Why I am Divorcing the Leica SL... It Was a Fun Fling!

It is official. The paperwork has been filed. As of last week, I became the owner of a Nikon D850, and my divorce with the Leica SL is complete.

DivorceGraphic.jpg

By my estimation, I shot roughly 20,000 images with the Leica SL during our relationship - so it was certainly a serious relationship, but one that cannot continue. 

There were three major driving reasons behind my decision to ditch Leica and return to Nikon:

Issues Surrounding Durability and Reliability

As I have previously chronicled, I have had several service and reliability issues with my Leica cameras. The most recent one, which caused my Leica SL 24-90mm lens to suffer a fatal failure during a trip to Yellowstone National Park soured me permanently.

I understand no camera is immune from breakages, but the failure rate I encountered with my Leica gear far surpassed any issues from any other company. As a professional, I cannot tolerate that level of performance.

Compounding the service issue is the length of time needed for service to be performed. In the case of my SL and lens - they left for the factory in Germany nearly 6 weeks ago, but by Leica's estimation, I probably won't get them back from repair until early 2018. I cannot be without a camera for 4 months - particularly not one that costs as much as the SL.

Lack of New Leica SL Lenses

I was an early adopter of the SL, which carries some risks. One of those risks was that Leica would not release additional lenses for the system with the frequency needed to support the development of the SL line. 

By my analysis, that risk became reality. Leica is woefully behind the curve on the SL lens releases.

I recently met a gentleman who had been part of a Leica SL focus group sponsored by Leica. He signed a non-disclosure agreement with Leica, so he couldn't share the details of his conversation, but the gist was that Leica was trying to find their way with the future of the SL line. It was also suggested that some of the invitees Leica brought to this focus group were people who didn't use this camera all that often. In other words, Leica is seeking advice on how to sustain the system from people who aren't frequent users - that isn't a recipe for success.

The Market Beat the Leica SL

Leica has a long production schedule, but they didn't move fast enough to stay ahead of the industry, and they are being usurped. Nikon is probably releasing a full frame mirrorless camera with a high resolution (~50 megapixel) sensor in the next year...and they just released a D850 that has received mind-blowing reviews.

Using companies like DXOmark, which conducts laboratory testing of sensors, I evaluated my Leica SL to the Nikon D850. In these results, it is clear that the D850 totally surpasses the Leica SL, offering several stops more dynamic range, better ISO performance, and more lens options at a fraction of the price.

Sensor testing by DXO Labs shows the superior dynamics range of the Nikon D850

Sensor testing by DXO Labs shows the superior dynamics range of the Nikon D850

For a small company like Leica to have been successful with the SL, they needed to stay very engaged with their customers and needed to continue to produce lenses and upgrades to keep me interested. They squandered that opportunity. Instead, Leica has focused on their M line, which is probably a better business decision for them.

Now what?

Photography is about so much more than the gear and equipment. But the gear and equipment play an important role in photography.

For instance, I love macro photography, but had not shot any macro work since becoming an SL owner. Why? Because the equipment needed to shoot macro photographs was either unavailable, too expensive, or a combination thereof. I don't want a camera to dictate the types of images I can or cannot make - I want to explore my creative whims! A system that is more mature and offers more flexibility is better for the type of images I want to create.

With the release of the D850, I have decided to return to Nikon. Those people who visit my website and admire my work probably won't notice the change; good photographers can make a great image with any camera. 

To Hell And Back: How Durable is the Leica SL?

In the year and change that I've owned the Leica SL Type 601, I've taken it around the world and tormented the camera in dozens of cruel and unusual environments. From the scorching heat of the Jordanian desert to the -20*C of Arctic Sweden (and then -10*C in Finland), the camera has seen it all.

I recently returned from the Scenic Traverse Road Trip, where I spent a month living in a van and photographing the American landscape with the Leica SL. While it never got as hot (though it did get nearly as cold) as some of our previous adventures with the Leica SL, this trip was the true test for the durability of the Leica SL.

I do not believe in babying a camera. American street photographer Jay Maisel once gave me the following advice when asked the best way to improve as a photographer:

Always carry a camera, it’s easier to take pictures that way.
— Jay Maisel

His advice is dead on, which is why I don't carry my Leica SL in a bag. I don't even use the lens cap. I took the lens cap off the Leica 24-90mm lens as soon as we got to Los Angeles for the start of the Road Trip and I didn't put it back on for 30 days and 3,682 miles. I expect my camera to be ready to shoot when I'm ready to shoot, and I am not going to coddle it along the way.

I don't even use a strap all that often, though that's partially because I don't like the strap attachment points on the Leica SL. There were days where I didn't use a strap to protect the camera from accidental falls and drops.... even when I was hiking in the middle of the river (the Narrows hike in Zion National Park). 

Look ma! No strap as I carry the camera through the famous Virgin River hike in the Narrows. Also, this drysuit isn't the least bit flattering. Photo by Seth Hamel, http://www.zion-photography.com.

This is all to say that, despite the camera and lens combination running upward of $12,000, I don't baby it or treat it any nicer than I would a $100 camera. The camera is a tool, designed to be used, and I can't be afraid of it getting a little beaten up.

