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Leica CL review: Clever, capable, quirky and costly

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The Good The Leica CL produces sharp photos with neutral colors, at least in winter light, has a great viewfinder, good performance and streamlined shooting controls.

The Bad Price, of course. But also design decisions, including no grip, no connectors and no way to lock navigation buttons, plus missing capabilities like manual exposure controls for video.

The Bottom Line The Leica CL might be forgiven some of its oddities and omissions at a lower price. But if you've been waiting for a Leica mirrorless that looks like a traditional Leica and consider its quirks part of the experience, then go forth and spend.

7.8 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 7.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Image quality 8.0

Oh, Leica. Once again you've given me the ambivalent feels.

The CL, the company's "classic" APS-C mirrorless model -- the alter ego of the "modern" TL2 -- is a Leica through and through. It has the trademark almost too clean design aesthetic, its excellent form taking precedence over function. And the price...? Sigh. Sharp APS-C photos and solid autofocus speed come at the cost of a great full-frame.

The CL is a nice camera with some real design strengths and sharp photos, but the body's not really $2,800 worth of nice. And in a kit with the new 18mm f2.8 pancake prime, it's definitely not $3,800 nice; the lens alone is $1,300. And the kit with the too-slow-for-the-price 18-56mm f3.5-5.6 will run you $4,000.

I don't have UK or Australian prices yet, but directly converted for the UK those mean £908 for the 18mm lens, £2,110 for the body, £2,900 for the kit with both and £3,020 for the zoom kit. For Australia, those convert to about AU$1,715 for the prime lens, AU$3,700 for the body, AU$5,030 for both and AU$5,300 for the zoom kit.

Kits are new for Leica, and it's good the company's venturing into the territory. While you can use a lot of Leica-mount lenses with its APS-C mirrorless line, many new camera buyers don't have a stack of 'em sitting around.

But I don't find 18mm, with its 60-degree field of view on APS-C (27mm equivalent), more than occasionally useful -- the pancake prime makes the camera seem more compact, but unless you get right up to the subject (which isn't my style) the photos all feel like snapshots. Wide-angle pancakes make more sense on smaller sensors where they work out to a narrower field of view, which is why a 17mm kit for Micro Four Thirds is much more practical than on APS-C. 

Fast and sharp

A combination of factors make the photos sharp. As with many cameras these days, the 24.3-megapixel sensor doesn't have a blurring antialiasing filter. Frequently, you run into moire (interference patterns in fine meshes and textures), even if just a little, but I didn't see any here.

Also, by default Leica is very light-handed with its noise reduction, meaning you'll see some graininess overall and color noise in dark areas, but the image retains detail. And what little noise reduction there is intelligently handles brighter areas less noisy than the darker areas. However, it also means you'll see a lot of hot pixels (pixels that clip to white in low-light images).

The 18mm lens has very good edge-to-edge sharpness, but because it's wide angle there's some curvature and edge distortion accompanying the short focal length. Leica says they designed it to not need a lens hood, but I did get some flare or internal reflections in some photos.

The Leica CL's automatic white balance was off for these shots (too blue-red), but you can't really tell by the way this is rendered. In normal shooting, the camera's AWB was accurate to cool.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Leica performs with very little noise reduction on its high ISO sensitivity images, making them look grainy. You'll see color noise in dark areas, but it retains more detail than other cameras. This is ISO 12500.

Lori Grunin/CNET

However, that graininess can also make the images high contrast. In the past, Leica's JPEGs files have looked almost identical to the raw DNG files. There's a little increase in contrast by default with the CL's JPEGs, which clips shadows and highlights, something we frequently see with cameras. There seems to be sufficient tonal range in general to recover highlights and shadows that aren't completely blown out, but nothing exceptional.

Colors look good, defaulting to accurate rather than saturated. In winter light the auto white balance might be considered a little too faithful, rendering everything very cool. But the cool white balance works for low-light shooting. Usually it delivers excellent results with no color casts. Leicas are some of my favorite cameras for street shooting at night. There's a Natural setting, but it's more flat and low contrast than "natural".

The video looks like typical 4K UHD video. Sharp. Your only exposure adjustment option is exposure compensation, and you can set a profile for saturation, contrast and sharpness, so overall you don't have a lot of control.

The camera's reasonably fast, with fairly typical autofocus speed and quick processing so it feels responsive. It can burst at about 10 frames per second with continuous autofocus for exactly 33 frames in raw or an effectively unlimited number of JPEGs. I didn't get a chance to give it a real workout, since continuous autofocus accuracy is hard to judge with a wide-angle lens. Manual focus works well, too, and the focus peaking makes it easy.

If you want, you can shoot on full auto or with scene program modes, as well as let it automatically choose the autofocus areas. The latter works about as well as it does on any camera, which means it's quick but relatively inconsistent and dumb, choosing different areas every time you prefocus on the same scene, and it chooses either as many areas as it can focus on or sticks to the closest and highest contrast things it can find.

Battery life, though, should be better than 220 shots, especially since it then takes over two hours to recharge.  When you get two batteries with a camera for evaluation, it's a sign that the company knows the battery life blows.

Typical shooting speed

Leica CL
0.3
0.4
0.4
0.4
Fujifilm X100F
0.4
0.6
0.3
0.3

Legend:

Shot lag (bright)
Shot lag (dim)
JPEG shot-to-shot time
Raw shot-to-shot time

Note:

In seconds (shorter bars are better)

Continuous-shooting speed

Fujifilm X100F
7.1
Leica CL
9.9

Note:

Frames per second (longer bars are better)

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