Leica SL Review – Part 1 – Hands-On Real-World Footage in 4K

For years the name “Leica” has been associated with high quality expensive photography equipment, and the new Leica SL (Typ 601) camera is no different. Actually, with this camera, Leica tries to prove that “the mirrorless full-frame camera is the technology of the future”. I will let others to check how good or not this Leica SL (Typ 601) performs as a stills camera but for us here at cinema5D it was important to test and review Leica’s new flagship (even with a small project), as the respected manufacturer claims it fulfills even the most stringent demands of moviemakers as a fully fledged video camera” in its official publications.  

Leica-SL Front look

Check out our lab test Leica SL Review Part 2 HERE

Let me start by writing that this is the most confusing camera I ever tested up to date. The video images that comes out of this camera can be AMAZING yet the camera itself and how Leica treated the video side of it, can leave one with much to be desired. We had the camera for two days only (One for filming this review and the other for running it through our LAB test). I truly hope that some of the obstacles we found can either be fixed with a firmware update or at list grab Leica’s attention and respond to some of the issues we found.

It is important to note that the reviewed camera had the latest firmware installed (V1.2) and the lens used was the new Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH.

Leica-SL Top look

Please allow me to start gently by saying that not surprisingly, the Leica SL (Typ 601) is build like a tank. It consists of two blocks of solid aluminum, it is weather-resistant, heavy and nice to hold in the hands. The style of design is very clean and minimalistic. It takes a bit of time to get used to the menu structure and to my personal taste it is not very intuitive, yet, navigating between the different possibilities is better then what other respected manufacturers are currently offering with their camera menu.

Leica SL-Clean design

Leica SL-Clean design

One domain that the camera preformed well in (in combination with the newly developed 24-90mm zoom lens) was its autofocus system (in manual mode). You can either touch the LCD screen at any desired point or alternatively, use the little joystick to navigate with your thumb to the place you want your focus to be, press on it and voilà, spot on. The Achilles heel of this system is the absence of continuous autofocus and a much less accurate autofocus when light conditions are not ideal. It is also worth pointing out that when using manual focus this lens has a servo focus and not a direct one, so it can be hard to nail focus accurately. Those obstacles (among others) are bringing me to the conclusion that this camera is NOT for the run&gun documentary shooter, but rather better suited for controlled film sets.

Leica SL-Favorites menu

Leica SL-Favorites menu

Continuing stating with what I liked about this camera, I cannot skip the formidable EVF. Just when I thought that my eyes are getting old and “out of focus” becomes my second name, here comes a manufacturer that understand how important it is to include a high quality EVF device in a high resolution camera. I can’t remember myself magnifying the image even once during my shooting day in order to judge focus. The combination of an accurate focus system, a great lens and an excellent EVF made my life very easy. Well done Leica!

It is also worth mentioning that I had no overheating issues during my shooting day and 90% of the video you see above was shot handheld. The optical stabilisation system implemented in the 24-90mm lens was working very well. (At times, too well…You have to turn it off when on a tripod while attempting to pan as the lens will heavily compensate on the movement.)

Leica-SL_05

And what about the “ugly side” of the camera you may ask? Well, for best results you should not attempt to shoot above 400 ISO. You can get away with 800 ISO but anything above that value will prove to be in a very painful experience. It looks like as if the camera has some kind of noise reduction constantly turned on and this will become very evident above 800 ISO. Anything which is a bit underexposed will become muddy. On a side note, I’m not sure if you remember how it was with the old Sony mirrorless cameras (NEX5 for example), when the LCD live view showed one thing and when pressing the REC button it immediately turned into something else. This is exactly the case with this camera. Turn the ISO north of 1600 and the picture in the EVF will become noisy. Press the REC button and the picture will “magically” turn into lake of mud. By the way, this phenomenon is happening no matter if you record 4K internally (8 bit), or 10 bit externally. The picture below is taken straight from the time line is showing best what I’m trying to describe. See how the dog’s front head lost its details completely – click on it to see the full resolution.

