Medium Format Quality From a Full-Frame Mirrorless: Fstoppers Reviews the Leica Sl (Typ 601)

Medium Format Quality From a Full-Frame Mirrorless: Fstoppers Reviews the Leica Sl (Typ 601)

In late 2015 the luxury camera company Leica released the Leica SL (Type 601) a full-frame mirrorless camera that came packed with top of the line features ready to compete with Canon and Nikon’s flagship DSLRs. Roughly two years later, and with several new advancements in camera offerings, how does the Leica perform? Can it still compete with other flagship models?

To find out I took the Leica with me on my recent trip to Las Vegas for WPPI and put it through a solid week of shooting in the Nevada deserts. In this review, I’m going to cover my impressions, show sample images, and try to give you an idea of just who this camera is for. If you want a much more detailed look at the specs then check out this great break down Fstoppers writer Ryan Mense did back when the camera was first released. Also, it goes without saying that like most Leica products this camera is a luxury item and with that comes a higher price tag. That being said, taking in to account the features built in to this particular body the price at $5,995 is in line with Canon’s 1Dx Mark II and Nikon’s D5

Image Credit Jason Pietroski

It seems fair to say that the Leica SL (Typ 601) was Leica’s attempt to bring to market a camera system that has competitive and modern features that the average user would expect as well as maintain the minimalist and traditional look of a Leica body. To that point, it has a full-frame 24-megapixel CMOS sensor, impressive 4.4MP Electronic Viewfinder with 60fps refresh, a 3” LED touchscreen display, and is capable of shooting up to 4k video. Not to mention 11 FPS burst, built-in Wi-Fi, GPS, full weather sealing, and two SD card slots. 

Build Quality

Along with the SL body, I was provided the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens. Both of these are built like tanks and not quite what you would expect from a modern mirrorless system. The body is solid aluminum and considerably heavier than it looks. The grip, although not ergonomically shaped, did feel good in my hand but between the weight and design but if you have smaller hands this may be uncomfortable. Using the SL body with the much smaller M mount lenses does make the overall size and weight better. My first impression looking at the body was that it wasn't very attractive; somewhere between the rangefinder looks of other Lecias and a modern DSLR. A camera's overall look doesn't really matter in my opinion and since reviewing I've spoken with a few Leica owners who prefer this simple and blocky look. So unless this is something that really bothers you, it doesn't seem like too big of an issue.

Controls

Leica has continued their minimalistic approach to controls providing very few actual buttons and with no labeling. At first, I found this very frustrating and not intuitive at all. Having used many DSLR cameras throughout my career I can't remember a time I couldn't pick up any camera and immediately figure out all the basic controls. Once I gave in and took a look at the manual I realized that each control had multiple purposes depending on whether you single pressed, double pressed, or long pressed it. Even the thumb dial can be pressed in to change shooting modes, a feature that took me a shameful amount of time to figure out. Having gotten passed this difficulty by the end of my review period I started to see its appeal. Most of the controls are completely customizable even letting you set several profiles for different shooting situations. And the speed at which I could make adjustments on the fly was very impressive. 

My two favorite control features where the thumb AF joystick and EVF/display toggle button. The joystick similar to ones found on other cameras was super fast making selecting focus points or moving through menus super fast and smooth. The tiny toggle button located just right of the EVF lets you switch between three view modes: EVF only, back display only, and the third mode switches between the two depending on whether you are looking through the EVF or not. I used this a lot both to conserve battery usage but also because I found in some conditions I wanted only one or the other but also needed to occasionally switch back. 

EVF and Display

Both the EVF and back display are extremely impressive. I found myself using the display more often than I would normally on one of my Canons as the quality and accuracy was just so good. What you saw in both displays was literally what you got, allowing you to quickly judge under and overexposures. Shooting in the high noon desert sun with little shade had no effect on being able to clearly see the display. The only downside is that it is fixed and not variable like a lot of mirrorless cameras. Battery life seemed excellent as I was able to shoot all day on just the one. I would have thought with the bright display and EVF that it would have been an issue but I shot equally with my 7D Mark II and had to change batteries several times. 

