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.
- 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.
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.
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!