The Most Rugged Camera for a Journalist. Leica SL2s Review

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There’s nothing wrong with the way the traditional Leica camera worked. If anything, the Leica M series makes the photographer more aware of what’s around them. But let’s be honest, autofocus is very useful. And the Leica SL2s is probably the camera that answers the needs of the modern journalist the best. At the heart of the Leica SL2s is what Leica claims to be a newly developed 24MP BSI sensor. This variant of the Leica SL2 maintains the IP54 weather sealing rating, but it also received a speed boost.

Editor’s Note: We’ve updated this post as of May 2021.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • The fastest autofocus on a Leica ILC I’ve seen. It’s now on par with Canon and Sony.
  • Autofocus profiles are cool!
  • Solid build quality
  • Easy to use
  • Beautiful image quality
  • People detection is wonderful.
  • Functionality-wise, the buttons are fantastic with a good layout and give you everything you need.
  • A camera that you truly want to carry around with you everywhere
  • Both Panasonic and Leica lenses have comparable autofocus speeds.
  • Raw files are pretty versatile in Lightroom.
  • FANTASTIC high ISO print capability

Cons

  • A tad pricey. But when you consider the weather sealing, it’s not bad.
  • I wish it did Qi wireless charging.
  • I wish this had dedicated animal face detection
  • There should be an option to never let the display time out. This is especially true for the EVF-Extended mode.
  • It needs the right strap to be comfortable for long photo walks
  • Still no multiple exposure mode
  • I wish the menu was touch-capable and that it either flipped or tilted/pivoted.

Gear Used

We tested the Leica SL2s with:

  • Leica 35mm f2 Summicron SL
  • Leica 24-90mm f2.8-4 SL
  • Panasonic 24-70mm f2.8 Lumix S Pro
  • Panasonic 16-35mm f4 Lumix S Pro

Tech Specs

  • A new 24 Megapixel CMOS BSI full-frame sensor. This sensor is image stabilized.
  • 25fps in the electronic shutter mode, and 9fps in mechanical
  • 4GB of internal memory
  • Up to ISO 100,000
  • 96MP Multishot mode
  • 4K 30p/60P video, Cinema 4K video at 30p/60p
  • No 29 minute filming limit
  • Capture One 21 support
  • 5.76 Megapixel EVF
  • IP54 weather sealing rating and you can shoot with it down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Dual UHS II SD Card slots
  • Top display
  • USB C

Ergonomics

The Leica SL2s is pretty much identical to the SL2. The big difference is the blacked out Leica logo up top. But otherwise, this camera is very similar to its sibling. It’s still milled from a block of aluminum.

The front of the Leica SL2s has a few controls. There are two buttons near the lens release that are customizable.

Up top there are a few controls. The biggest things are the wonderful diopter control, the LCD screen, the exposure dial, shutter button, and two other buttons. We set these to ISO and white balance.

The back of the camera has little going on. It’s dominated by a large LCD screen. The left has a play button, function button, and a menu button. The power on/off switch is also located here. On the right there is another button that I set to the view mode. Plus, there’s the joystick.

And of course, a camera wouldn’t be a professional grade camera without dual card slots. And this camera has them. On the other side are other ports and the USB C terminal.

Build Quality

The Leica SL2s has an IP54 weather sealing rating. According to the web, that means it can take splashes from any direction and resist a bit of dust. Indeed, the Leica SL2s is one of the toughest and most rugged cameras on the market. I’d argue that it’s the most rugged for a photojournalist. Its predecessor quite literally saved the life of an Italian journalist. The build quality of the Leica SL2s has strengthened my beliefs in better cameras. And quite honestly, the next camera I purchase needs a solid IP rating. I currently own Canon, Fujifilm, and Sony gear. I don’t see Sony sealing their products that well anytime soon. And I’ve done some insane things with both Canon and Fujifilm cameras. If the new firmware updates promised by Leica really improve the autofocus of the Leica SL2s, I may consider purchasing it.

I digress though. Overall, this is a very solid camera. For some odd reason, I didn’t find it to be insanely heavy either. However, you need a thick, broad strap with it to have that experience. Paired with the Leica 35mm f2, it seems perfectly balanced. Further, every single thing about this camera feels solid.

One thing that sort of annoys me about the Leica SL2s is the lack of a tilting/pivoting screen. The screen is instead just flat and built right into the design. Leica has told me previously that it would compromise the build quality. But already, the usability is compromised.

“Indeed, the Leica SL2s is one of the toughest and most rugged cameras on the market. I’d argue that it’s the most rugged for a photojournalist. Its predecessor quite literally saved the life of an Italian journalist.”

– Editor in Chief Chris Gampat

Ease of Use

Continuing on what I was just saying, the biggest annoyance of the Leica SL2s is the flat screen. I think Leica could have mitigated this with an EVF that flips up sort of like their Visioflex. It’s very limiting in 2020.

