Since writing Leica SL: Titan or Titanic, I hadn’t thought much more about this new series of cameras, until now. It isn’t because I think the SL is irrelevant, only because there hasn’t been much by way of SL developments. In fact, the Leica SL is hugely relevant, because it represents a very significant investment for Leica. As many of you will know, I have a huge soft spot for the brand, despite selling my Monochrom. I am eager to see what Leica has up its sleeve, not least because I still have several film bodies and some wonderful Leica M lenses. I shot for years in Afghanistan using Leica M bodies (Leica M6, MP) and I’m just itching for them to release a really successful new system camera that will keep them going well into the future. Unfortunately, having once again thought over the Leica SL system as a commercial proposition, I’m struggling to see how it won’t fail. There’s just so much stacked against it and not nearly enough ‘good stuff’ happening. So let’s take a look.
So what has happened since I write the first article?
Not a huge amount, but that in itself is fairly significant. The Leica APO-VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 90-280mm f2.8-4 is now available and has been tested by reviewers and owners alike. At £4,930 (from Leica Mayfair, UK) you’d expect it to be good and it is. It is extremely good, going by what I’ve have read, but the price is eye watering for a non-medium format lens. It is also exceedingly expensive for a long lens that is not mated to a system with obvious professional utility (such as for wildlife or sports). Alongside this tele-zoom is the fairly large and heavy LEICA VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 24–90 mm f2.8–4 ASPH (£3,790 from Leica Mayfair), which has been available since the release of the Leica SL. It too is wonderful, but even Leica SL fans acknowledge that it’s a large and heavy hunk of metal and glass. We are now also being told that the Summilux-SL 50mm f1.4 ASPH lens will be released in early 2017. When you consider that I wroteLeica SL: Titan or Titanic in October 2015, that is quite a wait for the first prime lens and only the third lens in the line up. It mightn’t have been prohibitively long back in 1990 when everyone was shooting film and not much changed, but in today’s digital marketplace, a lot changes (more on this later).
The next issue is to expand upon the size and weight issues I talked about in my earlier article. It is abundantly clear that the Leica SL is firmly in DSLR territory with regard to bulk and mass. A SL body, with the two zooms weighs in at approximately 3850g, which is about 650g more than a Canon 5D IV with EF 24-70 f2.8 L II and Canon EF 70-200 f2.8 L II lenses. Comparison with Nikon would be broadly comparable, depending on the body and specific lenses chosen. If any of you were hoping that native primes might be a little smaller, you may be disappointed. As the below leicarumors.com graphic shows, there is a vast size difference between the Leica SL with forthcoming Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 ASPH and a Leica M9/240 and 50mm Summilux-M f/1.4 ASPH.
The difference between the two Summilux lenses is positively gargantuan and I am left scratching my head a little. I am wondering what Leica is up to. As stated before, this is not a sports camera (it lacks the sophisticated AF tracking and grip, not to mention the total absence of a viable system for such applications). It is also not a high resolution monster. So why are even the primes so utterly enormous? As others have suggested, I can only assume that it is to make the lenses ‘the best possibly available’. However, this just doesn’t make sense with 24MP at the SL’s disposal. I also don’t recall too many complaints about the Leica Summilux-M ASPH being unsatisfactory on the Leica M240, or Leica M246. Leica seems to be crippling the utility of the Leica SL through massive ‘best possible’ optics, while solving a problem that doesn’t exist. Fully appreciating the lens size vs. resolution issue is a little more complex and involves the Leica S system (more on this later). At this point I can only say that I hope the 50mm Summilux-SL does not indicate how large the rest of the primes will be….
So why is the Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 ASPH the first SL Prime?
The 50mm Summilux makes a lot of sense with the M system, because that system is often used for street photography and reportage, where 50mm has a cultish following. However, the SL is much more likely to be used for general photography, travel, landscapes, portraits etc, where I expect 50mm is not nearly as popular. I suspect that in this context the 50mm Summilux is actually one of the least desirable. Perhaps Leica believed other focal lengths would be served by second hand R lenses?
Many SL early adopters seem to be existing M lens owners and I venture that a great many of them already own a cracking 50mm lens that already performs very well on the 24MP SL. However, very few will own a fast portrait lens, with 75mm Summilux-M owners being very much in the minority. After the whizz bang portrait lens, the 50mm Summilux-SL could then have been introduced at a later date when there is a much higher resolution sensor in a future SL generation. I am also left wondering why Leica did not release a trio of Summicrons first, or perhaps a 35mm Summicron-SL f2 and 85mm Summilux-SL f1.4. Establishing a base of Summicrons is the approach they took with the slow-selling Leica T and it made sense. However, it could also indicate why they chose a different approach with the SL. I’d argue that the problem with the Leica T had nothing to do with the lenses and everything to do with the woefully misguided T concept, however.
What is the Future of the Leica SL?
There still isn’t any clarity at all on which new SL lenses will be released and when. It’s a case of almost total darkness, so new buyers still have no clue what they are really buying into (with a very high price of admission, let’s not forget). This surely makes it very difficult indeed to attract new buyers after the initial flurry of Leica M and R system owners. And where on earth is the Leica R to SL adaptor 12 months later?
