Photographing your watch is perhaps as interesting and as important a hobby as collecting watches. We started a photography section under our Horological Lifestyles column where we detailed what we carried for Baselworld 2019, and how we shoot our watch macros. Here we begin our inaugural review of a high end camera. The Leica SL system.
The Leica SL Type 601 is a mirrorless full frame digital camera from the legendary German manufacturer. The sensor has a pixel count of 24 Mp and the Singapore retail price is $9,440.00 for the body.
We used this camera exclusively in Basel to capture all the 2019 novelties that we present on this site. If you have an exif viewer installed on your browser, you can see the full exif data on all our photographs. While this is not a technical review of the camera, we will cover some basics but will spend a bit more time to entail how living and using the camera in the real world is like.
Disclosure: All the Leica equipment was provided on loan by Leica Singapore, and we received no compensation nor compulsion to review the equipment. We are writing this review in the hope that it will be of interest and benefit to our readers. We had the equipment for a period of about 3 weeks, where we used the gear on a daily basis.
Leica SL Type 601
The Leica SL Type 601 was first released in October 2015, so it is coming of age today, nearly 4 years later.
There are widespread rumours that the SL will be replaced soon. In an announcement made at Photokina 2018 (the photography equivalent to Baselworld/SIHH), Leica inked a deal with Panasonic and Sigma in a partnership known as the L-Alliance. In this partnership, Panasonic and Sigma will develop full frame mirrorless cameras and lenses which will use the L mount system invented by Leica. The L-mount is an ecosystem which started life as the T mount in 2014 with the Leica T (Type 701), but the same mount is adopted when the SL was announced. Leica changed the name to L mount, and the system is used interchangeably for all their mirrorless cameras – the SL with a full frame sensor, and the TL and CL which are APS-C sensor. And a wide range of lenses are part of this ecosystem.
Panasonic announced and released the Panasonic Lumix S1 and S1R cameras in compliance to the L-Alliance early this year. Retail prices are S$3,499 and S$5,199 respectively. The S1 is a 24Mp sensor and the S1R features a 47 Mp sensor on the same body. Panasonic also released 3 lenses and a lens roadmap this year. Sigma have pledged that their full frame mirrorless lenses will be adapted to work natively with L-mount cameras by the end of this year.
As Panasonic has demonstrated, the technology used for the L-mount bodies is already updated. The Lumix S1 (24MP full frame with a bias to video) and the S1R (48 MP full frame with a bias to still photography) have demonstrated this ably.
The newer Panasonic S1/S1R feature an even better electronic viewfinder (EVF), a higher resolution back LCD which is tiltable. The SL’s EVF and LCD (fixed) were best in class till Panasonic showed up with the S1/S1R. (Last week Fuji released the GFX100 with an even better EVF.) And very importantly, the Panasonic bodies feature superb In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) which is lacking in the Leica.
What this serves to demonstrate is that it is perhaps high time Leica releases the next generation SL, and many pundits think this new camera will probably appear by the end of this year, or early next. It is in the light of this, that we begin this review.
However, we think that the Leica SL still remains a strong contender in the high end full frame mirrorless camera market. The Leica name is very strong. It is almost synonymous to high end craftsmanship, excellence and prestige. In use, the SL is an excellent camera, capable of producing superb results, and handles extremely well. Testament to the excellent industrial design and ergonomics. So even 4 years on, it remains relevant in the market today.
Leica have always been known for their outstanding optics. And the lenses crafted for the SL and the TL range using the L-Mount are no exception. We had on our test, three lenses: the APO-Macro-Elmarit-TL 60 mm f/2.8 ASPH (S$3,940) used for all watch closeup macro photographs, including the photographs of the SL and lenses in this article using another Leica SL. The Apo-Summicron SL 90 f/2 ASPH (S$$7,680) used mainly for portraits, the Super-Vario-Elmar-SL 16–35 f/3.5–4.5 ASPH (S$8.300) as a general walkabout lens. Images of the Elmarit TL60 are shown on all our Baselworld coverage photographs. And the Summicron SL90 was used mainly as a portrait lens and the Elmar SL16-35 was used for a side trip to Paris after Baselworld. The same kit was also used in the Lange Bangkok Boutique opening report. Images made with these lenses are appended in the gallery at the end of this article.