Otherwise, approaching the Leica SL2s can go one of two ways. You’ll either be very used to other systems, in which case you may get frustrated with the camera. But if you approach the Leica SL2s with a completely clean slate, you’ll understand how easy it is to work with. The menu interface is much different than most others out there. In fact, I voiced to Leica that I wish it were touch-capable. Leica responded by saying that they’d need to take the system from the T series and put it into this camera. I very strongly disagree–especially considering what Canon and Pansonic have done with their systems.

A nice touch is Leica’s top LCD display. Quite honestly, I rarely used this. If anything, I maybe used it once during my two weeks with the camera. Also, keep in mind that this camera doesn’t have an automatic mode. Changing the mode dial is done easily enough using the back LCD screen, but you can also press the back exposure dial in and select it.

One thing I really wish it had was multiple exposure mode. Why isn’t it there? That annoys me. Leica likes to tout that they’re all about pure photography, but they neglect this feature? Every other manufacturer except Sony has it as of this publishing. 

May 2021 Update: The Leica SL2s has a slightly longer menu system now for both video and photo usage. The video menu has a lot more navigation options to refine your video settings. The photo menus don’t have a whole lot different. However, I still think that the system could benefit with a full touchscreen. There’s also a new image overlay mode that really just needs to become a proper multiple-exposure mode.

Autofocus

The autofocus is probably the most complicated thing about the Leica SL2s. Even after spending a few weeks with it, I don’t think I totally understand it. There are tons of variables for it. Here are my general findings

  • Face detection is its own autofocus mode instead of being incorporated into every single focus mode.
  • Body detection is a thing, and it’s very cool.
  • There are spot focusing modes, zone, area, etc. It feels a lot like Panasonic’s focusing modes.
  • Performance in low light isn’t the best.
  • Tracking in good lighting varies. I’m not so sure I’d be consistently happy with it for street photography considering what’s out there.
  • Autofocus degrades when Panasonic lenses are used, but Leica is faster in low lighting. It’s also generally more accurate. Still, Panasonic isn’t unusable. If you’re a Sony user, it’s similar to the performance you’d get with Sigma lenses vs Sony’s own lenses.

Ultimately, I think the entire L mount alliance has made strides forward. But the Panasonic S5 is still a faster camera overall than the Leica SL2s. Would I use this camera as a journalist? I could, but I’d miss a fair amount of shots. I’d rate the Leica SL2s to be a bit behind Fujifilm and Nikon in autofocus performance. That means that it’s still way behind both Canon and Sony. Below is a test with the 35mm f2 attached. Before I shot it, I switched the autofocus profile accordingly. Those help out a lot, as they prep the camera for different shooting situations.

May 2021 Update: With Firmware 2.0, the Leica SL2s receives a massive autofocus speed update. For veteran reviewers like me, this is akin to the same feeling I had when the original Leica Q came out. At the time, it outdid Sony and everyone else on focusing speed. The Leica SL2s isn’t outdoing Sony and Canon, but it’s very speedy. In fact, it’s on par with both. The key here is that the Intelligent autofocus setting will be good enough for most cases. But when tracking subjects you’ll need face/body detection, continuous autofocus, and at least the runner profile. If you do that, then you’re going to nail a lot of great photos easily.

We tested it at the Cannabis parade here in NYC over the past weekend. It nailed the shot pretty much every time. The only major troubles came when there were multiple subjects in the scene. The Leica SL2s isn’t as smart as Canon and Sony to figure out who to focus on based on composition. So you’ll need to move the focusing point to give it some assistance. One fascinating point is that the Leica SL2s couldn’t tell that there were people behind a banner. That’s because the banner broke up the shape of a typical human body. I’m very positive that Leica is using AI here, as these algorithms are in loads of consumer and professional cameras these days.

The autofocus in low light is also very good now. A while back, the Leica SL2s and Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 made me grumble at their low light focusing. I wouldn’t have had this issue with the new Leica 28mm f2 Summicron SL for sure. But with the new firmware update, the viewfinder is boosted. So it won’t struggle as much as it used to. For what it’s worth, Canon is still the king of low-light autofocus. But the Leica SL2s can hold its own with Sony.

Metering

We’re bringing back the metering tests! Exciting, right? For those who are newer to the site, listen up! We’ve previously tested cameras in accordance with Sunny 16 tests. We’ve got a lot more about Sunny 16 on our site, and why it’s important.

Either way, I admittedly haven’t used it in a while myself. But I set the Leica 24-90mm f2.8-4 to a scene with the Leica SL2s. For a scene that I thought would have been at f8, ISO 400, and 1/400th the camera told me that I needed to actually be at f5. So I tested that against the Fujifilm GFX 50R with the 30mm lens attached, and both cameras gave the same reading. 

Still not convinced, I brought Excalibur out of the closet. That’s what I’ve christened my Leica M6 TTL. It gave me a similar reading. I guess I really just am out of practice. 

My conclusion here is that the Leica SL2s meters accordingly with standard film protocols perfectly. This makes me think that the sensor inside isn’t from Sony. Sony’s sensors don’t traditionally work like this. But again, we haven’t done metering tests in a long time, and we’re only now bringing them back.

