The (in progress) Nikon Z7 Review

Last Updated: 23 October

Last summer (2017), the President of Nikon confirmed what the world was dying to know.  Nikon was in development of a mirrorless full frame camera that would be released “soon.”  Almost instantly, additional specifications and details started to leak out across the Internet.  People eagerly waited for the announcement of what was going to be, without question, the modernization and one of the greatest revelations in digital photography since the design and mass production of cell phone cameras.

After much anticipation, on August 23, 2018, Nikon unveiled the new Z7 and Z6 full frame mirrorless digital cameras.  The wait was finally over.

The Nikon Z7 started shipping worldwide on 27 September — a month after the announcement.  Demand for this camera has been unprecedented, and many consumers will likely be waiting months before they get a chance to own their own model. It has been estimated that Nikon had 40,000 Z7 cameras available at the end of September, with nearly a quarter of those shipping to dealers in the United States.

Over the coming months, I will document my experience with the Z7 in an effort to provide as much information about the camera, shooting experience, and — most importantly — image output. This is not a “one and done” review; I will add to it regularly as I have new experiences with the camera. I truly believe a real review cannot be completed in just a few days — it takes months of continuous shooting — and so this review will reflect that philosophy. I can promise that I’ll cover as many topics as I can, barre one: video. I don’t shoot video, know little about video, and am woefully unequipped to discus video. As far as I’m concerned, the video features in this camera are merely in the way.

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A Quick Introduction: The Nikon Z7 and Z6

The primary difference between the Z7 and Z6 cameras is the resolution and shooting specs; the Z7 features a 45.7 megapixel sensor, while the Z6 features a 24.5 megapixel digital sensor.  Other differences include the number of autofocus points — which is almost twice as many on the Z7 (at 493 focus points) as on the Z6 (only 273 focus points).  There are also differences in the ISO.  The Z7’s ISO ranges from 64 to 25,612 while the Z6 ISO ranges from 100 to 51,200.  Finally, the Z6 can fire a few more frames per second than the Z7. The difference in frame rate is probably a factor of the image size and write speed to memory cards, vice a mechanical difference.

The Nikon Z7 and Z6 represent a turning point, and will definitely become historical milestone in the evolution of digital photography.  Other companies may have released full frame mirrorless first, like Sony, Fuji, and Leica, but Nikon represents the largest company to yet produce a full frame mirrorless camera.  No matter what other companies have done before, the release of the Nikon Z7 and Z6 will go down in the history books as an important milestone in photography.  It will go down alongside inventions like instant film and, of course, the cell phone camera.

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Getting a Nikon Z: Pay Early

I pre-ordered my Nikon Z7 before it even had a name.  When I pre-ordered it with my local camera shop it was just called “the Nikon mirrorless camera that was coming soon.”  Weeks before was announced, I put my name down on the pre-order list, guaranteeing that I will get one of the first units to be delivered in the United States.  The day it was announced and the dealers had pricing information, I paid in full, cementing my place as one of the first to get my hands on the new release.

Because I pre-paid, I got one the day it was released in the United States. By my math, it is also one of the first 1,000 bodies delivered in the USA (more on that later).

The Nikon Z6 will start shipping soon, and I would encourage anyone waiting for that model to pre-pay in order to ensure they get one of the first ones.


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Why Mirrorless: The Future of Photography

As photographers, it’s easy to get high on tech specs.  So before we get wrapped up in the specifications of this particular camera, let’s generically discuss why mirrorless is important.  

Why this mirrorless camera thing is a big deal.  Why this camera, over all other cameras, is a huge turning point in the market. 

The first time I used a full frame mirrorless camera was when I shot the Leica SL in London.  Bringing that full frame electronic newsletter to my face instantly changed my perception on what I thought at the time was a trend — a photography fad.  But when I looked through that electronic viewfinder, I immediately understood the value of a mirrorless full frame camera, and simultaneously understood that I was holding the future. 

One of the problems with DSLR's is that you don't see exactly what you're shooting as you shoot.  There's a mirror that sits in front of the sensor and reflects light from the lens into a prism that you're looking into via the viewfinder.  The limitation here is that the camera can only display a limited amount of information to the photographer through a small heads up display built into that prism.  Furthermore, you are seeing a reflection of light through a mirror, not what the sensor will see. As a result, you are, in some regards, guessing what the sensor will capture based on your experience with that particular camera and the limited information available in the heads up display.

With mirrorless, you get the benefit of seeing exactly what you're photographing at the instant the camera takes the image.  You spend less time having to look at the rear LCD screen to review the exposure and the quality of your image, and spend more time actually composing and creating photographs. 

In other words, if your image is going to be underexposed, you can see that through the viewfinder before you take the image.  You no longer have to remove your face to look at the rear LCD screen or browse a menu — you just see it.

The other noteworthy advantage of a mirrorless full frame camera is that the flange distance between the lens and the sensor is significantly reduced. This sounds highly technical, but it’s worth understanding why a shortened flange distance is so valuable to a photographer.

Flange distance is the distance between the sensor and the front bayonet coupling, where the lens and camera body meet.  In most DSLR’s, the flange distance is somewhere in the range of 50-60mm; however, on a mirrorless full frame camera, that flange distance can be somewhere between 10-20mm.  The result of this greatly reduced flange distance is that light enters the camera with less reduction.

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If you have a longer flange distance, than the engineer that designs your camera lens has to bring in more light for the sensor by making larger optical elements, which translates into larger lenses with more weight and ultimately greater cost.  With a thinner flange distance, more light naturally comes into the camera sensor, allowing the same engineer to design a lens that is smaller, weighs less, and is (hopefully) less expensive. 

This also allows engineers to design lenses that would be pretty impractical on a full frame DSLR; for instance Nikon has already announced the development of lenses with an aperture of f/0.95.  The same lens on a DSLR would likely be so unwieldy and expensive that it will be impractical for a company like Nikon to even entertain building and designing it.

Of course mirrorless is not perfect.  The greatest drawback these days for a mirrorless camera is the battery life.  Because the viewfinder is electronic, the batteries are constantly having to provide electricity for the small LCD screen that you're looking at in the eyepiece. This drains batteries faster than they would in a comparable DSLR camera.  The good news; however, is that battery technology these days is very good.  Even if your mirrorless camera gets a fraction of the battery life that a DSLR might get, batteries are so affordable, they almost can be treated as a consumable.  Buying and carrying four or five batteries to have lots of spares and no fear of running out is really not a big deal.

So why is Nikon's release of the Z7 such a big deal? Why is the Internet and every blogger on YouTube suddenly going crazy when other companies have already released similar cameras?  Because Nikon represents the largest manufacturer to enter this market.  Companies like Sony, Fuji, and Leica — who all got into the market with a full frame mirrorless camera first — don’t have quite the following the company like Nikon or Canon has.


The FTZ Adapter: Keep Your Lenses & Go Mirrorless

If you are a current Nikon shooter and wanted to transition into a mirrorless camera you might have to sell more than you were willing to sell. You probably have a collection of lenses from Nikon that you would have to sell in order to buy another brand’s model.  But now Nikon can hope to sell a mirrorless camera to existing customers by allowing them to use the lenses they already have for their existing Nikon system.

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In order to offer this backward compatibility, Nikon developed an adapter (the FTZ adapter) that allows you to mount almost any existing F-mount lens to the Z7 or Z6 while still maintaining autofocus.  That means if you already own some unique lenses or lenses you really enjoy the character of, you don't need to part with those lenses as part of the admission into the mirrorless club.  This is incredibly well thought out by Nikon because they will be able to corner a large portion of their current DSLR owners and convince them to buy into this new digital technology.

Although Nikon is offering an adapter to make existing F-mount lenses compatible, they are also releasing a new series of lenses designed to maximize the advantages of the new lens mount. The new lens lineup, dubbed the “S-line” contains many of the benefits of previous Nikon lenses, such as nano crystal coated glass. 

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The S-Line of Lenses: A New Dawn

With the announcement of the Z7 and Z6, Nikon also announced the release of three new S-lenses and the development of several more coming soon. The current Nikon S lens lineup is as follows:

    • Nikon Z 35mm f/1.8 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 24-70 f/4 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 24-70 f/2.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 58mm f/0.95 Nocti (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 20mm f/1.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 70-200 f/2.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 14-30 f/4 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 50mm f/2.8 (expected 2020)

    • Nikon Z 24mm f/1.8 (expected 2020)

    • Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 (expected 2020)

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The announcement of twelve lenses for this system within the first two years is very remarkable. By comparison, Leica has only released a quarter as many lenses for their mirrorless full frame Leica SL camera, yet it has been on the market several years longer. The difference in lens releases is one of the main reasons this camera’s release will be such a big deal; outside of maybe Canon, no other manufacturer can compete with Nikon’s ability to develop and get new glass to market as quickly. 

