Leica & the Future
The Leica SL is surely critical to Leica’s future. The optical rangefinder of the M series is proving increasingly troublesome in the modern ‘super high res’ era, with its idiosyncrasies (hello calibration) and enormous production costs. The S has proven somewhat successful, but the latest S007 is arguably a little bit late to market and the edgy iPhone-esque ‘T’ never quite won over the wider Leica customer base. Leica needed something strong; something that demanded attention and showed that Leica could not only innovate, but match the best of the Japanese brands when it comes to functionality and technical performance.
The Leica Q was such a camera, but as a fixed lens model, it could never provide the sort of foundations that the company could truly build upon for years to come. That requires a ‘system’ and here enters the new Leica SL! We all know that it is a unifying platform that permits full use of other Leica lenses. While it uses a T mount, M, S and R lenses can be adapted and used to great effect, either taking advantage of those lenses’ AF, or the excellent Electronic View Finder (EVF) to manually focus S and M optics. On paper, the SL sounds formidable, but what about in practice? Will this model sweep all before it, or sink like a stone’? I’m starting to form some clear thoughts (and concerns), even at this early stage.
I’m going to leave the tests to those who have SLs in their hands and you can find some excellent reviews and insights below:
- Luminous Landscape – Initial thoughts on Leica SL
- Nick Rains of Leica SL
- Jono Slack Review of Leica SL
- Ming Thein’s Review of the Leica SL << Includes excellent photos showing the form factor and relative lens body size and contours,
Instead I am going to offer some observations, criticisms and questions regarding something much more fundamental – the concept – and see what sort of conclusion falls out of the process:
The Basic ‘SL Parameters’ Appear Sound
Leica appears to have executed many requirements of a pro/prosumer camera well:
- Solid design, with excellent weather sealing and other professional ‘utility’ specs i.e. dual SD card slots
- Sensible 24MP sensor with excellent dynamic range and high ISO performance
- Very fast focusing (Leica claims the SL to be the fastest in the world)
- High frame rate (11 fps)
- Amazing cross system compatibility
- Promising video
However, I have some serious concerns about the precise manner in which Leica has gone about bundling the package:
The body is large for a mirrorless camera, but the lenses are even bigger. At a kilogram for the SL 24-90 f2.8-f4 zoom, its hard to miss the fact that this is actually comparable to pro DLR f2.8 zooms. While the lens is 20mm longer, it also a whole stop slower at the long end. Its also notable that the 50mm f1.4 Summilux is not much smaller. With a body weighing in at 820g, the system is clearly well into ‘Pro/Prosumer DSLR territory’ in terms of size and mass, so how does it pull off ‘DSLR utility’?
A large(ish) body is generally considered to be a good thing (with large heavy optics) if well contoured, but it looks like the Leica SL has sacrificed critical elements of function to satisfy the visual branding part of the brief. The body is slab-sided. The grip is large, but has no contours to aid grip or finger placement and I am left feeling that Leica has completely mismatched the body and lens equation. Early reports (such as that from Ming Thein) suggest that the answer to whether it is comfortable and balanced with its own native lenses is more no than yes. That just should not happen. Leica appears to have done what Sony did with the large FE lenses released after the initial 35 & 55mm Sonnars (which were quite compact), only bigger and heavier still (and much more expensive if you drop it).
The grip clearly lacks the sort of functionally honed contours that the likes of Nikon and Canon are constantly refining. I also don’t understand why, because the S is both far more attractive and better designed from a handling point of view. Its as if Leica felt compelled to show Leica T DNA in the new SL, as if to prove a heritage that actually has no bearing on how the camera will be received.
They have not announced a single prime that will be available much inside 12 months, which I find a little strange. There isn’t a single small native lens available now, or on a road map. Or a lens costing less than £3150. That makes access to a basic ‘native’ body and lens an £8200 affair. That would buy you a very substantial Nikon or Canon DSLR double body outfit that would keep any portrait or wedding photographer happy for a very long time with vastly more flexibility than a SL plus 24-90mm could ever achieve.
The SL is billed as the first ‘professional mirrorless camera’, but I see yet more problems with this:
- For most pros, a 90mm at f4 doesn’t cut it for portraiture. While the announced Zeiss Otus sized (and priced) SL 50mm f1.4 Summilux is something, the lack of an 85-100mm portrait lens seems like a glaring announcement omission to me, considering where this camera is pitched.