Leica SL- high ISO mud

Leica SL- High ISO mud

It also felt like the dynamic range (DR) of this camera is somehow limited especially when filming with Leica’s strange L-LOG gamma turned on. I was constantly trying not to overexpose my picture and on the other hand, there is no real way to avoid noise in anything which is even a tiny bit underexposed. It feels like the tolerance offered by this camera needs to be improved.

Leica SL- L LOG vs Graded picture

Leica SL- L LOG vs Graded picture

Last but not list, for whatever reason, Leica decided NOT to include a mic and headphone jack build into the camera body but rather sell an dedicated external audio device which will connect to the camera via a proprietary connector (not XLR or mini jack, not available yet – but it will most likely look similar to this, which was made for another Leica camera).

Leica-SL Audio input

Here is a summery of the strengths and weaknesses of the Leica SL (Typ 601) in no particular order (make sure to download the 4K file by clicking “Original” from herehttps://vimeo.com/149700017)

Strengths:

  • A variety of resolution and frame rates. DCI 4K is the highest resolution possible, but in 24p only (No 25p). Recording is made in H.264 format wrapped in MOV or MP4 container (identical in quality). Data rate: 100Mbps.
  • Excellent 1080/120fps
  • Rugged camera body
  • Excellent EVF and good touch screen LCD screen.
  • Very good autofocus system (no continuous autofocus).
  • Exceptionally detailed video picture
  • No overheating
  • “World camera” – switchable from PAL to NTSC
  • Full HD recording is done in full frame
  • 10 bit 4:2:2 external recording via 1.4 HDMI
  • Large HDMI camera conector
  • Zebra, histogram, peaking
  • LOG picture profile
  • Leica M and R adapters are currently available
  • Battery life is exceptional!

Weaknesses: 

  • NR (noise reduction) is constantly working and very noticeable above 1600 ISO
  • Anything recorded above ISO 800 becomes very noisy and not usable.
  • No continuous autofocus.
  • No build-in microphone and headphone jacks. A separate adapter must be purchased.
  • Camera alone will set you back by $7,500.
  • Video can be recorded only on a single SD slot.
  • 29:59 min recording limit.
  • Dynamic Range is limited (stay tune to our lab test review coming soon).
  • 8 bit internal recording.
  • 4K recording is in Super 35 format (which is not a weakness for those who prefers that mode over full frame).
  • Zebra values should be displayed in industry standard method (% marked).
  • L-LOG picture profile is not “locked” you can amend Sharpness, Saturation and Contrast.
  • No articulated LCD screen

 

Leica-SL Featured image 2

 

Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH remarks:

This is Leica’s first new lens out of 3 to be brought to the market. (The other two will be 90-280mm and 50mm). Personally I prefer constant aperture when working with a zoom lens but can understand Leica’s decision to try and keep this lens in an acceptable size by “compromising” on the availability of constant aperture. My other concern is the servo motor which is driving the lens focus ring. When attempting to focus in a traditional manual way, the response of the focus ring is not direct, making it very hard to achieve accurate focus (as a result it will also not work with a follow focus system for example). On the plus side, it’s truly amazing how sharp this lens is, throughout the whole range of its focal length, and catch me if you can by spotting any “breathing” when focusing.

Conclusion: 

The Leica SL (Typ 601) does not come cheap. You will have to say “goodbye” to more then $12,000 in order to enjoy the combination of this camera and zoom lens. Can it fulfill even the most stringent demands of moviemakers as a fully fledged video camera?, well, it depends on how far and how fast Leica can and will address some if not all the issues related to the image quality. In some ways, this camera is everything that the Canon 1DC was not (as Canon never improved the camera since its introduction). Will it keep its value (unlike the Canon 1DC)? It is truly hard to say, but one thing is for sure, Leica is on a road for a new beginning when it comes to video imaging. It is a traditionally structured company but If they will listen to customers’ feedback and continue improving their products for video shooters, I’m sure some will show love to the new Leica SL camera.

As requested by some, here is the link to the ungraded version for you to download. Make sure you are downloading the 4K version marked as “original”.

Camera settings for this video: DCI 4K/24p, mostly shot in 400 ISo, L-LOG picture profile (all parameters set on “LOW”). Audio was recorded separately on an external recorder.