Nikon was also teased that they will be developing additional Z camera bodies to meet the needs of other photographers — such as sports photographers — who may require a longer battery life, multiple memory card slots, and high frames per second shooting speed before transitioning from their DSLR bodies to mirrorless.

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Options: Expanding into Zeiss Lenses

I don’t want this to sound like I’m a hater, because I am not. But I don’t think Nikon makes the best lenses. They make fine lenses, but not the best. Fine. Acceptable.

Acceptable, for most. However, I am one of the few who really values good glass.

A good lens is more important than a good camera. The camera can only gather and process the light that the sensor receives. If the sensor gets imperfect light, then you get an imperfect image, and there is nothing the camera can do about it. In other words, the Nikon Z7 is as only as good as the glass you put in front of it.

Ever since I became a Leica shooter, I’ve been a very discerning photographer when it comes to lenses. I now prefer manual focus primes to zooms, and would rather not have to click buttons in Lightroom to “correct” an image by removing chromatic aberrations, distortions, etc. Remember, good light in = good image out.

For dSLRs, Zeiss makes some of the best lenses on the planet. So I have spent quite a bit of time shooting the Z7 with my Zeiss Milvus lenses in order to evaluate the results when I put the best possible glass in front of the Z7. Here are some of my results….

Bridge to Belle Island, Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Urban landscape in Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Exploring an old factory that once made components for World War II tanks. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Inside the old factory. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Abandoned control room of a former water pumping station on the river. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Urban decay. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.


Ergonomics: A Pleasantly Small and Comfortable Experience

Nikon engineers reportedly put great emphasis on the ergonomics and shooting experience they designed the Z7 and Z6.  The right hand grip hearkens back to other Nikon DSLR’s, but unique to this camera are new buttons, wheels, and joysticks enabling you to control camera menus while looking through the electronic viewfinder. The smaller size of this camera compared to most of the DSLRs is currently on the market is extremely advantageous. It will fit into smaller bags, be more discreet, and less intimidating looking than a DSLR body. 

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The Memory Card: The Future is XQD

One of the compromises that had to be made in order to accommodate the smaller body size of the Z7 is that Nikon included only one memory card slot. This fact caused many Internet bloggers to freak out at the announcement, and in many ways distracted reviewers from the camera and the benefits of the camera itself. Rather than talking about the benefits of an electronic viewfinder and the wonderful image quality this sensor will produce, people latched onto the single memory card, and the Internet has been on overdrive discussing this revelation ever sense. Therefore it is only logical that I too jump into the mix with my thoughts on the single memory card decision.

The Nikon Z7 and Z6 both utilize a memory card format called XQD. The XQD memory card is not new, although it's certainly not a mainstream formats (like SD) yet. In fact, when the Nikon D850 was released, it was very difficult to find XQD cards for sale. Thankfully additional manufacturers, including Nikon themselves, have entered the market and it is now possible to find XQD cards from a variety of manufacturers and a whole host of sizes. XQD cards cost quite a bit of money compared to cards like SD, but they are significantly more reliable. SD cards are prone to failure and routinely do fail. XQD cards, by comparison, have a very low failure rate. XQD cards also have a very high data transfer rate, and can read and write in excess of 400 Mb per second. When you're discussing a 45 megapixel sensor that read/write speed is absolutely critical.

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Personally, I think the hubbub surrounding the single memory card issue is being wildly overblown. People have become used to having two memory cards because manufacturers were compensating for the lack of reliability in SD formats by adding backup slots. As a result, consumers got trained on the idea that we need a backup. But you only need a backup if the primary is prone to failure. 

If we think back just a few years ago, when cameras all shot film, we were used to taking the risk that you could have a catastrophic failure and lose all of your images. The difference between film and a single memory card is that film can never be recovered.  No amount of money and no lab can bring film back once it's been destroyed. But if an XQD card did fail, for a reasonable fee, you could pay to have your images recovered. In my mind, the benefits of the faster read/write speed and the reliability that XQD memory cards have negates the “drawback” of having only one memory card slot. And anyone who feels so passionately that they require a backup better be carrying multiple camera bodies and redundant systems anyway.

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Image Quality: Unrivaled Dominance

Some users have dubbed the Z7 as the mirrorless D850, which is a compliment and nod to the exceptional image quality. Nikon raised the bar for dynamic range and sensor performance with the D850, and the Z7 has at least met, if not exceeded, the bar set by the D850.

I don’t shoot in a lab. I don’t own a white jacket or a clipboard. I am completely and utterly unqualified to tell you anything scientific about the performance of the sensor. What I can tell you, though, is how it responds to my real-world shooting.

The first day I owned the Z7, I went for a hike in a local National Park. It had been raining all week, but was finally a pleasant and sunny fall day. The heavy rain in the proceeding days meant that much of the trail was damp, which is actually great for pulling out color. Logs, trees, bark, and mosses are all more vibrant when they are just barely damp. Knowing this, I aimed the camera at a variety of naturally colorful subjects in an effort to explore the native color rendition and dynamic range of the camera.

To say I was impressed was an understatement, and I am editing these images with a version of Lightroom that doesn’t fully support the Z7 yet! Presumably, there may be incremental improvements to be had in the image quality when Adobe releases an update to Adobe Camera Raw to support the Z7 files.

Anyway, I barely touched the vibrance slider to get the results you see here. Most of the images were under exposed by -1/3 stop (using exposure compensation). Underexposing by a smidge can help preserve shadow detail for post production, so I almost always have the file slightly darker.

The photograph of the waterfall here demonstrates how much dynamic range is captured by the Z7 (be sure to click on it for a full-sized preview). There is still detail in the highlights where the sky and tree leaves meet, as well as great detail in the shadows of the rocks and tree bark. The whole thing is rather remarkable given how complex this scene is — normally I would use graduated neutral density filters to help the camera out, but this was shot without any assistance.

I have not explored much by way of high ISO shooting, and I doubt I’ll ever have much to say there. I really try very hard to avoid shooting above ISO 1600. I would rather use a tripod and take a longer exposure than raise my ISO. I’m sure it’ll happen at some point, but thus far I have no observations on the ISO performance.

Once again, I am reminded how much I appreciate the high resolution of the Z7’s sensor. I used a 200mm macro lens to photograph some bugs and flowers and was pleased to see how far I could crop and still preserve incredible detail in the file. Granted, some of this is attributed to the lens, but the high resolution sensor provides great opportunity to get the most out of uber sharp glass.

Thus far, I have found the metering, auto white balance, and auto focus to be very accurate, but will follow up with more information about those topics in a future update….


Color Rendition: Holy Vibrance Slider

The Nikon Z7 produces beautiful colors. Maybe even too beautiful.

I am used to playing with the vibrance slider in Lightroom in order to put some “pop” in the colors of an image taken with another camera, but the Z7 doesn’t need that. Straight from the camera, the images are bursting with color. They almost look Photoshopped in their RAW format.

I have actually found myself desaturating a few images because the colors were more vibrant than what I wanted. But that isn’t very common, and for landscape photographers, I can attest that the Z7 will preserve your shadow details while still giving you a nice rich blue sky.

Belle Island, Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Look closely at the above photograph. I took this photograph on an overcast afternoon in mid-October. The leaves were just starting to change, and the sun was getting lower on the horizon. This is what I got out of the camera. I cropped the photograph and sharpened it slightly, but that’s it. The rest is au natural. The detail and color preserved in the tree leaves and also in the clouds is absolutely unreal.

Here’s some more examples:

I actually desaturated the corners of the above photograph slightly. I had to, because I thought it otherwise could look “over processed” out of the camera!


Electronic Viewfinder: A Window To the World

The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is arguably the heart and soul of a mirrorless camera. A bad EVF ruins the experience of shooting with a mirrorless camera, so it was critical that Nikon get this new component correct.

My previous experience shooting a mirrorless Leica SL taught me how important the EVF is for composition and previewing the image at the moment of capture. My “keeper rate” of images was much higher with the EVF than with a prism viewfinder, and I had high expectations from Nikon.

As far as I’m concerned, there are a few features that make or break a good EVF:

  • High resolution (so that you don’t see the pixelation of your image)

  • 100% frame coverage (so that you know exactly what you are getting when you click the shutter)

  • Dimmable (most EVFs are aggressively bright, so it’s important that I can dim it)

  • Comfortable (looking at a digital screen can cause eye strain, so it needs to be clear and comfortable)

  • Adjustable heads up display (where you can modify what information is available to you in the display while you shoot)

The Nikon Z7 checks all of these boxes. The viewfinder is responsive, sharp, and pleasant to use. There is minimal lag and only an aggressive shake will create any noticeable shuttering. It is fast to refresh after taking an image, and it seems to be pretty accurate in providing real-time feedback on the exposure.