- Pros are likely to want more direct controls. Where are the buttons/dials? This is not a S series camera, where studio use is the most likely application. This is an 11fps 24MP DSLR competitor, but there are very few dials and buttons that allow quick access to much needed functions. There are loads of pros out there that refuse to leave Canon because they love their custom functions – they’re that important to them – and some who would prefer a D810 over a D750, but won’t buy one because the latter has U1 and U2 custom buttons and the former doesn’t! These things matter a lot to most pros, whether shooting weddings, sport, commercial location work, or a mixture. Knowing that your camera looks sleek and minimalist isn’t much comfort if you’re hitting buttons eighteen times to access a simple function when the confetti is already on the ground.
Now for a question. We know the AF is very fast and we know it does 11fps, but how is the tracking? If it isn’t excellent, 11fps is about to be as relevant to the SL as the 10fps is on the Sony A600. While it may sound impressive on paper, for the average pro, 11fps (rather than 6 or 7fps) is actually much less important than an effective and comfortable grip. A decent grip is also cost and technology neutral, so there is no excuse for not providing one. Considering that the Leica SL has contrast detect based AF, tracking performance is likely to be poor.
As a professional proposition, users would be required to make a massive investment to gain access to a tiny native lens pool, which are the only lenses able to really exploit the key strengths of the body. While this may sound the same as the successful Sony A7 line, it is not. Amateur buyers of the Sony FE models could in many cases afford to wait for native lenses and have fun with vintage glass along the way. Alternatively, many users were able to get going by adapting their excellent Canon EF glass. The Sony A7 bodies were affordable and flexible enough to be additions to photographers’ other systems until the FE system was ready to stand on its own feet. Sony also offered people something they did not already have – especially Canon users. They offered them 36MP and far more dynamic range than Canon could natively offer. Leica is offering a very practical but unremarkable 24MP and unproven access to other brands’ lenses at a dramatically higher price point. Could Canon EOS lenses be mounted onto the SL? In theory, yes, but we have no way of knowing if this will come to pass or what the performance will be like.
Sure, pros can use any M and S glass they may own, but the S customer base is small and M lenses do not have AF, so its not going to be practical for many photographers concerned with professional applications. Most pros do not own M or S lenses to start with and for someone buying into Leica for the first time, there is nowhere near enough on the roadmap to make a most serious users feel comfortable making the leap. Surely Leica has to aggressively bring in new users and cannot see its existing S, M & T owners market as ‘THE market’?
As a boutique product, it seems pretty on point, but is let down in one critical ’boutiquey’ area: most people consider it ugly. It does not have enough ‘form’ to be aesthetically gorgeous, just as it lacks the ‘function’ to be truly embraced by the pro market. I think it will probably make those sitting on a large stable of R lenses very happy, or M users who are looking to move beyond the hassles calibrating several M bodies to their many M lenses and are happy to exchange the benefits of this mirrorless platform for the loss of compactness. I think it really will prove to be an excellent bridge for dyed in the wool Leica users, but I struggle to believe that Leica did not have much grander plans extending well beyond their own existing user base.
What Does This Mean?
I feel this is a great opportunity lost. The SL could have looked and functioned great, integrating the well-honed ‘innards’ of this camera into a chassis that would make sense to the professional/prosumer user base Leica claims to be targeting. With the SL, Leica has stepped firmly into DSLR territory in terms of size and bulk, but without providing the handling such users need, or the lens stable. In short, I cannot think why any working photographer concerned only with output would buy into the Leica SL system, rather than a pro DSLR outfit. You can pretty well buy a D750 and a D4S for the same price as one Leica SL body and pick up a 24-70 f2.8 and 70-200 f2.8, plus 85mm f1.8 and 35mm f2/f1.8 for roughly the same price as one Leica SL 24-90mm f4. Equally, the SL is no longer the small and compact mirrorless alternative to a DSLR. I therefore struggle to see why a consumer looking for a compact and powerful mirrorless system would buy this and not a Sony A7R II. While not a deal breaker, the Leica SL also lacks the In Body Image Stabilisation that would have added another dimension to the use of adapted S and M lenses.
