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Leica SL (Typ 601) review: Leica's fast full-frame mirrorless delivers, but needs some design refinement

It's the fastest full-frame mirrorless thus far and takes great photos and video, but it's not the most comfortable camera to use.

Lori Grunin
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
11 min read

Sony has dominated the full-frame mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera space with its A7 series since it launched two years ago -- not terribly hard, as Sony's had the only cameras in that space until now. Enter the Leica SL, a powerful pro-oriented model with a few drawbacks.


Leica SL (Typ 601)

The Good

The Leica SL's photo and video quality are first-rate, its continuous shooting is fast with excellent autofocus in good light, and it has almost all the features you might want. Plus it has some very streamlined aspects to its design and operation.

The Bad

The grip is really uncomfortable, very-low-light autofocus is a bit slow, and the body and lenses are huge for a mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera.

The Bottom Line

With Leica-quality photo and video plus fast performance, the Leica SL has a lot to recommend. But the uncomfortable grip, big body and lens, and high price might make many buyers hesitate.

As is pretty typical for a Leica, the camera costs roughly twice as much as its nearest competitor, the Sony A7R II , at $7,450 for the body (£5,050 in the UK) and $4,050 for the first available lens (£3,150), the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f2.8-4. (No prices for Australia have been announced yet, but the US body price converts to AU$10,280, while the lens works out to AU$5,590.) The price looks a lot less steep if you compare it to full-frame dSLR models with fast continuous shooting, however.

Image quality

The sensor and processor are the same as the Leica Q , so you'd expect the photos to look similar. The SL's photos and videos are generally terrific in all but very low light. If you want your out-of-the-camera JPEGs to look great you need to tweak the default settings because they'll clip a little too much shadow and highlight detail, or alternatively you need to under/over exposure high- (bright) and low-key (dark) scenes. You probably want to underexpose high contrast scenes as well, because it's relatively easy to recover shadow detail but not as much for the highlight detail. That's pretty typical, though.

Leica SL full-resolution photo samples

See all photos

Leica's aesthetic for low-light photos is to preserve detail at the expense of noise; in other words, low-light JPEG shots look a lot grainier than those of other cameras, but they also don't get get that over-smoothed look. If you don't like it, though, you can increase the in-camera noise reduction.

Leica's DNG raw files preserve color better (naturally) and stand up to software noise reduction very well through about ISO 12500. Beyond that the images are usable, depending upon the scene. You don't gain much in the way of detail by processing the raw at high ISO sensitivities, though.

The color balance is neutral and accurate in both our raw and JPEG test shots, but in actual daylight the skies in some photos -- it looks like it happens in very bright shots -- get pushed to cyan. I haven't seen skies like that come out of a real camera in years. They look perfect in the raw photos, though.

I suspect Leica is performing more moire reduction in the JPEGs than it did in the Leica Q, and even the DNGs are improved in that respect (though the very different lenses could account for it as well). The JPEGs are just a little softer than the DNGs, and the DNGs have significantly more moire, though I couldn't spot any in my photos from field testing, just the portion of our test scene designed to show it. I think a sharper lens (as the 50mm f1.4 will probably be) might resolve a little more, though, resulting in more moire.

The camera's video 4K looks really good as well. Once again, you should decrease the contrast if you're shooting in bright conditions and want good out-of-the-camera footage, since it clips the highlights and shadows as with the stills. The one built-in profile it has, Leica V-Log L, is one of the flattest profiles I've ever seen, and the camera needs a "preview" feature similar to the A7S II for working with it. However, it preserves the highlights as expected for grading.

I did not test recording via HDMI, however, which supports 4:2:2 10-bit. Internally, it's the typical 4:2:0 8-bit. It's possible that the higher bit rate workflow will do a somewhat better job preserving highlight detail. However, the very low-light video wasn't nearly as good, in part because it seems to use the same noise-reduction settings as the stills, so there's quite a bit of noise jitter. The A7S II definitely outperforms the Leica SL in that respect. When shooting in HD, the SL uses the entire sensor.

