The Leica CL gives you that good, old Leica sensation, at less than half the price. Which does not mean it is cheap, though.
[toc] I have just had a two-week long affair with the Leica CL. As in the past, I had a sense there is definitely something special about cameras made by Leica. It is hard to define and difficult to describe. You may call it opining. However, the Leica sensation feels very real.
I have to admit I got very fond of the camera during those two weeks.
It’s not for everybody
However, let’s make it clear the Leica CL is not a camera for everybody.
The price excludes a lot of potential buyers, of course. Even if the Leica CL is “cheap” compared to the price of the Leica M10 body, which has a price tag two and a half times higher, the Leica CL is still an expensive camera at NOK 25,995 (US price $2,795 at B&H, late January 2018).
Furthermore, you need a lens in addition the camera body. The least expensive kit costs NOK 36,995 (US price $3,795). This is the so called “pancake lens” with a focal length of 18mm, which is equivalent to 27mm in the 35mm-format. If you would rather prefer an all-round zoom lens, the price is NOK 38,695 (US price $3,995) – that’s with the zoom lens of 18-56mm which I had available during my testing of the camera, equivalent to 27-84mm.
No image stabilization
In addition, the camera has a couple of peculiarities which will raise some eyebrows, such as the fact that the camera does not offer any kind of image stabilization.
During my testing of the camera, I had to realize I had made a few bad habits over the years, especially concerning long handheld exposure. The optical and digital vibration control of today’s modern cameras give you a lot more leeway than you had before when taking pictures in low light. Adding to my troubles, I had the Leica CL available during the darkest weeks of the year here up north – I’m a Norwegian – and very few of my images were captured in bright daylight. It was semi dark or very dark outside and just artificial light indoors almost all-day long. I had an embarrassingly high share of pictures ruined by the fact that my hands were not stable enough for those long exposure settings I had become used to aided by image stabilization.
Furthermore, I would have liked to have an articulate LCD monitor available. Maybe not a big deal, and I am sure many don’t care. But for video and macro photography it is nice to be able to flip out the screen.
Also missing is a button or a menu command to shake away dust from the image sensor. Lots of cameras have that function today, except for a few, including the Leica CL.
For whom has it been designed?
On my web site, Kamerablogg.no/com, I have already described the Leica CL concept in detail, including its historical roots. Feel free to take a look at my November article on the issue (Norwegian only):
Here is a brief summary: Today’s Leica CL is aimed at camera enthusiasts and prosumers, not at professional photographers, although I am certain a number of pros will buy it for an extra camera, which was probably the case with the 1973 version of the Leica CL, too.
In other words, it serves as a less expensive introduction to the world of Leica than the flagship camera Leica M10 and others in the same category, while at the same time being closer to the Leica M class than consumer models such as the Leica D-Lux at approximately NOK 10,000 (US price $1,095).
A modern Leica camera
The new Leica CL shows that the manufacturer obviously wants to give the enthusiasts a chance to use a camera which feels almost as a classic Leica rangefinder camera, however in a modern and compact setting with auto focusing and zoom.
As we all know, the classic Leica M rangefinder cameras don’t have auto focusing, but rather an advanced manual focusing system which makes you focus very fast and accurately. However, it takes some time to learn the system if you are used to autofocus systems.
Many of the potential buyers of the Leica CL are probably experienced users of modern mirrorless cameras, of mirror reflex cameras, or even of compact cameras. They will likely feel more at home with a camera system somewhat similar to what they are used to. This is where the Leica CL comes to the rescue.
The Leica CL is a modern mirrorless system camera, with an electronic viewer, exchangeable lenses of the Leica TL class, aimed to be used mainly with autofocus and modern camera handling combining buttons, wheels, and a screen-based menu system.
The Leica CL is rather minimalistic, in a true Leica fashion. Leica has included only three buttons on the rear side, one button labeled Menu to pick up menu choices from the LCD screen, one button labeled Play to show the pictures on the SD card, and one button labeled FN, of which the user may define the function. The default function is controlling the white balance.
The buttons are located to the left of the LCD monitor. On the right-hand side you will find a multi choice button that you can use to navigate the menu system. There is nothing else there, in an area of the rear of the camera where most digital cameras have lots of buttons.
The multi choice button can also be used to move the focus point. Its position is perfect for the task, as this is something you want to do while keeping your eye towards the viewfinder.
Additionally, there are two wheels on the top of the camera body with a button in the top center of each wheel. The wheels have different function depending on the camera mode. However, the main purpose is to change aperture and shutter settings, with additional functions such as changing the exposure and ISO setting after you have pressed the button on the top of the wheel. The users may replace the default functions with a choice of their own.
