Leica SL: The Mystery of the Lost Lenses?

When the Leica SL hit the market in October 2015, it caused a whirlwind of excitement. Here was the mirrorless full frame camera system that professional photographers had long awaited. I visited the Leica Store in Mayfair (London) and played with the demo unit. I was instantly hooked and placed my name on a wait list. On that day, I broke from years of Nikon shooting and transitioned to Leica, believing it was the future.

Today, nearly two years to the day since the SL was released, I am not so sure. While I've had a remarkable experience shooting the Leica SL, there is one major area where the SL lags behind the competition, and where my patience has nearly run dry....lenses.

At launch, Leica only had one lens for the SL system - the 24-90mm lens - and promised two additional lenses would follow shortly (a 50mm prime and 90-280mm telephoto). To offset this lack of lenses, Leica also touted how the SL was versatile in it's ability to use lenses from Leica's other lines - including the M and S lenses - when paired with an adaptor. Leica seemed to realize that no one was going to buy a camera system with only one lens option and was trying very hard to cater to photographers by offering cross-system compatibility. While that's all fine and good, using other lenses comes with some disadvantages - most notably the lack of weather sealing and auto focus. For a landscape photographer that is regularly shooting in poor weather, this was a point of concern, although I have used the adaptability in my SL setup.

A year after launch, Leica had come through on the promised lens releases and all was well in SL-land. Three SL system lenses were available, and they had more on the way. 2017 promised to bring the release of four additional system lenses, including a 35mm, 75mm, and 90mm prime lens, along with the 16-35mm wide angle that landscape photographers lusted to own (hint hint.... that'd be me).

Leica SL System Lens Roadmap, as of September 2016

Leica SL System Lens Roadmap, as of September 2016

Quietly, something happened. Lenses stopped showing up. According to the roadmap above, by October 2017, we should have at least two more lenses available, with two more coming any day now. Instead, Leica silently pushed off the release date of these lenses. Now only one lens, the 75mm f/2 ASPH, is slated to arrive in 2017 (maybe? still no word on it), with the other three lenses listed as "coming soon" or "spring 2018."

Could Leica really go a full calendar year without releasing any new lenses for the SL? (The 50mm was released in December 2016, so we won't have to wait long to find out!)

Would anyone really think that's a sign of a healthy camera system?

The rational side of me argues that Leica is trying really hard to produce quality lenses for the SL system, which is why they have been slower in the release schedule. They want only the best lenses on the market, and are busy perfecting them..... right?

Then I open my inbox this morning and see this:

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Seriously? Instead of announcing or releasing lenses for the SL system, it seems the engineers in the glass department of Leica have been on a craze to re-release old 1930s lenses. This is a slap in the face to all of the people who invested in the SL system early. Leica has prioritized these money-grab lenses - collectors pieces for people who will never shoot the lens - over lenses for people who actually want to make photographs.

Fuming over the announcement of a 1930's lens re-release, I decided to stage an armchair war and look up other manufacturers and their lens release schedule for new systems. I compared four other systems - the Fuji GFX 50s, Hasselblad X1D, Sony Alpha A7r, and Pentax 645z. 

What I quickly found is that Leica is behind the curve. The Hasselblad X1D, which is a natural competitor to the SL, only has 4 lenses currently on the market, but it also has been available for 440 days, compared to 750 days for the SL.

Shockingly, Fuji has rocked the market by having six lenses available for it's new medium format system less than a year after launch! Here's a table showing my results:

A comparison of camera systems by release date and current lens availability. In every metric, the SL system is behind the competition. It's worth noting that Sony already had some lenses on the market when they released the Alpha A7r, but they have continued to release new lenses on a somewhat routine schedule. 

A comparison of camera systems by release date and current lens availability. In every metric, the SL system is behind the competition. It's worth noting that Sony already had some lenses on the market when they released the Alpha A7r, but they have continued to release new lenses on a somewhat routine schedule. 

Lack of lenses isn't the only problem facing the SL community - price, speed, and size are also major factors. The SL lenses are massive, and while they may deliver great performance, in an era where competitors are releasing significantly smaller lenses, it's hard to get excited to haul around big glass. The lack of motivation to drag a heavy lens also stems from the fact that these lenses are surprisingly slow; both the 24-90mm and 90-280mm lenses have variable apertures ranging from f/2.8-f/4. Coming from a company that has released f/0.95 lenses, I would expect to see these big heavy (and expensive) lenses maintain at least an aperture of f/2.8 through the zoom range. Finally, we have the price. These lenses are eye-watering expensive, even by Leica standards. 

In an effort to keep the SL relevant in the mind of prospective buyers, Leica recently slashed the price of the camera system. In my mind, this was a sign of bad things....companies only slash prices of a camera when it is doing poorly in sales or about to be replaced. There are no rumors of a "SL2" system hitting the market anytime soon, which suggests to me that current sales are poor, particularly compared to the M10 release. With the new price adjustments, the SL sells for $500 less than the old Leica M240 ($5,995 vs $6,595). In what economic universe does a camera made in 2013 sell for $500 more than a camera made in 2015 with more features? 

I will pause here to say I am not Leica bashing--- I LOVE my M240 and the Leica M system. I just think Leica has stumbled with the release of the SL system, and barring a dramatic turn-around, I would not be surprised if Leica refocused back to the systems that have been very successful. 

