Leica Camera Review: Leica SL Review

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Posted on: February 24, 2017

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Introduction

The Leica SL is a high end 24MP full-frame mirrorless camera that has an astonishing 'EyeRes' high-resolution viewfinder, an incredibly high level of build quality and weather sealing, and unconventional though effective controls. Perhaps most significantly, this is the first non-rangefinder 35mm full-frame digital camera Leica has made, and the company's first full frame mirrorless camera in the modern sense.

Key specifications

  • 24MP full-frame CMOS sensor
  • 0.8x magnification electronic viewfinder with 4.4 million dots
  • 11 fps continuous burst shooting
  • Maestro II image processor
  • Native ISO range of 50-50000
  • 49-point contrast-detect AF system
  • Dual SD card slots
  • 4K video recording with 4:2:2 10-bit HDMI out
  • Sturdy, weather-sealed construction

Leica, for all its cachet, mystique and eye-watering price points, has been consistent in its manufacture of somewhat unconventional digital cameras. There's the X-U, which is the only camera with an APS-C sized sensor that's designed to be submersible right out of the box. There's the T and TL, which, at the time of its release anyway, was fairly distinct in its heavy reliance on touch control. And then there's the M Monochrom, the only digital camera on the market that only shoots in black and white.

Enter the SL. Priced body-only higher than an M10 but (far) less than the company's S line of medium-format bodies, the SL is aimed squarely at professionals and advanced amateurs with deep pockets. The SL is a blend of the S, M and Q cameras in terms of specifications, overall design aesthetic and controls.

The sensor performance of the SL isn't quite class leading, but the native lenses are lovely. Out of camera JPEG, Leica Summilux-SL 50mm F1.4. ISO 500, 1/100 sec, F2.2. Photo by Carey Rose

Although the SL shares a lens mount with the T (whose lenses are now designated 'TL' while the SL's are, predictably, 'SL'), you'll really want to use full-frame lenses to get the most out of it. At the time of this writing, that means you're limited to just three native autofocus lenses, which include two variable-aperture zooms and a fast fifty. You can, of course, adapt M-mount glass to it, and though you'll be potentially slowed by manual focus, the incredible viewfinder makes that process about as easy as can be.

Let's take a look at how the SL compares with the Sony a7R II, part of the family that represents the only other full frame mirrorless camera out there currently.

   Leica SL Sony a7R II
MSRP (Body only) $7450 $2899
Pixel Count 24MP 42MP
ISO Range (native) 50-50000 100-25600
AF Point control Joystick/touchscreen Four-way controller
Card slots

Dual SD, 1x UHS II

Single SD, UHS I
EVF (magnification/resolution) 0.80x / 4.4M dots 0.78x / 2.36M dots
Continuous Shooting rate 11 fps (7 fps with AF) 5 fps
Rear screen Fixed touchscreen Tilting
Autofocus 49-pt contrast-detect 499-pt on sensor phase-detect
Image stabilization In-lens In-body
Video Up to 4K/30p Up to 4K/30p
Battery life

400 shots

290 shots
Weight 847g 628g

So who is the SL for? It shoots nearly as fast as a Nikon D5, but with focus locked and a much more limiting lens lineup. It has rugged, go-anywhere construction and weather-sealing, but with the native lenses, it makes for a heavy and bulky companion. You could lock it down as a studio camera, aided by its 1/250 sec flash sync, but then you're stuck with 'only' 24MP of resolution.

So far as I can tell, there just isn't a strictly rational reason to recommend this camera to any particular type of photographer, but when has purchasing a Leica ever been a strictly rational decision? The Q, M and even the T to a certain extent are 'special' in some way, particularly in the eyes of their owners. So the question really is, is the SL 'special?' It's certainly less limiting than any of Leica's other cameras, but in many cases its those other cameras' very limitations that contribute to their distinctiveness.

The SL is the 'cost-no-object' all-rounder for people who want the most practical camera that Leica currently makes. People will notice it. People who know what a Leica is may know just how expensive and exclusive it is. But practicality and luxury don't always go hand-in-hand, and using the Leica SL as an all-around photographic tool brings it down to Earth more than its Leica stablemates. To see if its exclusivity and luxury appeal can transcend its utilitarian leanings, let's dig in.

Can the capabilities of the SL justify the Red Dot premium? It's a tall order, but let's find out. Leica 24-90mm F2.8-4, image processed and cropped slightly to taste. ISO 50, 1/200 sec, F5.6. Photo by Carey Rose

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