An Appreciation Of The Leica SL By A Confirmed Leica M Photographer

SL Example-3Leica SL with 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

I am a Leica M photographer, a rangefinder devotee, certain in the paradoxical belief that the very limitations inherent in using an M are the reason why so many images taken with one often look magical. The lack of autofocus and long lenses, for example, lock M users out of certain photographic categories — sports photography, some wildlife photography, various types of landscape photography. Yet in the hands of a practiced M user — and the history of photography is, of course, heavily weighted toward M users — there are things an M photographer can achieve (in both its film and, for the past 10 years, digital incarnations) that users of SLRs, DSLRs, and even modern mirrorless miracles cannot.

But these beliefs didn’t stop me, in April, from eagerly buying a Leica SL, a mirrorless camera with autofocus that arrived with an impressive 24-90mm zoom lens.  You see, even as my approach to photography, which reflects the fact that for much of the year I live in a big city, is principally applied to street photography in color, and since the introduction, in 2012, of the Leica Monochrom, in black and white as well, I spend time each summer in the Greater Yellowstone region of the American West, and landscape photography in and around Jackson Hole is what first motivated me to buy a Leica M7 back in 2002.

Back then, I had been looking for a camera that could return me to the simplicity of Pentax cameras I’d used as a teenager, or the Olympus OM-1 I’d used in my early 20s, and the only system that promised delivery of both the essentials of photography and great optics seemed to be an M.  (It is true that for a few years, until the M8 digital camera was delivered in November 2006, I also used a Leica Digilux 2, which I find very much the precursor to the Leica SL.  But we are getting ahead of the story.)

In 2014, I was fortunate enough to go with my family on a safari in Botswana.  Even with the Leica M-240 now enabling, through a kludge of an adaptor and external EVF, the ability to use long lenses, the images that meant the most to me upon my return were those taken with a Monochrom and a 90mm Summicron lens.  Sitting in the back of an open-air Land Rover while lions and leopards were wandering nearby, I was extremely limited, compared to my son using a Canon D6 and a good zoom lens. But the pictures I came back with seemed to prove my thesis that the very limitations of a Leica force one to take pictures that ultimately look different from the “typical” pictures one expects from a given situation.  That the “shortcomings” of the M paradoxically, perhaps, can lead to a different form of art.

TF Lion Portrait

Leica Monochrom (version 1) with 90mm Apo-Summicron-ASPH

Nonetheless, I returned from that trip vowing I would, if fortunate enough to ever return on safari, purchase a Leica S, probably used, given how expensive they are.  I hankered to be able to do things that one could not do with an M: use long lenses natively, use zoom lenses, be certain that, in a professional situation, I could bring home the goods.  I remember thinking, last summer, about my son’s upcoming graduation from high school and wondering if, given certain situations, I might miss photos because I was changing lenses, or fiddling with manual focus.

And then last October Leica announced the SL, and the reviews were glowing, and it seemed to meet multiple desires.  It would take all of my manual-focus M lenses, including the Noctilux.  The autofocus zoom lens available at the time of release, while heavy and large, sounded amazing, as did the EVF, which received raves.  In April I bought one, and I have been using it, alongside my MP-240 and Monochrom-246, ever since.  I’ve learned a lot in the past few months — about the SL, about my appreciation of Ms, about the M’s limitations, weaknesses, and genius, and about photography itself.  I have been using the SL on an extended stay in Jackson Hole, and what follows is a summation of learnings from the past few months, told through pictures and writing, that I hope expands on the strict limitations of a product review.

The picture that leads off this post was chosen because, since 2012, I have loved taking my Monochroms to various public gardens in DC, often with the Noctilux and, since the release of Monochrom-246 last May, with an external viewfinder that helps render the notoriously hard-to-focus Nocti more consistently effective.  Within days of owning the SL, I came to a quick conclusion: using it with the Noctilux for the kind of dreamy, classic still photography I love is dramatically easier and in many ways superior to using an M in these situations.  Put differently, the Monochrom has only one advantage over the SL in most normal-light situations: size. (I believe it has an advantage over the SL, and probably every other camera, in its gorgeous high ISO performance.)

