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Leica SL: first impressions

In a rather critical article about the Leicaflex the German magazin ‘der Spiegel’ wrote in 1965 that this camera failed to live up to the expectations. With a weight of more than one kilogram and a price-tag of 1510 D-Mark (in 1965!) the camera piled up all technical tricks that the competition already offered in one body. The reporter referred to the then actual Mercedes-Benz 600 and noted that the Leicaflex was the result of “perfektionssüchtiges Sammeleifers” (in a free translation ‘the enthusiastic compilation of components driven by an addiction for perfection’). It is by the way remarkable that most reviewers refer to the Leicaflex as the source of inspiration for the new Leica SL (possibly triggered by the name Leicaflex SL). When one takes a critical look at the SL, the clean almost Bauhaus-like contours and the prominent logo on the (fake) prism reminds one of the Leica R3. The R3 was a cooperation between Leitz and Minolta and the SL has its fair share of Panasonic DNA.
The Leica SL does indeed incorporate almost every feature that the competition has, including (not exhaustive!!): optical image stabilization, automatic sensor cleaning function, WLAN and GPS, full video capture options, remote control with apps, automatic switching between monitor and viewfinder, touchscreen selections, six soft keys, five AF choices, four exposure modes, three exposure metering modes, five motor drive modes and so on. The buttons around the monitor are loaned from the S-model and the touchscreen options are from the T and Q models. It is possible to mix all options and this give a wide range of choices. It takes some time to explore these options and select the ones that are appropriate for one’s personal style of photography and/or the conditions of the photoshoot.
This range of options has always divided the community: there is one argument that states that it is fine to have all options in order to choose or ignore what one likes or dislikes and the other argument states that a minimalistic approach would be better because it defines the character of the camera.
On fully automatic (the green choices on the Canon camera models) the SL is extremely simple to operate and the results are excellent. Finetuning the options gives results that are more appropriate for one’s personal taste and expertise, but one has still the feeling that the camera makes the decisions. The option is to go for fully manual (this can be done, but takes some effort to exclude all friendly advising from the camera software) and than the camera is a very fine tool indeed.
I was at first put off a bit by the weight, but a stroll through the city streets during three hours convinced me that weight is not really a problem. The camera balances well even with the 24-90 lens attached.
The main (philosophical?) distinction between the SL and the S and M is the level of expertise needed to produce excellent results. When using the M or S the operator input and expertise are required or useful for the production of excellent imagery. When using the SL the camera and lens software take care of everything. The resulting images are second to none in the Leica scuderia, but the nagging question is: who made this picture: me or the camera?
This is indeed the modern trend: user input is replaced by computer intelligence. This was the message of the Leica R3: a fully electronic camera that limited the user input to the selection of options and to the control over the composition of the image. The Leica SL takes this approach several leagues further: it is the very capable digital assistant for the photographer and videographer. The full report will tell you how good the assistant is and where user expertise is needed.