We bring you this update of living with the new Leica SL2 and use it as our daily camera and for watch macros for a week. Here is our real life review.
The Leica SL2 is the next generation camera to the Leica SL Type 601. The Type 601 nomenclature was something Leica flirted with in those days with Type numbers to the models, like M10 Type 240, and S Type 007. Thankfully they have reverted to more regular model numbers, and the successor to the SL, which we alluded to in our SL review, is the Leica SL2. The camera was announced in Photokina 2018, and in the market by mid-2019. Our review sample was loaned to me by Leica Singapore, and features the latest firmware Ver. 2.0 released on June 19, 2020.
Cut to the chase. The Leica SL2 is an excellent camera. Superb in almost every way. The user interface is Best of Breed. The build quality is amazingly close to what a high end watchmaker would deliver in a watch. Afterall, the camera is made and hand assembled in Wetzlar, Germany at the Leica Headquarters. No on to the review.
What’s new? Comparing SL 601 to SL2
As a refresh, please read my first evaluation of the SL Type 601. I think it still remains a viable high end camera. A recent pre-owned piece with 6 months fresh warranty is available on the Leica Singapore store for S$5,714, a considerable discount over the new price of S$9,440. The SL2 is offered at a retail price of S$9,400.
The biggest change from 601 to SL2 is of course the sensor. The dimensiosn remain full frame at 36mm x 24mm. But it is now 47Mpix vs 24Mpix, and features an excellent In Body Stabilization System (IBIS) capable of 5 stops of vibration resistance. I find this to be roughly true, and can verify that I can hand hold the camera with more successful in-focus shots up to about 5 stops. With Ver. 2.0, the sensor is now also capable of a High Megapixel Mode, which uses pixel shifting technology to deliver a 187Mpix image. (I will explore this mode in more detail in an article later). The new sensor is much cleaner and has way more resolution than the older one. And when used with the Leica APO-Macro-Elmarit-TL 60 mm f/2.8 ASPH which throws a 1:1 image on the sensor but crops to APS-C, the 47Mpix becomes a rather reasonable 20.2Mpix, almost the full the resolution of the Type 601.
The sensor is similar to the one found in the Lumix S1R, and I suspect it is sourced from the same manufacturer – TowerJazz, a company partly owned by Panasonic. However, the SL2 sensor is worked on by Leica, and the result is a sensor which has one layer of glass less than the Panasonic’s. This translates to a visibly crispier and sharper image on the Leica than the Lumix. Colour science, and how the data is manipulated after capture (even in raw mode) is totally different, and the final image looks rather different.
As a comparison in the watchmaking world, the sensor is like the ebauche. Though two watches can use the same base ebauche, the final watch can be totally different. An extreme example might be that the IWC Il Destriero Scafusia is based on the rather ubiquitious and rather common Valjoux 7751, which also makes its appearance in countless other, less well finished, and less well developed watches.
The body of the SL2 remains much the same vein as the SL Type 601, with small visual differences, though this is an entirely new camera body.
SL Type 601: 147x104x39mm, 847g
SL2: 146x107x42mm, 835g
The SL2 features lines which are slightly more rounded. Gone is the bump on the left of the viewfinder which housed the GPS module, as this feature is deleted, and only provided in the SL2 when connected via Bluetooth to a smart phone. Both models feature a premium high quality all-metal construction with weather sealing. Weather sealing is improved on the SL2 with an IP54 certification.
The grip on the Type 601 was excellent, and its hard to think that it can be improved, but it is much improved in the SL2. A finger width grove is made in the grip, and allows it to provide a more secure purchase of the body.
The rear LCD is now larger, increased from 3.2 to 3.0-in with higher resolution 2.1M vs 1.3M dots. Touch sensitivity is much improved, and the rear LCD is more responsive. Leica does not make the screen tiltable or multi-angled. Many make a fuss on this, but for my use case, its not an essential criteria.
The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) received a massive improvement, now with the class leading 5.76M dots of resolution, which is same as for the Lumix S1R. The magnification is slightly reduced from 0.8 to 0.78x and the refresh rate goes up to 120Hz. I did not notice the magnification change, but the resolution improvement with 120Hz refresh is superb. And makes viewing through the EVF a great experience.
The autofocus system is also improved over the Type 601. The SL2 now has 225 AF points and a new Object Detect software, while the original SL only has 49 AF points. I don’t find this feature to be critical for my use case, as I almost always default to a single crosshair focus in the center. But I did notice an improvement in autofocus speed. Accuracy remains the same, which is very high when focus is locked. The camera still hunts a bit for focus in darker scenes, but no worse than other mirrorless cameras. At macro focusing distances, autofocus is not good at all, though this is of little consequence as almost all near macro work is done with manual focus for critical sharpness.
Leica also made improvements to the connectivity. The SL2 now has two high speed UHS-II SD Card slots instead of one high speed, and one standard speed SD Card slot on the Type 601. Battery life is now lower, with a full charge capable of 370 shots instead of 400, as the camera has to support a higher megapixel sensor and IBIS. In practice, my style of shooting allows me a full day without having to change batteries, but I still recommend buying a second battery as a backup. The SL2 supports USB-C charging and power.
The SL2 uses the L Mount lenses and is able to use all the lenses of the Type 601. Natively within Leica, this means it has access to mount all the SL and TL (automatic crop to APS-C) designated lenses. However, as noted previously, the L Mount is also adopted as the standard in the L Alliance – a tight collaboration between Leica, Panasonic and Sigma to produce camera equipment built around the Leica L Mount.
