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The Leica SL - Low Light Review - Part 1

The Leica SL - Low Light Review - Part 1

Anticipation can be wonderful, until the wait becomes ridiculously too long. I got the Leica SL approximately six weeks ago, while in New York. But because I didn't want to lug it back to Hong Kong, I asked the wonderful people at Leica Store SoHo to UPS it back to me. Thing is, I wasn't going back to Hong Kong for another four weeks. And by the time I got back - two weeks ago - the weather prevented me from putting it through it's paces. I mean I know that the Leica SL is weather proof. But frankly, I'm not. Nor is my subject. And so I waited... and waited... and then finally, almost two weeks later, the clouds parted, and the rain had ceased. Six weeks is a long time to wait.

Now that I have the Leica SL with me, and now that the weather is cooperating, the first obvious area of testing is how the SL will perform in low and unideal light. As such, the criteria that will interest me are the SL's focusing aid, high ISO, and dynamic range. 

Leica SL + Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux. Wide Open. No light source from inside my office. The only light source is from the dying light of the sun, minutes before sunset. Shot at ISO 6400.

So how do I feel about it?

I'm going to cut to the chase. I cannot wait any longer. I will begin with the focusing aid. I prefer the joystick at the back of the Leica SL compared to the multidirectional button of the Sony A7 cameras. The Sony gives my thumb a cramp. However, the Sony's two step magnification is better than the SL's one step magnification. With the Sony focus magnification, you can see closer, and therefore focus more accurately. But then again, the viewfinder on the Leica SL is significantly better. So assessing focus is better on the Leica.

If I had to pick between the Leica or the Sony, the Leica is better - that is until you weigh in the usability of the Leica SL's joystick against the Sony's multidirectional button, with regards to the focus magnification point. 

For some completely baffling reason, the selected focus point goes back to the center the moment you depress the shutter button. It means that if you are shooting wide open with no depth of field, you have to reset the focus point for magnification each and every time after you take a picture, in order to confirm focus. By comparison, the Sony remembers where your last focus point was, so you don't have to set that focus point for magnification over and over after each and every shutter actuation. So if you happen to be a studio photographer selecting focus on the subject's lead eye, you will need to reset that focusing point after each shot is fired. Completely incomprehensible, isn't it. I kept hoping that there was a menu option to change this. But I couldn't find it - in the camera menu and in the instruction booklet.

To make matters worse on the Leica SL, selection of focus points immediately turns on focus magnification. What this means is that you cannot compose and select focus point at the same time. In a manner of speaking, its the electronic version of a rangefinder's limitation in focus. Basically, I have to magnify and select focus point at the same time, and when I have confirmed focus, I will then have to tweak my camera position to recompose. I mean, how idiotic is that. Again, I kept on looking for a menu option to change this, but I couldn't find it. 

If there is a menu option, please send me an email and give me the hint. If there isn't, then I can only hope that Leica will fix this in the next firmware update. 

Leica SL + Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux. Wide Open. Shot at closer distance. I don't know how in awful light the exposure was set at ISO 100?

Leica SL + Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux. Wide Open. Shot further away.

Leica SL + Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux. Wide Open. Shot at closer distance. I included this shot because I love how the bokeh completely blurs the escalator in the background.

Despite the limitations in focusing that I've mentioned, I still like the manual focusing experience better on the Leica SL compared to the Sony A7, if the subject is within four to eight feet from the camera. Beyond ten eight feet, you begin to lose absolute confidence that you'll be able to hit tack focus - especially when shooting wide open. However, it's not as if the Sony is better than the SL beyond eight feet. The Leica SL's electronic viewfinder is so bright, that it's not terribly impossible to make out details to confirm focus. This is especially beneficial in low light situation, when the extra brightness makes it easier to confirm focus.  

Comparing the manual focusing experience to the M240, obviously, the SL is significantly better, when the subject is further than six feet away. However between the minimum focusing distance to six feet, I really can't say that the SL is significantly better than the M240, when shooting wide open. But beyond six feet, and in poor light, the SL is noticeably better. It's just unfortunate that the SL cannot focus magnify closer and cannot compose and select focus point at the same time without activating magnification.

Leica SL + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux. Wide Open. Shot at mid distance. Surprisingly, this was shot at ISO 800 with poor light.