SL Example-2

Leica SL and Noctilux f/0.95

Because of the EVF, the robust, malleable files, the magnification in manual focus that, since the firmware upgrade in May, is now so easy to access, the Leica SL is simply a superior camera to take along with you if you wish to use a Noctilux and size and weight are not an issue.

Tulip Frenzy 2016-3

Leica SL and Noctilux f/0.95

There is a reason my blog is called Tulip Frenzy and my photo site is called TulipFrenzyPhotography: I have this weird love of tulips and for 15 years have been shooting them with various Ms and, mostly, the Noctilux.  This year, though, I learned that it was so much easier to take the SL along — in the rain, since it’s weather sealed, or on sunny days — because the EVF, in these situations, is a marvel.

But when I went out into the streets of D.C. to photograph its best annual event, The Funk Parade, I had zero desire to take along the big, heavy SL. I took my small, subtle, amazing Monochrom, and the pictures captured were, I believe, the better for it.

Funk Parade 2016Leica Monochrom-246 and 35mm Summilux.

And when I went out on the street to take pictures of The Capital Pride Parade, the camera I took with me was my MP-240.  Why? Because it is small, discreet, less threatening to people, and renders colors wonderfully.

Pride 2016-11Leica MP-240 and 35mm Summilux

But having come out West for a few weeks, with all three cameras in tow, I really wanted to get a sense of the SL’s magic in those situations where its capabilities could be tested, without regard to its size and weight.  I had long since concluded that it is ergonomically brilliant, well designed, and delivers fantastic files/images.  Of course, on our first full day here, my wife and I went for an evening walk along the Snake River, and because it was a casual stroll, not a photographic expedition, I took along my M.

Evening WalkLeica MP-240 and 50mm APO-Summicron-ASPH

Now, the SL could easily have taken that picture, and possibly it would have been even better.  But the M is small and easy to carry on a walk, and capable of taking such good pictures, in many situations, one does not yearn for the SL’s capabilities: fast autofocus, ability to use zooms, etc.  It’s why the M has been my camera of choice for a decade and a half.

Having said that, being in a small town with lots and lots of tourists carrying cameras, I found it less of an issue to take the SL, with the Noctilux affixed, into Jackson for the evening “Shoot Out” staged for visitors.  The image below might easily have been taken by an M, but manual focusing of Leica lenses on the SL is so intuitive and quick, that if you can use it, why wouldn’t you?

SL ReviewLeica SL and Noctilux f/0.95

In fact, when it came time for Jackson’s 4th of July parade — an event I have photographed for 15 years with Ms — I took along my SL and was stunned at how easy it was to shoot like all the other photographers with their Canons and Nikons, their autofocus and zoom lenses; that the priesthood of M photography, pure and noble as it may be, sure can be a chore, in some situations, when those with zooms and autofocus are so effortlessly having fun.Parade WinnerLeica SL and Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm 

I likely never would have gotten that picture with an M — I probably would have struggled to decide even which lens to use, and then having made the decision, would have been limited by the decision. I long ago traded in both the WATE and MATE — the M wide-angle and medium-angle “zooms” — because I wasn’t using them, given the superiority of Leica primes.  But here I was, zooming to the right focal length, focusing instantaneously, and emerging with fun pictures.

SL Review-3Leica SL and Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90

The picture above could easily have been taken with an M, but again, in a situation where you are comfortably able to carry the bigger SL with its large, excellent zoom, it proves to be an pretty incredible camera and, most importantly, provides a great photographic experience.

Lamar Sunset 1

Leica SL and Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90

My wife and I, along with friends, traveled up to Yellowstone, and for the first time, the Ms pretty much sat in the bag.  The quality of the SL images are so good, the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90, f/2.8-4 lens is so satisfying, it was all I needed, or wanted to use. The files produced — like the Monochrom’s – come out looking flat, but they can be so well manipulated, even tortured, in Lightroom, that if I had any doubts, by day two of our trip it was clear: in these situations, the virtues of the SL outshine the virtues of the M.  One finds the ease of use, and the flexibility, in a situation where size and weight are not an issue to tip the scales in favor of using the SL.

