The (in progress) Nikon Z7 Review

Last Updated: 23 October

Last summer (2017), the President of Nikon confirmed what the world was dying to know.  Nikon was in development of a mirrorless full frame camera that would be released “soon.”  Almost instantly, additional specifications and details started to leak out across the Internet.  People eagerly waited for the announcement of what was going to be, without question, the modernization and one of the greatest revelations in digital photography since the design and mass production of cell phone cameras.

After much anticipation, on August 23, 2018, Nikon unveiled the new Z7 and Z6 full frame mirrorless digital cameras.  The wait was finally over.

The Nikon Z7 started shipping worldwide on 27 September — a month after the announcement.  Demand for this camera has been unprecedented, and many consumers will likely be waiting months before they get a chance to own their own model. It has been estimated that Nikon had 40,000 Z7 cameras available at the end of September, with nearly a quarter of those shipping to dealers in the United States.

Over the coming months, I will document my experience with the Z7 in an effort to provide as much information about the camera, shooting experience, and — most importantly — image output. This is not a “one and done” review; I will add to it regularly as I have new experiences with the camera. I truly believe a real review cannot be completed in just a few days — it takes months of continuous shooting — and so this review will reflect that philosophy. I can promise that I’ll cover as many topics as I can, barre one: video. I don’t shoot video, know little about video, and am woefully unequipped to discus video. As far as I’m concerned, the video features in this camera are merely in the way.

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A Quick Introduction: The Nikon Z7 and Z6

The primary difference between the Z7 and Z6 cameras is the resolution and shooting specs; the Z7 features a 45.7 megapixel sensor, while the Z6 features a 24.5 megapixel digital sensor.  Other differences include the number of autofocus points — which is almost twice as many on the Z7 (at 493 focus points) as on the Z6 (only 273 focus points).  There are also differences in the ISO.  The Z7’s ISO ranges from 64 to 25,612 while the Z6 ISO ranges from 100 to 51,200.  Finally, the Z6 can fire a few more frames per second than the Z7. The difference in frame rate is probably a factor of the image size and write speed to memory cards, vice a mechanical difference.

The Nikon Z7 and Z6 represent a turning point, and will definitely become historical milestone in the evolution of digital photography.  Other companies may have released full frame mirrorless first, like Sony, Fuji, and Leica, but Nikon represents the largest company to yet produce a full frame mirrorless camera.  No matter what other companies have done before, the release of the Nikon Z7 and Z6 will go down in the history books as an important milestone in photography.  It will go down alongside inventions like instant film and, of course, the cell phone camera.

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Getting a Nikon Z: Pay Early

I pre-ordered my Nikon Z7 before it even had a name.  When I pre-ordered it with my local camera shop it was just called “the Nikon mirrorless camera that was coming soon.”  Weeks before was announced, I put my name down on the pre-order list, guaranteeing that I will get one of the first units to be delivered in the United States.  The day it was announced and the dealers had pricing information, I paid in full, cementing my place as one of the first to get my hands on the new release.

Because I pre-paid, I got one the day it was released in the United States. By my math, it is also one of the first 1,000 bodies delivered in the USA (more on that later).

The Nikon Z6 will start shipping soon, and I would encourage anyone waiting for that model to pre-pay in order to ensure they get one of the first ones.


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Why Mirrorless: The Future of Photography

As photographers, it’s easy to get high on tech specs.  So before we get wrapped up in the specifications of this particular camera, let’s generically discuss why mirrorless is important.  

Why this mirrorless camera thing is a big deal.  Why this camera, over all other cameras, is a huge turning point in the market. 

The first time I used a full frame mirrorless camera was when I shot the Leica SL in London.  Bringing that full frame electronic newsletter to my face instantly changed my perception on what I thought at the time was a trend — a photography fad.  But when I looked through that electronic viewfinder, I immediately understood the value of a mirrorless full frame camera, and simultaneously understood that I was holding the future. 

One of the problems with DSLR's is that you don't see exactly what you're shooting as you shoot.  There's a mirror that sits in front of the sensor and reflects light from the lens into a prism that you're looking into via the viewfinder.  The limitation here is that the camera can only display a limited amount of information to the photographer through a small heads up display built into that prism.  Furthermore, you are seeing a reflection of light through a mirror, not what the sensor will see. As a result, you are, in some regards, guessing what the sensor will capture based on your experience with that particular camera and the limited information available in the heads up display.

With mirrorless, you get the benefit of seeing exactly what you're photographing at the instant the camera takes the image.  You spend less time having to look at the rear LCD screen to review the exposure and the quality of your image, and spend more time actually composing and creating photographs. 

In other words, if your image is going to be underexposed, you can see that through the viewfinder before you take the image.  You no longer have to remove your face to look at the rear LCD screen or browse a menu — you just see it.

The other noteworthy advantage of a mirrorless full frame camera is that the flange distance between the lens and the sensor is significantly reduced. This sounds highly technical, but it’s worth understanding why a shortened flange distance is so valuable to a photographer.

Flange distance is the distance between the sensor and the front bayonet coupling, where the lens and camera body meet.  In most DSLR’s, the flange distance is somewhere in the range of 50-60mm; however, on a mirrorless full frame camera, that flange distance can be somewhere between 10-20mm.  The result of this greatly reduced flange distance is that light enters the camera with less reduction.

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If you have a longer flange distance, than the engineer that designs your camera lens has to bring in more light for the sensor by making larger optical elements, which translates into larger lenses with more weight and ultimately greater cost.  With a thinner flange distance, more light naturally comes into the camera sensor, allowing the same engineer to design a lens that is smaller, weighs less, and is (hopefully) less expensive. 

This also allows engineers to design lenses that would be pretty impractical on a full frame DSLR; for instance Nikon has already announced the development of lenses with an aperture of f/0.95.  The same lens on a DSLR would likely be so unwieldy and expensive that it will be impractical for a company like Nikon to even entertain building and designing it.

Of course mirrorless is not perfect.  The greatest drawback these days for a mirrorless camera is the battery life.  Because the viewfinder is electronic, the batteries are constantly having to provide electricity for the small LCD screen that you're looking at in the eyepiece. This drains batteries faster than they would in a comparable DSLR camera.  The good news; however, is that battery technology these days is very good.  Even if your mirrorless camera gets a fraction of the battery life that a DSLR might get, batteries are so affordable, they almost can be treated as a consumable.  Buying and carrying four or five batteries to have lots of spares and no fear of running out is really not a big deal.

So why is Nikon's release of the Z7 such a big deal? Why is the Internet and every blogger on YouTube suddenly going crazy when other companies have already released similar cameras?  Because Nikon represents the largest manufacturer to enter this market.  Companies like Sony, Fuji, and Leica — who all got into the market with a full frame mirrorless camera first — don’t have quite the following the company like Nikon or Canon has.


The FTZ Adapter: Keep Your Lenses & Go Mirrorless

If you are a current Nikon shooter and wanted to transition into a mirrorless camera you might have to sell more than you were willing to sell. You probably have a collection of lenses from Nikon that you would have to sell in order to buy another brand’s model.  But now Nikon can hope to sell a mirrorless camera to existing customers by allowing them to use the lenses they already have for their existing Nikon system.

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In order to offer this backward compatibility, Nikon developed an adapter (the FTZ adapter) that allows you to mount almost any existing F-mount lens to the Z7 or Z6 while still maintaining autofocus.  That means if you already own some unique lenses or lenses you really enjoy the character of, you don't need to part with those lenses as part of the admission into the mirrorless club.  This is incredibly well thought out by Nikon because they will be able to corner a large portion of their current DSLR owners and convince them to buy into this new digital technology.

Although Nikon is offering an adapter to make existing F-mount lenses compatible, they are also releasing a new series of lenses designed to maximize the advantages of the new lens mount. The new lens lineup, dubbed the “S-line” contains many of the benefits of previous Nikon lenses, such as nano crystal coated glass. 

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The S-Line of Lenses: A New Dawn

With the announcement of the Z7 and Z6, Nikon also announced the release of three new S-lenses and the development of several more coming soon. The current Nikon S lens lineup is as follows:

    • Nikon Z 35mm f/1.8 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 24-70 f/4 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 24-70 f/2.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 58mm f/0.95 Nocti (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 20mm f/1.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 70-200 f/2.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 14-30 f/4 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 50mm f/2.8 (expected 2020)

    • Nikon Z 24mm f/1.8 (expected 2020)

    • Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 (expected 2020)

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The announcement of twelve lenses for this system within the first two years is very remarkable. By comparison, Leica has only released a quarter as many lenses for their mirrorless full frame Leica SL camera, yet it has been on the market several years longer. The difference in lens releases is one of the main reasons this camera’s release will be such a big deal; outside of maybe Canon, no other manufacturer can compete with Nikon’s ability to develop and get new glass to market as quickly. 

Nikon was also teased that they will be developing additional Z camera bodies to meet the needs of other photographers — such as sports photographers — who may require a longer battery life, multiple memory card slots, and high frames per second shooting speed before transitioning from their DSLR bodies to mirrorless.

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Options: Expanding into Zeiss Lenses

I don’t want this to sound like I’m a hater, because I am not. But I don’t think Nikon makes the best lenses. They make fine lenses, but not the best. Fine. Acceptable.

Acceptable, for most. However, I am one of the few who really values good glass.

A good lens is more important than a good camera. The camera can only gather and process the light that the sensor receives. If the sensor gets imperfect light, then you get an imperfect image, and there is nothing the camera can do about it. In other words, the Nikon Z7 is as only as good as the glass you put in front of it.

Ever since I became a Leica shooter, I’ve been a very discerning photographer when it comes to lenses. I now prefer manual focus primes to zooms, and would rather not have to click buttons in Lightroom to “correct” an image by removing chromatic aberrations, distortions, etc. Remember, good light in = good image out.

For dSLRs, Zeiss makes some of the best lenses on the planet. So I have spent quite a bit of time shooting the Z7 with my Zeiss Milvus lenses in order to evaluate the results when I put the best possible glass in front of the Z7. Here are some of my results….

Bridge to Belle Island, Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Urban landscape in Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Exploring an old factory that once made components for World War II tanks. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Inside the old factory. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Abandoned control room of a former water pumping station on the river. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Urban decay. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.


Ergonomics: A Pleasantly Small and Comfortable Experience

Nikon engineers reportedly put great emphasis on the ergonomics and shooting experience they designed the Z7 and Z6.  The right hand grip hearkens back to other Nikon DSLR’s, but unique to this camera are new buttons, wheels, and joysticks enabling you to control camera menus while looking through the electronic viewfinder. The smaller size of this camera compared to most of the DSLRs is currently on the market is extremely advantageous. It will fit into smaller bags, be more discreet, and less intimidating looking than a DSLR body. 

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The Memory Card: The Future is XQD

One of the compromises that had to be made in order to accommodate the smaller body size of the Z7 is that Nikon included only one memory card slot. This fact caused many Internet bloggers to freak out at the announcement, and in many ways distracted reviewers from the camera and the benefits of the camera itself. Rather than talking about the benefits of an electronic viewfinder and the wonderful image quality this sensor will produce, people latched onto the single memory card, and the Internet has been on overdrive discussing this revelation ever sense. Therefore it is only logical that I too jump into the mix with my thoughts on the single memory card decision.

The Nikon Z7 and Z6 both utilize a memory card format called XQD. The XQD memory card is not new, although it's certainly not a mainstream formats (like SD) yet. In fact, when the Nikon D850 was released, it was very difficult to find XQD cards for sale. Thankfully additional manufacturers, including Nikon themselves, have entered the market and it is now possible to find XQD cards from a variety of manufacturers and a whole host of sizes. XQD cards cost quite a bit of money compared to cards like SD, but they are significantly more reliable. SD cards are prone to failure and routinely do fail. XQD cards, by comparison, have a very low failure rate. XQD cards also have a very high data transfer rate, and can read and write in excess of 400 Mb per second. When you're discussing a 45 megapixel sensor that read/write speed is absolutely critical.

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Personally, I think the hubbub surrounding the single memory card issue is being wildly overblown. People have become used to having two memory cards because manufacturers were compensating for the lack of reliability in SD formats by adding backup slots. As a result, consumers got trained on the idea that we need a backup. But you only need a backup if the primary is prone to failure. 

