Leica TL2: Long-term impressions of a prototype camera
A little over three years since the announcement of the Leica T (April 2014), and just eight months after the announcement of the Leica TL in November 2016 we have the TL2. Superficially the camera looks like its predecessors, but in fact there are lots of improvements and changes, both in the body and under the hood.
Leica is very clearly committed to its APS-C project, which is great news, and also to the concept of the phone like interface on a capable enthusiast camera.
I’ve always liked the T and I tested the original camera back in 2013 and 2014; here is a link to that article. Of course, radical departure from traditional camera design is bound to have some issues and the T was not perfect, but it took great pictures and was really good fun to use. Leica have been listening to their users and the TL2 is their attempt at perfecting the concept.
My role with Leica is to test the cameras, not to write reviews of them, and it’s important to understand that this article is not intended to be a critical review. If I find something wrong with a camera, then I tell Leica. Having said that, this article is my work, nobody has suggested what I should write, and I certainly wouldn’t say anything that I don’t believe to be the case or omit anything that seemed to be an issue.
At first sight the new camera looks just like its predecessor, but in fact everything has changed (slightly)!
The body itself is still made from a single block of aluminium, and I’m sure that it’s polished by hand for just as long as the original T (I’ve seen the polishing department in the Leica factory in Porto and it’s not just the T that gets this treatment).
The corners have been slightly chamfered which makes the camera more comfortable to hold, it also reduces the tendency for the corners to get scratched. Indeed, the black test camera I’ve been using for the last few months has been put through hell, and still looks as good as the day I received it.
The popup flash has gone. For me this is a relief, I never used it and found its popping up when turning the camera on something of an irritation. I suppose that this will be a disadvantage for some people, especially as there is now no way to use the EVF with flash.
The controls are all in the same place, but the haptics have been improved, with firmer clicks on the two dials and a revised on/off switch. The Video button loses its red dot and can now be used as a function key (more about this later).
Finally, the ports have been upgraded, there is a Micro (type D) HDMI port supporting 1.4b, and more excitingly a USB C port which supports USB 3 super connection speeds and also charging. I found this really useful, and it makes shooting to the 32Gb of internal memory completely feasible.
The T had a great sensor, with good ISO and dynamic range, but of course it’s getting rather long in the tooth, both in terms of its maximum ISO (12,500) and number of pixels (16mp).
The new sensor is a 24mp CMOS unit with a maximum ISO of 50,000. There are still no phase detect sensors, so the AF system is purely contrast based. As usual Leica are not giving away the maker of the sensor.
The Processor and memory
The camera uses a new Maestro II processor which has allowed improvements to the cameras operational speed. The startup time is notably faster than the T and TL and the shot to shot time is also greatly improved. AF is much snappier, according to Leica it is 165 milliseconds (CIPA standard), this makes it about three times faster than the previous camera. Continuous shooting speed has gone up to seven frames a second (with the mechanical shutter) and 20 frames per second (with the new electronic shutter). Video has been improved to 4k at 30 fps.
Below left to right: Lipstick, ISO 160, Vario-Elmar T 55-135; Kraftwerk? ISO 250, Vario-Elmar T 55-135; Snapchat Girles, ISO 500, Vario-Elmar T 55-135
A missed opportunity with the original T was the internal memory (16GB which was upped to 32GB in the TL), a great idea, but it was too slow compared to modern SD cards. The TL2 also has 32GB of memory, but this is quick. If you’re anything like me there’s that occasional horrible moment when you’ve gone out shooting . . . and found that you’ve left your SD card at home in the card reader. Now you can carry on shooting without penalty and transfer your images to your computer via the USB C port at high speed. Especially useful if you have one of the new MacBook Pros with only USB C ports.
The Electronic Shutter
This cuts in automatically after 1/4,000th second and goes all the way up to 1/40,000th second. I don’t know how fast the sensor readout is, so it’s not possible to tell whether there will be ‘rolling shutter’ effects or not. Personally I’d like to see this extended to allow its use at all shutter speeds (just like the Leica SL). This was a firmware update for the SL, so perhaps it will be possible to do the same for the TL2.
It’s still a great option, allowing shooting wide open in very bright lighting conditions.
The Interface and Menus
The principle of the menu system remains, indeed it’s quite consistent with the other Leica cameras where the first touch of the menu button brings you to a configurable favourites menu (just like the original T). I always liked this, and the populating of the favourites menu is intuitive and simple.
What has changed is the settings menu (from which the favourites can be chosen). This has now been divided into logical sections:
- Still Image
- Motion Image (video)
- Monitor / EVF
It’s always difficult to get a completely sensible division of functions, but this seems to me to be a good attempt and most options turn up where you expect them!
The Video button now has programmable functions:
- Video (as before)
- EVF / LCD
I don’t take a lot of video, so I really appreciate the EVF / LCD function – If you have the EVF attached, then pressing the button toggles the output between LCD and EVF. If you prefer the normal eye sensor method then you can choose one of the other functions for the button. A slight fly in the ointment is that the LCD/EVF choice is not remembered when you turn off the camera (or when it goes to sleep). The function key setting however, is remembered.
