Black & White Shootout: Leica Q vs Leica Monochrom

Every so often I get questions in my inbox asking me a subjective question - a question like "how does the Monochrom compare to a black and white converted photograph from the Leica Q / Leica SL"?

I actually like these questions; they challenge me to trace back my thought process to when purchasing these cameras and re-validate the logic I used. I purchased the Leica Monochrom with the understanding that it was the best tool available for shooting black and white photographs. I bought the Leica Q to be a lightweight travel companion. One is not supposed to fill the niche of the other (at least for me). 

The contestants - the Leica Q with the 28mm lens vs the Leica Monochrom with a 50mm Summicron. I don't own a 28mm lens to put on the Monochrom, so I cropped the Q files to give the same field of view.

While that was the logic when I purchased the cameras, the reader's question prompted some interesting internal debate. Is the black and white image quality of the Monochrom really superior in a side-by-side shootout? I almost never carry two cameras like this at the same time, so I don't have much real world basis to judge, just my perceptions from using each. So challenged by the question, I decided to take the Leica Q and the Leica Monochrom for a quick shootout today.

A few notes: I've previously tested that the Leica SL and Leica Q deliver very similar image results, so I decided to only bring the Q out for this test. Theoretically there will be minor differences between the SL and Q and Monochrom, but I'm not doing a scientific review, and figured the Q could represent on behalf of Leica's best color sensors. On the topic of science - there is none to be found here folks. I don't shoot paper focusing targets for hours on end or setup precision tools to compare these things. I did this shootout hand held on the streets of Cambridge, England. The framing between the two cameras is not scientifically accurate. I am a real photographer that wants to do realistic comparisons, not science experiments. If you are too anal to accept these minor differences, please find another blogger.

With all that out of the way, let's briefly describe the shooting setup. Since the Leica Q has a fixed lens, there isn't much to discuss there..... but I did use the in-camera frame line selector to display a 50mm crop on the images so that I could match the lens I was using on the Monochrom. For the Leica Monochrom, I shot a 50mm f/2 Summicron lens. I shot both cameras on Auto ISO, Aperture Priority, and in RAW with -1/3 stop exposure compensation. The same aperture was used on both cameras.

When generating the black and white for the Q images, I just moved the desaturation slider in Lightroom to 0. I made no other edits (which is why you can see some dust spots.... ick). Also, be sure to click on any image for a full screen preview.

Example I: Window

This was my first comparison, because it was a scene with some nice detail and contrast. The brick have a lot of tonal variety due to their age, so that made it interesting for a comparison. First, lets look at the color image from the Q, then we'll look at the desaturated Q vs Monochrom.

Window - Leica Q @ f/4 (50mm crop)

Leica Q image (desaturated) 

Leica M Monochrom image

Ok, so the Monochrom is maybe darker and has less tonal variety in the brickwork than the Q desaturated image, but I'm sure if I edited it, I could get them to look the same..... With a boring subject like this, not sure I really have a preference for the "winner" because both are uninteresting! 

Example II: Bike

Not only do I look stupid photographing a brick wall, but it's also not interesting. So to spice things up for the second side-by-side I went wild and found a bike leaning up against a wall to photograph. I know, pretty wild.

Bike - Leica Q @ f/5.6 (50mm crop)

Leica Q image (desaturated)

Leica M Monochrom image

This wild and crazy example is actually more interesting. I certainly could not differentiate which camera produced which image. I would say there is maybe a touch more dynamic range (tonal difference) in the shadow detail in the Monochrom image?

Example III: Street

I love photographing this street, particularly the awesome line of chimneys, and frequent visitors to ScenicTraverse.com will recognize this street from a dozen or so street photographs I have previously shared. Anyway, today I decided to shoot up the street for the comparison (I definitely prefer the composition shooting the other direction, but live and learn)

Street - Leica Q @ f/5.6 (50mm crop)

Leica Q image (desaturated) 

Leica M Monochrom image

In this comparison we really start to see the differences between a desaturated color image and the Monochrom files. First, the highlights in the Monochrom are lost and blown out (a common problem), while there is still cloud detail in the Q image. The simple explanation for this is that the Q saves color in three channels, and detail in those channels is lost at different rates, so a blown highlight in a color image may not be totally lost - you may be able to recover some detail from one of the color channels. The Monochrom just captures luminance values, so lost is lost. If you want more information about how and why this happens, I suggest reading about the Bayer Color Filter and the Monochrom's lack of one.

Also interesting in this example is the shadow detail. The Q shadow is much harsher and more contrasty, while the Monochrom file is flatter and has more detail in the shadow. Personally, I would rather have the shadow detail and underexpose a little more to preserve the highlights - meaning I'd vote for the Monochrom file in this comparison. Could I get the same result with editing the Q file? Probably.

Example IV: To the Water

Lets get saucy.... In the above example I postulated that I could probably generate the same looking file from either camera, so this time I am going to challenge myself to create two photographs that are as similar as possible. IE: Can I create the same photograph in Lightroom from either camera?

A quick note: I did not science this. Obviously the photographs are not the same, but thats okay. I spent about 3 minutes trying to match them up in Lightroom, and got this result. 