While it will be getting an electronic shutter in a forthcoming firmware upgrade, the focal-plane shutter unsurprisingly produces slanted verticals in fast-moving subjects (like a train).

Analysis samples

Enlarge Image
Though it's not my typical crop from our test photos, this portion does a better job of showing the Leica's noise profile and JPEG processing. Unsurprisingly, the JPEGs are clean through ISO 800. Lori Grunin/CNET

Enlarge Image
You can start to see a slight bit of noise at ISO 1600, and it's still OK but noticeable at ISO 3200. The biggest jump occurs between ISO 3200 and ISO 6400. Lori Grunin/CNET

Enlarge Image
The two highest ISO sensitivity settings look quite noisy because Leica doesn't do any luminance noise reduction in its JPEGs. Depending upon scene content, though, the JPEGs can be usable up through ISO 12500. Lori Grunin/CNET

Enlarge Image
The camera's default JPEG settings push the contrast a lot, to the point where you lose substantial shadow and highlight detail. The raw version has no exposure changes to it. Lori Grunin/CNET

Enlarge Image
The Leica's color reproduction can be extremely neutral. The reds will look a bit off on sRGB displays, but the raw files look correct when viewed on an AdobeRGB-calibrated monitor. Lori Grunin/CNET


Overall, the Leica SL performs quite well; it's certainly faster than the Sony A7R II and even the Nikon D750 under some conditions. It is very slow to power on, focus and shoot at 1.9 seconds, though that's typical for mirrorless ILCs.

Time to focus and shoot in good light is excellent at 0.2 second and 0.3 second in dim; however in situations darker than our test scene (roughly equivalent to a dim living room) I found its contrast autofocus system hunted quite a bit. Two sequential shots took 0.4 second, for raw or JPEG, also quite good.

The Leica SL certainly has the fasted rated continuous-shooting speed in its class: 11fps (high) without continuous autofocus or autoexposure and 7fps (medium) with both. I only got it up to 5.8fps in the latter mode with our standard test procedures, but acheived 7fps for JPEGs with a shutter speed of greater than 1/500 second. I couldn't get the raw burst past 5.8fps, though. It can sustain the raw burst for a few more than 30 shots, but for an essentially unlimited number in JPEG (I stopped checking at 60). I might have been able to sustain a faster rate for the raw had the camera recognized my fastest 280MB/sec. card, the SanDisk 64GB Extreme Pro U3 model. Leica says it should work with U3 cards.

While it doesn't support AF/AE at 11fps, that may not matter for some jobs. With sufficient depth-of-field (and depending upon the action your're shooting), 11fps is fast enough that the subject remains in focus for a chunk of it -- the contrast autofocus areas are fairly large, which can be a blessing and a curse. The 37-area setting is a diamond-shaped array, and 49-area just fills in the holes in the corners to form a rectangle. At the 7fps speed it had a pretty good focus-hit rate.

For speed shooting, keep in mind that it lacks tracking autofocus, and that its zone AF frequently picks the wrong part of the zone for focusing. Just like everyone else's.

Like the camera, the battery is big -- it's the same capacity as a typical dSLR battery, but because it has to power a lot more displays it's rated at a lower life of about 400 shots. It still blows past the life of a typical Sony A7 series camera, and seemed to last a lot longer than its rating in practice.

Shooting speed

Sony A7R II 0.3 0.3 0.7 0.7 1.5Nikon D750 0.4 0.4 0.2 0.2 0.2Sony A7 II 0.4 0.4 0.7 0.7 1.3Leica SL 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.4 1.9
  • Typical shutter lag
  • Dim-light shutter lag
  • JPEG shot-to-shot time
  • Raw shot-to-shot time
  • Time to first shot
Note: Seconds (shorter bars indicate better performance)

Continuous-shooting speed (with autofocus and autoexposure)

Sony A7 II 4.8Sony A7R II 4.9Leica SL 5.8Nikon D750 6.6
Note: Frames per second (longer bars indicate better performance)

Design and features

There is so much to like about the design and feature set of the SL, but also a little to hate.

