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Reflections on testing the SL

With a strong dose of self-reflection I might say that the ideal of independent and objective reporting about photographic products based on profound knowledge of the technical and engineering issues involved has been evaporated in recent times. The days that individuals like Goldberg or Crawley reported on the state of the art in technical photography are gone forever I am afraid. One may excuse and exclude the often cringeworthy technical prose in the current Leica brochures because these texts are written by marketing professionals who may be experts in communications theory but obviously lack the necessary engineering and photographic background. One may also exclude the personal statements by Leica users whose proudness of ownership and admiration for the Leica company and its products outshines the commonsensical assessment and acceptance of the cold reality. One may however not exclude the field and magazine testers who are either splitting hairs about minute details or are extolling the product and in the wake of this simply sing one’s own praises. Most German magazines go too far in their eagerness to profile a camera/lens system as a list of numbers from (as example!) the Uschold or Image Engineering labs. Because it can be measured does not automatically imply that it is relevant. The prose that accompanies the listings and product pictures has an unbearable lightness (to loan part of the title of Kundera’s novel) that leaves one often speechless.
It seems as if every writer assumes that the reader is either a nitwit or a novice. I do not like to be approached as a person who wants to be convinced by some illustrations and some impassioned prose of the superiority of the product. The usual countermeasure is to make some critical remarks to show one’s independence and expertise, but this falls short of the real issue: to inform the reader how the system works and how and why it can improve one’s photography. This is in my view the main topic of any system review, including of course the SL system (and also the S, M, Q and T systems). I like to read a report that informs me about the working and capabilities of an optomechatronic camera system in such a way that the content allows me to make an informed decision whether choosing this product helps me to make better images or helps me to become a better photographer. A camera system after all is a technical instrument for taking pictures and should be evaluated with this perspective.

The bandwidth of camera reports oscillates between pixel-peeping and number-crunching on the one hand and the emotional/entertainment/egocentric storytelling on the other hand. Both approaches are losing appeal and relevance in the contemporary camera landscape where manufacturing quality and design goals are rapidly converging to the what I would call ‘unicorn’ - profile. A one-size-fits-all strategy is evolving based on very powerful software technology and in-depth applications of information technology. Many articles and reports, even so-called lab-tests, are devoted to a hunt for real differences between the micro-four-third technology, the APS-C technology and the ‘full-frame’ (35 mm size) technology. The medium format cameras are often neglected, but understandably so. These cameras are extremely expensive and offer a range of features and a performance level that is beyond the capabilities of most reviewers to handle and assess in an informative way. And last but not least: buyers of this type of cameras are a very conservative group, they know what they need and these persons are in most cases rather immune for the trending topics in the blogosphere.
It is a bare fact that it is increasingly difficult to make sense of statements (when true!) that camera A has a dynamic range of 12.3 stops and camera B tops this with a range of 12.7 stops or that camera A has the same noise level at ISO 6400 that another one has at ISO 3200 or that camera A has a limiting resolution of 1823 Lp/ih and camera B can boast only a value of 1798 Lp/ih. It is quite logical that the drudgery of finding really practical differences between the Leica SL and the Nikon D4s or Canon 1X D might impel some reviewers to throw in the towel and relate their opinions to the level of expertise as the measure of all things.
The difficulty that the photographic community and the camera manufacturers experience to attach to their products a sharply defined profile (the logical consequence of the converging trend noted previously) gives rise to a focus on the list of gadgets and to the empty categories of ‘professional - enthusiast - amateur’ class of cameras. Especially the adjective ‘professional’ has emotional connotations. When a camera is labelled as ‘professional’ it is at least outside the mainstream and choosing such a camera adds some cachet to the owner or so it seems.
What ‘professional’ entails is not clear. According to the dictionary ‘professional’ refers to a profession and professional also refers to qualities that are attributed to this profession. Usually professions are identified by their organizational structure that ensures that certain standards of quality and expertise are upheld. The photographic profession is a very loosely defined collection of individuals who earn money by taking and selling images. I assume that smart-phone users sell more pictures that the Magnum members.
What is really meant with the adjective ‘professional’ is a reference to the heavy-duty qualities of a camera system in contrast to the light-duty profile of a so-called amateur camera system. A heavy-duty system is built to tighter tolerances with sturdy components for long-lasting service with a high level of reliability. In this sense the Leica SL certainly qualifies as a heavy-duty camera system, albeit that most owners will not be working professionals in the sense of a money-making activity.
There are some valid reasons to look at the Leica SL as an autonomous system, and not because a comparison with heavy-duty systems of the competition might be impossible or unnecessary.
There are three questions that a prospective buyer who has already invested in the Leica world might wish to have answered.
(1) Does using the SL makes me a better photographer? When ‘better’ is interpreted in a creative and artistic sense, the answer is simply negative. Creativity (like sex) sits between the ears, but is has to be said that the range of possibilities of the SL might trigger some brain cells to try another approach to the same challenge.
(2) Does using the SL helps me taking technically better photographs? The answer is a qualified affirmative. The answer is negative when one looks only at the maximum achievable image quality. In the important technical benchmarks (exposure, definition, detail reproduction, tonality) the SL operates in the highest league, but sets no new benchmarks. The answer is yes when one looks at the ease with which these results can be achieved. With expert knowledge the Leica M produces results that equal or even surpass the ones possible with the SL, but given only a modest level of technical proficiency, it is very easy to produce results of a very high order. Let us rephrase this statement a bit: given the numerous assistants provided by the SL, the score of success is much higher than with a Leica M, especially when one considers the sharpness of focus.
(3) Does using the SL helps me to take photographs that are different or new? Here the answer is a clear affirmative. The close focus ability with its excellent image quality invites one into a territory not often set foot on. The high ISO values coupled to an effective image stabilisation mechanism allows one to take pictures without tripod in that fascinating part of the day (twilight and early evening). The AF ability of continuous focus tracking or focus following (while not as comprehensive or effective as the phase detection technology of the high-end DSLR competitors) gives one the opportunity to capture objects in movement that are difficult or impossible to grasp without AF. While it is possible to capture the exact moment of dynamic movement with the manual M camera (with pre-focusing or focusing into the movement) it is much easier with the AF options of the SL and again one is invited to “boldly go where one has not gone before”.
Mechanically the body parts of the Leica SL are milled from solid blocks of aluminium, a technique that Leica is very proud of. The usual technique is to use a aluminum chassis enclosed by a polycarbonate shell. Both engineering approaches are equally valid and in terms of accuracy of finish and durability only time will tell.
Part two of the SL report will be published soon.