When I received my invitation to the latest Das Wesentliche event to be held at the factory in Wetlzar, Germany a couple months ago, I had a fairly good idea what was coming. In fact, I think a lot of people did. Rumors and speculation online weren’t exactly in short supply. But, no matter how much thunder early leaks try to take away from the excitement of a big launch, there are always surprises in store.
After a seemingly non-stop travel schedule these past few months, I found myself sitting on a plane heading to Germany. I had just come from Washington, DC for the LHSA Annual Meeting, without even going home first. Before that, I was leading our New England Fall Foliage photo adventure with just enough time to unpack and repack before heading out again. And, then before I knew it, I was back in Germany. Is it possible to have too much fun working?
I arrived a day early in an attempt to beat the jet lag and get a little rest. Of course, instead of napping, I spent the day with the product managers of the S system, providing some feedback on the S (Typ 007) which I have been testing since July, yet another thing that has kept my dance card relatively full.
The following day, after recharging my batteries for what was to come, I suited up and made the short drive from my hotel in Gießen to Leitz Park. Walking up to the newly built headquarters, I was greeted, passed the usual “are-you-on-the-list” gatekeepers, given my swanky wrist band and was invited inside.
The usually quiet and spacious white lobby of the factory was abuzz and packed wall-to-wall with guests anxious to see the show get underway. Servers zipped through the crowd with champagne, wine and German beer. The hum of conversations filled the air. I was pleased to see many familiar faces in the crowd and was able to quickly catch up with some of them. Others I’d have to connect with after the presentation.
At around 7pm, a singer took the mic and started singing a stylized version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”. I thought this was somewhat apropos given all the rumors surrounding the launch. Halfway through his rendition, everyone started to get the message that the show was about to start, and made their way towards the presentation area set up in the gallery.
My good friend, photographer Craig Semetko, hopped up on stage to serve as emcee. In his life before photography, Craig was a professional entertainer and comedian, and I thought he took to the job of frontman quite nicely. He introduced Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, majority owner and chairman of Leica.
Dr. Kaufmann led with a statement that “Tonight isn’t about a product launch.” A brief pause. A few confused mumbles in the crowd. He continued, “But we may show you something later…” With a little grin and a glint in his eye, he let the words hang for a moment before carrying on with the rest of his presentation. He gave a short history lesson about those who built Leica and the photographers who made it famous. Then, breaking with recent tradition, he relinquished the stage back to Craig, who in turn brought up the new CEO Oliver Kaltner. Looked like Kaltner would have the honor of unveiling the new hotness.
And introduce it he did, aided by some spiffy graphics on a wall of monitors next to him. The SL is a professional mirrorless camera with a 24MP CMOS sensor. I think most everyone was expecting this. What they weren’t expecting was the class leading 4.4 MP EyeRes EVF, 11 fps shooting rate or the claim that the SL will have the fastest AF speed of any full frame camera, pro or otherwise. Full weather sealing, GPS, Wi-Fi, new lenses, rugged milled aluminum construction, simple operation, UHS-II support, dual SD card slots, ultrasonic sensor cleaning, Cinema 4K video. The usual. And, of course, compatibility with over a hundred existing Leica lenses, M, R, S, SL, T/TL, and Cine via adapters.
The SL was seeming like the one camera to join them all. It could be the R solution that never was, a pro video solution for budding cinematographers looking for a different look, S users looking for a backup body, M users looking for more DSLR functionality without sacrificing the Leica aesthetic or image look.
The new SL seemed to have all the right specs, but I was anxious to get my hands on one. Luckily, in the factory store, a demonstration area was set up for all to enjoy. And I do mean everyone. Hordes of excited attendees flocked to the demo table in the center of the space. I managed to sneak in and start playing with the new camera.
The camera was announced along with the two zooms, the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4.0 ASPH and the APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4.0, and a fixed prime lens, the Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 ASPH, but the 50mm wasn't available for demo yet. The 24-90 will be available with the camera in mid-November, with the 90-280 arriving around June 2016 and the 50 coming by the end of 2016. I'd really liked to have seen all three lenses available at launch, but with such a wide assortment of Leica glass being available, I'm sure we'll be able to manage until the lens lineup gets fully fleshed out.
On display were the SL body, 24-90mm and 90-280mm SL lenses, along with an M adapter and a couple M lenses, and some TL lenses, including a new one (more info on the that to come). I picked up the camera and was immediately impressed by the feel. It actually wasn’t that heavy, or big. The 24-90 is as large as any professional 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom, but the body is certainly more compact than a full-sized DSLR, making the lens seem that much larger. Is it like a petite Sony A7? No, certainly not, but the SL feels much more robust and fits in your hand wonderfully. Like most Leica cameras, it is a living example of Das Wesentliche, the Essentials. The camera isn’t covered by dials, switches, buttons and knobs. The interface is clean, intuitive and multi-use, modeled after the Leica S (Typ 007). Being so familiar with the S007 operation, most everything on the SL was intuitive for me. Top dial, rear thumb click dial, rear joystick, top deck LV and video buttons, soft keys surrounding the rear LCD, clear monochrome transflective top LCD. The only additional control is the EVF button next to the eyecup. And, the assignable DOF button has moved to other side of the lens. Overall, though, I got the impression of a mini S camera. Even the on/off switch is in the same location.