SL Review-8Looking for the Bear: Leica SL and Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90

While it was easy to use my 70-200 R lens with adaptors, and did so in situations where the length was called for, I used the incredible Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90 pretty much the whole time we were in Yellowstone. Being able to frame the image according to focal length needed is a blessing, as is having a zoom as sharp as most Leica primes. And for a sense of what this camera and lens can do in certain situations, you might like to take a brief detour here.

SL Review-7

Leica SL with Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90

We went up out of Yellowstone onto the Beartooth Highway, an amazing, high-altitude road between Cooke City and Red Lodge, Montana.  A year ago, I had taken what I thought were great images there with my Monochrom-246.  But by now I’d learned how good are the black and white conversions one can get out of the SL, and there really was no need to use either M on this part of the trip.

SL Review-5Leica SL and Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90

The level of detail captured by the combination of camera and lens is, even when handheld, as fine to my eye as many Medium Format images.

Schwabachers Sunset Instagram Beartooth

Leica SL and Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90

In tough, variable light, given the ability you have to get the most out of the files, the SL is, I believe, a really amazing landscape camera.

SL Review-6Leica SL and Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90

But lest you think I am ready to chuck the Ms and become a full-time SL user, here’s one downside to the SL, and it is a big one.  I was reminded, via a thread in the Leica User Forum, that Leica’s promotional copy, when the camera was introduced, stated this:

The Leica SL is the world’s first camera conceived for professional photography to feature an electronic viewfinder. With a latency time below the threshold of perception and a resolution of 4.4 million pixels, this EyeRes viewfinder developed especially for the Leica SL offers an entirely new visual experience. As its image can be electronically brightened, the EyeRes viewfinder is superior to optical viewfinders in low or unfavorable light.

While, in general, the EVF is remarkably good, and they’re not wrong about using it in low light, I found that in a number of situations while shooting in the bright light/high contrast of the American West in summer, I actually could not see what was being rendered in the shadows.  Here’s an example, from the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway that runs between Cooke City and Cody, WY.

SL Review-9Leica SL and Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90

When I leaned as far over as I could to take that image of the gorge through Mother Earth, I literally could not see the water.  The EVF was thrown by the bright-ish sky to an extent that the area below was completely dark.  Not just a little bit dark, but really dark.

All Guest WelcomeLeica SL and Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90

When we returned to Jackson Hole and were surprised to find a mama moose and her twins parked outside our house, I snapped away and got many good pictures.  Having such a capable zoom lens was a blessing.  But in the picture above, I had to take on faith that I could get shadow detail out of the bottom half of the picture, because as I looked through the EVF, the image was dark.

This is a significant flaw in an otherwise incredible system.  Yes, I know, as an M user who has not spent time with EVFs, this flaw is common to all systems.  Yet, in their promotional copy, Leica clearly says one can adjust the brightness of the EVF.  You can’t.  There are various workarounds, and you can just trust the shadow detail is there.  But this is a downside one never has with an M and its optical viewfinder.

Yes, with the SL I could finally sneak inside the house, run upstairs, and in a few seconds take the below picture, without having to grab an 90mm and with fumbling hands swap it out from whatever standard lens I might be traveling with, even as the moose stepped out of the picture.

SL Review-11

Leica SL and Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90

That’s a big deal: its effortless, easy ability to deliver the goods. This camera has many strengths, and is an incredible system that is complementary to the M.  If one can afford it, having both an M and an SL is a great and flexible combination.   For an M user, the focusing of the Noctilux and other fast M lenses on the SL is remarkable.  And with autofocus zooms and, eventually, long lenses, we now can get engaged in action photography.  The SL is intelligently designed with the ability to program the buttons you want to have call up the features you need at just the right moment, from switching ISO to Exposure Compensation.  It is a pretty remarkable tool, especially appreciated by someone who has spent so long in the defiantly different world of M photography.