Thus far, I have only positive things to say about the EVF; it works exactly as I have come to expect, and there has been no disappointment in the rendering of information on the display. I’ll update this section with more comprehensive feedback on the EVF after I’ve used it in more extreme conditions, but so far, so good!

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The Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL vs Nikon D850

I had the same question as — based on the number of emails I’ve received on this topic would indicate — many others have about the Z7: “Can Nikon’s first mirrorless digital camera keep pace with the juggernaut D850”? And how does the Z7 hold up when compared to the established dominance of the Leica SL?

These head-to-head comparisons assume a lot about the definition of ‘better.’ Everyone wants to know which is better, camera X or Y. But the reality is that what is better for me may be worse for you, and I encourage you to read on with a grain of salt. A feature that I like and view as a pro might be a con in your shooting, so keep an open mind. And leave me a comment with your thoughts.

Now to my comparisons….know that I have owned all three of these cameras within the last year. I don’t review things I have only tried out in a demo. I am pulling this comparison from my personal use of cameras I purchased with my own cash.

Nikon Z7 vs Nikon D850

I sold the Leica SL in favor of the D850 because I was motivated by two things that the D850 had over the Leica SL. I quickly regretted that swap. While the D850 is a phenomenal camera, I missed the electronic viewfinder almost immediately. If you want to dig more into the comparison and pros and cons of the D850 vs Leica SL, check out my post where I compare those kings. Anyway, I never fell deeply in love with the D850, and I’m not infatuated with it (unlike so many other internet bloggers). It’s a good camera, don’t mistake me, but it’s just not a camera that speaks to me.

  • Image Quality: A wash.

    • Both produce spectacular results. Seriously. There’s a reason the labs are so in love with these sensors. I don’t test in a lab, but I have been nothing but impressed with the quality of the images both produce. The Z7 is reported to have marginally better dynamic range, but I don’t think it’s an appreciable difference.

  • Versatility: Nikon D850

    • The fact that the DSLR line has been on the market longer means there is more stuff available. More lenses. More after-market battery grips and do-hickeys. The Z7, while able to adapt to most F-mount lenses, looses some functionality with certain lenses. For instance, my macro lens doesn’t autofocus on the Z, but does on the D850. This isn’t a big deal to me, and the Z7 will quickly catch up in the market for availability of after market goodies. But, for now, we wait.

  • Shooting Experience: Nikon Z7

    • The Z7 has an electronic viewfinder. And I’m sorry to all you prism lovers, but electronic viewfinders are far superior. I also think the ergonomics and grip on the Z7 is better. Finally, the button placement on the Z7 and controls I think are a little better arranged. The D850 is very familiar — particularly for anyone who has experience with Nikon DSLRs — but the Z7 is refreshing in it’s modernity and form factor.

  • Size: Nikon Z7

    • No contest here. The Z7 is smaller in every dimension, and it’s lighter and easier to carry while traveling.

  • Autofocus: A wash.

    • Depending on which lens I am using, it waffles between the two cameras as to which is faster to focus. There are some lenses that are certainly faster on the D850, but the converse is also true. I would over an overall edge in focusing to the Z7 just because of the electronic viewfinder, and the versatility that affords in real-time evaluation of precise focus.

Overall, I give the Nikon Z7 a solid “better” over the D850, which mostly has to do with my shooting style. I am a landscape photographer….the trees and mountains aren’t moving. I can take my time to compose, focus, and create the image. For me, the benefits of a small, lightweight mirrorless camera far outweigh any cons this camera has, and the Z7 easily tops the D850 in my mind.

The D850 may be a more versatile camera today, but that will change in time. The Z system is brand new, and Nikon was pretty tight-lipped about the development, so it’s not surprising that there’s a lack of after-market accessories and 3rd party lens options. But that will change with time, and I imagine any benefit the D850 has in this regard today will be neutralized in a year or less.

Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL

This is where things get more complicated for me….I’ve established for myself that a mirrorless camera is far better than a prism DSLR. But when I compare two wonderful mirrorless cameras side-by-side, the evaluation get’s complicated.

The main reason I ever sold my Leica SL was because Leica was behind on the development of new lenses for the system, and I wanted a system where I could mount a 500mm super telephoto and then a 20mm wide angle. But I have always known the Leica glass is optically superior to that of Nikon, and now comparing two similar systems is very challenging.

  • Image Quality: Not sure yet!

    • I used the Leica SL for nearly two years. I published a book with it. I got to know that camera extremely well, and I knew what to expect from every image. I understood the limitations and strengths of the sensor, and when I needed to employ some creativity to capture the image I saw in my mind’s eye. Conversely, I have had the Nikon Z7 for a few weeks. The number of images I’ve taken with it number in the hundreds, compared to the tens of thousands. So I cannot definitively say that the Z7 is better than the SL (yet). However, the results I’ve seen thus far are very promising. The Z7 preserves fantastic shadow detail, has great tolerance for highlights, and has some of the most naturally vibrant colors I have seen in a camera. But until I’ve really pushed this camera to the edge, I can’t declare one of the cameras as better than the other in the image output.

  • Versatility: Nikon Z7

    • Ironically, the Z7 at it’s release was already more versatile than the Leica SL. Both companies released an adapter that allows for mounting of other system lenses on the mirrorless bodies, but Nikon has more lenses available, and therefore more versatility. Leica doesn’t offer long telephotos for nature photographers, nor do they have much selection in macro lenses. Nikon does; and their adapter permits more freedom of application for the Z7 on release day than the Leica SL has achieved in years of development.

  • Shooting Experience: Leica SL, by a hair

    • The Leica SL wasn’t perfect, and one of the most glaring flaws on that camera — the lack of ergonomics and harsh metal build — is actually one of the highlights of the Z7. However, the SL had much more customization, and the controls were a little better laid out and designed than those of the Z7. Nikon has opportunity to narrow that margin by offering firmware updates that permit different customization of the button controls, but until that happens, the SL has the edge in terms of experience. The SL had so many opportunities to customize the controls, that the camera became a natural extension of your brain, eyes, and hand. The Z7 has the potential to achieve that as well, with future software updates.

If I have to pick between the Z7 and SL today, it’s a tough call, but I probably pick the Z7. I’d make that choice based on the availability of lenses, cost, and that the image quality and shooting experience meet or have the potential to exceed that of the SL. Honestly, my attraction to the SL is probably driven more by emotion than anything else; I had a great run with that camera. It travelled around the world with me, and the artwork I made with the SL carries great emotional value. I haven’t had the Z7 long enough to bond with it in the same way.

You’re probably thinking that I talk and write about cameras as though they have feelings. Like that camera is more than just some metal and plastic and wires and circuits. To me, they are.

An effective camera is one that I bond with at a deeper level. Not that I have some sort of weird physical connection — but the connection like a painter has with his brushes and studio. When a camera has effectively become an extension of my eyes and brain, I can use it to capture the most beautiful sights on our planet. I think I’ll get there with the Z7. I think we’ll fall deeply in love, and that camera and I will forge a new bond. But it takes time, and I’m not there yet.

Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL vs Nikon D850

Now I know you want resolution. You read this far…. you don’t want to hear some soppy love story about a camera. You want the unvarnished truth about which is better. And I don’t want to disappoint you. So I’ll give you my personal rankings of these three cameras.

If you handed me a blank check and told me to purchase any of the three today, I would NOT pick the D850. Personally, I don’t see the benefits anymore. I’m all in on mirrorless.

I would buy the Z7. I see a ton of potential in this lineup. The lenses Nikon will release in the future; the promise of what is to come. It’s not a perfect camera yet, and the SL rivals it today. But the head room for the Z7 is much higher. Nikon is a bigger company with more money for R&D. There will be more strides and more innovation in the Z7. There will be more lenses for the Z7. The image quality probably matches or exceeds that of the Leica SL. Objectively, the Z7 today is a better place, and will almost certainly be the better choice in the long term.


Shooting Low and Slow: Hold Still

One of the often under appreciated benefits of a mirrorless camera is that you can effectively hand hold and get sharp images at slower shutter speeds than you can with a comparable DSLR.

In other words, I struggle to hand hold a sharp image at anything slower than 1/60th with the D850, but have no trouble hand holding at 1/20th on the Z7. I have pushed that a little further and - depending on the situation, my posture, and the scene, I’ve been known to sneak sharp images at 1/5th or slower.