The Elmarit TL 60 was used for all the watch closeups that we have taken during Baselworld 2019. This is a TL lens, and when mounted on the SL, the camera automatically uses only a smaller APS-C sized portion of the sensor. This results in an image size of 10MP. The Elmarit TL60 throws a 1:1 life sized image on the sensor, and this remains. We also had a Leica CL which is equipped with an APS-C sized sensor at 24 Mp on hand, but I preferred the ergonomics and handling of the SL, and used it exclusively in Basel, Paris and Bangkok.
For almost all applications, the 10Mp, APS-C sized image is more than adequate. Properly exposed, this image size is sufficient for a full page magazine print. And more than capable for display on our web pages.
Design and build quality
The Leica SL is a model in industrial design. The only other camera which comes close to the Bauhaus inspired, ergonomically superior design is the Hasselblad X1D (retails for S$13,500, though mostly discounted these days, and street prices are close to S$10k). The Hasselblad is equipped with a medium format (44mm x 33mm) sensor which is larger than the full frame (36mm x 24mm) one in the Leica SL. It also has a higher pixel count of 50 Mp. We have one for testing as well, but Hasselblad could not supply us with the macro lens – the XCD3.5/120 nor the XH adapter so it can be used with our Hasselblad HC4/120 Macro lens. We were thus not able to shoot watch photographs with it. They did loan us three superb prime lenses – 21mm, 45mm, and 90mm. We are half a mind on whether to do a review of the X1D, as the article would only be of use for general photography, portraiture and architecture. If you would like to see the Hasselblad X1D review, please do let us know in the comments or by direct message.
The body is machined in Germany from two blocks of solid aluminium. The design aesthetic is rather industrial, looking like a solid chunk of metal, which it is. As a result, the body and lens combination weigh a significant bit. The SL with the TL60 combination weighs in at 1254g with battery installed. This is a hefty weight, but in comparison a standard professional DSLR like the Canon 1DxMkii alone weighs 1544g without lens.
The weight feels rather well balanced on the hands. I found it to be comfortable holding the camera and lens combination for the entire day. We were shooting from 9am to 7pm daily in a high stress professional environment during Baselworld, and the SL was up to the task. We encountered no issues with the camera during its service with us.
The build quality is overwhelmingly excellent. The grip is ergonomic and it is easy for the camera and lens to hang off the fingers comfortably. It is exactly the right size, and the rubber like material covering it does not slip easily.
The build quality of the lenses are also excellent, and performance is reference grade. The lens barrels are an all metal construction, and the glass elements which are visible looked beautiful. The feel of the lens as I move the focus ring and/or zoom settings are precise, positive and have a nicely damped sensation. The entire ensemble reeks of superb quality, a result of the longstanding commitment by Leica to quality and workmanship. To say that the camera and lens is built like the proverbial Swiss watch is perhaps cliché, but nonetheless true. And as a watch website, we may add that the Leica SL system not only compares well with a Swiss watch, but one of the highest quality the likes of Patek Philippe. Or perhaps as Leica is of German origin, we may draw parallels to A. Lange & Söhne.
We did have some ergonomic issues with the metal lens hood, which we found to shift during use and storage, and ended up leaving the hoods in the bag. We did not notice any significant degradation in performance due to lens flares.
Leica carries the Bauhaus design to almost its limits. There are only a few buttons, and none of them, bar one are labelled. The design and layout is very intuitive, and it takes only a few minutes of acclimatization.
From the back is an on/off switch to the left of the viewfinder, the only one which carries a label. To the viewfinder right, is a button for toggling between the electronic viewfinder (EVF) and the LCD. Next to it is a joystick which can move in multiple directions as well as can be depressed. Functionality of this joystick can be customized, and I set it up so that it moves the cursor and when depressed activates the autofocus on the lens in manual focus mode.
Surrounding the rather large LCD are four unmarked and large buttons. All the buttons are customizable, and each can be assigned two functions. A short click brings out one menu, and a longer one presents another. Though the menu system is rather comprehensive, there is little need to menu dive, as all features are reachable via the 4 back buttons in these two modes. To the right of that, just falling by where I would rest my thumb is a thumb wheel which can rotate in both directions as well as can be depressed as a switch.
