Douglas Herr is well known amongst us who used to use the Leica R system back when it was slide film and when the DMR Digital Back came out (with a 10MP CCD-sensormade, made by Leica Camera AG with Imacon and Kodak)
Douglas Herr is my personal hero and foundation for everything Leica R. He so much symbolizes the core Leica R user that he would be the first person to ask what he thought of the Leica SL system.
When I realized Leica Camera AG didn’t send him a Leica SL to test, I decided to send him my own Leica SL for some months.
“Go nuts with it, and don’t be the slightest worried about banging it up. It’s already well used and has marks. It’s been in rain, snow, heat and sand,” I told him back in February.
When the camera returned after four months, I was eager to learn what his take was on it. I asked if he would care to write an article, and here it is.
- Thorsten Overgaard
The Leica SL vs. the Sony A7II for wildlife photography
By: Douglas Herr. June 27, 2016.
I’ve had the good fortune to spend some quality time with Thorsten’s Leica SL Type 601 and compare it with my current camera, the Sony a7II.
Selective reading of the two cameras’ spec sheets might suggest they’re quite similar: 24 MP, Electronic ViewFinder (EVF) and the fact that many lenses from legacy camera systems can be adapted to fit. However after several months comparing the two cameras they’re clearly very different.
I feel it’s important to understand the reviewer when reading an equipment review. My primary photographic subjects are wildlife and I prefer to avoid automation whenever practical: I use manual exposure modes and manual focus exclusively. Call it a quirk; call it insanity, that’s how I use a camera.
The camera body is basically a digital back for my lenses. The minimum I require of it is a good viewfinder, a good sensor and a means to set exposure and focus. Mirrorless cameras such as the Sony a7-series and the Leica SL fit these requirements quite well. I began using the Sony a7II about a year ago after 45 years with SLR cameras.
The Electronic ViewFinder (EVF) took some getting used to but now I wouldn’t go back to an SLR.
There’s never any calibration discrepancy between the image viewing and focusing plane or the image capture plane (the film or sensor).
The viewfinder brightness can compensate for ambient light and lens aperture, the EVF can be configured to show a live histogram, and all of my lenses can be used on the one and same camera by using simple adapters.
My previous camera was the Leica R8 with the Digital-Module-R (DMR), which was first available in 2005. It served me well but it had put on a lot of weight (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). The batteries had been unavailable for quite some time and I had nightmares about dropping one off a cliff or in a lake, the 10MP sensor’s linear resolution was beginning to limit the market ability of my photos to clients who expect more, and only my Leica lenses were fully usable on it.
The Leica SL is a very solid, well-made camera. It's significantly heavier than the a7II, but it fits the hand extremely well. Especially when wearing gloves (which I cannot say for the a7II).
The viewfinder is outstanding, with one complaint, which I'll get to. The camera overall is very responsive and reasonably quiet. The files have rich full colors and will take a lot of abuse without falling apart. The noise at higher ISO settings is manageable. And by the way, the noise pattern, unlike the Sony a7II, is quite pleasing.
The Sony a7II is a sturdy, reliable camera. The Leica SL is in an entirely different class of construction: It will take a beating that would destroy many other cameras, and it would still get up next morning and work like it was nobody’s business.
The SL has simple, purposeful controls. The thumb joystick is delightful (but user-programmability of its acceleration function would improve it) and the other buttons, dials and such are readily at hand when needed and they stay out of the way when not needed. Very impressive!
Testing the Leica SL 601 camera
My test photos are not intended to demonstrate the camera's artistic sensibilities. I'm just testing technical performance.
One of the Leica DMR's strengths is the robustness of the raw files, their ability to be manipulated, stomped on and tortured and not whimper. Pulling detail out of shadows is one of my tests; this robustness of the 10MP Leica DMR files saved my butt on more than one occasion, for example:
I enlisted the hummingbirds in my yard in the test and made some backlit photos exposed for highlights, then used Adobe Camera Raw's 'fill light' function to bring up the color and detail of the bird's gorget (the red feathers). Here's how the Leica SL did (cropped to about 1/3 of the original file):
Responsiveness is another test. My Sony a7II is quite responsive when I enable the electronic first curtain feature, but with my non-native lenses this feature's practical utility is limited to shutter speeds not faster than 1/1000 sec.
