Leica CL Field Review
Two and a half years ago Leica presented the Leica Q (Type 116) which was reminiscent of the M series with its 28mm fixed lens with traditional aperture ring and depth-of-field scale. The concept of a compact camera with a full-frame sensor has proved to be a huge success for Leica and the camera has a lot of fans – even outside the usual Leica community.
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Leica followed this shortly afterwards in winter 2015 with the Leica SL (Typ 601), the first mirrorless system camera for professional photographers that features the amazing EyeRes© electronic viewfinder that still sets it apart from other cameras. After trying out models from other manufacturers, the SL was the first mirrorless camera that met my requirements and I’ve now been using it for the past 2 years for my wedding and event reportages.
A year earlier, in 2014, Leica launched a camera inspired by a smartphone – the T (Typ 701) – that was upgraded, renamed to Leica TL and since July 2017 lives on as the TL2.
Each of these models has something special; loved by some and criticized by others. There are those that would like a bayonet for the very popular Q to be able to adapt lenses. The SL is often criticised as being too big, too heavy combined with the SL zooms (which is nonsense if you look at comparable DSLR cameras from other manufacturers), and when it comes to the TL2 there is divided opinion on the lack of viewfinder and on the touch display’s operating concept.
There seems to be general consensus on the image quality typical for Leica and on the overall perceived quality of the different models.
Now there’s a new player on the team with the Leica CL and the question is now of course where this camera will be positioned in the range, what makes it so special and what qualities it has in common with the other models. How much Q is there in the CL? Is it maybe a mini SL, the successor of the Leica X or just a sister to the TL2?
Rumours about a new APS-C camera with a TL bayonet and code name ‘Clooney’ have been circulating on the internet since spring of this year.
In autumn, I had the opportunity to try out the Leica CL(-ooney) extensively during the beta test und give feedback to Leica. This article is highly subjective and describes my personal impression and experience during the test period. I have placed an emphasis on aspects that are important to me in a camera based on my kind of photography and have touched on or skipped details that are not relevant to me.
I haven’t done any lab tests but used the camera in the field as a wedding and event photographer. To get a more all-round picture and to try out some features in peace I also took the Leica CL along on some of my private projects and used it in some everyday life scenarios. The question that I wanted to answer was: Do I get the pictures that I envisaged and how well does the camera help me achieve them?
In the following description, I often compare the CL with the SL, Q or TL2 because I assume that some readers already own or are familiar with one of these models and the information can give you a reference point to the CL. I don’t (yet) have a Leica M in my portfolio so I can’t draw comparisons to it here.
Let me start by saying that the Leica CL offers ‘a lot of camera’ in spite of its compact dimensions and that it mastered all of the tasks I gave it during my test with ease. I was actually quite reluctant to send the test camera back to Wetzlar and will no doubt be buying myself one once it is officially launched.
It’s a huge advantage, in my opinion, to be able to use all available Leica lenses on the SL, TL2 and CL and not have to equip yourself with lenses from other manufacturers (that would otherwise be redundant). I can also use my Sigma BP-51 spare battery for the Q with the CL, which is really practical.
The Leica CL is an APS-C system camera with 24 MP and as far as I know, has the same 23.6 x 15.7 mm sensor as the TL2 and offers 6000 x 4000-pixel resolution.
According to the data sheet the dimensions are 131 x 78 x 45mm. Leaving out the electronic viewfinder and the bayonet, I measured a depth of 31 mm, which makes the body of the CL slightly thinner than the Q, although the CL is roughly the same height as the TL2 (without the viewfinder).
The CL weighs 403 grams with the battery, making it more or less the same weight as the TL2 (399g with battery but without Visoflex).
What’s not a surprise is that the CL takes DNGs or JPGs (or both together). The camera has an SD card slot and supports SD /SDHC /SDXC cards and the UHSII standard.
The Leica CL has integrated Wi-Fi, but does away with all types of connections like USB, HDMI or microphone connection.
The L bayonet gives you the option of seven TL lenses, the SL lens range and – with an adapter – all the M lenses. The Novoflex SL/EOS adapter for the Canon bayonet is not compatible. I can’t say anything about the Nikon adapter but I assume that it would also trigger an error message on the CL. To use other manufacturers’ lenses, you need a simple adapter that doesn’t transfer lens information. This means that you can’t use the autofocus or set the aperture via the camera.