If we think back just a few years ago, when cameras all shot film, we were used to taking the risk that you could have a catastrophic failure and lose all of your images. The difference between film and a single memory card is that film can never be recovered.  No amount of money and no lab can bring film back once it's been destroyed. But if an XQD card did fail, for a reasonable fee, you could pay to have your images recovered. In my mind, the benefits of the faster read/write speed and the reliability that XQD memory cards have negates the “drawback” of having only one memory card slot. And anyone who feels so passionately that they require a backup better be carrying multiple camera bodies and redundant systems anyway.

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Image Quality: Unrivaled Dominance

Some users have dubbed the Z7 as the mirrorless D850, which is a compliment and nod to the exceptional image quality. Nikon raised the bar for dynamic range and sensor performance with the D850, and the Z7 has at least met, if not exceeded, the bar set by the D850.

I don’t shoot in a lab. I don’t own a white jacket or a clipboard. I am completely and utterly unqualified to tell you anything scientific about the performance of the sensor. What I can tell you, though, is how it responds to my real-world shooting.

The first day I owned the Z7, I went for a hike in a local National Park. It had been raining all week, but was finally a pleasant and sunny fall day. The heavy rain in the proceeding days meant that much of the trail was damp, which is actually great for pulling out color. Logs, trees, bark, and mosses are all more vibrant when they are just barely damp. Knowing this, I aimed the camera at a variety of naturally colorful subjects in an effort to explore the native color rendition and dynamic range of the camera.

To say I was impressed was an understatement, and I am editing these images with a version of Lightroom that doesn’t fully support the Z7 yet! Presumably, there may be incremental improvements to be had in the image quality when Adobe releases an update to Adobe Camera Raw to support the Z7 files.

Anyway, I barely touched the vibrance slider to get the results you see here. Most of the images were under exposed by -1/3 stop (using exposure compensation). Underexposing by a smidge can help preserve shadow detail for post production, so I almost always have the file slightly darker.

The photograph of the waterfall here demonstrates how much dynamic range is captured by the Z7 (be sure to click on it for a full-sized preview). There is still detail in the highlights where the sky and tree leaves meet, as well as great detail in the shadows of the rocks and tree bark. The whole thing is rather remarkable given how complex this scene is — normally I would use graduated neutral density filters to help the camera out, but this was shot without any assistance.

I have not explored much by way of high ISO shooting, and I doubt I’ll ever have much to say there. I really try very hard to avoid shooting above ISO 1600. I would rather use a tripod and take a longer exposure than raise my ISO. I’m sure it’ll happen at some point, but thus far I have no observations on the ISO performance.

Once again, I am reminded how much I appreciate the high resolution of the Z7’s sensor. I used a 200mm macro lens to photograph some bugs and flowers and was pleased to see how far I could crop and still preserve incredible detail in the file. Granted, some of this is attributed to the lens, but the high resolution sensor provides great opportunity to get the most out of uber sharp glass.

Thus far, I have found the metering, auto white balance, and auto focus to be very accurate, but will follow up with more information about those topics in a future update….


Color Rendition: Holy Vibrance Slider

The Nikon Z7 produces beautiful colors. Maybe even too beautiful.

I am used to playing with the vibrance slider in Lightroom in order to put some “pop” in the colors of an image taken with another camera, but the Z7 doesn’t need that. Straight from the camera, the images are bursting with color. They almost look Photoshopped in their RAW format.

I have actually found myself desaturating a few images because the colors were more vibrant than what I wanted. But that isn’t very common, and for landscape photographers, I can attest that the Z7 will preserve your shadow details while still giving you a nice rich blue sky.

Belle Island, Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Look closely at the above photograph. I took this photograph on an overcast afternoon in mid-October. The leaves were just starting to change, and the sun was getting lower on the horizon. This is what I got out of the camera. I cropped the photograph and sharpened it slightly, but that’s it. The rest is au natural. The detail and color preserved in the tree leaves and also in the clouds is absolutely unreal.

Here’s some more examples:

I actually desaturated the corners of the above photograph slightly. I had to, because I thought it otherwise could look “over processed” out of the camera!


Electronic Viewfinder: A Window To the World

The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is arguably the heart and soul of a mirrorless camera. A bad EVF ruins the experience of shooting with a mirrorless camera, so it was critical that Nikon get this new component correct.

My previous experience shooting a mirrorless Leica SL taught me how important the EVF is for composition and previewing the image at the moment of capture. My “keeper rate” of images was much higher with the EVF than with a prism viewfinder, and I had high expectations from Nikon.

As far as I’m concerned, there are a few features that make or break a good EVF:

  • High resolution (so that you don’t see the pixelation of your image)

  • 100% frame coverage (so that you know exactly what you are getting when you click the shutter)

  • Dimmable (most EVFs are aggressively bright, so it’s important that I can dim it)

  • Comfortable (looking at a digital screen can cause eye strain, so it needs to be clear and comfortable)

  • Adjustable heads up display (where you can modify what information is available to you in the display while you shoot)

The Nikon Z7 checks all of these boxes. The viewfinder is responsive, sharp, and pleasant to use. There is minimal lag and only an aggressive shake will create any noticeable shuttering. It is fast to refresh after taking an image, and it seems to be pretty accurate in providing real-time feedback on the exposure.

Thus far, I have only positive things to say about the EVF; it works exactly as I have come to expect, and there has been no disappointment in the rendering of information on the display. I’ll update this section with more comprehensive feedback on the EVF after I’ve used it in more extreme conditions, but so far, so good!

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The Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL vs Nikon D850

I had the same question as — based on the number of emails I’ve received on this topic would indicate — many others have about the Z7: “Can Nikon’s first mirrorless digital camera keep pace with the juggernaut D850”? And how does the Z7 hold up when compared to the established dominance of the Leica SL?

These head-to-head comparisons assume a lot about the definition of ‘better.’ Everyone wants to know which is better, camera X or Y. But the reality is that what is better for me may be worse for you, and I encourage you to read on with a grain of salt. A feature that I like and view as a pro might be a con in your shooting, so keep an open mind. And leave me a comment with your thoughts.

Now to my comparisons….know that I have owned all three of these cameras within the last year. I don’t review things I have only tried out in a demo. I am pulling this comparison from my personal use of cameras I purchased with my own cash.

Nikon Z7 vs Nikon D850

I sold the Leica SL in favor of the D850 because I was motivated by two things that the D850 had over the Leica SL. I quickly regretted that swap. While the D850 is a phenomenal camera, I missed the electronic viewfinder almost immediately. If you want to dig more into the comparison and pros and cons of the D850 vs Leica SL, check out my post where I compare those kings. Anyway, I never fell deeply in love with the D850, and I’m not infatuated with it (unlike so many other internet bloggers). It’s a good camera, don’t mistake me, but it’s just not a camera that speaks to me.

  • Image Quality: A wash.

    • Both produce spectacular results. Seriously. There’s a reason the labs are so in love with these sensors. I don’t test in a lab, but I have been nothing but impressed with the quality of the images both produce. The Z7 is reported to have marginally better dynamic range, but I don’t think it’s an appreciable difference.

  • Versatility: Nikon D850

    • The fact that the DSLR line has been on the market longer means there is more stuff available. More lenses. More after-market battery grips and do-hickeys. The Z7, while able to adapt to most F-mount lenses, looses some functionality with certain lenses. For instance, my macro lens doesn’t autofocus on the Z, but does on the D850. This isn’t a big deal to me, and the Z7 will quickly catch up in the market for availability of after market goodies. But, for now, we wait.

  • Shooting Experience: Nikon Z7

    • The Z7 has an electronic viewfinder. And I’m sorry to all you prism lovers, but electronic viewfinders are far superior. I also think the ergonomics and grip on the Z7 is better. Finally, the button placement on the Z7 and controls I think are a little better arranged. The D850 is very familiar — particularly for anyone who has experience with Nikon DSLRs — but the Z7 is refreshing in it’s modernity and form factor.

  • Size: Nikon Z7

    • No contest here. The Z7 is smaller in every dimension, and it’s lighter and easier to carry while traveling.

  • Autofocus: A wash.

    • Depending on which lens I am using, it waffles between the two cameras as to which is faster to focus. There are some lenses that are certainly faster on the D850, but the converse is also true. I would over an overall edge in focusing to the Z7 just because of the electronic viewfinder, and the versatility that affords in real-time evaluation of precise focus.

Overall, I give the Nikon Z7 a solid “better” over the D850, which mostly has to do with my shooting style. I am a landscape photographer….the trees and mountains aren’t moving. I can take my time to compose, focus, and create the image. For me, the benefits of a small, lightweight mirrorless camera far outweigh any cons this camera has, and the Z7 easily tops the D850 in my mind.

The D850 may be a more versatile camera today, but that will change in time. The Z system is brand new, and Nikon was pretty tight-lipped about the development, so it’s not surprising that there’s a lack of after-market accessories and 3rd party lens options. But that will change with time, and I imagine any benefit the D850 has in this regard today will be neutralized in a year or less.

Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL

This is where things get more complicated for me….I’ve established for myself that a mirrorless camera is far better than a prism DSLR. But when I compare two wonderful mirrorless cameras side-by-side, the evaluation get’s complicated.

The main reason I ever sold my Leica SL was because Leica was behind on the development of new lenses for the system, and I wanted a system where I could mount a 500mm super telephoto and then a 20mm wide angle. But I have always known the Leica glass is optically superior to that of Nikon, and now comparing two similar systems is very challenging.

  • Image Quality: Not sure yet!

    • I used the Leica SL for nearly two years. I published a book with it. I got to know that camera extremely well, and I knew what to expect from every image. I understood the limitations and strengths of the sensor, and when I needed to employ some creativity to capture the image I saw in my mind’s eye. Conversely, I have had the Nikon Z7 for a few weeks. The number of images I’ve taken with it number in the hundreds, compared to the tens of thousands. So I cannot definitively say that the Z7 is better than the SL (yet). However, the results I’ve seen thus far are very promising. The Z7 preserves fantastic shadow detail, has great tolerance for highlights, and has some of the most naturally vibrant colors I have seen in a camera. But until I’ve really pushed this camera to the edge, I can’t declare one of the cameras as better than the other in the image output.

  • Versatility: Nikon Z7

    • Ironically, the Z7 at it’s release was already more versatile than the Leica SL. Both companies released an adapter that allows for mounting of other system lenses on the mirrorless bodies, but Nikon has more lenses available, and therefore more versatility. Leica doesn’t offer long telephotos for nature photographers, nor do they have much selection in macro lenses. Nikon does; and their adapter permits more freedom of application for the Z7 on release day than the Leica SL has achieved in years of development.

  • Shooting Experience: Leica SL, by a hair

    • The Leica SL wasn’t perfect, and one of the most glaring flaws on that camera — the lack of ergonomics and harsh metal build — is actually one of the highlights of the Z7. However, the SL had much more customization, and the controls were a little better laid out and designed than those of the Z7. Nikon has opportunity to narrow that margin by offering firmware updates that permit different customization of the button controls, but until that happens, the SL has the edge in terms of experience. The SL had so many opportunities to customize the controls, that the camera became a natural extension of your brain, eyes, and hand. The Z7 has the potential to achieve that as well, with future software updates.

If I have to pick between the Z7 and SL today, it’s a tough call, but I probably pick the Z7. I’d make that choice based on the availability of lenses, cost, and that the image quality and shooting experience meet or have the potential to exceed that of the SL. Honestly, my attraction to the SL is probably driven more by emotion than anything else; I had a great run with that camera. It travelled around the world with me, and the artwork I made with the SL carries great emotional value. I haven’t had the Z7 long enough to bond with it in the same way.

You’re probably thinking that I talk and write about cameras as though they have feelings. Like that camera is more than just some metal and plastic and wires and circuits. To me, they are.

An effective camera is one that I bond with at a deeper level. Not that I have some sort of weird physical connection — but the connection like a painter has with his brushes and studio. When a camera has effectively become an extension of my eyes and brain, I can use it to capture the most beautiful sights on our planet. I think I’ll get there with the Z7. I think we’ll fall deeply in love, and that camera and I will forge a new bond. But it takes time, and I’m not there yet.

Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL vs Nikon D850

Now I know you want resolution. You read this far…. you don’t want to hear some soppy love story about a camera. You want the unvarnished truth about which is better. And I don’t want to disappoint you. So I’ll give you my personal rankings of these three cameras.

If you handed me a blank check and told me to purchase any of the three today, I would NOT pick the D850. Personally, I don’t see the benefits anymore. I’m all in on mirrorless.

