Camera Reviews

The Blue Skinned Leica CL

These words come very late to the party as far as the Leica CL’s lifespan is concerned. After all, it was released in November 2017, almost four years ago at the time of writing. There is certainly not much I can add to the many reviews and tests that are available on the web, so it would be very easy to let this slide into obscurity. But I am of the opinion that if you take information from the internet, you should contribute something back, however small.

leica cl 1My CL came to me almost ten months ago, so even then I would be considered a late adopter and, had I made my intentions clear about my purchase on forums, I am sure I would have received many comments to try and encourage me into waiting for the next iteration, the so-called CL2.

The decision to purchase this camera was one that came from the heart, not the head, along with a coffee-fuelled talk with my wife about my upcoming significant 60th birthday. Our plans to celebrate this had been rehashed several times, thanks to the pandemic. What started as a grand trip to St. Petersburg, morphed into a few days in Krakow. As Europe moved back into lockdown, it became clear that any overseas trip was not happening. A few days in Northumberland would be nice, we naively thought as the UK moved into yet another lockdown. So we also kissed this idea goodbye and decided that a night at home with a take-way was the best we could do. Funny how plans die on the vine. But without this, I doubt the conversation would have happened that eventually lead to the purchase of a CL.

What sealed the deal for me was that for a very short period of time, the offer of coloured leather finishes was made by Leica. The offer aligned perfectly with my disappointment, so the call of a new toy was irresistible. As written earlier, it was a call from the heart; I didn’t need this camera, I already had a TL2 (which pretty much has the same innards as the CL), an original T, and also a X113. But seeing pictures of it in varying colours, from garish to sublime, captivated me completely. 

When the CL was announced, I didn’t really like the design. It took me some months to accept the strange little viewfinder hump. And it was initially only available in black, which is not my favourite finish. A little later in the CL’s timeline came the silver finish model which attracted me back to the design. By this time I had gotten over the odd looking top plate and started to actually like it. Fast forward to November 2020 and here I was committed to purchasing one. Colour, like style, is very much a personal thing, and many of the coloured leathers did nothing for me. That was until I came across various shades of blue. On the silver body, I found them very appealing. It was the smooth blue leather finish named ‘Octane’ that became my choice, although a much lighter blue came a close second. And so it was, one a cold and dreary Saturday morning, that Alison placed the order.

Throughout adulthood, I have never really been an excitable person. I would quite happily order something and get on with my life without as a much as a second thought until the item arrived. For some odd reason this began to change a couple of years back. So the countdown to delivery day invoked a long lost childhood frenzy of impatience and excitement as the weeks slipped by. Funny how life goes…from toys, to sex, drugs & rock’n’ roll, to parenting and, heralding in the crusty years, back to toys! Due to my present being custom made, delivery times were an achingly painful 6’ish weeks. To add to my anxiety, Brexit was looming large and I didn’t want this experience to get caught up in the political mess that, like a noxious cloud, was lurking just around the corner.

The weeks slipped by until one morning in December a plain brown box turned up, courtesy of UPS. It was quickly intercepted by Alison, who after a little while examining the contents away from my prying eyes, whipped me back into a frenzy with the words “your gonna love your new camera”. It was now 11 days to my birthday and if we were still at a time when we had advent calendars in the house, my son would have been trampled in the rush to open the doors.

leica cl 2Good sense had seen to it that for once, I booked my birthday off work. And I was up early to make sure I enjoyed every moment of it. Here I was, 60 years old, with far less life in front of me than was behind. But hey, a new toy was about to be unwrapped so what did I care? I have written before that opening a box from Leica should be savoured. Live in the moment and enjoy it. I know it is only a camera, but I have never seen a blue one before, let alone owned one. After unpacking the boxes I was down to the last grey sarcophagus-like box. This was it, lifting the lid I could make out the ghost of the camera through an opaque plastic baggie. I slipped it out admiringly, turning it over and over to study the fine craftsmanship and attention to detail. The blue leather really was something to behold - not exactly striking but individual. It reminded me of my brown leather X113.

The first thing I noticed when I had got over its good looks was the viewfinder. Having by now completely forgotten about the weird little hump on the top plate, I realised that this was the first camera I had purchased to have any kind of integrated viewfinder since my Olympus E-1, in 2005. And once I had set the camera up and used it, I realised just how much I had missed it. Yes, I had the party cracker Visoflex Typ-020 electronic viewfinder for my TL2, but its fragility means that I don’t use it half as much as I should. For what it cost, I expected at least a metal tilting foot that is best summed up as a disappointing piece of engineering. ‘Nuff said.

It's nine months on from the grand unboxing and you would think in that amount of time I would have used the camera a fair bit. Truth be told I haven’t, and it is the very reason I write these lines almost belatedly. The combination of lockdown, a seemingly endless winter and a general lack of enthusiasm for photography resulted in a short local test run to ensure the camera functioned OK, before laying it away until a few weeks ago and a trip to Zakynthos. I took my CL to document our stay along with 35mm, 11-23 and 55-135mm lenses. It was all housed in a Tenba DNA 15 Backpack purchased especially for the trip.

