CreativityHere to stay: the Leica SL2-S

Here to stay: the Leica SL2-S

Reading time: 2:45 | I find the naming convention of cameras in photography land zero inspirational—which is quite telling. What kind of target group have the manufacturers in mind when they christen their products based on numbers and letters, R5, A7IIIs, S1H, Z6II, XT-4, SL2-S? Accountants, engineers, programmers, tech-savvy men?

In cinema land, cameras have proper names. They are called Alexa, Amira, Venice or Monstro. They inspire their crews without caring much about numbers, even when it comes to specs like sensor resolution (an Arri Alexa of today resolves 4K vs a Canon R5 at 8K). Cinema camera engineers know that numbers don’t count much when it comes to the creativity of their clientele. They know it’s all about colour.

So, why is this so different in photography land? Partly, I’d argue, that is due to the customer clientele, which is the tech-savvy gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) suffering middle-aged man with money to spend. Camera manufacturers’ marketing experts know how the exploit that.

And partly because photography is, unlike cinematography, not a purely professional domain. Most professional-grade photography gear is purchased by hobbyists who tend to follow the philosophy that bigger numbers are better and understand their gear as toys (which is perfectly fine for me).

The toy aspect of photography equipment is why customers of such gear are often not profoundly involved with picture creation in an artistic sense but rather enjoy the technical side of the process when creating images. But they still need some cornerstones for guidance: numbers written in the camera’s manuals and advertisements, and discussed ad nauseam on the net. For cinematographers and a chunk of professional photographers, however, that cornerstone is still colour.

This picture is part of a campaign I’ve created for Eurosite and GPI/UNEP. Shot with the Leica SL2-S at 50mm and f 4.0 on the 24-90 Elmarit

That’s where Leica, as a manufacturer of extraordinary photo cameras and lenses, comes into play. Leica has a solid base of conservative customers who are by large margins hobbyists with big pockets. But there are also professional Leica users who hold the brand in high regard for their quality gear and attitude.

Speaking of attitude, Leica does not argue with numbers. Their argument is tradition and craftsmanship. Their products are built in Germany, Portugal, and Japan. They do not take part in the race to the bottom of cheap labour. A humanistic understanding of the world shaped Leica’s heritage. In the Third Reich, under the Nazi reign, right before the Holocaust, Ernst Leitz II assigned hundreds of Jewish employees to overseas offices to help them to flee the country. That attitude is still very much alive at Leica and today expands to LTBTQ+, feminism, diversity and racial equality.

From that historical background of truths, facts, craftsmanship and humanist tradition, Leica had to shape their colour science in the digital age to something the Leica audience can relate to. Leica’s colour interpretation needed to be exactly that: true to the photographed environment and traditional in interpreting that environment without euphemising facts. That also counts for skin tones.

That’s the reason pictures taken with a Leica feel right to a European eye. Skin tones, the blue of the sky, the plant’s green foliage, and the reds of flowers and fabrics are saturated into the depths of the deepest shadows but never exaggerate or are vibrant in the sense of wow and uh. The same applies to the whites, which roll off gently to a desaturated white.

The Leica’s vast dynamic range and deep colour allows for B&W pictures from a colour sensor that mimic well red B&W filtering without introducing noise when pulling chroma keys. Mosibruch fen, Rhineland-Palatinate 2021, Photograph: Hans von Sonntag

With the SL2-S, Leica brought a non-nonsense camera to the professional market in the best sense, but indeed not the spearhead of camera technology. It delivers with good lenses pictures that leave no questions. And it does so too in video mode. This virtue is rare to find and a vast time-safer.

That’s the reason I purchased the Leica SL2-S together with the second-to-none 24-90 Elmarit all-purpose zoom. Because I do not suffer from GAS, and because colour rendition is the most I care about with cameras, the Leica and I have a great chance to team up for a long time to come.

(For the nerds:

The Leica Sl2-S resolves 24 megapixels that equal a resolution to 6K in FF format and 4K in APS-C or S-35 mm format. With this moderate resolution (nothing to brag in the pub about), Leica’s photosites are relatively large, which helps colour saturation and sensitivity.

A photo’s raw data is packed into DNG files, an open standard that makes it easy for everyone to read. The Leica’s JPEG engine is nothing spectacular, but does what one would expect.

The AF algorithms work well with headshots in stills but are far behind the competition in video mode using continuous follow focus autofocus. Here, manual focus is the best practice. That is a non-issue because with shooting films pulling focus is a vital part of content creation anyway.

On the video side, the SL2-S sports a one-on-one pixel readout in cropped S-35 mm/APS-C mode with 4K resolution. In FF mode, the sensor’s data is oversampled from 6K down to 4K, adding some extra juice to the video files. In both resolution modes, the Leica adds no de-noising to the video files when encoded in L-log. That way, accordingly to exposure and ISO, the video footage shows a pleasing texture you only find with proper cine cameras.

In L-log, The SL2-S’ video colourspace is based upon Rec 2020, the international HDR video colour space. That makes it easy to work with Leica’s footage in colour-managed NLEs and finishing applications. But when using L-log encoded files in legacy Rec 709 environments, the colour will be off (skin tones show a magenta tint). To compensate for that, Leica offers corresponding LUTs that convert the L-log encoded Rec 2020 files into gamma and colour space corrected Rec 709 footages.

The SL2-S’ video is recorded in 4:2:2 in 10 bit at 400 m/bits, which is sufficient for many applications to carry the camera’s extraordinary colour fidelity. )