The Vario-Elmarit-SL has won me over: it renders colors as well as the 75 Summicron, and is almost as sharp as the best M primes — in any event, it does the job that a longtime Leica user can expect of the company’s glass.

The Leica SL will never replace my M.  I can’t wait for the successor to the M-240, even if I now know I will use it just a little less often than I use my SL.  I can’t imagine taking the SL into city streets for the kind of discreet photography one can access through an M.  I can’t imagine, for example, traveling with an SL to Paris.  But at the same time, when it comes to going out for an evening here in Wyoming, trying to take advantage of the photographic bounties, yeah, as the picture below will tell you, I am very happy that Leica has produced in the SL a first-rate mirrorless system.

Schwabachers Sunset Instagram

Leica SL and Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90

On Twitter: @johnbuckley100

On Instagram: tulip_frenzy

8 Responses to “An Appreciation Of The Leica SL By A Confirmed Leica M Photographer”

  1. Best review I’ve read to date! I am an M9/M-E shooter and looking to upgrade. Like most I have probably lost hundreds of hours of sleep over this reading everything and anything available. I’m absolutely torn between the SL with 24-90 or getting the MP-240. Most of my work is editorial and documentary type stuff in hard conditions, but I do enjoy and shoot sports, landscapes, and the occasion wildlife periodically for clients. For those situations I’ll always have my canon’s and array of L lenses. But for travel and editorial, I’m simply done with the weight of the DSLR’s. No knock to Sony or Fuji but I simply don’t like their systems. You’re write up has both helped and raised more questions I need to answer. RF vs. AF and EVF…. Guess I have a real first world problem 🙂 Thanks again! Really enjoyed the article and your photos.

  2. Best review I’ve read to date! I am an M9/M-E shooter and looking to upgrade. Like most I have probably lost hundreds of hours of sleep over this reading everything and anything available. I’m absolutely torn between the SL with 24-90 or getting the MP-240. Most of my work is editorial and documentary type stuff in hard conditions, but I do enjoy and shoot sports, landscapes, and the occasion wildlife periodically for clients. For those situations I’ll always have my canon’s and array of L lenses. But for travel and editorial, I’m simply done with the weight of the DSLR’s. No knock to Sony or Fuji but I simply don’t like their systems. You’re write up has both helped and raised more questions I need to answer. RF vs. AF and EVF…. Guess I have a real first world problem:-) Thanks again! Really enjoyed the article and your photos.

  3. johnbuckley100 Says:

    Thanks so much, Roger. There has been a fair amount of pushback on the Leica User Forum to the report in this appreciation on the issues with the EVF — some people deny it exists, others have simple workarounds — but I really didn’t want that one negative aspect to carry the day. The SL is an amazing camera. So is the M240. You just have to decide which works best for your needs. Thanks for commenting.

  4. johnbuckley100 Says:

    P.S. your work is fantastic.

  5. John – great review on the SL. I know I’m late to the game here but I really enjoyed reading your post and looking at the images you have made with it. Myself I use the M-P 240 with various M lenses. But for my editorial work I use Canon which I have used for many, many years. I know what you speak of when you talk about the ease in framing with the 24-90. I use my Canon 24-70L on the Canon 5D MK3 for most of my editorial work and it is hard to beat for speed and ease of use. But for my personal work and travel it’s the M and a very small Sony Nex-7 with the Novoflex adapter for the M lenses. Usually the 90 Tele Elmarit stays on it as the long lens since it’s a 135 on that camera. I often refer to the Canon as the “beast” but I know in comparison the SL is way more of a beast at least weight wise. I know you’ll have much more fun with it.

    • johnbuckley100 Says:

      I have, over the past several months, come to see how a Leica M + SL combo is a great way of dealing with multiple situations. One thing I have come to believe is that the sensor for SL is so advanced, it shines in a way that the M-240 doesn’t — which is why I await word that the new Leica M10, or whatever it will be called, has this upgraded sensor. And thanks for your comments!

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