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November 2015

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.

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.

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.