LUT designed and contributed by my colleague and friend Sebastian Wöber. For the list of equipment used in this video, please see below.

Music is a courtesy of the music bed. Tracks: Winter by Ashley Arrison and Where Christmas is Found by Aprilemade

Thank you:
Romana and her family for helping creating this video in such a short notice. Highly appreciated!
LEICA STORE WIEN for supplying the camera and lens.

Most important, a happy holiday season for all of us. May 2016 only bring positive news!

Oh, and for those who would like to try and bake the cake at home: (cinema5D can not take any responsibility for the end result…:) )

  • 3 eggs
  • 250 grams sugar
  • 1 sachet of vanilla sugar or 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 150ml oil
  • 150ml milk
  • 200 grams fine flour
  • 1 sachet of baking powder
  • 150ml liquid or melted chocolate

Mix well and bake in the oven at 150-160 degrees for 1H and 15 min.

 

Johnnie Behiri is a freelance documentary cameraman/editor/producer working mostly for the BBC and other respected broadcasters. He is also co-owner of cinema5d.com.

Watch it on Vimeo

Leave a Comment

You are not subscribed to this post. Follow new comments

Login to comment

Darren Streibig Reply
Darren Streibig December 22, 2015

Very interesting! I really like the image it creates! Expensive, but looks like a massive improvement over previous attempts at Lieca’s video implementation.

Alessandro Rufino Reply
Alessandro Rufino December 22, 2015

Great camera. My first shooting experience in 12.11.2015 with Laica SL was very interesting.

Joachim Richter Reply
Joachim Richter December 22, 2015

As the most difficult thing is to record natural looking colors I would propose to forget LUTs and other artificial looks in tests like this. I f you have a natural looking image you may do anything with it in post. But in the other direction I cannot imagine what a natural look could come out of a camera. What do you think?

Reply
Johnnie Behiri December 22, 2015

Hi Joachim.

An ungraded version is being exported and will be added soon so people can download and “play” with it.

Thanks!

Johnnie

Joachim Richter Reply
Joachim Richter December 23, 2015

Thanks Johnnie! Is a similar film available at Cinema5D with an ungraded version of the Sony a7sII?

Reply
Johnnie Behiri December 23, 2015

Hi Joachim.

Will upload an ungraded version of the my a7SII review during the next days. PM me privately so I can notify you when it is online.

Thanks!

Johnnie

Reply
Johnnie Behiri December 22, 2015

Hi Joachim

Ungraded version is now available for downloading. See at the bottom of the article.

Thanks!

Johnnie

 Becca Sat Reply
Becca Sat December 26, 2015

Hi Johnnie,
The video is beautiful! It tells a wonderful story and feels so real.

Will you release the LUT for download as well?

Thanks & Merry XMAS!

Bec

Reply
Johnnie Behiri December 27, 2015

Hi Bec.

LUT can be sent upon request. Please mail me to johnnie@cinema5d.com

Thank you!

Johnnie

 Becca Sat Reply
Becca Sat December 29, 2015

Hi Johnnie,
Thanks. Email sent.

Bec

 Will Binks Reply
Will Binks May 24, 2016

Awesome! I have also sent a request Johnnie, thank you in advance!

Reply
Johnnie Behiri May 25, 2016

Hi Will.

Mail was sent back to you with attached LUT.

Thanks!

Johnnie

 Becca Sat Reply
Becca Sat December 26, 2015

Also Johnnie, what aperture, ISO, etc., did you use during the interview section @ 40seconds?

Reply
Johnnie Behiri December 27, 2015

Hey…

Can not remember aperture but I guess it was around f4.0 as normally I don’t go under it when conducting an interview while shooting with a full frame sensor to avoid “out of focus parts of the face”. Focused eyes and out of focus nose is not appealing to me. (mind you that in 4K this camera is recording in S35).

ISO was 400.

Thank you.

Johnnie

 Becca Sat Reply
Becca Sat December 29, 2015

Hi Johnnie,
So both the Leica and GH4 shot 4K in Super 35 crop.

When conducting interviews, besides using a smaller aperture, do you ask the interviewee to restrict their movement or do you continuously focus if they move too much?

