I have been shooting M cameras for well over 10 years now although unlike some M shooters, I am not wax lyrical about the total Rangefinder experience. I'm an aspiring and avid street photographer who mostly shoots family portraits, events and travel. As such, the ability to see past the frame lines via the optical rangefinder mechanism and thusly capture the "decisive moment" is not something I can honestly say is a must have feature for me (unfortunately my skills as a photographer are not that precise).
So, the reasons why I have come to use the Leica M rangefinders are mostly due to:
- Size & weight: the M system is an incredibly small and lightweight system despite its solid construction.
- Quality: both in build, reliability and 35mm quality is simply superb (despite the odd need to adjust the rangefinder mechanism).
- Speed of use: the no frills nature of the manual picture taking process is simple and quick in workflow once understood and practiced.
- Lenses: Erwin Puts, Sean Reid and others review and conclude how technically fantastic Leica lenses are both in quality and build so no need to repeat here. Thank you Erwin, Sean and others.
Can a Leica SL replace a Leica M system?
I have always had a love hate relationship with manual focus systems and until now never realised exactly why. I've never felt I was particularly quick although have always been fairly precise given my focus success rate. Given my secondary photography requirements and growing family (a one year old who does not "pose") I have maintained a Nikon D700 system alongside my M's in the last 2 years for those times autofocus speed or rather AF tracking was necessary. Additionally, I have also felt that the "swelling" of the M digital cameras in comparison to the analogue M family is quite unaesthetic, undesirable and in my opinion takes away from the M rangefinder ethos and experience. That said, I can honestly say I have not had the same organic love for the digital M's I've owned as I have for my analogue M's I still own and shoot. So, a couple of months ago, I decided to sell all my Nikon gear and digital M camera and took the plunge on the Leica SL plus the Leica Vario Elmarit 24–90mm f/2.8–4 ASPH, hoping to solve my digital photo "requirements" in one camera.
The Leica SL
Physical attributes: When I first held the SL in Leica Mayfair, I could immediately feel a difference in how well this camera was put together. It was like holding an object which has "0" (zero) moving parts in it. The housing is made of one solid piece of aluminium with the most amazingly precise engineering. The gaps in its body where one material meets the next are precise and minimal, beautiful engineering. It felt better than any digital M I have ever held. Unfortunately, with this build quality comes heft. The SL is a heavy camera, comparable in this aspect to other high end DSLRs and heavier than an any analogue M by at least 200g's.
Controls: I loved the minimalist look of the non-labeled buttons which you quickly get the hang of in use (although if you are like me and use a few cameras, you may forget and need to re-learn some of these every time you use the SL). In any event, I tend to stick to a preset for manual lenses and another for autofocus lenses so can simply switch between them without having to fool around for too long with the menu system.
Viewfinder: The EVF (Electronic View Finder) is as others have written, incredible. The largest viewfinder I have used and although you could argue both my M7 (0.85) and M3 viewfinders are both more organic and clear, they are not able to be zoomed in when you need to be critical with your focus. I have found the EVF experience a game changer photographically. Being able to see the actual picture you are about to take / make instead of visualising it in your minds eye, zooming in for precise focus as well as being able to manage the exposure in realtime is addictive and makes the picture taking / making experience an even more creative process in my opinion. The EVF experience also allows me to forget about the LCD and ensures my pixel peeping is restricted to the moment I take the actual picture.
Autofocus & lens: The Leica Vario Elmarit 24–90mm f/2.8–4 ASPH to use its full name is an absolutely astonishing lens. Having been used to very fast, small and comparatively light prime lenses on my M's, I was concerned this lens might be too slow across the zoom range. How wrong I was. Combined with the freakishly effective OIS system built into the lens, I've been able to handhold perfectly sharp pictures at 1/5th sec! As a zoom lens, and for whatever technical "magical" reason someone more able to explain, should explain, the lens's depth of field and bookeh qualities at the respective focal range and relatively slow aperture (f2.8@24mm - f4.0@90mm), are comparable to the faster M prime lenses at faster speeds which doesn't sound logical but is what I have seen... There is a level of micro-contrast I have not experienced previously with Digital M / lens combinations and I'm not sure whether this is attributed just to the Vario Elmarit or whether it is also a factor of the sensor combination although I suspect it is both (the only other camera I have ever used where this is even more apparent is the Ricoh GR lens / sensor combination). The zoom performs incredibly well across its range, so much so, that I have compared it @ 50mm f3.6 to my reference Leica Summilux 50mm ASPH @ f3.6 just to see what I could find. Judge for yourselves below.