Here's a quick snapshot of the abuses subjected upon the Leica SL during the Scenic Traverse Road Trip:

  1. Extended exposures to temperatures well beyond the operating range recommended by Leica Camera.

  2. Repeatedly soaked in heavy rain, without any protection or removal of collected rainwater.

  3. Banged against rocks, scraped against rocks, and otherwise brutally impacting rock.

  4. Rolling around the floor of the camera van as we drove, with no protection on the front lens glass.

  5. Completely submerged in fine sand in Death Valley's sand dunes.

  6. Caked with coarse salt in the salt flats of Badwater Basin.

  7. Coated in a fine dust from Arizona / Utah desert sands

  8. Splashed with ice cold river water while hiking the Narrows

Oops..... Hiking in Death Valley, I slid on a sand dune and landed camera first in the fine sand. The camera was 100% submerged, and this was taken while I'm still laying on the ground, but just after digging the camera out. A little shake off and we're back in business.

So how does the Leica SL hold up to the abuse? In terms of camera function, perfectly. The Leica SL has never once failed to shoot, slowed with startup or experienced any other issue. It is rock solid reliable. You want photo, you get photo. Done.

Arguably it is the function of the camera we're most concerned with. A camera that fails to turn on, stay on, or gets upset by a little weather isn't what a landscape photographer wants to use. So where it matters most, Leica delivers. The weather sealing is remarkably good. I have accidentally dropped my camera in water and totally buried it in sand, and none of that has penetrated the outer protections of the camera body. We spent an hour shooting in a heavy downpour - where the only protection I gave the camera was to use my hat to cover the lens between photos to keep water spots off - and still, it performed perfectly.

It was pouring - really pouring - in Malibu, California as I shot long exposures of waves. I had to use my hat to cover the front of the lens between shots to keep it from getting coated in water drops, but the SL stayed on and exposed the whole time. No problem.

But that's not to say it's perfect....

Considering how much the Leica SL costs, I am rather disappointed by the durability of the finish. I have lost a ton of paint, including white paint in the 'C' of the "LEICA" logo on the front. There are huge gashes on the side of the body and several dings that expose bare metal. Every edge of the camera has a heavy silver from loss of paint. And today I discovered some of the rubber on the grip is starting to peel and tear. 

I have attached some photos showing the dings in my Leica SL as a reference for what you can expect if you are a user of your cameras. I converted them to black and white to help with the contrast of black paint vs exposed silver metal.....

For comparison, I owned a Nikon D800 for several years and never had the finish on the body get damaged. I didn't treat the D800 any better or worse than the Leica SL, but I was able to resell it in great condition. I have had the Leica SL for 13 months, but it looks like it's been 13 years.

I don't know what Nikon and Canon do for a finish that is different from Leica, but this painted aluminum needs to be revisited before the SL 2.0 is released. The paint on my Leica M240 (black paint) and Leica Monochrom are both holding up better than the SL, so Leica's engineers need to revisit the finish. 

Would I still recommend the Leica SL? As long as you understand this camera will look used if it is actually used, then yes. But if you want a camera that can be put in a box a few months down the road and be sold for "like new" despite some use, then this isn't your camera.

Those who value performance in all weather will find it with the Leica SL. Those who value looks ought to keep shopping.

Preview: Noctilux f/0.95 on the Leica SL

If you could “steal” an $11,000 lens, that also happens to be the fastest lens in production, would you?

Of course you would!

The Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH Lens has a bit of a cult following, which is reasonable for something that costs this much and that is rumored to be one of the most complicated lens designs ever made by Leica. When I first heard about the Noctilux, I thought “maybe one day…” The feeling was similar to what I felt as a kid on December 23rd - I could see the presents under the tree, but actually being able to open and enjoy those treats seemed like a tease that would never come.

I have virtually read the entire contents of the internet on the Noctilux; if there is such a thing as the end of the internet, I found it. I knew all the technical specs and rumors of underground cooling for the special glass. Maybe I was crazy, but I thought that knowing everything about this lens would somehow make it more resistible.

About a week ago, something amazing happened…. magic. The stars and moon and earth must be in some special alignment, or the Leica Gods were just in a good mood, because it became suddenly financially viable for me to purchase a Noctilux. I didn’t win any lottery, but the strength of the US Dollar relative to the British Pound suddenly turned to my favor. With Leica’s 12% promotion pricing in place and a strong dollar, the normally $11,000 lens was now available for the mid-$8,000s. I also recently got my Leica M-P Type 240 back from Leica service in Germany and was ready to trade it in as I’d settled on the Leica SL. All said and done, I only had to shell out about $4,000 for a new Noctilux - a killer deal - and one that made me feel like I’d stolen my way into the elite Nocti' club.

The British Pound relative to the US Dollar was at a low not seen since 2009.....

The British Pound relative to the US Dollar was at a low not seen since 2009.....

Given the internet’s worth of information about shooting the Noctilux on an M-series camera, I’m going to focus this sneak peek on using the Noctilux with the Leica SL; the Leica SL Type 601 actually makes a TON of sense with the Noctilux.