Body and Design
When you first look at the camera, a few design elements borrowed from the current Leica portfolio are noticeable. The back of the camera, with only three buttons to the left of the display and the 4-way controller on the right, is very reminiscent of the M10, and the shape of the body is pretty much the same as the Q.
The display is a little further to the right compared to the Q to make space for the electronic viewfinder. That’s why, unlike the Q, there is no space left for an indent for the thumb on the right-hand side.
New features include a small top display and the two control dials on top of the camera that also have settings buttons in the middle. I’ll describe the configuration later on.
The surface of the CL is more finely structured than the Q. The camera has a haptic quality and sits well in the hand with a good grip. However, the implied grip of the TL is more ergonomic in my opinion. I was able to use the optional hand grip of the Q on the CL even though it didn’t fit 100% and you can’t attach a strap. I’m sure that Leica will be offering these accessories for the CL too.
Overall, even without the red dot, you can see and feel that you are holding a Leica and one that remains true to the minimalistic principles of the German company.
The electronic viewfinder is rounder than on the Q and protrudes from the body a little.
To the left of the 3’’ touch display you’ll find a button for image display, one programmable function button and the menu button. On the right-hand side, there is the four-way button with a set button in the middle.
At the bottom left there is the loudspeaker and at the bottom right a status LED.
A feature that I found clever was that to set the dioptres, you pull the dial out and after pushing it back in again the value can’t be adjusted by mistake.
Retractable dioptre control dial
The top of the camera has a small display between the control dials which shows you the shooting mode and, depending on the shooting mode, the aperture set, the time and/or the exposure compensation. This allows you to set the important parameters without having to look at the display at the back of the camera.
Depending on the shooting mode, the two control dials are used to set the aperture, time or exposure compensation and cannot be configured.
- M mode: exposure time (dial on the left), aperture (dial on the right)
- A mode: exposure compensation (dial on the left), aperture (dial on the right)
- S mode: exposure time (dial on the left), exposure compensation (dial on the right)
- P mode: exposure compensation (dial on the left), programme shift (dial on the right)
- Video and scene mode: exposure compensation (both dials)
The control dial on the left is used to activate shooting mode selection (P-S-A-M-Video-Scene) and to then select one using the dial.
Pressing the control dial button on the right activates a function that you’ve previously configured (in my case, in A mode it’s the ISO) and you can then use the dial to make your setting. If you press and hold the button for longer you can select from a list of configurable functions. In M mode with activated auto-ISO, I use the dial for exposure compensation, for example. In this way, the control dial on the right serves as a second FN button.
The power switch is not labelled and like the TL2 has the position ’On’ and ’Off’. In Off mode, a small red dot is visible. With the Q you use the power switch to select single pictures or continuous picture series. I sometimes manage to switch my Q to ‘C’ by mistake when I switch it on if I’m using it with one hand. This can’t happen with the CL as you have to set ‘S‘ or ‘C‘ in the menu. The silver shutter release has a pleasant pressure point.
Two microphones are installed in front of the hot shoe.
The underside of the camera body has a ¼ inch tripod socket and a combined battery and SD card compartment that has been adopted from the Q.
Next to the Leica logo is a self-timer LED and an autofocus auxiliary light that can be deactivated in the menu.
Leica SL and CL size comparison
Berlin TV Tower
Unfortunately, I currently don’t have the technical specs for the viewfinder, but I really like the electronic viewfinder a lot. It seems more vivid than on the Q and runs very smoothly. However, my favourite is still the EyeRes viewfinder of the SL.
The touchscreen responds really well and supports standard gestures. However, the menu is controlled solely using the 4-way button. A clever feature here: a horizontal swipe changes between photo and video mode – just as with the TL2; a vertical swipe switches between shooting mode and display mode.
As with the M10, pressing the menu button first activates the configurable favourites menu that offers a maximum of 15 menu options spread over 2 screens. From here you can navigate to the full camera menu. Unfortunately, the sequence of the favourites cannot be changed. I would have liked to see a selection option, ideally using drag and drop on the touchscreen.
You can display your images either by pressing the ’Play’ button or by swiping up or down on the touchscreen display. You can then scroll through the pictures and enlarge them with gesture controls, much like on a smartphone. Alternatively, you can use the control dial on the right and the 4-way button.
