When the Leica T was announced in 2014 it signalled the start of a new era in autofocus lenses. The T mount, as it was initially called, set a new standard and served notice that that the venerable M mount would forever remain the creature of the rangefinder.
For a time it was unclear where the new, larger autofocus-capable lens mount was going. We now know the answer to that, following the arrival of the SL last year. The TL mount (as it is now called) is clearly a vital part of the future of Leica’s mirrorless offerings, both full frame and crop frame.
The SL is a great camera. Last week we published a one-year long-term test and it is clearly a winner. I have few reservations based on my own ownership experience. Yet the SL isn’t for everyone. Much as I like the camera, especially for its perfect control layout based on unmarked, programmable buttons, the SL is undeniably big and heavy. As a professional full-frame rig it is actually lighter than Canon and Nikon equivalents. But, even so, the 2.15kg heft of the SL, together with the highly competent 24-90 zoom, comes as a bit of a shock for those of us who have majored in the M or various mirrorless offerings during the past few years.
By comparison, a directly equivalent outfit from Fuji (with similar pro zoom but APS-C sensor) weighs in at 1.15kg, just half that of the SL. Another equivalent (except in sensor size) is the Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 12-40mm which tips the scale at a mere 0.9kg. There is no doubt that if you want the superior resolution from a full-frame sensor you have to put up with the dimensions. Conversely, if you are not intending to mount your masterpieces on the side of a London bus, you might well find the weight and space saving of APS-C or m4/3 formats to be a fair tradeoff.
One thing is clear, though, the SL remains the best choice for WYSIWYG mirrorless use of M lenses (far better than the much-vaunted Sony A7, for instance). It is certainly the best alternative to the M for those who want more automation and an EVF. I have said on several occasions that the SL perfectly complements the stripped-down M-D rangefinder: Both cameras offer the best of their respective worlds.
However, if we want a smaller package with the Leica red dot we are stuck with the T or one of the fixed-lens X range cameras. In my opinion the T has not grabbed the world’s attention to the extent Leica would have wished. Part of the reason is the unconventional aluminium block chassis construction. You either love it or hate it.
Another factor militating against the T is the all-touch interface. Superficially attractive and offering finger-tip-fuls of novelty value, this is nonetheless a minority sport which, I suspect, discourages more people than it attracts. But by far the biggest failing of the T is the lack of an integral viewfinder. Not only is the accessory finder ugly, it is unwieldy and completely ruins the lines of the camera. It’s also a hefty price which further widens the gap when comparing with competitors. Without a doubt it was a huge mistake not to include a built-in viewfinder in the T. We can only hope, following the successful design of the Q, that external viewfinders from Wetzlar are a thing of the past.
So whither the T and whither Leica’s APS-C pretentious in the ILC category? Many look at the new Fuji X-Pro2 and wonder what it would be like if it had a Leica badge. Indeed, some rather wish Leica had maintained its Fuji associations in preference to the continuing link with Panasonic. For there can be little doubt that Fuji is currently stealing Leica’s thunder in the APS-C market. I know many M users who carry Fuji X cameras as a second system. Every one of them could well afford the extra for a T system but prefer Fuji because of its more traditional approach, range of manual controls and built-in EVF.
The answer is staring us in the face. The answer is a mini SL. If Leica were to design an SL lookalike around the T’s APS-C sensor it would have a winner on its hands. The control concept of the SL is a revelation in purpose and design and would bring in the punters. Of this I have no doubt. This arrangement is much more relevant to the modern mirrorless concept than Fuji’s determinedly retro concept.
The TL mount already has a mature range of excellent cropped primes and zooms. The new 35mm Summilux-TL, for instance, is a triumph and the range of zooms is second to none. All we need is a world-class camera to go with the lenses.
I have absolutely no inside knowledge but it seems to me that Leica engineers would be mad if they were not already working on a smaller SL. Let’s call it the TL to differentiate it from the bold but ultimately too-clever-for-its-own-good T.
It would be possible to take the SL concept lock, stock and barrel and create an APS-C camera system that would take on Fuji on its own ground. I can’t wait.
FOOTNOTE: Coincidentally, rumours surfacing later today indicate that there is indeed a new T on the stocks. It is possible, however, that it could be based on the successful Q, a more conventional camera (and a major success) and with the crucial advantage of a built-in viewfinder. Make it a bit smaller, change over the sensor to APS-C and add the TL mount to the front: This could also be a very acceptable APS-C camera to challenge Fuji X-Pro2.