To test the Leica SL I used the Ruby-crowned Kinglet that has taken a liking to my hummingbird feeder. Kinglets are hyperactive bits of fluff and this particular kinglet was jumping from a twig, fluttering up to the feeder for a sip then back to the twig. The entire process takes less than a second.
I wanted to see how much total lag there was between the viewfinder, my reaction timing, and the shutter lag. I pre-focused on the feeder tube and watched the viewfinder, pressing the shutter release when the bird entered the image area. The camera is in single-shot drive mode, and no crop:
Real-time exposure feedback - Leica SL vs. Sony a7II
So now I get to the 0.5% that I'm not thrilled with. The camera's viewfinder defaults to automatic brightness mode, with 'exposure simulation' mode enabled with a half-press of the shutter release or by pressing the exposure simulation mode button on the front of the camera. The viewfinder reverts to the default automatic brightness mode after each exposure.
What were they thinking? One of the really huge advantages of the EVF is real-time exposure feedback. Automatic viewfinder brightness in these scenarios makes the bird go so dark I can't see any detail for focusing or for catching the desired posture:
Very distracting, breaks my concentration, makes focusing and seeing what the bird is doing very difficult. In polite company I'd call the automatic viewfinder brightness feature an 'epic fail'. It can't be disabled. It can be turned off in the Leica M 240, so why not the Leica SL?
Re-enabling the exposure preview mode after every exposure reminds me of the days before SLRs had instant-return mirrors. This one feature is a deal-breaker for me.
I've set up the Sony a7II for full-time exposure preview (Sony calls it Setting Effect: ON). This way I can use the entire viewfinder as an exposure meter in manual mode. It makes spot, full-field and matrix modes look like primitive relics of obsolete technology, and IMHO is among the really big advantages of an EVF.
Leica needs to do a firmware update to fix a few other issues, so I hope they fix this and SOON! Needless to say I've e-mailed Leica about this feature.
Stabilization - Leica SL vs. Sony a7II
My other big complaint about the SL is that there is no sensor stabilization.
I'm smitten with the Sony a7II's sensor stabilization. I can use any of my old, affordable lenses, as well as the spectacular Leica-R APO lenses, stabilized. It's allowed me to push a lot of boundaries while my muscles have weakened with age and abuse, and are no longer as steady as they used to be.
On the other hand, using the lens on the Sony a7II, I can brace the lens against my truck's window frame in dim rainy light with wind shaking the truck and the images are nearly as good as with the Leica SL in good light on the Gitzo tripod.
The Sony's colors aren't as rich, the files don't take as much abuse, but they're sharp in conditions that don't work for the Leica SL.
I invite you to draw your own conclusions, but to my eye the noise pattern in the SL's files is much more pleasing than in the Sony a7II's files at the same ISO.
On the other hand ... the Sony's stabilization makes magnified focusing with the 500mm lens much easier, and using fast shutter speeds on the SL reduces my options for using a slower shutter speed to show rain streaks like I can with the Sony (i.e., the Northern Harrier photo above).
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Colusa National Wildlife Refuge
I visited Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, north of Sacramento, a target-rich environment. I didn't expect great art from this day's photography so I was not disappointed. I wanted to see how the Leica SL's raw files looked in a context I was familiar with when using the Leica R8 with DMR and the Sony a7II.
In a nutshell, I'm delighted with the raw files. Aside from conversion from .DNG to .jpg, all I did was use a Photoshop curves layer to adjust black point and (infrequently) white point. That's all.
The colors are rich and full with excellent gradation.
Details: I used the Canon FD 500mm L at f/5.6, ISO 400. Manual focus without magnification (is not difficult), and in challenging cases magnification is available at the touch of a button. I'd like to see a firmware update to enable two-step magnification on the joystick, like the bottom left button on the Leica SL has.
The first magnification step is usually more than sufficient for critical manual focus and is easier to track a moving target.
The small diameter of the M mount in the middle of this stack is the culprit. This was a problem long before the Leica SL when using Leitz Visoflex-mount Telyts on Leica R cameras. I expect the promised R Adapter SL will solve this problem by eliminating the M mount.