I would buy the Z7. I see a ton of potential in this lineup. The lenses Nikon will release in the future; the promise of what is to come. It’s not a perfect camera yet, and the SL rivals it today. But the head room for the Z7 is much higher. Nikon is a bigger company with more money for R&D. There will be more strides and more innovation in the Z7. There will be more lenses for the Z7. The image quality probably matches or exceeds that of the Leica SL. Objectively, the Z7 today is a better place, and will almost certainly be the better choice in the long term.


Shooting Low and Slow: Hold Still

One of the often under appreciated benefits of a mirrorless camera is that you can effectively hand hold and get sharp images at slower shutter speeds than you can with a comparable DSLR.

In other words, I struggle to hand hold a sharp image at anything slower than 1/60th with the D850, but have no trouble hand holding at 1/20th on the Z7. I have pushed that a little further and - depending on the situation, my posture, and the scene, I’ve been known to sneak sharp images at 1/5th or slower.

What this means in practice is that you can use a lower ISO with the Z7 and achieve a better result. As good as sensors have become at shooting at higher ISOs, it’s still an indisputable fact that the best image will always come from a lower ISO. So if I can hand hold at night at ISO 400 vs ISO 1600, that’s a considerable improvement in image quality.


Adapting Beyond Nikon: Expand the Versatility

Nikon released the Z7 with the FTZ adapter, which allows Nikon F-mount lenses to me used on the Z7 and preserves full functionality on most modern lenses.

Almost immediately, the question became: “What else can we mount”?

The answer is almost anything. Sigma, Zeiss, Tamaron, etc all have made lenses for the Nikon F mount that can be adapted with the FTZ adapter with varying degrees of functionality. Likewise, 3rd party companies are developing adapters for mounting Canon, Hasselblad, Leica, Sony, and other lenses. In due time, there probably won’t be many lenses that can’t be attached to the Z7 in some way shape or form.

Personally, I’ll be investing in an adapter that will allow me to mount my Leica M-mount lenses from my Leica M10 onto the front of my Z7. I love manual focus lenses, and am excited by the prospect of using them on my Z7. There is already one adapter with a plastic mount on the market, but I’ll be waiting for the metal mounts….


Nikon Serial Numbers: Identify Yourself

Nikon seems to have stuck to their traditional serial numbering system for the Z-lineup of cameras.

The first digit of the serial number indicates the region the camera was for sale in, with the number 3 being for USA market cameras. Therefore, a serial number for a Z7 sold in the USA will have a serial number formatted as 3XXXXXX.

In my case, the serial number is 30009XX, representing a late-900’s serial number. It is my understanding that this means I have one of the first one thousand units delivered to the United States.

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Desired Upgrades and Improvements: Dear Nikon

There is no question that Nikon will be releasing several iterations of firmware for the Z7 in the coming months; such is the nature of a new product. There are inevitably bugs that weren’t found prior to the production software being released. These firmware updates also provide an opportunity for Nikon to upgrade a few features in the system, and so I will begin a list of “Dear Nikon” requests for future firmware updates:

  1. EVF Zoom Via Joystick: The joystick (located below the AF-ON button) has some user-customizable features, but there is one customization not included; the ability to zoom into the center of the EVF for precision focusing. As far as I can tell, the only way to zoom in on the viewfinder to check focus is via the + magnification glass button, which is toward the bottom of the body. Unfortunately, to reach that button, I have to contort my hand away from shooting position, so it’s very awkward to use. The Leica SL joystick allowed this feature, and I LOVED it — particularly for macro or telephoto shots. Nikon, please allow me to program the joystick click button as an alternate zoom button.

  2. Faster Joystick Tracking of AF Points: This will sound really stupid…. The joystick on the Leica SL was very responsive to movements of the AF points around the viewfinder. The Nikon Z7 joystick does not move the AF points with the same briskness, and I’d like to be able to speed it up. Please let it take less time for the focus cursor to move across the screen when I hold the joystick.

  3. More Friendly App Integration: Again, I am basing this on my experience with the Leica SL. The SL’s app and wifi integration was much cleaner, and there are too many cumbersome menus that aren’t well explained built into the Z7. Simplify this!

  4. Virtual Horizon Without the Whole Compass: I don’t understand why Nikon feels compelled to put this big compass thing (I know it’s not actually a compass, but I don’t know what else to call it) in the center of the frame with the virtual horizon line. Let me just have the line sans the extra stuff.

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Of course, I’ll also wish for some upgrades that are hardware, and that would have to wait for the next iteration of the camera before they could come to fruition. But it’s never too soon to ask! So here goes my initial list of requested future hardware upgrades:

  1. Built in GPS: Seriously, this technology has been super miniaturized, and it’s fun (and helpful) to see a map of all the photographs I’ve taken based on their geolocation metadata. No extra dongles, just put the GPS in body.

  2. A Slightly Taller Body: Nikon, I appreciate what you did to make this camera smaller and lighter than the D850; my camera bag appreciates it. However, the bottom of my pinky is just barely on the body, and it’d be nice to have a few extra millimeters to feel like my whole hand has a complete grip on the body.

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Must-Have Accessories: Pimp Your Z7

The dealer that sold you the camera would now love to convince you that you need to spend hundreds more in accessories to really get the most out of your camera. BS! But there are a few accessories I recommend for the Z7 to improve the experience:

  • Spare XQD cards

    • At the time of writing, the XQD format of card is still shockingly expensive, but that will change as more companies come to market. In the mean time, have one or two backup cards handy.

  • Spare batteries

    • You can use the EN-EL15A, EN-EL15B, or any of a number of 3rd party lenses. I think it’s worth paying a little more for the EN-EL15B battery, which allows for in-camera charging via USB.

  • Really Right Stuff L-Plate

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This is a living review; I will be updating it continuously in the coming weeks and months as I use the Z7 and can provide first-hand account and testimony of its performance. Until I have put the camera through its paces, I won’t be so irresponsible as to comment on every feature.

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.

The Leica SL Is Not A Perfect Camera (But It Could Be!)

Any frequent readers of ScenicTraverse.com should know that I am an avid user and big fan of the Leica SL Type 601, a mirrorless 24 megapixel camera introduced about a year and a half ago. The Leica SL was the first major production camera from Leica aimed at gaining audience with outdoor and landscape photographers who have traditionally used Nikon and Canon products.

To me knowledge, Leica has never stated that they are trying to explicitly sell the Leica SL to outdoor and landscape photographers, but a look at the specs sheet for the Leica SL and it's clear that is an audience they'd love to get. Just look at the amount of weather sealing and rubber gaskets in the camera!

Anyway, all of this is a long way of getting at the point, which is that Leica needs to issue a firmware update for the Leica SL to fix one of the (if not the) greatest pitfalls of the camera. This is the one thing that keeps the Leica SL from arguably being a contender for 'best outdoor photography' rig:

There is no way to disable the long exposure noise reduction (aka LENR).

LENR is a process that digital cameras use to remove sensor noise from a photograph, resulting in an overall better output image file. During long exposures, it is possible for hot pixels or pixels with bad information to appear, which would degrade the final image. To resolve that, engineers force the camera to take a second black "exposure" of equal length to the first image. Any bad or hot pixels will show up on the second image (which we, the user, never see) and the camera can process that bad information out of the final product. Basically it's a way of subtracting out bad data from an image, which sounds like a good thing.

A 2 minute exposure of Joshua Tree National Park - that took 4 minutes to get.

In practice, this means that if you take a 15 second exposure of waves crashing on a beach, you need to wait 30 seconds (15 seconds for original exposure + 15 seconds of LENR = 30 seconds) before you have that single photograph. 

So what's the problem? This is less of an issue for daytime photography, but most landscape and outdoor photographers also will point their camera to the night sky for star trails and galaxy shots, which is where LENR becomes a problem.

Here's why: Let's say I want to shoot some star trails, and I want to create an image where the stars curve and bend into a circle following the rotation of the earth. An image like this one.....

Star trails over Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, California

See those nice long star streaks in the sky? To get something like that, you need to photograph the nights sky for an extended period of time - upwards of 30 minutes. 

The traditional technique to take a photograph like this was to put it on a tripod, click the shutter open for 30 minutes or more, and wait. But what if a car drives past and puts some light into your image, or a strong breeze knocks the tripod, or a plane flies through the scene, creating a straight line of light? Your long exposure is ruined, and you have to start again. With the improvement of digital post-processing techniques, nighttime photographers now often shoot a series of shorter images (20-30 seconds on average) over a long period and stitch them together in Photoshop, creating the same star trail effect.

The technique of shooting a series of hundreds of images that get stitched together is becoming more popular, as it also lets you throw away any single exposure where a plane, car, or other light source disrupts the image without compromising the final result.

But here's where we get back to the issue with the Leica SL. Most other professional cameras let you disable LENR, and instead take a single "black" exposure with the lens cap in place during the shooting sequence. That file is imported into Photoshop with the rest of the series and Photoshop does the noise reduction processing, rather than the camera. The benefit to this approach is that the camera can spend more time shooting the stars, and you can get seamless star trails shots.

What do I mean by seamless? It doesn't take a very long exposure before a tiny bit of smearing (aka rotation) starts to show up in a star photograph. The exact time it takes before the rotation of the stars becomes visible in the image depends on a host of other factors, but the gist is that for a camera like the Leica SL with the 24-90mm f/2.8 lens, it's in the range of 20 seconds. Let's say I shoot 20 second exposures for 30 minutes and then process the files in Photoshop. Because of the LENR, I will really only have one exposure every 40 seconds, and only 15 minutes of rotation for that 30 minutes of imaging. In other words - half the star rotation would be missing!

Leica's engineers will argue that forcing LENR results in an overall cleaner image product, and as a company that expends considerable effort into creating the very best image quality, I appreciate their interest in preserving that; however, the inability to disable the LENR for nighttime shooting and do the processing in Photoshop means the Leica SL is ill suited for serious nighttime photography work.

I used some Photoshop magic to create this image- the files were all taken with the Leica SL, but I needed to be a little heavy handed with the edits to create the final product.

During the course of the Revolutions project, I photographed the sky and night at least a dozen separate occasions, and came to determine that, for now, getting star trails with the Leica SL requires a good amount of Photoshop Magic to fill in the gaps of star trails. While this cover-up technique creates some pleasing images, it's not the same as having the real thing - as having all the data.

So Leica, please publish a future firmware update and allow users to temporarily disable the LENR. Feel free to put a disclaimer in the menu warning people not to mess with the option unless they really understand the consequences. But if you make that firmware change, then the Leica SL really can compete for the title of 'best outdoor and landscape photography camera'.

Street Ninja: Leica 28mm Summaron Re-Issue

In October 2016, Leica introduced a re-issue of one of their most popular screw mount lenses, the 28mm Summaron f/5.6. The original 28mm Summaron was introduced in 1955 and was very popular, and the re-issue brought the character, design, and delightful imperfections of the old lens forward to modern times.

The most obvious change to the new 28mm Summaron is that it now has the M-mount, so it can be used with any of the modern Leica M lineup without the need for a screw-to-M-mount adaptor.  Other modern updates include the Leica 6-bit coding, which is really just six painted squares inside the lens that tell the camera which lens is mounted for the purposes of metadata, and some modifications to the exterior casing. 

But the classic design, which leaves a particular color rendering and distinctive vignette, still remains.

Leica is known for being expensive, but that expense comes with perfection. Many of their lenses possess some of the finest optics available - lenses like the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux are the pinnacle of optical engineering. So for Leica to re-release a lens that has many imperfections struck many as very un-Leica.

But when has Leica ever been predictable? This is the company that had the guts to make a black and white only camera, and price it over $6k. Then they made a digital camera without a screen. Remember that "predictable" company? 

So in predictable Leica form, they release an old lens without any optical design improvements, and then sell it as 'made to order only.' Guts.

I was drawn to this lens for several reasons:

  1. On paper, it looks like a great street photography lens. I often shoot at f/5.6-f/8 on the street, so having a 'slow' lens was fine with me.
  2. It's the smallest and most compact street photography lens that Leica makes. It's the non-exsistant lens.
  3. There's a certain charm and nostalgia to using a lens with the design and styling from 1950s. And who says you can't look awesome while taking awesome photos? Leica shooters do care about the look of their camera, and any that says they don't is lying to you. 
  4. I like the look of old lenses. I own several 1980s era Leica lenses (from the Made in Canada era) and I love their imperfections.