From the top, Leica provides a small LCD screen with basic information. This is useful when the camera is setup on a tripod at a low position. To the right of that is a group comprising of a large dial for selecting functions, the shutter release, and two other buttons which are programmable. I set up one to toggle between manual and auto focus. And the other left in default to start/stop video shooting.
In use, I found the camera to be both intuitive and easy to operate. All the required functions are within easy reach. I shoot watch images in Manual Exposure mode, setting the aperture by the front thumb wheel, and the shutter speed by the back thumb wheel manually. I have the camera set to auto focus. I find it easier to focus, hold the shutter release half pressed and recompose. And fire the shutter once I reach the desired composition.
For portraits and general photography with the other two lenses, I set the camera to manual focus. I set it up so that depressing the joystick will activate auto focus. In this mode, the EVF will show areas which are in focus using a function known as focus peaking. I can then take a exposure reading (usually center weighted average) with the shutter half pressed. Keeping the shutter half pressed locks the exposure setting. I can then recompose the image and once the desired composition is achieved, I fully press to release the shutter. I set the camera to Aperture Priority, setting the aperture on the front thumb wheel, and Exposure Compensation from the back.
The Leica SL is equipped with a full frame (36mm x 24mm) CMOS sensor made for them by STMicroelectronics and designed by TowerJazz, a company which is 49% owned by Panasonic. The sensor feeds the Leica Maestro II processor. The images from the SL is outstanding.
All the lenses are tact sharp, with superb resolution capability. A quick look at the MTF charts confirm that.
Micro constrasts and micro tonal gradations are handled superbly. Though not quite at medium format levels, tiny changes in contrast and tone are well captured and gives the image a very beautiful, lifelike look.
The dynamic range from the camera is excellent as well, and it handles the high contrast of shiny objects like watches very well. Under low light conditions, not encountered in shooting watches in our portable mini-studio, the performance remains excellent, keeping good detail and resolution even at very high ISOs.
The colour science of the Maestro II processor is superb. Colour rendition is spot on. I use AWB for white balance in-camera, and have almost never need to adjust the white balance in the raw processing. The processing workflow is via Adobe Camera Raw, and then a small amount tweaking, and finally output sharpening in Photoshop CC 2019.
If there was a nitpick, it would be that the contrast detection autofocus system could bear some updating. It may sometimes hunt in low light conditions. Focus is slow, though once it is nailed, it is very accurate. However, for watch macro photography, autofocus performance is moot, as watches are still life subjects. Many times, for macro, we switch to manual focus for better precision. The SL provides a magnified image through the EVF for critical focus at a press of a button, and I found this feature to be very useful.
Continuous autofocus tracking of fast moving subjects is also not up to scratch, especially when compared to other systems like the mirrorless Sony A9, or traditional DSLRs like the Canon 1DxMkiii. This is a common issue with contrast detection autofocus system. It is accurate, and offers a slight improvement on image quality over phase detection systems, but can hunt in low contrast scenes or tracking fast moving subjects. The new Panasonic S1 and S1R (as well as the Hasselblad X1D) suffers from the same fate. This feature is critical for shooting sports and for some users when shooting video, and not essential for still life, architecture or posed portrait shots.
The Leica SL is a superb camera providing very high quality photographs and a great user experience. But it is not a camera system for everybody. In the first place, it is quite expensive. Any Leica product attracts a large premium over other consumer grade gear. But the build quality, the heritage and historical importance of the brand is perhaps unique.
We find the use of the Leica SL a great pleasure. And as the use of a camera system which is pleasing encourages one to bring it out more often and shoot more, this is a good thing. The ergonomics are top grade, equal or surpassing the best in the market. And image quality is outstanding. Build quality is as good as the proverbial Swiss watch, or as we allegorized – German: A. Lange & Söhne. And in the same way that the watches are produced in Glashütte, Leica cameras and lenses are hand crafted in the city of Wetzlar in Germany.
The ultimate question is: “Is it worth the asking price?” Well, only you can answer the question. To me, it is an unequivocal yes.