One common complaint with the Leica Noctilux series, particularly the f/0.95, is that the size makes it awkward and front heavy. But mount the Noctilux on the SL body, which has a front hand grip, and suddenly the weight and ergonomics seem quite comfortable. After purchasing the SL, I walked around London for the day taking some photographs and never experienced any fatigue in my wrist or hand. If, like me, you are used to bulky dSLRs with a zoom lens, then the SL + Noctilux combination will still feel small and comfortable. It’s all about what you are used to using!

The other frequent complaint is that the Noctilux can be hard to focus. With a super razor thin depth-of-field at f/0.95, Leica had to create a long focus throw so that you could actually achieve sharp focus on a rangefinder, but the process is very slow compared to the snap of my other Leica lenses. Mounted on the M7, the Noctilux feels like it takes twice as long to focus as say, the 35mm Summarit. Most of the slow shooting is the dance between focusing the rangefinder and then re-composing. This is where the SL comes to the rescue; the old line-up-the-square-patches-and-then-re-compose dance has now been replaced with a new dance called ‘focus’. The SL’s electronic viewfinder allows you to see when your subject has come into focus and fire immediately. And for those times when critical focus is required, you can tap the back joystick to zoom in, hit focus, and then shoot. Voila!

Now I’m not saying the Noctilux is a bad lens for the M series bodies - I’ll certainly use my Nocti with the M7, but I am arguing the Noctilux is EVEN better on the Leica SL.

Prior to settling on the Noctilux f/0.95, I first had to decide if I wanted the new model, or one of the older Noctilux f/1 series. The internet is very divided on this issue with 50% of the bloggers swearing to the f/1, while other 50% swore to the f/0.95 and a third 50% swore the Noctilux was a rich-mans stupid toy. (Yes, I know that 50% + 50% + 50% = 150%, which isn’t a “real thing” according to my sister, who is a math teacher. But to her I say, look at the internet posts and tell me there isn’t a third 50%…..)

The Leica Noctilux f/1 - focus point was on the edge of the frame near the Leica logo.

The Leica Noctilux f/0.95 - same focus point.

Here I knew the Leica SL would once again help. I went to a Leica dealer in London that had a used f/1 and a new f/0.95 in stock and played with them side-by-side. Using the Leica SL app on my iPhone and the built in WiFi, I was able to take a series of test comparison shots using each lens and then review them in great detail on my phone, which has a higher screen resolution than the back of the camera. 

This turned out to be a great way to examine the results of both lenses prior to purchasing one. Comparing the bokeh, particularly in the lights of the display case, I found I liked the soft and more round shape of the f/0.95 to the harder and more oblong shape of the f/1. I also thought the transition of the edge of the display case to the wall was softer at f/0.95.  Finally, I preferred the locking lens hood and smoother focus ring of the f/0.95. 

I did notice a little more chromatic aberration (purple and blue shading that normally appears along hard transitions from highlights to dark and areas of high contrast) on the f/0.95 lens in my test image, but my preference for the smooth bokeh outweighed the slight difference in chromatic distraction.

My very patient friend poses for a candid while I compare the f/1 and f/0.95 Noctilux at Richard Caplan Photography in London, UK.

After purchasing the lens, I spent the day shooting almost entirely at f/0.95 as I walked through downtown London, specifically the Soho and Southbank districts. It happened that my walk took me through a protests against England’s stockpile of nuclear trident missiles….. this was a perfect chance to play with shooting the f/0.95 Noctilux. Protestors love having their photo taken, so I was happy to oblige with a series of shots.

A London traffic police officer closes the road to Trafalgar Square awaiting protestors

Thousands of protestors marched through London demanding the Trident missile program be dismantled to put money against the national healthcare system and welfare programs

Protestors walk down the main streets leading to Piccadilly Circus.

The Noctilux is a great storytelling lens. Here it isolates just this one protestor, while telling the story about the size and scope of the protest.

Discarded signs await trash pickup

A masked protestor listens to a speaker at the anti-nuclear rally in Trafalgar Square

The Noctilux has been critiqued for not having enough contrast, but I found the results quite pleasing, especially after post processing

Skaters take a break to have a discussion near Southbank Center

Is anything in focus? (yes) - but this is where the Noctilux really shines with storytelling.

A young skater watches others in the park

A BMX rider prepares for another trick

A little girl pops bubbles along the Southbank Center boardwalk

Some tourists pose for a group selfie along the London waterfront

Yeah, that can't be comfortable.....

A self portrait of my husband and I in a silver orb

The pigeon, which is in focus, provides a great sense of how quickly focus melts from the subject

So why do I like the Leica Noctilux? For me, it’s all about the story telling that an aperture of f/0.95 affords; I can completely isolate a subject from the rest of the world and bring my viewer into the scene in a way that only the Noctilux can do. I also expect this lens to become an interesting addition for landscape and nature photography, and will share those results soon.

Considering I practically stole my way into the Leica Noctilux, I’m very happy with the lens and look forward to a full review once I've had a chance to run it through some more shooting. Stay tuned!