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Leica CL Snap Verdict

The Leica CL is the type of camera that makes photographers smile when they pick it up, it looks great and it feels even better in your hand. Add in the clever interface that makes superb use of the limited collection of physical controls, the touch-screen and the high-quality results and you have a very attractive camera. However, there are a few oddities with the interface that I’d like to see sorted out with a firmware upgrade and, as usual with Leica cameras, it commands a high price especially compared to models like the Fujifilm X-E3.

For Leica CL

  • Superb build quality
  • Leica heritage and optical quality
  • Streamlined control system

Against Leica CL

  • A few quirks in the interface need to be ironed out
  • Limited range of directly compatible APS-C format lenses
  • High price
 

What is the Leica CL?

The Leica CL is a 24Mp APS-C format compact system camera (CSC) or mirrorless camera with the Leica L lens mount. It sits alongside the Leica TL2 in the company’s interchangeable lens camera line-up and although has a very similar specification, the CL has a more traditional ‘Leica-look’ along with a few more buttons around the touch-screen.

Leica CL Review: Front

Features

Leica has given the Leica CL a very similar specification to the TL2 announced in July 2017. The 24.24-million-effective-pixel APS-C sized (23.6 x 15.7 mm) CMOS sensor and Maestro II processing engine, for example, are the same.

Leica has also stuck with the same 49-point contrast detection autofocus system for the CL as is found in the TL2. These points can be selected using Single point, Multi-zone, Spot, Face detection or Touch AF modes or using the tracking option for moving subjects.

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Leica is known for keeping things simple and concentrating on the most important aspects of photography, but in addition to aperture priority, shutter speed priority and manual exposure mode, the CL has Automatic Program and other fully automatic modes along with 12 user-selectable scene modes to make getting the correct settings easier for inexperienced photographers.

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There’s also a small collection of Film Styles available (Standard, Vivid, Natural, B&W Natural, B&W High Contrast) that allow you to tailor jpeg images to suit the subject or conditions.

It’s also possible to record 4K (3840 x 2160) video at up to 30fps, or Full-HD (1920 x 1080) video at 60 or 30 fps and Wi-Fi connectivity is built-in for easy image transfer to a smartphone.

Leica CL Review: Back

Electronic Viewfinder

Unlike the TL2, the Leica CL has an electronic viewfinder (EVF) built-in. This is a 2.36Mp (1024×768) device with magnification of 0.74x. Just to the right of the viewfinder as you hold the camera is the diopter adjustment (+/-4). This has to be pulled outwards before it can be rotated, which ensures that it won’t adjust as you pull the camera from your bag.

Lens compatibility

The Leica CL and TL2 have the Leica L-mount and this enables Leica TL lenses that are designed for APS-C sized lenses or full-frame Leica SL lenses to be mounted directly on the camera. There are currently six TL optics, three zooms – the Super-Vario-Elmar-TL 11-23mm f3.5–4.5 ASPH., Vario-Elmar-TL 18-56mm f/3.5–5.6 ASPH. and the APOVario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f/3.5–4.5 ASPH. plus four prime lenses – the Elmarit-TL 18mm f/2.8 ASPH., Summicron-TL 23mm f/1:2 ASPH. and the Summilux-TL 1:1.4/35 ASPH. and the APO-Macro-Elmarit-TL 60mm f/2.8 ASPH.

Owners of Leica M-mount and R-mount optics can mount them on the CL or TL2 via adaptors.

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Build quality and handling

The CL looks and feels every bit like a Leica camera. It has the density and solid feel that you expect along with a high-quality finish. The top and bottom plates are made from anodised aluminium while the housing is magnesium alloy.

It looks nicely understated and has a fairly limited number of buttons and dials. There are just three buttons and the navigation pad on its back and two buttons and dials plus the shutter release and power switch on the top-plate.

It’s a very elegant looking camera that passes for a compact model with the new Emarit-TL 18mm f/2.8mm ASPH lens mounted. It also feels nicely balanced with this lens and the lightly textured surface on the flat front gives just enough grip, although a strap is a sensible precaution. A handgrip is available as an optional extra if you want to use long lenses.

