- Superb, rock-solid build quality
- Large, clear electronic viewfinder
- Cleverly conceived control setup
- Excellent RAW image quality
- No image stabilisation
- No live view during continuous shooting
- Touch-focus conflicts with viewfinder use
- Limited exposure control during video
- 24.2MP APS-C sensor
- 2.36M-dot electronic viewfinder
- 3-inch 1.04M-dot touchscreen
- ISO 100-50,000
What is the Leica CL?
Back in 1973, Leica introduced the CL, a stripped-back, compact-bodied, relatively low-priced camera designed to attract a new generation of photographers to its rangefinder M system (despite actually being manufactured by Minolta). Now, in 2017, Leica is introducing the CL, a compact-bodied mirrorless camera, which by the firm’s own rarefied standards is relatively low-priced. Again the aim is clear: to attract a new generation of photographers to Leica’s unique charms.
With a 24.2-million-pixel APS-C sensor, 2.36-milion-dot EVF, and Leica’s mirrorless L mount, the new Leica CL is a camera that, on paper, stacks up closely to Sony’s highly regarded A6000. So why, you might ask, does it cost five times as much?
The Leica CL kitted out with the new Elmarit-TL 18mm f/2.8 ASPH lens in silver
From a week using the Leica CL prior to its launch, I’m prepared to declare it a definite hit. I think it’s fabulous.
It’s due to go on sale on November 28, 2017, costing £2250/$2970 body only, £3150/$4158 with the new Leica Elmarit-TL 18mm f/2.8 ASPH pancake lens in the CL Prime Kit, or £3275/$4323 with the Leica Vario-Elmar-T 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom in the CL Vario Kit.
Leica CL – Features
First, though, let’s take a look at the CL’s feature set. Its core components are the same as the Leica TL2’s, with a 24.2-million-pixel sensor teaming up with Leica’s Maestro 2 processor to offer a sensitivity range of ISO 100-50,000. Autofocus is taken care of by a contrast detection system that covers the entire image area, and the camera is capable of shooting at an impressive 10 frames per second, with a 33-frame buffer while recording JPG and DNG RAW files.
Shutter speeds range from 30-1/8000sec using the (pretty quiet) mechanical shutter, extending up to 1/25,000sec with the silent electronic shutter. In a welcome update from the TL2, it’s now possible to manually select the electronic shutter in the menu, for when you want to shoot as unobtrusively as possible, or alternatively choose the mechanical shutter for when you need to avoid rolling shutter distortion.
For video, 4K recording is available at 3840 x 2160 resolution and 30fps. You can use the touchscreen to pull focus from one subject to another, and apply exposure compensation to lighten or darken your footage (although the clicking of the camera’s control dial is likely to be audible on your soundtrack). However you don’t get any direct control over shutter speed, aperture or ISO, and the camera has neither headphone nor microphone sockets. If you’re serious about video there are much better cameras available, but the CL will do a reasonable job for casual shooting.
The BP-DC12 Li-ion battery promises 220 shots per charge. It can only be charged externally; there’s no option for convenient USB charging
Wi-Fi is built-in, of course, allowing image sharing and remote control from a smartphone using the free Leica CL app for both Android or iOS. However there’s no other form of remote release. There’s no point in looking for USB, HDMI or remote release ports either, as the CL doesn’t have any.
If there’s one serious concern, it’s that neither the camera nor its matched lenses have any form of image stabilisation. This feels anachronistic and means only electronic stabilisation is available for video recording. One saving grace, though, is that Leica’s well-considered Auto ISO program uses high shutter speeds to reduce the chances of subject blur from hand shake, while taking the lens’s focal length into account.
Leica CL – Design and handling
Like another recent retro-themed design, the Olympus PEN-F, the CL bears little physical resemblance to the film camera that it’s named after. Instead – and again, just like the PEN-F – it’s inspired by the iconic Leica III, often considered one of the most beautiful cameras ever made. But where the Olympus is all twiddly lines and oh-so-elaborate faux-mechanical controls, the Leica is pared right down to a jet-black, form-follows-function design. Both have their merits, but the Leica exudes a more purposeful presence. This, you feel, is a camera that was designed to be a serious photographic tool.
What’s more, the CL isn’t just a looker; pick it up and it feels as though it’s been hewn from a solid lump of metal. The top and base plates are made from milled and anodised aluminium, while the front and rear panels are magnesium alloy. A lightly textured leatherette covers much of the body, and Leica’s signature curved ends make the CL fit surprisingly snuggly in your hand. It feels smaller than its 131 x 78 x 45mm dimensions suggest, and weighs in at 403g. For those who’d like a more positive hold on the camera, Leica will be offering a matched bolt-on metal grip, along with an array of fitted leather cases and straps.
The Leica CL with its optional screw-in grip and an adapted Summicon-M 28mm f/2 lens
The CL makes do with a surprisingly small number of external controls. Joining the shutter button and its encircling power switch on the top plate is a pair of electronic dials that are used to control the key exposure settings: shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation. In a small stroke of genius, each has an inset button that temporarily changes its function when pressed; the left dial alters to set the exposure mode, while the right dial changes the ISO. However the latter can be re-assigned to certain other functions such as metering mode or exposure bracketing, selected by pressing the button down for a second.
