Field Test: Leica’s Versatile SL2

Future-proofed and incredibly versatile, the German company's latest full-frame mirrorless camera

After being sworn to secrecy for so long, we can finally talk about the latest product from legendary German camera-maker Leica: their new full-frame mirrorless camera, the SL2. In early October, we joined the brand in Wetzlar, Germany at their Leitz-Park campus for a few days of field testing the SL2 and to gain a better understanding of what exactly makes a Leica a Leica.

by Andrew Maness

Mention of the brand in conversation usually generates a raised eyebrow and some discussion of cost, and that’s perfectly understandable. Leica does things a certain way and these processes don’t come cheap. The reward, however, is a camera unlike any other. Few photographers need a camera as capable as a Leica (and status certainly is a factor for many) but the combination of exceptional performance and a uniquely rewarding user experience are the real drivers of desire.

by Andrew Maness

With the SL2, Leica has upped the ante on both fronts, delivering a full-frame mirrorless camera that’s got serious pro-photo credentials and is a joy to take out—even on chilly afternoons in the rain. That’s the hallmark of a great camera: it begs you to get out and use it. Other cameras get the job done and retire to the bag, but the SL2 gets the job done and then asks, “What’s next?” It’s a piece of equipment that nurtures the creative process because it is a piece of art itself—thanks in part to its stark body lines and a raised lens-mount that nods specifically to the Leica R3 of the early 1970s.

Were it not covered in premium leatherette and black anodized paint, you’d be looking at an aluminum top and bottom, with a machined magnesium alloy body in between. As Stefan Daniel, Global Director of Leica Product, explains, “Magnesium alloy is much lighter, but you are limited to the choice of surface finish. Magnesium can only be painted. Aluminum can be anodized or painted.” The choice to move from a body milled from a single block of aluminum (as was done with the SL1) to a body using magnesium and anodized aluminum was made in order to make the camera more friendly to carry around, while improving its overall toughness as well. With the SL2 now carrying an IP54 protection rating, the steady rain that fell during much of our time in Germany was of no consequence—and the same goes for the dust and ash we encountered when using it at home in California.

Courtesy of Leica

All of this speaks to the brand’s dedication to building a camera that allows photographers to focus solely on taking photos. As Daniel playfully points out, “Usually when Leica removes something from a camera, the price goes up.” This is certainly true of the M-mount rangefinder line where a screen-less digital camera comes at a premium, but the SL2 arrives with the same “body only” $5,999 price tag that the SL1 currently carries—after dropping down from an original asking price of $7,500. If a reasonable (for Leica) asking price or handling the SL2 isn’t enough to convince you that it is a huge step forward from the SL1, then a dive into the specs should.

by Andrew Maness

In the never-ending quest for more megapixels, the SL2’s 47.3-megapixel sensor might appear to come up short compared to the competition, but with an updated Maestro III processor that delivers the signature “Leica look” (especially when combined with Leica glass) it’s in a league of its own. You could grab an in-house-made M or R mount-adapter and pull from the vast assortment of vintage and contemporary manual Leica lenses, or you could stick to the L-mount family that has expanded considerably since the debut of the first SL—thanks to the arrival of the L-Mount Alliance which bolsters the line-up with more fiscally plausible lenses by Sigma or Panasonic. While at the Leitz-Park, we pulled a couple of Leica’s best manual lenses out of their jaw-dropping gear cage (such as the 50mm Noctilux f.95, 75mm Noctilux f1.25 and trusty 35mm Summicron f2) and using the manual lenses on the high-tech SL2 is a joy—especially for casual street photography.

by Andrew Maness

On more than one occasion, our shoot-from-the-hip focal length estimate was off, but thanks to the giant .DNG file the SL2 yields, we ended up finding unexpected moments by cropping in on areas of the image in focus. With any of the SL lenses mounted up though, you’d have to actively try to miss a shot, especially with the addition of a new Smart AF mode that autonomously switches between focus priority and shutter-release priority.

by Andrew Maness

The autofocus on the first SL was already fast, and Leica made it faster, but where the SL2 primarily improves is in accuracy and burst capability. In electronic shutter mode, the SL2 will nab up to 20fps and up to 10fps in manual shutter mode, both with AF locked. If you’re in need of continuous focus and exposure adjustments on the fly, the burst speed drops to 6fps. In the few dynamic shooting situations we were able to use the SL2, both the camera and workhorse Vario-Elmarit 24-90mm f2.8-4 lens performed to our expectations.

by Andrew Maness

As Peter Karbe (Head Of Optical Design) says, “Lenses have been designed with stepping motors and dual focus groups. The most difficult design challenge was to maintain internal focus and keep performance from close focus to infinity consistent. It’s the dual focus groups that help the lenses maintain quality, regardless of the focal distance. The behavior of one compensates the other.” Again, Leica deviates from the path of competitors focused on increasing resolution and instead aims to improve accuracy.

Courtesy of Leica

Eight new lenses—including five primes, and three zooms—have been released since the original SL, but taking into consideration the M, S, R, TL, and their Leitz-Cine lenses, you’re looking at a field of some 170 options. These lenses and the SL2 overall aren’t just optimized for still imagery either, and Leica appropriately addressed the needs of those who want to shoot video on their full-frame mirrorless. With consideration given to taking full advantage of their expanding and extremely high-end line of Leitz-Cine lenses, Leica packed the SL2 with an excuse-free video interface. A dedicated Cinema mode allows shooters to set a shutter angle instead of aperture, ASA instead of ISO, and with one of those beastly Cine lenses attached, set T-stops instead of f-stops. For anyone with cinematography training (but especially for industry professionals) these are most welcome additions.

A variety of video formats—including 5K 30 at 24 fps, Cine4K at 60 fps, 30 fps, 24 fps, 4K at 60 fps, and 1080p at up to 180 fps—are offered and data flows to Dual UHS-II capable SD card slots at 8/10-bit depth and 10-bit via the HDMI output. Additional features for video shooters include zebra stripes, focus peaking, safe overlays, and 3.5mm headphone and mic jacks.

Courtesy of Leica

Essentially, the SL2 is the most versatile camera Leica has ever produced—and it’s not the most expensive. With the aforementioned L-Mount Alliance bringing more affordable lenses into the fold, Leica has opened the door for more people to justify choosing the SL2 over other similarly priced cameras. The value in a Leica is especially apparent after peeking behind the curtain and seeing the cameras and lenses being crafted. The processes by which Leica equipment is designed and manufactured, as well as the consideration given to the full life of their products, is the best in the industry. When other manufacturers’ bodies need to be replaced, Leica’s are just gaining patina. It’s a different approach to ownership, and one that is increasingly uncommon given how fast technology progresses.

by Andrew Maness

The Leica SL2 will never go out of style as it adheres to timeless design principles. By not fighting in the megapixel battle, Leica has already future-proofed the camera with its exceptional build quality. When you buy a Leica, you’re buying a piece of a brand’s very specific mission: to encourage photographers to go out and bring their visions to life.