The shutter button is located in front of the wheels, integrated with the on/off switch.
That is all, except for a button on the front of the camera body to release the lens.
Leica has nurtured the minimalistic approach into most of the design elements of the Leica CL, including the menu system, which is so clean and tidy compared to what you find in many of today’s system cameras, particularly in advanced cameras.
When you activate the menu system, only a preliminary user-defined shortcut menu appears, showing just the menu choices the user deems important. You often get your work done by just choosing among the menu choices already on the screen. One more touch, and you are taken into the full menu system, divided in several pages, with lots of choices, but still tidy and well-presented.
What I miss the most since I returned the review sample to the Norwegian distributor, Bresson AS in Oslo, was the user-friendly menu system.
A separate Leica family
The Leica CL belongs to a family of Leica cameras using the so-called L lens mount. You will find that lens mount on the Leica TL cameras too. That is a Leica branch which was introduced in 2014 with the Leica T. The current third generation goes by the name Leica TL2.
Whereas the Leicas T/TL/TL2 have a futuristic design, the new Leica CL is more of a retro camera. However, technically they are nearly identical, with the same lens mount, and – as far as the TL2 and CL goes – with the same 24-megapixel resolution and probably the same CMOS image sensor.
All of those cameras are APS-C type cameras with an image sensor size of 23,6 x 15,7mm. They use the same lens mount as the Leica SL, which is a full frame camera with its own family of lenses.
The TL lens family, built for the APS-C format, currently consists of a total of 10 lenses, of which three are silver colored versions of lenses also available in black. In reality, you have a choice of seven different lenses.
In addition, the Leica CL and TL cameras can also use optics designed for the SL camera, which is a larger and more expensive fullformat camera. This lens series consists of five prime lenses – 35, 50, 75, and 90mm. I said five, because there are two version of the 50mm lens, with a lens speed of f/2 and f/1.4 respectably. Furthermore, there are three zoom lenses with a focal length of 16-35mm, 24-90mm, and 90-280mm.
The focal length of those lenses has to be multiplied by 1.5x for use on a Leica TL or CL camera. The same goes for the TL lenses. However, the TL lenses are designed with the APS-C format in mind.
When a TL lens is placed on an SL fullformat camera, the SL camera automatically switches to the APS-C format, as APS-C-based lenses do not draw a full image circle on a fullformat image sensor.
The SL lenses, however, are rather expensive. For example, the price tag on the 90-280mm zoom lens is more than NOK 60,000 (US price $6,395).
The TL lenses have a much more moderate price tag. The pancake lens Leica T 18/2.8 Elmarit ASPH costs approximately NOK 12,500 (US price $1,295), whereas the zoom lens Leica T 18-56/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar ASPH, which was the main lens for my review, costs a little over NOK 15,000 (US price $1,650) purchased separately. You get a substantial discount when purchasing one of those lenses as a part of a Leica CL kit.
“The Leica M Mini”
However, Leica has a lot more to offer. With an adapter you can mount most Leica lenses on the Leica CL, including Leica M and Leica R lenses.
My review package included a fast Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 lens, with a price tag of NOK 47,000 (US price $4,995). This is a classic Leica lens made for a classic Leica M rangefinder camera. In other words, it does not have any modern facilities such as autofocus or optical image stabilization. Adjustments are made with an aperture ring of the good ol’ days on the lens barrel instead of a wheel on the camera body, which is what today’s digital photographers are used to.
This is as close as you can get to the experience of photographing with a rangefinder Leica while using a modern mirrorless camera like the Leica CL. Initially, I was somewhat reluctant to the idea of focusing manually without the rangefinder focusing tools built into the Leica M cameras. My reluctance was blown away immediately when I tried it. The electronic viewfinder of the Leica CL has excellent tools such as “focus peaking” to be used to aid manual focusing, for example showing in a bright red color the contour of elements in focus.
The solution gave me tack sharp images, and it was a great experience. It gave me a sense of photographing with a real Leica M camera – although I have to admit I have a somewhat limited experience of shooting with Leica M cameras. The last Leica M camera I used extensively, was the Leica M9, which I had available for a thorough review in the Norwegian edition of PC World way back in 2010. Later, I have had the chance of reviewing cameras such as the Leica Q, the Leica T, the Leica X2, and the small Leica D-Lux. All of those cameras give the user a touch of the Leica sensation, but not to the same extent as a Leica M camera. The Summilux M lens almost turned the Leica CL into a Leica M Mini, although there is no such thing, of course.