The first few of these features are self-explanatory, but let's talk about #4. Compared to my other Leica lenses, the Summaron has a distinctive contrast and color rendition that the others lack. I struggle to describe the look with a word other than "unique" - images taken with this lens are just a little different from every other lens. There is also a distinctive vignette - very distinctive - and I love it. Vignettes are seen as imperfections, but many of us add a vignette to an image in post processing to help focus the eye on the subject of the image. I don't see the vignette on this lens as an imperfection, it's adding character, but there are certainly times I don't want vignettes, and I would select another lens for those times.

I wouldn't recommend the Summaron to anyone who is looking to be a one lens shooter, and I will rarely carry it as the only lens on a day of street photography. It's small size lets me pack a second faster lens (like a 35mm f/2 Summacron) and easily stash the Summaron in a pocket. But if you have a few other lenses and want something that will look totally different from your other nearly-perfect Leica glass, then I highly recommend the 28mm Summaron. It's a great lens for street photography, and the unique renderings from this lens look great in color and black and white.

The Leica 28mm Summaron comes in a lovely jewelry box case and includes a metal hood and lens cap. The hood, while fantastic in the construction and feel, totally defeats the point of having a stealthy and compact lens - so it stays at home when the lens goes out and about.

Of course, in Leica fashion, they are asking a pretty penny for this lens re-issue - over $2,500 USD for an f/5.6 prime lens may seem crazy to a lot of photographers. And that is reasonable. It's expensive - as are all things Leica - but the look and feel of this lens is unlike anything else.

I draw a parallel here to film. The cost per image of film can greatly exceed digital, particularly if you shoot thousands of images, but folks (myself included) still flock to film because we like the look. And if you want a unique look, this lens is another tool to get the vintage feel, imperfections, and unique color rendering that otherwise only comes through editing.

Five Thoughts: A Day with the Leica Monochrom

I remember when I was first researching Leica's camera and lens lineup - well before I even considered purchasing my first Leica. As a self-admitted gear-obsessed woman, I researched the cameras and lens based on price alone. And how can you avoid it? You see cameras and lenses that cost around $10,000 USD and you can't help but be intrigued by their offerings.

Two of the many Leica products I drooled over in that initial research stuck out in my memory. They were the Leica Noctilux f/0.95 lens and the Leica Monochrom. At that point the Monochrom was built off the M9 platform as the new M246 Monochrom was not yet announced.

These two products stuck out for several reasons beyond their pricing..... most significantly it was their uniqueness. A f/0.95 lens was (and still is) unlike anything else on the market, and the incredible bokeh and low-light it offered was remarkable. And the Monochrom - a camera that could only take black and white photographs! 

I have since secretly lusted for both. Earlier this year I had a chance to snag a Noctilux for a killer deal by monitoring the currency fluctuations (see my earlier post about the purchase of the Noctilux). And while the Monochrom still lived in my fantasies, it would take another killer deal before I could consider purchasing.

Low and behold, another killer deal came along.... this time a combination of the Leica rebate + trade in promotion + a weak British Pound / US Dollar exchange rate. Leica introduced a program where I could trade in another camera (I chose my lovely M7) and get a part exchange, plus $750 rebate. Alone this is a good deal, but the real killer is the exchange rate. After the June 23rd vote by the UK to exit from the European Union, the British Pound crashed to a 30 year low. I waited until the Pound traded at $1.29 on the dollar and jumped..... I purchased my Monochrom at Red Dot Camera in London.

I haven't owned my Leica Monochrom long enough to do a proper review, so I'll share my initial five thoughts on the camera and follow-up with another review when appropriate.

Three Leg Thing - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Pokemon Go - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

I: Oh Panchromatic....

Obviously you don't need to take many photographs to figure out that the Monochrom only captures black and white, or more technically correct, panchromatic images. In fact, if you take one photograph without figuring that out, you're either asleep, lost, or both.

Still, even though I knew I was going to get a greyscale product back from the Monochrom, there is an element of excitement and anticipation in downloading those first images into Lightroom. I was blown away by the tonal depth of the photographs..... millions of shades of grey never looked so good!

I would say it is different from film - at least from my preferred film, Ilford Delta 100. Scans of my film (which I self-develop in HC-110B) tend to be more contrasty and have bolder blacks and harsher whites. The Monochrom RAW files are more flat out-of-camera, but really sparkle with a few seconds of editing in Lightroom. The detail and resolution of the Monochrom files is also very impressive - I was able to get very heavy handed with some crops but maintain acceptable file resolution and detail.

Absorbed - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Road Markings - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

Two Phones? - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

II: Neutral Density Filter Required, ASAP

I LOVE shooting with the Leica f/0.95 Noctilux on my Leica SL - it's become one of my favorite lenses for the truly unique look and feel that it gives each image. But mounted with a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th and a base ISO of 320, I will need to invest in a neutral density filter for the Noctilux before I can really get the most out of the lens in daylight. I took a few shots in London later in the evening when it was darker, but look forward to having a chance to play in more diverse light with a filter. I wasted no time ordering a 3 stop ND filter made by B&W!

Interrogation - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Walking - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Selfie - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

III: My Friend, EVF

Going back to the Noctilux - the reason it is such a great lens on the SL is because of the electronic viewfinder. In fact, I really struggled to decide between the older Monochrom (based on the M9 body) and the new Monochrom Type 246, but ultimately decided that the ability to use an electronic viewfinder (EVF) was worth the extra cost. 

The electronic viewfinder on the Monochrom is a nice addition - it helps you 'see' in black and white if you are trying to learn to see the world without color, and the focus peaking is a must-have to improve your focusing hit-rate with the Noctilux. Of course there is no comparison between the Leica EVF-2 and the viewfinders on the Leica SL and Leica Q.... it lags and is much lower resolution, but if you can accept those things and just want a tool to help you ensure critical focus, then it's a great buy.

Taxi Driver - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

Self Portrait - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Wine Tasting - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

IV: Underexpose

Several reviewers have discussed the importance of underexposing photographs to ensure no blown highlights as highlight detail cannot be recovered in the Monochrom files, but I had to play with it to really see it for myself. I took a variety of test shots against a bright window with a backlit subject to see how much I could "sneak out" of the highlights. Sure enough, blown highlights are really blown. (Sidenote: this is like a child being told something is hot, but not believing it until they touch it themselves and get burned. I had to try it to know!) 

In some cases, I actually like the blown highlight for the contrast it can apply to an image. I wouldn't do this all the time, certainly, but for a few of the images, I think the blown highlight helps draw the eye back to my subject.

I intentionally underexposed this photograph of my husband by several stops to see how much I could recover before I introduced noise...... see below. Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

The result. I would like to have pulled back a little more in the shirt, but noise started to be introduced at a level I was uncomfortable with. For me, this is as far as I'd push the image. All-in-all, a completely acceptable result! - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

V: See Differently

I convert 99% of my street photography, and probably 50% of my landscape photography to black and white, so the idea of pre-visualizing an image in black and white isn't new to me. However, there is still something to be said for knowing you can only capture an image in black and white vs capturing in color and knowing you have the option to convert. There were times in my walk through London that I saw some bright colors or shapes that made me reach for the camera, only to remember that the subject wouldn't translate into panchromatic. This isn't a bad thing..... I don't miss any of those 'missed' shots. Having a camera that only captures panchromatic images helps focus my attention. I studied the light and the way the light reflected off a subject. I experimented photographing shiny and reflective surfaces to see how those translated in the eyes of this sensor, and I found myself discovering contrast and intrigue in new scenes.

Moorgate Station - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Examine - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Shoryu Ramen (the best!) - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

There's a certain amount of learning required for any new camera, and the Monochrom and I are still in the flirting phase; still figuring out what the other likes while avoiding touchy dinner table conversations like religion and politics. We'll get there soon, but for now I need to continue to learn how the Monochrom responds to the world around it. I am incredibly excited by this camera - it begs to be picked up and to go shooting, so I'm sure it won't take long before Donald Trump's hair is broached at dinner......

Leica Q: First Impressions of Leica's Quirky Compact

The Leica Camera Q has been on the market for almost a year now, so it may seem a bit bizarre to have a "first impressions" take on something that has been around this long, but as long as Leica still struggles to meet demand for this camera in some markets, I think it's fair game to write like the camera is brand new. 

Leica's quirky Q camera

If you are a frequent reader of my posts (website, Facebook, Instagram), then you probably already know that I got the Leica SL Type 601 in December 2015 and have fallen head-over-heels in love with that system. The SL is my primary camera for all things digital (as I still shoot plenty of film)... So why buy into a Leica Q?

The SL system and most dSLRs have one glaring thing in common- they aren't small and subtle. Everyone in a 100 mile radius knows when I bring that camera up to my eye, even if the shutter sound is nearly silent. That's okay, the Leica SL isn't trying to be small or discreet. 

Since owning an SL, when I wanted a smaller camera, I turned to the iPhone. While the iPhone is a decent camera, it isn't a tool that I felt comfortable using to create fine art photographs (kudos to those who have done so successfully). I wasn't willing to skimp on image quality for the sake of compactness - again, the goal is to create fine art photographs. After some reading on the Leica Q, I realized I could get the same incredible image quality that has drawn me to the SL in a smaller body by investing in a Q system...... If I could find one!

The Leica Q released to much fanfare and has been touted as the best compact full frame digital camera ever built. And for that reason, it's still very difficult to find one for sale almost a full year after the camera's release. 

Let's take a quick look at the highlights on the Q's spec sheet. Aka, the features I cared about:

  • 24.2 megapixel CMOS full-frame sensor (same specs as the SL, if not the same sensor)
  • Maestro II image processor (same as in the SL)
  • Fixed Summilux 28mm f/1.7 ASPH lens
  • Electronic viewfinder (like on the SL)
  • Near silent shutter
  • Good battery performance
  • Ability to use autofocus or manual focus
  • Macro mode
  • Overall small size

A Q-uick Note

With the exception of the Leica SL and Q comparisons below, the images in this post were converted to black and white in Lightroom. I prefer to present street photography in black and white to remove some of the natural bias that color can introduce.

The settings used for these images were Auto ISO, f/1.7 and aperture priority. 


"Taking a Break" - Leica Q at Hawker House, London

Getting the Q

As previously mentioned, the Q is very hard to find in some markets, including the United States. While I live in the United Kingdom, I had a work trip to the Washington, DC area where I was hoping to find a Q for sale so I could buy it stateside and avoid paying her majesty the 20% VAT. 

Leica Store DC.... No stock. Actually, they did get a camera one morning but sold it in a few hours, before I had any chance of getting to their store. 

B&H Photo.... No stock.

Amazon...... Only if you are willing to pay $1,000+ more than MSRP (nope)

Ace Photo.... One in stock!

"Waiting Game" - Leica Q at Canada Water, London

By some miracle, Ace Photo, which was my go-to camera store when I lived in DC, had a Q in stock, but the way their website displayed the stock implied it was sold out. I had emailed Mo, the owner, and he replied that he had one and was willing to hold it for me... Woohoo!

For what it's worth, the Leica Q is equally challenging to find in London right now. There is limited stock at some retailers, but Leica Mayfair continues to be out of stock on the Q. Clearly, Leica did not expect and produce for the demand this camera generated. 

After getting the Leica Q, I returned to my hotel and tossed the battery on the charger, eager to play with the camera before taking it to a Washington Nationals baseball game later that evening. 

"Pop" - Leica Q at Southbanke Center, London

Learning the Q’s Personality

While the Leica Q bears many similarities to the Leica SL, it has its own personality as a camera and a few distinctive nuances. First of these is the menu screens, which have some notable differences. One of the first obvious differences is the layout - the SL has four sections to the menu (Camera, Image, Setup, and Favorites) while the Q menu is all in one section. This isn't a problem, but I do like having a favorites menu in the SL to quickly jump to my most commonly used settings.

Also of note, the Q does not allow the user to capture DNG only - it's JPEG or JPEG + DNG. As someone who doesn't care for the JPEG files because I'll always give at least a basic edit in Lightroom, it'd be nice to have a firmware update allowing the user to only shoot .DNG raw files.

Finally, you’ll need to read the manual or some online reviews to know what some of the titles in the settings menu adjust - like ‘OIS’ - which stands for Optical Image Stabilization. Apparently spelling that out in the menu would be too hard? How about just "Image Stabilization?"

