Conclusion

 Pros  Cons
  • 24MP sensor offers good noise performance, detail
  • The best electronic viewfinder currently on the market 
  • Solid, weather-sealed build oozes quality
  • Unconventional controls work well
  • Detailed 4K video
  • Dual card slots
  • Good Auto ISO implementation
  • Overall good AF performance with zoom lenses
  • 11 fps burst shooting (7 fps with AF)
  • Responsive touchscreen for placing focus and image playback
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and GPS
  • Expensive
  • Heavy and unbalanced with native lenses
  • Grip is frustratingly unergonomic, makes camera feel heavier than it is
  • JPEG color is just unpleasant
  • Autofocus speed highly lens dependent (very slow on Summilux-SL 50mm F1.4)
  • Autofocus subject tracking lags behind competition
  • Dynamic range lags behind competition
  • Slow card write speeds
  • Lacking in-camera Raw conversion

Overall conclusion

As with many previous Leica cameras, it's hard to rationally recommend the Leica SL to a person based strictly on its merits as a photographic tool. For less money, there are cameras that have more sophisticated autofocus systems, higher resolution, a greater native lens lineup, more pleasing JPEG engines, and so on. Of course, those other possible options don't have a big red dot on the front, nor the world's best electronic viewfinder.

So is the 'feeling' of using the SL in the real world enough to make you forget about what else that $7450 MSRP could have got you? Since the Leica experience seems to be as much or more about emotion versus rationality, even more so than less steeply priced photographic purchases, that's going to be a very personal and subjective call for potential buyers.

For me, no, the experience of using the SL just isn't all that magical, and this is coming from someone who is always considering selling all his gear to buy a Leica Q. To me, the Q has a more distinct 'personality,' not least of which because of the limitations imposed by a single, fixed lens. Even the M has a more established personality, encouraging users to slow down, and see just a little differently through their rangefinder tunnels.

The SL, on the other hand, is trying to be something much more difficult to be: a mirrorless full-frame all-rounder that's free of compromises and aimed at the professional or well-heeled enthusiast. Despite being a beautifully built camera capable of exceptional images, I just don't see it measuring up in a crowded market of objectively better, cheaper and more flexible options (yes, I fully expect to be burned at the stake in the comments for that opinion; maybe I'll make it my epitaph).

Lines and edges - like the Leica's design. Processed to taste from Raw. Adapted Summilux-M 35mm F1.4 ASPH, aperture information not captured. ISO 320, 1/125 sec. Photo by Carey Rose

Speaking for myself, the uncharacteristic practicality Leica has attempted to shoehorn into the SL has done its part to effectively rob the camera of some of that mystique and cachet the brand has so long been known for. And in the end, what you get is just a good camera that's fairly capable and has a luxury tax.

Body, handling and controls

The SL is among the best-built cameras I've had the pleasure of using, right up there with the likes of a Nikon D5, Canon EOS-1D X II or Pentax K-1. While I personally think the design is attractive, it's undeniable that compromises have been made in terms of comfort and usability.

Having reviewed the aforementioned bulkier and heavier cameras, as well as used my own bulky DSLRs for 12-14 hours at a time, I find it almost impressive that Leica has managed to make the SL this uncomfortable to hold and carry around with you. It's true that the camera body isn't terribly bad to hold on its own, but attaching the native lenses results in a perturbingly unbalanced experience that gave me a unique wrist pain, even during casual use.

A small adapted lens makes the SL infinitely more manageable, and sometimes, a little more fun as well. Adapted Minolta M-Rokkor 40mm F2. ISO 3200, 1/125 sec. Photo by Carey Rose

The controls, unconventional though they are, work well. Nothing is labeled, but you get used to what does what and you can customize most every button's 'long press' behavior which, if not the fastest method of customized controls, is a neat touch. Speaking of touch, the screen is very high quality, and the touch response is excellent. It's clear from the overall polish that a good amount of thought and consideration was given to the controls and UI, which is always nice to see.

The last important note to touch upon is the 4.4M-dot electronic viewfinder, which is currently peerless in terms of detail (an OLED panel would offer better contrast). If you have a collection of manual-focus M mount lenses built up, the viewfinder alone could be the reason to consider the SL for yourself. The enormous 0.80x magnification combined with focus peaking make for the best manual focus experience I've had on a digital camera.

Image and video quality

The sensor in the SL is likely the best ever put in a Leica camera. It's got 24MP of resolution, which is plenty for most people, but if you're looking for the ultimate landscape or studio camera, you may find that limiting. It lacks an anti-aliasing filter, which combines with the incredibly sharp lenses to greatly increase your chances of false color or moiré effects that are extremely difficult to remove. Happily, high ISO quality and dynamic range performance are both very good - on par with the likes of the Nikon D750. 

Out-of-camera JPEG Processed in Adobe Camera Raw

Summilux-SL 50mm F1.4. ISO 100, 1/200 sec, F2.8.