Leica Q

Leica Monochrom

Like I said, not scientific, and it really would be hard to do so. They are completely different lenses with completely different contrast, bokeh, and sharpness. But I'd say the result is generally similar. With more tweaking I could probably get them even closer, but this is good enough for me to stamp it as complete. PS - I like the Monochrom file better, but that is probably because I like contrast, and the 50mm lens I'm using from 1983 has a knack for contrast ;-)

Example V: Chimney

For this last comparison, I did a similar test to the above, except that I processed the images in Nik Silver Efex instead of Lightroom. 

Leica Q

Leica Monochrom

I'll let you draw your own conclusions here, but look at the tonality of the white clouds, tonality of the sky, and detail in the shadows.... While the photos are similar at first glance, there are certainly differences.

Verdict

When photographing a subject that didn't have much dynamic range (example I - the wall), the results were pretty similar and boring. But as the images got more complex with highlights, shadows, white and blacks to contend with, differences certainly started to emerge in the final product. 

In Example V I used Nik Silver Efex to make the photographs similar, and although the tone on the brick is pretty similar, the Monchrom has better rendering of the white in the clouds and more detail in the shadow. 

Back to the reader question, the answer is that the files are similar, but certainly different. And this is where preference becomes so subjective. The Monochrom has interchangeable lenses, is a rangefinder, and lacks autofocus. The Q is a fixed 28mm lens, but has fast autofocus, and is deadly silent. Neither is better - its a matter of personal preference. The Q is a simple camera that can deliver tremendous results, while the Monochrom requires more work to use. At the end of the day, I choose the tool for the photographs I want to create on that day. 

If this post has interested you, be sure to read about my experience photographing the Tour de France using the Leica Monochrom

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

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......

Storytelling with the Leica Noctilux

What happens when the most brilliant engineers and lens design specialists spend decades perfecting the already near-perfect lens? You get the Leica Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 lens.

I can rewind to a year ago… it was about this time that I started looking to purchase my first Leica M camera - a Leica M-P (35mm film). Although I knew the reputation and brand, the specifics of the brand lineup and offerings were new to me, so I spent hours reading blogs from Thorston Overgaard, Ming Thein, Steve Huff, and others to absorb as much as possible about the Leica system. In all of this reading, I kept seeing mention of this lens, the Noctilux.

When Noctilux is mentioned online, it’s usually in one of two contexts: 1) Holy crap that thing is expensive and you must be nutty to spend that much on a lens or 2) This is the best lens ever made, and its performance justifies the price tag.

Seeing the $11,000 price tag of the Noctilux for the first time literally took my breath away. I sided in camp #1 - the “you have got to be kidding” camp. I already had sticker shock over the $2,000 of the ‘basic’ Leica lineup - how could another $9,000 improve on a lens that was already supposed to be one of the bests in the world? It’s not like Leica makes bad glass or cheap lenses!

For months thereafter I gave the Noctilux very little thought. Occasionally I’d bump into some review or post about the Noctilux and would read it, amused and wishing for the type of disposable income that could make that a reality…. the same way I also wish for a sports car and private yacht. 

Click on any image for a full-sized preview.

Once Upon a Time

There are lots of websites covering the history and legacy of the Noctilux, so I’ll sum it up simply. There are three versions, but only two were produced in large numbers: the f/1 and f/0.95 model. Done.

In my opinion, the real history and legacy of this lens hasn’t been written. We’re at the “once upon a time” part in Noctilux history….. Once upon a time there was a lens, called the Noctilux. It was adored, expensive, and specialty, but it hadn’t realized it’s true potential as a lens. Then one day a camera named Leica SL came along, and it was a perfect union of technology and optics. Finally, the Noctilux lived happily ever after.

Ok, that was a bit cheesy, even for me, but the point stands. The real potential - no, the real value - of the Noctilux is unleashed when it is mated with the Leica SL Type 601. 

The Noctilux Epiphany

When Leica announced the new SL Type 601 camera in late-2015, I was completely head-over-heels with the system. It was a great fit for my photographic style and would allow me to finally separate from some of the Nikon equipment I’d been holding onto. I sold everything that didn’t have a red dot affixed to it and went all in on the Leica SL. It’s been a phenomenal decision! But what I didn’t realize at the time was that the Leica SL would be the driving factor for my desire to get a Noctilux, and as much as this review is about the Noctilux, I cannot overlook the relationship to the camera behind the lens.

If you are not familiar with the Leica SL vs the traditional M-series, then there is one very important key difference you must understand going forward. The SL uses an electronic viewfinder instead of the rangefinder to focus. A common issue with the Noctilux when used on the M rangefinder bodies is the need for precise calibration between the rangefinder and the lens - but the SL’s electronic viewfinder negates this issue. Looking through the eyepiece, you see exactly what the sensor sees, leaving no doubt that you nailed the focus even when shooting with the razor thin f/0.95. There are plenty of other differences between the camera systems, but the focus mechanism is most relevant to our discussion here.

Ironically, in my decades as a film and digital photographer, I have only ever owned one 50mm prime lens. It was a cheap Nikon lens and I only used it for infrared photography. Prior to the purchase of a Noctilux, I had maybe only ever taken 200 photographs with a non-Leica 50mm prime lens…. a focal length regarded as one of the best. I wouldn't say that my lack of 50mm use was intentional - I used a lot of zoom lenses that covered that focal length and didn’t see the value in owning a prime lens that replicated the functionality of a zoom lens.

When purchasing the Leica SL, I nearly fell into the same trap again. I purchased the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH zoom lens, which is an absolutely magnificent lens, to shoot on the SL body. Again, I told myself that I had a zoom lens that covered 50mm, why would I need another 50? I already had a Leica Summilux f/1.4 that didn’t get much use, did I need another (and far more expensive) 50mm lens?