Schwetzingen Palace Gardens
The CL provides a 3x and 6x magnifier and focus peaking as focussing aids. For focus peaking you can select the colours red, green, blue and white. With TL and SL lenses the magnifier function can be switched on automatically by turning the focus ring. For other lenses, you can use the control dial on the right.
The Leica CL comes with the autofocus modes that you might be familiar with from the TL2 (and comparable to those found in the Q).
- Multi Point
- Facial Recognition
- Touch AF
- Touch AF + Release
The autofocus is fast and very precise thanks to the contrast measurement. I mainly shoot in Spot mode to be able to choose a focal point precisely where I want it when working with maximum aperture. When you switch the CL on, the last AF point selected is saved and is not automatically positioned in the centre as is the case with the Q.
The facial recognition works extremely well. In photos of groups the primary face is first surrounded by a yellow frame. This lets you decide before taking the shot whether the camera has selected the face that you want. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to change to a different face. The camera focusses on the eyes that are closest to the camera. I used this feature for individual portraits and using maximum aperture quite frequently.
I didn’t have any focus problems with party photos in dark locations with the Summicron TL 1:2/23mm, and I was able to focus on dancing guest with ease. For the most part, this worked just as well as with the Q.
The start-up time is extremely short and the camera is immediately ready to use when you switch it on. The menu and the image display are also very smooth and all the settings can be made extremely quickly.
The noise of the shutter release is similar to the TL2, although it seems more present due to the different casing. The Leica Q is considerably quieter by comparison. For silent shots, the CL has an electronic shutter that I like to use if the shooting conditions are right.
In continuous picture mode, there is space for 27 DNGs in the buffer and it takes approx. 40 seconds for the camera to save the data to the SD card (SanDisk Extreme Pro 95MB/s SDXC 1 and Lexar Professional 150 MBs SDXC II). In my opinion that’s a workable value in practice. As soon as there is space in the buffer you can carry on shooting.
I took around 450 – 500 pictures per battery charge. To increase battery life it makes sense to use ‘EVF extended’ mode. Then the display and EVF stay switched off and the EVF automatically switches itself on when you hold the camera to your eye.
The Leica CL and the TL lenses don’t have an image stabiliser. Especially with longer focal lengths you need to keep your eye on the exposure time to get blur-free shutter speeds. If you use stabilised SL lenses, you can activate the image stabilization for the zoom in the CL’s menu.
The CL offers ISO 100 – 50,000 and as a wedding photographer I often work in dark churches or party locations. However, I usually manage with an ISO of 3,200 (rarely 6,400) and the CL delivers flawless quality here. It can get trickier if you attach the Vario-Elmar-TL 1:3.5-5.6/18-56mm ASPH and you need to shoot with low light at the long end with an aperture of 5.6. Then you easily need ISO values of 12,500 and higher and the image quality naturally drops.
In auto ISO mode, you can set the maximum ISO value and the longest exposure time. You can set values in the range of 0.5 – 1/500 seconds, 1/f, 1/2f or 1/4f. Here, “f” represents the focal length without taking the crop factor into account. For example, with the Summicron TL 1:2/23 mm you would set 1/25th at 1/f. In my opinion, the crop factor should be taken into account and 1/40th selected.
With the mechanical shutter, you can select times between 30 seconds and 1/8,000.
From an exposure time of one second, the CL automatically creates a dark frame and this can’t be deactivated.
The electronic shutter works in the range 1 to 1/25,000th second. The electronic shutter can be permanently switched on or switched off or there’s the option of activating it automatically for shutter speeds of less than 1/8,000.
A new feature in exposure bracketing is the option to set the exposure compensation along with the number of pictures and EV steps. This saves a lot of superfluous overexposures or underexposures for the HDR processing later. I would really like to see this feature in the SL too.
Wi-Fi and the CL App
I used the CL app on an iPhone and iPad and it runs very reliably and the Wi-Fi connection can be set up with a QR code or manually. In backup mode only jpg files are transferred to your smartphone. If you use the app for remote control, raw files are also displayed and can be downloaded.
Tip: In autofocus modes ‘Spot’ or ‘Field’, you can move the focal point in the app by tapping and holding it longer. In ‘Touch-AF’ mode, a short tap on the desired position in the image is enough.
The camera doesn’t have an integrated GPS module, probably due to its compact dimensions. So far, I’ve not used this on any camera and therefore don’t miss it.