But while the control layout is very similar, the design of the camera sets itself apart from its bigger S sibling. Where the S is curved and flowing, the SL strikes a minimalist tone with crisp edges and a more boxy aesthetic. In discussions with Stephan Schulz, head of professional products, he explained the design direction. Leica went again to Meinzer Design of Dortmund, Germany to help them create a unique style for the SL. Previously, Meizner worked on the R8 and the S2 which bear more than a passing resemblance to each other. The SL is different. The overriding impression they wanted to convey was that the SL is a workhorse. As such, the Leica team decided to make it look like a finely crafted tool.
Quite frankly, the camera looks far nicer in person than in the product photos. The smooth machined aluminum body is minimal and elegant, yet beefy and solid. Someone at Leica even told me that it felt like a hammer. And while the SL probably could withstand pounding in some nails, I think we’ll leave that experiment for someone else to try. The grip and rear of the camera is clad in a diamond patterned grippy leatherette, reminiscent of the Q. It's got a great tactile feel in the hand and holding the rounded grip, you wouldn't worry about it slipping from your grasp.
Behind its rugged good looks, the SL packs a technological punch. A Maestro series II processor, along with 2GB of buffer RAM handle images coming off the 24MP CMOS chip at up to 11 fps. The 3″ LCD on the back is a touchscreen. The little bump to the left of the viewfinder is a GPS receiver. You can remotely control the camera with the SL App over Wi-Fi with streaming live view. The sensor is self cleaning (finally!!!). We've got dual SD card slots for mirrored backup, with the top one supporting the latest UHS-II cards up to 100 MB/s write speed. HDMI 1.4 support allows for Cinema 4K output in 4:2:2 10-bit. The AF system can track faces, or anything else you lock onto to, across the frame in dynamic mode. All of the buttons are user assignable. And, of course, the viewfinder which Leica is calling Eye Resolution is in a class of its own.
That 4.4 MP EVF is just luscious with an apparent field of view similar to a medium format camera. It is better than any electronic viewfinder I’ve ever tried, and in some ways better than an optical finder. All the camera and shooting information is displayed on the top and bottom of the live image. I really like this approach, as it doesn’t encroach on the shooting area as is the case with overlays and you don’t have to take your eye out of the finder to see relevant camera and shooting info.
The camera I picked up had focus points covering almost the entire image. The little thumb joystick on the back made quick work of selecting a point. Half pressing the shutter to activate AF on my chosen point, I was floored by the speed. It was almost instantaneous, even in the not-so-great lighting conditions in the demo area.
I switched out the 24-90mm f/2.8-4.0 for the APO 90-280mm f/2.8-4.0. Let’s see what the AF can really do. The longer zoom was just as speedy, picking out faces in the crowd with ease. And, the active image stabilization was clearly working well to steady the picture in the viewfinder. I could see a little of the telltale float when I racked the lens out to 280. Impressive that I was able to get sharp images inside, at night, with a 280mm handheld. This was clearly a new kind of Leica camera.
The 90-280mm APO is really impressive. Not too much larger than most manufacturers’ 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, the Leica zoom addresses two shortcomings of the somewhat standard aforementioned pro tele zoom. Nobody shoots them at 70mm and 200mm is always a bit too short. Leica has stepped up with a different solution which I think is just brilliant. At f/2.8 at the short end and f/4 at the longest end, the lens offers a great compromise of size and capability. It feels remarkably well balanced on the camera and light in the hand. Focus, as I wrote above, is lightening fast and completely silent. The IS seems very effective and from what I hear, the IQ is even better, putting up numbers better than just about any competitor.
I figured I’d make the most of my time with the camera. Popping off the 50mm APO from my M240, I wrangled a M-Adapter T and mounted my current favorite M lens for a spin on the SL. Wow. Focusing was amazingly easy. The preview looked fantastic. I pressed the focus magnification button and was greeted with an astonishingly detailed view. Pinpoint focus took mere moments and I snapped off a few frames. Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep any of these shots as the cameras were just being using for demo, but upon playback on the LCD, I couldn’t have been happier or more impressed. I think a lot of M users will be very satisfied with the SL. And, moreover, R lenses are bound to get new life on the camera.
Reluctantly, I let others have a turn with the SL. I was curious about a full video rig that was set up towards the back of the demo space. Two guys from CW Sonderoptic, the sister company that manufactures the Leica Cine lenses, were manning the setup. Sporting a full rig complete with a Leica Summilux-C, follow focus gearing, Atomos Shogun 4K monitor and recorder, and external cine EVF, the SL looked ready for its Hollywood debut.
Earlier, during the presentation, a short skateboarding video shot by Fred Montagne using the new camera was on the big screen. It looked fantastic, showcasing 4K and 120 fps slow motion, along with some solid cinematographic compositions. The SL is packed with cine features like V-Log L gamma, various formats and frame rates, timecode, 10-bit HDMI out, 4:2:2 compression and safe area masking. With each generation, Leica gets closer to a pro video solution. For pro videographers and cinematographers, the SL offers a full frame shooting solution with unmatched lens compatibility and a great viewfinder.
With the official event winding down, I made my way with the rest of the stragglers over to the Café Leitz for the afterparty. Some of the usual suspects were over there having a great time with a DJ spinning tunes and beer flowing. Around 4am, I made my way out and back to the hotel. All in all, it was a great event. The SL looked to be everything Leica said it was. I can’t wait to get my hands on one for some actual shooting, which it looks like will be sooner rather than later. I’ll be getting an SL to use here in Germany over the weekend before I head home.
Stayed tuned for a full review!