When I bring the Leicaflex SL up to my eye and look through its viewfinder, I get the same feeling of immersion and spaciousness as when riding in the early 1980s Cadillac Coupe DeVille that belonged to one of my buddies back in high school. We endearingly referred to that car as ‘The Boat.’ True to form, it was always the biggest car in the parking lot and drove like a couch on wheels. The SL may have been produced earlier, from 1968-1974, but it shares the excesses (and weight) of a 1980s gas-guzzling luxury sedan. Portability and compactness were not a consideration in its design.
I don’t have much insight into the development of the original Leicaflex (which predated the second-generation Leicaflex SL reviewed here), but it’s safe to say that the engineers (and not the accountants) were in charge. The result is pure Leica; a solidly built camera that does a few things perfectly and without compromise, rather than one which tries to be a camera that does everything for everyone. Though the result is a pure photographer’s camera, the tact was misguided from a business perspective.
Leica’s entry into the SLR market was a decision borne of financial necessity. The rangefinder-oriented brand was facing an existential threat from the SLR camera, and Leica’s market share amongst photo-takers was being eaten up. Even up until the late 1960s the company was still banking on rangefinders, despite photographers moving increasingly toward SLR cameras offered by Japanese competitors Nikon and Canon. The Leicaflex failed to convert Leica’s rangefinder users to the SLR, and it failed to convert users of Japanese SLRs to the much more expensive Leica camera. Leica had simply misread the market.
In another tangentially-related tragic misreading of the market, Leica spent twenty years patenting the first contrast-detect autofocus system, but didn’t see the value in it, selling the patent to Minolta, who developed it further for use in the Maxxum 7000 in 1985. That camera is now credited with ushering in the age of autofocus SLRs. It would seem that after all that R&D, including the development of a working prototype based on the Leicaflex SL2, called the Correfot, Leica concluded that autofocus was not as precise as manual focusing, and that was that (for them). Forget that people might want it (which they did!). The company continued their dedication to manual focus with the Leica R series of SLRs that they produced in collaboration with Minolta, and right to the end of the line with the Leica produced R8 and R9, which ceased production in 2009.
But all of that is Leica history. And thankfully today, none of it has any bearing on whether or not the Leicaflex SL is a nice camera to own and shoot. Let’s get to that.
The Leicaflex SL is a beautiful camera, in my eyes. It has an industrial minimalist aesthetic, typical for its day, with just three elements of aluminum, black plastic, and bright nickel accents. The plastic is unfortunately slippery and feels quite cheap, especially on this camera, but it has maintained its sheen over the decades. The gently sloping camera back, resembling hunched shoulders, are a unique hallmark of the design that is echoed in the R8 and R9 cameras several generations later.
The shutter sound is a silky, but deeply resonant ‘chink’ that sounds, in my imaginings, like a Hattori Hanzo sword reducing the samurai sword of one of the Crazy 88 to a stump. It is a perfectly dampened mirror clap, followed by a satisfying overtone that rings like that Hattori Hanzo freshly unsheathed. Take that, Japanese SLRs! When I walk by the Leicaflex on the shelf, I sometimes pick it up and fire off a few frames just to hear it sing. It’s one of my favourite all-time shutter sounds.
If you’re looking for a durable vintage manual SLR that does only the essentials, but does them well, the SL may fit the bill; it is a robust, but minimally appointed, fully manual SLR with a wide-open aperture, center-weighted through the lens (TTL) light meter, a top shutter speed of 1/2000, and a big, bright viewfinder. Although it is similar, the original Leicaflex is largely passed over due to its external light meter’s small focusing zone, but that shouldn’t deter you. In fact, I think I might prefer that setup to the SL’s TTL meter, as I find it a bit tedious to use.
The viewfinder of all Leicaflex cameras are known for being big and bright, and the same is true for the Leicaflex SL. The camera’s viewfinder is the best part of the whole experience of shooting it. That said, when comparing it directly with the viewfinders of the Canon AE-1 or the Nikon F-801s (to pick two examples at hand), it’s hard to say that the Leicaflex SL viewfinder is any larger or brighter. What I can say is that it feels more immersive than the Canon, and on par with the Nikon, which is a similar sized camera with a much larger prism housing.
