The Invisible Tripod

by Nick Rains

It’s finally here, the long awaited update to one of my all time favourite cameras, the Leica SL.

I have been using the SL for the past three years as my go-to camera for all my commercial work. It’s the camera I turned to when I needed to get the job done with as little fuss as possible, and yet at the highest possible quality. Sure, it was not a lightweight, but it gave me an extremely high hit rate of successful images and who can ask for more

Shorncliffe Pier, Queensland. 120 seconds

And now we have the SL2; very similar to look at, a slight change to the Leica name on the front (in a homage to the old R8 maybe) and a redesigned grip which is a big step up from the older model. It’s easier on the wrist muscles, and on the fingers, with a smoother, rounded upper shutter button area and a scooped inner groove to sink the fingers into. The finish is a more robust black coating with a subtle ‘hammered’ finish that seems very durable.

I know that other testers will be publishing comprehensive lists of features etc so I’ll just concentrate on the aspects of the camera that have impressed me most over the past weeks. Here are my Top Three Big Deals.

Sydney Town Hall - 90mm Summicron-SL
100% crop of previous image - 1 second hand held using 90mm Summicron-SL

Firstly, the SL2 introduces Leica’s first iteration of BIS – Body Image Stabilisation – where the sensor itself moves to counteract any camera shake. Sure, this is not ‘new’ as such, but Leica does tend to wait until technology is fully mature before considering implementing it. In this case their aversion to being an early adopter has paid off because BIS is a game changer for me – a term I do not use lightly.

I don’t know what the quoted ‘power’ of the stabiliser is – some manufacturers say 4 stops of shutter speed etc. All I know is that I can get reliably sharp image at crazily low shutter speeds. I have 1/2 second exposures with the 90mm Summicron-SL that are 100% sharp hand-held – yes, really. My *record* is 2 seconds with an 18mm Super-Elmar-M although I was pushing the limits and not every shot was perfectly sharp. Having said that, the fact that any shot could even be sharp *at all* whilst hand holding for 2 second blows my mind.

The amount of sensor movement seems to be quite substantial – when shooting video you can get a rock solid shot, particularly with the 24-90mm which has it’s one lens stabiliser working in tandem. I call it the Invisible Tripod because I can now shoot images that would normally be impossible without a tripod.

Craig Semetko - 90mm Summicron-SL

The second Big Deal is the jump to 47MP. This shows up clearly in prints, A2 prints look tack sharp even with your nose against the print and when I get my bigger printer going I’m looking forward to A0 prints looking as sharp as the A2 prints I get off the SL.

There is also a crispness to the images which surprised me. I’m used to sharp images but when using the new 35mm Summicron-SL and the 50mm Summicron-SL, not to mention the older zooms, the image has the kind of acutance I have come to associate with a Monochrom. I was concerned that doubling the resolution would reveal any shortcomings in lens quality but, it being Leica, I needn’t have worried – Oh me of little faith! You need to see this for yourself – it’s hard to describe or to show on a web image but it’s clear to me when I closely examine files on a high quality screen.

Melbourne - 0.7 sec hand held, 35mm Summicron-SL

The 3rd Big Deal; since I started working with Leica I have been banging on about how limiting the mandatory long exposure noise reduction (LENR) was. Sure, it produced a very high quality image, but I have been asking the senior designers for many years to offer an option to turn it off. For example it would be impossible to shoot a starry sky time lapse with exposures over a few seconds because then the camera would need to wait for the same length of time again before the next shot, thus resulting in gaps in the time lapse.

Well, my prayers are answered in the SL2, LENR is now optional and can be turned off if you need to – Yay! A quick comparison of 120 second exposures with, and without, LENR shows a subtle noise benefit but nothing you could not handle with good quality post processing noise reduction.

Melbourne - 0.5 sec hand held, 35mm Summicron-SL

In other news…

The viewfinder is improved, not to a massive extent, but it’s still the best one on the market. The numbers are deceptive. It’s 5.76MP, like some other recent cameras, but because the viewfinder glass is made to the same tolerances as Leica lenses, it looks super crisp; so sharp in fact that with wider aperture lenses you can judge focussing directly in the viewfinder with peaking and magnification turned off.

Video has taken a big step forward. The SL2 can shoot 4.2.2 color in 4K to a SD card in 10bit at 25fps. There are options for 5K shooting, higher frame rates to external recorder, 180fps in 1080p and up to 400Mb/s data rate.

There are lots of other tweaks and improvements – here are a few of my favourites:

– Charging batteries in-camera via USB. You can use a phone powerbank to top up the batteries if you are away from 240V power. This is very cool.
– The new menu system has a neat ‘quick menu’ on first press of the menu button.
– There’s a new button layout to align with the M10, Q2 and CL.
– Now we have more customisable buttons including a sweet little rocker button under your grip fingers, perfect for accessing, say, ISO and drive mode.
– There are now standard jacks for microphone and audio monitoring.
– There’s a nifty way of switching from stills to video with just a swipe across the LCD screen, which reveals a dedicated video screen layout.
– 20fps shooting speed. Using DNGs I got 27 consecutive frames, then it took about 60 secs to *fully* clear the buffer – that’s 2.3Gb of data! This might be affected by card performance, I’m using 95MB/s Sandisk Extreme Pros and have nothing faster right now.
– Top shutter speed 1/40,000 sec.

On balance, the SL2 is a significant upgrade from the SL with the combination of a 47MP sensor and some of the best lenses in the world competing head on with vastly more expensive medium format cameras as well as the highest resolution offerings from other brands. The SL was always a highly functional camera, the SL2 is the same, just more so.

SL2 - note the new style 'Leica' on the viewfinder.
New menu styles including this easy to use Quick Menu layout
Charlie - 1/15 sec @ f2.0 hand held. 50mm Summicron-SL
Melbourne - 1.5 sec hand held, 35mm Summicron-SL