Leica SL First Impressions: The SL Might – Just Might — Be Worth Its $8K Price

by Hugh BrownstoneLeave a Comment

Look, there’s no getting around the fondness I have for the Leica brand. A Leica IIIa was the first 35mm camera I ever held, and both the company’s origin story and the values it has shown throughout most of its history are compelling – to me. Still, I approached the Leica SL at PhotoPlus Expo warily. 

Maybe it was the fact that my “most of its history” qualifier is a not-so-oblique reference to Leica’s more recent past – what I’ll call the wandering-in-the-desert/rebadged Panasonic/bling period – and I even ditched my M8 [B&H | Amazon] because I found it to be an unconvincing proposition.

There are plenty of people who would disagree with me, and that’s fine.

But this SL may mark an inflection point when industrial design competes on more even footing with pure specs per dollar by still delivering the goods.

It’s too early to say with certainty – I only got to handle it for a short time at the 2015 PhotoPlus Expo last week in New York City while speaking with SL Product Manager Steffen Skopp and it is still exceptionally pricey – so we’ll have to await a full test.

Still, the SL is unlike anything I’ve had in my hands before, even if it borrows heavily from Leica’s medium format S (which, to be fair, I’d never held until 5 minutes before I picked up the SL).

That S is a heavy sucker.

The SL is much lighter, and it could have been designed by Dieter Rahms, Bruno Sacco or Walter Gropius – it’s that clean. It feels wonderful in the hand and beautiful through the viewfinder to the eye (I especially appreciated the best eye relief I've ever experienced). I understand this form factor the way I don’t with a modern high-end dedicated video camera.

Leica SL (Type 601) – The new camera at a glance

So What ARE the SL’s Specs?

Here are the high points as we understand them at the moment:

· Full frame
· 4K 10-bit 4:2:2 via HDMI
· 4.4 megapixel, .8X viewfinder (I can tell you it’s great)
· Purported fastest mirrorless autofocus ever (hmm…without phase detect?)
· Clean and elegant interfaces (both physical and software – I can vouch for the physical)
· Adapters to other Leica lenses

Here are The Things We Know It Doesn’t Have

· A price which allows it to compete with the GH4 [B&H | Amazon], a7s Mk II [B&H | Amazon] or a7R Mk II [B&H | Amazon] – at almost $8K, it’s more than twice the price of either a7 variant and almost six times the price of a GH4 body. It’s also about the same price as a Sony FS7 body and a couple of grand more expensive than a Canon C100 Mk II (to be fair, this camera doesn't shoot 4K), Blackmagic 4.6K Mini or RED Raven. Then again, it's half the price of the Canon C300 Mk II.
· IBIS (lens image stabilization only)
· More than 1 dedicated lens at launch (one of three announced)
· Frame rates above 30fps in 4K (it does, however, do 120fps in full HD)
· Internal ND filters
· A tilting rear LCD screen
· XLR jacks

Leica SL

Here Are Some of the Things We Don't Know

· How well the menus and control surfaces actually work
· How good the sensor actually is (tough to imagine it can hold a candle to the 42.3 megapixel BSI sensor found in the a7r Mark II, but it may still be great – I still love the 24 megapixel sensor of the Sony a6000, and one of my favorite photos of all time was taken with a 4 megapixel Canon 1D)
· How good the adapters to other Leica lenses actually are (I bet they’re fine)
· How good the new lenses actually are (the 24-90 Vario looked pretty great to me through the viewfinder)
· How well audio actually works
· How long the battery lasts

Interesting if not particularly compelling on the face of it, right?

And Yet

1. Real DPs focus manually, and that EVF is extraordinary.
2. This form factor is vastly smaller and lighter than any of the dedicated video cameras I mentioned above — and much less obtrusive.
3. It can still deliver 10-bit 4:2:2 to an external recorder, so as long as you don’t need slow-mo and can get by without internal ND filters, you’re getting close to the big guys (still, Sony is probably showing the way with the electronic ND in its new FS5)
4. How how often do we really need anything beyond 8-bit 4:2:0 in an era when the distribution channel – the web – is going to crush anything we put through it anyway?
5. The simple controls (if they actually are that simple) combined with a magnificent viewfinder may be the perfect compromise for more occasional enthusiast AND pro shooters of a certain…ahem…age.
6. There is something to be said for shooting with what you like rather than what makes the best economic sense.
7. In the end, it’s less about the gear than the skill.

This last point was really driven home to me yet again when I stopped by the Neue Galerie on East 86th Street on my way home from the Expo to see BERLIN METROPOLIS (a MUST-SEE in my book – it only runs until January). The 1927 film METROPOLIS didn’t need 4K to be brilliant.

And Cartier-Bresson didn’t need 15 stops of dynamic range (though, like Ansel Adams, he could dodge and burn in the darkroom the way we can’t unless we shoot and edit in RAW).

All of which is a long way of writing that the new Leica SL might be perfect for its intended audience.

Or it might simply be Leica's version, finally, of an uber-5D Mark II (that's right, Mark II) competitor, raised beyond journalism to art.

Or something else.

I’m looking forward to finding out.

The Leica SL Shoots 4K Internally & Outputs 10-Bit 4:2:2, But It'll Cost You

Via No Film School:

For starters, the SL features a 24 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor and a blazingly-fast Maestro II processor from Leica. In its Super 35mm crop mode, the SL can shoot 4K DCI (4096 x 2160) video at 24fps and UHD (3840 x 2160) at 25 and 30fps. In full frame mode, it can shoot full HD video up to 120fps. Perhaps more impressively, the SL is capable of outputting a 10-bit 4:2:2 signal via HDMI.

Fred Mortagne with the Leica SL in Los Angeles

Specifications:

  • 24MP Full-Frame CMOS Sensor
  • Leica Maestro II Image Processor
  • Internal DCI 4K Video in Super35 Mode
  • V-Log L Gamma
  • 10 Bit 4:2:2 Output via HDMI
  • 1080p Slow Motion at 120fps
  • 0.66″ 4.4MP 0.8x Electronic Viewfinder
  • 2.95″ 1.04M-Dot LED-Backlit Touchscreen
  • Contrast AF System with 49 Fields
  • Up to 11 fps Shooting and ISO 50000
  • Two SD Card Slots; 1.3″ Top LCD Screen
  • Weather-Resistant Milled Aluminum Body
  • Built-In Wi-Fi Connectivity and GPS
  • Price: $7,450 – Body Only

Read full article at No Film School “The Leica SL Shoots 4K Internally & Outputs 10-Bit 4:2:2, But It'll Cost You”

(cover photo credit: snap from No Film School)

Hugh Brownstone

Hugh Brownstone

Hugh is the founder of Three Blind Men and An Elephant Productions. He and the team write, direct, shoot, score, and edit web-centric films; conduct photo shoots; and write copy, white papers and blog posts. Hugh also writes screenplays (he recently optioned a TV pilot) and just published his first eBook (Apple's iPhone: The Next Video Revolution). If it's about telling stories, it's in their wheelhouse.

And always with the ambition of authenticity, humanity and wit.
Hugh Brownstone

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