Archive for L-Mount Alliance

Rethinking The Leica SL2 As A Camera For Street Photography

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on December 8, 2019 by johnbuckley100
Leica SL2 with Sigma 45mm f/2.8 L-Mount

For the better part of 15 years, I shot exclusively with Leica Ms. Small, discreet, you could lift them to your eye and take a picture on the street with no one noticing. To the extent people did notice, they often assumed it was some weird and non-threatening anachronism, a film camera from the last century, and not, as Leica’s digital rangefinders progressively became, a marvelously thought through and capable alternative approach to photography. I’d see street photographers with their big DSLRs that announced their arrival like they were driving up in a Hummer and would silently smile. I’ll never do that, I’d say to myself.

Leica SL2 with Sigma 45mm f/2.8 L-Mount

One of the limitations — if that’s what it is — of using a Leica M is that you have to shoot manually, as no automatic focus lens works with the rangefinder. But while my family would groan as I fiddled with the focus, and complain that they couldn’t hold their smiles any longer, in fact over time I learned how to focus as quickly and automatically with a manual lens as some photographers could with their big Nikons or Canons. And readers of this site may recall my recent posting about using a Leica M10 and a small 35mm Summicron lens to “shoot from the hip” in the Medina in Marrakech, taking street photos in a location where photography was difficult due to local sensibilities. I couldn’t have done that with a big DSLR.

Leica SL2 with SL35mm Summicron

In 2015, Leica announced the SL, a mirrorless camera system, and it promised to fill a gap in my needs. It was launched with a 24-90 zoom lens that early reviewers gasped over, a lens that promised to be as sharp as Leica’s prime lenses at every focal length, even if it was both slow (f/2.8-f/4) and cumbersome. That was okay, I had my M and Monochrom and a range of M lenses for the street, but with the large 24mp, full-frame SL and just that one zoom, for the first time, I had a camera — even if built like a tank — that really could do all the things an M couldn’t. It was a fantastic camera for landscape photography, even if big and heavy for hiking. It also was a great camera for action, sports, portraiture, even product photography. And because Leica brilliantly cast the new L-mount camera as a vehicle for using M lenses (far better than other mirrorless cameras), it was the answer to certain prayers: my 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux with its razor-thin focal plane was suddenly incredibly easy to use, given the SL’s bright electronic viewfinder.

Leica SL with SL 24-90 zoom

Suddenly, I could become a proper landscape photographer. Having an SL opened up a new world. I could use the amazing 90-280 zoom lens for wildlife photography. I could go to Iceland and shoot long exposure images, as in the above shot taken this past August. But I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, use it in the street. For that I had my Ms — small, light, and perfect for that use.

Leica SL2 and 75mm Noctilux, f/1.25

Just before Thanksgiving, I upgraded my SL to the new SL2, a 47 megapixel camera with IBIS — image stabilization built into the camera housing. It was launched with great early reviews from Jono Slack, a photographer who gets to test Leica’s cameras before they’re released. Jono has managed to keep the respect of Leica’s small, argumentative and opinionated users, because he is, first and foremost, a photographer, and even if his images are meant by Leica to stimulate the Pavlovian drool, we believe him when he raves about a camera, as he did with the SL2. Eminent tester Sean Reid, who does not so rave about cameras, but rather puts them through a series of sometimes eye-numbing tests, did so with this one. Even more mainstream sites spent time with the SL2 and gushed. It is telling, though, that three weeks ago when I picked mine up at the Leica Store DC, and one of the members of the team there asked where I was going to take the camera to try it out, I said I had planned to take it to the Library of Congress, Washington’s most beautiful interior, and not out onto the street. I just couldn’t think of the SL2 as a street camera.

Leica SL2 with 75mm Noctilux

For while the SL was significantly upgraded — twice the megapixels as the initial SL, with IBIS, an improved LCD and EVF, with an improved menu layout (which is saying something — Leica should be revered almost as much for their approach to software as they rightfully are for their lenses), I didn’t really think of the SL2 as a camera I’d take out into the streets. Oh, sure for static objects, the new camera was amazing.

Leica SL2 and 75mm Noctilux

And I took it out for a spin as an urban landscape camera.

Leica SL2 with SL 16-35 Zoom

But I still just couldn’t think of it as a street camera. Contrary to wishful speculation, the SL2 is not smaller than the original SL — while changing form factor and becoming ever so slightly more comfortable in the hand, it’s still a big, heavy camera and — here’s the key issue — the lenses are heavy. Even that range of prime Summicron lenses (all f/2) make the combined size and weight of the SL2 if not the equivalent of a Hummer, then at least, when posted up against using an M, like going out into the city streets looking for a parking space while driving an SUV. The M in this metaphor, of course, is like going out and parking with a small German Smart car.

