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

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

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

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

Issues Surrounding Durability and Reliability

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

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

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

Lack of New Leica SL Lenses

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

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

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

The Market Beat the Leica SL

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

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

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

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

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

Now what?

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

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

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

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?

The Day the Leica SL Failed Me....

The day I hoped would never arrive has, unfortunately, come. The day all photographers hope to avoid. The day their gear fails them.

My experience came a few days ago in Yellowstone National Park - an area with very sparse cellular signal and no camera shops (much less Leica dealers!). Stranded in the middle of a National Park, hundreds of miles from the closest camera shop (800 miles from the closest Leica shop), and on assignment, is no place to encounter a major fault with your gear.

As I have previously discussed, I am a big fan of the Leica SL as a landscape photography camera, although it does have a few faults (durability, LENR issues). But this issue was a major blow to my trust of this camera, and it will take some intense therapy for me to rebuild a relationship of trust with my SL after this experience.

So what happened?

One morning mid-trip, I went out to one of the smaller geyser basins to capture some early morning images of the snow falling over the geothermal landscape. On my way out to my shooting location, I took a few side-shots and everything was working fine. It had been all trip - I was approximately 2,000 images into the project without a glitch. Then it happened.

I zoomed the Leica SL Vario-Elmarit 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens to 90mm to compose my photograph, and the lens jammed. For no explainable reason, the lens just stopped zooming, stuck at 90mm. It was never dropped, it just stopped.

I wiggled the zoom ring on the lens and could feel a grinding resistance. It felt like the teeth that control the gearing of the zoom had seized upon themselves, and even with moderate force, there was no movement. Of course I did not want to force the zoom, and since we were not far from the car, we walked back to sit down and inspect the camera.

Inside our vehicle, I removed the lens from the SL body and set the body aside. I then filmed this short video clip as I tried to wiggle the zoom ring:

As you can see, there is very little movement in the zoom ring as I try to rotate it, and the force I was exerting on the lens was about the maximum I was comfortable with.

I was pissed. Up to this point, the SL lens had been very dependable, and normally it is electronics that are more prone to breaking and failures (not to say a lens can't, just not as common). I essentially had a massive and heavy 90mm f/4 prime lens - and while the autofocus still worked, that was about all the lens had going for it. 

The diverse focal lengths covered by the 24-90mm lens makes it my go-to, so the next option available to me was the 16-18-21 Tri-Elmar. There is a LOT of range in focal lengths between 21mm and 90mm.... couldn't the lens jam someplace more useful, like 35mm?!

Frustrated, swearing, and feeling drained of all creativity as my head throbbed with anger at the lens, we went back out to shoot, but I struggled to compose anything of value with the lens. Here I am, working - trying to create images and content that I can sell to pay for these expensive Leica lenses, and the damn thing fails me.

Using the Leica Vario-Elmar 24-90mm lens as a 90mm zoom once it had jammed.....

Some time later, the lens spontaneously retracted back to 24mm; I had my hand applying a light pressure to the front of the lens as I rotated the variable polarizing filter, and slowly felt the lens retracting back toward 24mm. Go figure. For no more reason than the jamming of the lens, it was unjammed.

Feeling daring, I rotated the zoom ring a few times. Clearly all was not well; I felt a stiff resistance in the ring and could hear it blowing air as it zoomed in and out.

For the remainder of the project, the lens "worked" in sub-ideal conditions. At times it would jam (sometimes at other focal lengths), and then it would un-jam just as quickly. Of note, my sensor was covered with dust very quickly, which leads to my un-official suspicion as to the root of the issue.

100lbs heavier and 20 years older.... this Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens may be a beast, but it worked flawlessly with my Leica SL, despite being far less sophisticated.

