Like some other photographers, as time has progressed and digital technology matured, I have become jaded of the megapixel race. I actually grew weary of it by the time 24 megapixel was considered normal. I never print images and, apart from those that are shared on PhotoArk, view them on high resolution monitors or TV’s up to 60 inch. So when 24mp was surpassed I found myself in a situation where new camera models didn’t interest me or fulfil my requirements. I had long planned to buy into Leica’s 35mm format L system but watched the original 24mp SL Typ 601 suceeded by the fantastic 47mp SL2. As good as it was, I could not bring myself to justify the enormous increase in resolution. I would simply be using up valuable resources storing huge RAW files with no purpose to hand.
During one of the many internet browsing sessions that occupy my evenings, I recall thinking ‘OK, so 50mp is the new norm – wouldn’t it be grand if the latest sensor technology was used as a basis for less pixels, but use the 35mm sensor’s real estate to make those 24 megapixels extraordinary’. Fat, high quality, less noisy pixels was what I dreamed of. But deep down I thought that this was simply a pipe dream, particularly as technology rumours started appearing about the possibility of 80-100mp sensors.
Imagine my surprise when, in the Autumn of 2020, rumours started circulating of a more video orientated SL2-S that would be sporting a 24mp BSI sensor. It was as if Leica were listening to my thoughts and I spent the next few weeks totally distracted from daily life as rumour turned into fact, pictures ‘leaked’ onto the internet and official specifications were released. Finally… a product that I could aspire to own.
Some would say that I ‘put the cart before the horse’ when getting into the 35mm sensor aspect of the L System, as I was keen to build a small lens collection while early adopters tested this new model. As I already owned the T/TL2/CL APSC bodies that shared the same mount, I never thought of it as such, as I was able to use a few of the fantastic SL Summicron and Summilux primes, albeit with a 1.4 crop factor. So my 35mm became 49mm, 50mm became 70mm, and 75mm became 105mm. They all perform fantastically on the APSC bodies and at reimagined focal lengths that I enjoy. This solution was my stop gap while I set funds aside to purchase the SL2-S. I was quite happily ticking along, not in any hurry to buy a new body, when the recent Leica ‘Friends and Family‘ promotion hit my inbox, teasing me with a £550 discount on the SL2-S. It was a balmy summer afternoon when I read this and I was stoked on G&T’s. My usual purchase resistant defences were down and it took me just minutes to start making enquiries and place an order.
Fast forward a couple of days and I was in possession of my new toy. Apart from checking it over to make sure it functioned OK, it languished in its box for a couple of months, taking nothing more than a few test shots. Life was particularly busy and stressful at this time, and thoughts of photography had little choice but to be put on the back burner for a while.
Fast forward again to the height of Summer and I was finally in a place where I could re-start my photo interests, and although there was an impending holiday in Croatia, I decided against taking the S2-S. Instead I took the CL with a couple of zooms and 35mm Summilux as it makes for a much smaller and lighter outfit.
So much has been written about the technical aspects of the SL/SL2/SL2-S cameras that I will not regurgitate much of it here. Although I will endorse one inescapable fact – the camera is heavy. I am not used to carrying larger bodies and while I have handled SL2’s in the past, mine reminded me of my E-1 or EOS10D from long ago. They were built to stand the rigours of professional use in a similar way the SL2-S is. However the SL series camera’s carry nothing remotely resembling the god awful aesthetics of many manufacturer’s cameras. Years ago, I found my 10D too vapidly hideous to live with and quickly swapped systems. When I was looking for a replacement system, further Olympus ‘four thirds’ models along with Sony and Nikon offerings were discounted for similar reasons. All were perfectly capable, but none of them ‘spoke’ to me.
Similar to my long gone and much lamented Olympus E-1, SL series cameras have an undeniable look that lacks the trite complexion of many counterparts. Austere in features and sparsely adorned with unlabelled buttons, I feel like I have a product in my hands that is the end result of thoughtful engineering and essential functionality. Combined, these qualities create something that becomes more than a sum of its parts - a tool that you desire to pick up and use, or simply fondle.
One of the things that drew me to Leica originally was the thoughtfulness of the menu layout. Many competitors cram so many options into their cameras that they become lost in very complex menu systems, sometimes becoming a hinderance. To combat this, a liberal smattering of function buttons are added to allow quick access to key settings. The aesthetic upshot of this is a wart-like body that could compromise the weather resistance if not adequately sealed. It also potentially increases the risk of buttons getting accidentally pressed if you have sausage fingers like me. And while manufacturers are trying to become all things to all photographers, many easy access options may go completely unused, depending on the user’s style. With each iteration brands leap frog the essence of photography while heavily promoting a non-essential feature or gimmick.
The frugalness of the SL’s function buttons does mean that the owner has to think carefully about which is considered worthy enough to have a dedicated button. To compensate for this it is possible to create profiles that are tuned to specific needs and switch between these as required. However, the simplicity of the menu means that anything can be reached fairly quickly without having to dive too deep.
I found myself more than once reconfiguring the function buttons – the evolution changing slightly with each time I used the camera. A few months on, I feel I now have it configured to suit my needs. The beauty of these buttons is that they are very, very easy to change. There is no need to deep dive into the menu’s as each can be adjusted by a long press of the appropriate function button. This is how I have it set up at present:
Front Upper Button: Autofocus Mode
Front Lower Button: Self Timer
Top Plate Main Dial: Aperture
Top Plate Right Button: ISO
Top Plate Left Button: Exposure Metering
Rear Thumbwheel: Exposure Compensation
Rear Button: EVF/Screen Options
Rear Nub: Autofocus Point
For someone who is averse to lots of buttons, knobs, dials etc. I find the button layout on the SL2-S to be excellent. However when I use a half case, the two buttons on the front of the camera become more difficult to operate as does the On/Off switch on the rear. This is a minor point and is probably specific to the style of Luigi case I am using. I enjoy the interface of the Leica T series cameras the most – my experience with them has been joyful. I would love to have seen a SL series body with the same interface.
