Leica SL: One year on, is it a keeper or not?
When the Leica SL was announced I sat on the fence for a few months, convinced that it was too big and heavy for me — especially when twinned with the 24-90mm Vario-Elmarit zoom. I’d handled both often enough and, after giving up on heavy DSLR kit nearly ten years before, felt that the SL combo was more than I could handle. Ultimately this turned out to be true, but there is much more to the story and I was up for the challenge.
In the end I bought the SL body with the intention of using it only with M lenses. This it does superbly. It is without doubt the best mirrorless camera to use with your M glass. There are no compromises, and that giant viewfinder makes it really easy to focus manual lenses. It’s even easy without using magnification or other focus aids. (Note I said "mirrorless". There is one camera that's better, and that's a Leica rangefinder.
SL versus M10
How does the SL compare in size and weight with the traditional M rangefinder? The body weighs 847g, which is 187g more than the M10. It is taller and generally more bulky. But the comparison is a little more complex. The SL has a substantial built-in grip and the best electronic viewfinder on the market. A grip and the (inferior) viewfinder are accessories for the M10, thus adding to weight and closing the gap a little between the two cameras. But this applies only if you need them. It’s all a matter of how much you value the extra grip, in particular, but the SL does offer a well-rounded and very handleable package. Yet however much I try to rationalise the weight and size differenced between the M and SL, there's a high degree of subjectivity involved. Whatever the figures say, the SL just feels much of a handful. It is a very substantial camera and no mistake.
Up to yesterday the SL had just one full-frame direct competitor, the Sony A7R II which features a higher-resolution 42MP sensor and a smaller, lighter body (625g compared with the SL's 847g). As I write this, however, Sony has announced the A9, an upgraded full-frame mirrorless that is perhaps more comparable with the SL and is positioned to take the DSLR market head on. Yet even this camera weighs only 673g, 173g lighter than the Leica.
I haven't yet had the chance to handle the new A9, but the A7 series cameras are definitely a more complicated to use, with a more fiddlesome menus and small buttons, and they don't suit everyone. The SL, on the other hand, has a sensible approach to sensor resolution at 24MP (I am not a fan of higher resolutions and the larger resulting storage requirements unless I can see a definite advantage, and I can't. It's significant that the A9 makes do with 24MP). It is also the best-built, sturdiest camera I have ever handled. It is indeed built like a tank and, despite the added weight, feels better in the hands than the Sony (in my opinion, that is).
When it comes to competition, though, we should now consider the M10 with its much-improved accessory viewfinder. While unable to offer autofocus, it can match the SL in most respects and is lighter and more compact. It is also nearer to the heart of many Leica owners.
I am very happy with the SL's general handling. Indeed, it is a great camera with a minimal number of buttons — just four big oblong verticals around the screen handle most operational calls. The menu system is simple and easy to navigate, the top-plate information window is a great asset and a model of efficiency— it is similar to that used on the Leica S — and the front and rear soft dials operate precisely, with well-considered options available in the menu. I had, and still have, few complaints. About the only thing I don't like vis-a-vis the M10 is DSLR-style strap lugs, much preferring the more traditional lug which permits the use of straps equipped with a split-ring connector. But, I suppose, when the weight of the SL lenses is taken into account, Leica has gone for the safer option. It's a very minor point in any case.
Somewhere along the way, I persuaded myself to buy the 24-90mm Vario-Elmarit zoom. I grew to love this lens, although the attraction is tinged with reservations on size and weight — it is all of 1.2Kg on the scales. Without doubt, though, this is the sort of zoom that isn’t constantly nagging to be replaced with a bunch of primes. It could certainly be the only lens you really need for the SL; if you have the muscle, that is. Together with the SL body, the combo tips the scales at just over 2Kg, which is well into pro DSLR territory.
A year later and I find myself using the SL less and less often. It is a superb camera which performs exquisitely. It is ideal for events where this first-class zoom lens gives the versatility of both wide-angle shots in confined areas and perfect portraiture at the other end of the scale. You seldom hanker after a prime unless for low-light use or for extreme subject separation.
Pros and cons
I’ve discussed the pros and cons of the SL with a number of friends who own or have owned the camera. All have the same reservations about weight, particularly the heavy zoom lenses. Yet we all agree that if you expect the best performance in an auto-focus zoom, the weight is something that has to be borne. On the other hand, we know that the best M primes can perform just as well if not better and offer a great weight saving. You're just not getting auto-focus, that's all.
Never have I owned a camera which I like so much but use so little. Weight, weight, weight. It all comes down to weight. And this, unfortunately, has been the constant refrain during my ownership of the beast.
Now you might not mind this so much. After all, a similar pro rig from Canon or Nikon is likely to be more bulky and even heavier. If you can cope with the weight, then I will recommend the SL and its medium-range zoom wholeheartedly.
But for many people, especially older photographers who have done their time with big DSLR outfits and decided to downsize, the SL with its native lenses has a fair measure of déjà vu about it. However, as I said, these selfsame photographers could decide that the SL body goes well with M lenses and the weight penalty in this case is less noticeable, but not entirely unnoticeable.