Storytelling

Photography is about storytelling. It’s about capturing the emotions, expressions, feelings, mood, and world as it existed in that instant. It’s become easy to forget about the storytelling element of photography - we’ve become numb to having a camera and what that camera affords us. For instance, I will use my iPhone to take a snap of ingredients in a recipe book before I go grocery shopping, but that’s hardly storytelling. Likewise, as a Nikon shooter, I was too focused on technical perfection via equipment and accessories, and not focused enough on the story. That’s not to say Nikon equipment couldn’t allow me to be a storyteller; there are many phenomenal photographers who use that brand to create masterpieces. But storytelling is what Leica specializes in, more so than anything else.

You see, Leica doesn’t produce a lens that costs $11,000 for the sole reason of pointing out their technical superiority. They produce that lens because they know that, for the people who can afford it, that lens offers storytelling opportunities that no other lens can compete with. Leica’s emphasis on the essentials and manual controls force the photographer to think about the story they are telling when they click the shutter.

I didn’t buy the Noctilux because I was looking for a 50mm lens. I bought the Noctilux because I realized the opportunity that lens represents; the opportunity to tell a story in a way most other lenses cannot. That difference lets my work stand apart, and I value the opportunity the Noctilux offers enough to pay for the opportunity. Of course, if you saw my initial preview of the Noctilux, you know I didn’t spend anything close to $11,0000 either!

The Elephant in the Room - Price

So let’s explore the price. Chances are, if you read this far, you’re hoping that I’ll blow you away and the photographs will change your opinion of the lens, or you already understand the price and accept it at some level. Either way, price is what makes this lens so polarizing and yet so interesting. 

Considering the retail price of $11,000, the Noctilux is arguably the most expensive manual focus, manual aperture selection, fastest prime lens available. That’s right, you’re not paying big bucks for incredible autofocus or image stabilization…. it doesn't even have those features. What you are paying for is a lens that laughs at darkness and is crafted with incredible precision. And if you value quality, incredible feats of engineering and some storytelling opportunities, then the Noctilux’s price isn’t that crazy.

The glass used on the Noctilux represents the best-of-the-best. Leica saves the clearest and most perfect glass for this lens; it’s rumored that just manufacturing the glass elements takes years. And then the lens is assembled by hand to the most exacting specifications and tolerances. While I don’t know if it’s true or not, it’s been said that Leica makes almost no profit on the Noctilux because the overhead cost to produce is so high. Leica does make some overpriced collectors edition cameras and lenses that are artificially price inflated, but the Noctilux is not one of those.

The Feel of a Noctilux

I never held a Noctilux until the day I purchased mine. I knew that it’d be hard to put down if I ever picked it up, so I limited myself too drooling from across a locked glass display case. When I finally held the Noctilux for the first time, I was shocked by the sheer amount of glass in the lens. It’s a heavy sucker, no doubt the heaviest M lens in production, but on the SL body, the weight counterbalances the camera body nicely. The combination is similar in size and weight to a more traditional dSLR setup. The Noctilux on my M7 is another story - the body is not heavy enough to counter the weight of the lens, but this is one of those times when my mom would tell me that I can’t have my cake and eat it too. You can’t ask for f/0.95 and not sacrifice some weight. Pick your priorities and Leica’s probably got a lens to suit them.

When I was shopping for the Noctilux f/0.95, I took the time to compare it to the older f/1 Noctilux for image aesthetics, feel, etc. I reviewed the differences in my Noctilux Preview, so I won’t repeat it here, but there were two differences in feel that I’ll cover. 

First, the f/1 Noctilux was much stiffer when rotating the focus ring. While it could have just been the unit that I sampled, the stiffness of the focus ring was no where close to the smooth, yet firm, of the f/0.95 Noctilux. I realize that smooth and firm are contradictory statements, but that’s precisely how you want the focus on a lens like this to work; smooth enough that it takes little effort to rotate the ring, but stiff enough that it doesn’t turn unless you turn it. The focus ring on the Noctilux is perfect, and I hope it feels exactly the same as it does now in 10 years.

Second, the lens hood on the f/1 Noctilux did not lock in place, and a strong stare could have retracted the lens hood. While lens hoods are designed to prevent flare, I primarily use them as a front element bumper. I’d rather the lens hood get dings and scratches than the front glass elements. Therefore, a hood that doesn't stay securely extended is of no value to me. The f/0.95 hood pulls out and turns to lock into place. This design is far better, but I have encounter the lens rubbing along the side of my body when carried on a strap is often enough to unlock the hood. 

Noctilux as a Landscape Photographer’s Lens

Most of the reviews you’ll find on the Noctilux focus on it’s application for street and portrait photography, but I’m not a portrait person, so I will instead discuss the Noctilux as a street and landscape photography lens.

Landscape and street photography have many similarities, which is why I’d argue the Noctilux is so good for both. In these fields, photographers are often trying to use light and the surroundings to portray the subject. Whether it is grassy fields or a busy market street, the razorr thin depth of field on the Noctilux allows the photographer to isolate their subject, while maintaining as much (or as little) of the surroundings to story tell. The biggest difference between the photographic fields is the amount of time afforded to the photographer; street photography requires split-second decisions, while landscape photography is often at a more relaxed pace. Yet with proper technique, the Noctilux serves both admirably.

