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Why the original Leica SL is still the best camera in 2020

Update December 2021: I sold my Leica SL. Not because it isn't a good camera, but I have reflected on it further and reached the conclusion that even though it is probably the best camera there is from a user experience perspective, it is not the package that works for me anymore. I am happy to have had it but I am moving on to a different setup. See more on my evolving relationship with Leica gear here.

Original post: The Leica SL came on the market in 2015. I bought mine in 2018 and after using the camera in every scenario that is relevant to me, I can say that this camera is the best camera in 2020. For me. For now. Five years old or not. It doesn’t matter. I am writing this now because second hand prices, and for new ones as well, of the original SL are becoming more and more friendly so this is a good time to reflect on whether the SL is a camera you might want to look at in 2020.

The Leica SL - simplicity in action [Nikon Df - 58mm 1.4]

The SL probably has the cleanest design of any camera I have ever seen. The only letters on the body (outside of the usual production information on the bottom) are those that spell Leica on the front, and on/off next to the switch that does just that. And I bet the designers had long conversations about wanting to keep even the on/off switch clean and simple without any lettering. Regardless, this is quite a different interface from anything else out there. The only camera that I can think of that is designed with a similar approach is the Hasselblad X1D. But even that one does not take their design idea as far as the SL. Actually, even the SL successor, the SL2, takes a step back by introducing a more approachable back design that now looks exactly like the M10 and the CL. I understand the desire for consistency in design language across the camera range, but the original SL is so much more a statement of clean and functional design than the SL2.

On/Off. And that is it. [Nikon Df 58mm 1.4]

The lines of the design are sharp. Edges are not rounded off, they almost seem to be emphasized. This creates an object of use that stands out and blends in. It is very weird but anywhere you put the SL, whether on an old coffee table or somewhere in a hyper modern office, the SL fits its surroundings and at the same time is the first thing you notice when you enter the room. Like a blank slate that begs to be picked up. And when you do, you feel its heft. At 850 grams, it is definitely not a lightweight camera. But it is still lighter than most DSLRs, and the difference with an M10 is less than 200 grams. It is lighter than it looks but feels heavier than it actually is. The SL is riddled with paradoxes and creates a strange experience when you pick it up for the first time.

Solid hold thanks to the great grip [Nikon Df 58mm F1.4]

After you've gotten to terms with the confusing experience of its weight being both heavier and lighter than you thought, you notice one of the key features in its handling: the grip. For my hands, the SL grip is a perfect fit. It feels incredibly solid and gives you a lot of confidence in handling the camera. The solid feel I described above oozes through the grip, you can somehow feel a density that is unlike anything else. Picking up a Sony A7 or a Nikon Z feels nothing like picking up the Leica SL. When I am walking around with it, I like to just leave it dangling on my fingers and the grip gives enough support to do so (I do have a wrist strap in case someone bumps into me...). This light hold also helps in creating the feel that this camera isn’t as heavy as it is in reality. When taking pictures, the grip allows for the perfect positioning of your fingers to adjust whatever you need to adjust and the shutter button is in exactly the right place. The shutter itself is part of the experience for me. The tactile feedback from the half-press is reassuring and fully pressing the shutter ends with a sound that has a lot of oompf to it. Compare it to the sound of the closing a car door, it is an immediate give-away with regard to the quality of the car itself. Just so with the SL, the shutter sound is very fitting to the kind of camera the SL was set out to be. Quieter than a DSLR but with more heft than many mirrorless systems out there.

Clean lines everywhere you look [Nikon Df 58mm F1.4]

Then, there is the backside of the camera. Four buttons, a dial and a joystick. That’s it. No markings, no letters, nothing. And yet, it is the most intuitive camera I have ever used. Do you know which button to press on your camera to pick your ISO, or bring up your menu? Of course you do, after you used your camera for a little while, you know where things are, and you don’t need any letters for that. Leica embraced this kind of ‘muscle memory’ we as photographers develop for our cameras, and they decided to take it to the ultimate level. Just four black buttons, a dial and a joystick. You can assign the buttons however you like and they work with a clever short- and long-press approach that magically turn the four buttons into eight. And with eight buttons, you can do anything you need. On my camera I press the top left button to bring up my customized 1-page menu with all the settings I use for 99% of the time (another clever design example), when I long press that button, it bring up the ISO selector. Easy as pie.

Just black buttons [Ricoh GRIII]

Another example of the innovative approach the Leica team took in designing the interface of this camera is how you adjust the diopter dial. Instead of a clunky little wheel next to the viewfinder like in most cameras, on the SL you adjust the setting by turning a ring that is integrated into the viewfinder itself. It is rigid enough to never be knocked off by accident and has clear markings to find your own setting easily.

Best diopter adjustment design ever [Ricoh GRIII]

The list goes on. The battery is designed to 'be its own battery compartment door'. There simply is no battery compartment door. All you do is flick a lever and the battery jumps out, while remaining semi-locked in the camera. A little nudge is all you need to fully release it.

The battery is its own door [Ricoh GRIII]

One of the things I appreciate most about the SL is the way they designed the joystick. It seems like such a small thing but it makes all the difference. I mainly shoot my SL with M-mount lenses, which means they are all manual focus. The lens you see mounted on the pictures shown in this post is the Voigtlander 75mm F1.5 for instance. And manual focusing with the SL works tremendously well. Focus peaking dots are very visible without becoming intrusive and the joystick allows you to simply push it for instant magnification. You can find the the focus point you want by moving the joystick around and adjusting focus. The joystick is made of rubber and is a little bigger than other cameras that take a similar approach. On the Fuji X series, the joystick is tiny and made of hard plastic which does not work as well in comparison.

Joyous joystick [Ricoh GRIII]

The viewfinder itself remains one of the better ones on the market today, even if it has been 5 years since its introduction. Again, the interface is clean and allows you to pay attention to the essential. In true tradition to Leica's heritage; Das Wesentliche.

Clean and simple [Ricoh GRIII]

I had the Leica 75mm Summicon-SL for a while and I can see why many believe the native SL lenses to be the best ever made. For me, I missed the mechanical experience of manual focus of M lenses so I sold it. In the early days of the SL, the native AF lens options were very limited but the L-mount alliance certainly gave SL owners more options, against different price points. I have just purchased a Sigma 24mm F1.4 with L-mount and it works very well. But, my most used lenses remain M lenses. The adapter that Leica sells is expensive but works very well and also reads the 6-bit coding if your lenses have that. I used a Novoflex adapter before but wasn't super happy with the quality. I felt a tiny wiggle around the lens-mount and reviewing the photos showed increased vignetting at wide apertures vs using the Leica adapter.

M-adapter works a treat [Ricoh GRIII]

So much for the interface, what about the image quality? As expected of a camera with this price tag, it is of course excellent. In general, I do believe that for most of us, the average quality of sensors and the supporting software has gotten so good, that it doesn't really play that big a role in picking your camera. Almost all serious cameras hit the bar of 'way beyond good enough', unless you have some very specific or exotic needs. For me, the 24 megapixels in the full frame sensor are more than enough. I don't see any need for more. I actually just bought a different full frame camera with only 16 megapixels - more on that in a later post.

SIngle button you can make do whatever you want [Ricoh GRIII]

I am someone who can be quite fickle with my gear and change things up a lot. Not so with the SL. I see myself holding on to this for many years to come. If you are in the market for a full frame camera, you should give the SL a look. Prices have come down with the SL2 in market and you will get something truly special. A camera which, for me, still is the best camera in 2020.

I have posted some example shots taken with the Leica SL over the last few years with different lenses below:


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