What this means in practice is that you can use a lower ISO with the Z7 and achieve a better result. As good as sensors have become at shooting at higher ISOs, it’s still an indisputable fact that the best image will always come from a lower ISO. So if I can hand hold at night at ISO 400 vs ISO 1600, that’s a considerable improvement in image quality.


Adapting Beyond Nikon: Expand the Versatility

Nikon released the Z7 with the FTZ adapter, which allows Nikon F-mount lenses to me used on the Z7 and preserves full functionality on most modern lenses.

Almost immediately, the question became: “What else can we mount”?

The answer is almost anything. Sigma, Zeiss, Tamaron, etc all have made lenses for the Nikon F mount that can be adapted with the FTZ adapter with varying degrees of functionality. Likewise, 3rd party companies are developing adapters for mounting Canon, Hasselblad, Leica, Sony, and other lenses. In due time, there probably won’t be many lenses that can’t be attached to the Z7 in some way shape or form.

Personally, I’ll be investing in an adapter that will allow me to mount my Leica M-mount lenses from my Leica M10 onto the front of my Z7. I love manual focus lenses, and am excited by the prospect of using them on my Z7. There is already one adapter with a plastic mount on the market, but I’ll be waiting for the metal mounts….


Nikon Serial Numbers: Identify Yourself

Nikon seems to have stuck to their traditional serial numbering system for the Z-lineup of cameras.

The first digit of the serial number indicates the region the camera was for sale in, with the number 3 being for USA market cameras. Therefore, a serial number for a Z7 sold in the USA will have a serial number formatted as 3XXXXXX.

In my case, the serial number is 30009XX, representing a late-900’s serial number. It is my understanding that this means I have one of the first one thousand units delivered to the United States.

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Desired Upgrades and Improvements: Dear Nikon

There is no question that Nikon will be releasing several iterations of firmware for the Z7 in the coming months; such is the nature of a new product. There are inevitably bugs that weren’t found prior to the production software being released. These firmware updates also provide an opportunity for Nikon to upgrade a few features in the system, and so I will begin a list of “Dear Nikon” requests for future firmware updates:

  1. EVF Zoom Via Joystick: The joystick (located below the AF-ON button) has some user-customizable features, but there is one customization not included; the ability to zoom into the center of the EVF for precision focusing. As far as I can tell, the only way to zoom in on the viewfinder to check focus is via the + magnification glass button, which is toward the bottom of the body. Unfortunately, to reach that button, I have to contort my hand away from shooting position, so it’s very awkward to use. The Leica SL joystick allowed this feature, and I LOVED it — particularly for macro or telephoto shots. Nikon, please allow me to program the joystick click button as an alternate zoom button.

  2. Faster Joystick Tracking of AF Points: This will sound really stupid…. The joystick on the Leica SL was very responsive to movements of the AF points around the viewfinder. The Nikon Z7 joystick does not move the AF points with the same briskness, and I’d like to be able to speed it up. Please let it take less time for the focus cursor to move across the screen when I hold the joystick.

  3. More Friendly App Integration: Again, I am basing this on my experience with the Leica SL. The SL’s app and wifi integration was much cleaner, and there are too many cumbersome menus that aren’t well explained built into the Z7. Simplify this!

  4. Virtual Horizon Without the Whole Compass: I don’t understand why Nikon feels compelled to put this big compass thing (I know it’s not actually a compass, but I don’t know what else to call it) in the center of the frame with the virtual horizon line. Let me just have the line sans the extra stuff.

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Of course, I’ll also wish for some upgrades that are hardware, and that would have to wait for the next iteration of the camera before they could come to fruition. But it’s never too soon to ask! So here goes my initial list of requested future hardware upgrades:

  1. Built in GPS: Seriously, this technology has been super miniaturized, and it’s fun (and helpful) to see a map of all the photographs I’ve taken based on their geolocation metadata. No extra dongles, just put the GPS in body.

  2. A Slightly Taller Body: Nikon, I appreciate what you did to make this camera smaller and lighter than the D850; my camera bag appreciates it. However, the bottom of my pinky is just barely on the body, and it’d be nice to have a few extra millimeters to feel like my whole hand has a complete grip on the body.

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Must-Have Accessories: Pimp Your Z7

The dealer that sold you the camera would now love to convince you that you need to spend hundreds more in accessories to really get the most out of your camera. BS! But there are a few accessories I recommend for the Z7 to improve the experience:

  • Spare XQD cards

    • At the time of writing, the XQD format of card is still shockingly expensive, but that will change as more companies come to market. In the mean time, have one or two backup cards handy.

  • Spare batteries

    • You can use the EN-EL15A, EN-EL15B, or any of a number of 3rd party lenses. I think it’s worth paying a little more for the EN-EL15B battery, which allows for in-camera charging via USB.

  • Really Right Stuff L-Plate

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This is a living review; I will be updating it continuously in the coming weeks and months as I use the Z7 and can provide first-hand account and testimony of its performance. Until I have put the camera through its paces, I won’t be so irresponsible as to comment on every feature.

The Leica SL (Type 601) Camera Review

The SL (Type 601) is Leica Camera’s first foray into the world of mirrorless cameras. On the surface, this camera looks over priced and unable to compete with the dominance of companies like Sony…… but looks are often deceiving! As it turns out, the Leica SL is just what the photography market ordered and is a masterpiece by the Germany camera maker.

In fact, this isn't just the best Leica ever made, it's arguably the best digital camera ever made for professional photographers.

Release Thoughts

When I first heard about the Leica SL in the press releases, I was not impressed. The photos provided by Leica made the camera look monstrous and none of the technical specs jumped off the page. I was quick to dismiss it.

After the camera started to ship, some of the regular internet blogs I followed started to discuss the Leica SL and there was a overall sense of pleasant surprise; I wasn’t the only one to write off the camera before using one. Since initial looks and previews were positive, I decided to go play with a demo unit at the Leica Store in Mayfair London during a weekend trip to explore the London winter markets. 

I was so impressed, I pre-ordered my own copy that day.

Unboxing

I was having a bad week; a mouse had chewed through plumbing in our house, causing mass flooding. Thankfully nothing was damaged, but it was a close call as the ceiling nearly collapsed in my photo studio. I was lucky to salvage everything without issue! 

When the Leica Store Mayfair emailed me mid-week to let me know that an SL had arrived and it was mine for the taking, it did a wonder for my morale. New toys and gadgets can fix almost any problem! I asked Leica if they would charge the battery for me, as I’d come down to London to pick it up on Saturday and would want to shoot around town after I picking it up. True to their word, Leica generously charged everything and had it ready to go so I could enjoy a first day of shooting. Kudos to the Mayfair team for superb customer service!

The SL comes in a large black cardboard box. It’s about the same size as the boxes from Nikon for the D800 and D610. Unlike the M series cameras, which come with a box that is reminiscent of a jewelry box, this one is more straight forward and not as luxurious. But who cares about the box? The SL isn’t made for people who want schnazzy boxes, it’s made for photographers! 

Inside the box is a large foam insert with slots for all the components: battery, charger, cables, camera strap and the camera itself. 

The only surprise in the unboxing is that the SL does not come with a UK plug adapter as standard. I found this a little surprising considering the Leica M-P (Type 240) includes this and I purchased the camera in the UK. They offer a European two pin and the American two prong plugs, and I have plenty of adaptors, so no problems.

Charger & Batteries

The Leica SL takes a proprietary lithium ion battery that is sealed with a gasket so that, when inserted into the camera body, it maintains the weather sealing. The battery bottom also acts as the door for the battery hatch. Initially I though this was a little strange, but on reflection, I like the design. I have nearly ripped the battery hatch door off my Nikons before, so Leica has just removed a potential failure point.

The charger is like most Leica chargers; it includes lights to tell you when the battery is 80% charged and then fully charged. Batteries are inserted into the charger and then popped down snuggly into the charging station. Unlike the Leica M charger, where the cord is only a few inches long, the cord on the SL charger is long enough to be plugged into a floor level outlet while still resting on a table. 

A spare battery runs £95 GBP / $150 USD, which is reasonable. 

Strap

Leica provides a fairly solid camera strap with the SL. It has a stretchy neoprene neck pad and would probably be fairly strong if someone tried to cut it off you. That said, I won't be using the camera strap provided because I prefer even more solid designs, but what they give isn't terrible. There is no big and obscene Leica branding - of course the camera itself isn’t very subtle about being a Leica!

USB Cable

Provided with the Leica SL is a USB 3.0 cable that is also longer than expected. I don’t shoot tethered to my laptop very often, but it seems like the cable is just barely long enough to permit some tethered shooting. 

