As my pinkie slips under the camera’s body and my other fingers desperately clutch at the cold, ridged bump referred to on most cameras as a grip (in this case I intentionally avoid referring to it as such), I get flashbacks. I’m reminded of the endless list of criteria I compiled years ago before deciding on my first proper digital camera. I won’t bore you with the details, but this much can be said- the Leica TL that I’m currently holding would not have stood a chance. It does look good though. Really good. And it does things to me no camera has ever done before. It makes me feel special, yes, but more importantly it’s the only camera that makes me want to shoot in automatic exposure mode.
If you were to detach the lens and just walk around with the body in one hand, people would assume it’s a chunky iPhone. The construction from a single block of aluminum and the glass surface on the back expanding over the actual touchscreen make it just as much of a sleek accessory as it is a very capable camera. It is elegant and refined, but to me this beauty comes with a certain amount of metaphorical and literal pain. The Leica TL doesn’t have a viewfinder and it’s really uncomfortable to hold.
It is about as small as most other APS-C cameras with an interchangeable lens mount and weights roughly the same as Sony’s a6 series bodies, but the extraordinary shape makes the TL much more awkward to hold. The front grip is smaller and there’s absolutely nothing to rest your palm on. Because the back screen is all touch-controlled and very responsive, there’s a high chance you end up entering and exiting the camera menu or changing the display info repeatedly when holding the camera only with your right hand. The designers at Leica definitely expect you to clutch onto the camera body with both hands as if you were holding the holy grail. If you do so, the Leica TL actually feels alright, but having your left index finger beneath the body to support it like you would with a Leica rangefinder makes little to no sense because the TL doesn’t have a viewfinder. Holding it like an M camera will fool you into thinking you can lift it up to your eye and look through the viewfinder (a thing which it doesn’t have) but I nevertheless tried countless times. This aluminum brick is more of a casual shooting device than a serious tool. Having to hold it like a serious tool therefore feels odd to me.
Once you’ve learned to not touch the screen when you don’t intend to, you’ll learn to appreciate how big and bright it is. Thanks to the easy touch and focus functionality and the option to have the camera take an image as soon as you’ve set the focus point, the Leica TL is quick and discreet. It’s an innovative Leica offering lots of unusual features without compromising on its most striking quality: elegance. The pop-up flash is well hidden without being flimsy when extended, the strap lug system is ingenious, and so is the battery removal process which is identical to the one found on Hasselblad’s X1D series.
But while the hardware is well put together I have a serious issue with the software on this camera. I understand that hiding the camera settings makes the screen less cluttered, but why would you then show them to me when I half press the shutter button and am about to finalize my framing? This is annoying because the settings are displayed on a half-transparent black border along the top of the screen which covers up part of the image I’m about to make. The TL’s screen is very minimalist except when it really needs to be.
So is the Leica TL just looks? Honestly, yes. Because not only does the body look gorgeous – so do the photographs. The Leica TL has a CMOS sensor that produces beautiful JPEGs which I don’t have to retouch at all. It can also capture DNGs if you want a little more wiggle room, but only in combination with JPEGs. There’s no way of capturing only raw files, which I first thought would greatly annoy me. But then the TL put a spell on me. A spell that not only made me accept lousy six-and-a-half megabyte JPEGs but also kept me trusting the camera’s algorithm to the point where I didn’t even bother switching to manual mode, opting instead to keep it on full auto-pilot.
I don’t check for the SD card anymore either since the 32 gigabytes of internal memory are plenty to house all of my photographs from a day out. At the end of the day I just plug the camera into my computer via USB or send the files directly to my phone using the super intuitive FOTOS app. The TL is essentially my most expensive, most capable point-and-shoot.
An important requirement I usually have for point-and-shoots is a somewhat decent autofocus system. The TL does deliver in this regard. Having used Olympus’ OM-D cameras for many years before making the switch to Sony I’m well accustomed to the contrast detection autofocus system. It’s not the quickest and tends to hunt quite a bit before locking onto the subject, but when it finally does, it is accurate. That’s especially important considering the high quality glass Leica offers for its APS-C lineup. I only have the 23mm f2 lens as of now, but I am already considering the 18mm f2.8 having seen how good its slightly bigger and longer sibling performs. Of course, you can fully expect sharp images with any Leica lens, but it amazes me just how good these somewhat tiny files (at least by today’s standards) look coming straight out of camera. The TL makes a clear case for the irrelevance of file size.
I should also mention that there was a predecessor to the Leica TL called the Leica T. It came out a mere two years earlier, in 2014, and looking at the specs it seems to offer almost the same features, although the TL’s autofocus is said to be improved over the original. Whether this is a massive upgrade, I can’t say as I’ve never used the original T. I won’t attempt a full-on comparison. But I do want to mention it because all of the pros and cons discussed so far will apply for the both of them – and the same can even be said for the latest in the line, the current Leica TL2.
Considering all of the aspects mentioned, where does this leave us? How good is this camera and, more importantly, who is it for?
The Leica TL certainly intrigues with its design, but that’s rarely enough to justify a buying decision. Though the prices of the T and TL have plummeted with the introduction of their respective successors, these cameras still aren’t exactly cheap (I paid 500 USD for the body only). Still, I’d consider the TL to be a solid option as a small everyday carry-around camera or even a backup camera for professionals. After all, the L-mount offers some great glass and many adapters to satisfy your lens-needs. Maybe, being less intimidating, this beauty might even be a solid street photography option. If you own a TL or any other APS-C Leica, let me know in the comments what you use it for and what have been your experiences!
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