Hands-on with Leica CL
‘What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.’
If you know your Bible (which I must admit I don’t – I had to look this phrase up to get the exact wording) you’ll know that this oft-quoted proverb comes from Ecclesiastes 1:9. In a year that saw the commercial release of new versions of the Summaron 28mm F5.6 and Thambar 90mm F2.2, it may appear that that Leica’s product planners have been a bit stuck on this passage of late.
With the release of the CL, a casual observer with a decently long memory might assume that the company’s retro obsession has struck again, but not so fast…
Hands-on with Leica CL
While it shares a name with one of Leica’s most popular and affordable cameras of the 1970s, the new CL is separated from its namesake by more than just years. It’s digital for starters, and shares a lot of its core specification with the 24MP TL2, while offering a more conventional handling experience and a built-in viewfinder, in a body similar in size to the X2 (or depending on your era and preferred frames of reference, the IIIG).
We’ve been using Leica’s newest mirrorless interchangeable lens camera for a little while now – click through for our first impressions and a deeper look at the CL’s feature set.
The T/L and TL2 are beautiful cameras, but their touchscreen-focused user interfaces take some getting used to, and to be completely honest I never got used to them. The CL offers a more conventional handling experience which after extended use, I’d describe as being a hybrid of the TL2 and the Leica M10.
The twin control dials on the top of the camera serve as the main controls for exposure adjustment, and each has a switch at its center, which enables the dial function to be modified. Whether or not you get on with these dials is probably down to personal preference, but I really wish that one of them was on the front of the camera, for operation with my index finger (rather than my thumb).
Top LCD screen
Nestled between the twin control dials is the tiniest LCD I’ve seen since the Ricoh GR1. At 128 x 58px it serves as a basic status display for current exposure settings, and it automatically illuminates in low light (very handy).
Another very welcome addition to the CL compared to the T-series is a built-in viewfinder. Adding an accessory finder to the TL/2 is entirely possible, and makes the cameras more versatile, but it also makes them a lot bulkier. Plus the black Visoflex finder isn’t a good aesthetic match for the brushed aluminum cameras, and Leica owners care about that sort of thing.
The CL’s viewfinder isn’t completely flush with the top of the camera, but the slight bump (rather reminiscent of the Olympus PEN-F) doesn’t add much bulk, and the high resolution (2.36MP) and good magnification (0.74X equiv.) provide a crisp, clear view. Eye-relief is a sunglasses-friendly 20mm and a poppable-lockable +/-4 diopter is on hand for wearers of prescription eyeglasses.
Rear touch screen
The CL’s 3″, 1.04 million-dot rear LCD is fixed, and touch-sensitive. Unlike the TL2 however, the CL’s conventional button and dial interface means that the touchscreen is by and large an optional, rather than integral part of the handling experience.
I say ‘by and large’ because I have had cause to curse the CL’s touchscreen on several occasions since I’ve been using the camera. In touch AF mode, the CL works as you’d expect it to. You hold the camera out in front of you and touch the screen, and the AF point is positioned at the spot you just touched. But if you then raise the camera to your eye, especially if you’re shooting vertically, it is more or less guaranteed that your nose will reposition the AF point to the very top of the image. This is the kind of operational quirk that I associate with earlier, more primitive touch implementations, and it is hugely annoying.
While it is easy to steer clear of touch-AF and touch-shutter modes through the AF mode menu settings, there is unfortunately no way to disable swipe gestures and image review scrolling and zooming touch features. More than a few times I have found myself accidentally ‘swiping’ (read: lightly brushing) the screen from the right which switches the CL into movie mode.
The trouble is that once you’re in movie standby mode: a) you might not actually realize at first, which is confusing and b), assuming you got there accidentally, it is far from obvious how to get back to normal stills mode. The first couple of times I encountered this issue (bear in mind that I didn’t have access to a user manual) I actually gave up and did a hard reset to factory settings just to get back to the business of taking pictures.
When I raised the issue with our contact at Leica, he informed me that a long touch followed by a swipe on the left of the screen switches back to stills mode. He also reminded me that the button in the center of the leftmost control dial can be used to switch between exposure modes (including movie).
This is all well and good, but I really wish it was possible to disable the swipe gestures altogether.
The CL’s sensor is a 24MP APS-C Bayer-type, without an AA filter. Leica claims 14 stops of dynamic range, which seems about right given the ~40MB Raw files (bearing in mind that we’re not allowed to lab test this early production sample). JPEG image quality is exactly what I’d expect after using the TL2, and compares well to competitive 24MP APS-C cameras.
