Leica should be congratulating itself this week, following what can only be described as a successful launch of the SL2. The new camera — and it is a new camera, not really an upgrade — has been almost universally well received. Leica has invested a great deal of marketing money in this camera and the reaction shows that it has been cash well spent.
From what I gather, bloggers and journalists from around the world were flown to Wetzlar at Leica’s expense and, presumably, royally entertained.
Leica even laid on models, including that that bearded gent with the flourishing beard and Village People titfer. He’s appeared in countless articles and videos. Leica UK pushed out the boat, too, with a press launch at the up-market Brasserie of Light in Selfridges. And, I hear, there was an even bigger event at the Royal Opera House on Wednesday evening. This, I think, was mainly for the benefit of the dealer network.
The company’s investment is not misplaced. The SL, when it arrived four years ago, was fairly controversial. Not everyone appreciated the brutal Bauhausism of the design, although few complained about the image quality or that wonderful viewfinder. Most criticism came from those who found the camera (and, perhaps more importantly the lens system) far too heavy.
I was one of them. I bought and then sold the SL simply because I thought it too heavy. I then suffered withdrawal systems and bought another body at a really knock-down price. It was so cheap that I was able to sell it after a year and make a £400 profit. Now how’s that for a miracle? It joins the only other camera I have ever made a profit on. That was the Leica Q which rose in price so much that the second-hand value soon exceeded my purchase price.
While you definitely need a few well-tended muscles to cope with the SL and, say, the 24-90mm Vario-Elmarit, it has to be remembered that this is a professional-standard camera that actually needs the bulk and weight. With world-class lenses attached, the SL (and SL2) needs a firm base to work from. It is not a camera for lugging around on holiday, nor, I suspect, for city snaps. It will do both those jobs well, of course, if you have the stamina.
Enter the competition
It is no secret that the SL was not a major seller towards the end. It suffered immediately early this year when Panasonic launched the S1 and S1R. And the fact that Leica withdrew the camera so many months before its replacement is sufficient evidence of the problems faced. The SL2 changes all that, although I suspect the old SL will continue to thrive and prosper on the second-hand market.
I confess I have changed my views after using the Panasonic S1 for some months. Here is a camera that feels lighter than the original SL despite being nearly 200g heavier. It is better balanced and seems more secure in the hand (probably because it is). While the SL2 is 80g heavier than its predecessor, this is completely lost in the feel of holding the body. Like the Panasonic, it feels lighter than the original SL. And it is still the best part of 100g lighter than the Lumix.
The weight will not put off serious photographers. I have several friends such as Tom Lane and Dunk Sargent who have been glued to their SLs for the past four years. Both, I suspect, will be in the queue for the SL2. As Dunk told me this week, the SL2 will work perfectly with R lenses — which are his preferred choice of glass — and the added stabilisation will be crucial. He even sees inflation in R lenses (and M lenses, by the way) because the SL2 will complement manual lenses so well.
New camera, not an upgrade
I said earlier that the SL2 is a new camera, not an upgrade. While there is a family similarity between the SL and SL2, this is deliberately contrived for continuity purposes. In reality, beneath the skin, the SL2 is new and, I suspect, owes more to the Panasonic S1R and S1H than to the old SL. When you compare the cameras side by side the differences are obvious. The old camera had a very bland slab of a front plate that emphasised the designers’ form over function approach. I never considered it attractive. And with an M lens attached, it was very much tail heavy. M lenses are so small that they were almost lost on that vast expanse of black metal.
The new SL2, with its wrap-round “leather jacket” and smoother contours, is a different beast. The leather cover improves the feel of the camera and the redesigned grip, with the rubbery indent for the fingers, is something of a masterpiece. As a result, this camera not only handles far better, it feels lighter than the SL. This has been reinforced by many bloggers and journalists erroneously stating that the SL2 is lighter than the SL. However, it transpires that someone had mischievously quoted the SL2 without battery and SD cards against the SL with all its tackle in situ. This is a basic error but, for some reason, it gained credence throughout the blogosphere. Whoever uses a digital camera without a battery? I seem to have been one of the few commentators who looked into this and did some basic calculations.
I confess I was very surprised when I picked up the SL2 at Wednesday’s press conference (not having been invited to Wetzlar on an expenses-paid advance junket). It felt more like the Panasonic S1 than the old SL. In fact, I believe I prefer the feel to that of the Lumix range.
During the presentation I was impressed by Robin Sinha’s rationale for having one camera rather than Panasonic’s three. The SL2 combines the special video features of the S1H with the practicality of an excellent stills camera, the S1R. And since many owners are likely to have TL lenses on their shelves, they have a ready-made SL/S1 option by shooting at 20.2MP with these cropped lenses — which are all of impeccable image quality, by the way. I would have no hesitation in using TL lenses for the sort of image quality I need for Macfilos or, for that matter, for most purposes.
From a Leica perspective, too, the SL2 overcomes the criticism that other mirrorless cameras attract for their supposed incompatibility with M lenses. It’s a marginal incompatibility, granted, and users such as our own David Babsky stand by the use of M lenses on the Sony A7 range.
But Leica does take special pains to make sure that all its system cameras (TL/CL,SL) work better with M lenses than with other mirrorless cameras. The lens profiles are built in and Leica cameras will attempt to estimate the set focal length of manual lenses for use in EXIF data. The sensors of all Leica system cameras are modified (at extra expense which other manufacturers couldn’t justify) to ensure greater compatibility with M lens. All this is more useful to busy photographers than you might think.
But why use M or R lenses in any case because they have no auto focus? Well, the primary reason is that they provide image quality to equal the auto-focus monsters in the SL range while being so much smaller and lighter. Even the 75mm Noctilux is a baby compared with, say, the 50mm Summilux-SL. Another reason is that most buyers of the SL also own M or R lenses.
In a rapidly declining market for “real” cameras, Leica stands out as a small manufacturer nimble enough to accurately target a specialist audience. And, it has to be said, an audience with money. The current range, from the two film cameras, through the old rangefinder campaigners to the new SL2, the company has a very attractive range. The new commonality of control and menu structure is evidence of Leica’s new offensive; even the M cameras are in on this act.
Only the CL, in my opinion, has been rather neglected of late, despite it being the original testbed for the new three-button control system. It would be nice to see some TLC and attention lavished on this backwater of a camera. And just where the TL2 stands, I do not know. If Leica is serious about staying in the APS-C market (of which I have my doubts), then a new CL, borrowing from the Panasonic-led technical advances in the SL2, should be on the stocks.
In general, though, Leica now has a strong range and occupies a premium segment that is less likely to be subject to the turbulence being experienced by mainstream manufacturers. They, somewhat like the Titanic, are slow to stop and turn round to meet changing tastes.
Leica, on the other hand, has the nimbleness of smaller scale. It also looks to the technological future. It has expanded into smartphones, in cooperation with Huawei, and is deeply into computational photography, apparently frolicking among the chips in Silicon Valley. The winds seem to be set fair for the future and the Herr Doktor Kaufmann should be feeling very pleased with himself this weekend.
What’s your view on the future of Leica and the current range?