There’s also an optional thumb support available to slip in the hot-shoe. This makes the CL feel much more secure in your hand and I recommend it as an additional purchase.

Leica CL Review: EVF

Viewfinder

While it’s not the largest electric viewfinder (EVF) available, it provides and clear view of the scene and does a good job of showing the image as it will be captured, taking into account the camera settings.

When the CL goes on-sale, the eye-sensor above the viewfinder of the CL will be in the same window as the finder to make it a little easier to keep clean. It has a separate window in the camera I shot with – although in other respects I’m told the camera is completely finalised and ready for reviewing.

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Screen

Leica has given the CL a 3-inch 1.04Mp-dot touch-screen. I used this in a range of conditions, including bright winter sun and I found it doesn’t suffer unduly from reflections. It also has a wide viewing angle so if you want to use it to compose images at a very low or high angle, you can do so, but as the screen is fixed the image is foreshortened.

Adding a tilting or vari-angle bracket would make the screen much more useful for composing images at awkward angles, but it would disrupt the clean lines of the CL a little. My preference would be for the extra functionality, but each to their own.

The CL’s screen is very responsive to touch and it’s helpful to be able to tap it to set the AF point when you’re looking at the screen. However, if you enable Touch AF via the AF mode options in the menu, you lose the ability to move the autofocus point with the navigation pad. As you can’t use the touch-screen when you’re looking in the viewfinder, I mainly used the camera in Spot, Field (a larger area is used than in Spot mode) or Face Detection mode.

Leica CL Review: top

Controls

There are two dials that Leica calls ‘Setting Wheels’ on the top-plate, each with a central button. Pressing the button within the left dial allows you to select the shooting mode with the dial. The small display on the top-plate and the bottom left corner of the main screen show the currently selected mode with arrows either side and it’s just a case of scrolling through until you reach the one you want.

Leica CL Review: Right Wheel Menu

User interface

A long press of the button within the right-hand Setting Wheel reveals up to 8 options that can be adjusted – you can customise the options via the Main menu. When the options are revealed, you just need to scroll up or down to access the one you want – you can’t use the touch-screen for this. Once the feature you want is highlighted, press the button briefly again to close the screen and then again to bring up the selected feature’s options before making your setting selection

Leica CL Review: White Balance

This short/long press approach has also been taken with the Fn (Function) button on the back of the camera. It can also be customised to give access to up to 8 features.

I think the short/long press arrangement is great as it reduces the number of buttons that are required and it speeds camera operation. However, there are a few quirks that need to be ironed out with a firmware upgrade. For example, Exposure Bracketing can be activated via the right button, but I couldn’t find a way to deactivate it without going to the main menu.

Similarly, although you can use the Function menu to set the camera to shoot in Auto Exposure or a Scene mode, you can only set it back to one of the advanced exposure modes via the left top-plate button and Setting Wheel. And, if you use the left button and wheel to set the exposure mode you’ll find that the full gamut of Scene modes isn’t available, you have to set the camera to Auto (or the last used Scene mode) and then use the Function menu to change the scene mode (or select Auto).

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Performance

As the CL has an electronic viewfinder that shows the image with the selected camera settings applied, you get a pretty good idea of their exposure, white balance and colour at the shooting stage. That’s helpful because I found the CL’s Multi-zone metering system a little unpredictable. In some instances, it delivered a perfect exposure on its own, even in quite tricky circumstances. However, there were also a few unexpectedly bright images – and not as a result of shooting a very dark scene.

On the whole, I found it best to apply the traditional understanding of exposure and be ready to make adjustments if the scene has large bright or dark areas.

If you prefer, there’s also centre-weighted and spot metering, but these seem less relevant when you’re previewing the image in the viewfinder and of course you still need to keep in mind the brightness of the subject.

Leica CL Review: Menu

Colour

Colour-wise the CL delivers natural-looking images, but by modern standards, the Standard Film Style’s results are a bit flat. On the whole, I prefer the results produced in Vivid mode.

As I scroll through my images in Adobe Bridge, the raw files look a tad more saturated and higher contrast than the jpegs shot in Standard mode. This is down to differences between Leica’s and Adobe’s interpretation of photographers’ preferences. In this instance, I tend to side with Adobe’s view, so it’s nice to have the Vivid option and for it to not over-cook the images.