Leica does not release sales figures to the public, so we're left to speculate. Price slashes.... delayed lens releases.... a clear focus on producing collectors pieces and historical re-releases.... behind-the-market performance in delivering new options. Are these signs of a healthy system?

Why would anyone buy an SL now? What consumer is looking at the limited options for organic system lenses and is excited by the offerings? And with competitors offering systems with more lenses, more capabilities, and better specs at a lower price, Leica risks loosing adopters of the SL system to newer cameras. 

Personally, I believe the slow release of lenses may be the doom of this system. For the price of joining the Leica SL club, one could easily invest in a 50 megapixel medium format camera (Hasselblad X1D). I have been insanely frustrated by the slow release schedule of the SL lenses - so much so that, combined with recent issues with my gear - I'm considering jumping ship and heading for pastures that have proven to be a bit more reliable in past years. 

What do you think? Am I being too harsh? Or is the Leica SL still a worthy buy?

Long Lens Shooting with the Leica SL

The Leica SL was clearly designed with outdoor, nature, landscape and travel photographers in mind; the abundant weather sealing, GPS. and high-speed shooting were not put into the camera for studio photographers. 

As a landscape photographer, I routinely have use for a telephoto lens. So today I'll discuss the long lens setup I use with the Leica SL.

Using the vehicle as a blind while shooting in Grand Teton

Using the vehicle as a blind while shooting in Grand Teton

For starters, I do not own the Leica 90-280mm lens made for the SL system, much as I would like to. The reason for this is multi-fold:

  1. The Leica 90-280mm, while well made, is overpriced at $6,400. Every other camera manufacturer has a similar telephoto lens offering (normally in the 70-200mm range), and those lenses generally retail for $3,000 or less, with plenty of used options coming in around $1,500.
  2. Competitor lenses, which are already less than half the price, also are faster. The Leica lens only musters f/4 at full zoom, while the Nikon and Canon counterparts are f/2.8 through the entire focal length of the lens. 
  3. In Canon-land, you could buy a 400mm f/4 lens for the same price as the 90-280mm from Leica. In Nikon-land, that same money would buy you a 600mm f/4 lens and still have $2k leftover to spend on a trip! The reality is that for the money they are charging, this lens needs to either be as fast (or faster) as the competition, or it needs to have more range.
  4. The 280mm focal length is just at the short end of what most wildlife photographers would consider a reasonable starting point for their lenses. Most wildlife shooters will carry a 400mm or longer lens.
Bull elk in Yellowstone. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter. 

Bull elk in Yellowstone. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter. 

As it stands currently (October 2017), I am pretty miffed with the rate at which Leica has released lenses for the SL system. Three lens offerings in the two years since the camera was released is weak. Nothing wider than 24mm is weak.

Instead of making a 50mm prime for the SL, Leica should have expedited the production of the 16-35mm lens. There a number of 50mm lenses available on the market for Leica M mount is incredible, so there wasn't a dire need to release that lens first....but that's beyond our discussion here.

Frustrated that I have been left to jerry-rig a long lens solution together, I turned to a manufacturer who knows a lot about how to make great long glass....Canon. For decades, Canon has been a leader in the long lens market, and there are thousands of used lenses to select from. 

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I happened to find myself a very old 400mm f/2.8 bazooka of a lens, and had it modified to accept a Leica R mount. I call this lens a bazooka because it has to weigh upwards of 25lbs! There is no autofocus or image stabilization - it's just a big, old, and solid piece of glass. Because it lacks some of the more modern touches, the Canon 400mm f/2.8 bazooka was pretty affordable - I paid around $800 for the lens with conversion. 

Unfortunately, because it is a bazooka, it's not terribly portable, and I need to have a hefty tripod solution to use it. But that is okay - with the sack of cash saved by opting for this lens, I was able to afford a nice Wimberly head for my tripod to resolve that issue.

You lookin' at me? Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8

You lookin' at me? Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8

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The nice thing is that this lens is extremely sharp, and the EVF of the Leica SL makes it easy to manually focus and track a moving subject. I have now used this lens in Yellowstone for a number of wildlife images, and also used it to shoot the 2017 solar eclipse. In both applications, the lens has done a wonderful job resolving details. And when 400mm isn't enough, I also have a Leica R mount 2x teleconverter that makes the lens an 800mm f/4 lens. Not too shabby!

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As you can see from the snapshot of images included, the Canon 400mm f/2.8 renders beautifully and is incredibly sharp. When supported properly, I am very impressed by the sharpness that can be achieved at f/2.8. I have used the lens for a few landscape images as well, and am very pleased with the results - I don't know if it's good as the 90-280mm lens, but at the price, the results are spectacular. Remember, this isn't a cheap $800 lens -- this lens used to cost $10k, but since it is a few generations old, the lens price has dropped significantly while the quality remains unchanged.

Pronghorn in the snow. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens

Pronghorn in the snow. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens

Two young deer graze in Grand Teton National Park.

Two young deer graze in Grand Teton National Park.

Have you adopted another long lens for your Leica SL? Or did you purchase the Leica 90-280mm lens? Leave me a comment and let me know how you solved this problem!