Leica SL2 and Sigma 45mm f/2.8 L-Mount

Yet in the time since the original SL was launched, Leica did something bold and brave. They announced, with Panasonic/Lumix and Sigma, something called the L-Mount Alliance. The two Japanese camera companies would both be able to compete with Leica using a common lens coupling, enabling all SL lenses (and with an adaptor, Leica M and R lenses too) to be used with their cameras, and vice versa. Panasonic released two extremely capable L-mount cameras, the S1 (24mp) and S1r (47mp). And in fact, Leica at least temporarily lost some number of SL users to the higher megapixel S1r. I’ll admit, I was tempted too, as I knew last summer I was going to Iceland on a landscape photography excursion and I really hoped Leica would release the SL2, with its higher megapixel count, in time. They didn’t. And as the photo of the waterfall above can attest, the original SL is still, in 2019, a helluva camera.

Leica SL2 and Sigma 45mm f/28 L-Mount

But perhaps the most interesting development in the nascent L-Mount alliance was Sigma’s release of a set of new lenses, preparatory to their release of a Foveon-based sensor camera sometime in the future. One of the first lenses they put into the market was their 45mm f/2.8 Contemporary lens, which with its L-Mount is compatible with the Leica SL2. For the first time, a small and light autofocus lens could be used with SL camera. And it cost approximately $500, which compared to Leica lenses — typically, $4000 or more — is a bargain. I bought one in anticipation of the SL2 release, and when I put it on the SL2 and compared the size to my M10 with a 35mm Summilux, it no longer seemed so large. Hmmm.

Leica SL2 and Sigma 45mm f/2.8

Remember when I said that I could shoot the manual focus M lenses as fast as most people can shoot with autofocus lenses? That’s true. But it was a revelation taking the SL2 and the small Sigma out into D.C.’s streets. It did not feel like I was driving a Hummer. To be sure, it didn’t feel, as an M feels, like what Henri Cartier-Bresson referred to as an extension of his eye. But the SL2 as a street camera suddenly seemed to work.

Leica SL2 and Sigma 45mm f/2.8

Yes, I know, I could have been using the SL and Leica M lenses all along. But why would I do that, when the M is such a superior and small camera for street use? And in fact, when I went out with the SL2 yesterday in December light, I did bring an M lens — the 21mm Summilux — as well as the larger SL 35mm Summicron. These offered great possibilities.

Leica SL2 and 21mm M Summilux, cropped to a square

As I walked into the National Portrait Gallery, I had the Sigma autofocus lens on the camera, and caught the picture below. I think if I’d had an M, I would have been able to get both the sign and her feet into the picture, as I’m more fluid and experienced with an M and 35mm combo. But still, what a capable street camera this is.

Leica SL2 and Sigma 45mm f/2.8

Once inside, I discovered there was a free performance of the Washington Ballet for children, and I quickly switched to the faster 35mm SL Summicron.

Leica SL2 and SL35mm Summicron

It is an amazing combination, rendering color brilliantly. It focuses quickly. It is as good a lens, for color or black and white, as Leica has ever produced.

Leica SL2 and SL 35mm Summicron

It was immediately adaptable to the conditions. Just like my Ms! Importantly, in an environment with many photographers — parents with their iPhone, pros with their big rigs — the SL2 felt moderate in size, not a bazooka.

Leica SL and M 21mm Summilux

I walked over to the National Gallery of Art and used both the 21mm manual focus M 21mm lens and the autofocus SL 35mm lens.

Leica SL2 and SL35mm Summicron

I wanted to get to the Capitol building as the sun was going down on the Washington Mall, so I hustled over there just as the moon became visible. Of course, if you are thinking of landscape photographer, the SL2 is an astonishingly capable camera.

Leica SL2 and SL35mm Summicron

The revelation of the day was the the SL2 can absolutely work as an urban camera, out on the streets. Leica should add a series of Elmarit f/2.8mm lenses to their roadmap, because the Sigma 45mm lens shows how a small autofocus lens can be used in the same way M lenses on M cameras have always been used.

Leica SL2 and Sigma 45mm f/2.8

With the SL2 the stars — and moon! — have aligned. It is very much the camera I hoped for, and more. All the new features make it a better camera than the already very high performing SL. I found the new function button layout to be intuitive and, with new menu options, even faster than the SL. The big revelation for me is that in certain travel situations, I no longer have to choose between taking an SL or taking an M. I can take an SL and use it like an M, with both small manual lenses and the small autofocus Sigma. I know there are SL users who were already doing the former. The addition of the Sigma autofocus lens, though, is at least as important a new development as all of the added bells and whistles of the SL2. Leica, if you are listening — to paraphrase an appeal from someone, I forget who — get cracking on a series of Elmarit SL lenses.

Leica SL2 and M 35mm Summilux

The SL system is positioned for the future in an incredibly exciting way. I will never turn my back on my Ms. It is the camera system that feels most natural in my hand, pressed to my eye, pressed to my heart. But the SL2 is an astonishingly capable and adaptable camera, and with it, Leica’s future is bright.

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