"Ride" - Leica Q in London's Underground

Did I Break it Already? An Early Design Flaw

At the ballgame that night, the Q performed well - although the 28mm focal length is hardly the right one for shooting sports! But a few fan and stadium photos gave me something to pixel peep on my iPad later. Going to the game did highlight one of the first (and maybe the only) real problem with the Leica Q. The diopter adjustment for the Q sticks out the right side of the viewfinder, meaning that as the camera back rubbed against my shirt as I walked around the stadium, the viewfinder got out of focus. At one point I raised my new camera to my eye to take a picture and felt like screaming.... It's broken! The image was blurry and the camera never came into focus?! Was it something on the front of the lens? No. It was the dang diopter adjustment. While I figured it out after a few panicked seconds, there was momentary freak-out as my new camera suddenly was very blurry. I had read on other reviews that the diopter adjustment could be a bit too sensitive to the touch, and experienced the problem day one.

Thankfully, adding the Match Technical Thumbs Up grip to the Leica Q covers that wheel and prevents it from accidentally spinning. I also love the grip the Thumbs Up adds to the Q - it made it very comfortable to carry one handed in London all day.

"Skater Boy" - Leica Q at Southbanke Center Skate Park

"Vertical" - Leica Q at Southbank Center Skate Park

"Grind" - Leica Q at Southbanke Center Skate Park

Battery Performance

I have this weird thing about batteries. I get stressed when my iPhone drops below 50% - this irrational fear takes over where the phone could die any second! Ironically, the same phobia doesn't cripple me when it comes to filling the car with gas….

Anyway, this fear of dead batteries manifests itself in my photography. I dread the idea of being without power at a critical photo opportunity. I carry three batteries for the Leica SL to ensure I can go for days without a charge. So one of the first tests with the Q was the determine how much endurance that little battery had after a day of shooting.

Leica rates the battery to somewhere in the 300 shot range, but I easily got that type performance and then some. Granted I have the screen auto power off after 30 seconds and the camera shortly thereafter; I avoid using the LCD screen on the back, and never record video (I’m told the camera can do that). While I am conservative in the screen usage, I am not afraid to walk with the camera turned on for stretches at a time, particularly when taking street photographs. During a full day of walking through London, I used maybe 50% of the battery, so I think Leica’s rating is very conservative. Of course, that didn’t stop me from buying a spare!

"Supervisor" - Leica Q at Moorgate, London

I’m Awake!

The Leica Q impresses me with the turn on and revive from sleep speeds. Turning the camera on, it can be ready to shoot in just over a second (I didn’t time this, but if I am carrying the camera on my side and I flip the switch to on and bring it to my eye, it’s just about ready to shoot once it gets to eye level). And if I think a photographic opportunity is imminent, I’ll carry the camera on because the revive from sleep time is near instantaneous. I distinctly recall being pleasantly surprised while walking in London; the Q had gone to sleep, but I brought it up and clicked the shutter to take a picture, not realizing it was asleep. The camera didn’t seem to care - it woke and took the photo immediately. I actually remarked to my husband my surprise that the Q awoke and shot that fast.

"Sharing a Secret" - Leica Q at Trafalgar Square, London

"Check In" - Leica Q in Soho, London

Eye Candy Creator - Summilux 28mm f/1.7 ASPH Lens

The real gem of the Leica Q is the lens; a Q with a 50mm f/4 wouldn’t be nearly as impressive or popular. I don’t own a 28mm M lens for comparisons, but I did shoot some side-by-sides with the Leica SL at 28mm, which we’ll cover in a minute. However, I think the 28mm Summilux f/1.7 lens that Leica has paired with the Q is a perfect match. It’s a great focal length for travel and street photography. And with the macro mode, the lens is far more versatile than most of the Leica M series lenses.

I will comment that I wish the focus ring was as smooth on the Q as it is on my M lenses. It’s not the same buttery feel and takes a little bit more force to rotate, but one of the appeals of this camera is the autofocus - if I want to shoot manual focus I can do it, or I can reach for one of my M rangefinders.

The aperture ring clicks into place with the feel familiar to my other Leica lenses. It is maybe just a tad tighter than my Leica f/0.95 M Noctilux, but that’s if I’m being picky and comparing the rotation of them side-by-side (which I just did).

Optically, the performance of this lens is wonderful. The bokeh is soft and creamy, although not Noctilux dreamy. And while 28mm is a newish focal length to me, I found it familiar and natural to use. I owe this to my iPhone, as the focal length of the Q and iPhone is very similar. 

For day-to-day shooting, I will always equip the lens hood to protect the front of the lens, although the cap goes into my pocket and doesn’t come out between shots. Honey badger doesn’t have time for a stinkin’ lens cap.

"Canon in D" - Leica Q at London's Southbanke Center

"No Place to Go" - Leica Q at London Homeless Shelter

Automagic Focus

There are times when I wished my M series bodies had autofocus. Times when I missed a shot because I am a mere mortal (or when I was shooting the Noctilux, which has extremely narrow tolerances for focusing). As much as I love to manually focus and to have the total control afforded to manual focus, there are times when it’s nice and easy to have autofocus - particularly if the goal of the photograph is documentary. 

The autofocus of the Q is what makes this camera so wonderful. It’s all the great stuff of an M body (except for interchangeable lenses) but with autofocus. The focus is fast and nearly always accurate. All of the images in this preview were shot with autofocus.

And in those instances where the Q fails to correctly read your mind and selects the wrong focus point, you can re-press the shutter half way and it’ll select a new point. I can’t tell you how wonderful this is - I felt like my Nikon and I would fight over focus point selection, but the Q knows it is your camera, and graciously offers alternative focus points if it missed on the first try.

"Partners" - Leica Q at Millenium Bridge, London

Image Quality

I am totally smitten with the image quality of the Leica SL, so the question for me was, can the Leica Q replicate the same quality but in a more compact package? Challenge gauntlet thrown!

I compared the cameras by matching similar settings - auto ISO at f/4 and let the camera choose the shutter speed. Both cameras had -1/3rd stop exposure compensation dialed in. The images you see here are both .JPEGs that have undergone the same post-processing in Lightroom (IE, both got the same adjustments for clarity and vibrance). I conducted this comparison hand holding the cameras, so minor differences in composition are “user error.”

Remember to click on an image for a full preview

Leica SL

Leica Q


Leica SL

Leica Q


Leica SL

Leica Q

Overall, the three tests are very similar. In a blind taste test, I don't think I’d be able to correctly identify which camera made which image. There are slight differences in the casting of the blue and green shades on the helicopter body, and the Q reveals slightly more shadow detail than the SL image does.

When comparing the flag photographs, big differences can be seen in the sky - the SL has almost a greenish hue (likewise, the flag is a little more green) while the Q seems to render the sky more accurately. However, recall that I shot in aperture priority - the SL in that image was a full stop brighter than the Q, which is probably a difference in metering off the reflective car hood, and may have caused some of the sky detail and color to be lost.

Of these test shots, I prefer the Q image in 2 out of the 3….. will the Q overtake the SL in my eyes as the king of image quality? It might be a little early to crown it, but the Q has certainly joined the SL in “Kristen’s smitten circle of cameras.”

"Lean" - Leica Q at Street Market in London

"Shine" - Leica Q in Soho, London

Silence is Golden

It’s worth noting that while the Leica SL is near silent, the Q is totally silent. Unless you are in a totally silent room, you cannot hear the shutter of the Q. On the street or in an area with any ambient noise, the Q will make as much sound as your iPhone (that is, none). The people you photograph on the street will never know you took their picture from audible clues. I have found myself occasionally questioning if the camera actually took a picture - it’s ninja silent. And that’s perfect, because the Q will certainly be thrust into situations where the loud sound of a shutter would not be appreciated, but where it will tippy toe through the scene without notice. 

"Poetry Slam" - Leica Q at Trafalgar Square, London

Who Should Q?

I don’t know who Leica was targeting when they produced the Q, but the continued demand for the camera suggests they underestimated the market for a perfectly engineered, full-frame, mirrorless, compact, 24 megapixel, f/1.7 28mm, stealthy, silent, shooting machine. So who should want a Q?

Without doubt, the Leica Q is a professional tool, and it can produce fine art prints for consumers and professionals alike. The image quality, which is probably owed to a combination of wonderful glass, a drop-dead gorgeous sensor and the Mastro II processor, produces results that rival Leica’s new larger body Leica SL. 

Personally, I will be using the Q to fill a space that the Leica SL didn't fill for me - the desire to have a small travel camera that I can discreetly use on the street or to document little moments that aren't "worthy" of the Leica SL. There are times when it's not appropriate to use the SL - for instance, with a shy subject in a tribal village - and where the small and silent Q will allow me to still collect those moments with incredible quality. And with travel to Norway, Germany, Austria, Thailand and a month long road trip through the US upcoming, the Leica Q will get plenty of use, and a formal review after more extensive work will be forthcoming.

As Craig Mod put it, the Leica Q is the “unicorn of consumer products….you can’t help but wonder how it clawed its way from the R&D lab” - and I cannot agree more with his sentiment. Although the Leica Q was released before the SL, the best explanation I can offer is that it’s like the M series and SL series mated, and produced this beautiful bastard child that was so quirky that Leica had no choice put to apply the same moniker to name it….. It’s the Leica Quirky Q.

And quirky is very good.

Hands-On Preview of the Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 Lens

I just had the opportunity to use the new Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 ahead of the official late-March 2016 release date. A demo lens was available at the Photography Show in Birmingham, UK, and I spent awhile shooting and handling the lens during the exhibition today. Although I’ve had a chance to now go “hands on” with the lens, I won’t call this an official review, but it will hopefully help anyone who is considering the purchase of this lens when it releases next week.

Leica was kind enough to let me mount the lens on my body, so not only did I have a chance to handle and shoot it in the trade show, but I have some image results to evaluate….

First and foremost, this lens has the same incredible design and construction we’re used to seeing with Leica glass. While it’s big and heavy compared to most lenses they make, it’s actually quite compact and comfortable compared to similar zoom lenses from other manufacturers. I was particularly impressed with the internal zoom mechanism; looking down the front element of the lens while rotating the zoom allows you to see several glass elements that are adjusting internally. This process, which was incredibly smooth, allows you to zoom from 90-280mm without the lens expanding in size. When a lens expands as you zoom, the center of gravity of the lens shifts, which can make it harder to shoot. With everything internal, it was easy to hand hold and zoom in and out without experiencing any need to adjust my hand positioning. 

Leica, in typical German engineering form, also improved on the tripod collar mechanism. Unlike most Nikon / Canon tripod collars that just have alignment markings for rotating between portrait and landscape orientation, the Leica tripod collar has little stops that click into place. These stops would make it extremely easy to rotate the lens when mounted on a monopod or tripod without having to guess if you’ve correctly reoriented the camera - you can feel it click into place. The collar rotates all the way around the camera so it can be used as a carry handle if you fancy. Rotating the tripod collar is achieved by the traditional loosening of a knob. A second knob closer to the base plate allows for the removal of the tripod base plate. The base plate has a grooved notch on it to ensure that it can be mounted back square to the collar if it was removed. The lens hood is a long cylindrical hood- maybe 3-4 inches long. It used a twist to lock into place.

Size comparison between the 24-90mm and 90-280mm lenses.

Sample Images

Click on any image for a larger preview

First, I conducted a few tests of the lens’ performance at close focus. I stepped about 3 feet away from my subject and was able to focus on his eyes at 190mm and the result has incredible detail and clarity. Zooming out to 90mm at f/2.8 gives a sense of the soft bokeh that can be achieved with this lens; notice how the edge of his cap softly fades out of focus.

Shot from about 3 feet away @ 190mm, f/3.5. Nice soft bokeh!

Zooming out to 90mm @ f/2.8

Likewise, Leica boasts a 3 stop image stabilization, and while I can’t validate that figure, it was certainly very good. Normally anything below 1/60th of a second can be tricky for me to hand hold and keep tack sharp, but this image was taken at 1/50th and is perfect. 

The image stabilization was good enough that I hand held this photo at 90mm 1/50th

The bokeh on this lens is also very pleasing - shockingly so, actually. At 280mm, the lens shoots at a best f/4, but I still found the bokeh pattern very pleasing. In this image, you can see the bokeh renders in a circular / oval shape. While it’s certainly not the dreamy melt of the Noctilux, the bokeh results I see in my demo shooting suggest this lens should be great for framing sports, action, or even portrait photography. Personally, I’ll be using this lens for outdoor and wildlife photography applications, and I cannot wait. The bokeh throughout the zoom range should give very pleasing storytelling opportunities, no matter what the situation.