Image Quality

Overall, it’s hard to complain about the image quality from the Leica SL2s. But at this point, I feel like full-frame 24MP sensors are pretty difficult to complain about: they’re all good. What helps the Leica SL2s out a bit more though is the L mount lenses. They’re all very sharp. The files are also very versatile, but I’ve seen other RAW files produce better results at high ISOs. Leica’s past few cameras with color sensors have given odd results at high ISOs. A part of my soul really wishes they’d produce a few cameras with CCD sensors again and focus on mindblowing low ISO imagery. 

JPEG Output

JPEGs from the Leica SL2s are just alright. I don’t think that they’re anything to write home about the way that they are from Leica M cameras. They’re just, you know, alright. 

RAW File Versatility

By all means, what I’m about to say could sound like I’m bashing this product’s image quality, but it’s not. First off, no one is making bad cameras or sensors: they’re all varying degrees of good. These days, the staff is really only truly blown away by completely innovative sensors. The sensor at the heart of the Leica SL2s isn’t anything innovative. It does the job.

We tested these RAW files in Lightroom as we haven’t upgraded to Capture One 21 yet. And the last time we tested RAW files in Capture One, the image quality really fell apart. Luckily, that’s not the case anymore and it won’t be going forward from my understanding. Either way, we tested them in Capture One 20, and the details we were able to get from the highlights and shadows were outstanding. At high ISOs, there wasn’t any issue with colors becoming desaturated either. In fact, the dynamic range at ISO 6400 was still very solid.

Anyway, the files are all highly capable. The dynamic range and color range are good. But they’re not the best. For that, you’re going to need to go for higher megapixel sensors. Still, if you’re getting this camera, you probably have an idea of how to meter and of what you’re doing, so I trust you’ll be fine.

High ISO Output

The high ISO output from the Leica SL2s is very clean. I can’t really complain about that. Just once though, I’d like to see something absolutely mind-blowing when it comes to 24MP high ISO output. The Sony a7s III is still outdoing this camera in high ISO output. And I think it’s about time that 24MP sensors start becoming the new ultra-clean high ISO target.

You may wonder why I’d even bother making that statement in the previous paragraph. And that’s because the Leica SL2S has the cleanest high ISO print output we’ve seen from a 24MP sensor. At ISO 6400, the image was super clean. We printed from the Canon Prograf 1000 with Pro Luster paper, and I’m seriously shocked. With that said, the sensor at the heart of the Leica SL2s is still very capable and clean at ISO 6400. Again, it’s the cleanest that we’ve seen. There’s still a bit of noise though. And one day I’d like to see absolutely no noise. So far, Leica is leading the pack.

Extra Image Samples

Conclusions

May 2020: Update

Likes

  • Build quality
  • Easy menu
  • Ergonomics
  • IP rating
  • Leica will continue to improve it via firmware updates
  • Majorly improved autofocus

Dislikes

  • It’s pricier than the rest, but I sort of understand why
  • Leica needs to make better use of the touchscreen

By and large, the Leica SL2s is the most rugged camera on the market for a working journalist: there’s no question about that one. It’s incredibly reliable, and I know that I’d be able to use it in any weather or environmental situation. It feels good in the hand, you’re getting a solid menu system, the lenses are wonderful, and best of all, the high ISO images are super clean. Again, the Leica SL2s gave us the cleanest ISO 6400 prints from a 24MP full frame sensor we’ve seen so far. Personally speaking, this is a camera that I’d want to have with me everywhere. The company is also going to really continue to improve the camera with firmware. We’re excited to see what happens. In fact, the camera’s future may depend on it. Firmware 2.0 has brought mostly updates for video shooters, but there are some great things for photographers.

In a few key areas, the Leica SL2s is one of the best cameras on the market. That’s great on paper. But ultimately, I feel what’s holding it back is the autofocus. When Canon and Sony are just that good, you need to move at light speed to catch up. They’re also still catching up to the Fujifilm X system in some ways. In the end, if Leica doesn’t really improve the autofocus in the Leica SL2s, it could massively hurt the camera’s success. As of firmware 2.0, the Leica SL2s can hold its own with Canon and Sony.

Don’t get us wrong, the autofocus is usable. But why bother paying that $4,895 price point unless you really need the build quality? It’s $1,000 more than the Canon EOS R5 with none of the megapixels, the autofocus performance, or the versatility for photographers. The L Mount alliance offers far more lenses though. It’s even pricier than the Sony a9 II with none of the autofocus performance. However, they can keep up with lenses and they wipe the floor with Sony’s build quality. But even the Fujifilm GFX 50R is more affordable and has a larger sensor. Then consider that the system only just got solid Capture One support and has no major assistance with professional flashes and strobes. If they at least get the autofocus majorly tuned up, they’ve got a better chance. That new autofocus update in firmware 2.0 drives the Leica SL2s to be faster than Fujifilm’s options. The GFX 100s can probably hold its own with the Sony, Canon, and Leica options out there, for what it’s worth.

With the 2.0 firmware update, the Leica SL2s is being awarded five out of five stars. Want one? You can get them for $4,895. We’ll update this review once the new firmware comes out.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.