Peter Karbe, Leica’s head of optical design, is quoted as saying ” If Oskar Barnak would invent a camera today, it would have the APS-C format”. Praise indeed.
According to my Lightroom metadata I have worked with over 70 different digital cameras in the past 15 years and only once or twice in that time can I remember picking up a new camera and thinking immediately “wow, I absolutely love this”. The Leica S2 was one such camera, as was the Leica Q. Plenty of other cameras have grown on me over time to become firm favourites but not many have grabbed me right away.
The new Leica CL was a case of love at first sight. Let’s see – here are my very first impressions…
Feels good in the hand – yep, feels really good and so light!
Lightweight and almost pocket size – nailed it.
24mp sensor – check.
Interchangeable lenses – of course, and plenty of them.
Built-in EVF – certainly and it’s great.
4K video – oh yeah.
OK, first impressions are one thing but does the camera perform to my standards? Well, the short answer is “yep, it sure does”. Think of the SL and the Q image quality – this is pretty much the same even if it’s from an APS-C sensor size. Honestly I don’t know why some people look down on the smaller format sensors, surely the proof is in the results and in this case it’s there for all to see. Shooting high ISO is usually the litmus test and I will show you images below shot at ISO3200 which are as low-noise as you would ever need, I’d go as far as to say they are indistinguishable from the SL and Q, both of which are very well regarded in low light.
This camera uses the same lens mount as the TL2 and the SL so you can use all the TL2’s lenses and yes, you can even fit the SL’s 90-280mm on with full AF features to get a 135-460mm equivalent angle of view! The TL lenses are regarded by Leica’s lens designers as amongst the sharpest and highest resolution lenses that they have ever made. They need to be good to work with the smaller sensor size and I see no reason to doubt this. The 35mm Summilux TL is astonishingly sharp, even at f1.4, and the other lenses follow suit. The little 11-23mm super-wide zoom is sharp from corner to corner and the new 28mm Summarit is no different, even wide open at f2.8. In short, you are getting the full Leica lens experience with all the quality and character that you’d expect.
The camera’s design is a little unusual and bears some explaining.
The EVF is excellent, not quite to the rarified heights of the SL, but very good nevertheless. It’s crisp, bright and fine-grained so judging image sharpness and focus is easy. I love its placement in the top left corner – a nod to the M rangefinders I’m sure – and it allows you to shoot with the right eye in ‘rangefinder street style’. One nice touch (that I’d like to see in the SL too) is a fourth EVF/LCD mode. You can turn on the rear LCD, or the EVF, or have it automatically swap as you move you eye to the finder – just like the SL. The extra feature is a mode which turns them all off until you lift the camera to your eye, then the EVF comes on immediately. This will be great for maximising battery life.
It’s an easy camera to pick up and work with, just turn it on and it’s obvious what you need to do. The top two dials fall nicely under your right thumb and work as shutter speed and aperture controls in Manual, or as aperture/exposure compensation in Aperture Priority mode. The left dial also clicks to choose the shooting mode (PASM) whilst the right hand wheel long-clicks to access a Favourites Menu from which one option can be chosen as a single-click custom button option. I have set it to ISO but you can keep changing it to other frequently used options such as Focus Mode, Self Timer or Drive Mode etc. There is another Custom Button (Fn) on the rear which works the same way. The camera is thus customisable to your own shooting style, something that the CL has in common with the S and SL.
In a word, superb. Just as you’d expect. Here are some early shots with 100% crops.
35mm Summilux-TL. ISO100@ f1.4 and 100% crop below.
Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm. 90mm @f4 ISO100 and 100% crop below.
35mm Summilux-TL. ISO3200 @ f2.0 and 100% crop below.
35mm Summilux-TL. ISO1600 1/60th @ f1.4
As you’ll see from the cityscape shot further up, ISO3200 performance is very good indeed (that was shot hand-held too) and I find that I’m using the higher ISO settings more and more these days.
Remember Leica’s design gestalt? “Das Wesentliche” – The Essential. This camera follows that line of thinking and offers you a camera that does all the important things you need it to, in the simplest possible way.
I have also been testing the use of the SL lenses on the CL, in particular the 90-280mm which gives an angle of view similar to that of a 135-460mm lens on the full frame SL. I can confirm that it works just fine with responsive, fast autofocus and image quality to match that of the SL. Both this lens and the 24-90mm have built-in optical stabilisers and these are operated by the CL just like when mounted on the SL.
This versatility fulfils one of my other requirements – the CL can work as a genuine second body or as a back up body for the SL. I like the idea of a CL with the 11-23mm paired with the SL with something like a Noctilux or fixed 90mm lens (announced but yet to arrive). This could be the best possible travel combination for me and the way I work. Currently I use the 18mm Elmar-M as my wide lens on the SL but for all its lovely qualities, it’s still a little clumsy to have to change lenses repeatedly – using two bodies is definitely the way to go.
The SL will remain my work-horse camera – the 24-90mm is such an incredibly useful lens and the ‘get it done’ design of the camera should not be underestimated. However, it is not a diminutive camera and for those occasions when I want to travel super-light, the CL can take its place with no compromise of quality.
And so yes, I have ordered one…
Tribe Hotel, Perth. 11-23mm, ISO3200
60mm Macro. ISO1600
60mm Macro. ISO1600
90-280mm @ 280mm. ISO400
I have been up on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland shooting more images on the CL for the upcoming launch events around the country and, whilst the weather has been rather poor, it has allowed me some more quality time with the camera.
The 90-280mm works incredibly well, the focus tracking allowed me to shoot some (admittedly rather average) surfing images in the last light of the day. Getting a reasonable percentage of sharp images at 280mm, ISO1600 and f4 using 1/125th second shutter speeds is quite an achievement. I’ll try some more tomorrow but the weather forecast looks dubious at best.
Who is this camera for?
I have been working with all of the Leica cameras over the past few years and have also spent a lot of time with other Leica users out in the field on photo tours and workshops. One comment I have heard over and over is that whilst the Q is very highly regarded, owners would like either a 50mm lens option or interchangeable lenses. They prefer the more traditional look and feel of the Q over the TL2 and want the same image quality. The SL is also rated extremely highly by owners, but they would like a smaller, less serious camera to take out on casual photo excursions.
In other words we all want to have our cake and eat it too.
Enter the CL. In my mind it’s a combination of the SL, the TL and the Q, in one body. All have similar image quality – the SL is robust and business-like, the Q is nimble and light but has a fixed lens, the TL2 is light and has interchangeable lenses but no EVF and a non-traditional control system.
The CL is as light and nimble as the Q, has an excellent built-in EVF and uses the same super-sharp lenses as the TL2. The CL does not replace the TL2, or the Q for that matter – it offers a difference set of compromises and design imperatives and that can only be a good thing.
I think this is going to be a very successful camera for Leica.