An example of the bokeh at 280mm @ f/4

Bokeh at 250mm, f/3.8

The autofocus speed of this lens is not to be overlooked. It’s easy to build long lenses, but long lenses that can jump instantly to proper focus without lots of hunting are another story. As much as I liked my Nikon 80-400, it would often do the obnoxious “dunk-dunk-dunk” of a lens hunting for focus. My experience is obviously limited, but the lens had no issues keeping pace with the busy exhibition hall, particularly as I turned from far away subjects to close-up shots. 

280mm @ f/4..... see crop below. Notice there were no corrections for any lens distortion or vignetting.

Crop of above image

Reviewing the results now in Lightroom, I’m noticing almost no vignetting and only minimal distortion. It’s the type of artifact that I’d probably never take the time to bother correcting (and that cannot be corrected now since Adobe doesn’t have a lens profile for this lens yet).

Included is a clip showing the internal focus mechanism - apologies for the video quality.

Thank you to Leica Camera for letting me demo their new APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 lens today - any doubts I had about the pricing have been erased and I’ll be looking to snag a copy upon their release this week.

The Leica SL (Type 601) Camera Review

The SL (Type 601) is Leica Camera’s first foray into the world of mirrorless cameras. On the surface, this camera looks over priced and unable to compete with the dominance of companies like Sony…… but looks are often deceiving! As it turns out, the Leica SL is just what the photography market ordered and is a masterpiece by the Germany camera maker.

In fact, this isn't just the best Leica ever made, it's arguably the best digital camera ever made for professional photographers.

Release Thoughts

When I first heard about the Leica SL in the press releases, I was not impressed. The photos provided by Leica made the camera look monstrous and none of the technical specs jumped off the page. I was quick to dismiss it.

After the camera started to ship, some of the regular internet blogs I followed started to discuss the Leica SL and there was a overall sense of pleasant surprise; I wasn’t the only one to write off the camera before using one. Since initial looks and previews were positive, I decided to go play with a demo unit at the Leica Store in Mayfair London during a weekend trip to explore the London winter markets. 

I was so impressed, I pre-ordered my own copy that day.

Unboxing

I was having a bad week; a mouse had chewed through plumbing in our house, causing mass flooding. Thankfully nothing was damaged, but it was a close call as the ceiling nearly collapsed in my photo studio. I was lucky to salvage everything without issue! 

When the Leica Store Mayfair emailed me mid-week to let me know that an SL had arrived and it was mine for the taking, it did a wonder for my morale. New toys and gadgets can fix almost any problem! I asked Leica if they would charge the battery for me, as I’d come down to London to pick it up on Saturday and would want to shoot around town after I picking it up. True to their word, Leica generously charged everything and had it ready to go so I could enjoy a first day of shooting. Kudos to the Mayfair team for superb customer service!

The SL comes in a large black cardboard box. It’s about the same size as the boxes from Nikon for the D800 and D610. Unlike the M series cameras, which come with a box that is reminiscent of a jewelry box, this one is more straight forward and not as luxurious. But who cares about the box? The SL isn’t made for people who want schnazzy boxes, it’s made for photographers! 

Inside the box is a large foam insert with slots for all the components: battery, charger, cables, camera strap and the camera itself. 

The only surprise in the unboxing is that the SL does not come with a UK plug adapter as standard. I found this a little surprising considering the Leica M-P (Type 240) includes this and I purchased the camera in the UK. They offer a European two pin and the American two prong plugs, and I have plenty of adaptors, so no problems.

Charger & Batteries

The Leica SL takes a proprietary lithium ion battery that is sealed with a gasket so that, when inserted into the camera body, it maintains the weather sealing. The battery bottom also acts as the door for the battery hatch. Initially I though this was a little strange, but on reflection, I like the design. I have nearly ripped the battery hatch door off my Nikons before, so Leica has just removed a potential failure point.

The charger is like most Leica chargers; it includes lights to tell you when the battery is 80% charged and then fully charged. Batteries are inserted into the charger and then popped down snuggly into the charging station. Unlike the Leica M charger, where the cord is only a few inches long, the cord on the SL charger is long enough to be plugged into a floor level outlet while still resting on a table. 

A spare battery runs £95 GBP / $150 USD, which is reasonable. 

Strap

Leica provides a fairly solid camera strap with the SL. It has a stretchy neoprene neck pad and would probably be fairly strong if someone tried to cut it off you. That said, I won't be using the camera strap provided because I prefer even more solid designs, but what they give isn't terrible. There is no big and obscene Leica branding - of course the camera itself isn’t very subtle about being a Leica!

USB Cable

Provided with the Leica SL is a USB 3.0 cable that is also longer than expected. I don’t shoot tethered to my laptop very often, but it seems like the cable is just barely long enough to permit some tethered shooting. 

Accessories

At the time of launch, Leica announced several other accessories for the Leica SL that could be purchased after market. These include a battery grip, protective cover film for the back LCD screen, and a series of filters for the also released lenses. At this time, I haven’t purchased any accessories for the SL beyond what was provided, so any feedback on those will wait until they are released/purchased.

Construction & Build

Leica makes a lot of collector cameras - sets designed for the obscenely rich to buy and put on a shelf (I feel bad for those cameras). The Leica SL is not a collector camera. It’s not for those looking for a sexy and delicate camera. This is a photographers camera, and it shows.

The body is milled from a single solid block of aluminum, which makes it extremely solid and rugged. Design graphics provided by Leica show they have included a ton of little rings and gaskets to weather seal the camera from water and dust. In fact, Leica has even produced a video showing the Leica SL having a bucket of water dumped on it! As a landscape and outdoor photographer, this was a tremendous selling feature. 

The camera has a very simplistic design - rather than overwhelm the user with a zillion little labelled buttons, they have stuck to their value of “the essentials” and provided intelligently designed controls. I really like this; there are several buttons on the Nikon’s I’ve owned that I have literally never never used. Ever. Of course the risk with cutting buttons is creating cluttered menus, but even here, the construction and design is brilliant. The SL cleverly adds long press functionality like seen on some recent Apple products to give each button a series of options and commands. That allowed them to quickly cut the number of controls needed to a bare minimum without risking frustration from photographers who needed to work hard to change a setting like ISO.

Beyond the physical construction, Leica has taken some steps to appeal to tech savvy photographers by including elements like GPS and wifi into the camera. 

Ergonomics

The truth is, Leica didn’t design this camera for a woman’s hands. The majority of the people who buy and use an SL are men who will have bigger and longer hands than I do. As a result, I am always concerned that a camera’s ergonomics won’t fit me quite right.

Alas, the Leica SL fits comfortably in my small hands. All the controls are easily within reach and I actually think the size of my hands plays to my favor when holding the SL. My right thumb can easily reach the scroll wheels and joystick control while holding the camera to my face, and my right hand comfortably wraps around the hand grip. 

Weight wise, the Leica SL body is lighter than I expected it would be, considering the construction of the body. It’s heavier than a Leica M, so if that’s what you are accustomed to, it’ll seem like a brick, but for dSLR shooters, this isn’t “heavy.” Leica says that, with the battery, the camera weighs 850 grams. I can’t visualize 850 grams, but according to my calculator, that’s the same as holding five Apple iPhone 6’s. It’s also the same weight as the Nikon D800. The lens combination obviously has huge impact on the overall weight of the camera too.

Camera Sensor

The Leica SL comes with a 24 megapixel full frame (6000x4000 pixel) CMOS sensor. It has an infrared filter, but no low pass filter, which helps ensure maximum sharpness. This is probably the same sensor that was used in the also recently released Leica Q and that has received rave reviews. Side by side comparisons of the Leica SL and Leica Q still show differences in image quality, and that's because image quality is also based on processing, software, and other factors beyond the physical sensor. 

Battery Life

Using the camera all day (10+ hours) while walking around London and shooting in a variety of environments with the GPS enabled, I finished the day with the battery still having almost 50% of the original charge. I also used the onboard wifi and connected with the iPhone Leica App during that time, both of which really can tax batteries. In normal shooting conditions, assuming you aren't using too many of these features, a battery will easily last a day of shooting.

Of course I am too paranoid about missing a shot because of a dead battery, so I always carry a backup.

Lens Choices

Leica proudly boasts how the Leica SL can, with the right set of adaptors, be used with almost every lens they've ever made. But in reality, most of us will use the newly released SL series of lenses or will mount M lenses. 

SL Lenses

As part of the announcement of the Leica SL, Leica announced three lenses that would be released over a one year schedule to mount directly onto the SL mount. These lenses are designed to take advantage of all the camera's features, but owners of existing Leica glass can mount those lenses with a series of adaptors, so we aren't stuck waiting for lens releases. The most commonly mounted lenses will probably be the M series glass, so I'll address that below.

Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH

The first lens released with the SL is available at the time of shipping, and it's the most versatile of the lenses announced for the SL to date. A 24-70mm lens is considered one of the gold standards for professional photographers to own and Leica is improving on this common focal length by offering a 24-90mm with extra reach. This is a variable aperture lens, meaning it is f/2.8 at 24mm and f/4 at 90mm. Because it is an electronic lens, the aperture between those focal lengths varies and is digitally controlled; apertures in electronic lenses don't have to move in 1/2 or whole stop increments. Here's the largest aperture provided at some common focal lengths:

  • 24mm: f/2.8
  • 28mm: f/2.9
  • 35mm: f/3.1
  • 50mm: f/3.6
  • 75mm: f/3.8
  • 90mm: f/4

Leica doesn't build a lot of zoom lenses, and the reason is pretty simple - the engineering required to make a zoom lens that maintains consistent image quality through the zoom range is extremely complicated. Leica has very high standards that they have built a reputation on - and that reputation can't afford to release a flop lens. The Leica 24-90mm lens lives up to all of Leica's exacting standards, delivering fantastic clarity, contrast, color saturation, detail and sharpness at all focal lengths. At the same time, it's about the same size and weight as the 24-70mm lenses made by Canon and Nikon, so they achieved this incredible quality in a reasonably sized package.

For folks accustomed to using the M lenses, it will feel like they are hauling around a bazooka with this lens, but if you are like me and are used to the Nikon 24-70mm lens, this will feel very natural. Leica's goal when releasing the SL was to appeal to photographers like me who have always needed dSLRs, but with lenses like the Leica 24-90mm, I'll be ditching my remaining Nikon gear.

When I first heard about the lenses released for the Leica SL, I wasn't sure I wanted to buy the lens. I figured I could continue to use my M series glass and keep the setup more compact. After shooting with the demo body and lens at the Leica Store Mayfair, I changed my tune. The 24-90mm was incredibly fast to focus and staggeringly sharp. The only thing my M lenses offer over this lens is faster apertures and smaller size. Because this lens was really delightful to shoot with, I opted to purchase it, while still maintaining two of my M lenses for those times when I want a more compact and lightweight setup. 

Leica APO Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4

Just like the 24-70mm is a standard midrange zoom used by most professional photographers, the 70-200mm lens is considered the professional's telephoto of choice. Keeping with that, Leica has announced, but not yet released, a 90-280mm f/2.8-4 lens to meet the needs of professionals who are considering leaving their dSLR setups. Unfortunately, the lens is probably not going to be widely available until summer 2016, and I haven't seen any reliable pricing information. There have been some photos of demo units floating around at some Leica stores, but otherwise, little is known about this lens outside Leica's promotional materials. The good news is that with a focal length this long, Leica is promising superior autofocus and image stabilization (they claim it can compensation for 3.5 stops of camera shake). 

From the photos I've seen, the lens looks to be approximately the same size as the Nikon 80-400mm zoom that I've used for wildlife photography. If that's the case, it'll be larger than the other 70-200mm lenses on the market - but it also offers 80mm more reach than it's competitors. Either way, I will be eager to try one as soon as possible to see if this lens can meet my needs for wildlife shooting.

Leica Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 ASPH

Leica rangefinder users will probably be most excited for this 50mm prime, which is set to release late 2016. Again, no pricing information, but I can assume it will be a pretty penny. The 50mm Summilux lens for the M series cameras costs between $3,500-4,000 (depending on promotions), and it is a manual focus lens. Add autofocus and a much bigger lens (more glass), and I can't imagine this baby will be cheap. For that reason, I'll stick to the M series 50 Summilux, unless Leica blows me away with reasonable pricing.

For those who can afford what I imagine will be a pricey lens, the 50mm Summilux in the SL mount may be the lens that draws Leica rangefinder users to the SL. Those who are accustomed to prime lenses and crave lens speed over zoom will swoon for this lens, so I imagine it'll be a top seller. I also expect Leica will release several other fast primes in the SL mount - I'd guess a 35mm comes next?

