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.
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.
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.
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!