The chassis is constructed of two chunks of milled aluminum, and the body (and lenses) are spray-and-dust sealed. It's big for a mirrorless, close to the width and height of a dSLR, a stark contrast to most mirrorless interchangeable-lens models which tend to be barely bigger than the lens mount.

The Leica SL is substantially bigger than Sony's A7 series. Sarah Tew/CNET

To put the 24-90mm f2.8-4 lens' size in context, it's the fastest mirrorless-mount zoom currently available; the fastest FE-mount zoom for the Sony system is f4. You don't lose the aperture too rapidly, either. I have images that report f3.9 as high as 83mm, and it runs about f3.5 or so in the 50mm range. The tradeoff: it's huge and heavy for a mirrorless mount.

The lenses are based on the same mount as the Leica T , the company's APS-C-based camera. Like Sony's E mount, it was engineered with full-frame in mind. T-mount lenses will operate on the SL, but as you'd expect it will crop to an APS-C, 10.3-megapixel image.

Leica has a whole host of adapters for its other mounts on its roadmap. It also plans more L-mount lenses for next year, a 90-280mm f2.8-4 with optical stabilization in the first half of the year, and a 50mm f1.4 for the end of the year that the company claims will be its "best Leica lens ever." The early versions of the lenses I saw looked pretty big. I don't like Leica's convention to control the OIS from within the menus rather than via a switch on the lens, however.

On the top left sits an odd-looking bump that houses the GPS transmitter, and it works pretty well. I couldn't get a signal indoors, not unusual in New York City, but it didn't have any issues outdoors. It doesn't seem to record elevation, as far as I could tell. On the top right is an adjustment dial that's just a little too far back for my hands. Behind it sit the Live View and dedicated record buttons. A nice, high-contrast status LCD is next to those. The shutter button has a nice touch and is pretty quiet, a welcome change from Sony's thwacky shutter mechanisms.

On the back left is the on/off switch; on the right is another adjustment jog dial, a sensitive navigational joystick and a programmable button. Pressing the jog dial rotates you through the program (with program shift), aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual exposure modes.

The viewfinder is terrific: big, bright, high resolution and high magnification, with a large eyecup and one of the best diopter controls I've seen.

I also really like the buttons and controls the SL inherits from the S. There are two large buttons on each side of the back display. Short-pressing on each brings up a menu -- camera, image, favorites and settings. It's a really fast way to navigate around the system. You can program each for a specific function to bring up on a long-press. There's another function button on the front, but it's placed just a little too far out from the grip, at least for my hands.

On the grip side are two SD card slots. According to Leica, only one supports UHS-II cards, though, and as previously mentioned, it didn't like my 64GB SanDisk UHS-II U3 card for some reason.

On the other side are full-size USB 3.0 and HDMI connectors. Using a mic or requires an optional piece that plugs into a proprietary connector.

The battery compartment is also a great design. There's no hatch; just press it in to insert or flip the release switch and press a bit to pop it out (the way an SD card works). Leica will offer a single-battery grip as well.

So really, what's not to like? The grip. It's like Leica ignored 20 years of ergonomics research in grip design, including its own. There's no shape to it whatsoever, and it gets tiring and uncomfortable to hold. This is basic. Does it make the camera unusable? No. But a $7,500 camera should feel much better to hold than the SL does.

The grip is hard and lacks any sort of molding to conform to the human hand. Sarah Tew/CNET

It has a relatively complete feature set. In addition to everything previously mentioned, it has Wi-Fi support for file transfer and remote shooting and essentials like the ability to save and share custom settings among bodies; manual focus peaking and zebra; interval shooting; and tons of 4K and HD video frame rates (including 1080/120p), with support for both MOV and MP4. When you use exposure bracketing, it automatically generates an HDR JPEG. (I couldn't figure out how to turn it off, in fact.)

I wish it had a tilting or articulating LCD, though. The LCD is fine, but I've gotten used to being able to shoot from different angles. And it uses optical image stabilization rather than sensor shift, which is starting to feel like a constraining technology.


