Leica SL2-S Long Term Review: Leica's Most Underrated Camera
This full-frame system exists to push the visual limit for Leica, all while being more straightforward to use than the M system.
The Leica SL system doesn't have the fastest autofocus, the highest resolution, or even the biggest sensor, but it happily relinquishes all those titles for something else: stunning optical performance. This full-frame system exists to push the visual limit for Leica, all while being more straightforward to use than the M system.
With the help of a healthy amount of travel miles, I decided to find out what the hell this system can do, specifically the Leica SL2-S. In 2023, how versatile is this for professionals? How does it hold up in my wild shooting habits with real stakes on the line? And most importantly, who is this camera made for?
SL2-S Full-Frame Mirrorless Camera
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It's easy to dismiss the camera by its specs alone, so we must start the conversation with the visuals. The SL2-S takes fantastic photos that give my medium format solution a run for its money. The camera body and lens create images that make your subject stand out while blurring the background uniquely. You'll get these awesome files repeatedly, even when shooting in almost complete darkness.
People might say, "This camera has an old sensor! It's the same as this other camera. It's made by this company." But that's just selling the camera short without really testing it. The truth is different brands process sensor data in their own way, which affects the final result. For example, this camera's ISO performance is seriously impressive. ISO 6400? Easy. ISO 8000? No big deal. ISO 12,500? No sweat. ISO 25,000? It still looks good.
When you look at the colors and clarity of each shot, it's clear that this camera is taking things to the next level. With a modern Leica lens, you can shoot wide open without any worries. There's no need to find the 'optimal' range.
As I blasted through images in Capture One, I was consistently impressed by the fantastic results with smooth falloff and no strange quirks or distortions. Light sources looked accurate, without any weird 'onion ring' effects, and human skin appeared more true-to-life and not like crispy fried chicken. Also, while it's a matter of personal preference, the colors from the DNG files straight out of the camera seemed more accurate than what I've seen from my Fujifilm gear. I love film simulations for the atmosphere they create, but lately, I’m valuing accuracy more and more, which sets this camera apart.
Most people might only notice the difference between images taken by different cameras when placed side by side if it's explicitly pointed out. However, working professionals can spot how various brands handle specific subjects differently. When photographing people, whether on the street or in the studio, the SL2-S treats them exceptionally well.
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Another factor that makes this camera incredibly useful is how flexible you can be with the ISO settings. Set the maximum ISO to 25,000 without worrying about noise. At first glance, I had difficulty telling the difference between many results. What's also fascinating is that the non-linear response of Leica lenses to sharpness and contrast, from the focus point to the defocus area, also affects the noise response, making it appear more film-like. This might be a bit geeky for some, but I enjoy discovering how science is applied in the arts. The outcome here is genuinely remarkable.
But you know what's even more impressive? As fantastic as this camera is for photography, the Leica SL2-S is also surprisingly excellent for video. And while some might start sharpening their pitchforks, I’ll just go ahead and say it: Leica SL2-S is one of the best filmmaking tools.
The video files offer a surprising amount of flexibility. When shooting in L-Log, I'd focus on the highlights, and even with 1-2 stops of underexposure, I could recover details and quickly remove any unnecessary noise. You might think the lower bitrate would result in less depth and detail than other options, but that's false. Surprisingly, you have these rich files that work well alongside cinema-quality solutions while being really light on your editing machine.
Something about the codec produces an end result that approaches 14 stops of dynamic range and delivers a look that competes with cinema cameras I've owned and used. Time and again, I saw rich, vibrant footage and—forgive the overused term—cinematic. Grading the footage felt like dancing with a perfect partner. When exposed correctly, the video files from the SL2-S are impressive enough to even wow the most discerning cinematographers.
While that's fantastic and important, what truly amazed me was the number of filmmaker-friendly features—try saying that quickly five times—that were available to help me capture the perfect shot. There were so many high-end cinema parts that other companies often failed to deliver, whether shutter angle, ASA, focus assists, waveforms, timecode, focus pulls, image stabilization, or floating ISO. I could rely on these assistive features to get the shot I needed. As a filmmaker who wants to control focus, this feels like a much better mirrorless option than most.
Specs & Features
I'll get to some of the challenges with this camera, but before we dive into that, let's chat about what this camera can do. Inside, it packs a 24MP full-frame sensor with a contrast-based autofocus system. The native ISO spans from 100 to 100,000. You can shoot with the mechanical shutter at up to 1/8000 of a second, and the flash sync speed goes up to 1/250, which is twice what many competitors offer. The camera can capture up to 25 frames per second, create a 96MP stitched image with multi-shot, and snap over 500 shots on a single charge. These specs are seriously impressive.
