New: Leica SL2-S – the latest DSLM from Wetzlar – best of both worlds with hands-on Chillout TGIFridays

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Leica released a new version of their very impressive SL2 Digital Single Lens Mirrorless (DSLM) full frame camera with the new SL2-S. The sensor is now 24Mp instead of 47Mp, but still full frame. And complete with BSI and IBIS. The new camera also boasts of new video capabilities while not skimping at all on the photo features of the big brother SL2.

As a refresher on the SL family, please start with these:

Detailed review of the Leica SL Type 601.

Full detailed review of the Leica SL2

and the sample images with commentary.

Hands-on with the new Leica SL2-S

Retail price is set at S$7,200 inclusive of GST. Compared to the SL2 which is priced at S$9,400. Both prices for body only.

The best of the Germans – Leica SL2 with the Lange Cabaret LOG edition perched on it. Photographed with the Leica SL2-S with 100mm APO-Macro-Elmarit-R f/2.8 on a M Adapter.

What’s new? Compared to the SL2

  • New 24 Mp BackSide Illuminated (BSI) sensor, still full frame 36mm x 24mm. SL had a 47Mp CMOS full frame sensor.
  • 5.5 stop In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS). No change from SL.
  • Expanded ISO performance, up to 102,400, from 50.
  • Shutter speed range decreased. The mechanical shutter now goes from 1/8000s to 500s, and the electronic shutter from 1/16000s to 60s. The SL2 had a mechanical shutter range of 1/8000s to 1800s, and its electronic shutter goes from 1/40000s to 1s.
  • Vastly improved video capabilities, including professional video features and 10 bit 4.2.2. internal recording with no time limit.
  • Physical dimensions remain the same, with the new body being very slightly heavier (20g). On the hand, this difference is neglible.
  • All the features like EVF, LCD, button layout and menu is retained.
  • A small detail, but nonetheless very cool is that the Leica logo is now blacked out, giving the camera a more understated look This might seem to be a trivial detail, but is important to photographers who use the SL2 as a main body and the SL2-S as a backup and video body, so as to be able to differentiate between the two.

As the SL2-S is an L Mount body, it natively takes all L Mount lenses, including from alliance partners Panasonic and Sigma. As well as all Leica lenses, past and present via native adapters. This lens ecosystem is extremely large and will cover every conceivable use case for photography.

BSI sensor – full frame, and now 24.6Mp

The use of the latest tech BackSide Illuminated Sensor is a big step forward. The sensor design was first pressed into commercial use in the Phase One IQ4 150 digital back, and later utilized in the Fujifilm GFX 100 and Sony A7RmkIV. Interestingly, Apple has been using BSI sensors in its cameras since iPhone 5.

The BSI sensors used in the Phase One and Fuji were all sourced from Sony, and indeed were cut from the same production wafer, yielding 150Mp, 100Mp and 61Mp resolution depending on the physical size. While Leica does not reveal the manufacturer of this SL2-S sensor, it is safe to say that it is not from the same wafer, and even possibly a different manufacturer. The 36mm x 24mm sensor size would yield 64Mp on the Sony sensor and not 24.6Mp.

Edited to add: With a bit of further research, we found the Sony IMX 410CQK sensor meets the specifications of a full frame BSI sensor with 24.6 Mp. This is a likely candidate to the sensor manufacturer. The IMX410 is also used in the Sony A7 mkiii, the Nikon Z6 and the Sigma fP. While the Phase One IQ4 150 uses the Sony IMX411, the Fujifilm GFX100 the IMX461, and the Sony A7R mkiv uses the IMX455. We think the IMX411, IMX461 and the IMX455 are the same wafer cut to different sizes for each of the sensors. But please note this is pure conjecture on our part, supported only by some quick research.

The full frame sensor is now 24.6 Mp, and with a BackSide Illuminated sensor.

Keeping to 24Mp is remarkable restraint from Leica, as for almost all (99%) of work, this is sufficient resolution. And the benefits of a the larger 5.9μm pixel compared to the SL2’s 4.3μm means it exhibits higher diffraction limits (up to 3 stops), and more efficient light gathering capabilities (better high ISO performance). Add to the improved design of the BSI sensor, and we have a sensor with vastly improved dynamic range and extreme ISO performance. Also the nuances captured by the new sensor will prove to be at a much higher quality than the older sensors. As I am already very impressed with the performance of the SL2, I will be very keen to see how the SL2-S performs.

Autofocus is specified to be exactly the same as the bigger brother SL2, and is expected to be as good. In my short test in the boutique, it seems to be marginally faster than my memory of the SL2, but remains to be seen when we receive the loan sample for an extended test.

