Leica T Four Years On: Where next for the APS-C system?
Four years ago this week Leica took a courageous step into the wild blue yonder with the announcement of the unique Leica T. It was also the company’s first foray into the APS-C system world.
At the time I noted in my diary that the decision to use an all-touch control system was a brave choice, although I did have severe doubts whether or not it would be for me. Some considered that the T represented an attempt by Leica to attract wealthy individuals from the smartphone generation who would not otherwise be motivated by a specialist camera. In other words, one strictly for the boutiques. On the other hand, many experienced Leica users I know have taken to the T/TL with enthusiasm.
I also commented on the prices of the lenses which required a substantial financial commitment to the system. The body, as now with the TL2 and CL, was not too expensive. Indeed, the new CL body is “attractively priced”, at least by Leica standards. But the lenses are a different matter. They are pricey.
Chip off the old block
The hewn-from-a-block-of-aluminium TL cameras do indeed have their fans. Several friends of mine love the interface and do not mind the absence of a built-in viewfinder. Indeed, some prefer the add-on Visoflex finder because it can be tilted upwards to help with low-down shots. They also laud the image quality, something that has never been in question.
For those of us raised on viewfinders, using a screen for composition is alien, despite recent our experience with smartphones. But I can understand that photographers whose first experience is with smartphones could well feel more confident with a screen-based camera such as the TL2. In that sense, and despite protestations from the likes of me, Lecia was probably right in testing the T concept back in 2015.
I have reviewed or owned the T, TL and TL2 at various times and I grew to like the touch-screen control system in the face of initial resistance. And, when the fancy takes (and with the Visoflex mounted) it is easy to shoot in aperture priority mode without needing to access the screen. Moreover, there are no trigger-happy buttons to press by mistake as there are on the CL. With my new commitment to the CL and my ownership of a Visoflex (for the M10), the idea of picking up a second-hand TL2 as a second body has its attractions.
But back to the lenses. After four years, the system is more extensive, with three excellent zooms covering the 35mm-equivalent range of 16mm to 200mm, and a relatively oddly-matched collection of primes (18mm Elmarit, 23mm Summicron, 35mm Summilux and 60mm Macro Elmarit). They are all outstanding in their way, but collectively they hardly provide a complete solution. There is a need for alternative fast and slow options in the primary focal lengths and a zoom extending to at least 300mm equivalent.
The TL/CL cameras do have one significant advantage for Leica owners when comparing with Fuji, Sony and the like. The system is designed from the ground up to work well with Leica M lenses via the well-engineered M-Adapter T. The firmware includes lens profiles, and the six-bit coding system on all modern M-mount optics automatically sets up the camera. It is one of the reasons many Leica owners buy the TL or CL which offer a seamless partnership with their stock of M lenses, rather than other mirrorless cameras.
Unfortunately, there are two significant problems with the TL lens lineup: Lack of stabilisation and weather protection. Their absence was not too worrying four years ago when the system was launched. However, with hindsight, they have become important factors in consumer choice.
In the premium lens sector occupied by Leica (and especially bearing in mind the price of these lenses), both enhancements are now becoming universal and are definitely in demand. Whether they are essential or not, is a moot point. But the fact is that most buyers believe that they need them.
Experienced Leica users — in particular, M enthusiasts — have managed without stabilisation or weather protection (on the lenses at least) for years. Perhaps they do not see the need for stabilisation as being so vital. It is telling, however, that appropriate SL lenses do have stabilisation.
Of course, weather-protected lenses need similarly proofed bodies if they are to offer a complete solution. Perhaps Leica missed a trick in not equipping the CL body with protection, as the first step towards conformity with the latest trends. However, I can understand that to have done so at this stage would only have highlighted the shortcomings in the lens range.
The company now finds itself in a chicken-and-egg situation — redesign the lenses and leave the bodies trailing, or update the bodies and live with a catch-up lens range. Without a doubt, the factory is well aware of all these issues and must be working to find a solution. Just conceivably, however, the factory does not see the lack of stabilisation or weather protection as an important issue and we could be waiting a long time.
