I know what you are thinking. This is an odd pair of cameras to compare head-to-head. The Nikon D850 and Leica SL are not really competitors, are they?
I call this a comparison of the kings because I am facing off the flagship cameras from Nikon and Leica; the target audience for the two systems is likely similar, even though the cameras themselves are very different.
Having used the Leica SL full-time for almost two years, I am very comfortable with the strengths and weaknesses of that camera. The Nikon D850 is new to me, yet all of the laboratory tests and review bode extremely well for this new system. So this test is just as much a matter of resolving a personal curiousity as it is anything else.
Doing a test of two different camera systems is rather challenging; lenses play a huge role in the image result, so I needed to neutralize any difference in image that comes as a result of the lens. To do that, I purchased the Novoflex adaptor that allowed me to mount Nikon lenses to the Leica SL. This way, all images were shot with the same test lenses, and we're really comparing apples to apples (no really, you'll see....).
Presumably Leica's lenses have an advantage over the Nikon lenses in terms of sharpness; Leica is known for their incredible engineering and lens designs. At the very end, I run a test comparing a Leica SL image shot with a Nikon lens to a Leica SL image shot with a Leica lens. That will help illustrate how much of an impact lenses have on the specific image. But we'll get to that later.
Without further ado, let's look at the cameras themselves and dive into a series of head-to-head comparisons.
About the Cameras
The Leica SL has been on the market over a year longer than the D850, but it remains the flagship camera in Leica's lineup for outdoor, nature, adventure, and travel photographers. In many ways, the Leica SL rocked the market; Leica was the first major company to produce a "professional worthy" mirrorless camera with electronic viewfinder. They proved that mirrorless was a viable solution for professionals by creating a fully weather sealed system that could keep pace with the 'big boys' from Nikon and Canon.
To mark the 100 year anniversary of Nikon, the Nikon D850 was released with great expectation and fanfare. The D850 shattered records for sales and has achieved the highest bench score in laboratory testing for a digital camera. The new camera features a 46 megapixel sensor, which offers mind-bending detail.
On paper, the D850 is a superior camera in terms of technical specs. It edges the Leica SL in terms of dynamic range, color sensitivity, and price. Comparing those technical specs, we can see that there is one other notable difference - the viewfinder.
Preference in viewfinder is fairly subjective to the individual. Each has pros and cons, but I would take an electronic viewfinder any day. I didn't always have this preference, but the Leica SL spoiled me, and an electronic viewfinder / mirrorless shooting is definitely one of the things I miss when using the D850.
The differences in resolution, dynamic range, and color sensitivity between the two systems is rather impressive on paper, but I was curious to see how that manifested in photographs. Would I really be able to tell the difference?
Mirrorless Digital Camera
Traditional dSLR Design
Greater Dynamic Range & Color Depth
About the Tests
As mentioned, I used a Novoflex adaptor to mount Nikon mount lenses onto the Leica SL camera body. I also set the cameras to have the same settings between the cameras; ISO was set to 100 with both cameras, white balance was set to auto, same apertures were used, etc.
The photos were all taken on a tripod mounted in the exact same spot. The use of a tripod also reduced any vibrations.
I manually focused every photo using live view and selecting the same focus point for both cameras.
Using the lens adaptor also has some impact to the magnification factor of the image. You will see that in the results below. Not a huge deal, but worth noting.
SL - Nikon
Guitar - Nikon D850 vs Leica SL with Nikon 58mm f/1.4 Lens
This was the first comparison I made between the two cameras; a photograph of my Teye electric guitar. I set the cameras to focus on the words "VOL 1" over the left knob.
Without super-zooming into the details, you can see that the Nikon D850 (left) is much sharper than the image produced by the Leica SL (right).
Click to enlarge any photograph
A zoom into the details of the knobs really highlights the difference in resolution. Remember the Nikon D850 has twice the megapixels of the Leica SL. On the D850, you can make out the texture of the metal under the lettering with great detail, but the SL lacks the same fine details.