Caught Between A Rock And The Leica S
It still looks like the SL is being constrained by the 37.5MP sensor on the existing Leica S series. Leica’s inability to move that body beyond 37.5MP from the S006 to S007 has sucked a lot of the juice out of the SL. Many Leica M owners would say that they don’t want more than 24MP and this is easy to understand when one considers the compactness of the system and its widespread application. The same cannot be said of the SL, which judging by the size of the lenses currently known about, really needs 36+ MP to make any sense at all in todays market. CMOSIS, which is the company that makes the sensor in the Leica M and Leica T (I am not sure about the SL), has announced the imminent release of a 48MP full-frame sensor, which is more like it, considering the flower pot sized SL lenses. The problem is they won’t be able to put that sensor into the SL until the S has one of considerably higher resolution. This may all take a long time to grind into place, after which the market will be another 2 years downrange. It will be a fairly merciless two years I suspect.
The Camera Market & Innovation
The market has already changed significantly since my original article. As feared, it is not in the SL’s favour. Not only do we have the imminent announcement of the third generation of Sony A7 cameras, but we very possibly have a pro-spec A9 around the corner that will sit a level above the current A7 series. This camera may well provide the sports grade AF in a mirrorless package with access to a much wider range of native optics. OK, OK, so the Sony is not really direct competition for the Leica SL. The Hasselblad X1D-50C is though. Not only does it have double the resolution in a larger sensor, it is the same approximate size and has some vastly smaller (albeit slower) primes in the line up. It may prove to be an amazing travel set up for top notch image quality of a level the SL doesn’t begin to approach. The body is a bit more expensive (not that much really), but the lenses are likely to work out cheaper when you factor in a working line up. Then we have the Fujifilm GFX 50s which has an almost (or actually) identical sensor and which is likely to see its lens line up fleshed out more quickly than the Leica SL. It is likely to be the same price for the body and appreciably less for the lenses. The other issue is that with both the Hasselblad and the Fujifilm, we have greater visibility of what is coming further down the line. That makes all the difference when you’re buying in. We know what those systems are about, but the Leica SL still seems far less resolved:
If you want to shoot sports, seriously, get a top DSLR. Such people either already own one, or will buy Canon or Nikon. They also don’t care about Leica, or fancy names and would never buy a Leica for shooting sports anyway. Leica doesn’t have and will never have the lenses, even if the SL was up to it (which it isn’t). OK, so serious sports photography is out.
If you want the ultimate in image quality for scenics, buy a medium format camera. You have the choice of two systems (Hassy & Fuji), both of which are comparable in size, weight and cost to the Leica SL system. If you want phenomenal image quality in the smallest lightest package, you certainly won’t be buying the Leica SL. The Sony A7R II sounds much more like it. After all, there are plenty of amazing wide angle lenses for Sony FE now.
If you want the ultimate all rounder with bags of flexibility, buy a DSLR. If you have Leica money and you want a Leica and the ultimate all rounder, buy a Leica M system and a DSLR system. The Leica SL would be knocking on the door of ‘top notch all rounder’ were it not for the extremely thin line up of massive lenses. You can buy much more compact options for any of the main DSLR systems, simply because they all have compact AF prime lenses that the Leica doesn’t. Canikon also have tilt and shift lenses, long primes and the list goes on.
If you want a superb light-weight travel rig and like the Leica vibe, buy a Leica M system. Oh, you already own one? Well then maybe consider a Leica SL to compliment it. It will be great for shooting with long lenses like the Leica APO-VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 90-280mm f2.8-4. If you’re into portraits, its a shame, because Leica doesn’t have an 85mm, 90mm, or 100mm SL portrait lens anywhere on the visible horizon. If you don’t already own one, you may have to buy a Summilux 75mm f1.4 – crazy I know – or crazier still, how about a Leica *R* 85mm f1.4? Unless I have missed something, these are your options, unless you want to mess around with third party lenses and cheap Chinese ebay adaptors with your £6,000 camera. As stated earlier, if you do want to use Leica R lenses you will still need both Leica R to M and M to L adaptors, costing a total of £590! perplexingly, the M to TL adaptor is not yet available after 12 months of ‘Leica SL’ and I struggle to find words to describe how absurd this is. I can only assume that Leica has a massive backlog of M to T adaptors they’ve been unable to sell due to poor sales of the Leica T. The argument that this double adaptor set up is excusable, because many SL owners already own R to M adaptors, is nonsense.
So the problem remains unchanged: what problems, or needs or wants does it satisfy that existing cameras don’t or can’t? I’m struggling to think of any beyond a bridging camera for existing Leica M and R users. The problem is where the bridge really leads and that remains unclear.
A Missed Opportunity?
I hope that Leica has for more insight into the marketplace and better analysis than I do. I therefore hope that they have a card up their sleeve that will leave me nodding respectfully, while chewing mouthfuls of hat and with humble pie lined up for dessert. However, if they do, they need to play it soon. The SL may still be around (and of course it would be), but this doesn’t mean it won’t end up on the bottom, or simply without paying customers.
