Leica Makes Third Mirrorless Line

(news & commentary)

bythom leica sl system

First we had the M, then the T, now we have the Leica SL (Type 601). This monster of a camera is a full frame version of the T, with EVF and lots of refinements. Indeed, the T and SL share a lens mount, which like DX/FX, E/FE, and EF-S/EF, has bi-furcated into two. The “new” lens mount is called L, with crop sensor lenses getting a TL designation and the full frame lenses getting the SL designation. If that weren’t enough, Leica is promising an adapter that will allow you to mount any Leica lens on the SL.

But back to the camera. The imaging chain seems to come from the recently announced Q, featuring a full frame 24mp CMOS sensor that can perform Cine4K at 24 fps, or 2160P at 30 fps. Uncompressed 10-bit 4:2:2 output is available via the HDMI port. If that weren’t enough, the SL will produce up to 120 fps at regular HD (1080P). Meanwhile, the control design seems to come from the T, trying to impose a modern touchscreen-type UI onto a DSLR-body. Like the T, the SL is carved from a big block of aluminum. 

The big news with the SL is the 4.4mp resolution EVF, which has a bigger than 1Dx/D4s view of the world (.8x magnification) and a 60 fps frame rate. At the moment, this seems to be the highest specified EVF in the mirrorless world, though there are some that have 120 fps frame rates with fewer pixels. 

Body only will set you back US$7450, while the also mammoth 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario Elmarit SL lens that is the initial choice will suck another US$4950 out of your wallet. Both will ship in mid-November. Additional SL lenses will be the 90-280mm f/2.8-4 in Q2 2016, and the 50mm f/1.4 available in about a year.  Oh, the autofocus system on the SL is contrast detect.

I’m scratching my head a bit. I see Leica’s dilemma: they really want to live in the autofocus world to stay competitive. They really need to embrace video. But frankly, what I see is that Leica is spreading themselves somewhat thin. M, Q, S, SL, T. That’s a lot of high-end camera lines for a small camera company (and that doesn’t include their Panasonic rebranding). The thing that disturbs me most about this is that the S, T, and SL all seem to be coming at the user interface slightly differently, and handling of the camera during shooting is suffering some. We’ve also seen a host of firmware bugs with recent Leicas; they may be spreading their engineering and software staff a bit thin. 

Then we have the 24mp and very large camera problems, coupled with contrast detect focus. All of these things are either counter trend or being superseded by other companies. If Leica is to be something other than a collector’s camera, I’d really want to see them paying more attention to improving the shooting experience. At nearly five pounds with the zoom lens, this is not a casual camera, to be sure, and is running totally against trend.

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