Accessories

At the time of launch, Leica announced several other accessories for the Leica SL that could be purchased after market. These include a battery grip, protective cover film for the back LCD screen, and a series of filters for the also released lenses. At this time, I haven’t purchased any accessories for the SL beyond what was provided, so any feedback on those will wait until they are released/purchased.

Construction & Build

Leica makes a lot of collector cameras - sets designed for the obscenely rich to buy and put on a shelf (I feel bad for those cameras). The Leica SL is not a collector camera. It’s not for those looking for a sexy and delicate camera. This is a photographers camera, and it shows.

The body is milled from a single solid block of aluminum, which makes it extremely solid and rugged. Design graphics provided by Leica show they have included a ton of little rings and gaskets to weather seal the camera from water and dust. In fact, Leica has even produced a video showing the Leica SL having a bucket of water dumped on it! As a landscape and outdoor photographer, this was a tremendous selling feature. 

The camera has a very simplistic design - rather than overwhelm the user with a zillion little labelled buttons, they have stuck to their value of “the essentials” and provided intelligently designed controls. I really like this; there are several buttons on the Nikon’s I’ve owned that I have literally never never used. Ever. Of course the risk with cutting buttons is creating cluttered menus, but even here, the construction and design is brilliant. The SL cleverly adds long press functionality like seen on some recent Apple products to give each button a series of options and commands. That allowed them to quickly cut the number of controls needed to a bare minimum without risking frustration from photographers who needed to work hard to change a setting like ISO.

Beyond the physical construction, Leica has taken some steps to appeal to tech savvy photographers by including elements like GPS and wifi into the camera. 

Ergonomics

The truth is, Leica didn’t design this camera for a woman’s hands. The majority of the people who buy and use an SL are men who will have bigger and longer hands than I do. As a result, I am always concerned that a camera’s ergonomics won’t fit me quite right.

Alas, the Leica SL fits comfortably in my small hands. All the controls are easily within reach and I actually think the size of my hands plays to my favor when holding the SL. My right thumb can easily reach the scroll wheels and joystick control while holding the camera to my face, and my right hand comfortably wraps around the hand grip. 

Weight wise, the Leica SL body is lighter than I expected it would be, considering the construction of the body. It’s heavier than a Leica M, so if that’s what you are accustomed to, it’ll seem like a brick, but for dSLR shooters, this isn’t “heavy.” Leica says that, with the battery, the camera weighs 850 grams. I can’t visualize 850 grams, but according to my calculator, that’s the same as holding five Apple iPhone 6’s. It’s also the same weight as the Nikon D800. The lens combination obviously has huge impact on the overall weight of the camera too.

Camera Sensor

The Leica SL comes with a 24 megapixel full frame (6000x4000 pixel) CMOS sensor. It has an infrared filter, but no low pass filter, which helps ensure maximum sharpness. This is probably the same sensor that was used in the also recently released Leica Q and that has received rave reviews. Side by side comparisons of the Leica SL and Leica Q still show differences in image quality, and that's because image quality is also based on processing, software, and other factors beyond the physical sensor. 

Battery Life

Using the camera all day (10+ hours) while walking around London and shooting in a variety of environments with the GPS enabled, I finished the day with the battery still having almost 50% of the original charge. I also used the onboard wifi and connected with the iPhone Leica App during that time, both of which really can tax batteries. In normal shooting conditions, assuming you aren't using too many of these features, a battery will easily last a day of shooting.

Of course I am too paranoid about missing a shot because of a dead battery, so I always carry a backup.

Lens Choices

Leica proudly boasts how the Leica SL can, with the right set of adaptors, be used with almost every lens they've ever made. But in reality, most of us will use the newly released SL series of lenses or will mount M lenses. 

SL Lenses

As part of the announcement of the Leica SL, Leica announced three lenses that would be released over a one year schedule to mount directly onto the SL mount. These lenses are designed to take advantage of all the camera's features, but owners of existing Leica glass can mount those lenses with a series of adaptors, so we aren't stuck waiting for lens releases. The most commonly mounted lenses will probably be the M series glass, so I'll address that below.

Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH

The first lens released with the SL is available at the time of shipping, and it's the most versatile of the lenses announced for the SL to date. A 24-70mm lens is considered one of the gold standards for professional photographers to own and Leica is improving on this common focal length by offering a 24-90mm with extra reach. This is a variable aperture lens, meaning it is f/2.8 at 24mm and f/4 at 90mm. Because it is an electronic lens, the aperture between those focal lengths varies and is digitally controlled; apertures in electronic lenses don't have to move in 1/2 or whole stop increments. Here's the largest aperture provided at some common focal lengths:

  • 24mm: f/2.8
  • 28mm: f/2.9
  • 35mm: f/3.1
  • 50mm: f/3.6
  • 75mm: f/3.8
  • 90mm: f/4

Leica doesn't build a lot of zoom lenses, and the reason is pretty simple - the engineering required to make a zoom lens that maintains consistent image quality through the zoom range is extremely complicated. Leica has very high standards that they have built a reputation on - and that reputation can't afford to release a flop lens. The Leica 24-90mm lens lives up to all of Leica's exacting standards, delivering fantastic clarity, contrast, color saturation, detail and sharpness at all focal lengths. At the same time, it's about the same size and weight as the 24-70mm lenses made by Canon and Nikon, so they achieved this incredible quality in a reasonably sized package.

For folks accustomed to using the M lenses, it will feel like they are hauling around a bazooka with this lens, but if you are like me and are used to the Nikon 24-70mm lens, this will feel very natural. Leica's goal when releasing the SL was to appeal to photographers like me who have always needed dSLRs, but with lenses like the Leica 24-90mm, I'll be ditching my remaining Nikon gear.

When I first heard about the lenses released for the Leica SL, I wasn't sure I wanted to buy the lens. I figured I could continue to use my M series glass and keep the setup more compact. After shooting with the demo body and lens at the Leica Store Mayfair, I changed my tune. The 24-90mm was incredibly fast to focus and staggeringly sharp. The only thing my M lenses offer over this lens is faster apertures and smaller size. Because this lens was really delightful to shoot with, I opted to purchase it, while still maintaining two of my M lenses for those times when I want a more compact and lightweight setup. 

Leica APO Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4

Just like the 24-70mm is a standard midrange zoom used by most professional photographers, the 70-200mm lens is considered the professional's telephoto of choice. Keeping with that, Leica has announced, but not yet released, a 90-280mm f/2.8-4 lens to meet the needs of professionals who are considering leaving their dSLR setups. Unfortunately, the lens is probably not going to be widely available until summer 2016, and I haven't seen any reliable pricing information. There have been some photos of demo units floating around at some Leica stores, but otherwise, little is known about this lens outside Leica's promotional materials. The good news is that with a focal length this long, Leica is promising superior autofocus and image stabilization (they claim it can compensation for 3.5 stops of camera shake). 

From the photos I've seen, the lens looks to be approximately the same size as the Nikon 80-400mm zoom that I've used for wildlife photography. If that's the case, it'll be larger than the other 70-200mm lenses on the market - but it also offers 80mm more reach than it's competitors. Either way, I will be eager to try one as soon as possible to see if this lens can meet my needs for wildlife shooting.

Leica Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 ASPH

Leica rangefinder users will probably be most excited for this 50mm prime, which is set to release late 2016. Again, no pricing information, but I can assume it will be a pretty penny. The 50mm Summilux lens for the M series cameras costs between $3,500-4,000 (depending on promotions), and it is a manual focus lens. Add autofocus and a much bigger lens (more glass), and I can't imagine this baby will be cheap. For that reason, I'll stick to the M series 50 Summilux, unless Leica blows me away with reasonable pricing.

For those who can afford what I imagine will be a pricey lens, the 50mm Summilux in the SL mount may be the lens that draws Leica rangefinder users to the SL. Those who are accustomed to prime lenses and crave lens speed over zoom will swoon for this lens, so I imagine it'll be a top seller. I also expect Leica will release several other fast primes in the SL mount - I'd guess a 35mm comes next?

M Lenses

The Leica SL is an incredible camera, and unless you really lust over a rangefinder, I suspect many M shooters will ditch their trusty M bodies in favor of an SL. The SL is nearly the same size and weight as an M, but with way more features, so why wouldn't you?

The appeal of using the SL with M lenses is that the electronic viewfinder can display any focal length lens without needing crazy adapters. No add-on field-of-view optics - just look into the viewfinder. What it shows is what you'll get! And if you like to shoot with a narrow depth of field at apertures ranging from f/0.95 to f/2, you're more likely to hit precise focus with a digital viewfinder than blindly trusting the calibration on the rangefinder. 