M Lenses

The Leica SL is an incredible camera, and unless you really lust over a rangefinder, I suspect many M shooters will ditch their trusty M bodies in favor of an SL. The SL is nearly the same size and weight as an M, but with way more features, so why wouldn't you?

The appeal of using the SL with M lenses is that the electronic viewfinder can display any focal length lens without needing crazy adapters. No add-on field-of-view optics - just look into the viewfinder. What it shows is what you'll get! And if you like to shoot with a narrow depth of field at apertures ranging from f/0.95 to f/2, you're more likely to hit precise focus with a digital viewfinder than blindly trusting the calibration on the rangefinder. 

To use an M lens on the Leica SL, you'll need the Leica M-Adapter T (aka a M to T adaptor). The adaptor is pretty small and reasonably inexpensive and, as an added bonus, can read 6 bit coding on M lenses and transfer that information to the camera.

Camera functions like autofocus are disabled when you mount an M lens (for hopefully obvious reasons), and you can choose to shoot in aperture priority or manual mode. Features like focus peaking in the electronic viewfinder make achieving tack sharp focus much easier and turning those features on and adjusting them is easily done in the menus. Firmware update 1.2 also enabled a super zoom in for focusing by just pressing down on the joystick while looking through the EVF. It's a fantastic feature!

....And it Makes Some Fine Images!

Image Quality

I always shoot in RAW (14 bit color depth) and edit my images to get the maximum quality in the finished result. Since RAW images assume no sharpening, contrast, color saturation, etc, RAW images tend to look dull until edited. The RAW images from the Leica SL are far from dull!

The first time I downloaded the images into Adobe Lightroom, I kept excitedly telling my husband how great they were. Although they were still RAW files, there was incredible dynamic range, color, and detail present. A few selective adjustments and the images really popped - easily the best quality I have natively seen from a camera. The image results totally dominate the RAW files created by the Leica M-P (Type 240). Likewise, they far exceed results I’ve seen from any of my Nikon’s. 

I don't do scientific reviews, because I also don't shoot with a lab coat and clipboard. I shoot in the real world and use real world photos as the basis for my review, and I have been nothing but impressed by the image quality that comes from the SL. Leica's engineers clearly have worked very hard to squeeze every drop of goodness out of this sensor and it makes the sensor of the Leica M-P (Type 240) look like a kids toy. Lenses like the 50mm Summilux f/1.4, which have a distinctive "Leica look" only look better with the SL!

If you are a landscape photographer, then this is your camera. I am totally blown away by the quality of this camera, especially with the 24-90mm lens. The following images were all taken with that combination, and required minimal editing in Lightroom to deliver the results you see here.....

Window Dressing - Leica SL & 24-90mm @ f/3.3, 1/40 sec

Incredible detail and color - the sand looked more black to my eye, but the Leica SL captured all the little golden flecks that really give the sand interest and texture. f/4 @ 1/160th

Of course, the Leica SL generates some lovely images to convert to black and white. This was converted using Nik Silver Effects...... oh, and this was hand held at f/22 @ 1/6th!

The Leica 24-90mm practically serves as a macro lens, offering incredible color and detail on a nice short focus. f/22 @ 1/80th

Check out the detail and sharpness! I barely touched any sliders in Adobe Lightroom to get this image from the RAW .DNG file.

Color bands on the Hunstanton Cliffs on the coast of England. f/4 @ 1/60th

Leica wants the SL to appeal to landscape photographers. With results like this, that won't be an issue! f/7.1 @ 1/100th

Leica wants the SL to appeal to landscape photographers. With results like this, that won't be an issue! f/7.1 @ 1/100th

Lots of texture with shadows and highlights, yet the Leica SL renders it beautifully.

Nice results when using a neutral density filter on a f/22 @ 2.5 second exposure. Nice and sharp and clean.

Great cropping potential with a 90mm lens and some tremendous image quality. This is a 100% crop and the bird eyes are still tack sharp.

ISO Performance

Like I previously mentioned, I am not a scientist, so I don't shoot crazy side-by-side comparison photos. But I am a real photographer that shoots in real environments, and the ISO performance of this camera, when used in the real world, is incredible. I normally shoot at auto ISO settings and only override the camera if I want something like a long exposure via neutral density filter. Using manual ISO, the Leica SL did a nice job maintaining a low ISO while balancing a shutter speed I could hand hold; when shooting in Aperture Priority, I normally found the camera would prefer ISO 50 while maintaining shutter speeds above 1/80th. I did shoot some photographs of my Christmas tree and found unbearable noise didn't show until above 25,000 and 50,000 was pretty noisy - but it's also stupid crazy ISO to really shoot at. If you are shooting at ISO 50k, you've made the decision to sacrifice quality in favor of getting an image, so who cares?

Video

One of the features that appealed to me on the Leica SL is the video functionality built into the camera. Video features never made sense to me on the Leica M series - it’s not the kind of camera I would use to film anything beyond a 10 second memory clip. For that reason, I still had been holding onto my Nikon D610 for video work.

Now that I own the Leica SL, I’ll be selling the Nikon D610 as the SL has met and surpassed the video capabilities. I am not a professional videographer, so I’d be speaking out of turn to evaluate the video quality, but 4K video should be more than enough for me to film short snippets for YouTube videos.

The video specs are as follows:

  • Resolution: 4K (4096 × 2160) @ 24 fps; 4K (3840 × 2160) @ 25 and 30 fps; 1080 @ 24, 25, 30, 50, 60, 100 and 120 fps; 720 @ 24, 25, 30, 50, 60, 100 and 120 fps
  • L-Log gamma selectable
  • HDMI video output (enabled recording via external monitor)
  • Compatible with Leica Cine-Lenses
  • Record in MP4 and MOV formats
  • Stereo microphone, 48 kHz
  • Audio in/out via additional connector
  • Up to 29 min recording duration

Shooting Experience

Electronic Viewfinder

The EVF has to be one of Leica’s crowning achievements in this camera and I suspect it will force other camera manufacturers to step up their game when it comes to viewfinders. 

Until demo-ing the Leica SL, I had never used an EVF. The Nikon’s, Leica M, and analog film cameras that I’m most accustomed to using are optical viewfinders - either a rangefinder or a mirror with prism. I had never been drawn to an EVF because it seemed like it would introduce problems; a mirror doesn’t use any battery power! My experiences using Live View features has never been all that great - it’s a "nice to have" feature but lags and is slow to start. Installing a small Live View screen into a viewfinder just struck me as opportunity to fail, not to succeed.

What I’d failed to consider was the benefits of an EVF. Most notably, the EVF allows you to preview and review images in the viewfinder. I don’t have to take my eye away from the eyepiece to check if the camera captured the image correctly anymore. I don’t have to consult with the back screen for any detailed information. While I shouldn’t have been so surprised that an EVF offered more functionality than a traditional optical viewfinder, I had never put any thought into the issue. So if you are used to an optical viewfinder, try an EVF just to see if it changes your life like it did mine!

The EVF in the Leica SL is 4.4 megapixels and is very sensitive. According to Leica, it has a 37 degree field of view and is full frame. There is an external diopter control for those with glasses, and folks with glasses can also adjust the eyepiece auto-on sensitivity. I found that it did a nice job adjusting to ambient light and was easy to use in near total darkness later a night. It is also very fast and responsive to the human eye and automatically turns on/off when you look through it. Unlike most Live View functions, which need a second or two of startup time, the EVF is almost instant, so if I miss a shot, it’s not because of the EVF!

While I can tell it isn’t an optical viewfinder, the EVF is nearly life-like in the quality, colors, and rendition of the image. I appreciate the various in-screen information that can be displayed via the EVF, including a histogram to see clipping, focus peaking, or zooming for precise focus. Again, none of these features should surprise me, but coming from an optical viewfinder world, I find the ability to access this information via the eyepiece really wonderful. 

We will talk about pricing later in the review, but this EVF is incredibly well built and designed, and I think the difference in price between this and competitor cameras can easily be justified by considering the EVF’s clarity and performance.

Joystick

Leica did away with the extra buttons that clutter the back of other SLR cameras by utilizing a series of smart controls. One of these controls is a little joystick near the viewfinder. The location of the joystick is such that you can use your thumb to control the joystick while still looking through the viewfinder, which is great, because the joystick can allow you to move a focus crosshair around. The joystick was also very fast and smooth; it reminded me of the joystick on a video game controller with the smooth operation.

One of the cool features is that with firmware 1.2, you can click in on the joystick with a manual focus (M series) lens and the camera will zoom in the EVF to help you achieve pinpoint focus. If you are shooting a lens like the f/0.95, that'll be a huge focus assist.

The joystick also controls functions in the menus, which makes it a breeze to zoom through the menu screens.

Leica SL App

Many people dislike the Leica apps that allow integration with a smart phone, but, for me, the app is actually one of the surprises of this camera and shouldn’t be overlooked. Like the EVF, this app will change the way I shoot.

The Leica SL app is found in the Apple iTunes or Android app stores and using it requires the camera to be put into wifi mode (which probably shortens the battery life) and it then broadcasts its own wifi signal. To connect your phone to the camera, you either enter a unique password, or scan the QR code that comes up on the back of the camera. Once connected, the app serves as a remote control for the camera.

Using the app, you see a real-time preview of what the camera sees. You can touch the screen on the app to move the focus point or adjust shooting settings like aperture or shutter. There is a capture button that then lets you take the image remotely. Virtually all major camera controls are adjustable via the app.

Why is this important? Let me tell you how many hundreds of dollars I’ve wasted on remote controls and other external operations for my other cameras..... None of them worked as well as this did. If I had owned this camera on my recent trip to Wales, I would have used it to shoot long exposures without having to touch the camera and risk introducing camera shake. It’s completely brilliant and very easy to use and allows me to forgo more gadgetry like shutter releases.

Another added bonus of the app is that it allows you to view photos on the memory card and download them to your phone. Awesome. Now I can use the app to grab that photograph I just took and upload it to Facebook before I’ve even left the site. With the improvement of Adobe’s Creative Cloud system, this type of technology will change the way photographers share images with clients in near-real time. 

Touchscreen

Leica did something very cool when they made the screen on the back of the camera touch enabled. I actually forget that the back screen is touch enabled because I am not used to a feature like that! But with the touch screen, you can easily control the focus points, or quickly swipe through photos. It's a handy bonus feature built in - one I didn't need to be sold on the camera, but that only makes it that much better!

GPS

The Leica SL includes built in GPS functionality, which I rather enjoy. As an outdoor and landscape photographer, this enables me to view images spatially on a map and not have to worry about keyword tagging the location of the photo. I always wanted to play with GPS accessories for Nikon, but was too cheap to buy the accessories to enable GPS tagging. I wouldn’t have blamed Leica if they didn’t include the GPS, but the fact that they did is just another great bonus. I found the GPS acquires a signal in surprisingly fast time, but I haven’t been able to accurately evaluate the impact to the battery life. Using the GPS all day walking around London, I only half drained the battery, so as long as I carry a spare battery, it shouldn’t be an issue to use for a day of shooting. 

Problems & Complaints

No camera is perfect, but the Leica SL is damn close... that said, I can offer one problem and two complaints:

SD Card Issue

There seems to be an issue where using a large memory card in slot 1 causes a slow start up. As far as I've been able to diagnose, the problem is that the camera wants to index the memory card before being ready to shoot. When I put a 128GB card into slot 1, it takes almost 7 seconds to be ready to shoot. If I put a 16GB card into that slot, it takes 1.5 seconds. Using that same 128GB card in the Leica M-P (240), it starts immediately, so that tells me the problem is software based. I recorded a video of the issue and have swapped emails with Leica - they confirm the issue can probably be fixed in a future firmware update. If Leica fixes this (which I believe they will), then I won't have any issues with the software.

On/Off Switch

So this will sound crazy, but the Leica SL is the first camera I've owned where the on/off switch isn't located where accessible with my right hand. As a result, it takes two hands to get the camera 'ready to shoot' - my right hand holding the grip while the left flips the power switch. This is a muscle memory problem, but it will take me a few weeks to get used to this arrangement. 

Camera Strap Lugs

I love the way the Leica M camera straps attach with the little lugs on the side. The SL has slots where the strap feeds through, and that irritates me because I can't use some of the great straps I own already. Even when I buy a new strap, I don't like the way it sits on my body with the straps fixed in that position. Sure, I can use a sling strap that attaches to the tripod mount on the bottom, but then that blocks access to the tripod mount. It may seem fickle, but its the little things that make the biggest annoyances. Of course, that's not a reason NOT to buy the SL!

