Rangefinder

Views on the photographic universe by Erwin Puts

Leica SL, some thoughts

Today I am returning the loan Leica SL to the factory. The report will be published over the weekend. (I need some time for analysis and reflection!). A few impressions (hors catégorie) I wish to share. It has been remarked that the current state-of-the-art of digital photography makes it very easy to take high-quality pictures easily without knowing about the technical details of photography or having much experience. This is indeed true and the SL does prove it. The camera is very easy to use (but has a steep learning curve to find out what works best in what conditions) and the quality of the pictures is second to none. The many digital assistants with its long range of options compensate every shortcoming or lack of expertise of the user. The casualness with which one can produce excellent imagery is reminiscent of the ease of use of the original Barnack camera. The other side of the coin should not be forgotten. In Barnack’s days the photographer had to stick to some well-proven techniques and standard material to make the picture one had in mind. The modern digital photographer can use the SL as a point and shoot camera and produce pictures with a quality most analog photographers can only dream of. This is the snag: when one restricts oneself to capturing the usual content (landscapes, close-up nature scenes, portraits, pets, family, urban scenes in ambient and hardly available light and so on) the act of photography is in danger of becoming boring and so are the almost boring results because of the achieved perfection. Indeed the effect of the lazy eye of the photographer is becoming visible.
The potential of digital photography in combination with the possibilities of the SL (to restrict myself to the Leica marque, but one could easily add Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Canon and Nikon) open a vast und unchartered territory for exploration. When the message of the SL has been grasped (beyond the claim that Leica now can match the competition in features and capabilities) one understands that the camera allows one to shift the boundary of traditional photography. There is no expertise required anymore to produce high-performance imagery classical style. In order to explore the new territories of imagery one has to discard all notions about classical M-style photography and look with a fresh eye at the features that the SL offers. On the surface the SL reminds me of a Mercedes-Benz G-type: sturdy, flexible and with an industrial workmanlike design. The G has a two-sided character: a luxury vehicle that hardly ever sees the rough terrain for which is has been designed and an expeditionary vehicle for the adventurer who boldly goes where no one dared to go. You might buy the SL for its red dot character and use it to take the pictures you always made, but now with more ease and a greater chance of success. But then you do the camera and yourself a disservice. The first two weeks of my experience with the SL were devoted to get to grips with the many features, the size of the camera/lens combination and to start unlearning the classical reflection of comparing the SL to the M. The last two weeks were dedicated to exploring the potential of the camera. The overall performance is as said at the start beyond dispute. There are a few critical points that are discussed in the review, but none that has an excessive impact. The only comment I wish to make here is the fact that Leica has chosen to follow the path of the competition in offering every conceivable option. I know the usual comment about this feature-overload: it does not hurt when one can neglect them. The core of the matter however is the fact that Leica may have recovered lost ground, but is now (to talk in Tour de France terminology) part of the tȇte de la course , but is unable to secure the lead position. When the designers had selected a more limited amount of the most useful features and had optimized these to perfection, the status of the SL might be different. As it stands now the SL is a very potent performer, has loads of very smart solutions, but lacks the true Leica-DNA that made the Wetzlar cameras unique. On the other hand this might be the way to secure the survival of the company. Being the first among equals may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for being unique.