The sensor: I do not know who makes the Leica SL sensor, nor whether it is in fact the same sensor used in the M 240 / 262 / Q etc however I can say from personal experience, the output in my opinion is visually different, better than that from my Leica M240. The colour rendition seems more accurate yet still Leica'esque tending toward the warm side, the implementation of the auto white balance is the best I've seen in any digital camera and the general rendering whilst remaining very 'Leica' like (although that is mostly a factor of the lens being used) is very appealing. The grain structure at high ISO settings is the most analogue I've seen and I agree with others who have stated the camera renders closer than not to medium format quality. Truly the best digital 35mm sensor I have ever experienced.
A few shots for the pixel peepers below. Click images for larger versions
(comparison shots were all taken with the Leica SL and processed in Lightroom CC using the exact same settings).
What was most surprising to me after having seen these images full screen was that the Vario Elmarit is impressively similar if not identical to my 50mm Summilux ASPH (on some shots it looks even sharper)! Needless to say, this lens makes up for its lack of speed with both its Optical Image Stabilisation system as well as with the SL's remarkable low light ISO abilities. Given both the ergonomics of the zoom (weight and size) as well as the potential artistic rendering qualities the faster, smaller, lighter and classic M lenses afford, one would be remiss to exclude usage of their Leica M, fast prime lenses on their SL. More on this below.
The SL and Vario Elmarit sport a sophisticated autofocus system with the typical features expected from a high-end DSLR. I have found the system to be very fast (when compared to my Nikon D700) very stealthy and highly accurate with the Vario Elmarit (the only autofocus lens available as of this writing). I've found the AF-C, "Dynamic (Tracking)" mode (whether in 1 Point, Field or Zone field size) to be less accurate than my Nikon D700 was although that was arguably the best implementation of such a system on any camera to date. When using the Vario Elmarit, I typically have the SL set to static AF-S and decouple the autofocus from the shutter button so I can use the rear joystick press to focus and the shutter to take the picture as I like to set the focus point using the joystick to avoid re-composing the picture.
Manual M lenses on SL: The SL loves Leica M lenses (I understand the same is true of Leica R and S lenses although I have not tried any). Snap the Leica M to T adapter onto the SL and your SL allows you to mount most of the manual M lenses made over the last 80 years or so. This is where things became interesting for me and not in a "conventional" way. When I first considered the autofocus mirrorless Leica SL, I was convinced it would replace both my Nikon D700 and Leica M digital (Typ 240), given the fast autofocus and a very "practical" single lens solution in the Vario Elmarit 24-90 ASPH. I've now realised this is not the case at all. Whilst amazingly versatile photographically, the SL and Vario combination has only come out with me when I am explicitly photographing. This was not the case with my Leica M which I routinely took with me regardless of the situation. Even though the SL and M lens combination is more manageable and a viable alternative, I've come to realise it is no M.
Conclusions and thoughts - Leica M-H (Hybrid)...
A) The Leica SL and Vario-Elmarit 24-90mm ASPH produce some truly superb output. The DNG (RAW) format files are extremely malleable and allow for significant post processing manipulation even at high ISO. Micro-contrast is very high as is the quality of the whole picture taking process. The EVF 'experience' and being able to use so many superb classic and modern optics ensure the SL is capable of being both an artistic and modern technical tool which make it a truly unique proposition in the market.
B) I never realised how adept I have become over the years with the mechanical, manual focus M lenses and system. Even though the SL and Vario Elmarit are very quick to focus, I haven't found the autofocus process to be faster than I am with a manual focus M system. As a matter of fact, I feel the full manual approach works faster for me. Pre-focusing and hyperfocal techniques as well as "touch focus" (appx 1.2m at 90 degrees) seem to have been subconsciously ingrained in my head.
B) Given that the majority of my photography is primarily "street" and secondarily, travel and family snaps / portraits, my main requirement is in fact something small, light, nimble, unobtrusive and able to sport quality glass.
Since owning the Leica SL, I've made a conscious effort to take it out on weekends and use it as I have done my M's in the past and whilst I do love the output of the camera, I have found that I long for the compactness of the Leica M type cameras and one lens solution. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an M solution I'd rather have right now. The Leica M 262 is almost perfect but not quite. It has the latest sensor, quiet shutter, is lighter than the M240 and does away with functionality I wouldn't use anyway. It does not however have a built in EVF. Whilst the rangefinder experience is also desirable and would be used 50% of the time when out doing street photography, the EVF, for me, is a must the remainder of the time. I am confident Leica can improve on the Fuji formula as seen on the X100 series and would ask, please Mr Leica, how about a Leica M, SL sensor, M6 size, 550 grams with a hybrid viewfinder and M 262 functionality - you can call it the Leica M-H (Hybrid)?
I am surprised to conclude that although I love the quality and output of the SL and Vario Elmarit combination for most applications other than street photography and realise the SL can and will be used by me in a similar way as an M with manual focus lenses, it does not and can not, completely replace the M.
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