Why the Leica SL2 Is Good for a Certain Type of Portrait Photographer

The Leica SL2 is more or less a camera for creative photography and that makes it great for portraits.

It’s no surprise that the Leica SL2 could probably be one of the best options for portrait photographers using medium format. During my time with the Leica SL2 before its announcement, I thought carefully about who this camera is targeted towards. In many ways, I liken it to the Canon 5D Mk II’s launch many years ago. That was a camera designed for the creator–the portrait, landscape, studio, and documentary photographer who did things slowly with careful setup. It’s not a speed demon like the Sony a9 II. It’s not designed for those who do sports, photojournalism, etc. Part of this is due to the autofocus system coupled with the fantastic lens lineup that Sigma, Panasonic, and Leica all offer. The camera will have issues in low light, but the image quality will always be solid. For that reason, I think the Leica SL2 is a great camera for the photographers amongst us that do slow work. And let’s be honest: there’s a ton of you.

Editor’s Note: Before the announcement of the Leica SL2, Leica flew us and a number of other journalists to Germany for a trip to their factory, campus, etc. All expenses were paid for by Leica, minus the few rolls of film and the camera strap I purchased from their store. I even paid for some of my own meals. We asked for the camera and lenses to be loaned to us upon our return to NYC where we’ve since been testing it independently. All of our testing in NYC is on our own dime. This statement is part of our commitment to our readers to be as transparent as possible. No, I’m not a Leica influencer or ambassador. But I genuinely do believe everything I’m writing here.

Gear Used

We tested the Leica SL2 with the:

Autofocus for Portraiture

Modern Portrait photographers have been more or less conditioned by the industry to use face detection. The days of focusing, refocusing, and ensuring that your focusing point is on a model’s eyes are mostly over. To that end, the Leica SL2 has face detection and tracking built in. Throughout our tests, we found that the Leica SL2 will detect a face even when sunglasses were being worn. That’s better than Canon’s and Nikon’s systems and pretty much on par with Sony’s most of the time. But when it came to detecting and tracking eyes, we found the results weren’t always as clear. Tracking a model’s eyes as they moved resulted in more misfocusing than we’d prefer. If I were to look at a stretch of 10 images I’d say about 1/5th weren’t in critical focus on the eyes, or even where I’d deem it a usable spot. We experienced these problems a lot in natural, ambient light. In situations like that, there are a lot of variables like strong backlighting. Still, the Leica SL2 proved capable. To that end though, I think the autofocus on the Leica SL2 will better suit photographers who have more interaction with their models. If you’re looking to sit and shoot on continuous burst with your model, then you’re just capturing a scene. This isn’t a camera for that photographer, as I stated in the intro. To be blunter, this camera will shoot maybe 20 images and yield a higher keeper rate than the photographer who would shoot 200 images and yield the same keeper rate. The former is probably the photographers shooting the jobs that justify the SL2 price tag of $5,995.

“This is one of the bigger problems with shooting portraits with the Leica SL2. And due to what both Sony and Canon have done here, it feels a tad antiquated. “

In the studio, we had a bit more control over lighting. There were times that Leica encouraged us to use their M mount lenses with the Leica SL2. For what it’s worth, I did. But, I think the two won’t necessarily be using the same systems. The Leica M is designed for something completely different than the Leica SL2. To that end, focus peaking with the SL2 and M lenses was pretty accurate. But, shooting wide open at something more shallow than f1.4 proved tedious. Getting an eye in focus as a model moves is a taxing task for the photographer. What makes it even more difficult is the lack of a viewfinder blackout. If the viewfinder didn’t blackout, then you’d probably be able to predict your model’s movements and compensate accordingly. But you can’t. This is one of the bigger problems with shooting portraits with the Leica SL2. And due to what both Sony and Canon have done here, it feels a tad antiquated.