To use an M lens on the Leica SL, you'll need the Leica M-Adapter T (aka a M to T adaptor). The adaptor is pretty small and reasonably inexpensive and, as an added bonus, can read 6 bit coding on M lenses and transfer that information to the camera.

Camera functions like autofocus are disabled when you mount an M lens (for hopefully obvious reasons), and you can choose to shoot in aperture priority or manual mode. Features like focus peaking in the electronic viewfinder make achieving tack sharp focus much easier and turning those features on and adjusting them is easily done in the menus. Firmware update 1.2 also enabled a super zoom in for focusing by just pressing down on the joystick while looking through the EVF. It's a fantastic feature!

....And it Makes Some Fine Images!

Image Quality

I always shoot in RAW (14 bit color depth) and edit my images to get the maximum quality in the finished result. Since RAW images assume no sharpening, contrast, color saturation, etc, RAW images tend to look dull until edited. The RAW images from the Leica SL are far from dull!

The first time I downloaded the images into Adobe Lightroom, I kept excitedly telling my husband how great they were. Although they were still RAW files, there was incredible dynamic range, color, and detail present. A few selective adjustments and the images really popped - easily the best quality I have natively seen from a camera. The image results totally dominate the RAW files created by the Leica M-P (Type 240). Likewise, they far exceed results I’ve seen from any of my Nikon’s. 

I don't do scientific reviews, because I also don't shoot with a lab coat and clipboard. I shoot in the real world and use real world photos as the basis for my review, and I have been nothing but impressed by the image quality that comes from the SL. Leica's engineers clearly have worked very hard to squeeze every drop of goodness out of this sensor and it makes the sensor of the Leica M-P (Type 240) look like a kids toy. Lenses like the 50mm Summilux f/1.4, which have a distinctive "Leica look" only look better with the SL!

If you are a landscape photographer, then this is your camera. I am totally blown away by the quality of this camera, especially with the 24-90mm lens. The following images were all taken with that combination, and required minimal editing in Lightroom to deliver the results you see here.....

Window Dressing - Leica SL & 24-90mm @ f/3.3, 1/40 sec

Incredible detail and color - the sand looked more black to my eye, but the Leica SL captured all the little golden flecks that really give the sand interest and texture. f/4 @ 1/160th

Of course, the Leica SL generates some lovely images to convert to black and white. This was converted using Nik Silver Effects...... oh, and this was hand held at f/22 @ 1/6th!

The Leica 24-90mm practically serves as a macro lens, offering incredible color and detail on a nice short focus. f/22 @ 1/80th

Check out the detail and sharpness! I barely touched any sliders in Adobe Lightroom to get this image from the RAW .DNG file.

Color bands on the Hunstanton Cliffs on the coast of England. f/4 @ 1/60th

Leica wants the SL to appeal to landscape photographers. With results like this, that won't be an issue! f/7.1 @ 1/100th

Leica wants the SL to appeal to landscape photographers. With results like this, that won't be an issue! f/7.1 @ 1/100th

Lots of texture with shadows and highlights, yet the Leica SL renders it beautifully.

Nice results when using a neutral density filter on a f/22 @ 2.5 second exposure. Nice and sharp and clean.

Great cropping potential with a 90mm lens and some tremendous image quality. This is a 100% crop and the bird eyes are still tack sharp.

ISO Performance

Like I previously mentioned, I am not a scientist, so I don't shoot crazy side-by-side comparison photos. But I am a real photographer that shoots in real environments, and the ISO performance of this camera, when used in the real world, is incredible. I normally shoot at auto ISO settings and only override the camera if I want something like a long exposure via neutral density filter. Using manual ISO, the Leica SL did a nice job maintaining a low ISO while balancing a shutter speed I could hand hold; when shooting in Aperture Priority, I normally found the camera would prefer ISO 50 while maintaining shutter speeds above 1/80th. I did shoot some photographs of my Christmas tree and found unbearable noise didn't show until above 25,000 and 50,000 was pretty noisy - but it's also stupid crazy ISO to really shoot at. If you are shooting at ISO 50k, you've made the decision to sacrifice quality in favor of getting an image, so who cares?

Video

One of the features that appealed to me on the Leica SL is the video functionality built into the camera. Video features never made sense to me on the Leica M series - it’s not the kind of camera I would use to film anything beyond a 10 second memory clip. For that reason, I still had been holding onto my Nikon D610 for video work.

Now that I own the Leica SL, I’ll be selling the Nikon D610 as the SL has met and surpassed the video capabilities. I am not a professional videographer, so I’d be speaking out of turn to evaluate the video quality, but 4K video should be more than enough for me to film short snippets for YouTube videos.

The video specs are as follows:

  • Resolution: 4K (4096 × 2160) @ 24 fps; 4K (3840 × 2160) @ 25 and 30 fps; 1080 @ 24, 25, 30, 50, 60, 100 and 120 fps; 720 @ 24, 25, 30, 50, 60, 100 and 120 fps
  • L-Log gamma selectable
  • HDMI video output (enabled recording via external monitor)
  • Compatible with Leica Cine-Lenses
  • Record in MP4 and MOV formats
  • Stereo microphone, 48 kHz
  • Audio in/out via additional connector
  • Up to 29 min recording duration

Shooting Experience

Electronic Viewfinder

The EVF has to be one of Leica’s crowning achievements in this camera and I suspect it will force other camera manufacturers to step up their game when it comes to viewfinders. 

Until demo-ing the Leica SL, I had never used an EVF. The Nikon’s, Leica M, and analog film cameras that I’m most accustomed to using are optical viewfinders - either a rangefinder or a mirror with prism. I had never been drawn to an EVF because it seemed like it would introduce problems; a mirror doesn’t use any battery power! My experiences using Live View features has never been all that great - it’s a "nice to have" feature but lags and is slow to start. Installing a small Live View screen into a viewfinder just struck me as opportunity to fail, not to succeed.

What I’d failed to consider was the benefits of an EVF. Most notably, the EVF allows you to preview and review images in the viewfinder. I don’t have to take my eye away from the eyepiece to check if the camera captured the image correctly anymore. I don’t have to consult with the back screen for any detailed information. While I shouldn’t have been so surprised that an EVF offered more functionality than a traditional optical viewfinder, I had never put any thought into the issue. So if you are used to an optical viewfinder, try an EVF just to see if it changes your life like it did mine!

The EVF in the Leica SL is 4.4 megapixels and is very sensitive. According to Leica, it has a 37 degree field of view and is full frame. There is an external diopter control for those with glasses, and folks with glasses can also adjust the eyepiece auto-on sensitivity. I found that it did a nice job adjusting to ambient light and was easy to use in near total darkness later a night. It is also very fast and responsive to the human eye and automatically turns on/off when you look through it. Unlike most Live View functions, which need a second or two of startup time, the EVF is almost instant, so if I miss a shot, it’s not because of the EVF!

While I can tell it isn’t an optical viewfinder, the EVF is nearly life-like in the quality, colors, and rendition of the image. I appreciate the various in-screen information that can be displayed via the EVF, including a histogram to see clipping, focus peaking, or zooming for precise focus. Again, none of these features should surprise me, but coming from an optical viewfinder world, I find the ability to access this information via the eyepiece really wonderful. 

We will talk about pricing later in the review, but this EVF is incredibly well built and designed, and I think the difference in price between this and competitor cameras can easily be justified by considering the EVF’s clarity and performance.

Joystick

Leica did away with the extra buttons that clutter the back of other SLR cameras by utilizing a series of smart controls. One of these controls is a little joystick near the viewfinder. The location of the joystick is such that you can use your thumb to control the joystick while still looking through the viewfinder, which is great, because the joystick can allow you to move a focus crosshair around. The joystick was also very fast and smooth; it reminded me of the joystick on a video game controller with the smooth operation.

One of the cool features is that with firmware 1.2, you can click in on the joystick with a manual focus (M series) lens and the camera will zoom in the EVF to help you achieve pinpoint focus. If you are shooting a lens like the f/0.95, that'll be a huge focus assist.

The joystick also controls functions in the menus, which makes it a breeze to zoom through the menu screens.

Leica SL App

Many people dislike the Leica apps that allow integration with a smart phone, but, for me, the app is actually one of the surprises of this camera and shouldn’t be overlooked. Like the EVF, this app will change the way I shoot.

The Leica SL app is found in the Apple iTunes or Android app stores and using it requires the camera to be put into wifi mode (which probably shortens the battery life) and it then broadcasts its own wifi signal. To connect your phone to the camera, you either enter a unique password, or scan the QR code that comes up on the back of the camera. Once connected, the app serves as a remote control for the camera.

