I see what you did there, Leica

I see what you did there, Leica

Perhaps the most controversial new camera release for quite some time, was that of the new Leica SL Typ 601, just a few days ago. This is the second (after the Leica Q) foray of the Red Dot on FF mirrorless territory, but, in fact, their first system camera of the sort. And the second system of that kind, after the Sony FE.  

My initial reaction after seeing the first pictures of the camera was, expectedly, "WTF were they thinking?"  And, upon a short further reflection: "I've got to give it to them; the guys have balls".  

Feedback from the Photographic Internet was a mix of astonishment and curiosity, followed by skepticism and even ridicule. There were three main areas of debate, namely:

1) Why is it so big?
2) Why is it so expensive?
3) How is this better than the newer Sonys?

Let me tell you why I think criticisms are hasty and, probably, totally wrong.

First of all, size: this is not the first time Leica goes for a larger, bulkier design. Remember the Leica R? This line of film cameras was famous for their robustness, exceptional build quality... and bulk. All in an era where most manufacturers actually tried to make their (manual focusing) SLRs as compact as possible.

Second: price. Are you kidding me? It's a Leica, for crying out loud! How it occurred to you that Leica has any intention of pricing their products the same way others do? Right or wrong it's besides the point; go on and complaint about extortionately priced Maseratis too.

To answer the third question, we'll have to see who is this camera for. Or, at least, who I think Leica is targeting with such a design and implementation.

The cynics among you will answer that, Leicas are basically for filthy rich actors, lawyers, doctors, and such, the same snobs that keep supercars they can't drive in their garages, boutique guitars they can't play hanged on their walls and probably trophy-wives they can't... well, you get the drift. But, in fact, Leica's target audience, originally at least, were not these people.

Leica was, and, in a very real sense, still is, a prime choice for photojournalism. The whole history of photojournalism, and related genres such as street and documentary photography, has Leica written all over it. I give you, then, that Leica is trying to make the ultimate photojournalistic camera, for the 21st century, with the SL.

Let's think about it. It's huge for a mirrorless, you say. Who said other mirrorless are the standard to compare? What do photojournalists use? Consider this:

And this:

 

It doesn't look that big now, does it? Admittedly, this size comparison is without the (optional) grip, but it doesn't add too much volume anyway. The standard zoom lens looks big, until you remember it goes to 90mm instead of 70mm. It may be variable aperture but that's offset by the extra 20mm of reach, and it's rather irrelevant in the field.

Let's see about cost then.  Both Canon and Nikon top of the line professional camera bodies retail for more than 5000 dollars/euro; you can find them cheaper than that, from gray imports and such; unfortunately Leica is in a disadvantage here. The lenses depicted aren't cheap either, but you'd expect Leica lenses to be more expensive. I'm just trying to say the whole deal is not that expensive, considering the context.  

You also pay for innovation, plain and simple. The Leica looks like a 21st century camera, with minimalistic controls and high-end industrial design. The Canonikon look like what they are: film cameras with a high-end sensor and other electronics fitted on the back.

There are other signs that Leica is after the (rich?) photojournalistic audience: the first lenses announced are what you'd expect. A standard zoom, a telephoto zoom and a standard prime. High end video, which its competitors either lack or can't match in any case, is another indication. Video is becoming indispensable in photojournalism. Even GPS and Wifi support are (modern) requirements.

The camera also sports a high burst rate and large buffer; again, a must for high paced work. The 24Mp sensor is more than adequate for these kinds of photography; the very last thing you want is unnecessary huge files; and ISO performance is, reportedly, top class.

The SL also can use any Leica lens ever made, via adapters: R, M, T, even S lenses.  Another bonus for the Leica M user, for example. It is also rugged and weather sealed and Leica claims it has "the fastest" AF in the world. Let's keep the fact that they are serious about AF speed, and what that involves in the context we are discussing.

Apartfrom all that, the SL has modern features such as an EVF that makes everything else on the market look like a joke and even a touchscreen on the back. Overall, it looks like it tries to take every hassle away from shooting.

I'm not saying they made the ultimate mirrorless camera; far from it. Even from initial reports, it looks like the battery, for example, although sizeable, doesn't produce that much juice. Ergonomics also look weird for some. And it is regrettable they didn't opt for the Leica T type user interface, but used S-type inspired menus instead. We have to see more than the initial, limited time hands-on reviews to find out where they succeeded and where they are far from being on target. A couple of firmware updates will be needed, probably.

An interesting aside about the SL, is that it was, supposedly, developed with input from Panasonic. This might concern the AF system or video. But it raises some interesting guesses abouta possible future Panasonic  FF camera, since they have been committed to 8K video (which would be realistically feasible only with a 35mm sensor).  

In conclusion, I'm expecting to see the SL in the hands of several Magnum photographers during 2016, along with their Leica M, and replacing their Canon or Nikon pro DSLR. This is not a common mirrorless camera system. But, then, "common" and "Leica" were never meant to be used in the same sentence.

 

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