The Leica SL camera is quick and responsive at all shutter speeds. For those who were writing software in the 1980s it’s like the difference between optimized assembly language and interpreted BASIC.
I can make the Sony a7II adequately responsive by enabling electronic first shutter curtain but with my adapted mechanical lenses it's good only up to 1/1000 sec.
At faster shutter speeds in this mode the Sony produces uneven exposures. The Leica SL is quick, quiet and responsive at every shutter speed. The Sony’s electronic first shutter curtain function can be switched on or off only by diving into the inscrutable menus. It can’t be assigned to a function button.
The Leica SL's LCD doesn't show nose prints. I deliberately tried to make nose prints. Couldn't do it.
There are numerous little differences that come down to personal preferences, for example the Leica SL allows me to change shutter speeds while in magnified view, with a dial that's almost a real shutter speed dial.
The Sony's dial moves the magnified box. The Leica SL allows the user to change the ‘direction’ of the shutter speed and aperture controls. The Sony allows the user to choose which dial performs either function.
The Sony leaves a lot more stuff in my wallet. Aside from the purchase price, spare batteries don't cost $250 each and I can walk into an electronics retailer like Fry's to buy them.
I'm struck by a comparison of the Sony a7II with the Canon FD 300mm f/4 L and the Leica SL with the 280mm f/4 APO-Telyt-R.
Either lens can be used on either camera but this is an extreme for illustrative purposes: The Sony a7II with the Canon FD 300 L is a decent camera; the lens today (with digital image processing not available in 1990), is better than when it was new. It's not a Leica APO-Telyt, but quite good. The Sony a7II with Canon 300L is about 2 kg (4 pounds). The Leica SL with Leica 280mm APO f/4.0 is about 3 kg, 50% heavier than the Sony a7II combo.
Did I mention the Sony leaves a lot more stuff in my wallet? There's an order of magnitude difference in the entry ticket. An order of magnitude!
Is there an order of magnitude difference in the output? An order of magnitude difference in image sales potential?
Given the dismal sales lately for photography I'd have to answer an emphatic NO to the last question (i.e., zero X 10 still equals zero), which leaves the subjective and unquantifiable differences.
Not to mention being able to say "oh shucks" and head over to eBay if I drop the camera in the ocean instead of panicking about the expense of repairs and the months of downtime as I do when my beloved Leica 280mm f/4 APO develops a sticky aperture.
Both of these cameras have numerous capabilities that I haven't begun to try, but for my uses the Leica SL isn't quite "there", and I say this as a Leica user for the last 35 years.
A firmware update with an option to make the 'exposure preview' mode sticky would be a serious threat to my wallet; with this firmware update and a hardware upgrade with a stabilized sensor … resistance would be futile.
For a first-generation product it's outstanding and with the two fixes I've mentioned I'd be ecstatic.
As it is when I grab a camera to head out the door it's most likely the Sony a7II for the lower weight, the stabilized sensor, the exposure preview viewfinder and the much lower worry about loss or damage. And I’ll put up with the fiddly buttons and inscrutable menus, and curse the 1/1000 sec shutter speed limit on my way out the door.
For those using any of the auto-exposure modes and either of the Leica SL's two excellent native lenses, the biggest obstacle to loving this camera could be the initial cash outlay. Once my two objections are fixed I’d put up with the weight and find a way to make it happen.
With formal training in life sciences, Douglas Herr has been photographing wildlife since 1970. Seeking a partnership with the animal, Doug spends the time needed to allow the animal to become comfortable in his presence. This allows the animal to relax and often allows the use of shorter lenses than is customary for wildlife photography which in turn allows in the photograph a sense of the animal's preferred habitat.
Now a resident of Sacramento County California, Doug has lived and worked in several US National Parks and spends his time in whatever wild lands are close to home. His photographs have appeared in many books, calendars and magazines worldwide including Audubon, Pacific Discovery, Wildbird and Leica Fotografie International, and prints of his photographs are in private collections on most continents.
Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish writer and photographer, specializing in portrait photography and documentary photography, known for writings about photography and as an educator.
Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via e-mail.