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Leica CL review: Clever, capable, quirky and costly

Innovative controls and form-over-function omissions make the CL a great but frequently frustrating mirrorless camera to use at a high price.

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Lori Grunin
LoriGruninNewHeadshot.jpg
Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice

I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.

Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
8 min read

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

18-leica-cl
7.8

Leica CL

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.

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.

Leica CL pictures and full-resolution photo samples

See all photos

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.

leica-cl-iso
Enlarge Image
leica-cl-iso

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-cl-text-12500
Enlarge Image
leica-cl-text-12500

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 0.4Fujifilm X100F 0.4 0.6 0.3 0.3
  • 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 7.1Leica CL 9.9
Note: Frames per second (longer bars are better)

Dial 'C' for clever

Sadly, I have a love/hate relationship with the camera's design.

I love the way Leica has streamlined access to settings while simultaneously limiting the number of physical controls.

By adding a button in the middle, Leica adapted the generic dials from the TL series to give access to more functions. Pressing the inset button on the left dial turns it into a mode dial. You can see it as you scroll through the modes in the viewfinder, on the back LCD or on the small status display on the top.

The left button pulls up a user-selected function. You can quickly select which one that is from one of eight choices you've set by holding down the button. It's one of the most seamless and uninterruptive ways I've encountered to quickly access the broadest range of settings. I wish the dials were a little closer together, though, as the left dial requires more of a stretch than is comfortable for my hands.

10-leica-cl

The way you program the dial functions is clever.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The viewfinder is big and bright and comfortable, and icons display the current quick-access setting for the right dial for us forgetful folks. But the exposure readout at the bottom of the display is small.

Get a grip. Please

Unfortunately, there's a lot about the camera that frustrated me. I know it's supposed to hew to the classic M-series design, but we've seen Leica do that without sacrificing usability.

For instance, there's nothing to help give you traction for gripping. I frequently shoot single handed and would feel my hand cramping from holding it so tightly. In cold weather it's even harder as your fingers start to get numb. Even a more rubberized layer would help. Leica considers grips optional. We've seen other manufacturers go through their no-grip design phases and they always end up coming back to gripville, at least for the midpriced-and-up models. We're still waiting for Leica to see the light.

And there are no doors on its pristinely sleek sides, because who needs connectors? A couple of years ago it wouldn't have fazed me. Now most cameras support USB charging and it's a feature we've become dependent on. But instead of providing a USB port behind a discreet door (which it managed on the Leica Q), Leica forces you to schlep a separate charger and a power cord. It also means the SD card goes in the battery compartment where it's hard to swap on the fly and can be blocked by a big tripod plate.

While I love the dial setup, it's really easy to accidentally change settings without realizing it. There's a lock setting in the menus and you can program it for quick access via the right button, but this is a case where a physical control works faster. Plus, that means wasting a programmable slot. And there's no way to lock the navigation switch to prevent accidentally changing the location of the focus area. That's actually a problem with many cameras.

I also miss an AE-lock button when I'm not in manual mode. There are plenty of reasons I prefer it to using exposure compensation -- one of the biggest is that I always forget when I've changed the EV and to reset it, which is how I end up with wrong exposures.

Why so pricey?

Consider that the Fujifilm X-T2 -- a similar APS-C mirrorless that also has an antialiasing-filter-free sensor for sharper images -- delivers so much more for sooo much less and with a more functional, but less "Leica" design. Or more notably, you can get an even better Sony A7R II full frame body for the same money.

I understand paying a premium for a Leica, but only if the experience of using it and the photos it produces are concomitantly superlative. The Leica Q was one of my favorite cameras. Using the CL, however, was frequently frustrating, and while the photos are sharp, Leica is no longer the only sharp tack in the box.

I'm not really sure who Leica sees as the audience for this camera, except perhaps if there are Leica fanboys who complained that they'd have bought the TL2 if it looked and operated more like a traditional Leica. It feels like the company is still fumbling around trying to come up with a more crowd-pleasing model to attract new customers rather than recycling the current pool of owners.