Its About the Lenses? Both Canon and Nikon are producing formidable bodies and lenses at the moment (as are Tamron and Sigma with their optics) and I don’t hear many pros complaining about the optical performance available with DSLR mounts. Long gone are the days when photographers gazed at Leica optics drooling, just imaging such performance on their DSLRs. Zeiss is all over the DSLR market with their new Milvus line, not to mention FE mount with the superb (and growing) Loxia and Batis offerings. Leica lenses remain stunning (and I still think they are the best in the world to my eyes), but the chasm that used to exist (especially with wide angles) is gone. If you’ve used a Canon 24-70 f2.8 L II, or 16-35 f4 IS L, you’ll know just how good the Leica optics will need to be to make people care. Such lenses already have most pros wanting little more and Nikon has its 24-70 f2.8 VR about to hit market (and its MTFs look amazing). Such lenses are needed to make 36-50MP sing, but with 24 MP it is already quite easy.
Yes, the Leica SL is unique, but that may just be because it has claimed territory that isn’t coveted by other manufacturers for a reason. But… hang on a minute, how can these criticisms be fair when so many people are excited at the prospect of the Sony FE mount professional option, AKA the ‘A9’? I think its fairly simple. The FE lens family is now filling out with some excellent optics at various price points. The bodies are also AF compatible with Canon (and recently Nikon) AF lenses, with good focusing performance in the new A7R II. The Sony bodies are therefore able to compliment other systems and are much more accessible in terms of cost. One also assumes (hopes?) that with any forthcoming A9, Sony would take the physical handling of the body much more seriously than Leica has. It’s as if Leica is looking to the likes of BMW and Mercedes, where family form is part of the branding, as an example of how to design their products. However, you open a hole in the skin of a car (called a door) and get inside it. You merely look at its skin and don’t pick the thing up with it. Cameras are therefore nothing like cars! Besides, once again, the Leica S proves you can get both largely right.
Canon and Nikon are ominously quiet on the FF mirrorless front. Should Canon or Nikon to release a pro-grade FF mirrorless that is fully compatible with their own superb DSLR optics, say at £3000-4000, the Leica SL will have no reason for being. None. This is not something that can be said of the two most successful Leica lines (M & S), which hold much more robust niches. There is nothing quite like the digital M (due to its optical rangefinder) or the S (which is a MF ‘upscaled’ 35mm DSLR). Nikon and Canon have vast lens stables open to them, not to mention some incredible optics at lower price points. Leica had therefore better pray that the big two don’t bring such a camera to market in the next few years. After all, you could use Leica R lenses on such a body without any trouble at all, just as R lenses can be used on Canon EF mounts now. It’d kill the SL dead, leaving the SL entirely at the mercy of what other manufacturer’s (could presumably quite easily) do.
The Risk is Time: Some will have noted the narrowly spaced birth and effective death of the T series and may wish to wait and see the lens lineup expand meaningfully (and for the system to prove it can endure) before jumping into the SL series. But in that time, the market will change. If Canikon does what I suggest they may in the above paragraph, the SL’s market will be stolen away before the system is even approaching full stride.
Perhaps the SL design team was forced to walk a tight rope between the compactness of the M (and T) and the higher resolution of the S, rather than ‘be its own thing’ from the ground up, for fear of cannibalising sales? If so, this would explain a lot, but I also think it will prove to have been a gross miscalculation on Leica’s part. There is no doubt that the Leica SL is a clever, mostly well thought out camera that will fit with some people’s needs perfectly (mostly existing M, T and R users). Yes, absolutely, but this is not enough to make it an outright commercial success.
To my eyes, the SL falls down in areas that were avoidable and thats rather sad for a company I hoped would build on the success of the Q and knock it out of the park this time. Leica M fans can rejoice, however, because the SL has in no way replaced the M line. The SL could have been the best of both worlds and ultimately phased out both the T and M lines and substantially built on them both in time, with useful ‘R’ compatibility thrown in to boot. Instead, I can’t help but feel that its a jack of all trades and master of none. After the T, Leica needs a return on this investment and I’m not quite sure they’re going to get much a market response much beyond lukewarm. But hey, this is one man’s speculative opinion and one I very much hope is wrong.