I have become partial to the Noctilux for landscape photography. Using the unique Noctilux look, I’ve been able to isolate a small patch of grass in a sunbeam or individual pieces of straw in a way that none of my previous lenses have done. Several people have commented that the landscape photographs I’ve taken using the Noctilux look “dreamy” and “surreal” - as though they were taken in a mythical place. Whether or not that is my intention is irrelevant (although it is)….. it’s a comment I’ve never received on my photographs taken with another lens. And that, my friends, is why this lens is so special. Viewers notice the look.

I split time as a color and black and white photographer - color for landscapes and nature, while street and urban photography is entirely black and white. For both applications, the Noctilux is incredible. The color rendition is fantastic; I used to always adjust the saturation in Adobe Lightroom, but its almost unnecessary with the incredibly sharp and vibrant colors captured in the RAW DNG files using the Noctilux. 

Technical (in)Perfection

The Noctilux is proof of what incredible engineering can give us - it pushes the boundaries of lens design in many regards, most notably for it’s incredible f/0.95 aperture. Yet for it’s technical accomplishments, there is one nasty side effect that you will face…. Chromatic Aberration.

Chromatic aberration usually occurs in the highlights where those highlights meet a strong dark and contrasty area of the image. For outdoor photographers, we’ll often associate chromatic aberration with the purple outline where tree limbs and bright sky meet. 

I hate chromatic aberration - but it’s an artifact of digital photography that we cannot escape, just like dust is an artifact in film photography. Unfortunately, at f/0.95, the Noctilux has very strong chromatic aberration, probably some of the worst I’ve ever seen in a lens. Stopping down even just to f/2 resolves all of the chromatic aberration, but at the cost of the storytelling benefits of f/0.95. Again I face the cake vs eating conundrum, and I choose cake….. to shoot at f/0.95 and deal with it in Lightroom.

Lightroom, Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw all have great chromatic aberration removal tools available, and a shallow depth-of-field Noctilux shooter should get familiar with them quickly. Even when I convert to black and white, I will take the time to resolve the chromatic aberration to prevent weird tonality changes. 

Delivery

The Leica Camera marketing team clearly wants you to feel special if you’ve spent $11,000 on alens, so they’ve packaged the Noctilux far more luxuriously than the other lenses I’ve owned. The exterior box is the traditional silver and black cardboard affair, but it’s big enough that I could store a pair of shoes in it. All the talk about how big the Noctilux is compared to other 50mm lenses in the Leica lineup isn’t helped when the box is that big!

Inside the box is the usual buffet of Leica paperwork: an instruction manual (sort of funny, if you think about it), a guarantee card, a certificate of inspection, and Leica Passport card. Remove the foam insert holding these pieces and you are rewarded with yet another box. This box is solid black with the Leica Camera logo stamped on the top and with a ribbon latch. Except for it’s large size, you could mistake it for an engagement ring box- which might have been Leica’s intention. If you buy a Leica Noctilux, you’ve become married to the brand? Untie the ribbon latch and inside the box rests the lens… on a silky pillow. With this sort of presentation, I’m a bit surprised the Noctilux doesn’t include a pair of white gloves for handling!

Final Verdict - to Noctilux or No?

I love the Leica M system - there is something very genuine and raw about taking images with a rangefinder body. While I own what is arguably one of the best lenses for the Leica M bodies, it’s not my go-to shooting lens, because of it’s size and semi- temperamental focus. This isn’t to discount the work of the photographers who do like the Noctilux and M body combination - kudos to them for their success. But if I didn’t own a Leica SL, I wouldn’t own a Noctilux.

With the SL, the Noctilux is a completely different lens. You can nail tack sharp focus on every shot; it becomes easy to shoot with the Noctilux. I was at a photography trade show recently and several Leica employees engaged in a discussion of the Noctilux + SL combination. Apparently many of them share my opinion: that the Noctilux is a different animal on the SL. The Leica SL is everything I didn’t know I wanted in a camera, and the Noctilux is the lens I never knew I needed. Combined, they are the right tools for me to great artwork. They aren’t the right tools for everyone, but with the Leica SL and the f/0.95 Noctilux, I’ve found my combination - one that provides me with new storytelling and artistic opportunities.

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.

Leica Announces Details on APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm Lens

Hooray! Today Leica announced the release and pricing of their second lens in the SL lineup, the Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 telephoto lens.

I’m very excited about the announcement as several London-based Leica dealers indicated they thought Leica was behind on the release and it would not come in 2nd quarter 2016, like initially forecast. But this announcement proves them wrong and finally gives us something to get excited about.

Stock photograph of the 90-280mm lens mounted on the Leica SL body. Image from LeicaRumors.com 

Although I adopted Leica M-series cameras last year, it was not until the Leica SL was released that I could finally separate from my Nikon equipment completely. I had retained my Nikon gear for those times when I needed a fast autofocus telephoto lens, something that wasn’t a strong part of Leica’s lineup until the SL was announced. Even though this lens wasn’t available until now, knowing it was coming gave me the confidence to part with my Nikon 80-400mm lens and dSLR body.