The back of the camera is also unusually simple. To the left of the touchscreen is a column of three buttons, one to enter playback, one for the menus, and a second customisable Fn button that by default controls white balance. In Leica’s usual way, pressing the menu button first accesses a user-customisable ‘Favorites’ screen, with the full menu accessed by a second press of the menu button.
The sparse back-plate includes a d-pad that’s perfectly placed for setting the AP point.
On the right of the touchscreen is a four-way D-pad, that’s used for navigating menus and changing settings. When shooting with the viewfinder, it can also be used to reposition the autofocus point, and is perfectly positioned for the job. As a result, the CL is great to shoot with, making it easy to change every important setting without taking the camera down from your eye.
The touchscreen itself can be used to set the focus point when you’re shooting with the LCD, or for browsing images in playback. Sadly, though, the CL doesn’t inherit the TL2’s fabulous touch interface for changing settings – instead it has very conventional, purely button-driven menu screens, much like the Leica M10 and Leica Q. I can see Leica’s thinking here, as it wants the CL to appeal to purist photographers and clearly thinks a conventional list menu will be comfortingly familiar. But I’m a purist photographer and still love the TL2’s quick, intuitive touch interface; indeed it’s the camera’s best feature. So I’d rather see Leica extend it across its entire range, including to the M-series.
The Leica CL’s top-plate dials are used just as effectively in playback as during shooting
It’s not just the shooting controls Leica has got right; the CL works brilliantly in playback too. The touchscreen supports a good range of smartphone-like gestures such as pinch-to-zoom, and the physical controls are also perfectly employed. The left dial browses through images, while the button in its centre marks favourites. The right dial is used to zoom into images; the button in its centre jumps straight to full magnification.
The Fn button on the back turns out to be the delete key, while the menu button brings up a short selection of options that includes the ability to fire up the Wi-Fi for sharing your shots. Again, it’s quick and easy to do everything you need.
Leica CL – Viewfinder and screen
The CL becomes Leica’s first APS-C camera to feature a built-in electronic viewfinder. However, it eschews the current fashion for a central finder and instead adopts a corner-mounted approach. On many cameras this means getting a smaller image, but not here. Instead the 2.36m-dot finder offers a 0.74x equivalent magnification, which provides a view larger than on many full-frame DSLRs. A relatively generous 20mm eyepoint makes it easy to see clearly into the corners of the display, even if you wear spectacles, while a lockable dioptre-adjustment control is an especially neat touch. The eyepiece has a large circular rubber surround that effectively keeps out peripheral light.
The small dioptre dial beside the EVF pulls out to adjust, then locks when pushed back in
In use the viewfinder is excellent. It’s bright and clear, and accurately previews colour and exposure with no appreciable display lag. Pressing the centre button in the D-pad toggles between a clean, uncluttered display and a detailed view. In the latter you can opt to view a live histogram, dual-axis electronic level, and highlight ‘blinkies’ to warn of overexposure. This information is all presented together, in a clean and elegant fashion, so unlike with some other cameras there’s no need to cycle through multiple screens just to make sure your horizon is straight and you’re not losing any highlight detail. Overall it’s the best electronic viewfinder I’ve used on a rangefinder-style mirrorless camera.
The LCD screen, meanwhile is also very good indeed. But being fixed rather than articulated, it doesn’t really add much to the overall shooting experience, especially as the EVF is so good. Of course the LCD is still useful for reviewing your images, and like the viewfinder it’s bright, detailed and well-calibrated when it comes to colour.
Leica CL – Autofocus
Like the Leica TL2 before it, the CL relies on contrast detection for autofocus, and the focus point can be set anywhere in the frame. There’s a broad range of AF area selection methods on offer, including two freely positionable modes called Field and Spot with different-sized focus points, alongside subject-tracking and face detection. Alternatively, you can let the camera find the subject for itself, using a 49-point grid. To aid accurate manual focusing, both a magnified view and peaking display are available.
In the past, Leica cameras have suffered from rather sluggish autofocus, which isn’t surprising given that it’s a small company without the huge R&D resources of the Japanese electronics giants. But they’ve improved a lot recently, and when I tested the TL2 earlier this year I found it was as quick as you might reasonably need, at least for static subjects. Not surprisingly, since it shares many of the same innards, the CL is just as good. Equipped with the tiny 18mm f/2.8 pancake it focuses in the blink of an eye, and continues to work very well even when light levels fall.
One disappointing quirk, however, is that while it’s really quick to set the AF point using the D-pad when shooting with the viewfinder, or by touch when using the LCD, the two are mutually exclusive menu items. So if you want to use the D-pad with the viewfinder, you also have to use it with the LCD – but if you switch across to touch focus, you can’t move the focus point at all when you’re looking through the EVF. I’d like to see a firmware update that separates the two, allowing you to use touch focus with the LCD regardless of the mode selected for viewfinder use.