As a result the SL2 is capable to natively mount not only Leica glass, but also Sigma and Panasonic L Mount lenses. This increases the lens ecosystem to one which is truly huge, and capable of catering for almost all scenarios a photographer would need. From very fast lenses at f/1.4 to very wide and very long lenses. While currently Leica and Panasonic does not support a full frame 1X macro lens, this is ably covered by the Sigma Art lens. The only possible gap missing from the lineup are tilt shift lenses.
Due to the short flange distance of the SL system, the system is highly adaptable via the use of Leica branded and third party adapters to use almost every lens in existance, including legendary Leica M glass, and lenses from all major manufacturers.
Leica SL and TL lenses
I had for my use, the same three lenses that was loaned to me by Leica Singapore for the Leica SL Type 601 review. These are the Leica Apo-Summicron SL 90 f/2 ASPH, the Leica Super-Vario-Elmar-SL 16–35 f/3.5–4.5 ASPH and the Leica APO-Macro-Elmarit-TL 60 mm f/2.8 ASPH.
All are top lenses, with excellent optics, excellent build quality. Each lens is superbly crafted. The lenses are very sharp corner to corner, and very capable of highly nuanced images through the SL2’s sensor.
Of note are the truly superb Summicron SL90, which is perfect as a head and shoulders portrait lens. But the 16-35 zoom is not to be outdone, especially as it is a convenient zoom lens with a wide angle range. The lens is sharp corner to corner at all apertures and zoom range. Something which was very hard to achieve previously, but we have seen perhaps more often these days in modern high end zoom lenses.
The lenses feature hand ground glass, are hand assembled, and tested in the Leica facility in Wetzlar. We did not get the opportunity to try out the new APO-Summicron SL lenses, viz the Summicron 35 f/2 and the Summicron 50 f/2, but was told that these represent the Leica’s best work ever. Leica enthusiasts typically wax lyrical of the APO-Summicrons.
The SL lenses cover the full frame of the sensor, and when mounted on the SL2, the TL lens, will crop to APS-C sized 20.2Mpix images. The Type 601 does the same, and will crop to 10Mpix. As mentioned, the TL60 projects an image at 1X magnification, but on the SL system will result in the said APS-C sized cropped image. The resultant 10Mpix image on the Type 601. is a bit small these days, it still produced the superb photographs you see on our 2019 Baselworld coverage. The SL2 when cropped to APS-C produces a 20Mpix image, and quite suitable is for web, social media and magazine sized print work, though will be stretched to its resolution limits at higher prints.
Sigma Art lenses
A friend, upon hearing that I am trying out the Leica SL2, volunteered to loan me his Sigma Art 70mm 1:2.8 DG Macro lens. This is a 1:1 macro lens covering the entire full frame of the SL2.
The Sigma costs a fraction of what the Leica equivalent would have cost, if Leica made a 1X macro for full frame. But Leica does not make one, with the nearest substitution being the said TL APO Macro-Elmarit 60mm. And even the APS-C crop Leica TL60 retails for S$3,940, while the Sigma retails for S$848.
The build quality of the Sigma is excellent, but it pales in comparison to the craftsmanship of a Leica. Finishing, feel, materials is much better on Leica products. However, the image quality offered by the Sigma Art 70mm Macro is outstanding. And almost all watch macros taken on this site (I keep the EXIF data on the images) with the SL2 are taken with the Sigma Art.
The Leica SL2 perhaps represents the state of the art of the full frame mirrorless camera market. The user interface is outstanding, clearly Best of Breed. It is superbly intuitive to use, and to customize. The SL Type 601 is already an excellent camera, and the SL2 easily trounces it.
A case in point on the intuitive user interface is this. Instead of presenting a diagram with the button layout and scrolling to assign a specific function to each button, like almost all other Japanese origin cameras in the market, the SL2 does this in the simplest way possible. Short push of any button calls up its assigned function. Long push brings up a drop down menu to customize. Simple. Easy. And works perfect.
There really is everything to love about the SL2. It makes brilliant photographs, finely detailed, and nuanced in every sense. It feels great in the hands, with enough weight to feel good, but not too heavy. The premium materials and workmanship is first class. And the street cred of carrying a Leica is unimaginable! More than wearing a steel Rolex or a steel Patek Nautilus.
The only consideration one needs to make before rushing out to buy one, is the price. It is still a rather hefty price tag. The body and lenses are not inexpensive. And its cousin the Panasonic Lumix S1R (review coming soon!) can acheieve perhaps 90% of its performance, while coupled with even more bells and whistles at less than half the price, and of course less than 20% of the street cred. But as they say, the last 10% is what separates the truly excellent from the good.
As an all in package, nothing beats the SL2. Superbly slick operations. Fast, easy to use. Great ergonomics. And most important, top top level image quality. Perhaps the Hasselblad X1DII, but the Hasselblad is way more quirky to handle, and not as sleek in operations while costing similar money for a medium format sensor without IBIS. Further, Leica support in Singapore is excellent, and well supported by Wetzlar. This is a top end, high spec luxury product.
If money were no object, the Leica SL2 is the full frame camera to get. With the Summicron SL35, the Summicron SL50, Summicron SL90, coupled with perhaps the Sigma Art 70mm Macro, it is a sweet way to meet all my photography needs.
Photographs from the Leica SL2 and lenses – next week!