I took most of my pictures during the review period with the 18-56mm zoom lens. As I said before, this is one of the kit lenses. Its full name is Leica Vario-Elmar-T 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH. I decided to use it most of the time because this is probably the lens most buyers will choose, although some will choose the 18mm pancake lens instead. Best testing the system as the buyers will have it, I thought.
Manufactured in Germany
Leica is using the presumption of German manufacturing as a guarantee of high quality for all it’s worth. The former Leica CL generation of the 1970s was manufactured by Minolta in Japan. Leica today puts a lot of emphasis on the message that the new Leica CL is manufactured in Germany. By Leica.
Some Leica components are manufactured elsewhere. Panasonic is licensed to manufacture a number of Leica-labeled lenses in Japan, and the Chinese mobile phone manufacturer Huawei has been allowed to use the Leica logo on some of its mobile phones. Furthermore, Leica have built production plants in Portugal.
However, “genuine” Leica products – cameras and lenses – are preferably made in Germany, and that is where the Leica CL is built too.
The core element of the Leica CL is its image sensor of 24,2 million pixels, the same as in the Leica TL2, and the image processor Maestro 2. The processor was originally built for the professional-level Leica SL camera. It is very fast and offers an extremely efficient image noise reduction facility, among other things.
The processor can handle a light sensitivity range of ISO 100 to ISO 50,000. The JPEG images are almost as noise-free at ISO 800 as they are at ISO 100. I would not hesitate taking Leica CL pictures at ISO 1,600 or ISO 3,200, for that matter, although somewhat dependent on the purpose, of course. You may take pictures at even higher ISO values, but then you will have to accept a certain level of image noise.
The camera system is good at burst shooting, too. 10 images per second is not what you may expect of a Leica camera, which is probably thought of first of all as a camera for slow and deliberate photographing where the main elements are composition, perspective, and select focusing. However, the tiny little Leica CL behaves almost like a sports photographers’ camera. The memory buffer can hold up to 33 images at a time in a combined Raw-format DNG/JPEG shooting session, and up to 140 images if you shoot JPEG only, pending SD card capacity.
The shutter speeds available are from 30 seconds to 1/8,000 of a second using the electro-magnetic shutter, with a subdued click sound. If you want to go completely silent, you can switch to the purely electronic shutter, which will handle shutter speeds down to 1/25,000 of a second.
I did not do much video when reviewing the Leica CL. Leica cameras are first of all a photographer’s tool, not so much thought of as a camcorder. The flagship camera Leica M10 cannot do video at all.
However, the Leica CL is a very good video camera, at least to some extent. It can handle full 4K video with a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels at up to 30 frames per second.
Pointing your fingertip at the touch sensitive LCD screen, you can move the focus point during video recording. You may also change the exposure during recording, to some extent.
That is all, however. You cannot change aperture, shutter speed, or ISO settings. The camera does not have external facilities such as ports for head phones or a microphone.
Therefore, the Leica CL is not the best choice for people who want to record a lot of video with professional control of the recording sessions.
On the other hand, it suits me well. Although I mainly take still images, I often present them as slide shows, and those slide shows are preferably produced using a video editing app on my Mac or PC. I make lots of short videos with some Ken Burns effects and other transitional effects between the pictures, and it is a perfect solution to add some video clips in between those still images. I can easily do that with a Leica CL.
A Leica CL buyer will be missing more than just the ports for a microphone and head phones. The Leica minimalism has no room for USB contacts, HDMI plugs, or connectivity for remote control.
However, some of those functions have a wireless alternative. The camera comes with built-in WiFi communication, and you can control the camera remotely and transfer pictures to your mobile phone by using the free Leica app, which works fine on the Android platform as well as the iOS platform.
Many camera manufacturers still have problems supplying their cameras with Bluetooh and WiFi communication which is easy to set up. You often find yourself lost in a lot of trial and error situations. Praise to Leica for implementing this in a well-functioning manner on the Leica CL.
As I mentioned before, the Leica CL has no image stabilizer, neither in the lenses nor in the camera body. There is some relief, though, as the camera instead has an efficient Auto ISO function which can be set up to prevent long shutter speeds that may cause blurry images. However, only to a certain level, of course. The system may include the focal length in its calculation of the slowest shutter speed allowed.
When walking around with a Leica CL, you feel convinced you are carrying a solid camera. Which is just what it is. The top and bottom plates are anodized aluminum, which means the metal has extra corrosion protection. The front and back of the camera body are magnesium, a light metal weighing about two thirds of a similar piece of aluminum.
