I’ve spent the past month shooting Leica’s newest mirrorless digital camera, and something very strange has happened. Leica’s CL has turned me into a real fan of Leica. Startling, I know, but it’s true; I love this camera. I love the way it looks, I love the way it handles, and I love the images it makes. I even love it enough to ignore its annoying faults and to justify its multi-thousand-dollar price tag.
What’s happening to me?
What is it?
Forget the classic rangefinder from the 1970s. This new CL is nothing like the old CL. This camera is thoroughly modern.
At its core is a 24.2 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor sitting just inside Leica’s new-fangled L mount. That sensor makes brilliantly detailed images through all of Leica’s crop-sensor TL lenses, as well as the brand’s full-frame SL glass. Leica’s even made adapters that allow us to shoot the CL with M mount lenses and (surprisingly) R mount glass as well. Does that make the CL the most versatile Leica camera? It might.
The rest of the spec sheet reads like a modern shooter’s wishlist. An amazingly large 2.36 million dot electronic viewfinder; a three-inch touchscreen LCD; UHD 4k30 and full HD 1080p60 video recording; ten frames-per-second burst shooting; ISO up to 50,000; a 49-point contrast-detect auto-focus system; shutter speeds from 30 seconds up to a maximum electronic shutter speed of 1/25,000 of a second; Wi-Fi.
There’s more, but I’m getting bored. This camera is a tech monster. If there’s something you want in a modern digital camera, the CL probably has it.
Design and Build
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for me, the CL is the best looking camera Leica’s made in a long time. With clean lines, exceptional materials selection, and enough industrial robustness to make it look like a real camera, it’s one of the prettiest digital cameras I’ve ever used. The top plate protuberances of its electronic viewfinder and hot shoe accentuate a design that might otherwise be a bit too streamlined (earlier TL mount Leicas look a bit too point-and-shooty for my taste).
The magnesium chassis, with its elegantly curved ends, is wrapped in black, fine-grain leather. Its black anodized top and bottom plates are made of aluminum, its dials are similarly themed and knurled with incredible precision, and its Leica logo is held to a thankfully restrained diameter (now if only it too were black).
Build quality is exactly what we’d expect from a red-dotted product in 2018. The CL is precise in a way that will impress even the snobbiest consumer. Friends of mine who’ve shot with nothing but their cell phones couldn’t keep their hands off the CL. Others who shoot classic film machines exclusively were even more grabby, and turned back to their AE-1s with unmasked longing for the returned CL. One of my pals, the owner of Leica’s newest digital M as well as a full stable of Leicas from the 1930s and ’50s, held it, fired it, and admitted it felt just as solid as any of his cameras.
Attention to detail is here in droves. Knobs, dials, and switches actuate with mechanical certainty, and buttons offer just the right amount of resistance before giving up the click. The CL’s viewfinder surround is made of a rubber that feels much more resilient compared with similar components on competitors’ cameras. Even its diopter adjustment knob is thoughtfully designed, requiring a pull before it’ll turn, and then turning with mechanical clicks reminiscent of a hand-wound wristwatch.
All of this precision and (I’ll admit it) silly enjoyment of mechanical sensations is ultimately let down by the camera’s battery door, which is flimsy, made of plastic, and locks with a lightweight lever that feels downright cheesy. If I didn’t know any better and you told me that this was the same battery door used on Leica’s plastic Sofort Instax camera, I’d believe you. It feels awful.
Could there be some brainy engineering reason for the battery door to be a flimsy piece of Ritz cracker? Possibly. Were I told that reason, would I accept this plastic door? Never. It is quite literally the only flaw on an otherwise perfect(ly built) camera.
The digital mirrorless segment is bursting with amazing cameras. Fuji has been crushing it for nearly a decade, and the Japanese brand long ago established what has become the formula for success in mirrorless; make the cameras compact, good-looking, capable, and most important of all, engaging to use. In the case of Fuji’s cameras, this last parameter is satisfied through what a lot of observers call “retro” controls reminiscent of film cameras (something we know a lot about here at CP).
Leica’s CL takes this design touchstone and carries it further. It offers dedicated and direct controls for adjusting all of the most important parameters that make a photo, sure, but it also introduces some incredible methodology that modernizes the concept.
Most of what I’m talking about is found within two dials on the top plate of the camera. These dials predictably control things like aperture and shutter speed. No big deal there. But where Leica has improved on the obvious can be found in the dynamic way that these controls can change their functionality, and more importantly, through the incorporation of a button within each dial.
For example – in aperture priority mode, the dial on the right controls aperture and the dial on the left controls exposure compensation. When we switch to shutter priority mode, the dial on the left changes its role to now control shutter speed while the dial on the right now controls exposure compensation. Switch to manual mode and the dials switch tasks again; the dial on the left controls shutter speed and the dial on the right controls aperture.
This system works great, but it’s nothing new. DSLRs and other cameras have been doing this for decades. Where the CL differs is in the fact that each dial contains an innocuous button that, when pressed, toggles its dial to adjust an additional parameter.
Press the button in the center of the left dial and we’re able to switch shooting modes. Press the dial in the center of the right button and we’re able to adjust basically anything we want. By default, this button changes ISO, but by long-pressing the button we bring up a menu that lets us choose the function of that button. This can be anything from the default ISO control (which is incredibly useful), to white balance control, exposure bracketing, self-timer… the list goes on. These customizable function buttons are, again, nothing new, but the way Leica’s implemented them here is certainly worthy of attention.
They’ve managed to create a control environment that is among the simplest in the digital mirrorless space while still providing the shooter with complete and total control.
