​The Leica SL (type 601) – full frame, mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera

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Leica SL - launching in November with a 24-90mm F/2.8-4 standard zoom lens(Credit: Leica)

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Leica has released details of its full-frame mirrorless, interchangeable system – the Leica SL. Using the same excellent 24-megapixel CMOS sensor as the Leica Q we reviewed in June, the SL debuts with a 24-90 mm f/2.8-4 zoom lens. It looks like a beast, but it’s going to sit in an awkward spot – it’ll struggle to compete with full-frame workhorse DSLRs for resolution, lens choices or autofocus speed, and it’s far too big to enjoy the portability advantages of other mirrorless full-frames like Sony’s A7R II. And the price? Put it this way: if you sold both your kidneys at the average Iranian black market rate, you’d still be short.

The specs on the Leica SL are impressive. We know the sensor is great, the EVF is a 4.4 million pixel beauty with a latency time "below the threshold of perception," it shoots 11 frames per second for quick action shots and the company boasts that its contrast-detect autofocus system is the fastest on the market. Presumably they mean the fastest on the mirrorless market.

It launches with the fastest zoom lens in the full frame mirrorless class as well – a 24-90 mm Vario-Elmarit-SL with an aperture of f/2.8 at the wide end and f/4 at full zoom. This will soon be joined by a 50mm f/1.4 and a cannon of a tele zoom in the 90-280 f/2.8-4.

The control system is typical Leica – minimalist to a fault, with just a few unmarked buttons and dials that can be assigned to different functions. It won’t be a pick-up-and-shoot special, there’s going to be a learning curve.

It looks like video is more than an afterthought here. The SL shoots in 8-bit 4K with a built-in flat color mode to maximize post-processing abilities. There’s 3.5mm audio in and out jacks for external microphones and headphones, and a full size HDMI port that lets you record even higher quality 10-bit 4:2:2 footage using an external recorder. 1080p recording will support up to 120 frames per second for slow-motion.

There’s no two ways about it – for a mirrorless camera, the Leica SL is a whopper. Billed as the professional shooter’s mirrorless system, the SL dwarfs the rest of the segment. In fact, with a battery and the 24-90 lens on, it’s similar in size and some 13 percent heavier than a Canon 5D Mk3 DSLR with a 24-70 f/2.8 II lens (1,987 g vs. 1,745 g). With the giant 90-280 lens on board it’ll hang even heavier on the shoulder.

I have no doubt the Leica SL will deliver excellent image quality, but it’ll sit in an awkward spot in the market. At such a size and weight, you lose the key thing people tend to be looking for when they go mirrorless – portability.

It’s also eye-bleedingly expensive. The body is US$7,450 and the 24-90 lens is $4,050, giving you a $11,500 starter kit … ouch. The Sony A7R II with a 24-70 f/4 Zeiss lens will run you less than $4500 – with nearly twice the sensor resolution and truly uncanny low-light performance.

The news is worse if you’re in Australia, where the Leica kit will cost you AU$17,900, or about the drive-away cost of a new small car. That’s just comical, as far as I’m concerned.

Still, Leica’s minimalist creative approach has won it a lot of fans, and there’s no shortage of people out there who already have cars, as well as money to burn. The SL will doubtless be a quality piece of gear for those that can afford it.

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