Leica SL: A Love Story

Photo courtesy of Chris Michel

I am writing this four years to the day after I fell in love.

In the aftermath of the GigaOM shutdown, I left town to spend a weekend with friends in New York and to take a break from all the negativity that was enveloping. I needed to revisit the place where it all started. I was in search of closure, though finding it – I ultimately learned – would take much longer. After I arrived, I began my healing process, as many people do, with some retail therapy. I stopped by my favorite camera store and chit-chatted with the staff. Don who would later become a dear friend, showed it to me, though I am forever in his debt.

The Leica SL. It was love at first sight.

I admit, I was initially drawn in by the exterior and gave little thought to the camera’s inner-workings. Forget the features, the technical details, the brand, or even the quality of the photos. The minimalist, Bauhaus – almost brutalist – design was what got me good. Carved out of a big hunk of metal, the gray dark camera brooded, much like how I felt at that time. Its chiseled feel lent it a menacing quality – matched with ruthless professionalism (I recently watched Skyfall and absolutely loved Daniel Craig as 007. He is devilish, brutal, and so damn effective. That is how I see my SL).

It is rare to form such a visceral bond with such an inanimate object, but in truth, it is representative of all of my relationships. With people, places, food, and objects, I either love you or I don’t. There isn’t any ambiguity. There certainly wasn’t any with SL – at least, not for me. At the time, others viewed the SL as a damp squib. The Internet grumbled about the lack of lenses and a big price, the heft, and weight. They bemoaned the buggy software. I just knew I had to have one.

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Four years on, do I regret spending enough money to buy a small car on the purchase of a camera and two lenses? Absolutely not. To me, what always mattered most was how I felt about the camera and how it felt in my hand. But qualitative data is also useful, so here are some numbers that make my case: In my four years with the SL, I have made about 7,500 photos with it. That’s about $1 per photo. And consider that I only make between 250 and 300 photos on a typical week-long dedicated tour Another way to quantify it is that I have used the SL on about 700 of the 1,400 days I have owned it. That’s about $10 per day. In San Francisco, you can pay as much for a coffee and a muffin. And with that, the price per use will decline I wouldn’t be surprised to use to for another 700 days. I feel no need to even consider an upgrade — though I am told an SL2 is coming soon.

Sure, I flirted with other cameras over the years, Sony left me cold, but I was absolutely infatuated with the xPro2 from Fuji. But I didn’t want to be in the upgrade rat race. I made the choice to stick to one system, and I gave the xPro2 to my friend Naveen.

Of course, if you spend enough time with one camera system, time will inevitably reveal its flaws. The SL’s built-in Wi-Fi is supposed to be fairly easy to use, but it isn’t. I guess it is a problem with all five-year-old cameras. The new Leica Fotos App alleviates some of those issues, but it is a work in progress. The SL is known to be a stellar video camera, but I have never used it for that. Occasionally, I accidentally hit the video button sometimes and find myself stuck in an indescribably confusing – and apparently inescapable – menu loop. That’s when I really start cursing Leica, which isn’t good for my blood pressure.

I guess the manual could also be better. All the hidden menu features could be explained to customers in a simpler fashion. I am well aware that the size of its digital sensor — 24 megapixels – is dwarfed by a more recent class of camera are approaching 50 megapixels. Also, the Leica kit is a heavy one to lug around on hikes for landscapes, and I have thrown my back out more than once.

But to paraphrase the song: It ain’t heavy, it’s my camera. None of these quirks have dimmed my affection for it. Most of my photos are shared digitally, so what good are extra megapixels to me? Occasionally, there is a demand for a print or two, but even then, the print is 20 inches on its longest edge and looks fantastic.

Admittedly, some faults are harder to shrug off. There is one feature I would absolutely eliminate if only I could. It’s the noise reduction algorithm, which runs as long as the original exposure. When I was in Svalbard, I made a 15-minute long exposure on an island. It was windless afternoon, but in that bitter cold, you only have about 30 minutes before you need to go back inside. I was out there for an hour and only got one shot. I missed the light because the camera was “noise canceling.” According to the Internet, I am far from alone in wanting to end the tyranny of this feature, which gives the impression that Leica thinks it knows better than us. Though, the one shot I did get was pretty great.

My frustration with the noise cancellation reminds me of a story from a time long ago, when I smoked. I had a friend, and she would go through my Dunhills until the wee hours of the morning. It didn’t matter if I had one pack or two – they would all gone by the time I woke up. And each day, I would have to brave the brutal New York winter mornings to go to the corner deli to buy a new pack. By the next morning, no matter what I tried, that pack would also be gone. Eventually, even the deli man was in on the joke. These days, my friend and I – we don’t see each other anymore, and have both given up smoking – can look back fondly and joke about it all. That is how I imagine it would be with this feature.

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Photo courtesy of Chris Michel

The ultimate value of an object is more than its price or its list of features. I have such great memories associated with holding the Leica SL in my hand. It has been part of my adventures with my great friend, Chris Michel. It was with me on a magical mystical misty morning in Yellowstone National Park, when I was almost waist deep in snow shooting dead trees lit up from behind by the rising sun, like pained souls waiting to be saved. I held it as I stood on top of a pier in Saint-Malo in Brittany with the super tide showing the majestic power of Mother Earth all around me, splashing my feet, my clothes, and even getting a few drops on the camera. In the end, if we don’t have stories, the tools are meaningless and don’t bring the joy of creation. From that perspective, SL has been priceless.

