Making Sense of the Leica SL... now that the Leica M10 is here
Friends, photo enthusiasts, and other readers, lend me your ears. I've come to make sense of the Leica SL, not to forsake it.
The honeymoon period has long since passed, with the newness of the Leica SL already worn off on me. Still, I love the Leica SL. That's what I keep on telling myself. I love the Leica SL. Really I do. But it has been rather difficult to remain unmoved, ever since Leica came out with the M10. This change wasn't something I had expected, given how much I coveted the SL over the M10's predecessors, the hapless Leica M Typ 240.
There was even a time when I wondered how a Leica M camera was still a thing. Clearly, the electric viewfinder of the Leica SL was all the reason one needed to bail on the M240. The EVF of the SL was such a treat to use. It has electronic aids like focus peaking, focus magnification, and multiple focusing points. Because of that, the SL never suffers from the inherent disadvantages characteristic of a rangefinder.
Did I say disadvantages? More like antiquated technology, if you could call rangefinders a technology at all. You see, rangefinders are a throwback from a bygone era. They suffer from imprecise framing and imprecise focusing, when shot wide open. So, unless you're shooting stopped down or shooting wide open from the 28mm to the 50mm focal lengths on a subject six feet away with sufficient light, getting focus is anybody's best guess.
Fact is, the Leica SL is just better than the M240 in every measurable way. It just is! It's only a tad bigger than the M240... give or take. But that doesn't matter, given how much better it performs. It really doesn't. The SL does everything. It mounts M glass, shoots AF with native lenses, and that phenomenal EVF. What is there not to like! Like I said, it's just better... which is why I love it.
With the body of proof mounting in favor of the Leica SL - in addition to my unwavering love - why would anyone bother getting a digital Leica rangefinder? Clearly, the smart money is on the SL. But then, Leica does the unimaginable. They ruin everything by making everything better.
Cry havoc and let slip the M10.
To be fair, I didn't think that Leica was ruining anything - initially - with the release of the M10. As far as I was concerned, the M10 and the SL were two completely different cameras. You couldn't possibly compare the M10 to the SL. After all, the SL is a professional level camera. It is weather sealed. It can shoot at a higher frame rate. You can autofocus with native lenses, which is especially useful if you want to go long with the Vario 90-280 Elmarit-SL. And did I mention you can adapt it to use M-mount lenses, in addition to R and non-Leica lenses? Obviously, the SL is just better. With it, you can do more than any measly Leica rangefinder could ever do. And the difference that makes the SL so much better than the M10 is that remarkable EVF.
But then Leica goes ahead and announces the Leica M10 can be paired with the Visoflex 020.
Admittedly, that made me raise an eyebrow. But still, I remained unmoved. My love for the Leica SL was as constant as the northern star. Plus, I wasn't especially impressed by the Visoflex's predecessor, the EVF 2. After all, it was hamstrung by the limitations of the M240's live view capabilities. That meant one step magnification, and a single focusing point at the center. So, without any indication foreshadowing anything different, what reason would I have to suspect that the Visoflex 020 is better on the Leica M10. It's not like there's a soothsayer crying out the Ides of March.
However, the Visoflex 020 experience wasn't the same as the EVF 2 experience. Where the M240 could only magnify by one step, the M10 was able to magnify by two steps. Moreover, the Visoflex benefited from the M10's multiple focusing points, which gave it a seamless focusing and framing experience. In other words, the Visoflex offered the M10 a similar EVF experience to the Leica SL.
Upon realization, a thought occurred to me. If the EVF experience of the Visoflex 020 offered the M10 a similar experience as the SL, does it still make sense to get the Leica SL? From the perspective of a Leica M camera substitute, the Leica SL makes no sense to me, given the Visoflex 020.
Et tu Brute?
The main advantage that the Leica M photographer sought from the SL's EVF is no longer unique to the SL. The Visoflex on the M10 offers a similar focusing experience with the added benefit of a swivel diopter. The only real disadvantage the M10 experiences is noticeable shutter lag - which really isn't a big deal for an M photographer - if in return a better focusing experience is offered.
However the world does not revolve around the M10. From the perspective of performance, the Leica SL still makes sense. Better is better, which is why I still love the Leica SL - so I tell myself - repeatedly. It is a professional level camera, with dual memory slots, tethering ports, and extremely adaptable to all sorts of add ons, from lens to video rigging. It might not seem this way, but the Leica SL is a productivity work horse.
Still, I know what M photographers are like. From their perspective, the SL does seem an awful lot like an overkill, milled from a big block of aluminum. Better might be better. But bigger is definitely bigger. This is why an M photographers will never be satisfied with a Leica SL as a M rangefinder substitute - now that the Leica M10 exists. Size is the deciding factor in choosing the M10 over the SL, ever since the Visoflex made the SL's EVF immaterial in the discussion.
Having said that, is there still room in the heart of M photographers for the SL? As a complementary system, it makes perfect sense. Regardless of how good the Leica M10 is - with or without the Visoflex 020 - there are just some things that the M10 cannot do. For everything else, that is what the Leica SL is for. You're never going to be able to do autofocus tracking with a telephoto lens on the Leica M10.
However, I suppose you could always get a DSLR. But then again, you wouldn't be able to adapt your M-mount lenses onto it. With the Leica SL, you can bake your cake and eat it too!
This is why the Leica SL is better than the Leica M10. It does everything the M10 can. And it does it better. This is why I love the Leica SL. That's what I keep telling myself. But honestly, I just wished it was the size of a Sony A7.
Having said that, I'm eagerly waiting for the Sony A9.
PS - if you were expecting a review of the Visoflex 020, there really isn't much to say. All you have to do is imagine the M10's live view as an EVF, instead of live view. That's pretty much it. And with regards to what you see in the EVF of the Visoflex... well... it's not as optically defined as the EVF of the Leica SL. But compared to the rangefinder focusing experience, the Visoflex is significantly better! I'd especially recommend it if your eyesight is failing. Admittedly, there will be noticeable shutter lag, but I think it's an acceptable tradeoff for improved visibility.
EDIT NOTICE - I received an email message from Maciej, who has informed me that I am in error with regards to the focus magnification. I verified it online, and it seems that he is correct. He must be, since Jono Slack concurred on his article... Plus I messaged Jono... who is ignoring me... sniff... sniff... but who can really blame Jono... I must have been a stark raving lunatic. I really should read the instruction manual more... but it seems somewhat un-American to do that?
Still, I had to see it with my own eyes. I verified it just now at my office, by comparing simultaneously the maximum magnification on live view between the two cameras with a 28mm lens. The maximum magnification of the EVF is indeed x10 on the Leica SL, as is the M10. Case closed!
All images have been optimized in Lightroom. Some images have been cropped. All images shot wide open.