The magnesium parts are covered in a textured surface which feels like leather. You have a fairly good grip of the camera, in spite of the fact that the front of the body is rather flat. However, Leica will be happy to sell you the Leica Handgrip CL (NOK 1,390, US price $150), which is fastened to the camera body via the bottom plate. It comes with an extra handgrip that is supposed to make it easy to handle the camera with one hand. I did not try the handgrip.
The LCD screen on the rear side is, as already mentioned, touch sensitive, and you may set the focus point with your finger while taking pictures in Live View mode, composing the picture on the screen instead of the electronic viewfinder. When pointing to a point on the screen, the focusing is moved to that point, and the picture is shot immediately.
I was missing a slightly more advanced function which I experienced when reviewing the Canon EOS M5. With that camera, you can keep your eye at the viewfinder and simultaneously move your thumb across the LCD monitor or a predefined portion of the monitor in order to move the focusing point with no picture taken at the moment you touch the screen. In order to take the picture, you have to use the shutter button. This is a solution which gives the photographer more control of the capturing process.
Apart from that, the touch sensitive LCD monitor of the Leica CL is perfect. It has some functionality similar to smart phones, such as swiping through the collection of pictures on the SD card and pinch-to-zoom movements and so forth.
A high-quality electronic viewfinder
As opposed to the Leica TL and its predecessors, the Leica CL has a built-in electronic viewfinder. If you want to use an electronic viewfinder on Leica T/TL/TL2, you can buy one to place in the flash shoe, which will ruin the elegant design of the Leica TL cameras.
On the CL camera, the electronic viewfinder is built-in, all the way to the left near the top of the camera body seen from behind. It does not extend high above the top of the camera body and looks very nicely integrated. Therefore, the viewfinder is a much more integrated part of the camera than the external viewfinder on the TL cameras.
The viewfinder on the Leica CL has an excellent location, at least for those of us who prefer to hold the right eye to the viewfinder. You will never risk that the tip of your nose hits the LCD screen. Unfortunately, that cannot be avoided if you prefer to use the left eye to see through the viewfinder.
One of the reasons I never get very fond of the smallest consumer-class mirror reflex cameras made by Nikon and Canon is that the optical mirror reflex viewfinders on those cameras are so small, much smaller than on the semiprofessional and professional cameras from those same manufacturers. The electronic viewfinder on the Leica CL is so much better, even if it may be a bit unfair to compare optical and electronic viewfinders. The scale of enlargement is 0.74x, which is more than it is on many mirror reflex viewfinders, and the resolution is high, 2.36 megapixels.
It’s still a long way to the 4.4 megapixels of the electronic viewfinder on the Leica SL, but that does not matter. The viewfinder image is large and bright, and it gives the photographer a feeling of having a perfect control, including control of the colors.
You get some extra information by using the multi choice button on the rear of the camera, with a flashing part of the image warning you of over exposure, and a live histogram showing the exposure level. Additionally, you have access to a digital level – nice to have if you want the horizon to be pictured in the correct angle. Pushing the button one more time brings the viewfinder image back to basic.
I am convinced this is the best electronic viewfinder I have tried so far.
It is supported by a high-quality LCD screen with a good image quality, but as I mentioned before, I would have preferred an articulate screen which can be turned into other positions.
The viewfinder is not totally perfect, though. It is not capable to follow you into high-speed burst shots. Leica is lagging behind competitors like Sony at this point. Leica CL is showing a slide show, sort of, of the shots you have just taken, making it difficult to follow fast-moving objects through the viewfinder.
In my review story on the Leica T way back in 2014, I was not very happy about the slow autofocus. I felt the camera was not responsive at all. Leica has made a giant leap forward with the Leica CL as far as both the electronic viewfinder and the autofocus system are concerned.
Initially, I was somewhat skeptical, because Leica had chosen to build a contrast-based autofocusing system only. Many competitors now include a number of phase detecting focus sensors to speed up the autofocus system.
However, I have to admit only a handful of the pictures I took with the Leica CL were out of focus, in spite of the fact that I had the camera available in the darkest part of the winter season. Leica has obviously improved its autofocusing technology. Even most of my low-light indoors images were sharp.
You can set up the camera to use all of the 49 autofocus points in the system. However, the camera also gives you the option of focus tracking and autofocus based on face detection, in addition to placing a focus field or a focus point wherever you want.
For manual focusing, you can get assistance by enlarging a part of the picture or by so-called focus peaking, where color patterns help you to find out which parts of the image is in focus.