Finally, the entire camera is weather sealed. Being a Leica, I was hesitant to bring it into the Mojave sand dunes with sand blowing constantly into my face but the camera really is a workhorse designed to be pushed in rugged conditions. I had zero issues and eventually stopped treating the camera like it was made of porcelain. 

Image Credit Jason Pietroski

Lens

The Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm lens is probably one the sharpest zoom lenses I have ever used. It consistently outperformed my other similar lenses which is what I expected coming from a Leica lens. It was fast and the little extra zoom at 90mm was nice to get more reach than the standard 24-70mm. It is a very large lens however much larger than any other equivalent ranged lens weighing 2.5lb. Combined with the already heavy SL body it looks and feels like a behemoth. Leica does make an adapter for the SL allowing all of there famous M mount lenses to be used with it. So if you are an existing Leica owner this is probably a huge advantage. Also just recently Leica announced two new lenses for use with this camera. The APO-Summicron-SL 75mm f/2 and 90mm f/2 Lenses.

Image Quality

I can't say enough good things about the image quality of the SL and 24-90mm lens combo. The experience felt like I was shooting medium format. Viewing the images later on the screen and even in large prints, you could definitely believe you were looking at a medium format image. In fact, I would bet that if Lecia were to produce a high MP version of this camera it could give several medium format cameras a run for their money.  The sensor renders contrast beautifully and has vibrant 14-bit color depth. There is no low pass filter so the sharpness is as crisp as I could imagine. During post-production, I was able to push dynamic range quite a bit even salvaging images I thought would never come out when taken. I didn't shoot above 6400 ISO but I also didn't feel the need to. At one point after the sun had set and we were done shooting I found I could still get pretty good results handheld even at a low ISO of 1600 with the optical image stabilization. I would have no issues shooting at 6400 and bet you could push it even further in certain circumstances. 

What I Liked

  • Image quality similar to medium format
  • Accurate EVF and Display
  • Easy use of most Leica lenses including M mount
  • Full Weather Sealing
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and GPS
  • Solid full metal body
  • Battery life
  • 11 FPS

What I Didn't Like

  • Overall size and weight (not as big of an issue with M lenses)
  • Fixed screen
  • Visual design
  • Balance with 24-90mm lens

Conclusion

Two years after release this camera is still relevant. In fact, I won't be surprised if it's still an amazing camera in another 2 or 3 years from now. If it wasn't for the cost of switching all my lenses to Leica I would love to own this camera. Once I adjusted to using it, I couldn't put it down. I used it for every single assignment I had during the review period. I shot a few personal shoots just to get some more interesting images before I had to send it back. 

Prior to doing this review, I hadn't used many Leica cameras, especially newer digital ones. Although I have seen the quality of imagery produced by cameras in the M series, I have often thought of Leicas as expensive niche cameras. The cost and feature set making them not align with the average user's needs. However, the SL is clearly a workhorse camera designed to be used professionally and put through its paces. With features and a lowered price point comparable to any flagship pro body and a wealth of compatible lenses with new native glass still being produced. The SL series isn't going anywhere. Leica did not produce a new camera that would need to be updated within a few years. They looked at the market and took their time to get it right straight away. I know Leica's M mount lenses are popular with a lot of Sony Mirrorless users and I think this might be a great upgrade for anyone looking for a more robust and weather sealed option. Especially if they have already invested into Leica lenses. I, unfortunately, won't be switching to Leica anytime soon, but that has never been Leica’s goal. They have a healthy customer base with increasing profits. With this camera now they have an option for working photographers who already own a Leica camera and some lenses to also have access to a more feature rich and robust modern platform for professional use. I wouldn't want to bring an M9 to the beach on a rainy day to photograph surfers, but I wouldn't hesitate to with the SL. 


 

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36 Comments

Leigh Miller's picture

You are aware that the iconic images/prints over the last century were made with cameras far less advanced than this right?

I could see if you were talking about features...but a bog standard Canon 5D mark 1 could still do as you suggest.

