Exclusive test: first impressions of Leica’s brand new professional system camera

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In a world where we expect quite different things from a compact system camera and a single lens reflex camera, it might seem a little odd to name one of the former in remembrance of one of the latter. But perhaps we need to learn not to expect the expected from Leica – a company that seems to ignore what the rest of us consider logical.

The new Leica SL (Type 601) is indeed a mirrorless camera, much in the style of the Olympus OM-D, the Panasonic GH and the Fuji X-T bodies, but while other brands do all they can to distance themselves from the ‘old fashioned’ SLR, Leica seems to be embracing it. By using the name ‘SL (Type 601)’, Leica suggests that this 2015 body is in some way a descendant of the Leicaflex SL – a film SLR born in 1968 that in turn fathered the R3 in 1976.

The camera is substantial indeed, lacking all hints of the miniaturisation that we have come to associate with compact system cameras. None-the-less, it operates without a mirror, it uses an electronic viewfinder and features that most modern technological addition – touch-screen focusing. Like the Sony A7 series, the Leica SL (Type 601) offers a full frame sensor, in this case the same 24-megapixel unit found in the Leica Q compact camera, which presents the opportunity for picture quality far in advance of that offered by CSCs with smaller sensors.

The camera is a speed machine too, with a maximum frame rate of 11fps in raw and JPEG modes, a top shutter speed of 1/8000s, and a highest ISO rating of 50,000. More significantly for many photographers though will be the lowest ISO setting – ISO 50.

See the full specs and images.

The size of the lens also suggests that Leica has made a decision to opt for quality over an attempt to make a small system. The lenses are perhaps the only visible link to the old SL and R systems, as they are just as big as the R lenses. An advantage of the sensor size, the size of the mount and back focus distance is that, via an adapter, lenses from Leica’s M, S and R series can be used, as well as those from other camera brands. Lenses from the T system fit without an adapter, though in an APS-C 1.5x cropped-sensor mode.

As does the Leica S 007, the new SL offers both 4K and HD video recording, with a range of frame rates and whole sensor, cropped sensor and Cine4K modes.

The new SL follows the new Leica philosophy of a shared user interface on the rear screen and operates with an almost identical button layout as the new S (Type 007), with four customisable dual-function buttons around the rear panel, a toggle switch and two control wheels. The main grip has a very similar feel to it as that of the S, and if you are familiar with the company’s medium format body, the SL will make you feel equally at home.
If you aren’t sure about electronic viewfinders, it will be worth looking through the eyepiece of the SL just to appreciate the 4.4m-dot resolution of the screen. The view is enormous, bright and clear, and a high refresh rate gives it very fast reactions and very smooth motion.

In action, the camera is noticeably quiet. It feels odd at first using a camera this size and not hearing a mirror crashing around, but the sensation of the tiniest report in the hand grip, and a slight click of the shutter, is an immense relief.

From a first use I can tell you that the camera is very pleasant indeed to work with. Although it is heavy and quite large, it feels good in the hand and the operation is smooth and well considered. More importantly, the images produced are of excellent quality. There is noise in high ISO settings, but not too much and of the inoffensive granular variety. What will be most appreciated will be the dynamic range though. Both shadows and highlights are full of detail that is ready to be drawn-in to create moderate, realistic images where others will be forced to display a more heavy form of contrast.

As you’d expect, the SL (Type 601) is far from cheap, but it does actually offer features worth having beyond just the quality of the build. Features such as the high-resolution EVF and the high-frame-rate-enabling 2GB buffer, when combined with the attractive image characteristics, make it very nearly excellent value for money.

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