Leica SL + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux. Wide Open. Shot further away.

Leica SL + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux. Wide Open. I just like the passing bus!

Now... how about that sensor...

It's much more forgiving than the M240's sensor.

High ISO is noticeably better. Files at ISO 6400 is better in the SL than in the M240. Furthermore, the dynamic range of the SL's sensor is better than the M240. I can push exposure two stops at high ISO, and still get reasonably good image files. But when compared to the Sony, I still feel that the Sony has a better sensor. With a Sony, I can shoot a stop higher at ISO 12,500 with confidence.

Unfortunately for this writeup, I don't have any examples of missed exposure beyond one stop. The Leica SL sensor appears relatively accurate in lower light situation. However, that remains to be seen under intense sunlight when there is both extreme highlights and shadows.

Leica SL + Leica 28mm F/1.4 Summilux. Wide Open. The only thing I blew was the white balance. I accidentally pressed the white balance short cut button on this series of images. Although I've fixed the white balance - somewhat - I decided to leave in a hint of blue. This and the next two shots are taken at different focal lengths from 28 to 35 to 50mm.

Leica SL + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux. Wide Open

Leica SL + Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux. Wide Open.

Leica M240 + Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux. Wide Open. I included this shot to show you the difference between the M Sensor and the SL Sensor. Unfortunately, I goofed by using the wrong Noctilux lens for this comparison.

So what's the verdict.

I'm mixed. I do like the Leica SL. It feels very good in hand. It's not an M-body replacement - that's for sure. It feels like a DSLR replacement - assuming that the autofocus is on par with DSLRs. This I'll know for sure when I receive the Leica 90-280mm Vario for testing.

Overall, I'm disappointed with the manual focus aid, in that Leica didn't think it through completely. And the only reason why I'll pick the Leica over the Sony is that phenomenal EVF on the Leica SL. Mind you, it's still better than rangefinder focusing.

With regards to usage, I believe the Leica SL is more versatile than the Leica M240. The SL can do everything that the M240 does under it's sweet zone of optimal light conditions, with the subject four to eight feet away, and at normal focal lengths. Where the SL shines is it's ability to perform well in poor light condition, shot wide open with fast Leica lenses, and at telephoto focal lengths. The only thing you lose with the SL is the compactness of the Leica M body.

If however one doesn't want to compromise on size, one could just opt for the Sony A7. In truth, there's nothing wrong with the Sony A7, when compared to the Leica SL. But if you're building a system, the safer longterm decision is to pay the premium for the Leica SL. And despite the fact that Sony can adapt Leica M lenses, it's not designed to optimize image capture for Leica lenses. At the moment, I can't even get EXIF data from Leica lenses on Sony A7 bodies. By comparison, the Leica SL with the M adapter does provide me with the EXIF data.

I know that EXIF data may not seem like a big deal. But the future is unpredictable, and it's safe to assume that Sony isn't going to optimize image capture for Leica lenses. But then again, Leica could all of a sudden decide to discontinue production of the SL, if sales are weak - just like what they did to the Leica R-mount system.

Leica SL + Leica 50mm f/0.95. Wide Open. ISO 4500. The lights in my office were turned off. The only available light came in from the hallway and also from the city light outside. Shot at close distance.

Leica SL + Leica 50mm f/0.95. Shot Wide Open. Shot at mid distance.

Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux. Wide Open. Shot further away.

In truth, I can offer no absolute recommendation to pick either the Leica SL or Sony A7. 

If you're older and your eyesight is failing, the Leica SL is better.

If you're younger and/or not as financially secure as the targeted Leica customer (who is older), then the Sony is better for you.

If you use contemporary Leica lenses with 6 bit encoding, then the the SL is better for you.

If you use older Leica lenses without 6 bit encoding, you might as save and get the Sony.

If compactness is important to you, then get the Sony.

If you need a flippy LCD screen, then the Sony is for you.

If you want 42 Megapixels, get the Sony A7r MKII.

You get the picture. There's no absolute. It really depends on what you need. But with that said, if Leica can fix the focus point issue, then the Leica SL is the clear winner. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed hoping that the next firmware update will resolve this limitation.

All images in this writeup are full crop. Images have been optimize in Lightroom - however only slightly - except for the image series with the accident in white balance.

Special thanks to Anna for being a wonderful subject!

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