Video is activated on the TL2 by swiping across the touchscreen. There isn’t an explicit video button, but the video function can be selected using the control dial on the left (P-S-A-M-Video-Scene). I found that quite a clever solution because with other cameras I have unintentionally started video mode by hitting the video button by mistake.
During the test period, I only tried out the video function briefly. Videos can be recorded either in 4k/30fps, full HD with 30 or 60 fps or HD/30fps. In the same way as for JPG photos, the ‘Video Look’ can be preselected from the options Standard, Vivid, Natural, B&W Natural or B&W High Contrast.
In the beta firmware, maximum aperture is always selected automatically and cannot be changed. I hope that Leica changes this.
The video function is good enough for occasional snapshots but as it also lacks connection options, the CL is definitely not designed to meet more professional requirements.
Along with ‘Auto’ and ‘On’, the CL offers Slow Sync for the flash. In normal flash mode, the shutter speed in A mode is no longer than 1/30 and can’t be configured differently. The CL only chooses shorter exposure times if the times are needed for the exposure due to the ISO and aperture. In Slow Sync the camera selects the time that would be exposed without light and the flash illuminates the main subject.
Flash exposure compensation set in the CL is transferred to the SF64. With the SF40 this doesn’t work because of the design of the flash. The other way around, the settings of the SF40 and SF64 are displayed in the CL.
The flash synchronisation speed is 1/180 sec. The exposures with the SF40 and SF64 are very good. Because of its compact size, the SF40 probably fits the CL better.
For party photos, I like to add manual remote flashes to the fill-in flash. The Cactus V6 that I use with the SL also works very well with the CL.
The film look you select is also used for viewing in EVF and the display. There are five looks to choose from:
- B&W Natural
- B&W High Contrast
Aside from automatic programme (P), aperture priority (A), shutter-speed priority (S) and manual mode (M) you can also select from various scene programmes.
- Fully automatic
- Night portrait
- Miniature effect
I only shoot in raw and used the CL for various wedding reportages along with my SL. I noticed that the basic look of the images is very similar and I can work with the same settings in Capture One. The colours and especially the skin tones suit me the way they come out of the camera. Lightening shadows or restoring lights to the images is no problem. Overall, I can basically do without post-processing and concentrate on the look of the image, just as I do with my SL or Q.
To me it’s very important that the various legs of a reportage harmonise with each other and the pictures from both cameras go together well.
I don’t have any comparison photos between the SL, TL2, Q and CL and can’t comment on the technical aspects of the sensor, dynamic range, etc. I won’t rate the sensor from a technical perspective as it’s an aspect that’s not relevant to me. I’ll leave that to the usual sources on the Internet as I am sure that there’ll be enough reviews out there when the time comes.
When I put some of my own typical use cases into practice, working with several cameras in parallel, I couldn’t find any faults. Differences were noticeable, but they stemmed more from the lenses I used, from the operating concepts and features of the different cameras.
An APS-C sensor obviously has different properties than the full-format sensor of the SL or M10. No doubt there are also situations where a bigger sensor comes into its own (ISO, subject isolation potential, etc.). However, in my real-world practical tests I was often able to disregard this.
With its excellent lenses the camera works very well as an autonomous system. I think it will be my camera of choice when I need a compact travel and holiday camera, where weight is an issue and when I can do without some of the functions of the SL. Its dimensions also make it ideal for unobtrusive reportage photography.
For me, the Leica CL has the same fun factor as the Q. The TL lenses provide an excellent addition for other focal lengths if you‘re willing to get into the APS-C format, which I found very easy. However, as long as the CL doesn’t have a back-button focus it won’t be able to replace a Q in my opinion.
The CL can also be combined very well with my other cameras and lenses. The Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm is an unbeatable and (relatively) manageable telephoto zoom with image stabilisation and autofocus up to 420mm. Alternatively, I can cover the most important focal lengths of 16-135mm with the TL 11-23mm and the SL 24-90mm. An important aspect to me is that the CL closes a gap in the SL system with the 60mm macro.
For professional assignments, I often need special features that only the SL can provide. Along with the SL’s reliable robustness, these include things like long exposure times, a mechanical remote shutter release, a second SD card slot or back-button focus. In other situations, this doesn’t play such an important role and then I would happily reach for the CL, as I think it offers an outstanding balance between compactness and image quality.