Pricing

When it comes to Leica, pricing can be an awkward subject. 

“Oh, that’s a nice camera, what does it cost?”

Holding a Leica, I always feel like I’m being judged. Is she filthy rich? (No: I sold all my Nikon gear and some other old stuff to purchase this)

When you really break apart this camera and compare it to some of the ‘competition’, I think Leica actually priced this camera very fairly. Sony doesn’t make a body like this, and neither does Nikon or Canon, so determining the market value is a bit tricky. The Nikon D4S, which is the top of Nikon’s line and is presumably the type of camera competing with the Leica (despite differences like EVF, sensor resolution, shooting speed, etc), costs $6,500 at the time of writing. That’s $1,000 less than the Leica. But no one is gawking at that saying “wow, Nikon is just inflating their brand!”

Bottom line, I won’t pretend that at $7,500, the Leica SL is a cheap camera, because it’s not. But I also will stand here and say with a straight face that Leica priced competitively when compared to other top-of-the-line cameras from Nikon and Canon. I think the Leica SL will also sell very well because there are far more features built in for the price than something like the Leica M, which lacks EVF, auto focus, etc.

About this Review

I buy all the gear I review - no freebies, no demo units. This camera was paid for with my own hard earned bucks, and therefore I'm not indebted to anyone to say nice things. The fact that I've paid this much for the camera and am absolutely silly stupid in love is 100% genuine based on the goodness the Leica SL has delivered!

Review: Mindshift Gear Rotation 180 Panorama Backpack

I’ll admit it - I’m spoiled. I started my experience using MIndshift Gear bags with the original Mindshift Gear Rotation 180 Professional, and I’ve been spoiled by that experience. I love that bag, but wanted a smaller bag for one day trips or short adventures where I only needed only needed one or two lenses. The Rotation 180 is a wonderful bag, but its very bulky for a short jaunt through a city where you may only need a limited amount of gear. Enter the Mindshift Gear Rotation 180 Panorama.

I purchased this bag after numerous trips around the England, where I felt that the 180 Pro was too big for my needs. The Panorama, being smaller, is better suited for carrying a single dSLR body and one or two lenses with a tripod, while still having space for a light jacket or rain gear. The first time I really got to put this bag through its paces was when I took a three week trip through central Europe, with stops in Italy, Greece, Turkey, France and Spain. In these trips I needed something lightweight and flexible for the variety of terrain and environments I could encounter. I opted to leave the 180 Pro at home and carried the 180 Panorama the entire trip, and this review details my experiences with that bag.

PS - I am a firm believer that I need to put a lot of use into a product before I review it. At this point, the Rotation 180 Pano has covered over 3,000 miles of travel......

The Rotation 180 Panorama in the Barcelona, Spain airport after we finished three weeks and over 3,000 miles of traveling together. As you can see, the bag is in basically pristine condition, despite more than a few heavy rain storms and having been tossed on the ground a few billion times.

The Rotation 180 Panorama in the Barcelona, Spain airport after we finished three weeks and over 3,000 miles of traveling together. As you can see, the bag is in basically pristine condition, despite more than a few heavy rain storms and having been tossed on the ground a few billion times.

First, I love the bag. It is wonderful at many things, and is perfect for a lightweight hike with a limited amount of equipment. Where the bag struggles, however, is when you compare it to the features of it’s big brother, the Rotation 180 Pro. I realize it’s unfair to compare a $500 bag to a $200 bag, but some of the things I’ve come to love about the 180 pro are missing from the 180 Panorama, and those features become very noticeable. With that all said, let’s break down the bag in detail.

The rotation feature of this bag and the big brother 180 Professional make Mindshift Gear bags my absolute favorite for travel and outdoor shooting. We spent several days in Venice (I am seen here shooting sunrise in San Marco Square) and the city flooded on several occasions while we where there. Although this created a problem for my footwear, my camera gear never was at risk as I could keep it elevated off the ground while rummaging through the bag.

The rotation feature of this bag and the big brother 180 Professional make Mindshift Gear bags my absolute favorite for travel and outdoor shooting. We spent several days in Venice (I am seen here shooting sunrise in San Marco Square) and the city flooded on several occasions while we where there. Although this created a problem for my footwear, my camera gear never was at risk as I could keep it elevated off the ground while rummaging through the bag.

Construction
As we’ve come to expect with everything produced by Mindshift Gear or their parent company, Think Tank Photo, the construction on the 180 Panorama is top notch. Only the highest quality materials are used, and after three weeks of total torture (including more than one heavy rain storm and several encounters with mud), the bag looks virtually brand new. In areas where you’d expect to experience a lot of wear on the bag, such as the bottom, Mindshift Gear has put heavy duty tear resistant fabrics. It is a wonderfully constructed bag and I could probably pass it off as brand new despite heavy use.

Rotation Feature
The rotation feature of this bag is the big selling point - you can walk around with the camera stowed but quickly access it without ever taking the bag off. I fell in love with this feature when I started using the Rotation 180 Pro, and love it still on the 180 Pano. The belt slides smoothly one handed and the rotation pack is just big enough to hold my D800 with Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens; however, the camera would not fit with the external battery pack in place. That’s okay - I purchased this bag for light travels, when I only wanted one or two lenses with me, and it does that well. My normal “deployment” was to carry my camera on my shoulder while stowing my 2nd lens (the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens) inside the rotation pack and do lens swaps that way. It worked quite well and left space in the main compartment for raincoats or light jackets. 

Like the other Rotation 180 Pro bag, the 180 Panorama has a “safety leash” designed to keep the rotation pack from ever falling out of the bag. I like having the safety leash, but I think it’s a little too long on this particular bag; I often got entangled in the leash when securing the waist strap. It’s a fairly easy fix to shorten it, but having never encountered this problem with the other bag, it was frustrating to experience this problem (and it happened almost daily). 

There is one other feature I wish for inside the rotation pack, and it’s a feature I’m shocked that Mindshift Gear overlooked…. a little clipping point for things like the memory card wallet. The only clipping point for something like that is in the top pocket of the bag, but I like to carry spare memory cards with the camera.

I wanted to get the Rotation 180 Panorama for short day trips like this one through Cambridge, England. The Rotation 180 Professional was just too much bag when I only needed to carry one or two lenses, but the 180 Panorama really excels at filling this niche.

I wanted to get the Rotation 180 Panorama for short day trips like this one through Cambridge, England. The Rotation 180 Professional was just too much bag when I only needed to carry one or two lenses, but the 180 Panorama really excels at filling this niche.

Backpack
The rest of the backpack is well designed; it has one large main compartment big enough to easily hold two raincoats, etc. The normal deployment was to carry my wallet, cell phone, and jackets inside there, which pretty much filled the entire compartment. There is a small top pocket, which is actually fairly sizable and was great for holding business cards, spare memory cards, cleaning cloths, and other little accessories. There is one side zipper pocket deep enough to stash a water bottle,  but it was actually designed for a CamelBak type bladder (I didn’t carry a hydration bladder for fear of puncture during such a long trip). There is also an external pocket that I think was actually designed to hold a water bottle, but it’s just way too small and bottles always fell out. I ended up using it to stash spare tissues and maps….

Comfort
When traveling, comfort is king. While I won’t go so far as to say this bag is as comfortable during a long day as it’s big brother, the 180 Panorama certainly holds it’s own during a day of exploring. Of course, packing light and smart makes a big difference in comfort, and the whole point of purchasing this bag was for the small size and lightweight design. I would say fit is average for a busty woman - the Rotation 180 Pro is extremely comfortable on my small, yet curvy, frame, and the 180 Panorama, while not winning any awards for comfort, met my expectations during long 14 mile days.

I'm no neat freak and it certainly doesn't bother me to toss a bag haphazardly on the ground, but in Mykonos, Greece, I needed the weight of the bag to help hold my tripod firmly in place while taking some long exposures. My hair should be a good indicator of the wind strength, but the Rotation 180 Pano sprang into service as a weight nicely.

I'm no neat freak and it certainly doesn't bother me to toss a bag haphazardly on the ground, but in Mykonos, Greece, I needed the weight of the bag to help hold my tripod firmly in place while taking some long exposures. My hair should be a good indicator of the wind strength, but the Rotation 180 Pano sprang into service as a weight nicely.

Tripod Mounting
When it comes to carrying a tripod with the bag, you have two options: 1) mount it with one of the two included methods or 2) mount it with extra accessories sold by Mindshift Gear. Although I own the accessories required for option #2, I didn’t plan to carry the tripod daily. Anticipating I’d only need it for certain environments, I opted to use one of the included methods of transport. Those methods are to strap it to the outside of the bag using the tripod “pocket” or attach it to the sides of the bag with the included strap and elastic bungee. The golden rule is to always put the heaviest items closest to your back, so I never mount the tripod on the far outside of a bag, and instead used the side mounts. These worked reasonably well, but certainly required the removal of the bag in order to access the tripod, which sort of defeats the point of having a bag where you don't have to remove it to access the camera….. If you use the extra straps sold by Mindshift Gear, you can mount the tripod in such a way that you don’t have to take the bag off, but I would have probably knocked over 1000 trinkets in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul if I’d used those mounts! 

Rain Protection
Houston, we have a problem. The Rotation 180 Pro comes with an elaborate and well designed rain cover that connects in such a way that you can access all the rotation features of the bag while still being waterproof. The same system is sold as an accessory for the 180 Panorama. Not realizing that the rain system was not interchangeable between the bags, I didn’t purchase the rain gear (it was also not made very obvious on their website that the two were not interchangeable).

Imagine my dismay the day before we leave and I’m trying to mount the rain cover with no success……. 

It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to adapt the rain cover from the 180 Pro to fit the 180 Panorama; it would be a little baggy since the bags are different dimensions, but with a few Velcro attachment points, the rain cover *could* be interchangeable. I don’t care if it’s a little baggy - rain gear doesn’t have to be taught to work - it just needs to cover. 

In a last minute frenzy of packing, I grabbed the rain cover that came with the Think Tank Photo Shapeshifter backpack. This is a simple rain cover with two synch cords - although I couldn’t use the rotation feature of the bag with this in place, at least it was something and it fit. I’m glad I brought it - at one point in Toulon, France, we were caught in a total downpour. I got so wet that my entire jeans, underwear, socks, and shoes were drenched (it took 4 days for my jeans to finally dry out….)! Even with the rain cover I did have, the bag got damp (though not soaked). 

I’m going to get on a soap box….. if I spend almost $600 on a backpack, like I did with the 180 Pro, I expect as many things as possible to be backwards compatible from that bag to the other bags in the Mindshift Gear series. I understand some things, like the main compartment padded organizer won’t swap between series due to tremendous differences in bag sizes, but making the rain cover compatible between the two should only take a few pieces of Velcro. I hate feeling like I’m being nickel-and-dimed as a consumer and this is the first time Mindshift Gear / Think Tank Photo has disappointed me.

The Mindshift Gear bags are all designed for outdoor and adventure photography, so I think it’s a crime that the bag doesn’t include any rain protection. Even the crude rain cover that came with the Think Tank Shapeshifter was effective (and those bags retail for the same price). If you purchase this bag, expect to buy rain equipment for it or re-use something you already own, because the bag itself can only handle a light rain before the contents get wet. 

I fell in love with the Rotation 180 Panorama during this trip and that bag can expect to travel many more miles soon. That said, I certainly will still have application and use for the big brother 180 Professional, but, for now, I'm done shopping for camera bags!

I fell in love with the Rotation 180 Panorama during this trip and that bag can expect to travel many more miles soon. That said, I certainly will still have application and use for the big brother 180 Professional, but, for now, I'm done shopping for camera bags!

Overall
Despite the frustrations with the rain gear, I am very happy with my purchase. I bought this bag to fulfill a niche (light day hiking with 1-2 lenses) and it does a great job at meeting that objective. It’s well built, comfortable, and works exactly like it should. If you’re looking for a lightweight and small backpack that can be used for light excursions with minimal gear, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Mindshift Gear Rotation 180 Panorama. If you plan to carry alot of equipment or need something for longer hikes, you really should save up for the 180 Professional, because it is a spectacular bag. What you purchase really should be determined by the type of shooting you’ll be using it for, because the bags are similar in so many other features. Just know that if you opt for the 180 Panorama, you’ll be looking to purchase additional rain gear!