Review: Leica CL
Word of a new Leica camera leaked earlier this year. The only info one could gather from the photo blogs was that this new shooter was a compact camera that accepted L-mount lenses, and that its codename was “Clooney.” Match the iconic Leica brand with a name like Clooney, and you could bet good money the thing was going to be handsome.
Well, here it is, the Leica CL. And yes, it’s very dapper. It’s a compact, rangefinder-style camera with a built-in viewfinder, a touchscreen with customizable menus, and innovative manual controls. It has the same 24-megapixel APS-C sensor and Maestro II image processor as the Leica TL2 that came out this summer. It works with any of Leica’s L-mount lenses, so if you have a TL or TL2, you can swap lenses with this new camera. Along with the new camera comes a new member of the lens family; an 18mm prime. It joins the other Leica L lenses—three zooms and three primes—and it works across every camera in the L line.
Search for the Leica CL on the web and you might get confused. This is actually the second CL from the German company—back in the 1970s, Leica and Minolta teamed up to make a 35mm film camera called the CL. This new CL isn’t a throwback to its ’70s namesake. It’s actually closer to the Leica X2, the fixed-lens mirrorless compact the company released in 2012. If you like the size and construction of the X2 but you prefer the versatility of interchangeable lenses, then the CL is a fine choice. Typical for Leica, it’s expensive—the body alone costs $2,795—but it offers a wide range of capabilities, excellent ergonomics, and an undeniable sense of pure cool.
None More Black
The Leica CL is a gorgeous little box. The top and bottom panels are black anodized aluminum, and sandwiched between them is a magnesium body wrapped in black, fine-grain leather. On the top of the body is a control array made up of two thumb wheels, each with a button in the center. The functions of each wheel change based on your shooting mode. If you’re in aperture priority mode, for example, the right wheel controls the aperture, so you can flip through the f-stops with your thumb, and the left controls exposure compensation. If you’re in shutter priority mode, the left wheel controls the shutter speed and the right adjusts exposure compensation. The buttons inside the dials change functions too. In the default setting, the left button lets you select your scene mode, and the right button sets your ISO, but you can assign other functions to the right button like exposure bracketing, white balance, and file format for switching between RAW and JPG.
Unless you shoot in one mode all the time, it’s difficult to develop the muscle memory necessary to make adjustments quickly. I found myself looking at the screen constantly during my first few days with the camera to check which button or thumb wheel controlled which function in whatever mode I was using. However, at least one of the controls can be programmed to adjust the most common parameters in just about every shooting mode, and like most cameras, the CL really gets comfortable when you set it up how you like it and just leave it.
For those times when you’re experimenting, Leica has made it easy to check your settings at a glance. Between the two thumb dials is a teeny monochrome LCD that shows your shooting mode, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and exposure compensation. This is especially helpful when you’re shooting in manual mode. Also, when you walk into a dim room, the little screen automatically illuminates just enough to read it—perfect for taking pictures at concerts. You can see my concert photos, along with some other samples here.
After a few days, I settled into aperture priority mode with auto ISO. I built a custom menu that let me easily swap between film types (vivid, natural, black and white) and switch between low, medium, and high continuous drive speeds.
I tested Leica’s TL-2 earlier this year, and while I loved the simplicity of shooting on a touchscreen-based camera with minimal controls, I missed having a viewfinder. So I was overjoyed to shoot with the CL, which has an excellent electronic viewfinder with an eye sensor that flips the screen off and the EVF on when you bring the camera up to your eye.
The back of the body is dominated by the 3-inch screen with touch and gesture controls. The menu is similar to the one you’ll find on the TL models, and you can custom-build your own menus that give you quick access to your favorites settings. Next to the big screen, there are just three buttons and a D-pad. Simple.
There’s a funny thing about having an EVF; I basically ignored the touchscreen unless I was digging through the menus or reviewing my photos. Tapping to set focus or exposure is helpful when shooting in auto mode, but the experience of shooting through the viewfinder was so nice, I quickly forgot about the rear display. Still, it’s a welcome convenience to be able to fall back on taps, pinches, and swipes.
The camera Leica loaned me for evaluation was paired with the new 18mm f/2.8 lens ($1,295). The “super pancake” is a squat piece of metal and glass that sticks out an inch or so from the camera’s body, adding only a minimal amount of bulk. It’s the perfect stealth lens. The 18mm focal length is equivalent to a 27mm on this sensor, which is just about the same as the focal length of an average smartphone camera. It’s a killer portrait lens when you shoot wide open, and you can still get excellent detail in landscapes and in action shots. The image quality I got with this combo of 18mm lens and the CL’s sensor is just astounding. If it faltered, it was only in very low light, where f/2.8 isn’t enough to let in all the photons you need. However, the glass elements in this lens are so small and lightweight, the autofocus speed ends up being blazing fast. It’s a fair tradeoff.
I’m always torn when it comes to recommending a Leica. I mean, sure, you should definitely buy one if you want the best shooting feel you can get in a compact camera. Also, the emotional pull of the brand’s pedigree is undeniable; carrying a Leica is like holding the history of modern photography in your hands. But goddamn are these things expensive. You can get the setup I tested as a kit for $3,795. That’s enough to buy a Fujifilm X100F, a Sony α6300, and a Lumix GX8, plus a couple of lenses—all excellent compacts with fast autofocus, customizable settings, and great EVFs onboard.
But if you must have a Leica, you must have a Leica. And I can certainly recommend the Leica CL. It’s a versatile tool that gives you professional-quality results. If you drop the money on it, you will not be disappointed. Just try not to think about your house payments.
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