Leica CL – Performance
Once you’ve familiarised yourself with the CL’s controls and started putting it to real-world use, you’ll find that it’s a quick, polished performer. It responds instantly to the physical controls, and as a result, it never gets in the way of the shooting process. This, fundamentally, is the hallmark of a really good camera.
Used in its multi-pattern metering mode, the CL turns in reliable exposures, and generally does a good job of protecting highlights from losing information irretrievably. However the metering does seem to be strongly influenced by the AF point positioning, and can clip highlights if you focus on a dark area of the frame. But with the electronic viewfinder and optional live histogram, you have enough information to apply exposure compensation when necessary to counter this, or simply when you want to lighten or darken the image for aesthetic effect.
If you’re planning on shooting RAW it certainly makes sense to protect highlights, as the sensor’s huge dynamic range means a lot of detail can be recovered in shadow regions without excessive noise. Because the camera records its raw files in Adobe’s standard DNG format, you’ll also be able to start working on them immediately in your existing software, without having to wait for an update to support the camera.
Leica’s default colour rendition tends towards accuracy rather than crowd-pleasing punch, and in general I preferred to turn up the saturation a notch when shooting in its Standard mode. The CL also has a Vivid option that can give images a real lift on a dull day, although it’s often a bit too much for my tastes. However the high-contrast black & white mode is a delight for photographers who like to shoot in monochrome.
If there’s one area the CL falls down, though, it’s in continuous shooting. This isn’t due to lack of speed, as in my tests it achieved its specified shooting rate and buffer depth. The problem is that the camera can’t show a live view display between frames during a burst, so instead shows a slideshow of recently-shot images, which makes it difficult to keep track of a moving subject. This is one area where Leica feels some way behind the times.
My only other point of concern comes with using the touchscreen for playback, as zooming into images and scrolling around to check detail can feel somewhat laggy. This didn’t bother me too much personally, as I tend to use physical controls anyway, but it might irk some buyers.
Leica CL – Image quality
Inside the Leica CL is a thoroughly modern 24.2-million-pixel APS-C sensor, which means its raw image quality is very good indeed, and essentially a match for modern APS-C DSLRs. The camera delivers a huge amount of detail at low sensitivities, aided by Leica’s excellent lenses, and there’s great deal of scope for pulling extra detail out of deep shadows.
High ISO noise is kept extremely well under control too. It only really becomes visible at ISO 1600 and above, and I’d be perfectly happy to shoot at ISO 6400 as a matter of course.
Tested using the new Leica Elmarit-TL 18mm f/2.8 set to an aperture of f/5.6, the CL delivers impressive results in our resolution tests. At ISO 100 it achieves around 3900 l/ph, which is about as much as its 24MP sensor could possibly deliver. Boost the sensitivity to ISO 1600 and it still attains an impressive 3600 l/ph. Things go downhill more quickly after that, but even at ISO 12500 the CL resolves 3200 l/ph, with results in excess of 3000 l/ph attained at ISO 50000. However you’ll only get this shooting raw – in JPEG results are a little lower.
At low ISO settings the Leica CL delivers extremely fine, detailed images with no visible noise. It’s only at ISO 1600 that a little grittiness creeps in, but it’s unlikely to be visible in print, instead only when you view images up-close onscreen. By ISO 6400 noise is having a much stronger impact, with shadow details disappearing and quite obvious luminance noise in the mid-tones, but the images are still generally quite usable. Higher ISO settings are more problematic though, and while I’d use ISO 12,500 when necessary, the two highest settings show excessive loss of both colour and detail.
Should I buy the Leica CL?
At £2250/$2970 for the body alone, and over £3000/$3960 with a lens, the Leica CL is a pricey piece of kit. With that in mind, I have to warn you against ever picking one up. Only because if you do, you’ll want one. It’s so drop-dead gorgeous that you might find yourself contemplating selling your vital organs on the black market to raise the funds.
Indeed the CL is exactly what a digital Leica should be: small, fast, intuitive and unobtrusive. I think it’s one of the firm’s best designs yet, alongside the Leica Q and M10. Rationally it’s still far too expensive for what’s on offer, but rationality isn’t necessarily the name of the game with Leica. It’s a brand for people who know what they want, and have the money to afford it.
Key to the CL’s appeal is the way Leica has pared it right back to the essentials, which is (quite literally) the company’s motto. So rather than feeling like it’s been built by a team of engineers hell-bent on fitting every imaginable feature into the smallest possible box, the CL gives the impression that it’s been designed by people who are themselves passionate photographers, with the sole aim of giving fellow photographers the best possible tool. As a result, it works pretty much perfectly out of the box; it’s a really smart, elegant design that even manages to look fabulous without feeling the need for superfluous cosmetic flourishes.
Of course there’s always the question of lenses; Leica’s APS-C L-mount range has the main bases covered, but it lacks the constant-aperture zooms and array of small fast primes that most other mirrorless systems can now boast. The prices are stratospheric, too, but Leica is keen to point out that this reflects the sheer quality of its optics.
The CL is wonderfully tactile camera that begs you to pick it up and start taking pictures. It’s far too pricey for most, and has some fairly obvious flaws, but even so it’s a hugely desirable piece of kit.