The JPEG engine continues to be troublesome. Colors tend to be muted with an overall greenish cast, which is a surefire way to zombify portrait subjects. The noise reduction is on 'low' by default, and at higher ISO values it leaves a ton of luminance noise while obliterating chroma noise - I actually like it, but I'm a fan of luminance-noise grain when the situation calls for it.

Video quality is good, with the SL offering UHD 4K capture at up to 30 fps or Cinema 4K at up to 24 fps with reasonably high bit rates, albeit using a Super 35 crop of the sensor. It also offers 10-bit 4:2:2 video output over HDMI, and the short flange distance means you can adapt a wide variety of lenses if you're looking to build up a red-dot video rig.

Performance, autofocus and features

With the exception of some startup lag (an average of two seconds before you can fire a shot), the SL is a responsive camera in use. There is no perceptible shutter lag (and the shutter sound is so good), menu navigation, playback and control manipulation are lag-free, and you can do all of those while the buffer is clearing from a burst. That's a good thing if you shoot Raw, because while the buffer is fairly deep, you may as well go and get an artisanal caffeinated beverage while it clears. You also can't designate Raws to one card and JPEGs to the other.

Burst shooting at 11 fps is impressive, but focus, exposure and white balance are locked. Drop to 7 fps and you get all of those back. In good light, autofocus is swift and accurate with the zoom lenses even during bursts, impressive for a contrast detect-only system. Acquisition speeds drop as ambient light levels do, though, and subject tracking is often hit or miss, often failing to acquire but tracking relatively well when it does. In dim lighting, it's best to switch to manual focus with peaking if you don't want to blind people with the AF assist lamp (do not be that person). If you opt for the Summilux-SL 50mm F1.4 lens, which has staggeringly good optical performance, be prepared for staggeringly and frustratingly slow autofocus speeds.

The Summilux-SL 50mm F1.4 is as slow to focus as it is sharp, which won't matter too much given enough light and tranquil enough subjects. Processed and cropped to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. ISO 100, 1/500 sec, F2.8. Photo by Carey Rose

The battery weighs in at an impressive 14Wh and is rated to 400 shots, so it will easily last a day of moderate shooting; pick up a ($250) spare if you're going to be shooting or chimping heavily. The Auto ISO implementation is great, allowing you to specify the ISO range and shutter speed threshold. There's also an option to bias that threshold based on your focal length - great for using the SL's native zooms. There's built-in Wi-Fi with a well-designed app, and GPS capability as well.

The final word

I stated in the final word of the Leica Q review that there are a lot of people who will never buy or even pick up that camera, and the same is to be true of the SL. For many it is a novelty, a halo product to either be drooled over for its luxury appeal or dismissed for its price to specification ratio. But one thing is for certain: the SL is a camera to be noticed, and whether you find the SL appealing or ridiculous, it brings some unique qualities to the high-end camera market.

If you buy into the SL system, the native lenses' optical performance won't disappoint you. Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm F2.8-4 at 90mm, minimum focusing distance. ISO 800, 1/160 sec, F4. Photo by Carey Rose

For one last time, I'm going to bring up the 'EyeRes' electronic viewfinder. It's big, beautiful and detailed, and is a benchmark even now, over a year after its introduction. The camera's build quality is also exceptional (save for the paint that scuffs in a strong wind), and the lenses are optically amazing. 

But if, in your search for your next photographic companion, you are more concerned with the concept of the camera as a means to an end rather than an object of desire, you will be better served elsewhere. In the SL, Leica has undeniably created their most practical, well-rounded camera yet. In doing so, in making a camera seemingly aimed at maximum practicality - as a tool for creating images and less as an experience - they've robbed it of some of that intangible charm that usually accompanies their products.

In the end, if you are looking for an all-around capable photographic experience and don't mind the weight or ergonomic troubles it brings, the SL will serve you fine if you have the cash. But if you don't have the cash, I wouldn't worry too much about what you're missing.

Leica SL (Typ 601)
Category: Professional Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Movie / video mode
Connectivity
Value
PoorExcellent
Conclusion
The Leica SL is a competent, capable camera for a variety of uses at a premium price. It's a beautifully built machine with native lenses that offer top optical quality but the overall package is heavy and unwieldy in the hand. The SL doesn't do any one thing appreciably better than cameras costing much less, but if you have your heart set on a camera with a big red dot, it is the most practical and well-rounded camera Leica currently makes.
Good for
Those for whom Leica exclusivity is appealing, for whom budget and outright value aren't primary concerns but still want a unique, high-quality machine for a variety of photographic uses.
Not so good for
Photographers shooting action or low light sports, low light photographers that need fast, reliable autofocus, those that are looking to travel light or are seeking maximum value for money.
84%
Overall score

Leica SL (Typ 601) Samples Gallery

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Leica SL Typ 601 Real-world Samples Gallery

143 images • Posted on Oct 20, 2015 • View album
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