Where the M10 scores
So, back to the arrival of the M10. This new camera produces results on par with the SL; the image quality is very similar and I can’t really say that I have a preference on way or the other. In common with many people, I have wondered whether the M10 could replace the SL. Add the Visoflex into the equation and the M10 offers similar capabilities to the SL, although the Visoflex screen is smaller than that in the SL’s finder. But it works, especially if it is used only for lenses that really benefit from an EVF — including wide-angle, R zooms or “difficult” lenses such as the Noctilux. Ultimately, the advantage of the M10 is that for most of the time you are using the rangefinder and enjoying the smaller body and lower weight.
There is also one area where the M10's Visoflex beats the SL's finder and that's when it comes to the magnification focus aid. With the SL, as with all true mirrorless cameras, it is necessary to prod a button — more than likely you'd choose the joystick — to initiate magnification before every shot. This can become a nuisance and it is one reason why many SL owners prefer to work without magnification. Thanks to the size of the screen, this is a more comfortable option than it is with most built-in EVFs.
The M10, on the other hand, offers the option of automatic magnification when using the Visoflex. As soon as the focus tab is nudged the display automatically shows a magnified image. You might not like this — you can turn it off of course — but I love it. With the M10, the mechanical rangefinder linkage is used to activate this automated magnification. In this, the M is unique.
After I got my hands on the M10 I realised that I really enjoy using it — more so, in fact, than the SL. I began to question whether it was worth continuing with the SL when I really prefer the rangefinder experience. Despite the SL's competence with manual lenses, I still prefer the real thing.
Several times in the past few months I have been tempted to sell the SL. Last week I even got as far as packing the Vario-Elmarit in its box and removing the strap from the camera body prior to resetting and boxing up. But I couldn’t go through with it at the time. There is just something about this camera that screams “keep me”. I can’t put my finger on it, but switch it on, peer through that wonderful viewfinder and old enthusiasms are renewed. It feels right in the hands and the controls are addictive and perfectly arranged.
I decided to give the mirrorless outfit another innings and an Easter break in East Anglia provided the ideal opportunity. I saw it as my last-ditch opportunity to bond with the SL. To make it lighter, I left the 24-90mm at home and decked it out with the the versatile Tri-Elmar-M which I have been using a lot on the M10 (see my feature on Lacock Abbey). Actually, the Tri-Elmar works well in the role of lightweight zoom for the SL.
Admittedly, the 28-35-50 fixed focal lengths are nowhere near as versatile as the Vario-Elmarit-SL’s 24-90mm range. But it works well on the SL as a walk-around lens. Together with the T-M adaptor, it weighs 440g — that’s a third of the weight of the Vario-Elmarit — and produces a mini-zoom outfit weighing under 1,300g. It's still quite a lump, though.
Despite my good intentions, at some stage during the weekend I began to notice the weight of the SL around my neck. Even with the relatively lightweight Tri-Elmar, the SL rig heavy. I found my upper back muscles straining and in the end I just didn't want to carry it around and I was forced to take drastic measures.
I left the SL in the car and, instead, slipped the Ricoh GR into my pocket. Of course there is no real comparison; the Ricoh is a fixed 28mm pocket camera with an APS-C sensor. And it doesn't even have a viewfinder; least of all, one to compete in size with the Leica's. The SL, with its full-frame sensor and M glass, is clearly in a different league. But the Ricoh is a joy to carry and, within its limitations, the results are never disappointing. I knew that if I had had the M10 and Tri-Elmar with me I would have been much happier to tote that combination all day, as I have done on many days over the past month. The reserve Ricoh would have stayed in the bag, where it always sits in case of emergency.
I returned home full of indecision. I cannot see the SL as the sort of camera I wish to carry often. It is too heavy for me, even with M lenses, but I stress again that this is a purely personal view and you do need to try it for yourself.
The M10 just that bit lighter which makes it much more appealing as a camera for everyday use. And I confess that when push comes to shove I prefer the rangefinder experience to using an EVF — for manual lenses, that is — however good it is. If I do need an electronic viewfinder, the M10's Visoflex, while inferior to the SL's unit, is more than adequate. Above all, with the M10 you will spend most of your time using the rangefinder and do not need accessories to add to weight or bulk. So far, after a month with the M10, the Visoflex has not been out of its little leather pouch and I haven't felt the need to buy the accessory grip.
I suspect that I might regret selling the SL. If only I could accept the added weight then the this would be my type of camera. If you are not so bothered about those extra ounces, you will not be disappointed. I have several friends who remain firm fans of the SL and, perhaps if I were a little younger or more willing to hump around a lot of gear, then I would probably feel the same. The great pity is that the 24-90mm zoom is so good and yet so heavy. Even if I do keep the SL, I cannot see me using the zoom except on very special occasions.
Lots of ifs and buts here. But for the time being I continue to sit on the fence. I really love the camera and that's why I find it so difficult to part.