Getting a grip on the Leica CL: Thumb Support and Handgrip review
The Leica CL is remarkably small and light, even for an APS-C camera. This is fine when trundling around the city with the new 18mm pancake or the 23mm Summicron attached. It is not so dandy when a zoom or one of the longer primes (such as the rather hefty 35mm Summilux) is hanging off the body.
A bit of extra grip can be a fine thing in such circumstances. And here I am to give some advice on what to choose. Essentially it’s a toss up between the CL Thumb Support or the more traditional CL Handgrip.
Red Dot Cameras in London provided me with both options to try. The Thumb Support came early, shortly after the camera was launched, and since then it has been a permanent fixture on my CL. The Handgrip, though, has just arrived.
CL Thumb Support
I’m a great advocate of thumb grips, as pioneered by Tim Isaac with his exquisitely crafted Match Technical Thumbs Up, available for many cameras. Recently, though, Leica has jumped on the bandwagon with thumb supports for the M, the SL and, now, the CL.
Thumb grips act differently on different cameras, depending on the location of function buttons or scroll wheels. In most cases they manage to stay out of the action and do not hinder operation. This is essentially the case with the CL Thumb Support which manages to avoid fouling either of the two top-plate control dials.
But I do have one caveat. While the left-hand wheel can be operated without a problem, using the right hand wheel (which governs aperture) is a little awkward. The reason is that in order to reach the wheel you must remove your thumb off the grip and lift it over the protruding rest before moving it to the right.
Worse is the awkwardness when using manual lenses and activating focus magnification. This function uses the same right-hand control wheel. Having to lift the thumb around the grip for every photograph is a major problem. It is important to realise, though, that there is no problem when using manual focus on native TL lenses. In this case, the camera can be set to magnify the focus image automatically as soon as the focus ring is moved.
I believe the Thumb Support is unusable when operating manual lenses with focus magnification. although you might well have a different opinion and, indeed, you may be happy focusing without the assistance of magnification. I recommend you try one for yourself before deciding.
With that small proviso, the Thumb Support does its job well. It serves to steady the camera, making it easier to hold, and helps keep the thumb away from the sensitive four-way pad in general use. It definitely makes the camera more pleasant to use. And, as with all similar grips, it acts as a kind of vestigial flipper under which you can hook your thumb when carrying the camera, especially when using a wrist strap. In some ways it brings the same comfort as the film advance lever on a Leica M3.
There are three other factors to consider. Unlike the Match Technical grips and the those made by Leica for the M and SL, the CL grip is machined from aluminium rather than brass. It’s lighter and just as effective, but you won’t get the attractive brassing effect to which you may have become addicted. The other negative aspect is the price. At £150 it is £50 more expensive than the Handgrip which, on the face of things, makes it poor value for money. Finally, if you intend to use the hotshoe, perhaps for a flash, you will need to remove the Thumb Support every time. This is easy enough — it is a friction fit — but having to do this frequently could influence you in favour of the Handgrip.
The CL Handgrip follows the pattern set by M, Q and X-series designs. It is minimalist in terms of added grip — a mere 15mm projection from the front of the camera, unlike more substantial accessories from Fuji and other manufacturers you may be familiar with. The grip itself is short — 57mm, although this is about as much as can be accommodated on a camera just 66mm high. It does however offer considerable extra stability for use with heavier lenses. It also makes the camera more comfortable to hold.
There is a screw mount on the side of the hand grip to take the rubber finger loops which come in three sizes and are identical to those offered for other Leica cameras. While these loops add to security and confidence (and effectively replace a wrist strap), I find them rather uncomfortable. Yet I have friends who think they are the best thing ever invented. At £90 a pop, though, they are very expensive for what they are.
The metal bottom plate attaches to the camera with a large thumb wheel. This is ideal when you realise that the grip must be removed every time you wish to access the battery/SD card compartment. It also adds 7mm to the height of the camera unlike the M grip which replaces the camera’s bottom plate and therefore adds nothing.
In use, the Handgrip definitely adds to stability and I think you will find it almost essential if you are regularly using heavier lenses, including the wide-angle and tele zooms. However, the Thumb Support adds almost as much stability and it is very much a case of paying your money and taking your choice.
It isn’t unreasonable to ask why, after paying £2,250 for a camera body, you are driven to festoon it with aids to better grip. Well, the answer is simple. The CL is designed as a compact camera. It is identical in size to an M6 film camera and represents the benchmark format for a small, convenient and simple carry around photographic tool. With the 18mm Elmarit pancake lens attached it compares favourably with the street photographer’s friend, the Fuji X100F. But it is also the basis of a system and, if you develop your interests and buy more lenses, there comes a time when a bit of extra grip is not so much an indulgence as a necessity. I prefer to have the choice — naked camera for pocketability and convenience, added grips for when necessary.
Currently I have the luxury of using both Thumb Support and Handgrip in tandem (which will probably remain an unusual choice for most) and I find that they complement one another much better than you might imagine.
With both devices attached, the CL becomes a much more stable camera and is more pleasant to hold. Stability is important, of course, because neither the body nor the lenses benefit from optical stabilisation. So, if you are competing with the likes of the new Panasonic G9, which has a 6.5-stop stabilisation advantage, you need all the help you can get. Either of these two devices will add to your confidence and permit slightly slower shutter speeds and lower ISO when needed. Both together add even more chutzpah.
Which would I choose if I could have only one? Much as I love thumb grips in general and, in most circumstances, find them extremely useful, the awkwardness in using the right hand control wheel (for aperture adjustment or focus magnification) influences my opinion. The Handgrip does the job well and is cheaper. So if you don’t mind the inconvenience of removing it every time you change battery or card, then I think it offers the better solution. I will probably keep both Thumb Support and Handgrip because they really do work well together. It's called belt and braces.