Using the app, you see a real-time preview of what the camera sees. You can touch the screen on the app to move the focus point or adjust shooting settings like aperture or shutter. There is a capture button that then lets you take the image remotely. Virtually all major camera controls are adjustable via the app.

Why is this important? Let me tell you how many hundreds of dollars I’ve wasted on remote controls and other external operations for my other cameras..... None of them worked as well as this did. If I had owned this camera on my recent trip to Wales, I would have used it to shoot long exposures without having to touch the camera and risk introducing camera shake. It’s completely brilliant and very easy to use and allows me to forgo more gadgetry like shutter releases.

Another added bonus of the app is that it allows you to view photos on the memory card and download them to your phone. Awesome. Now I can use the app to grab that photograph I just took and upload it to Facebook before I’ve even left the site. With the improvement of Adobe’s Creative Cloud system, this type of technology will change the way photographers share images with clients in near-real time. 

Touchscreen

Leica did something very cool when they made the screen on the back of the camera touch enabled. I actually forget that the back screen is touch enabled because I am not used to a feature like that! But with the touch screen, you can easily control the focus points, or quickly swipe through photos. It's a handy bonus feature built in - one I didn't need to be sold on the camera, but that only makes it that much better!

GPS

The Leica SL includes built in GPS functionality, which I rather enjoy. As an outdoor and landscape photographer, this enables me to view images spatially on a map and not have to worry about keyword tagging the location of the photo. I always wanted to play with GPS accessories for Nikon, but was too cheap to buy the accessories to enable GPS tagging. I wouldn’t have blamed Leica if they didn’t include the GPS, but the fact that they did is just another great bonus. I found the GPS acquires a signal in surprisingly fast time, but I haven’t been able to accurately evaluate the impact to the battery life. Using the GPS all day walking around London, I only half drained the battery, so as long as I carry a spare battery, it shouldn’t be an issue to use for a day of shooting. 

Problems & Complaints

No camera is perfect, but the Leica SL is damn close... that said, I can offer one problem and two complaints:

SD Card Issue

There seems to be an issue where using a large memory card in slot 1 causes a slow start up. As far as I've been able to diagnose, the problem is that the camera wants to index the memory card before being ready to shoot. When I put a 128GB card into slot 1, it takes almost 7 seconds to be ready to shoot. If I put a 16GB card into that slot, it takes 1.5 seconds. Using that same 128GB card in the Leica M-P (240), it starts immediately, so that tells me the problem is software based. I recorded a video of the issue and have swapped emails with Leica - they confirm the issue can probably be fixed in a future firmware update. If Leica fixes this (which I believe they will), then I won't have any issues with the software.

On/Off Switch

So this will sound crazy, but the Leica SL is the first camera I've owned where the on/off switch isn't located where accessible with my right hand. As a result, it takes two hands to get the camera 'ready to shoot' - my right hand holding the grip while the left flips the power switch. This is a muscle memory problem, but it will take me a few weeks to get used to this arrangement. 

Camera Strap Lugs

I love the way the Leica M camera straps attach with the little lugs on the side. The SL has slots where the strap feeds through, and that irritates me because I can't use some of the great straps I own already. Even when I buy a new strap, I don't like the way it sits on my body with the straps fixed in that position. Sure, I can use a sling strap that attaches to the tripod mount on the bottom, but then that blocks access to the tripod mount. It may seem fickle, but its the little things that make the biggest annoyances. Of course, that's not a reason NOT to buy the SL!

Pricing

When it comes to Leica, pricing can be an awkward subject. 

“Oh, that’s a nice camera, what does it cost?”

Holding a Leica, I always feel like I’m being judged. Is she filthy rich? (No: I sold all my Nikon gear and some other old stuff to purchase this)

When you really break apart this camera and compare it to some of the ‘competition’, I think Leica actually priced this camera very fairly. Sony doesn’t make a body like this, and neither does Nikon or Canon, so determining the market value is a bit tricky. The Nikon D4S, which is the top of Nikon’s line and is presumably the type of camera competing with the Leica (despite differences like EVF, sensor resolution, shooting speed, etc), costs $6,500 at the time of writing. That’s $1,000 less than the Leica. But no one is gawking at that saying “wow, Nikon is just inflating their brand!”

Bottom line, I won’t pretend that at $7,500, the Leica SL is a cheap camera, because it’s not. But I also will stand here and say with a straight face that Leica priced competitively when compared to other top-of-the-line cameras from Nikon and Canon. I think the Leica SL will also sell very well because there are far more features built in for the price than something like the Leica M, which lacks EVF, auto focus, etc.

About this Review

I buy all the gear I review - no freebies, no demo units. This camera was paid for with my own hard earned bucks, and therefore I'm not indebted to anyone to say nice things. The fact that I've paid this much for the camera and am absolutely silly stupid in love is 100% genuine based on the goodness the Leica SL has delivered!

First Impressions: Leica SL

Question: What makes the ‘perfect camera’?
Answer: The one you use.

For some time, I have been searching for the perfect camera to replace my Nikon D800. I absolutely loved shooting with the D800, but my photography was moving a different direction, and I wanted a smaller specialized system that fit my style of shooting. Earlier this year, I sold the Nikon setup and moved into a Leica M rangefinder system. Since then, I’ve been in love with the Leica system, which emphasizes “Das Wesentliche” - the essentials. 

While I have enjoyed shooting the Leica M series, it’s not the prefect camera for me; at times I’ve been left lusting for a feature omitted in that camera. I follow some of the internet rumors sites and heard discussion of a new Leica camera, dubbed the SL. After the camera was released, like many other Leica users, I was quick to dismiss it. The camera seemed like it was 5 years too late to hit the market. Some of the cameras have since started to ship, and initial reviews were glowing, so I decided to pay the London Mayfair Leica Store a visit to demo a Leica SL for myself.

What follows is my first impressions of the Leica SL using it in store at Leica Mayfair; this is not an exhaustive review. I’ll save that for once I own one. But I hope that the following information helps someone who may not have access to a local Leica store or may not have the opportunity to demo before they buy.

Shooting the Leica SL in the Mayfair showroom. You can get a sense for the ergonomics with the 24-70mm lens mounted on front.

Shooting the Leica SL in the Mayfair showroom. You can get a sense for the ergonomics with the 24-70mm lens mounted on front.

*Disclaimer* There’s no point in even getting into the pricing of the camera. Leica makes expensive cameras, but I actually don’t think this is priced all that crazy….. It’s expensive, but I actually think Leica will sell tons of these cameras!

Features Snapshot:

    - 24 megapixel CMOS sensor

    - 4.4 megapixel electronic viewfinder

    - Continuous shooting up to 11 frames per second

    - Ability to mount Leica T, M, S, and R lenses (with adaptors)

    - Solid body construction

    - Fully weather sealed

    - Dual SD card slots

    - Built in wifi and GPS

    - Touch screen on the back

    - Top LED screen for camera controls

    - ISO up to 50,000

    - Lots more - read the full specs here

First Impressions:

Before going to see the Leica SL for myself, I read the entire internet’s worth of information about the camera (Links: Steve Huff and Kristian Dowling have the best reviews) . So I knew how to work it and what to expect in terms of unlabelled buttons and functionality. What the internet doesn’t offer is a really great understanding of the “in hand” experience of holding and using the camera. 

Electronic Viewfinder

This is a logical place to start, because it’s one of the first places you look. I have never used a camera with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) before, but I understood appeal of the concept. Part of my reluctancy with them was that I didn’t feel like that technology was good enough at this point to justify buying. People like Steve Huff spoke very highly of the EVF, but lacking in experience with these, I still needed to see it to believe it.

The EVF automatically detects your eye and turns on instantly. I had been nervous that the EVF would be like live view on the back screen of the M where it needs a moment to start up. Thankfully, this is not the case! Missing a shot because you were waiting for the EVF to turn on is a non-concern. Phew.

Once on, it’s a very bright and extremely clear screen. I was immediately impressed. Having never used an EVF before, I had never taken the time to consider the extra value of having a screen vs a mirror. For instance - the camera can display information via the viewfinder that normally I have to look at the back screen to see like a histogram or clipping information. I used to take my eye away from the camera viewfinder to look at the back screen to determine if I had a good image, but Leica has enabled me to continue to look through the viewfinder and get that information. Holy cow, that’s going to change the way I shoot!

The viewfinder is also very fast and had almost imperceptible lagging. It was easy to use features like focus peaking to quickly achieve sharp focus on a manual lens, which would be great for something like the f/0.95 Noctilux series.

The EVF turns on automatically when you bring your eye up to the viewfinder. Even from this far away, you can tell how bright and beautiful this EVF looks!

