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!

Quick Shot: Different Perspective

You've heard me say it before - I love an opportunity to get a different perspective on something. So a week ago, when I was doing some filming for the Global Stars Team, I took the chance to have some side shooting. We did some air-to-air shooting and I had some time during these shots to peek out the side of the plane and grab a few shots of the British countryside below. I wanted to capture more abstract scenes - things you wouldn't immediately place as being located in the United Kingdom. Out of the shots I took, I selected these three due to their diversity and unique character.

Moving Overseas with Camera Equipment.....!?!

Today's the day! After months of planning and preparing, the movers have descended on our house with a million boxes to move our effects to the United Kingdom. There have been many challenges along the way, the least of which has been figuring out how to get all of my camera equipment safely there. So I figured I'd share my saga...

Background:

This move is a 3-5 year position in the United Kingdom, so packing for it is a little different then packing for a long trip. When the military / Department of Defense packs and moves people around the wold, they do it in stages, which makes the whole thing more manageable for them and challenging for us. 

Option 1: Household Goods (HHG)
This is the shipment where the majority of your effects travel - couches, beds, TVs, etc. It's also the slowest to arrive (2-3 months) and travels by truck and ship, so there's alot of loading/unloading. There is no temperature control and everything is packed on your behalf. Not a good place to put expensive camera equipment!

Option 2: Unaccompanied Baggage (aka Express)
This shipment is designed to travel by air and meet you just a few weeks after you arrive and provide the essentials while you wait for your HHG to arrive. They warn you up front not to pack anything fragile in this shipment as it is rough handled - and if they loose your stuff, you only get reimbursement up to $5k, which barely covers much camera equipment! So again, not a good place to put the gear!

Option 3: Ship it to myself
I can go to the post office and mail my equipment to myself, but the cost of insuring that is prohibitively expensive and the government wouldn't reimburse me for it, so that's also off the table!

Option 4: Storage
In theory, I could tell the government to store this equipment for me, but that kinda defeats the point.....?!

Option 5: Carry on your person
And here we are - the only option that makes any reasonable sense for the camera equipment. The government will pay for 2 checked bags per person (me+husband = 4x 50lbs bags) plus the airline gives one carry-on and one personal item each. While that seems like plenty of space, as soon as I account for clothes and a suitcase in pet supplies (food, litter box, leashes, etc), I'm down to hardly any luggage left! The only option is to get everything I want into a backpack that fits on my back - while a ThinkTank roller bag would be ideal given the volume of stuff to carry, I need to dedicate that space to other items (and I don't own a rolling camera bag). 

I own a zillion backpacks that I could use for this task, but the choice was pretty easy - my MindShift Gear Rotation 180 bag. I have been using this backpack exclusively for the past 8 months and love it to death.... I've dragged it in the snow, rain, sand, and mud and it doesn't care. I even dropped it into a lake - no problem. So there's no reason to not use ol' reliable to carry almost $20,000 worth of gear overseas! 

I have stuffed the Rotation 180 to the brim - it's now holding the following: Nikon D800 w/battery pack, Nikon D600, Nikon 80-400, Nikon 24-70, Nikon 14-24, Nikon speed light, and a ton of accessories, including controllers, filters, cables, and more. The bag tips the scales at almost 30 pounds packed, which is incredibly heavy, but its the only way to ensure the most valuable equipment arrives in one piece without any damage in shipping.

Fully loaded, the Mindshift Gear Rotation 180 tips the scales at over 25 lbs - which is pretty heavy for a camera bag- especially one being carried as a backpack!

The Mindshift Gear Rotation 180 on display in our hotel. I have stuffed almost all of the useable space with camera equipment, with the last bit of space reserved for "day of" items like passports, iPad, etc. Unfortunately the iPad camera isn't good enough to show all the dirt and dust on this bag from the miles of use I've put on it.

Inside the back compartmented of the Mindshift Gear Rotation 180 - I have jammed it full of gear! I would probably never hike with it like this since it's just jammed up, but this was the best way to transport all of the essentials, including lenses, flashes, camera bodies, chargers, filters, and more.

Meanwhile the DJI Phantom Vision 2+ has it's own (custom made) bag that we are using to transport it to the UK....

The DJI Phantom Vision 2+ Quadcopter in my custom made backpack. This will be the second "personal item" we will carry on the plane.

