The Leica SL was introduced during October 2015 and has gotten fantastic reviews since then.  The first lens issued was the 24-90mm Vario-Elmarit SL Asph that starts at f/2.8 and zooms to a minimum of f/4.0.  The lens and camera can be used in the rain and the highest ISO is more than any other Leica M or Leica T has shown.  So why, then, did I wait?  Truth be known I was a little worried that the 24-90 lens would be too big for my taste.  The body is bigger than a Leica M, but it has a grip and one of the best EVF’s built in that I’ve ever seen.  If you wear glasses, then you know what I mean.

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Kitten pose. Leica SL with 24-90 Vario Elmarit SL Asph.

I’ll start with the end and tell you that the last two weeks have confirmed that using the Leica SL is a dream, even though it takes some getting used to coming from 15 years with the Leica M rangefinder.  Yes, the lens is insanely sharp.  Yes, the optical stabilizer works great in low light.  Yes, I have already used it in the rain with no adverse consequences.  Why the wait?

For the most part, I waited (without really knowing) for the Leica SL Firmware 2.0 to be released.  My good friends at The Leica Store Miami wrote a great description of the new features in the Leica SL Firmware 2.0.  Josh Lehrer has always been a great help to me and worked with me as I made the decision to try the Leica SL.

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David Martin practicing trumpet. Leica SL with 24-90 Vario Elmarit SL Asph.

After using the Leica SL for three days on loan to try it out I made a mental list of a few things I wanted to ask Leica for in the next firmware.  Before receiving the camera, I downloaded the PDF instructions from the Leica Camera AG web site.  I read them and read numerous reviews including some great ones by Jono Slack.

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Enjoying the Rock Hill, SC Oktoberfest. Leica SL with 24-90 Vario Elmarit SL Asph.

After reading and then playing with the Leica SL the first day, I liked the ability to set the camera to manual focus, but press a button on the back to perform the autofocus function.  I really liked the ability to program the buttons to whatever function I wanted and to set some other menu items as favorites.  The ISO went really high and produced nice grain in the digital images as it went.

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Enjoying the Rock Hill, SC Oktoberfest. Leica SL with 24-90 Vario Elmarit SL Asph.

Coming from the Leica M rangefinder, I was used to quick focusing by lining up lines in the image.  I also got used to quickly adjusting exposure for backlighting or shadows.  So, naturally, I tried to do the same with the Leica SL.  I set everything to manual focus and aperture priority.  But pressing a menu button and holding it to get the exposure compensation was way too slow!  I worked much faster than that.

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Early 1900’s Stained Glass. Leica SL with 24-90 Vario Elmarit SL Asph.

My first revelation was that it would be great if the Aperture priority would allow me to use the top dial for exposure compensation.  It could even work in reverse for Shutter priority – the back thumb wheel could be used for exposure compensation.  It could be automatic and very fast to use when shooting.  Nothing in the manual alluded to any easy way to do this.

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The old train station on White Street in Rock Hill, SC. Leica SL with 24-90 Vario Elmarit SL Asph.

Low and behold – Firmware 2.0 for the Leica SL addressed the need for a faster method to use exposure compensation and did exactly what I wanted to ask for!  I even had it loaded on my camera and did not know it!  Two takeaways from this – 1) always see what the firmware changes are and 2) Leica is committed to improving the SL with firmware adjustments the photographers ask for.

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The Celanese Water Tower at Sunrise. Leica SL with 24-90 Vario Elmarit SL Asph.

Using the Leica M lenses with the Leica SL is easy with the Leica T-M adapter.  So, I have programmed my custom buttons for use with manual focus and quick adjustments.  I have created custom profiles for SL lenses, one for M lenses and one for black and white JPEGs.  Of course, the profiles menu item is on my Favorites to quickly load them.

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Leasing a Fire Hydrant. Leica SL with 24-90 Vario Elmarit SL Asph.

Here are my custom button settings:

The FN button on the front:  Optical Image Stabilizing (I keep it off by default)
The Live View Button on top:  White Balance setting (only for JPEGs)

Upper Left:  ISO
Lower Left:  Drive Mode
Upper Right:  Exposure Metering
Lower Right:  Focus Mode

It seems like this is the easiest way to experiment and to change from manual modes to automatic modes.  I leave the Leica SL as close to the Leica M as I can by default.  So, I set the Top Dial and the Back Dial to adjust the shutter speed and f-stop in the same directions I turn my film Leica MP.  That way I don’t have to think.  I set the drive mode to single, the exposure metering to average and the focus mode to either manual focus (for Leica M) or auto focus single (for Leica SL).  I leave the ISO at 50 unless it needs boosted.  Focus peaking is on and the live view shows the image settings I’ve applied (which I loved on the Fuji XT-1).

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An abandoned Lowes store. Leica SL with 24-90 Vario Elmarit SL Asph.

I have already taken some images using 1/12500 of a second (that’s even hard to say!).  The surprise was no shutter sound which is because the highest speeds are in the CMOS sensor and electronic rather than hardware driven.  These high shutter speeds work well with sunsets or shallow depth of field in the bright light.

I still have plenty to learn, but there is no question that this will be a game changer for me.  The Leica M series is still great and I love the Monochrom and my M-3’s with brass IXMOO cartridges.  They just may get a little more dust than usual while I put the Leica SL through the paces!

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Life Goes On! Leica SL with 24-90 Vario Elmarit SL Asph.

Note that all of these images were taken with the 24-90mm Vario Elmarit SL Asph.  It turns out that while the lens is bigger than most Leica M lenses, including the APO 90mm Summicron, the 75mm Summilux and the 50mm Noctilux, it is not too big.  In fact, because it is weather sealed like the body, it is a perfect addition.  It only took a few days to feel the right size.   I’ll still enjoy using Leica M glass on this camera, but the SL lenses will also have a place in my bag.

About The Author

David taught film photography and development for 3 years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1989-1991). He began using Leica cameras in 2000 and still shoots 70-100 rolls of film through a Leica M3 and Leica MA while enjoying the challenges of the Leica Monochrom and the new Leica MD 262. David has written about photography and is working on several volumes documenting changes and artistic merit throughout Old Town in Rock Hill, South Carolina, USA. His full-time job is as a CPA, but spends free time with a camera at the ready.

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