This camera is auto-nothing, so shooting can be quite demanding, especially on new photographers. The Leicaflex SL uses ‘full aperture’, strictly center-weighted metering. The exposure needle swings to life whenever the film advance lever is pulled out from the camera. It’s a needle match system, with the motion of the arm tied to shutter speed while the exposure needle dances up and down with the light level coming through the lens (at aperture). Counterintuitively, the exposure needle travels down as the light increases and up as light decreases. No averaging is done, so any light outside of the circle does not register at all. What this means, especially in high contrast lighting, is that you might find yourself moving the central microprism focusing area around a scene to survey the dynamic range while constantly pressing the depth of field preview button for an accurate exposure reading. Conversely, you can try to cram the highs and lows into the circle to force an average reading.
When the mental and emotional toll of being constantly preoccupied by exposure becomes tiresome, I turn to the sunny 16 rule or meter off of a mid tone to get me in the zone, and then adjust by a stop or so as I see fit. This is a much more relaxed experience, but of course it’s not something you should try with an unforgiving film stock. I have put many consumer level color films, and black and white stock (Ilford HP5+ most recently) through the SL with great results, but have been very challenged with over-exposure when using slide film.
I purchased mine in 2001, and with the exception of an initial CLA it has been a zero maintenance camera that has been mechanically flawless. I’m not completely certain of the date, but what I am certain of is that it was the moment just before the film camera bubble burst. It cost $1000 CAD, with the shop owner throwing in a very well-worn Summicron 50mm as a sweetener. Fewer than ten years later, the SL was going for around $150 on eBay. It is, to date, the only camera I’ve ever lost a significant sum of money on. Now that we’ve established that I shouldn’t give investment advice (or perhaps that I have the business sense of Leica in the 1970s), the upshot to all of this is that I still own it because it’s worth more to me as a camera than the paltry sum it would fetch these days. This also means that anyone can own my once-upon-a-time dream camera for a similarly paltry sum!
Oh, and before I left the shop, the owner showed me a trick to lock up the mirror. He cocked the shutter, then with one flick of his finger over the top of the shutter button, almost as if he were skipping a stone, I heard the mirror slap into the ‘up’ position. He handed it to me for a try, and after a little practice I was able to execute the maneuver, the blacked out viewfinder being confirmation of my success. In my experience, after a few tries, it works every time! I still don’t know how this works, but it does.
I highly recommend learning how the film advance feels with and without film loaded – knowing the difference could save you from seeing your exposure counter number climb past 36, as happened to me while (believing I was) putting a roll of HP5+ through the camera for this review. Take note: there is a more dampened feel when film is loaded; a slight resistance. When loading the film I am always careful to confirm that the film is advancing properly before closing the camera back (better to burn a few than lose 36), but in this case the film leader slipped out of the slim plastic tab that holds it on the spindle. Of course the grip of that one small tab makes all the difference in the successful operation of the camera.
This camera may exude the qualities of a vintage Cadillac, but it’s definitely making me feel less comfortable than a plush backseat these days. My confidence is shaken as this is the 2nd time in 2 years this has happened, and the 4th time in the entire time I’ve owned the camera. I can almost describe the individual photos on those rolls because I am haunted by each and every one I’ve lost this way. Despite being mechanically durable, this one flaw makes it seem wholly unreliable. I’m already shopping for a Nikon F100.
Now that I’ve tended to my wounded pride, I can say that once the sting subsides I will make up with the SL. I have already (properly) reloaded it with the traitorous roll of Ilford for when I am able to summon the will to replace those lost frames. When I do pick it up again, I know I will be in for just about as pure a photographic experience as one can have with a single lens reflex camera. The Leicaflex SL, like so many of the brand’s early SLRs, provides only the essentials; a great viewfinder, a beautiful shutter sound, and a solid chassis that can be mounted with some truly legendary Leica R mount glass. In the end, that’s about all that matters in a camera. Meter, shoot, advance, repeat – bliss.
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