The Leica Camera press release published today has a few small surprises with regard to this lens. First, and most exciting is that “….the overall length of the lens does not change when either focusing or zooming.” Awesome! Although I have not seen it in person, the 90-280mm lens appears similar in size to my old Nikon 80-400mm, except that lens did expand during zooming. I fully expected this lens would likewise extend in length while zooming, and am pleasantly surprised to hear that will not be the case. Second, the lens retains the weather sealing against dust and water, like the rest of the lineup. I expected it would, but happy to have confirmation. Finally, the press release makes mention of a detachable tripod place and rotating tripod collar, which I’m looking forward to seeing and really studying for quality. 

Weight and size wise, this baby is certainly larger than the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens. It weighs approximately 800grams more…. if that is as meaningless to you as it is to me, then here are some common objects that weigh 800grams:

  • Eight average sized apples
  • Just less than two loaves of bread (US) or one UK loaf of bread
  • A single mens shoe

In other words, this baby isn’t a compact or lightweight lens….. it’s a heffer, but so are most 280mm lenses, so lets not hold that against Leica.

Leica is also advertising the lens will have a non-rotating filter thread that accepts E82 filters and will include a lens hood with the purchase. The focus distance will range from 0.6 meters - 1.4 meters, which is surprisingly close for a lens with this sort of zoom. 

I am hoping that the bokeh of this lens will be similar to the surprising bokeh of the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH lens; this will certainly be one of the first things I test once I purchase a copy.

The lens should be fully available by 24 March 2016 and is slated to sell at £4,650 in the UK, which works out to $6,550 US Dollars, as of the time of writing. That pricing is very competitive and on par with Canon’s pricing for telephoto lenses.

I’ll update this post as I get additional information and will prepare a full review once I have had an opportunity to purchase and shoot a copy myself.

Preview: Noctilux f/0.95 on the Leica SL

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

Of course you would!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Leica Noctilux f/0.95 - same focus point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protestors walk down the main streets leading to Piccadilly Circus.

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

Discarded signs await trash pickup

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

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

Skaters take a break to have a discussion near Southbank Center

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

A young skater watches others in the park

A BMX rider prepares for another trick

A little girl pops bubbles along the Southbank Center boardwalk

Some tourists pose for a group selfie along the London waterfront

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

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

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

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

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

Review: How Does the Leica SL Like the COLD?

When Leica announced the new SL (Type 601), they marketed the camera at landscape photographers. Features like the solid aluminum body, GPS, and extensive weather sealing all appeal to a clientele that is notoriously abusive of our cameras. The marketing worked, and I ditched my remaining Nikon equipment and went ‘all in’ on the Leica SL system.

In my review of the camera, I tested it in a variety of routine environments: light rain, sand, and some chilly weather. But for Leica to really compete with the Nikon and Canon market, they had to produce a camera that could keep up and tough it in the most extreme conditions.

For five days, I used the Leica SL in the far north of Sweden in conditions beyond what Leica recommends - that would be conditions of extreme cold. During this five day period, the outside temperature never rose above freezing - most days the daytime high was -30*C. That’s bitter cold. 

It's so cold that it's beyond the suggested working conditions of the Leica SL, as stated by Leica (approximately 0-40*C).

It was colder outside than my household freezer; I could have used a freezer to 'warm' the camera from being outside!

I have used a Nikon D610 and D800 in similar conditions, so I needed the Leica SL to perform equally (or better) than those cameras in the extreme cold. Hours of unprotected exposure to these type of temperatures is hard on anything, but the Leica SL handled the weather with the grace you’d expect from a company that prides itself on exceptional engineering and design. 

Overall, the Leica SL’s performance was outstanding. 

I carried the Leica SL on a heavy duty strap made from the same material as seat belts..... no reason for risks in this environment!

High Points

  • Batteries: The first thing someone shooting in extreme cold stresses about is the battery life of their camera. I carried two extra batteries in a coat pocket along my chest to keep them warm, and found that three batteries was more than enough for me to shoot all day without having to stress about having enough juice. Of course the battery performance in the cold was not as good as the battery is during the day; I easily got about two hours of continuous use. Once a battery started to get low, I would swap it with another and re-warm that battery, which extended the life of them significantly. For comparison sake, the battery in my GoPro Hero 4 lasted about 15 minutes in the cold before I had to replace it……

    It is worth noting that the Leica batteries will not charge if they are too cold. After bringing the Leica SL back indoors, it took about 45 minutes before the battery was warm enough to start to re-charge.

    Finally, I encountered one incident where I had some snow melt on the o-ring for the battery and then re-freeze when I took the camera back outside. I had to warm the battery hatch area a little for the battery to eject as it froze in place. Once I realized this was a potential issue, I was careful to make sure the battery didn’t have any moisture on the o-ring before inserting it into the body and I never had another issue.
     
  • Ergonomics: I wrote about the great ergonomics of the Leica SL in my complete review, but the controls feel very different when using them through thick mittens and glove liners. While it was possible to use the Leica SL with bulky gloves, it was cumbersome, so I normally just used glove liners when shooting.
     
  • Toughness: For a camera that costs as much as the Leica SL does, I wasn’t exactly gentle with it on this trip. The camera went dogsledding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, hiking, etc. It was dropped a few times and I tripped snowshoeing and landed on top of it, burying it several inches into the snow. It was accidentally banged and bumped. Yet for all this abuse, the Leica SL looks like it has spent the last few days relaxing on a shelf…. no scratches, chips, dents, etc. 

Weather sealing, one of the selling points of the Leica SL, was critical in this environment. I also was extra careful to turn off the camera during long periods between shots to preserve precious battery life. PS - that's the Really Right Stuff L-plate on the camera.