The EVF turns on automatically when you bring your eye up to the viewfinder. Even from this far away, you can tell how bright and beautiful this EVF looks!

Look at that big bright viewfinder. Lot's of useful information displayed on screen. You can also see the focus peaking (the neon blue on the display cases) indicating what is in focus.

Look at that big bright viewfinder. Lot's of useful information displayed on screen. You can also see the focus peaking (the neon blue on the display cases) indicating what is in focus.

This is the closest view I could get of the EVF. Look how incredibly sharp it is!

This is the closest view I could get of the EVF. Look how incredibly sharp it is!

Joystick Toggle 

Leica did away with the extra buttons that clutter the back of other SLR cameras by utilizing a series of smart controls. One of these controls is a little joystick near the viewfinder. The location of the joystick is such that you can use your thumb to control the joystick while still looking through the viewfinder, which is great, because the joystick can allow you to move a focus crosshair around. The joystick was also very fast and smooth; it reminded me of the joystick on a video game controller with the smooth operation. I never really used single point focus on my Nikon D800 because the four-way toggle on that camera made it slow and cumbersome, but the joystick would allow you to move the crosshair very quickly. The joystick also controls functions in the menus, which makes it a breeze to zoom through the menu screens. I didn’t really put much stock into the joystick when I had read about the camera before, but found it was one of my favorite controls.

The touch screen LCD with four control buttons, all of which are programmable. The joystick is located just right of the viewfinder. Ironically, the only labelled button is the on/off switch. I guess Leica assumed we weren't smart enough to figure out that switch!

The touch screen LCD with four control buttons, all of which are programmable. The joystick is located just right of the viewfinder. Ironically, the only labelled button is the on/off switch. I guess Leica assumed we weren't smart enough to figure out that switch!

Back LCD Screen

Leica did something very cool when they made the screen on the back of the camera touch enabled. Again, I didn’t appreciate this until I got to use it, and I almost forgot to play with it because I’m used to the screen being just a screen. But with the touch screen, you can easily control the focus points, or quickly swipe through photos. I don’t think it will be long before the rest of the industry follows Leica’s example to include smart screens on their devices. 

Size and Weight

For being a company that specializes in photographic equipment, Leica did themselves a disservice by making the initial advertising materials make this camera look huge. I have shot a Leica S before and know how big and cumbersome that camera can be to carry all day. The first photographs of the SL looked equally huge and bulky. Thankfully it’s just poor photography on Leica’s part; the camera is actually rather small and compact. I like the ergonomics better than the Leica M; the hand wrap around grip makes it feel secure when holding one handed. It also weighs far less than I expected, especially if you use it with M series lenses.

Two cameras - one of which is already a piece of history (the Hasselblad), while the other is likely to become one of Leica's greatest achievements. Side-by-side size comparison.

Two cameras - one of which is already a piece of history (the Hasselblad), while the other is likely to become one of Leica's greatest achievements. Side-by-side size comparison.

Size comparison next to the iPhone 6 plus. I realize this isn't the best comparison photo for size, but work with what ya got, right?!

Size comparison next to the iPhone 6 plus. I realize this isn't the best comparison photo for size, but work with what ya got, right?!

Construction

I didn’t take their demo camera into the bathroom and run it under the sink, but Leica claims the SL is fully weather and dust sealed, which is critical for me as a landscape and outdoor photographer. I could tell just from holding it that the camera is very well made; things like the SD card door had more heft and substance to them than any other camera I’ve ever used. This camera is designed to be used in tough environment, and it shows. You aren’t paying for a fru-fru look but don’t touch camera here, this is a photographers camera!

Ergonomics

I played with the camera using both M series lenses and the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH lens that was introduced with the camera. I actually prefer the feel of the camera with the 24-90mm lens! Yes, the lens is far bigger than an M lens, but it gave balance to holding the camera. While my right hand is busy holding the body, my left hand felt like it didn’t have a job but to move the focus ring on the M lenses. With the larger 24-90mm lens, I felt like I could really get a good solid grasp on the camera and it had nice weight and balance.

Likewise, I really like the button placement. With small woman hands, this is always a point of concern - my hands aren’t the ones Leica built this camera for! Yet it fit perfectly - all the controls were easily reached and natural. I have to assume Leica spent countless hours with German engineers in lab coats debating every single button placement to make sure it was intelligent, correct, and fit with the Leica philosophy. Bravo.

The Leica SL App

This was something most other reviewers skimmed past. It was mentioned like “oh yeah, and they have an app.” For me, the app is actually one of the surprises of this camera and shouldn’t be overlooked. Like the EVF, this app will change the way I shoot.

I installed the app onto my iPhone 6 while at Leica Mayfair. The camera has to be put into wifi mode (no idea what affect that has on the battery life) and it then broadcasts its own wifi signal. To connect your phone to the camera, you either enter a unique password, or scan the QR code that comes up on the back of the camera. Once connected, the app serves as a controller for the camera.

The connection screen for the Leica SL app

The connection screen for the Leica SL app

The camera controls section of the app. Touching the screen moves the cross hair for focusing around the image. There is very minimal lag between this app and the camera.

The camera controls section of the app. Touching the screen moves the cross hair for focusing around the image. There is very minimal lag between this app and the camera.

The synchronization between the app and the back of the camera is quite good - the same image is displayed on both. I can think of many applications for landscape photography!

The synchronization between the app and the back of the camera is quite good - the same image is displayed on both. I can think of many applications for landscape photography!

Using the app, you see a real-time preview of what the camera sees. You can touch the screen on the app to move the focus point or adjust shooting settings like aperture or shutter. There is a capture button that then lets you take the image remotely. While I didn’t explore the entire depths of the app in my demo, it seemed like most major camera controls were accessible via the app.

Why is this important? Let me tell you how many hundreds of dollars I’ve wasted on remote controls and other external operations for my Nikon D800. None of them worked as well as this did. If I had owned this camera on my recent trip to Wales, I would have used it to shoot long exposures without having to touch the camera and risk introducing camera shake. It’s completely brilliant and very easy to use.

Viewing the images already on the card via the Leica SL app. By selecting any photo, you can download it to your phone in full resolution.

Viewing the images already on the card via the Leica SL app. By selecting any photo, you can download it to your phone in full resolution.

Downloading an image from the app onto my iPhone

Downloading an image from the app onto my iPhone

Another added bonus of the app is that it allows you to view photos on the memory card and download them to your phone. Awesome. Now I can use the app to grab that photograph I just took and upload it to Facebook before I’ve even left the site. With the improvement of Adobe’s Creative Cloud system, this type of technology will change the way photographers share images with clients in near-real time. I’m excited by the prospects!

Image quality

I obviously didn’t do an exhaustive test of the image quality while in the Leica showroom, but I did use the previously mentioned app to download a few shots I took of my husband, who patiently read the Leica LFI magazine while I played. Considering they are JPEG files, they rendered very nicely! I also converted one to black and white using Nik Silver Effects.

With the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH lens, there was nice smooth bokeh effects - the below images were shot at f/3.7 and you can see the soft focus on the jeans and magazine pages, but sharpness on the jacket and face.

The .JPEG image that I took of my husband as it came off the camera.... no adjustments

The same image, but with quick edits in Adobe Photoshop. The biggest adjustment was for white balance.

A crop from the above image. Here you can see the soft focus on the magazine and jeans, but sharp focus on the jacket and chin.

With a 2 second conversion in Nik Silver Effects. Beautiful results, considering I didn't even compose enough to get the bottom of the display case out of the bottom of the frame!

The EXIF data on the above photographs

One last shot - again without any edits. This is the full size file, so feel free to download and peek more closely. Or click on the image for a full size preview.

Overall

I was totally blown away by the Leica SL. A mirrorless camera also introduces new opportunities that I had previously not considered; for instance, I was able to shoot at 1/25th hand held and still get crisp images. Normally I can’t get below 1/60th without introducing camera shake. Furthermore, features like the EVF, app integration, and controls like the joystick worked better than I expected. I now understand that, while on paper this camera may look like it was introduced too late to keep up with Sony in the mirrorless camera department, it actually comes at the perfect time.

Having tried the camera with the new Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH lens, I plan to purchase the lens too. I originally was considering only the body and continuing to use the M lenses, but that lens was incredibly smooth, sharp, and really brings out the best in the SL body. I’ll still use M lenses, but I think I’ll sell most of my M lenses to help pay for the 24-90mm lens.

I am now on a wait list with Leica to get my own camera and hopefully will have it in the coming weeks. As soon as I do, I’ll take more test shots in “real world” environments and post a full review. Stay tuned!