Leica CL Mirrorless Digital Camera Review

Leica CL Mirrorless Digital Camera Review

2200 1238 James Tocchio

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.

Practical Ergonomics

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.

More Tech

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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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • Nice!

    I actually think the CL will take sales away from the M10, as it still is a 24mp camera (even though APS-C), it is much cheaper, it is smaller, it is AF AND it can use Leica M glass. I tested one a few times and loved it, but ultimately paid a couple o bux more and bought a D850 as I needed that for my work (basically scanning film). And also because I already had a digi M.
    I found that the DNG (RAW) files produce much better results than the jpegs. And also that my 7Artisans 50 1.1 didn’t work on it as the back sticks out too far and fouls the inside of the camera! No issues with other lenses.
    I posted a very brief jpeg vs DNG comparison here:



    p.s. if you think the EVF is the best in the CL, you need to try out the SL. Any Leica Store will let you use one – they actually will let you borrow it for the weekend if u book ahead! The EVF in the SL is unreal.

    • Thanks, this is very important info HUSS.
      I got my CL today but did not had time to try the 7Artisans lens.
      So I was already expecting that it will not work, as it also does not work with the SL. I have decided to keep the 7a for my beloved M8.2, and use only TL and SL lenses on my CL/SL. Time will learn if one of the two has to leave the house 🙂

  • Bought this camera on the day it was introduced and I love it. I already had a beaten up version of a the Leica T and was frustrated at the lack of a built in eye level viewfinder, I never bought the accessory version, though I did have one of those for my now sold Leica MP type 240 and I was not impressed with that one.

    Everything that you say about this camera James, I would agree with, the 18-56 zoom lens that I bought attached to the T, does feel plasticky, but is in fact a stunning lens… About a week before the CL came out, I sourced a s/h 11-23 for it and that feels better in the hand and is also a fantastic lens. I have ended up though, more or less permanently mounting this lens on the T camera and the 18-56 on the CL, I find that using the T as a vertical TLR camera works very well with this superb wide angle zoom, giving the “bigger picture”. Correspondingly (so far) the CL is really well suited to the kit zoom, I have yet to try any of their primes.

    On the same day that I bought the CL, I also bought the M to L lens adapter and I used my now limited M lens collection on the CL in Rome over Christmas, it turns the 35 Summicron into a nice nifty fifty, and the 50 Summicron into a neat 75mm portrait lens, both to good effect. I have sold my 35 Cron, and bought a couple of ancient Nikkor “S mount” 50’s, the F2 and the f1.4, both of which (I think) are nicer than the 50 Cron (and a lot less expensive), certainly in monochrome anyway… I am just about to try them on the CL, which is really the camera that I use for colour. I have just acquired a nice “S” to “M” mount adapter (works for Contax too).

    Overall, I far prefer the CL/T cameras from Leica, to their clunky MP type 240 (digital M), though I have heard good reports regarding the M10.

    I thought that my beaten up version of the Leica T was a really nice camera giving excellent results, but the CL is really the cherry on the top of a superb series from Leica, who must be regarded as being on top of their game, after a long time fiddling around with “limited editions”, which incidentally they haven’t given up on, however this camera enables one to ignore those little peccadillos.

    • Very well put, and some great insight. I agree with you that Leica seems to have dialed in on a winning formula after a bit of searching in the dark. The M10 is the right size, finally, and this new CL is the perfect combination of classic design and capability.

      And by the way, Josh would love to hear you’re shooting the old Nikkors!

  • I’m new to the Leica world, having just bought a M4-P. One of the things I really like about it is the thought that, as long as I take good care of it, my currently 9 year old son will be able to use it in 20 or 30 years time (assuming film is still available). As long as the camera is in working order it will shoot film in 2048 as well as it does now and as well as it did in 1982. To me, that has always been one f the ways in which Leica can justify their eye-watering prices. Now this CL may be great, but even if it can still take pictures in 2048 I have a hard time believing that a 2018 24MP sensor is in any way going to cut it by then. So a digital Leica, any digital Leica, loses an essential element of its ‘Leica-ness’ and just becomes an extraordinarily well-constructed, hugely expensive digital camera with the same built-in obsolescence as every single other digital camera.

    • I agree with you Tim. In addition to a pair of M4-P I bought when setting my business up in the 90s, I also have a Barnack Leica, a 1935 111. Works perfect although it’s older than me. Shoots modern glass too, no problem with the Voigtlander lenses. Loading is fiddly, never try to do it in a hurry – you-ll balls it up. Ms are much nicer to load. I hope you have as much pleasure with your M4-P as I do with my pair.

