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'.

Quick Shot: Alone

It was a long hike to get this photo.....well, it was a long hike where I got this photo! After several miles of uphill through a swampy and overgrown mountainside in Wales, I began descending a steep rock face. Looking up along the cliff during my descent, I found this lone tree perched on the cliff. A lone tree would have been photographic, but the bizarre crooked shape of this tree really made the shot!

Photographed with the Leica SL and Leica f/0.95 Noctilux lens. 

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Quick Shot: Rain Storm

Bad weather makes for great photographs, which is contradictory to what most people think. I get a lot of comments from folks on the street who see me with a camera and remark "what a great day for photography" when the sun is shining and not a cloud in the sky. The problem is, nice weather is boring. There isn't drama and contrast to it.  

On the other hand, crap weather is great for photographs, even if it's not great for standing around in. For this particular shot, I had some of both. The sky was sunny and nearly cloud-free over my right shoulder, but to my left was a pop up rain storm and heavy clouds. The contrast was remarkable, and made for some great lighting and drama to photograph. 

I emphasized the dramatic clouds  and contrast of the rain over everything else.... I cropped to 16x9 to give a dramatic air to the whole photograph and converted it to black and white using Nik Silver Efex. Photographed on the coast of Wales with the Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm lens. 

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Quick Shot: Camel Ride

Until a few weeks ago, I had never photographed, ridden, or even been in close proximity to a camel. Thankfully, Jordan has an abundance of these goofy animals, so I've scratched all three of those "to do's" off the list!

I didn't want my 'take a picture of a camel' item to be that simple - it's not fun if it's not a challenge. And everyone takes pictures of their funny little snouts. I wanted a camel photograph that captured everything I envisioned when I think about camels..... sand, hot, people riding, and Arab flare!

I was (barely) listening to our tour guide in Petra when I realized the sunlight was creating beautiful silhouettes with the camel riders on the bright orange rocks. I ditched the tour and began my quest to capture the perfect camel image using those silhouettes. Thankfully I took a bunch of shots - the camels were moving past really quickly and most of the shots are throw-away quality, but I nailed it on this one. 

Shot with the Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm lens.

Quick Shots: A Harsh Reality

As beautiful as the Middle East is, it's hard to ignore the turmoil and near-constant conflict that hangs over the region. Israel - a country that can polarize - had many sobering reminders of the bullets shot and lives lost over this contentious property. As a photographer, it is important that I capture these uglier reminders of our world; my camera is an opportunity to show people the most beautiful parts of our planet and remind them of our less proud moments.

These two photographs capture what I believe is the essence of conflict in the Levant region. The first is part of a building just miles from Gaza. The holes in the side of the building are bullet holes - reminders of previous conflicts between Hamas and the Israeli military. If you look closely, you can also see Hebrew and Arabic writing on the building's facade.

The second image was taken in the north of Israel, in the Golan Heights, and is part of a UN Disengagement Observer Force post looking into Syria. In the background of the image is Syria - I could hear artillery and gunfire in the distance. These UN observers are stationed on this hilltop as a neutral force to monitor that Israeli and Syrian military forces respect a 1973 agreement to establish a buffer zone between Israel and Syria. 

I am very fortunate; there are no bullet holes on the buildings around my home and there are no UN observers in my backyard. The local reminders of war and conflict date to the 1940s or cold war - they are not reminders of a current and ongoing fight. Seeing (and hearing) the ever-present evidence of Middle East conflict was extremely sobering, and I believe it's just as important to capture as the beautiful sights.

Shot with the Leica Camera SL and 24-90mm SL Lens.

Quick Shot: Orthodox

The Orthodox Jews are one of the not-so-subtle reminders that Israel isn't like most places in the Middle East. Traveling to the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem and seeing the Western Wall (aka the Wailing Wall) and meeting some of the wonderful people there was really a powerful experience.

This man was sitting in a shady spot not far from one of the most special sites in Judaic history - the Western Wall. He invited me over to and said a prayer for me. I thought it was very symbolic for this area of the world - one of the few places where several religions have fought for years to defend their holy ground. And although I am sure he knew I am not of the Jewish faith, I appreciated his outreach and goodwill gesture to pray for me. It touched me as a compassionate human to meet someone so kind and it helped restore my faith in humanity - that maybe one day the good people of the world will outnumber those full of hate.

Portrait made with the Leica Camera SL and 24-90mm lens.

Quick Shot: Petra's Secret

I remember the moment that I found out that this grand site, and home to the Holy Grail in the Indiana Jones movies, was actually a real place. When I discovered this place, named Petra, was located deep in the desert of Jordan, I assumed I would never have a chance to see it.

Alas, my chance came.... I had an opportunity to overnight in the south of Jordan and see Petra. It was even more grand in person, and I still have to pinch myself over the fact that I actually saw it. When I got to the treasury, which is the most famous building, I decided to shoot it with the waved rock cliffs to frame the shot. In my mind, it's this view that makes Petra so magical - the site of this grand structure built into a cliff that is only accessible by walking through a towering tunnel of orange sandstone.

This may be one of my favorite images, both for sentimental value, but also because it truly embodies the sights of Petra. Be sure to Like and comment to let me know what you think!

Shot with Leica Camera SL.