The SL2-S IBIS is also expected to be the same as the excellent SL2, giving 5.5 stops of vibration protection. The SL2-S also retains the High Resolution Mode of the SL2, yielding a single pixel shifted image of 96Mp, instead of the 187Mp. As in the SL2, the SL2-S pixel shifting is done by the IBIS system and continues to make use of the digital shutter, so no studio strobe photography is possible,

Very fast raw burst captures

The data collected by the sensor is processed by the camera’s Maestro-III processor in conjunction with the generous, 4-gigabyte buffer memory. This, for the first time, enables virtually open-ended burst recordings at up to 9 frames per second, whereby the burst length in JPEG format is only limited by the storage capacity of the installed memory cards. And up to 25 frames per second with the electronic shutter.

This 25 frames per second burst mode is an interesting feature to explore. The SL2-S is capable of shooting 25 fps with no limitations to the number of frames, both raw and jpeg into its internal buffer. You will need to tether or have a very fast card in order to clear the buffer. But this is quite an impressive feat. And the launch event demo was set up using some fruits being dropped into a water in an aquarium to show the high speed capture. We later improvised with a Panerai watch and I later suggested a water resistant Leica camera be used. Sunil Kaul, MD of Leica Camera, gamely agreed. Here are 4 frames from the sequence of the dunking of the Leica X-U.

The sequence of dunking the Leica X-U, a special underwater (15m water resistant) camera being dropped into a water tank. Captured by the Leica SL2-S with the VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 1:2.8-4/24-90 ASPH. This is a 4 frame sequence at full blast 25 frames per second in DNG mode, and converted to jpeg in Capture 1. The 4 files are combined into one in Photoshop 2020.

The water splashes appear nearly frozen when captured at a shutter speed of 1/4000s, the highest possible under this mode. In my experience with ultra fast strobes, to fully freeze the water droplets, ultra fast flash durations like those achieved by Broncolor flashes of 1/20000s is required. But to be able to capture this sequence with the SL2-S and two banks of constant LED light is impressive. I shot this short, behind the scene video with my iPhone.

Behind the scenes of the camera drop shoot.

Improved video

The improved video capabilities are largely beyond the scope of this article, as I don’t shoot video. But rest assured that as the SL2 video is already quite capable, the SL2-S improves on it in additional professional video functionality – like in-camera waveform, unlimited 4k recording (limited only to your media and power supply)

Decked out as a full professional video gig.

The Leica SL2-S captures 10-bit 4:2:2 videos with Leica’s L-LOG gamma, at frame rates of up to 60 fps. Thanks to the integrated viewing LUTs, the user is able to have full control throughout the recording.

In the literature, Leica promised that the camera will also support the highly efficient HEVC video compression standard for 10-bit recordings up to 4K/60p which will be available later. Videos can also be split into one-minute segments, in order to minimise the risk of data loss. Other enhancing features, such as the integrated waveform monitor and the automatic Follow Focus (internal to the body by specifying the start and end points and the camera will drive the lens autofocus motor to smoothly change the focal position), will be added with the next firmware update – further enhancing the camera’s suitability for professional applications.

Initial impressions

Here are some portraits taken with available light in the Leica Singapore Boutique in Raffles Hotel.

Sunil Kaul, Managing Director, Leica Camera Asia Pacific. SL2-S with Summicron SL 75mm f/2.

Color rendition is spot on, as is always the case with Leica cameras. The noise characteristics is excellent, especially at medium to low ISO levels. For these portraits, I shot at ISO 800, which produced very clean, almost grain-less images with good detail and colour accuracy.

My shooting buddy and Singapore media celebrity, Bobby Tonelli. SL2-S with Summicron SL 75mm f/2.

The 24Mp files are much smaller than the 47Mp of the SL2, and hence easier to work with in ACR and Photoshop.

Photographer face off. SL2-S with Summicron SL 75mm f/2.

The SL2-S looks like the best balance between a top of the line photography camera as well as a professional video camera. Personally, I am very happy that Leica has decided to not join the megapixel race, and restrain the full frame sensor resolution at 24.6Mp. But now, with improvements like the IBIS and an up to date BSI sensor. These are very wise design choices, vastly improving visible performance, especially over the outgoing SL Type 601 which has a 24 Mp CMOS sensor.

And a shot of me taken with the SL2-S with Summicron SL 75mm f/2.

I am very happy to see that Leica has released a hybrid camera, and chosen not to dumb down on the still photography features like so many vendors have done. For e.g. in the Panasonic world, the S1 is the lower Mp body, with the S1R the high Mp body, both biased towards photography, but for professional video work, Panasonic will offer their S1H. This is by no means unusual, as Sony and Canon also do the same.

I have requested, and am in the queue for a review sample of the Leica SL2-S, and look forward to putting it in its paces soon.

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