The Auto white balance setting produces neutral-looking images in sunshine and under overcast skies, but in heavy shade or after sunset images become quite cold in appearance.

In some shady conditions the Shade or Cloudy white balance settings produce a better result, but in others, as is often the case, the images look a bit too warm and the Daylight setting is a better choice. Alternatively, a Custom white balance value can be set quickly and easily – I found this a good option in artificial lighting.

Some photographers are likely to point out at this juncture that most Leica photographers will shoot raw format images and that makes getting the white balance correct in-camera less important. That may be true, but with automatic and scene modes available, the CL is also designed to cater for inexperienced photographers.

Image Quality

Leica uses the DNG raw file format so despite being given a review sample before the global announcement, I was able to check and process the raw files in Adobe Camera Raw.

Images captured at the low to mid-level sensitivity range have a good level of detail with natural looking edges, even at 100% on-screen.

The maximum sensitivity setting available on the CL is ISO 50,000 and it produces results that are on a par with those from APS-C format cameras like the Nikon D7500 and Fujifilm X-E3 at ISO 51,200.

The raw files have evenly distributed luminance noise, which is concealed quite well in simultaneously capture jpegs. There is some loss of very fine detail but the processor generally does a good job and at normal viewing sizes, there’s still a good impression of detail.

However, if you can shoot at ISO 25,000 rather than 50,000 there’s a significant improvement in the quality of the results from the CL. The luminance noise in raw files is much less noticeable at 100% on-screen than in ISO 50,000 raw files and detail is better preserved in the jpegs.

The results at ISO 12,500 and below are very good with noise being almost invisible in images shot at ISO 1600.

I shot a wide range of subjects with the CL and it doesn’t clip the highlights or block the shadows earlier than you’d expect, which indicates that it has a good dynamic range. I found that I can brighten underexposed low ISO images in Adobe Camera Raw by around 3EV, should it be necessary.

Leica CL Review: Menu

Autofocus

Outdoors in daylight, the CL focuses on subjects quickly and accurately. Step inside and it also copes pretty well, but you may see the odd moment of indecision when light-levels fall. If you’re photographing close subjects like portraits, the AF-assist light proves useful and ensures you get them sharp in poor lighting.

I used the autofocus tracking option to photograph a swan on a river and for the majority of the time it kept the AF box over my subject, but every now and again it would jump somewhere else, or the swan would move while the AF point stayed still.

I’d describe the autofocus system as competent and suitable for everyday photography or street photography as well as shooting landscapes or portraits. It’s not ideally suited for sport, but then the CL isn’t really designed for that.

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Sample Images

Leica CL Review Sample Image

Leica CL Review Sample Image

Leica CL Review Sample Image

Leica CL Review Sample Image

Leica CL Review Sample Image

Leica CL Review Sample Image

Leica CL Review Sample Image

Edited raw file

Leica CL Review Sample Image

Edited raw file

Follow the link to browse and download full resolution Leica CL images

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Verdict

The CL is a nice combination of what we tend to regard as ‘traditional’ Leica and modern technology. Thanks to Leica’s craftsmanship, it looks and feels like a high-quality camera and thanks to the company’s imaging knowhow it also delivers high-quality results.

Although I think it needs a few quirks sorting out with a firmware upgrade, I really like the control arrangement and interface of the CL. It manages to get a lot of functionality out of relatively few buttons and dials without seeming completely dependent on the touch-screen. It’s also very intuitive to use so you get to grips with the camera quickly.

Should I buy the Leica CL?

The price of the CL will make this decision for many people because it’s set to retail for £2,250 body only, £3,150 with the new Elmarit-TL 18mm f/2.8 ASPH or £3,275 with Vario-Elmar-TL 18-56mm f/3.5–5.6 ASPH. For that money, you get a beautifully built camera with a clever (but slightly flawed) interface that focuses on the most important elements of photography and makes you feel good when you pick it up. The value of that feeling is a very personal thing, for some it will be almost priceless while others will find it hard to justify. If you fall into the latter category then perhaps you should look at the Fuji X-E3 which retails for less than half the price of the CL, has similar styling and produces very high-quality images.

 

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