Should Leica have anticipated these issues before the launch of the T in 2014? Perhaps. There was already clear evidence of the way the industry was moving. After all, only 18 months later the SL arrived, complete with in-lens stabilisation. If the 24-90 SL zoom needs stabilisation, then surely so do the 18-56mm TL and the 55-135mm TL.
There is a counter-argument which says that stabilisation and weather protection are fripperies. They add to the size and weight of the equipment, not to mention the already substantial cost, and that when all is said and done it is the image quality that matters.
I can understand that view and, personally, I enjoy the CL and the lenses, taking modest precautions and adopting sufficiently fast shutter speeds to compensate for lack of stabilisation. After all, we do this with the M. But it isn't the complete answer. Whatever we think about the need for more complication, the simple fact is that the market now demands optical stabilisation and some degree of weatherproofing.
It is likely that the missing features on the TL lenses have a dampening effect on demand. Those predisposed to Leica do not worry so much, as I mention, but the newcomers that Leica needs to attract are undoubtedly tempted by the technical advantages, and lower prices, offered by both Fuji and Sony.
The omissions are all the more mysterious when we consider the Leica-designed DG lenses for micro four-thirds. In-lens stabilisation is there in the zoom lenses, the 42.5mm Nocticron and the 45mm DG Macro Elmarit. Weather protection is present over most of the range. These are superb lenses and are right up there with the competition in both technology and image quality.
Perhaps someone should rub the magic lamp of Wetzlar and transform them into TL-mount devices, even with the certainty of larger size. They possess another feature which I like and which is missing from the TL line-up — a physical aperture ring. It is present on all the newer Leica DG m4/3 primes.
The CL has already attracted a loyal following. It is capable of bringing converts into the Leica fold, people who might eventually trade up to an M or an SL. However, if Leica is indeed earnest in its desire to compete in APS-C, as I believe it is, the range will have to be brought up to date with the technicalities that we see in the Leica DG and SL lenses.
So where next with Leica's APS-C programme? My wish list would be headed by a mini SL rendered down to APS-C dimensions, equipped with weather protection and incorporating a Panasonic Lumix five-axis stabilisation system. It would be bigger than the CL, of course, but it would have the same relationship to that camera as does, for instance, the Panasonic Lumix G9 to the GX8. Or, for that matter, as do the Fuji X-T2 or H-X1 to the X-Pro 2.
I don’t know if borrowing and adapting the Lumix in-body stabilisation is possible, but if it were, it would be a huge step towards bringing the range up to date. I would also like to see the three zooms with weather protection and the 55-135mm (at the very least) updated to add stabilisation.
Another sensible move, in my opinion, would be the introduction of a Vario-Elmarit zoom with both stabilisation and weather protection to replace or complement the 18-56mm "standard zoom". Ideally, it would cover the wider 16-80 range. The industry trend (and at Leica itself with the excellent 12-60mm DG Vario-Elmarit) is towards a wider opening gambit and a more extended reach than the traditional 28-85mm equivalent zoom.
It seems possible to make some of these longer-zoom lenses a little smaller. The 12-60 Vario-Elmarit is a good example. Despite its 120mm full-frame equivalent maximum zoom, it is no bigger nor heavier than the Olympus 12-40mm Pro which tops out at an 80mm equivalence. Tellingly, both these excellent lenses start at 12mm which is 24mm in full-frame speak.
Leica has come a long way with its APS-C system since 2014, and the new CL is clear evidence that the factory is committed to the crop-sensor range. But the competition is getting stronger (mainly, as far as potential TL/CL Leica owners are concerned, that means competition from the Fuji X system), and it will be fascinating to see how the design team reacts over the next four years.
- Leica TL2 long-term test (Jono Slack)
- Leica DG 12-60mm, ideal one-stop-shop zoom
- Leica T — review of the original model
- Subscribe to Macfilos for free updates on articles as they are published
- Want to make a comment on this article but having problems?