once you get the hang of the system the menus turn out to be concise and very easy to navigate. Except....
Robin had not been asked about freezing the focus area before and hadn't thought it a problem. But we sat down to go through the menus in detail in an effort to give a definitive answer—can the focus area be locked in the centre of the frame or not?
Together we discovered how to do it and the good news is that it is possible to fix focus in the centre of the frame without it being susceptible to joystick or screen-touch interference. It's just not all that obvious how to do it. Like most things, though, its easy once you know how.
- Go to AF mode and choose STATIC.
- In AF Setup choose 1 (for single point).
It’s as simple as that. Didn't I tell you it was easy when you know how? Everyone will be saying what a dumbo I am, we knew this already. But I wasn't saved from scrabbling through those menus looking for a solution. The static option (which is a pretty strong clue as it turns out) had completely passed me by. I probably saw but it didn't register.
I emphasise all this, not because of this specific instance, but because such problems are common to all modern cameras. Every manufacturer has a different way of expressing and displaying functions. Olympus, for instance, has a frustrating menu system that newcomers find difficult—to say the least. But once learned, I am told, it can be seen as the best and not at all confusing.
Once you have made these simple choices on the SL the joystick is effectively disabled as far as the focus point is concerned. Good riddance, I say. It can still be used for other scrolling functions and to initiate magnification during manual focus. But the main objective, as far as I am concerned, is to stop that focus point flitting around the screen like a butterfly at the Chelsea Flower Show. The camera is transformed for me; I've even been using it for street photography and enjoying every moment.
Thanks to this customisation (or retrogradation if such a word exists) I find the SL acting more like the M and it is proving much easier and more reliable for my type of photography. Similar problems exist, incidentally, with the Fuji X-Pro2 which also features a joystick and a wayward autofocus point. I tried to suppress that particular fluttering butterfly as well, again without success but now I don't have the camera to play with.
All this leads to a bit of navel gazing. Why is it that I get my hands on advanced digital cameras with all those bells and whistles adorning every surface and then try to turn them all back into a simple M, right back to aperture, speed, ISO and rangefinder-style focus? I have no answer to that. Perhaps I'm old fashioned. I'll accept the benefits of zooms and autofocus but I still like the simplicity of my M arrangement. Why else, I wonder, am I so keen on the M-D. Purity, I suppose.