But I think that's going to require more compromises, especially with respect to price, than Leica has thus far shown it wants to make. It doesn't need to be cheap, or even the same price as competitors -- just less expensive enough to tip one's reaction from "WHUT?!" to "Hm. Well it is a Leica." And it means recognizing that convenience needs to be weighted more heavily in design choices.

Comparative Specifications


Fujifilm X-T2Leica CLLeica TL2

Sensor effective resolution

24.3MP X-Trans CMOS III

24.3MP CMOS

24.3MP CMOS

Sensor size

23.6x15.6mm

23.6x15.7mm

23.6x15.7mm

Focal-length multiplier

1.5x

1.5x

1.5x

OLPF

No

No

No

Sensitivity range

ISO 100 (exp)/200 - ISO 6400/51200 (exp)

ISO 100 - ISO 50000

ISO 100 - ISO 50000

Burst shooting

8fps

83 JPEG/27 raw

(11fps with battery grip; 14fps with electronic shutter)

10fps

33 raw/unlimited JPEG

20fps

(7fps with mechanical shutter)

29 raw/unlimited JPEG

Viewfinder 

(mag/ effective mag)

EVF

0.5-inch/13mm

2.4 million dots

100 percent coverage

1.2x/0.77x

EVF

2.4 million dots

100 percent coverage

1.1x/0.74x

Optional EVF

Hot Shoe

Yes

Yes

Yes

Autofocus

325-point phase-detection AF

91-area Contrast AF

49-area contrast AF

49-area contrast AF

AF sensitivity

-3 to n/a EV

n/a

n/a

Shutter speed

1/8,000 to 30 sec (1/32,000 sec with electronic shutter); bulb to 60 min; 1/250 sec x-sync

1/8,000 to 30 secs (1/25,000 with electronic shutter); 1/180 sec x-sync

1/4,000 to 30 secs (1/40,000 with electronic shutter); 1/180 sec x-sync

Shutter durability

n/a

n/a

n/a

Metering

256 zones

n/a

n/a

Metering sensitivity

n/a

n/a

n/a

Best video

H.264 UHD 4K/30p, 25p, 24p

MP4 4K UHD/30p

MP4 4K UHD/30p

Audio

Stereo; mic input

Stereo

Stereo

Manual aperture and shutter in video

Yes

No

Shutter speed

Maximum best-quality recording time per clip

10 minutes 

(30 minutes with battery grip)

7 minutes/4GB

7 minutes/4GB

Clean HDMI out

Yes

No

n/a

IS

Optical

Optical (EIS for video)

Optical (EIS for video)

Display

3 in/7.5 cm

Multiangle tilting

1.62 million dots

3 in/7.5 cm

Fixed touchscreen

1.04m dots

3.7 in/9.4 cm

Fixed touchscreen

1.3m dots

Memory slots

2xSDXC

1xSDXC

1xSDXC

Wireless connection

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi

Flash

Yes

No

No

Wireless flash

Yes

No

No

Battery life (CIPA rating)

340 shots

(1,260 mAh)

220 shots

(1,200 mAh)

250 shots

(985 mAh)

Size (WHD)

5.2x3.6x1.9 in

133x92x49 mm

5.2x3.1x1.8 in

131x78x45 mm

5.3x2.7x1.3 in

134x69x33 mm

Body operating weight

17.9 oz (est.)

507 g (est.)

14.4 oz

408 g

14.1 oz (est.)

399 g (est.)

Mfr. price (body only)

$1,600

£1,620

AU$2,300

$2,900 

$1,950

£1,700

AU$2,750

Primary kit

$1,900

£1,900

(with 18-55mm lens)

$4,000

(with 18mm lens)

n/a

Release date

September 2016

November 2017

October 2017

18-leica-cl
7.8

Leica CL

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 8Image quality 8
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