I might be crazy to subject a camera this expensive to conditions like this.... but the Leica SL proved it has a "don't give a damn" attitude about the cold!

Weak points

Using the Leica SL in these extreme conditions caused me to find a few points where improvements could have been made to improve the shooting experience in the extreme cold:

  • Disable touch screen: With bulky gloves, I kept accidentally hitting the touch screen, causing the camera to re-focus or otherwise do something I didn’t really want. It’s not fair to blame Leica for my clumsiness when I’m dressed in a billion layers, but I never had this problem with a Nikon because there wasn’t a touch screen! A software update where I could opt to disable the back LCD’s touch function would be appreciated.
     
  • Freezing to me: Solid metal construction can actually be a bit of a curse when it’s -30C! I would hold the Leica SL up to my eye and experienced a few times where the body of the camera was so cold that the condensation of my breath would cause the camera body to freeze to my face. HA! I’ve always joked that I have a camera glued to my face, but that really re-defined it! Solution: pack gaffers tape and lightly tape the metal areas along the bottom left as a temporary barrier against the cold.
     
  • Locking lens hood: The hood on the Leica 24-90mm lens is very good and clicks into place solidly in normal conditions, but the cold caused the lens hood to knock loose more often than in normal temperatures. Nikon has a metal latch on the 24-70mm, and that would have been very handy in these conditions as I frequently was having to check to ensure the lens hood hadn’t dislodged from the lens. 

The all metal body of the SL did get so cold that I had to be careful of it freezing to my face. The fix for this was easy - a little gaffers tape on the metal side protects the cheeks!

The Leica M7 joined the freezing party and, like the Leica SL, had no objections to the super cold temperatures.

Leica marketed this camera at photographers like me…. it worked, and I couldn’t be more glad that it did! The Leica SL performed exceptionally in an environment where most electronic devices just roll over and die. If you have been waiting to jump on the Leica SL train because of concerns with the camera’s performance in crazy environments, don’t hesitate. It would be a real challenge to subject the Leica SL to treatment more cruel than what I put it through this week, and I’m now even more confident in the incredible engineering and performance of this machine!

Confirmed - it was cold!

Really Right Stuff L-Plate for the Leica SL

When Leica released the Leica SL (Type 601), they targeted the camera at landscape and nature photographers; a group of folks who frequently use tripods. When I got my SL body, one of my first projects was to rummage through my drawer of L-plates and tripod base plates to find a suitable choice for this body. Unfortunately, makers like Really Right Stuff have not introduced a plate specifically for this camera, and the ones I already owned were too big to suit.

Thankfully, Really Right Stuff has a great website and support team. After a few emails and pulling out the calipers to measure against their blueprints, I decided to purchase the Really Right Stuff MC-L Multi-Camera L-Plate for my SL. 

Turns out, it fits like a glove! The plate mounts snug to the bottom of the camera while not being oversized. In fact, the plate leaves space so that the battery hatch and release switch can be accessed without removing the plate- a huge plus.

The Really Right Stuff MC-L plate weighs only 3.2oz and has the quality I've come to expect from their products. With this plate securely mounted, I can now use my acra swiss style clamp on the tripod to get photographs in both the horizontal and portrait orientation while keeping the weight of the camera over the center of the tripod.

I'll be putting the plate to the test next week when I head into the Arctic to shoot the aurora borealis, but I have every expectation that it will handle the task admirably! 

The Really Right Stuff MC-L Multi-Camera L-Plate

Solid construction and dovetail grove for acra swiss style tripod clamps

The Really Right Stuff L-plate mounted to the bottom of the Leica SL

The length of the L-plate, when mounted in the second slot like pictured, still leaves space to access the battery hatch and release. 

The plate is almost the same width as the Leica SL body. It is just barely wider, but the extra width is almost unnoticeable. 

If I needed to access the connections on the side, I could mount the plate on one of the other slots to permit enough clearance.

The plate would not interfere with a strap that went through this side of the body and gives plenty of clearance for all types of straps.

First Day with the Leica SL

Thanks to the Leica Store in Mayfair (London), I didn't have to wait long after posting my Leica SL First Impressions to actually get my own. Leica was also kind enough to setup the camera and charge the battery for me so that I could take it shooting in London after purchase.

Like with any new camera, it takes some time to learn the buttons and figure out the 'ins and outs' of the controls, but it was the perfect day to put the camera through its paces. After starting with a walk through Soho, we walked to the Tate Modern and a Christmas market in that area before finishing with a nighttime stroll to Big Ben and Westminster. I had a chance to shoot in a bunch of different environments, including some nighttime and low-light, to really test several aspects of the camera - and I am SUPER impressed! In fact, as I downloaded the files into Photoshop last night, I kept saying "holy cow" and "wow" as I looked at the raw files; these are some of the nicest images I've ever seen come from a camera. Incredible dynamic range, sharpness, and detail. 

Stay tuned for a formal full review, but in the mean time, here's a sneak peak of my first day with the Leica SL.

First Impressions: Leica SL

Question: What makes the ‘perfect camera’?
Answer: The one you use.

For some time, I have been searching for the perfect camera to replace my Nikon D800. I absolutely loved shooting with the D800, but my photography was moving a different direction, and I wanted a smaller specialized system that fit my style of shooting. Earlier this year, I sold the Nikon setup and moved into a Leica M rangefinder system. Since then, I’ve been in love with the Leica system, which emphasizes “Das Wesentliche” - the essentials. 