Just for fun, I really tried to see if the Leica SL2 could keep up with a subject moving towards me from across the street. It’s a common thing that photographers will do with models. Pop Photo Editor Jeanette Moses (who has contributed to the Phoblographer before) isn’t a trained model per se, and that’s perfect for this test. A person could be moving towards the photographer and if the camera can’t accurately get them in focus, then you’ve got an unusable shot in many instances. Unfortunately, the Leica SL2 didn’t get her in focus. But it still shot a beautiful photo of her in her natural element. It’s usable in a place where people aren’t pixel peeping, like on social media. But if you’re going to pixel peep on the web, then you’ll be disappointed.

The workaround, of course, is to stop your lens down. If you do that, then it can keep a subject in focus. But when doing this wide open, you’re going to have trouble. This isn’t a problem that Leica alone has: the Leica SL2 shares this issue with the rest of the L mount alliance. Upon its formation, one of the things discussed was sharing autofocus and exposure protocols in addition to the same lens mount. To that end, pretty much everything else that is L mount isn’t really the best for the photojournalist, it’s better for the documentary photographer. Again, if you’re just shooting street photography, this isn’t for you. Get a Leica M and zone focus the hell out of it.

Image Quality for Portraiture

Where I think the Leica SL2 is fantastic though is with its image quality. The 47MP full-frame sensor delivers files that are absolutely beautiful. Couple this with Leica’s exceptional lenses and access to arguably the best lens maker on the market right now and you’ve got a winning combo. I had a discussion with a buddy today that, due to our over 10 years of experience in the industry, we shoot as much in-camera as possible. This is to say that we try to get it right in-camera. Often clients say, “Oh but you can do that in post, right?” We often retort with some sort of expression of not wanting to spend more time on a project than necessary. We’re already busy, and if we can have some semblance of a life balance in our early 30s then we’re going to take that. This is a long, roundabout way of saying that, even if you royally screw up, you can rely on the versatility of the RAW files to get what you need. But honestly, if you’re spending this kind of money, you shouldn’t have to.

Photographers who do a lot of retouching will not only appreciate the RAW file versatility here but also how many megapixels there are. In a meeting with the press, Leica told us the SL2 has pretty much the same sensor Panasonic uses in the Panasonic S1R. However, there is one less layer of glass on top. What that means is you’re going to get even more sharpness and resolve even more details. That’s important to many photographers. If you happen to be a well-off fellow who appreciates anything and everything Leica, then you’re going to want to work with the images in post. And for you, take comfort in knowing that the RAW files have your back.

Something I found a bit off about working with the Leica SL2 has to do with custom white balance settings. If you’re working with the camera to have as much flexibility in-camera, then you’re going to be a tad disappointed. Your custom white balance settings are limited to only a few numbers that Leica dictates. If you want a specific 5200K white balance before you apply a Kodak Portra 800 preset for example, then you’re going to be a bit out of luck. Despite this, the Leica SL2 uses the DNG RAW files that make it very versatile. You could, of course, do it in post. (Excuse me while I contemplate my life decisions.)

I’m kidding obviously. But if I don’t need to do something in post, then I’d rather not. The process of importing, categorizing, organizing, and rendering RAW files in Capture One, even on the latest maxed-out iMac, is still a few minutes of my life I could have spent catching up with our ad agency and ensuring that the rest of the staff gets paid. Or I could have been editing blog posts. Or checking traffic and figuring out how we can attract more. Either way, there are better ways I can spend my time.

Ease of Use for Portraiture

The great thing about using the Leica SL2 for portraiture is that it’s a pretty simple camera to use. I say that once you understand how unconventional they are compared to many other camera options on the market. Leica believes you should have as few buttons as possible: sometimes that makes things more complicated. But thankfully, all you really need is the joystick and the autofocus capabilities. To access those, you’ll press one of the buttons on the front of the camera. Portrait photographers will feel right at home, especially if they have shot with Nikon bodies. It feels a lot like that experience. Once you set it up to your liking, you’re not going to have a whole lot of issues with the SL2. The camera feels ergonomically very nice in the hand.

The Problem with Flash

My biggest problem with the Leica SL2 has to do with flash output. Within the L mount alliance, there is no shared hot shoe. So, if you want to work with Panasonic cameras and Leica cameras, you’re going to need two different types of flashes. Otherwise, you’ll just be working with manual flash. That’s fine I guess for Leica, but it makes no sense in the L mount alliance overall.