Michael DeStefano's picture

I think you'll need to clarify your statement because I'm not sure what you're referring to. The only comparison I make is between pro level flagship cameras. And that comparison is based on build quality, feature set and image quality. All of which on any current flagship camera is far beyond a 5dm1.

Been shooting with the SL for almost two years. Once you become accustomed to the user interface, this camera is a joy to use. It's hefty enough to where I use the SL mostly for work. The 24-90 is an astonishing fine lens: sharp at all focal lengths, impervious to snow and rain. Waiting for the release of a few more native primes, e.g. the 35mm Summicron SL. In the mean time, adapted Leica R lenses work extremely well with the SL: size, balance and minimum focus distance are a better match than M lenses.

Michael DeStefano's picture

That's great to hear Tom. I was blown away with the quality from the 24-90, I just wish it wasn't so big and heavy. I do a lot of adventure work and weight is always a big issue for me.

Leica lens are phenom... I have two 1950s versions... one Summaron 35mm 2.8, which is exceptionally sharp and spectacular under many circumstances, and one Summarit 50 1.5, the predecessor of the Summarit, which is tricky but so interesting in the right circumstances. Dumb question: can lens such as the new Noctilux 75 be used on the SL? What about the standard Summilux, etc.?

Medium format IQ from a 24mp FF sensor (that probably has the IQ of a good APSC sensor like the M)?

Am I missing something? Or is the fanboy strong with this one?

For the price of that camera you could get a Nikon D850 and a few lenses. You can then select between different file sizes while still being raw files. Or you could get the A7Riii with a few lenses and an external hard drive to store the larger files.
This whole medium format IQ thing is stupid anyways. Cameras and lenses are so good that unless you are pixel peeping you wont notice a difference. The medium format look is sorta a real thing though but that has to do with sensor size.

I agree with the alternative purchase decisions to get close to medium format IQ but I still believe medium format has its place in the industry and still represents an IQ jump over the best FF alternatives (even if it’s a relatively small jump).

Yes MF has two places: As smallish MF sensor-cameras that don't cost much more than the best FF machines... And of course as a large MF (like that phase one 100mp with that 50mm+ wide sensor) for highest-end no-compromise, client satisfaction purposes.

Say: A 6K$ Fuji MF and a 30K$ PhaseOne represent where Medium Format wil still boom and be kept as that "final league".

Michael DeStefano's picture

This doesnt really make any sense to me. I could get a 5dm3 and a lens or two for the price of a 1dxm2 but why would I. If the 5d does everything I need why was I ever looking at the 1d in the first place?
Similarly, If Im invested in Leica or Sony systems and I'm looking for a new camera that has features my current system doesnt, in this case, full water sealing and a robust construction why would I buy a cheaper camera without these features and a couple lenses for the same price.

>>Medium format IQ from a 24mp FF sensor (that probably has the IQ of a good APSC sensor like the M)?

>>Am I missing something? Or is the fanboy strong with this one?

Yes. You're missing that you don't understand the basics of how a camera works. Sensor resolution is not the same as system resolution, still less dynamic range or tonality. There are some very serious landscape shooters who raved about the A7s when it came out because the tonality matched medium format.

Otoh, the author of the article didn't explain why he felt the camera scraped into MF territory.

Otoh again, those are really impressive shots - I'd have been willing to believe they were from one of the older MF cameras with a damn good prime or a Sigma Foveon shooting at base iso.

I agree the Medium Format remark in both the title and article are just not, just please, no. It's great IQ.

As a man of science (A Doctor) I've always analyzed the concept of "image quality", and I published a few in-depth lists of what scientifically makes a high quality image.

In this camera, we're saying this 24mp Full frame camera "looks like MF". There's no such thing really.

Any Medium Format advantage or identifiable IQ charachter in this day age in 2018, can only be attributed to either very very shallow, yet sharp images, or 50-100mp resolution images. But a modern MF vs a FF? Just open up a (sharp) lens. Pentax's 645z, Fujifilm GFX50, Hasselbdlad H1D, are all in indistinguishable away from rigorous labs tests from Canon 5DS R, Nikon D850, Sony A7rIII, and to a huge degree indistinguishable from a D810, K1/II, A7R, etc...