While I have enjoyed shooting the Leica M series, it’s not the prefect camera for me; at times I’ve been left lusting for a feature omitted in that camera. I follow some of the internet rumors sites and heard discussion of a new Leica camera, dubbed the SL. After the camera was released, like many other Leica users, I was quick to dismiss it. The camera seemed like it was 5 years too late to hit the market. Some of the cameras have since started to ship, and initial reviews were glowing, so I decided to pay the London Mayfair Leica Store a visit to demo a Leica SL for myself.

What follows is my first impressions of the Leica SL using it in store at Leica Mayfair; this is not an exhaustive review. I’ll save that for once I own one. But I hope that the following information helps someone who may not have access to a local Leica store or may not have the opportunity to demo before they buy.

Shooting the Leica SL in the Mayfair showroom. You can get a sense for the ergonomics with the 24-70mm lens mounted on front.

Shooting the Leica SL in the Mayfair showroom. You can get a sense for the ergonomics with the 24-70mm lens mounted on front.

*Disclaimer* There’s no point in even getting into the pricing of the camera. Leica makes expensive cameras, but I actually don’t think this is priced all that crazy….. It’s expensive, but I actually think Leica will sell tons of these cameras!

Features Snapshot:

    - 24 megapixel CMOS sensor

    - 4.4 megapixel electronic viewfinder

    - Continuous shooting up to 11 frames per second

    - Ability to mount Leica T, M, S, and R lenses (with adaptors)

    - Solid body construction

    - Fully weather sealed

    - Dual SD card slots

    - Built in wifi and GPS

    - Touch screen on the back

    - Top LED screen for camera controls

    - ISO up to 50,000

    - Lots more - read the full specs here

First Impressions:

Before going to see the Leica SL for myself, I read the entire internet’s worth of information about the camera (Links: Steve Huff and Kristian Dowling have the best reviews) . So I knew how to work it and what to expect in terms of unlabelled buttons and functionality. What the internet doesn’t offer is a really great understanding of the “in hand” experience of holding and using the camera. 

Electronic Viewfinder

This is a logical place to start, because it’s one of the first places you look. I have never used a camera with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) before, but I understood appeal of the concept. Part of my reluctancy with them was that I didn’t feel like that technology was good enough at this point to justify buying. People like Steve Huff spoke very highly of the EVF, but lacking in experience with these, I still needed to see it to believe it.

The EVF automatically detects your eye and turns on instantly. I had been nervous that the EVF would be like live view on the back screen of the M where it needs a moment to start up. Thankfully, this is not the case! Missing a shot because you were waiting for the EVF to turn on is a non-concern. Phew.

Once on, it’s a very bright and extremely clear screen. I was immediately impressed. Having never used an EVF before, I had never taken the time to consider the extra value of having a screen vs a mirror. For instance - the camera can display information via the viewfinder that normally I have to look at the back screen to see like a histogram or clipping information. I used to take my eye away from the camera viewfinder to look at the back screen to determine if I had a good image, but Leica has enabled me to continue to look through the viewfinder and get that information. Holy cow, that’s going to change the way I shoot!

The viewfinder is also very fast and had almost imperceptible lagging. It was easy to use features like focus peaking to quickly achieve sharp focus on a manual lens, which would be great for something like the f/0.95 Noctilux series.

The EVF turns on automatically when you bring your eye up to the viewfinder. Even from this far away, you can tell how bright and beautiful this EVF looks!

The EVF turns on automatically when you bring your eye up to the viewfinder. Even from this far away, you can tell how bright and beautiful this EVF looks!

Look at that big bright viewfinder. Lot's of useful information displayed on screen. You can also see the focus peaking (the neon blue on the display cases) indicating what is in focus.

Look at that big bright viewfinder. Lot's of useful information displayed on screen. You can also see the focus peaking (the neon blue on the display cases) indicating what is in focus.

This is the closest view I could get of the EVF. Look how incredibly sharp it is!

This is the closest view I could get of the EVF. Look how incredibly sharp it is!

Joystick Toggle 

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. I never really used single point focus on my Nikon D800 because the four-way toggle on that camera made it slow and cumbersome, but the joystick would allow you to move the crosshair very quickly. The joystick also controls functions in the menus, which makes it a breeze to zoom through the menu screens. I didn’t really put much stock into the joystick when I had read about the camera before, but found it was one of my favorite controls.

The touch screen LCD with four control buttons, all of which are programmable. The joystick is located just right of the viewfinder. Ironically, the only labelled button is the on/off switch. I guess Leica assumed we weren't smart enough to figure out that switch!

The touch screen LCD with four control buttons, all of which are programmable. The joystick is located just right of the viewfinder. Ironically, the only labelled button is the on/off switch. I guess Leica assumed we weren't smart enough to figure out that switch!

Back LCD Screen

Leica did something very cool when they made the screen on the back of the camera touch enabled. Again, I didn’t appreciate this until I got to use it, and I almost forgot to play with it because I’m used to the screen being just a screen. But with the touch screen, you can easily control the focus points, or quickly swipe through photos. I don’t think it will be long before the rest of the industry follows Leica’s example to include smart screens on their devices. 