Leica misses the mark on one of the important reasons people use a mirrorless ILC: the systems -- body plus lenses -- are smaller. The SL with lens is only a little bit smaller than a similarly equipped dSLR. It reminds me of the early days of Sony's then-NEX models, when there were so few lenses that for fast lenses you had to mount its dSLR-size A-mount versions via an adapter. It's possible that Leica (or third parties) will develop smaller lenses for the system, but then you still have the oversize body. However, the size does confer some benefits over smaller mirrorless models, including room for a bigger battery and 2GB internal memory.

On the flip side, if you consider it a competitor for older models like the EOS-1D X or Nikon D4s for shooting action, it's lighter but about the same size (with the add-on battery grip) and speed, higher resolution and shoots 4K. Unfortunately, it lacks the breadth of fast lenses those camera have, the battery life is insufficient in comparison, it doesn't have some essentials like wired Ethernet and probably can't match the dynamic range of the D4s (whose native ISO sensitivity tops at ISO 25600, but can hit up to ISO 409,600).

As for similarly sized dSLRs, while it's generally better than the Canon EOS 5D Mark III -- faster, with better photo quality in good light and a broader feature set -- the much cheaper Canon is a better value for what most mainstream professionals need, even after three years. The Nikon D810 delivers better photo quality across the board, but the SL has better performance and a more up-to-date feature set. And once again, a much better value for its lower price. And while it's tempting to compare it to the 5DS R , (still cheaper!) the main justification for buying that model is the higher resolution, which is twice the Leica's.

So, basically, it's a good choice for someone who wants a fast full-frame mirrorless camera but who's not looking for a compact size. It has some design flaws, but so does the A7 series, and they're otherwise pretty well matched on feature tradeoffs, photo and video quality. The question becomes, how much are the better performance and the Leica badge worth to you?

Comparative specifications

Leica SL Sony A7R II
Sensor effective resolution 24.2MP CMOS
42.4MP Exmor R CMOS
Sensor size 36 x 24mm
35.8 x 23.9mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.0x 1.0x
Sensitivity range ISO 50 - ISO 50,000 ISO 50 (exp)/ISO 100 - ISO 25600/102400 (exp)
Burst shooting 7fps
(11fps with exposure and focus fixed on first frame)
23 raw/24 JPEG
(mag/ effective mag)
100% coverage
0.5 in/1.3 cm
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
Hot Shoe Yes Yes
Autofocus 49-area
Contrast AF
399-point phase-detection AF, 25-area contrast AF
AF sensitivity
(at center point)
n/a -2 - 20 EV
Shutter speed 1/8,000 sec. - 30 minutes; bulb; 1/250 sec. x sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs.; bulb; 1/250 sec. x-sync
Shutter durability 200,000 cycles 500,000 cycles
Metering n/a 1,200 zones
Metering sensitivity n/a -3 - 20 EV
Best video H.264 MP4 or Quicktime MOV
Cinema 4K/24p; UHD 4K/30p, 25p, 24p; 1080/120p, 60p, 30p, 25p, 24p
XAVC S 4K 2160/30p, 25p, 24p @ 100Mbps
Audio stereo; mic input and out via optional adapter Stereo; mic input; jack
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Yes
Maximum best-quality recording time 4GB/29 minutes 29 min
Clean HDMI out Yes Yes
IS Optical Sensor shift
LCD 3 in/7.5 cm
Fixed touchscreen
1.04m dots
3 in/7.5cm
921,600 dots plus extra set of white dots
Memory slots 2 x SDXC
(primary slot UHS-II, secondary slot UHS-I)
1 x SDXC
Wireless connection Wi-Fi, NFC Wi-Fi, NFC
Flash No No
Wireless flash No No
Battery life (CIPA rating) 400 shots
290 shots (viewfinder); 340 shots (LCD)
Size (WHD) 5.8 x 4.1 x 1.5 in
147 x 104 x 39 mm
4.7 x 2.7 x 1.5 in
127 x 96 x 60 mm
Body operating weight 35.5 oz
892 g
22.5 oz
638 g
Mfr. price (body only) $7,450
Release date November 2015 August 2015

Leica SL (Typ 601)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 9Performance 8Image quality 8
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