In conclusion, I will say that the focusing and autofocusing system and opportunities that the Leica CL is offering, is very much up-to-date.
Raw assistance from Adobe
As on previous camera models, Leica has decided to use the DNG format by Adobe as their preferred Raw format. Many years ago, Adobe declared the DNG format an open standard which everybody is free to use. So far, however, most camera manufacturers have chosen to develop their own versions of the Raw format.
The result is that every time a new camera or an updated version of a camera is launched, it takes some time before that particular Raw version is supported by the software vendors, such as Adobe, and operating system vendors, such as Microsoft and Apple.
Leica, on the other hand, is never causing any such delay, because they have decided to use the DNG standard. I had no problems letting my Macs and my Windows-PCs take care of the Raw/DNG files of the Leica CL. During my years as a camera reviewer, I have received a lot of test samples shortly after the cameras were launched. Often, I had to use the camera manufacturer’s proprietary software to handle the files because general software such as Adobe Photoshop was not yet able to support the new camera’s Raw format.
In general, I will describe the Leica CL color handling as nice and pleasant. In the standard setting the colors are not as sparkling as some of the competitors of Japanese heritage, but they still have the typical Leica flavor, particularly in the red colors. The menu system gives you the option of stronger colors, but I have found that I prefer Leica’s standard setup, making small adjustments in the post processing of the pictures
Conclusion: The camera of your dreams?
It is not easy to come up with a sensible conclusion after having tried a camera such as the Leica CL. Mentioning all the wonderful technical aspects of the camera as if this is a camera everybody should buy, you end up sounding like a snob, because you know that the price level excludes lots of potential buyers.
On the other hand, it is unfair to Leica not to share information on the company’s impressive development of camera technology and lenses just because only a handful of the readers can afford to buy a Leica.
Initially, I asked if Leica CL is the camera of your dreams. I guess the answer is yes, in two ways.
If you are seriously interested in photography in such a way that the process of taking the pictures maybe is just as important to you as the pictures you get out of it, this is probably one of the best cameras in the market right now. If you are dreaming about the ultimate mirrorless system camera, this is the camera of your dreams.
On the other side, the camera has a price tag so high that to many of us, this is such an expensive camera that we carn never afford to buy it. All we can do is dream about it.
So yes, it is the camera of your dreams, in several ways.
Anyhow, let us agree that the Leica CL is a very good camera in the class of relatively compact mirrorless system cameras. It is a fast camera in all manners, including start-up, autofocusing, and high-speed burst photography.
In addition, it is a portal into a world of extremely good lenses. The camera can use almost all lenses with a “Leica” logo. Furthermore, it can use lenses from many other manufacturers offering Leica adapters. You can even buy inexpensive second-hand lenses at Ebay and elsewhere, building an excellent camera system for yourself.
In spite of the red logo, the Leica CL is not a camera for the snobs. This is a pure photography tool for those who want to focus on the photographing process instead of walking around with something that feels more like a computer.
Leica CL is offering just those functions that an experienced photographer and camera enthusiast is looking for, without adding a lot of impressive but unnecessary stash that tend to disturb the process of taking good pictures. There is no risk of you messing about in a thick layer of menu items which is offering you a lot of functions and choices that you do not need nor understand.
Leica CL is a camera built to take the good pictures, and then you go on in your life.
|Brutto oppløsning||24,96 megapiksler|
|Netto oppløsning||24,24 megapiksler (JPEG: 24 megapiksler)|
|Bildeoppløsning||6.032 x 4.032 piksler (JPEG: 6.000x4.000 piksler)|
|Brikkestørrelse||APS-C 23,6 x 15,7 mm|
|Lysfølsomhet||ISO 100-ISO 50.000|
|Objektivfatning||Leica L-bajonett for Leica TL- og SL-objektiver, Leica M/R-objektiver med adapter|
|Søkertype||Elektronisk, 1024 x 768 piksler, 2,36 megapiksler|
|Lukkertider||30 sek.-1/8.000 sek. (mekanisk), 30 sek.-1/25.000 (elektronisk)|
|Serieopptak||Inntil 10 bps, inntil 33 bilder (DNG+JPG), inntil 140 bilder (JPG)|
|Videoformater||MPEG-4, 4K (3.840x2.160p, 30 bps), FHD (1.920x1.080p, 60 bps og 30 bps), HD (1.280x720 p, 30 bps)|
|Batteritid CIPA||Ca. 220|
|Vekt inkl. batt.||403 g|
|Størrelse||131 x 78 x 45 mm|