While I'm not a certified camera technician, I am suspicious that one of the weather sealing o-rings in the lens jammed in one of the gears, causing the jamming. The reason I can hear so much air, feel resistance and have all the dust in my sensor, I suspect is the result of one of those rings becoming displaced, allowing air to be sucked in volume through the lens and into the camera body. When I dropped off the camera with the Leica Store in DC for service, I mentioned the dust being blown into the camera at astonishing speed; the salesperson removed the lens to look at the sensor and nearly gagged with the dust storm present.

I have dropped the camera off with Leica for a trip to Germany, and I hope Leica makes right on this situation by repairing everything under warranty. 

However, this incident has shook my confidence in the Leica SL. I owned Nikon equipment for five years and handled it / used it in the same conditions as my SL. In those five years, I never had a failure. The only issue came at my own hands, when I dropped my Nikon 24-70mm lens on cement. While it didn't break the glass, the zoom mechanism was a little stiff (although it still worked!). 

In two and a half years of full-time Leica use, this will be the THIRD time a piece of Leica equipment has had to take a trip to Germany for a warranty repair that is not the result of user issue. 

Sure, Nikon's / Canon's / Sony's / etc can fail too. But the ratio of Leica failures to Nikon failures is starting to pile up, and my patience for a Leica failure is slimmer given the price of admission. I expect a $600 off-brand, made in China, plastic without weather sealing camera lens to fail. I don't expect a $5,000 camera lens assembled by Germans in white lab coats to fail. 

I understand things can and will break, and I appreciate that Leica's are not immune to failures. But the frequency with which my gear keeps going to Germany for failures ... (1) defective glass on my M240, (2) a sensor issue in my M240 and (3) now this....either makes me the most unlucky person in the Leica universe, or this equipment isn't built to handle the stressors of heavy-duty professional use. 

How did I manage to infuriate the Leica Gods? Why do they damn me with misfortune?!

How did I manage to infuriate the Leica Gods? Why do they damn me with misfortune?!

My local Leica Store (Washington, DC), is convinced I may have one of the most heavily used SL's out there - and given the cosmetic condition of the camera, I'd be inclined to agree. But there are plenty of Nikon / Canon shooters who use their cameras more than I do and do not have the same volume of issues. I never had an issue with those brands..... and this is the point where I start to wonder if it's me or the camera. 

I'm not giving up or throwing in the towel. What happens once the camera comes back from Germany will go a long way in determining my future with this system. I love the camera, I love the Leica lenses, I love the files they produce, but I dread thinking about what piece of gear will be next to take a trip to Germany. And since I don't own a thriving money tree, it's hard to swallow the Leica price tag with the repeated reliability issues I'm having....

Anyone else encounter issues with the reliability of their Leica SL?

Update (Dec 2017): My Leica SL came back from it's spa treatment in Germany working just as well as it was the first day I used the camera. I was charged a minimal fee for the service, but the repairs were covered under warranty. Glad to be re-united! 

 

Revisiting a Memorable Moment

It is amazing what a difference a few years makes. Photography, like any craft or art, is a growth. Look at the works of any famous photographer, painter, or musician and you will see history remembers them in phases.

And while I don't dare compare myself to the greats, I can still see huge evolution in my own photography. I spend more time looking at the light, looking for 'moments' and waiting for something special than I did before. I have a better understanding of the capabilities of my cameras and how to generate incredible results from them. And I have a more refined understanding of light.

All of this translates in my photographs, and I recently revisited a place where I took a photograph that was very special to me and attempted to elevate it. 

The location? Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia. In 2013, I visited the park and made a photograph that would later win the honors for the 2014 Vincent Versace Award for Photographic Excellence. As a result, that location has been a special spot for me, but I had not been back since. I recently felt like I had grown enough as a photographer to revisit the location and wanted to see what sort of image I could create now. This is the result.

In a future blog post I'll break down this photograph and deconstruct making it - because it is actually a panorama of five images that took nearly 30 minutes of on-scene shooting with my Leica SL to create. Everything in the image is authentic - including the swirl of water - and required the full extent of my photographic know-how to accomplish. I'm very proud of the revised image, and hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed creating it.