So how does the rest arrive?

A few days ago the first round of movers arrived to spend the day packing - they walked through the house with brown paper and wrapped every single item they could find. At one point our cat became a little concerned that he may be next to be wrapped! Included in this was some other camera equipment - mostly larger bulky items (like other camera bags, less expensive accessories, etc). In total, the movers prepared 208 separate pieces, which includes the final boxes and furniture for our hose.

This used to be part of my photography studio - now it's is a holding place for the wrapped items that will transit to the UK. Somewhere in this pile is all the camera equipment I couldn't manage to carry on my person for the trip.

Shortly thereafter, the next round of movers arrived to load up their trucks. In a giant game of Tetris, they spent 8 hours moving these items into wooden crates and inventorying every item. The wooden crates are cleverly designed to fit inside of commercial shipping containers so they can be loaded onto a ship at the Port of Baltimore before transiting the Atlantic. In total, it took 8 of these large wooden crates to move our entire household effects.

In a crazy game of Tetris, the movers managed to stuff all 208 separate boxes & pieces into these wooden containers. The crates are designed to load straight into a commercial shipping container for maritime shipment to the UK.

Movers staged all of the boxes, weighing over 7,000lbs, outside before loading them into the crates. It took almost 2 trucks to carry all of those boxes away!

After nailing the wooden crates shut, they placed serialized inventory stickers on the outside of the crate to ensure there would be no tampering with our goodies.

The last round of moving came today when a few movers arrived to take away our "Express" shipment. I managed to put a few small pieces of equipment in there - stuff like tripods that are pretty robust - so that I'll have them at my disposal shortly after I arrive. 

The next challenge comes in 10 days when we head to the airport and I convince United Airlines that my 26lbs camera backpack is my "personal item"!

Stay tuned for more moving stories over the next few weeks.....

Quick Shot: Spectacular Sunset II

Sometimes I can't pick just one photo to share the story. In this case, it took me two photographs to tell the story of this sunset!

(If you missed the previous photo, check it out here

In the previous post about the first photograph, I told the story of behind the sunset, so I'll spend some time in this post discussing the technical details. Both sunset photographs were taken with the Nikon D800 and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. I didn't change any camera settings between the shots, just my body position.  

If you've ever tried to take a sunset photograph, then you probably know that it's almost impossible to get a foreground subject properly illuminated and not blow out the colors of the sunset. You generally can get either the foreground OR the background (sunset) in perfect exposure, but not both. To solve this problem, photographers can use several tricks. 

The first is to use a graduated filter that is darker on top than on bottom. This filter tries to darken the background to "trick" the camera into an exposure that properly exposes both the background and foreground. The trick is, you have to have said filter handy and they don't always work the best.

Another method is to bracket your exposures and merge them together. If you're not familiar with bracketing, it's a technique where you take several images in series.... say 3. The first would be correctly exposed, the second underexposed and the third overexposed (usually in full or half stop increments). You could then take elements from each photograph and merge them, or combine the series into an HDR image (high dynamic range).  

I didn't use either of these methods to get this shot. In fact, the work in Photoshop was pretty minimal!  

The D800 has an amazing dynamic range, so I knew that I could pull shadow detail from the foreground back out in post production. As a result, I set the camera to have an exposure compensation of -1/2 stop and exposed for the sunset sky. The image was very dark in the foreground grass, but that was an easy fix. Using the adjustment brush in Adobe Camera Raw, I lightened the exposure only on the grassy areas to make the foreground visible. I didn't want to overdue it - the focus was supposed to be the sky - but I still wanted the viewer to enjoy the foreground grass.

The only other adjustments in Photoshop were to crop and remove some sensor dust. Pretty easy! 

Don't forget that you can purchase this print as a limited edition from my website. 

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Video: Nikon 80-400mm Lens Unboxing

I just purchased the newest Nikon telephoto lens, the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 ED to replace the Sigma 150-500mm lens. At over twice the price, I'm hoping for a LOT of improvement in my telephoto shots!

Join me as I unpack this giant gold Nikon box and give my initial impressions on it's construction.  

Stay tuned for a second video where I'll compare the new Nikon 80-400 against the Sigma 150-500 and see how their performance compares. 

I purchase all of my camera equipment from Ace Photo in Northern Virginia.