Alongside Ricoh (and Samsung, RIP) Leica is one of the few companies to offer Raw shooting in the .DNG format, which is always good to see – and makes shooting pre-production sample galleries for DPReview much easier. Perhaps as an indication of its enthusiast/semi-pro pretensions, when you reset the CL to factory settings (which as previously noted I have done, more than once) it defaults to RAW + JPEG capture.
Disappointingly, but not surprisingly at this point, the CL offers neither in-camera stabilization nor automatic sensor cleaning. Since like many mirrorless cameras the CL’s sensor is fully exposed when the lens is removed from the camera, dust can (and in my experience does) get into your pictures unless you’re very careful.
Mechanical + E-shutter
The CL’s shutter is a hybrid mechanical/electronic type. It is fully mechanical to 1/8000sec, and fully electronic up to an equivalent shutter duration of 1/25,000sec. A full-time ‘silent’ E-shutter mode is also available, but interestingly, electronic first-curtain shutter is not an option. I haven’t seen any evidence of noticeable shutter-shock during my shooting so far, but we’ll be sure to test this in the lab once we receive a reviewable camera.
The CL’s maximum shooting rate is a respectable 10fps, with focus locked. Leica claims that this performance is thanks to the new shutter, in combination with the CL’s Maestro II image processor – the same generation processor (though not necessarily the same chip) that we’ve seen used in the TL2 and M10.
4K / 30p, 1080/60p
The CL is the second camera in the L-mount lineup (after the TL2) to offer 4K video capture, at 30p. Overall, despite the headline 4K mode the CL’s video feature set is pretty unremarkable. 4K/24p capture is not possible, and with no microphone socket, videographers are limited to in-camera microphones for audio recording. The microphones are visible in this image, just forward of the CL’s hotshoe.
The CL uses the same Panasonic-manufactured BP-DC12 battery as the Q, and offers an unremarkable CIPA rating of between 220-240 shots per charge. In normal use I’ve found that (unsurprisingly) this rating is conservative, but for people who regularly shoot a lot of video, I’d definitely recommending bringing a spare – especially if you’re planning on being away from a charger for a while.
Part of the reason I say this is that the CL does not feature a USB socket and as such, there’s no option for USB charging, which is a shame.
New 18mm pancake lens
The L-series lens lineup is still relatively small, but it grows slightly with the addition of the Elmarit 18mm F2.8 pancake prime – the lens that was mostly attached to the front of the CL during my time with the camera.
New 18mm pancake lens
The Japanese-manufacturered Elmarit is tiny at only 20.5mm (0.8in) in length and lightweight at only 80g (2.8oz), but makes up for its skinny dimensions with a big fat price-tag. The 18mm F2.8 will be available in black or silver, either on its own for $1295 or in a kit with the CL.
The Leica CL is also fully compatible with the M-Adapter L, which enables virtually any M-mount (and most L-mount, via an additional adapter) lenses to be used with a 1.5X crop. Modern M-mount lenses with 6-bit coding can be ‘read’ by the CL, allowing for in-camera profile corrections to be applied.
This is my battered old 5cm F1.5 Summarit, which becomes a battered old 7.5cm equiv., when mounted on the CL.
Final thoughts (for now)
On balance, the Leica CL is a nicely-designed camera that is pleasant to use. It’s not perfect, but compared to the T/L and TL2 that came before it, it’s more practical for everyday photography and easier to get to grips with. The built-in viewfinder is excellent, and I appreciate the more or less conventional button-and-dial interface, and the straightforward, M10-inspired menu. Less convincing is the touchscreen implementation. While the ability to set focus by touch in some AF modes, and scroll through / zoom into images in playback is really handy, the frequent problem of the AF point being repositioned by my nose, and the ‘always on’ swipe functionality did frustrate me.
Image quality from the CL’s 24MP sensor seems excellent, although I’m not wholly convinced by the 18mm lens. During my time with the CL I’ve used it almost exclusively with the new 18mm F2.8 pancake, and I can’t deny that it’s a pretty powerful combination – as well as being truly pocketable. Unfortunately, off-center sharpness isn’t as good as I would hope from a $1200+ prime, and the ~F4 aperture (in 35mm terms) limits its usefulness for low light photography, or anything where you might want a modicum of foreground/background separation.
That said, there are other, very good quality lenses in Leica’s T-mount lineup, and the CL will play very well with all of them, albeit at the expense of some pocketability.
What do you think of the new Leica CL? Let us know in the comments.