It is such a missed opportunity. There still isn’t a FF interchangeable camera with a solid range of stunningly good truly compact lenses with impeccable build, excellent manual focus implementation and with blazing fast AF. [We know they can do it because all of these attributes are already present across the Leica range]. This is the camera the Leica SL should have been and could have been, if Leica had not feared cannibalising the Leica M and pressuring the Leica S. Unfortunately, my understanding is that they have protected a struggling S series and a M system that is approaching a bit of a wall, while creating something that is not really viable in its own right. The response to the Leica Q said it all: ‘we LOVE the camera and everything about it. We’d sell our grannies to buy a Q with interchangeable lenses…’ But Leica didn’t deliver. However, is everything as it seems? I do have to wonder:
Is Leica Keeping A Secret?
I have had a thought that would make the most sense out of the information we have thus far and here are the key elements:
- The SL is a bridging camera, but not in the ‘Leica R sense’. It may be a bridging camera of greatest relevance to the M system, ahead of a ‘merger’. From what I am seeing of the rumored Leica M10, the camera is a little thinner and sports a 24MP sensor. I have a gut feeling that the M10 is going to be relatively pared down and simple. After all, M customers loved the M262, which is a bit simpler and lighter than the M240. Smaller, lighter and possibly cheaper are what I’m expecting, along with little to no jumps in capability aside from a somewhat improved sensor, with better dynamic range and high ISO perhaps.
- Leica has not released any completely new M lens designs lately, aside from slightly tweaked previous generation designs to make them play better on the SL. The 28mm f5.6 Summaron is an old design with modern manufacture and one assumes this saved some R&D costs, with manufacturing/tooling costs presumably being recovered through the high price. Many of these lenses were amazing on the M already, so why make them better for the SL? Well, if you are a SL owner who already owns these M lenses, you now have to sell your older lenses and buy the updated models that are better on the SL at wide apertures.
This all sounds like the M and SL lines are going to merge in some way to me. Fujifilm runs two main body philosophies on their X line. The X-Pro series has an optical finder with a rangefinder type design and the X-T series using an EVF and a more DSLR design. So, here’s how I see it working out for the M and SL line:
- Leica minimises investment in the Leica M system, while keeping the system moving along nicely. I reckon they can afford to have modest improvements to the innards and some tweaks on the M10 and M11, so that gives them another 4-6 years before serious further thought is required. Resolution can’t take a leap easily anyway, because the mechanical rangefinder system is already taxed enough focusing fast lenses at 24MP.
- Further existing M lens designs are tweaked to perform a bit better on the SL, so there is now a pool of lenses that work very nicely without the same cost as designing new AF lenses from the ground up.
- Leica slowly rolls out SL designs that are truly amazing in performance (and AF) along the way.
- Leica sits on the recently updated T series body at least until the below point happens, because this update was very cost effective. Making cameras a different colour tends to be. They work hard behind the scenes on a major update that will fully realise the potential of the T’s APS-C capability.
- 2-4 years from now, Leica announces a Leica SL with top notch digital rangefinder that makes the M lenses feel truly at home (M to SL adaptor required). It will of course give all the modern benefits when used with new optics. By this time, the resolution can be increased substantially (30-40MP) because the S 00? is well over 50MP.
- The T is overhauled to provide a much more useful, less stylised APS-C body with roughly 24MP. It will be much smaller than the SL and utilise an internal viewfinder. It can use the small and wonderful T lenses or the larger ‘faster and more perfect’ SL lenses, so there is the option to shoot a very compact mirrorless interchangeable lens Leica rig if you wish.
- Leica continues to push the M in the direction of a simple, frills free camera with optical viewfinder and mechanical rangefinder. They will make it as small and simple as they can and keep the price as reasonable as they can. It’s for people who are absolutely committed to and love the M form factor and philosophy. The SL will be for those who want to keep FF, but with more technology (including video etc), more resolution and a larger more traditional chassis. The T will be for those who favour compactness and AF, or those who are looking for a cheaper entry into the ‘universal SL system’.
- The M would continue as long as there is demand. Existing users can continue to use their lenses just fine and don’t need to care about upgrading to the ones better on the SL. New bodies will keep shrinking and feeling more like the film Ms of old.
- The Q remains the fixed lens version of all of the above!
But who knows? At least to me, the above makes sense and would appeal to me. Would it appeal to you? Does it even sound viable or sensible? I know it sounds rather like the Sony E Mount solution in some respects, but certainly not in actuality. Its more nuanced and much more interesting. It would also convey a sense of being around for another 20 years, which is something Leica lacks in the SL or T lines at the moment. It is also rather harmonious and would draw all the brands efforts together. I like it and hope it happens! If Leica can limp along with the M system carrying all the weight for a few more years, then maybe….
If it does, I’d like Santa 2020 to bring me the new *Leica T with a range of little Summicron lenses 🙂