It is difficult to write about the SL2-S without commenting on the awesome viewfinder. Years ago I sat on the side lines watching electronic viewfinders evolve and for years was never impressed by them. It was optical viewfinders all the way for me. With the purchase of my first T series body I became very curious of the add-on Visoflex 020 finder which resulted in me purchasing one. At just 2.4 megapixels, I was unsure if the resolution would be sufficient, but was pleasantly surprised. My CL of course has a built-in EVF which performs similarly to the Visoflex. But it was a few years ago when I had a demo of the original SL body that I felt the EVF had truly come of age. The SL2/S cameras build on this, taking the resolution from 4.4 to 5.76 megapixels. What we have now is something that truly is stunning, being almost comparable to the optical experience. Coupled with the option to enable 120 fps refresh rate, the viewfinder becomes an extremely smooth experience. There are plenty of options to change the colour balance, contrast and brightness should you wish. Various shooting data can also be overlaid, but my minimal taste prefers no information in the finder. Just gazing at the awesome image is enough for me and I take my shooting data from the LCD panel located on the top plate.
Image Stabilisation is something of a novelty for me, as only one camera I have ever owned had the ability to do this – my EOS 10D. I reluctantly tip my hat to it for demonstrating just how useful this can be. But being someone who has spent a lifetime carrying a tripod around on serious shoots I have never really considered myself or my gear as being hobbled by its omission. So while I am mindful of its existence and that I have left it enabled on the Sl2-S, I have yet to use it in situations that would benefit. I have noted that ISO on the SL2-S goes as low as 50, which I loved using in the film days. With this in mind there is a good chance I will feel the benefits when wishing to hand hold the camera at such a low speed. I recall the Image Stabilisation working very well for my 10D and that was many years ago. I assume that the amount of R&D that has been poured into advancing the technology has resulted in large gains between then and now.
The most disappointing thing for me about all Leica digital cameras I have owned is poor battery life. Compared to the Pentax K series, Olympus E1 and, yes, the 10D they leave a lot to be desired. My original X seemed to drain before my eyes. My X Typ 113 is not much better. The T/TL2’s are not brilliant, and I never leave home without at least two fully charged ones. My CL is a slight improvement on my T’s but even so, I always carry a fully charged spare. The SL2-S battery life seems to be a break from this tradition although I have not used in in environmentally challenging conditions such as extreme low temperatures yet. Even so, when I ordered the camera I also ordered a spare battery. Up until now though, I have been pleasantly surprised that I can go out for a day with a fully charged one, and find myself not having to change it.
I cannot really discuss the SL2-S without mentioning the lenses I use it with. As I wanted to build a ‘pedigree’ Leica system, my decision was to build up a selection of Leica L system lenses. As I do not own any of Leica’s M system lenses, it made perfect sense to remain in the same ecosystem as the camera. Of course M lenses are much smaller and the sensor of the SL2-S has been optimised to work well with them. But as the manual focus experience and size was unimportant to me, my mind was made up. The L mount alliance has grown significantly over the last couple of years and there are plenty of options available. However I have retained a nervousness about third party optics that is rooted deep in my psyche from the early 1980’s when there were many lesser quality optics on the market. Heck, it is only in the last few years that I have overcome my fear of returning to zooms – and for the same reason. Who knows… I may be tempted by some of the Sigma or Panasonic offerings. But for now, Leica Lenses will do just fine. The Leica brand line-up is far from complete, but addresses all focal lengths I am interested in, with the exception of a fast telephoto in the 135mm range. I don’t think Leica have an appetite to create one of these, but there are rumours of a re-badged Sigma 105mm f1.4 circulating which may be of interest. Until then, I will continue to be awestruck by the 35mm and 75mm L Summicrons, along with the 50mm Summilux.
Regarding my above-mentioned fear of zoom lenses, the 11-22mm and 55-135mm Leica TL lenses were responsible for me returning to zooms as they are both stunning – even on the SL2-S. At the time of writing this, I have just taken delivery of the Super Vario Elmar 16-35 zoom as I was very curious to see how well this performs. It also addresses my requirement for something wider than 35mm. Yes, on the SL2-S I could use my 11-22, but as this is an APSC lens the file output would be more than halved. I have not had chance to use the 16-35 beyond a few test shots around the house, but I will follow up with my thoughts on it in the coming months when the honeymoon period is over.
I have yet to explore the cameras video function. I take very little video and when I do, it is not creative - merely capturing a memory of something personal to me. Aside from this, my conclusion regarding the SL2-S is a positive one. The camera is bigger than anything I have used in the last decade, and with that comes a reassuring weight that emphasises its rugged build. I have found the controls and menus very intuitive, partially down to the fact that I am not a stranger to Leica’s ergonomics. This is one of the reasons I like Leica cameras – the logic of them works very well with my own learning style, which means I can be up and running in a few minutes of handling one, fine tuning the settings as I go.
Will the camera accompany me on overseas trips? I think this is unlikely. I have a CL and TL2’s that perform this duty very well, and I do sometimes take one of the L primes along (usually the 75mm) as it is not overly large. The SL2-S will work well for activities much closer to home, i.e. walking in the Peak District. I rarely take more that two lenses out with me at any time so the weight does not bother me. Having written that, I am sure that if one of them was the 90-280, this final paragraph would be worded a little differently. If Leica were to bring a smaller 35mm frame size camera to market, I would be very interested. But if they continue the same form factor into the SL3 and beyond, I will not be too disappointed.