I looked at these photographs before taking any more images and was blown away. I almost considered ditching this comparison because it was so clear that the D850 was the winner. But I pressed on. I figured I should do one more test before scraping this whole adventure....
Test Verdict: Hands down the D850 wins. Not even worth discussion. At this point I also became concerned that lens choice had a lot to do with the results. The Nikon 58mm f/1.4 is know as a softer lens, but one with great 3D "pop". So I'll explore other lenses in the next tests to evaluate that concern. So for my next test, I'll use a lens that is undisputed as the king of sharpness.
Applejack - Nikon D850 vs Leica SL with Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Lens
In lab testing, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens is considered one of - if not the - sharpest lens on the market today. So it seemed appropriate to pull it out of the cabinet for some comparison testing. For this test, I chose to again photograph some text, but under different lighting. This time I used a bottle of Applejack Brandy.
Click to enlarge any photograph
I immediately found that the difference between the two cameras was harder to pick out in this test. Only when I really zoom in tight on the lettering can I start to find a difference in the resolution.
Unfortunately, while this test proved that maybe the difference in the two cameras isn't as extreme as the first test made it seem, this still wasn't a very realistic test.... I don't photograph words for a living! I needed to test in more "real world" conditions.
Test Verdict: A bit better for the D850, particularly when zoomed in on the label detail. But if you don't crop often, or if high resolution product photography from close range isn't something you do often, then it's nearly a draw. This also supports that lens choice had more to do with the first results than the camera. We will look at lens choices more in the next section.
Leica Lens vs Nikon Lens - Performance Impact
One concern I had was that Nikon lenses might not be as sharp as the comparable Leica lens. The only way for me to objectively test this was to do a head-to-head comparison of Nikon's mid-range zoom against Leica's mid-range zoom, using the same camera for both tests. So this next comparison isn't about the camera, but the difference the lens makes on the camera.
I compared the Leica 24-90mm Vario-Elmarit-SL against the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 G lens. Both lenses were shot at 50mm and f/11.
Click to enlarge any photograph
Wow, that was an unexpected result! I did not adjust white balance or any other settings between the two shots, but you can see the Nikon image takes on a heavy yellow cast compared to the more pure blue & white of the Leica lens. Let's look closer.
Not only is the SL image a more accurately toned image, it is also sharper. Here is another comparison:
If you look carefully at the word "Honda" on the two comparisons above, you can see that the Leica lens is sharper than the Nikon equivalent (click to enlarge any image). And while there is a difference in the toning, a few adjustments in Lightroom and these photos basically look the exact same.
Test Verdict: Good glass matters! Which I already knew, but it was very interesting to see the results. Presumably a combination of missing in-camera lens adjustments and less perfect glass caused the Leica SL to think the image taken with the Nikon lens needed a warmer white balance setting. Thankfully, that's easy to adjust, but the difference in sharpness remains. And while that difference is only really visible when we zoom into the photograph, it does matter. If we're splitting hairs on the sharpness and resolution of these two cameras, then we need to do so under the best circumstances, which is why I will continue to include the Leica 24-90mm lens in the remainder of my testing.
Headed Outside - "Real World" Image Comparison
The problem with the above camera vs camera tests is that they are comparing details on still life images in my kitchen, which is not where I normally take photographs. The best way to actually test the real performance difference is to shoot something like I actually would photograph.
Below is our test scene (yes, it's the same scene as the one used for the lens comparison). I photographed the same scene with three combinations of camera + lenses:
- Nikon D850 with Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 G lens
- Leica SL with Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 G lens
- Leica SL with Leica 24-90mm Vario-Elmarit-SL lens
Click to enlarge any photograph. All images in this series shot at f/11.
As we learned in the previous section, lens selection does matter, so I carried that result and variable to this set of tests by including the Leica 24-90mm lens in my series.