BUT there is NO magical MF "look". Image quality is measures objectively easily, it's resolving power, dynamic range, highlight rolloff, noise texture, noise amount, bit depth, AND IMAGE PROCESSING done to the RAW file prior to writing, which all companies do, and is the ONLY reason why you're "feeling" a "MF" Look in a picture you made here, versus one if it were taken by a side by side 800$ Sony A7 + the same lens and edited to match!

I just wouldn't consider the SL before they use an industry leading FF sensor, the 50, 45, or 42 one.

>> As a man of science (A Doctor)

A medical doctor isn't a scientist; he's a technician applying knowledge scientists create. This is not a trivial distinction - a large part of the intellectual training scientists get is in overcoming basic human traits that you display in your post. (This is actually a huge issue in medicine - a lot of doctors prescribe according to drug company marketing rather than the evidence, because they haven't been taught to judge scientific evidence. This is why evidence based medicine is a big thing right now.)

>> Any Medium Format advantage or identifiable IQ charachter in this day age in 2018, can only be attributed to either very very shallow, yet sharp images, or 50-100mp resolution images.

Nope. You're assuming that you know more about a subject than you do. Another MF characteristic is superior tonality for the same sensor technology and resolution. (Which shouldn't have been hard for you to get, as I'd actually pointed this out...) See eg

https://www.mpb.com/en-uk/blog/article/12366/

And it's why one of the world's most respected camera reviewers said that the 12MP A7s had a medium format look

https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rj...

Perhaps next time try finding stuff out rather just posting up what seems obvious to you while asserting that you have a completely irrelevant professional status? Because what is obvious is very often also wrong. (Btw - I have a physics degree, including training in optics and sensor technologies. I.e. qualifications and knowledge that actually mean something in this context. But that's irrelevant - arguments should stand on their own.)

@David Mawson, Very well said! I agree 100%. Doctors are technicians, following a set of rules set by medical authorities. Such rules may or may not be based on science; many other factors come into play. Doctors are rarely actual scientists. The phrase "man of science" is generally not an accurate description of a doctor.

Medium format has nothing to do with tonality. It's based on film/sensor size.
Yes, some companies (Phase One, etc) arguably have gotten great tonality out of medium format sized sensors.
Now, to be nitpicky, I only will call the "MF Look", the visual look you get when using a large size film or sensor. In fact, my P65+ on a Contax still paled in this 'look' compared to 6x7 or especially 4x5.

I will surely admit that under the correct condtions, my P65+ had superior tonality to my Nikons, but only ever so slightly.
If this Leica does have some secret sauce under the hood that delivers great tonality in camera, perhaps Michael meant to say that it feels like files from a Phase/Hassy/etc sensor (I think he already explained that below).

>> Medium format has nothing to do with tonality. It's based on film/sensor size.

Yes, format = size. They mean the same thing. Well done!

However, the title of the article is "Medium Format QUALITY". And even though you might not have been aware of, MF has been and is associated with superior tonality.

>> my P65+ had superior tonality to my Nikons, but only ever so slightly.

That's a completely useless statement. Because

1. You are confusing the actual point - ie that tonality is in general superior for MF and what the author was trying to communicate was that tonality for the SL was clearly exceptional - with a particular case

2. You haven't said WHICH Nikons. If you're comparing a 2008 MF sensor with one ten years more advanced, then, yes, technology does advance...

And honestly, I feel UNCLEAN defending a Leica...

Michael DeStefano's picture

When I say Medium Format quality I'm talking about the experience of working on the images in post and the quality I see in the sample prints. Obviously, I am not comparing a 50-100mp file side by side with the SL's 24mp and claiming its just as good. What I'm saying is that the files have amazing contrast, color depth, sharpness, and dynamic range. To the point that while working on the images they feel like MF files. They have this great noise pattern and the out of focus areas blend organically almost. This feeling is completely subjective and comes from years as a retouch artist and working on MF files.

Now, this quality could very well be a combination of the camera and lens or a big part the quality of the lens itself.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I often wonder what people are referring to when saying "medium format quality" Is it FF digital vs MFDB? Or is it the old timey difference of medium format film vs 35mm film, now that was a different look.
While the sensor size and quality play into the results, like you say the key (IMO) to the difference in look is in the relationship of lenses and the camera and sensor combination, more than just sensor real estate.
Sometimes with my a7R2 and specific lenses in certain subject to camera distance, f-stop, focal length, lighting it has a "look" similar to when I shot MF film...but other times its just a nicer, sharper, better looking file than my ol 5Dmk2

Thomas Landgraeber's picture

Thank you so much for this review. Great job! It covers exactly what I was hoping to find. Now I know the SL is a great camera – but not for me.

When I eat chocolate ice cream, it feels like a medium format experience. I just eat it and think, "ah, medium format". It's so much like medium format that I forget it's just chocolate ice cream, not actually medium format.

Lmao

Michael DeStefano's picture

Sometimes when I eat frozen yogurt I feel like I'm eating Ice Cream, So much so that sometimes I'm not even aware that it's actually frozen yogurt. it feels like an Ice cream experience and I get the benefits of the yogurt instead.

I guess some experiences are pretty subjective but if the end results make me feel like the image quality and resulting prints are better than my FF camera I'm pretty happy.

Micheal, You say Medium Format, why is that exactly? Just a feeling you get looking at the images?

Anonymous's picture

Medium format quality? I assume you are talking about medium format film, because no one would try to assert a digital to digital equivalence. However:

https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2014/12/36-megapixels-vs-6x7-velvia/

Anyway, has anyone paused to consider why Leica constrain the resolution of all of their cameras? They are deliberately keeping sensor resolution within the capabilities of their glass.

Medium Format? Really? There are certain measurable parameters to that look, especially linked to sensor size, dof, lens distortion, etc... and this camera ticks non of those boxes. You can argue perceived resolution but even all the flagship cameras released at the same time could easily match or exceed it - now even the entry level a7III blows it out of the water!
I will never get how Leica users will always point to this ‘je ne sais quoi’ that makes their camera special, something which mostly only they seem to be able to see and that goes beyond any justifyable price/feature relationship - but then post a review with more pictures of them using it than actual sample images that back their claims

Mike Stern's picture

Medium format quality feeling???
I was eating my 4 cheese pizza last night and felt like a medium format quality. Even though It was a 24mpx pizza.
An article about a mirrorless camera where Sony a7 is not even mentioned.
We know what all that means.

Spy Black's picture

Leica. For when you can't tell butter from margarine...

Matei Horvath's picture

Thank You for the review, Michael. I'm jealous. I don't have a chip on my shoulder or a problem with Leica as clearly a lot of your readers do. Apparently saying Leica on a photography blog is the equivalent of shouting 'bomb' on an airplane. I'm assuming its the price tag -true they are very expensive. However, their target market is, as you mentioned, 'the luxury market' and sometimes, you gotta ask yourself is a Rolls Royce worth it's price? Well, if you can afford it, and have $400k just sitting around, yeah it is. Now if you don't wanna spend that much, you can probably buy a 7series BMW that actually a Rolls Roys is built on. What I'm trying to say... I wish I could afford it. I don't. But the luxury market is not built on 'I need it' -its built on 'I WANT IT' (and price is not an issue). About 18-20 years ago I was a bartender in a small ski resort in the middle of nowhere and I had this guy come every afternoon for a drink and would sit two golden Leica bodies on the bar. I think he noticed that I was staring at them. His name was Jim. I had some amazing conversations with him about photography, and Leica in particular. He let me check his golden plated cameras out and told me some really cool stories and shared that he bought his first digital camera, a Nikon D1 and he 'loved it' but didn't have the certain something special that his film Leicas had. I later found out his full name: Jim Marshall, a legend of rock and roll photography. The point of my story...let's just be civil people.

Thank you for the great story!

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