Thanks

Reply
Johnnie Behiri December 29, 2015

Hi Bec.

The Panasonic GH4 has a smaller sensor then Leica’s full frame one to start with.
When shooting 4K video, Leica will crop to APS-C mode (22.4 x 14.9mm) vs. Panasonic’s 4/3 (17.3mm x 13.0mm).

I do ask my interviewee to be aware of his/her movements but not setting the camera on continuous auto focus at all.

Thanks!

Johnnie

 Becca Sat Reply
Becca Sat December 30, 2015

Hi Johnnie,
Thank you. Your feedback has been very helpful.

Bec

 Florian Razocha Reply
Florian Razocha December 22, 2015

So it basically is like a GH4/metabones speedbooster – set (only difference it has a larger sensor and no mic/headphone jacks and the panasonic v-log profile is much better) – all of that at four times the price… no thanks.

Steve Staffan Reply
Steve Staffan December 22, 2015

I agree, this is also going against the A7sII/A7rII, the new RED Raven, etc. For the price, I’m sorry, but it shouldn’t have flaws like no headphone jack, and a HUGE price tag. I get it, it’s a beautiful PHOTO camera with video capabilities, but if you want to enter the video world, you have to know what you’re up against when it comes to price vs capabilities.

 Becca Sat Reply
Becca Sat December 26, 2015

Hi Florian,
Couldn’t the same quality be achieved with a GH4 without a metabones speedbooster? Aren’t the Panasonic Lumix lenses (12-35, 35-100), just as sharp as the Leica’s? I thought the Lumix lenses are Leica lenses?

Thanks and Merry XMAS!

Bec

Mike Silverman Reply
Mike Silverman December 22, 2015

Video quality looks good but I doubt 99% of people could tell a difference between it and the GH4. If low light on this camera is terrible then I don’t see how it could be worth the price to anyone.

Vlad Box Rojas Reply
Vlad Box Rojas December 22, 2015

Not interested on the camera, but ahh the recipe is gold!!!. Great video, looks great, maybe Leica does not want to piss their rich costumer base, with a perfect LOG-C.

Caleb Rasak Reply
Caleb Rasak December 22, 2015

Beautiful imagery. Would never purchase the camera but really liking the image.

Jannis Seid Reply
Jannis Seid December 22, 2015

Dreammachine

Vanessa Cara-Kerr Reply
Vanessa Cara-Kerr December 22, 2015

Lovley!

Reply
Joakim Tjernell December 22, 2015

Wow, the footage looks great!

Reply
Marcos Avlonitis December 23, 2015

Another excellent review Johnnie – hugely useful and the video is excellent – I love the framing and angles you’ve used for the video – beautifully shot and very cinematic.

I’m still not sure what I think of such an expensive camera (for what it offers) but your review goes along way to clarifying the camera’s capabilities for me.

Thanks again!

cinema5D Reply
cinema5D December 23, 2015

Guys, thank you very much for taking the time watching the video and commenting.

Appreciated!

Johnnie

 Dale Berman Reply
Dale Berman December 23, 2015

The camera is useless with high ISO’s, no mic and headphone inputs and very expensive. This camera would not be for me and my shooting style and budget.

Oscar M Reply
Oscar M December 24, 2015

1. insane price.
2. great review

Jotta Dan Reply
Jotta Dan December 24, 2015

great cake! :)

 Ian Hunter Reply
Ian Hunter December 26, 2015

Never understood the need to grade. If something is properly lit, there’s simply no need.

Reply
Johnnie Behiri December 27, 2015

Hi Ian.

Proper lighting and grading are completely 2 different things. (especially when shooting Log).

Hope you can spare a moment and look at the ungraded version to spot the differences here:https://vimeo.com/149771657.

Thank you.

Johnnie

 Henry Gluzman Reply
Henry Gluzman December 26, 2015

Its Ugly and Expensive, quite standard video quality for today cameras on market.
Great review!
Merry XMAS!

 Dmitri Tsitelauri Reply
Dmitri Tsitelauri December 29, 2015

You are awesome Johnnie! Thank you! Really enjoyed…