I have taken the camera to the edges — the Yellowstone deep freeze, the baking hot deserts, the rainy coasts of Northern France, the temperamental and wild climes of Iceland and the Faroe Islands. If my SL had a passport, its pages would be stamped full. It has faced a dust storm, countless snowstorms, and rain showers. A towel and a brush are all it needs to keep going. It has slipped a few times, there are a couple of nicks but no dents. Its handsome, quiet façade masks a powerful brain and an artistic soul, that makes luscious images with colors that pop out of the screen.

The SL is a five-year-old camera system, and it continues to compare favorably to more recent products. The electronic viewfinder still has the highest resolution in the world (though, Panasonic has a new camera that will best it soon). The screen is as good, if not better, as any latest mirrorless. With age and firmware, Leica has managed to smooth out all the kinks in this system. It was fast when I bought it, and it is fast even now — even when compared to other mirrorless cameras. The big ass battery allows me to make more than 300 photos in a full day of intensive photo making, including power guzzling long exposures.

I normally shoot at ISO 50, and the negatives are blemish free. When problems do arise, they are due to user error. The files are clean and beautiful and, thanks to all the features that allow you to capture the image properly in the camera, require minimal editing effort. The dynamic range is enough to capture the most extreme scenes. As you all know that I like snowscapes, so I often expose to the right to make sure the snow is just south of blinding white — and almost never has the camera been the cause of screw-ups. The JPEG files have a certain sparkle, twinkling eyes of a two-year-old. You don’t have to make much of an effort to bring out the true potential of an image. The RAW files are dense and dull, much like the accountant of a dictator, hiding enough data and depth for crafting a masterpiece.

Like any great companion, its strengths supplement my weaknesses. Because I struggle with focusing manually using a viewfinder due to poor eyesight, I prefer SL to the digital rangefinder cameras. Also, the rangefinder digital cameras don’t let me make long exposures beyond 60 seconds. The SL, on the other hand, has a spectacular electronic viewfinder that looks almost real and makes it easy to focus manually, either using focus peaking or simply by zooming in. The built-in support for M-Lenses makes everything so seamless. I personally think that at, the new reduced price (about $5,000), it is a much better option than the M10 or its other iterations.

***

There are enough used models in the market that you can spend much less money and have yourself a great kit with a small M-lens. If you are a Noctilux fan, then SL is ideal, because focusing wide open is way easier with focus peaking than a rangefinder’s viewfinder (trust me, I have tried it, and failed). You can use the M or R lenses with the camera using adapters, or even Leica Cine Lenses. But SL commands its own line-up of lenses: the L-mount lenses. Today, there are about seven such lenses, the latest being a 35mm SL Summicron. There are more coming, including from Panasonic and Sigma, two companies that have decided to make L-Mount cameras and lenses. I am excited to see what they bring to market.

But at the end of the day, I think the original Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 f/2.8–4 ASPH lens is all you need — as long as you know what you are doing. Most companies offer focal lengths of 24-70, but by expanding the zoom to 90mm, it has made this one of the most versatile and adaptive lenses in the mirrorless world. I think of this lens as a friend who is up for anything: hanging out and drinking tea at home, dressing up to go out for a fancy dinner, or hiking up the mountain. If you look at my landscapes photos, a majority of them are made with this lens or with my Summicron. This is a solid, effective, fun, and dependable pal. As I mentioned earlier, it is not light — about a kilogram. But it is spectacular at all focal lengths. What it lacks in aperture, it makes up in sharpness. I think it is perfect

The downside of Leica’s L-mount lenses is that they are heavy. The 90-280 lens is spectacular, but it weighs 2.2 kilograms. The newer lenses are no kale-munching lightweights – and not all that great. I owned an f1.4/ 50mm Summilux-SL for a few months, and I don’t miss it at all. It struggled to focus, and it was not elegant — it was just a big honking piece of glass.

What good is a companion that can’t travel? That is why I prefer the M-lenses. I appreciate my simple kit. It consists of an SL lens and camera that weighs in at about 1.6 kilograms and a Summicron 50 that is about 350 grams. Along with my Wine Country Camera filter kit, and the Really Right Stuff tripod kit, I have about 4 kilograms – or roughly 10 pounds – on my bag. It’s manageable enough to lug around for the entire day without feeling like a mule.

***

Photo courtesy of Chris Michel

When we’re out in the field, my SL and I are perfectly in sync. I have come up with my ideal workflow. I normally connect the camera to my 12.9-inch iPad Pro and download DNG files after a shoot. It takes time, but it works. Then, using an iOS shortcut, I import these from the iPad photo library to Lightroom CC (the cloud version) which then uploads it to the cloud. Most hotels have good Wi-Fi, so you can leave the Lightroom CC running on your iPad to sync everything to the cloud.

After this, it is a straight-forward process: I rate, rank, and cull the photos. By the time I am home, there are two sets — a selection for sharing on the blog and on social media, and a small subset for further editing to capture my artistic interpretation of the scene. Mind you, it will be months before I revisit the photos, but the collections are a great springboard. This workflow is a must, and I follow it religiously no matter where I am and how tired I feel.

The next step is to replace the old SD cards every morning with a fresh set of 16GB SD cards – one in both card slots. I use one slot as the main card, and the other as a backup (another great feature on the SL). Since I have a local and cloud copy of each photo, I have eliminated the need to lug around a laptop and an extra hard disk for backup. The fewer things you need, the fewer points of failure and fewer things to forget.

My SL has taught me many lessons since that fateful trip to New York four years ago. And why, you will only be able to take it – if I may briefly channel Charlton Heston – from my cold, dead hands. I hope we continue to make photos for a lifetime. This is a love story.

All photos courtesy of Chris Michel Photography.

A letter from Om

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