Leica Guns For Canon And Nikon With New SL Camera System
Earlier this year, Leica released the Q, a fixed-lens camera with autofocus and the same guts as the brand's top rangefinders. It's mostly a camera for hobbyists or to serve as back-up for professionals. Now Leica's going a step farther with the SL, a new camera that aims to bring together the best of Leica's technology and optics to create a viable system that professionals can use in nearly any situation. Canon and Nikon, consider yourselves on notice.
If the Leica Q was a middle ground between the brand's consumer-focused point-and-shoot cameras and the classic M series rangefinders, the SL sits between the Q and the M. From a distance the SL camera body ($7,450) looks like that of the M, with the addition of a ridge on top to house the digital viewfinder and hot shoe. That's where the similarities stop. M cameras remain manual-focus only, use etched dials to manually set exposure, and encourage you to use the screen and menus as little as possible. The most recent M cameras are digital and produce great digital photographs, but they feel very much like shooting 50-year-old film cameras.
The SL's back shows off a bright touchscreen and four large, programmable buttons for quickly navigating the menus and reviewing photographs. The dials on top of the body are unmarked, and the settings are shown on a small display at top right, letting you adjust what the knobs and buttons do so you can control the camera whatever way best suits your style of shooting. The viewfinder is electronic-only, with no traditional glass viewfinder to look through, and it's extremely bright and responsive. Testing the camera for a few days, I didn't notice any lag or stuttering. Significantly, when you use it with autofocus-compatible lenses, you're not stuck hunting manually.
Leica didn't pull any punches when drawing up specifications for the SL. The image sensor is the same, full-frame 24-megapixel sensor found in the M cameras. It can shoot from ISOs as low as 50 and up to 50,000 for super-low light photography. And the Maestro II image processor keeps the entire experience fluid and uninterrupted, even when you're shooting 4K ultra-high definition video or in bursts of stills at up to 11 frames per second. Throughout my brief test of the SL, from the time I popped in the battery until I packed it up to return to Leica, I felt as if I were the envy of photographers everywhere.
The SL will be getting its own series of dedicated L-mount lenses, starting with the 24mm-90mm zoom ($4,950) that I was able to try, along with the body. Most M shooters are probably used to shooting prime lenses that are much smaller and lighter than this zoom. The combo felt a lot more like shooting with a Canon 5D and an L-class zoom lens than with your typical Leica. While I wish it had an f/2.8 aperture through the entire range, instead of switching to a max f/4 at the long end, the results were razor sharp; shooting what felt like an autofocusing M was fun. Over the next year, Leica will also roll out a dedicated long zoom lens (90mm-280mm) and a fast, f/1.4 50mm prime lens for the SL, too.
Critically, a series of adaptors will be released over the next few months to allow the SL to use lenses from nearly all existing Leica systems. This includes M rangefinder lenses, vintage screw-mount lenses, medium-format S lenses, and even the vaunted cinema lenses. Without this ability, the SL would be essentially a Q with interchangeable lenses, at more than double the price. (Read: not worth your time.) With it, the SL is a flexible workhorse that can be used as a photographic and cinematographic multi-tool. Moreover, if you've already got a pile of Leica glass, the SL is much more alluring than if you were starting from scratch.
For Leica's competitors, the SL is probably more unnerving than exciting. Manual-focus rangefinders have been favorites of photojournalists, street photographers, and patient fine art photographers for decades, but unless you wanted to invest over $20,000 in a Leica S system body and the limited range of correspondingly expensive lenses, there hasn't really been a Leica for such places as fashion shoots or football games.
The SL will do just fine in those high-pressure, fast-paced situations. Photographers who have long used Leica cameras when possible, and more work-oriented Canon and Nikon cameras when necessary, may now be able to stick to one system for everything. It would be dramatic and overblown to suggest that the SL poses a serious threat to either of these camera makers, but it could cause some loyal customers to change the next time they want to upgrade.
This is a camera for working professionals and serious hobbyists, not a toy for people who want a camera that says Leica on the front. For those people, it's one heck of a camera.
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