I found using the CL a very different experience to my TL2. I was re-introduced to buttons where the TL2 utilises a superb touchscreen interface. At first, fiddling with buttons slowed me down, but once I had set the menus to my taste, speed improved. Having the ability to assign function buttons to specific tasks really helped here, giving me shortcuts to settings I found most important. I have always found Leica menus to be intuitive and logically set out. They are also much simpler than competitors, focussing (no pun intended) on ‘the essence of photography’. This is the same for each model I have owned as well as those I don’t (the M and SL systems). I found it strange that when the CL was released, there was a lot of talk about the dioptric correction mechanism and its ability to be adjusted by pulling the crown out, making a change and pushing it back in again to lock it. I recall this same design being a feature of my Olympus OM3Ti and OM4Ti cameras decades ago.

While the CL has a touchscreen, I found it of limited value due to the presence of buttons and dials. With the exception of zooming in on pictures when reviewing them, I don’t think I bothered. And even then I found myself reviewing them through the viewfinder more and more, as the experience felt similar to using a loupe. On the subject of the viewfinder, we all know it is electronic, but it has a clarity that belies its 2.36 million dot resolution. Comparing it to my 2.4 million dot Visoflex, the CL viewfinder delivers a brighter, sharper and clearer experience. 2 megapixel viewfinders do seem a bit outdated today, particularly if you have peered through the 5.76 million dot finder of the SL2 or SL2-S.

For the first time in my photographic career, I found I was using focus peaking a lot, which was odd given that the autofocus lenses I use are very accurate. I was using it almost as a manual confirmation of the autofocus setting, occasionally adjusting it when composing close up images.

leica cl 3Battery life is OK, nothing special. Armed with a spare I never found myself without power, even after a long day shooting. The days and nights were very warm though, so how battery life translates when shooting in cold weather is still unknown to me. Thankfully third-party batteries are plentiful and as long as a reputable brand is used, the cost is much less than a genuine Leica one. I use Hahnel where possible as I have found them to be an excellent alternative. While I love the style of the TL2 batteries, only Leica produce them making spares costly.

Some people complain of the lack of a grip on the CL and feel that the optional screw on one is a bit cumbersome. Truth be told is that, with the exception of my Leica X1, I have never found this to be a problem. The X1 was just a little too small for my fingers, making the grip almost a prerequisite purchase. The CL (and my X113) are just a little bit larger, which suits me fine. The TL2 of course has a small moulded grip incorporated into the body, which I find a perfect compromise.

After two weeks of continuous use, I found the CL to have been a fantastic experience, with just one detraction; the well-documented ‘wandering focus point’. For some reason Leica have never acknowledged this as a problem or put a fix in place by means of a ‘lock and forget’ menu option. The simple workaround for re-centering it is a double tap of the touchscreen. But is it still very annoying when you raise the camera to your eye for a quick grab shot, only to find it has wondered off into a corner.

After transferring the results onto my laptop there was little in the way of surprises, as the TL2 has a very similar, if not identical image pipeline. Above all they share the same sensor. This meant that there was very little RAW conversion work to be done, apart from dumbing down the highlights and lifting shadows occasionally. The muted colours of the RAW captures really appeals to me, and is one of the key points that attracted me, and keeps me with Leica cameras. Many images require no work, it's simply a matter of pushing them through a RAW to jpg conversion. Most adjustments I do are simply for artistic reasons, i.e. monochrome conversions, vignettes.

There is a lot of buzz on the web about the next iteration, the ‘CL2’. As I write this, it is still very much vapourware although I am sure the clever people in Solms have something under development. Quite how this will look is anyone’s guess (unless you work for Leica). The Wishlist for additional features is fairly long, but for me there is not al lot to improve. I have never owned a camera with image stabilisation so don’t miss it. Clean high ISO is prevalent on most of todays cameras, and if I want to push this to it’s extreme, I tend to use a tripod. The addition of sensor cleaning technology is something else that comes up for debate, and again, this is something I don’t really care about. Over the years I have become accustomed to wet cleaning sensors and find that, as long as I am careful about where I change lenses, does not need to be done often. So, if I had to put a Wishlist together for a proposed ‘CL2’ it would look like this:-

  • A higher resolution Viewfinder - it doesn’t have to be to the SL2/S specification but maybe that of the original SL (4.40 million dot).
  • The removal of the viewfinder ‘hump’ in favour of the more angular M, X113 or Q design.
  • Internal storage similar to the TL, but upgraded to 64gb.
  • WiFi image transfer.
  • A la carte choice in coloured/textured leather offered as standard, and not a limited offer.
  • No increase in sensor size…24 megapixels is perfectly adequate.

And let’s not forget a solution to the pesky wondering focus point. I don’t really care what the fix is, just sort it out.