Furthering this deceptive simplification, the back of the camera eschews the spattering of buttons and controls found on other cameras in the class. Its left side boasts three simple buttons, two of which you’ll rarely need. There’s a Play button for reviewing shots, a quick launch Function button to which we can set any of the previously mentioned controls, and a Menu button that launches our “favorites” with a single press. This allows us to have to hand the most often-used controls without requiring that we wade through thirty-five menus we might never use. Pressing the Menu button again launches us into the traditional full menu, where we can control every aspect of the camera.
The right side of the camera has the traditional directional pad and center button, used for all kinds of things that everyone already knows about.
All of this adds up to a simple truth that the CL’s controls are more streamlined and intuitive than any other digital camera I’ve used. It’s a camera that, if it’s not immediately perfect for you when you pull it out of the box, three minutes of personalizing a few buttons will make it so. Whether you prefer full manual, aperture or shutter priority, program mode, and any combination of the four, the CL will feel like the right camera for you. And if you’ve spent any amount of time shooting digital cameras you’ll understand how rare this can be.
In between those rear controls is a fairly massive LCD screen (3″) for live view, playback, and data display. With is 1.04 million dots, it’s a glorious screen, however, there’s a big annoyance. I love tilty LCD screens, and the CL’s screen is stubbornly un-tilty. Leica’s decision to firmly fix their LCD display could be one motivated by price point, or it could be motivated by aesthetics or technical constraints. I don’t know. But whatever the reason, the CL lacking a tilting LCD is a kick in the knees. It’s also a pain on the knees, since it forces me to get on all fours whenever I want to take a shot from ground-level, and forces me to guess when shooting from the hip.
Luckily, this qualm is almost entirely salved by the camera’s electronic viewfinder. No joke – this is the best EVF I’ve ever used (I suspect Sony’s A9 is better, but I’ve not yet peered through it). While it does show minor lag in the darkest of situations, the CL’s EVF is massive and bright, and more importantly, it displays the necessary information in a way that’s both incredibly data dense while being somehow entirely inconspicuous. Any and all information you could need to know is displayed, but it’s shown outside of the actual image area. Furthermore, with a single button press it’s possible to eliminate everything that isn’t aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and exposure compensation.
This EVF thoughtfulness reiterates Leica’s desire to create a true photographer’s camera. The CL has everything a serious photographer could want, and more importantly, it omits the things that most of us don’t care about.
There’s an LCD display on the top plate of the camera, centered between the two control dials. This shows shooting mode and the set aperture and shutter speed. In certain modes it will also display exposure compensation. In low-light conditions this LCD display glows in a nicely muted way. Again pointing to the philosophy of everything you need, where and when you need it.
Autofocus is fast and responsive in any of its many modes. Coupled with the rather insane burst rate of ten frames per second, the CL is surprisingly capable at capturing action. In testing, I set everything to auto and engaged in some spray and pray. It tracked seagulls and my dog, things other cameras have often failed to do.
Images and Optics
As mentioned, the CL pairs with effectively every Leica lens ever made. M mount, R mount, TL, SL; you name it, the CL can wear it. Naturally this results in a whole slew of differing image characteristics.
Its native lens set currently consists of four primes and three zooms. Plenty has been written about these TL lenses. Some are amazing, some are good; some feel like incredible metal icons, and others more like plastic, hollow toys. Kit lenses for the CL are the Elmarit-TL 18mm or the Vario-Elmar-TL 18-56mm Aspherical. We’ll have in-depth lens reviews in the coming months. For now, buy the prime if you value compactness and low-light performance; buy the zoom if you value build quality and versatility.
Raw files are as adjustable as any. JPEGs show increased contrast and a tendency to lose details in highlights and shadows. These JPEGs straight out of the camera aren’t as dialed in as Fuji’s, especially when we compare film simulations with Leica’s virtually non-existent attempt. I just wouldn’t bother with JPEGs. Shoot Raw (DNG) and play with post-processing. That’s why you’re shooting a digital camera. If you want beautiful photos straight out of camera, shoot film.
Colors are closer to natural than those produced by Fuji’s mirrorless cameras, which can be a bit saturated. Even the CL’s “Vivid” shooting mode is pretty reserved. Auto white balance tends to land on the cooler side, but if this isn’t to taste a simple slider adjustment in post-processing will warm things up nicely.
High ISO performance is admirable. The CL employs less noise reduction than other cameras I’ve used, the result being that we may get more color noise in dark areas but we’re able to retain greater detail than with some other machines. Low-light performance isn’t on the level of some of Sony’s cameras, especially those optimized specifically for low-light shooting, but given that I rarely have a need to shoot above ISO 6,400, the CL has not let me down.
The Consumer Advice Part (i.e., the wet blanket)
At a body-only price of $2,795 and lens-kitted prices between $3,795 and $3,995, the CL will be a hard sell for a lot of people. I’ve used it for a month, absolutely love it, and I’m still struggling over whether I’m really going to spend that kind of money on a camera with a crop-sensor. Sony’s A7RIII body (a full-frame monster with approximately double the resolution and better high-ISO performance) costs just a few hundred dollars more than this tiny Leica. And with a thirty dollar adapter, we could shoot any M mount Leica lens on that machine just as easily as we can on the CL (more easily, in fact, since we won’t have to do crop math).
There’s no denying it – I can buy a better camera at a lower price, and that camera will make the same or better images than this CL will. But I can’t think of another digital camera that I want to own more than I want to own the CL. It fits my style of photography and possesses all the things that I really love in a camera.
The Leica CL is a compact machine, uncommonly gorgeous, incredibly well-built, capable of making great images, and most important of all, it’s one of the most intuitive digital cameras I’ve ever used. It’s also the first digital camera in more than a decade that has gotten me truly excited about shooting a digital camera. That has to count for something.
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