    • MV Lins-Barroso May 30, 2018 at 12:13 pm

      … the other way would be the Leica Camera AG in a Wetzlar’s cemetery near its closed facility.

    • Tim, you make an excellent point. I’m hanging onto a Leica M8. The Summicron glass still works great, but the M8 imaging is looking — well, while I was in love with it eight years ago, I’ve now got a bit of a roving eye! I never thought of it as being obsolete — but it is!

      The thing about the CL, though — I looked up some data on Digital Camera Database. If their numbers are correct, and my memory is as well — the M8 sensor pixels are something like three times the area of those in the CL (M8 fans — there is the occassional one — do comment on its amazing color). That’s three times the light-gathering power. The CL has the same kind of light gathering power as say a Nikon 5300 — which is not exactly state of the art!

      The Q, in contrast, is listed as having the same pixel size as the M10 (again, I don’t know where DCD gets their info). With the amazing 28mm lens, that translates into some serious photography. I just wonder whether putting serious Leica lenses on a CL is worth it?

      Fair disclosure, here: I am rather a rank amateur!

  • My backache is much better when travelling, now that I am no longer humping my SL, 24-90/2.8 and 18mm Super-Elmar-M on M adapter L plus a film Leica as a back up around with me, when travelling. The CL 18-56 and 11-23 do pretty much the same job. I have had not a single complaint from the editors on the travel articles with photos that I write since changing from the SL to the CL. I did have a problem with my CL on my last trip. I arrived at my destination, only to find the lens release had dropped out of the camera and its retaining screw had jammed the release, so I could not change lenses at all. When I was packing it up for return to Wetzlar, I also noticed some debris in the 18-56 lens, between the first and second groups, which should be sealed. I had an interesting discussion with Leica, as to whether I would accept a repaired camera and lens, having bought a new one. My history of Leica repairs of electronic items over the last 19 years, since I bought my first digital Leica, has been dire. Conversely, mechanical repairs on non-electronic lenses and mechanical film cameras have been fine. With the support of my dealer, Leica finally agreed to a total new replacement CL + 18-56 zoom kit. I am keeping the SL, for when I need its excellent weather and dust proofing.

  • Per Kristoffersson March 27, 2018 at 7:09 pm

    Just a note… You don’t need to do math for crop sensors unless you’re mixing different crops. You just learn what lens does what. But I suppose you need reasons not to buy this 😊

  • The nod to the Barnack cameras is cool (Why didn’t they call it a Leica IV instead!?) but that said The only digital Leica that’s ever pulled at my heart-strings is the Q -there’s no analog equivalent to it, it’s aggressively digital and bleeds confidence….but i can certainly see how this body can scratch an itch that an M-sized body doesnt; personally, I honestly enjoy shooting a Leica IIIf as much if not more than any film M I’ve shot, it’s such a lovely form-factor.

  • Thank you James for the review, I tend to just pay attention and take seriously, those cameras reviews by photographers and by those who have used them for some time, I appreciate your thoughts.
    Since I’m on the market for a new camera and I don’t have the chance to test this camera in person (no Leica dealer in this part of the world) let me ask you this, is it possible to easily set up a zone focus with the CL in order to shoot manual focus without waiting for the AF to catch up? What lens will you recommend? (I tend to use 35/50mm lenses in full frame) It’s it possible to use the 18-56 lens for that purpose? I’m asking because I’m working on a personal project about street parade and cultural events and the light in such events tend to be non existent or of terrible quality, at the point where AF it can be useless from a practical perspective.
    I will be very grateful for any comment (or Lens recommendation) about zone focus and hyper-focal distance with CL+Lens, Thank you!

    • The zoom lens is great, if you don’t need fast apertures. As for scale focusing, it’s possible but not very elegant when using the modern lenses. This system does display a sort of scale when used in manual focus mode, but this doesn’t provide a very defined distance scale. You can alternatively use an adapted manual focus lens with their built-in focus scales, but I’m not sure this is what you’d like to do. Hope this helps!

      • It helps a lot James! I have no problem mounting an M lens with distance scale if that’s what it takes 😉 . any recomendation? Thank you.

    • Try a Leica x113 Carlos. Quite superb.

      • Thank you Iain! I didn’t thought about the the typ 113. Did you use the x typ 113 in order to comment on the shutter delay on manual mode

  • What is the expected life spanof a CL?

  • I know what you mean about the battery door, James. From your photo, it looks the same as the one on my X Vario. It feels like it will fall off if I breathe on it too hard. So I’m VERY attentive when swapping batteries or memory card.
    I believe this door is used on a few other lower end models, as well. Maybe they ordered too many and are just trying to use them up. 🙂
    Love the camera output, though, so I can’t complain too much about the battery door.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio