Leica SL

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The Leica SL-System taps into many production possibilities all at the same time, and once it’s in your hands, you’re torn on how you want to use it. While my intent was to fully review and test the camera’s video capabilities, I couldn’t resist what the SL offers in the stills format. Considering that Leica is a relative newcomer to the DSLR camera (with a video capture option), there’s a lot of curiosity as to what creative options it will bring to a production. And this is where the SL is revolutionary in the marketplace—it’s a mirrorless digital camera, and it’s the first professional camera to feature an electronic viewfinder that looks and performs like a DSLR.

But let’s start with video. The SL offers a 4K option (4096×2160, with stills at 6000×4000), capturing in MP4 and MOV (8-bit H.264 HD 1-1-1), in addition to a Gamma Log mode option. The MP4 and MOV settings can be found in the standard video menu, while the Gamma Log mode is in the Menu settings under Image.

Leica SL

Leica has made good use of the HDMI 1.4 protocol output, allowing for 4K 10-bit uncompressed transmission to an external recorder. Frame rates vary and are relative to different resolution options: 4K (4096×2160) at 24 fps; 4K (3840×2160) at 25 and 30 fps; 1080 at 24, 25, 30, 50, 60, 100 and 120 fps; and 720 at 24, 25, 30, 50, 60, 100 and 120 fps. (Of note, the 4K is approximately a Super35-sized window, pixel for pixel, while the 1080 is full sensor width subsampled.)

The body of the SL has a great feel. Its physical design is well balanced and has the right amount of weight (1.87 pounds with battery, 4.6 pounds with lens). While some may consider a heavier camera to be an issue, in my experience, this adds considerable stability and dampens tiny movements from the breathing, pulse and heartbeat of an operator. A heavier body also offers resistance, smoothing out the simplest and most complex of moves.

The SL is a true professional camera that feels more like a well-tuned machine. I honestly felt the weight distribution was near-perfect and a real asset. The body with lens attached is water-resistant. Rumors of a Singapore presentation where product managers poured a bottle of water over the body can be found on the Internet. In other words, “Don’t try this at home,” but it’s good to know.

A unique entry from Leica, the SL is the company’s best low-light camera, to date, offering 4K DCI (4096×2160) capture at 24 fps and 4K UHD (3840×2160) at 25 and 30 fps in a 10-bit, 4:2:2 color space. In full-frame mode, the SL also can shoot full HD video at up to 120 fps. With its minimalistic design, incredible EVF and easy interface that clearly separates camera and video settings, the SL will attract wedding pros and studio photographers, as well as filmmakers seeking a camera with great feel and potential.

The EyeRes viewfinder is very bright and crisp, plus easy and natural on the eyes. It’s the first of its kind at 4.4 million pixels, with an imperceptible latency factor (reported at 60 fps refresh). Leica not only has taken mirrorless still photography to a new high, but also has advanced the concept of the mirror becoming extinct. The viewfinder offers various display information set by the user; all the information that matters is close at hand—ASA, shutter, ƒ-stop and color temperature, as well as a histogram to monitor exposure. Dual-axis grids for leveling and focus peaking are available, as well.

The display on the back of the camera also offers Live View. A nice touch by Leica is the addition of a motion-sensor option that detects your eye moving to and from the viewfinder, thereby automatically switching from display to viewfinder by the placement of your eye.

The only stock lens currently available for the SL is a Leica 24-90mm F2.8-4. It’s a beautiful, but hefty piece of glass that balances perfectly with the camera. It feels like the lens was designed to be a true extension of the body. Leica is offering a variety of adapters to use legacy lenses and modern Cine lenses with a PL mount. In total, there are a remarkable 120 potential Leica lens combinations available between Leica’s M, S, R and Cine lenses.

The body comes with two standard SD card slots. Interestingly, they work at different speeds: card slot one is rated at UHS-II while slot two is rated at UHS-I. I experienced and read of no issue recording video or stills to either card slot, which can be chosen by the user.

One thing to note here: Be sure the cards you use are of a compatible speed for both video and stills. A slower card was inserted in my first test that I normally use for audio recording, but the camera gave a warning that it was too slow. However, I still managed to record plenty of shots on video. It stored the footage in its buffer before slowly transferring it over, which was a serendipitous discovery!

Once set up, the SL was easy to use. Like any camera, there are different buttons in different places for varying functions. As a result, there’s a learning curve, but in a short time it all made sense.

World-renowned local artists DJ Neff (neffink.com) and Christina Angelina (christinaangelina.com) collaborated on a mural on Venice Boulevard in Mar Vista, California. The pair worked on the piece day and night over two days, creating a wonderful palette and subject for testing the Leica SL-System.

The feel of the camera while shooting was solid, and upon reviewing motion footage—quickly accessible on the rear screen with one of four buttons that bookend the rear screen—I did notice image smoothness. I attribute this smoothness to the camera’s heavier body, but also realize there’s image stabilization built into the 24-90mm zoom.

I found that using the EVF was better than shooting off the rear screen. There was a noticeable comfort with the eye fixed to the eyepiece, but it’s also the combination of weight and design that makes it feel like more of a hybrid digital cinema camera.

For downloading, I used an external card reader. The H.264 footage dropped nicely into Adobe Premiere, where I experimented with simple push and pull in grading to check latitude and flexibility. I found that the image had a nice roll-off into overexposure and the black levels seemed satisfactory for the medium.

While testing the video, I couldn’t help but test the stills application—after all, this is Leica! Operation proved to be very simple. Leica offers JPEG (8-bit) and DNG (14-bit) options—or both at once. The files are huge. For one still at full resolution, a DNG image is 43.5 MB, while its JPEG counterpart comes in at 12.5 MB. The image quality is stunning and was a real pleasure to work with.

The Leica SL is a “real” full-frame stills camera; the sensor measures 36x24mm, the exact same size as the sensor on a traditional film camera. As with any new camera, there’s excitement and criticism. The Leica SL is fun when considering the possibilities of both video and stills. Knowing you have a superior product in hand makes you push the boundaries and be a little more fearless. As a result, I felt as though I had only begun to scratch the surface of this beautiful new offering from Leica, as the only limit was time! List Price: $7,450 (Leica SL); $4,950 (Leica 24-90mm F2.8-4).

Learn more about the Leica SL-System at us.leica-camera.com.