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An Investigation into why the Leica SL isn't an M Camera

An Investigation into why the Leica SL isn't an M Camera

Something hasn't been sitting right with me. And for the life of me, I haven't been able to put my finger on it. Not surprisingly, this unsettled feeling all started when I got the Leica M10. It is a marvelous camera... and I love it... so much so that it made me question my feelings towards the Leica SL. And this feeling only intensified after my initial comparison between the two cameras. To sum it all up, I was astonished by the difference in color rendering. The Leica SL looked flat. It just didn't make sense to me. So like any blogger, I wrote about it.

No sooner than I published the article, the feedbacks started rolling in.

Clearly, not all were pleased with my observations. But I can understand why. For many, much is invested into a camera system. And it's not just the monetary aspect. It is largely the emotional connection one attaches to a chosen system - hence the rivalry between Canon and Nikon - to name an example.

So I get it. I know why my observations can be upsetting. Like most Leica SL photographers, I too am just as emotionally invested. I love the Leica SL. I love it to pieces. I love how it allows me to focus and frame with increased accuracy wide open. The electronic viewfinder truly revolutionized what I was able to do with fast Leica M-mount lenses. That is why I had fallen hook, line, and sinker, shooting the SL almost exclusively for the last six months.

But then the M10.

Something just didn't make sense to me. So like any person intent on resolving a problem, I conducted an investigation. Naturally, I began to review all the images on the blog. And before long, I came to a realization. The color rendering on the M240 had more impact than the SL. For me, that was sufficiently enough to support my claims that images from the SL was flatter than the M10.

Admittedly, pouring through a trove of images on the blog may seem obsessive. But like Inspector Javert, I had to pursue my Jean Valjean.

Still, identifying a difference didn't make that unsettled feeling go away. Just because I knew what the problem was, it didn't make it any better. What I hadn't figured out was the actual cause of the difference.

I had to know why. I was too outraged... well maybe not outrage... but noticeably shocked! As someone heavily invested in the Leica SL system, I might have wrongly believed the Leica SL to be in some way a version of the Leica M system. It would seem natural to assume that the color rendering be similar in both system. After all, a Leica is a Leica is a Leica - right? But then the outrage! The difference is actually quite pronounced. So the plot thickens with the game afoot. The investigation continues.

But soon after, a quick turn of events! I find my smoking gun. Or rather, I receive it as a tip.

One of the benefit of having a blog is the opportunity to exchange ideas. Obviously, I am sharing my observations and opinions, but less obvious are readers sharing with me their observations and opinions. In this case, I received an email from a longtime reader of this blog. After reading it, I immediately knew he was onto something.

What was postulated in the email made perfect sense. I will let you decide. I've included the relevant portion below.

"The sensor in the M10 (like all Ms) is optimized for M lenses. Maybe it's the so-called micro lenses arrayed around the sensor edges to optimize the light rays, maybe it’s the silicon used; I have no idea, but the sensor is crafted to get the most out of M lenses.

The sensor in the SL seems to me to be more crafted to being general purpose. The SL has to be able to get maximum bang from the SL-specific lenses (while today there are only 3, by this time next year, there will be 7 lenses). The SL is being sold as easily adaptable with other Leica lenses (M, R and S) so some sort of compromise had to be baked into the sensor.  The SL is being sold for still shooting as well as 4K video. My guess is that takes a much different approach to crafting the SL sensor. That goes way beyond static ISO performance and static Dynamic Range.

From the beginning of my SL experience... I’ve always felt that I was shooting a computer that was purpose built to record images. Not a bad shooting experience; but more of a clinical shooting than an emotional shooting."

I couldn't have said it any better.

In other words, images rendered from the Leica SL look flatter than images rendered on digital Leica M cameras. Don't believe me? Take a look at the sample images I've posted for this writeup. It is from a photoset that started life as a comparison between the Canon 1D Mark II with the 50mm f/1.2L against the Leica SL with the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA. Admittedly an interesting mishmash on paper. However, it never saw the light of day, given how similar the results appeared to me. But at least I know why I never used it.  The rendering of the Leica SL isn't all that different from even a Canon DSLR. So writing about it wouldn't have been very interesting or newsworthy - or at least until now!

Canon 1Dx Mark II

Leica SL

Canon 1Dx Mark II

Leica SL

Canon 1Dx Mark II

Leica SL

Canon 1Dx Mark II

Leica SL

Canon 1Dx Mark II

Leica SL

Canon 1Dx Mark II

Leica SL

Canon 1Dx Mark II

Leica SL

Canon 1Dx Mark II

Leica SL

Canon 1Dx Mark II

Leica SL

The next step now is to compare the Leica SL with the Leica M10 along with a Canon 5D Mark IV. Only then would I be able to finally put to rest my unsettled feelings. I will conduct this test after completing Part II of my Leica M10 versus Leica SL review of dynamic range and high ISO. 

With that said, I am pretty confident that this theory will hold up to water. The Leica SL is not an M camera - or at the very least, it does seem that way.

All images have been optimize in Lightroom. Images were not cropped.

Special thanks to Gary for helping me connect the dots. It certainly did speed up my investigation. Also special thanks to Bruce for expressing reservation towards my initial observations. 

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Leica SL

Canon 1Dx Mark II

Leica M10 vs Leica SL - Part II - High ISO and Dynamic Range

Leica M10 vs Leica SL - Part II - High ISO and Dynamic Range

Leica M10 vs Leica SL - Part I - Under Normal Use

Leica M10 vs Leica SL - Part I - Under Normal Use