Size and Weight

For being a company that specializes in photographic equipment, Leica did themselves a disservice by making the initial advertising materials make this camera look huge. I have shot a Leica S before and know how big and cumbersome that camera can be to carry all day. The first photographs of the SL looked equally huge and bulky. Thankfully it’s just poor photography on Leica’s part; the camera is actually rather small and compact. I like the ergonomics better than the Leica M; the hand wrap around grip makes it feel secure when holding one handed. It also weighs far less than I expected, especially if you use it with M series lenses.

Two cameras - one of which is already a piece of history (the Hasselblad), while the other is likely to become one of Leica's greatest achievements. Side-by-side size comparison.

Two cameras - one of which is already a piece of history (the Hasselblad), while the other is likely to become one of Leica's greatest achievements. Side-by-side size comparison.

Size comparison next to the iPhone 6 plus. I realize this isn't the best comparison photo for size, but work with what ya got, right?!

Size comparison next to the iPhone 6 plus. I realize this isn't the best comparison photo for size, but work with what ya got, right?!

Construction

I didn’t take their demo camera into the bathroom and run it under the sink, but Leica claims the SL is fully weather and dust sealed, which is critical for me as a landscape and outdoor photographer. I could tell just from holding it that the camera is very well made; things like the SD card door had more heft and substance to them than any other camera I’ve ever used. This camera is designed to be used in tough environment, and it shows. You aren’t paying for a fru-fru look but don’t touch camera here, this is a photographers camera!

Ergonomics

I played with the camera using both M series lenses and the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH lens that was introduced with the camera. I actually prefer the feel of the camera with the 24-90mm lens! Yes, the lens is far bigger than an M lens, but it gave balance to holding the camera. While my right hand is busy holding the body, my left hand felt like it didn’t have a job but to move the focus ring on the M lenses. With the larger 24-90mm lens, I felt like I could really get a good solid grasp on the camera and it had nice weight and balance.

Likewise, I really like the button placement. With small woman hands, this is always a point of concern - my hands aren’t the ones Leica built this camera for! Yet it fit perfectly - all the controls were easily reached and natural. I have to assume Leica spent countless hours with German engineers in lab coats debating every single button placement to make sure it was intelligent, correct, and fit with the Leica philosophy. Bravo.

The Leica SL App

This was something most other reviewers skimmed past. It was mentioned like “oh yeah, and they have an app.” 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.

I installed the app onto my iPhone 6 while at Leica Mayfair. The camera has to be put into wifi mode (no idea what affect that has on 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 controller for the camera.

The connection screen for the Leica SL app

The connection screen for the Leica SL app

The camera controls section of the app. Touching the screen moves the cross hair for focusing around the image. There is very minimal lag between this app and the camera.

The camera controls section of the app. Touching the screen moves the cross hair for focusing around the image. There is very minimal lag between this app and the camera.

The synchronization between the app and the back of the camera is quite good - the same image is displayed on both. I can think of many applications for landscape photography!

The synchronization between the app and the back of the camera is quite good - the same image is displayed on both. I can think of many applications for landscape photography!

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. While I didn’t explore the entire depths of the app in my demo, it seemed like most major camera controls were accessible 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 Nikon D800. 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.

Viewing the images already on the card via the Leica SL app. By selecting any photo, you can download it to your phone in full resolution.

Viewing the images already on the card via the Leica SL app. By selecting any photo, you can download it to your phone in full resolution.

Downloading an image from the app onto my iPhone

Downloading an image from the app onto my iPhone

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. I’m excited by the prospects!

Image quality

I obviously didn’t do an exhaustive test of the image quality while in the Leica showroom, but I did use the previously mentioned app to download a few shots I took of my husband, who patiently read the Leica LFI magazine while I played. Considering they are JPEG files, they rendered very nicely! I also converted one to black and white using Nik Silver Effects.

With the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH lens, there was nice smooth bokeh effects - the below images were shot at f/3.7 and you can see the soft focus on the jeans and magazine pages, but sharpness on the jacket and face.

The .JPEG image that I took of my husband as it came off the camera.... no adjustments

The same image, but with quick edits in Adobe Photoshop. The biggest adjustment was for white balance.

A crop from the above image. Here you can see the soft focus on the magazine and jeans, but sharp focus on the jacket and chin.

With a 2 second conversion in Nik Silver Effects. Beautiful results, considering I didn't even compose enough to get the bottom of the display case out of the bottom of the frame!

The EXIF data on the above photographs

One last shot - again without any edits. This is the full size file, so feel free to download and peek more closely. Or click on the image for a full size preview.

Overall

I was totally blown away by the Leica SL. A mirrorless camera also introduces new opportunities that I had previously not considered; for instance, I was able to shoot at 1/25th hand held and still get crisp images. Normally I can’t get below 1/60th without introducing camera shake. Furthermore, features like the EVF, app integration, and controls like the joystick worked better than I expected. I now understand that, while on paper this camera may look like it was introduced too late to keep up with Sony in the mirrorless camera department, it actually comes at the perfect time.

Having tried the camera with the new Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH lens, I plan to purchase the lens too. I originally was considering only the body and continuing to use the M lenses, but that lens was incredibly smooth, sharp, and really brings out the best in the SL body. I’ll still use M lenses, but I think I’ll sell most of my M lenses to help pay for the 24-90mm lens.

I am now on a wait list with Leica to get my own camera and hopefully will have it in the coming weeks. As soon as I do, I’ll take more test shots in “real world” environments and post a full review. Stay tuned!