As for the video, you get 4K60P footage oversampled from 6K and can record 4K30P at 10-bit 4:2:2 internally with no recording limit. Leica claims you can achieve 14 stops of dynamic range if exposed correctly, which felt pretty accurate in practice. Slow-motion maxes out at 180FPS in full HD, and the image stabilization outperforms many contemporary solutions.
There's also an option for 12-bit RAW recording via HDMI to an external recorder. However, since the internal codec performs so well, I only occasionally needed to switch to this format.
With all of these features, plus the filmmaking ones I mentioned earlier, this camera is a powerhouse for video and, honestly, more enjoyable to use than any other mirrorless camera I've owned. And guess what? We have yet to reach the best part.
Body & Design
The Leica SL2-S body perfectly balances minimalism and functionality. It feels durable and high-quality, not like flimsy plastic. The grip is a natural fit for your hand, and your fingertips effortlessly settle into a comfortable groove. All the shooting-related buttons are conveniently located on the right side, making it a genuine pleasure.
The SL2-S is, hands down, the best-looking DSLR-style camera on the market. It's not even close. Compare it to any Canon, Sony, or Nikon model; this beauty stands out as a masterpiece. The moment you pick it up, you'll feel the difference in quality; it's designed to last a lifetime. Sure, beauty is subjective, but is anyone making cameras as gorgeous as this one?
Every detail has been thoughtfully designed, from the buttons and dials to the unobtrusive branding. You can also customize the settings to suit your preferences. Dive deeper, and you'll find a menu system that's user-friendly, smooth, and logical. The body of this camera truly checks all the boxes.
When it comes to design, this SL2-S lands has the key features and looks DAMN good doing it. Why don't more manufacturers make their technology look and feel more beautiful? Like I've said for many years: when your camera looks good, you'll want to use it more.
- Metal housing with an IP54 rating
- 5.76M dot viewfinder with 120 refresh rate
- 2.1M dot rear touchscreen
- Reflective monochrome top display
- Two UHS-II SD card slots
- Full-size HDMI
- USB-C with charging
- Microphone and headphone jack
- And, of course, WiFi and Bluetooth
Leica SL2-S Challenges
Alright, we've covered the good stuff. Now it's time to discuss my challenges with this camera in the field. First up is autofocus, which everyone's curious about. Despite several updates, it uses a contrast-based autofocus system that struggles in low-contrast and low-light situations. The system is designed to find focus based on contrast—locating the best point of comparison, overshooting just to validate, and looping back. This can result in slower and less accurate focusing.
This wasn't much of an issue in my studio and street photography, but it can be challenging in some faster environments. The camera performed better in photography, but the continuous AF in video or burst shooting is a weak spot, with a lower success rate than other modern options. That could be a dealbreaker for some users.
Also, I'm not one to demand a flip-out screen, but the absence of an upward-tilting display was tricky to handle in certain single-operator situations. I'd instinctively reach down to tilt the screen for a low-angle shot, only to remember that Leica doesn't offer that feature. The LCD sticks out slightly from the body, and I hope they consider revising this in future models by adding a tilting function for extra versatility.
Another feature I'd appreciate is a more visible tally light on the top, making it easier to see if the camera is recording. It would also be nice if the shutter curtain closed when the camera is turned off, and having a fully touch-operated menu would be a helpful upgrade down the line.
Battery life could be a challenge for some users as well. If you focus solely on photography, you should make it through the day. But you'll need 3-4 batteries for intensive photo and video sessions. During a concert where I took portraits and recorded extended video clips, I needed over two batteries for a 4-hour evening. I found myself constantly swapping batteries between songs and carefully managing power. Investing in several extra batteries is a good idea if you're a heavy user like me.
Weight is another consideration. While this camera is ergonomic and comfortable, it may be heavy for some users, especially if you want to lighten your overall kit. This isn't a dealbreaker, but it's something to consider, depending on your shooting style and preferences.
Lastly, I must address the elephant in the room: the price. This camera retails for over $5,000 before discounts and deals. The native lenses for this system, made in Germany, also start around $5,000. So, you're considering investing over $10,000 into a modern Leica SL system.
However, this high price tag isn't really a flaw or unexpected. When cameras and lenses are produced in limited quantities, with the highest standards, and often involving hand-crafted processes, a premium price is necessary to support that quality and future growth. The price isn't solely based on camera specs; it's also about how they're made. Many videos and articles argue that these products are too expensive, but the question remains: but the question remains: who else is offering this experience for less?