The image quality on the TL was already one of its best features, and the high ISO was useable up to 3200 and higher in an emergency (or for black and white).
The new sensor has really improved everything. Most of the time I’ve been putting a limit of 6400 on the Auto ISO, but going up to 12,500 produces perfectly usable images; I didn’t go much higher than this because I didn’t need to. I’ll leave the full ISO comparisons to others, but my instinct is that it’s nearly a two-stop advantage over the TL.
I haven’t done any formal dynamic range tests either, but it seems to be excellent, easy to recover both shadow and highlights, but the files are great straight from the camera. As is normal with Leica cameras it’s better to shoot RAW than to rely on the camera generated jpg files.
I’ve been using Lightroom to process the DNG files, it is using the Embedded profile which suggests that the LR profile is not yet finished. Nevertheless, the colours are great, snappy enough without being vulgar, skin tone is excellent. The files are great to work with allowing lots of adjustment without falling apart.
Using Non TL Lenses
The TL lenses are real class acts, I especially like the triumvirate of zooms with their quick AF and excellent image quality. The new and improved high ISO makes them even more attractive. I still find the AF on the 35 f/1.4 Summilux and the 23 f/2 Summicron to be slower than I’d like (still, faster than they were on the T), but I have a prototype camera and pre-release firmware, so there may easily be an improvement with the released cameras.
I’ve shot the camera with M lenses, where it recognises coded lenses and adjusts accordingly and populates the exif information (if you use the Leica L to M adapter). I’ve also shot with R lenses, but I’m not certain whether R lenses are recognised as I don’t have the R to TL adapter to work with (I’ve been stacking the M to R and the M to TL adapters). The results are excellent.
I’ve also shot with the two SL zoom lenses where AF is extremely fast (it seems, comparable with the SL). The 90-280 is especially good to shoot with, even if the ergonomics are a bit odd; image quality is wonderful and the Image Stabilisation really seems to help.
The Shooting Experience
Most of us are used to cameras with lots of buttons and dials, infinite possibilities for configuration and multiple options in huge menus. Leica have stuck rigorously to ‘The Essence’, and the TL2, like its predecessors has two dials and two buttons, everything else is controlled by the touch screen.
I had spent a lot of time with the Olympus OMD E-M1 Mk.II before testing the TL2 and it came as quite a contrast — culture shock even. Surprisingly, a clear advantage of the TL2 is that the EVF feels much bigger and is less contrasty than the unit in the Olympus and much more lifelike. Less surprisingly the image quality of the TL2 is a clear step ahead of the Olympus in every respect (High ISO, Dynamic Range, Colour).
I think it’s worth talking about the shooting experience in two parts. With the LCD and with the EVF.
Shooting with the LCD
This works really well, the combination of the huge 3.7” LCD and the touch screen is entirely logical and consistent. The favourites menu and configurable dial makes it very easy to use, like a smart phone on steroids, the gestures are instinctive and moving the focus point and changing settings is fast. If this is the way you like to shoot I can’t think of a camera which does it better. Startup time is much faster than the TL, and the blackout time much reduced (but not quite eliminated). It’s easy to shoot one-handed, and the touch focus and touch shooting work well.
Shooting with the EVF
This is how I like to shoot; there are a lot of improvements in terms of speed over the TL, and use of the function button to switch between EVF and LCD is also very helpful. However, when the camera wakes from sleep or you switch it on, the output goes first to the LCD, and then to the EVF (either by eye start, or else by pressing the function button if it’s set to toggle between EVF and LCD). This is cumbersome, but you can work around it by increasing the sleep time to a maximum for the camera and the screen; in which case the output will stay in the EVF until you press the function button to return it to the LCD. I’d really like to see this working the same way as the M10 where you can choose where to send the output from Live View / Review / Auto Review, and it’s remembered when the camera is switched off or goes to sleep.
We recently spent a week in China in the rainy season, and I shot in the streets of Hangzhou with the TL2, usually with the 55-135 zoom. It was often really dark (even in daylight) and many of the images were shot at 6400 ISO, most of them above 1000 ISO. The focusing was accurate and quick (even in that light), quite a lot were shot one handed (I was often holding an umbrella with the other hand!).
Now it’s become second nature, just a different way of working from a more traditional camera. The simple interface and lovely quiet shutter together with the solid body and the excellent lenses make it all rather a pleasure.
The original Leica T was a brave and revolutionary take on camera design; an attempt to make an enthusiasts camera for the iPhone generation, at the time only two lenses were available and the development of an entirely new lens mount seemed like a rash endeavour. Three years later there are many fine lenses for the L mount, zooms and primes, for both APS-C and the full frame Leica SL. They have developed a wonderful platform from which they can branch out in the future. I would love to see an APS-C mini SL, and another with analogue controls like the Q.
However, with the Leica TL2 Leica have kept faith with the design concept of the T, they have listened to their users and have produced a proper update at a reasonable price point. The camera is fun and interesting to use, it takes great photographs and it feels lovely.