At first glance, the biggest difference in the above images is that the center image has a more yellow hue than the others (the white balance is EXACTLY the same, remember), but otherwise, it's hard to differentiate between the shots. Let's zoom in on the details:
For me, this test was extremely enlightening. The inferior quality of the Nikon lens compared to the SL lens is immediately obvious (which we determined earlier). But when comparing the Nikon D850 + Nikon 24-70mm against the Leica SL + Leica 24-90mm, the winner isn't so clear cut.
Look again. Only when I zoom in to 600% and 800% zoom, respectively, do I start to see the SL image break down in pixelation, while the D850 holds strong. How often do you use an 800% crop? And even though the SL image has started to pixelate, it still looks sharper as there is greater contrast between the black letters and white border.
Unless I was really going to blow this image up to full size, I wasn't immediately convinced that the resolution difference was as important in real world shooting when the camera is a greater distance from the subject.
Test Verdict: Coin flip. Assuming you are using Leica glass in front of the Leica sensor, it's very difficult to differentiate between the results made by the D850 and SL. Even though the D850 is a touch sharper (aka has more resolution) when zoomed in beyond 600%, the SL still has the appearance of being sharper due to great contrast between the black lettering and white banner. The blackest blacks are blacker on the SL (yes, that's a real thing).
Which is Which?
Now, looking at the above images as examples, can you tell which camera took which photograph of this apple? The photos have been edited slightly, but are basically "from the camera".....
Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page for the answer. And click to enlarge.
Here's another to debate... can you tell which of these photographs was made with the Leica SL + Leica 24-90mm lens, which was made with the Nikon D850 + Nikon 24-70mm lens, and which was made with the Leica SL + Nikon 24-70mm lens?
How About Dynamic Range and Color Depth?
Before we go any further, we need to discuss a comparison of color depth and dynamic range. On paper (and in laboratory testing), the Nikon D850 has over one stop more dynamic range and better color depth than the Leica SL. Unfortunately, in my real-world test, I couldn't see that difference. I am using a Apple MacBook Pro with Retina screen - a device that is more than capable of displaying the difference - yet I don't see it.
Why not? I suspect it has to do with the specific scenes I shot. There were no shadow areas that both cameras could not recover easily. And, as you can see in the side-by-sides above, the final images are extremely close, especially since I gave rather basic edits to both images. If these photographs were fine art prints that I wanted to sell, there would be far more attention paid to the editing to extract as much glory from the shot as possible. But that's not the case here.
Results - Nikon D850 or Leica SL?
This is where it gets tough. In many ways, the cameras both performed exactly as they should have. The Nikon D850, which has twice the sensor resolution of the Leica SL, won any comparison looking for micro-details in the image. But the Leica SL also holds its own in real world shooting, where the difference in resolution only becomes noticeable when zooming in beyond 600%.
Leica clearly produces a better lens than Nikon, which should have never been in doubt. Leica is generally considered in a league of their own when it comes to lens designs. But the problem is that the improvement isn't that substantial. Yes, it's there, but only if you are pixel peeping, like we're doing here, are you ever going to notice.
Finally, we need to talk about the difference in user experience. I greatly prefer using a mirrorless camera with electronic viewfinder to a prism, meaning I favor the shooting experience of the Leica SL to the Nikon D850.
The result? I'm tangled in knots. Shooting experience is very important to me. That's why I shoot Leica M rangefinders - I like the experience of manual everything and the feel that comes from shooting with a rangefinder. I think the emotions from the act of taking the picture can carry over into the image itself. A chef will tell you that their food tastes better when they cook in a good mood, and I think the same is true for a photographer. Yet the results from the better specs of the D850 are hard to ignore.
My best case? Leica, can you please release some more lenses and issue a high resolution version of the Leica SL? Or Nikon, can you create a mirrorless camera with electronic viewfinder comparable to the one on the SL? Either way, I think the best camera is a combination of the best of both worlds.
What do you think? What do you see in the results above? Leave a comment!
With Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 G
Mounted via Novoflex adapter
Which is Which Answer #1: Nikon D850 on the right, Leica SL on the left.
Which is Which Answer #2: Nikon D850 on the right, SL + Nikon lens is center, SL + Leica lens on the right