As with any luxury item, you must decide if the extra cost is worth the marginal difference for your creative work. Is the unique look and feel of images from this kit worth several thousand dollars more than those from another system? This idea is common in cars, watches, and even cinema cameras. But for some reason, the media can't resist harping on the high price of mirrorless cameras like this one. If someone else could achieve the same experience for less, they would have done so by now.
The Leica SL Lenses
There is a common misunderstanding regarding the relationship between camera bodies and lenses. There’s often a misstep in how reviews are published these days. Most professionals advise investing more in high-quality lenses while making do with the best body you can afford. Yet, online discussions often focus on what a particular camera body can offer. Questions about autofocus speed, slow-motion capabilities, and ISO sensitivity abound, while the lens ecosystem has far less scrutiny. I must admit, I'm guilty of this, too, as I often relegate lenses to a separate review. Let's change that.
The SL lenses, made in Germany, deliver some of the most stunning results I've seen in my line of work. While other manufacturers produce lenses that reviewers often suggest perform best when stopped down to a specific aperture, Leica takes a different approach: creating lenses that excel wide open and maintain impressive performance throughout their range. These lenses are designed to outperform even the most exceptional M lenses at equivalent f-stops. The deliberate drop in sharpness and contrast from the point of focus sets these lenses apart from other premium options. In simpler terms, you truly get what you pay for with Leica lenses.
The SL2-S stands out among other cameras in the lineup because it combines Leica's sensor expertise with its exceptional optics. Surprisingly, the images produced by this camera OCCASSIONALLY surpassed those from my $10,000 medium format system.
I never imagined a zoom lens could outperform a prime lens at similar apertures, but that's precisely what the SL Vario 24-90 does. This wasn't just my observation; it was the goal of Leica's engineers. This lens has brought a zoom option back into my studio kit – something I didn't think would ever happen. It's truly remarkable.
Leica also focuses on future-proofing its products. These lenses are designed to resolve sensors beyond 100MP, with the idea that you invest in a great lens once and use it for life. This approach is a stark contrast to the marketing strategies of other manufacturers.
Leica even goes the extra mile with Aquadura coating their SL lenses' front and back elements. This coating repels water, ensuring your lenses are well-protected. It's a small detail you might not initially notice, but knowing that your glass effortlessly sheds water when caught in the rain is comforting.
Vario-Elmarit 24-90mm f/2.8-4 SL Lens
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APO-Summicron-SL 50 mm f/2 ASPH Lens
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Who Is This Camera For?
I get the luxury of test-driving all the major camera releases on the market and own several premium solutions of my own. When I look at this Leica SL2-S, three things make this particular camera a worthwhile investment stand out.
The first is the results out of the camera, where the photographs and video are incredible and set me up for success. I'm creating material that takes all the skills I've learned over the years and fires them to higher heights.
Next are the lenses and compatibility. These are the best full-frame lenses on the market, in my eyes. Quickly adapting M lenses to this sensor opens up new shooting experiences that cater to different environments.
Lastly, the ergonomics and design of this camera are truly exceptional. Its appearance stimulates those pleasure centers in your brain, making you eager to keep shooting. Whether interacting with the hardware or software, this camera provides a unique experience. It delivers one of the most delightful mirrorless experiences out there.
Minus the autofocus, of course. Yes, I'm bringing it up again. Autofocus presents a challenge and might be the deciding factor for some. However, the truth is that many skilled creatives care less about autofocus accuracy than reviewers do. Color, clarity, and dynamic range hold greater importance in their work, and this camera is worth considering for that type of creative.
If you've recently invested in a digital M camera, adding an SL camera like this as your B camera could be a wiser long-term decision than opting for another M or Q body. It all depends on what, how, and how often you shoot, but having this M-SL pairing creates a powerful combination that, in my opinion, gives you access to the best of what Leica currently offers.
With the Leica SL2-S boasting so many fantastic features, why isn't it getting more buzz? The answer is pretty straightforward. Leica isn't a massive, publicly traded conglomerate. They don't have a massive marketing budget, extensive demo pool, far-reaching retail presence, vast influencer strategy, or wide-ranging educational program. Leica is a smaller brand compared to the other prominent players in the market.
This company operates modestly, channeling most of its energy into crafting the finest imaging tools possible. When your focus is so singular, it's hard to justify every type of marketing tactic, like seeding cameras and experiences to the top personalities on YouTube for exposure.