Leica TL Review

January 16, 2017 | Gavin Stoker | |

Introduction

The Leica TL is a new compact system camera with a 16-megapixel APS-C sensor and an upgraded AF system. Manufactured from a single block of aluminium, the Leica TL also offers an innovative touchscreen 3.7-inch display with 1,230k dots, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, a pop-up flash and hot shoe, 1080p Full HD videos, 11-point AF system, full range of advanced controls from manual exposure to manual focus, sensitivity range of ISO 100-12500, maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second, JPEG and DNG RAW file support, 32GB internal memory, and a continuous shooting rate of up to 5 frames per second. Available in black, silver or a titanium anodised finish, the recommended retail price of the Leica TL is £1450 / $1695 body only.

Ease of Use

Hand crafted objects of desire – the crème de la crème of the camera world, famously wielded by Magnum photographers navigating war zones – as well as the well-heeled photo enthusiast navigating a Mayfair parking space. That’s pretty much the public image of Leica in a nutshell. Into this rarified world (with attendant great expectations) cruises the new 16.3 megapixel Leica TL, a compact camera cleverly fashioned from a single block of aluminium. It’s available in a choice of three finishes: sensible black, striking silver (the version we were sent for review) or – classy titanium, further distinguished via beveled edge detail to the top and bottom plates. Even the box the camera arrives in plays like a bit of theatre; it unfolds like a cake box; a present that unwraps itself.

At a manufacturer’s recommended £1450, the ‘TL’, claimed to be a step on from the Leica T, is actually one of the less expensive Leica’s you can buy, despite its luxurious presentation. It’s comparable in terms of ticket price with the mirror-less camera alternatives of Sony’s A6500, Fuji’s XPro2 and Olympus’ OM-D E-M1 Mark II. Options for various coloured straps at £70, plus accessories, including leather body protectors at £105 each, do however suggest that this is a camera being as much presented as a lifestyle statement as it is a photographic tool.

It’s not all rich man’s plaything however: the camera is naturally a component of a photographic system, being directly compatible at the time of writing with six ‘TL’ lenses; three prime lenses and three zooms, as well as ‘SL’ optics thanks to shared L bayonet mount. Leica says that via adapter it’s further compatible with its M and R series lenses. So there is no need to worry that investing in a Leica TL is going to leave us short of capable accessory options.

At the Leica TL’s core is an APS-C CMOS sensor, rather than full frame chip, but given the competitors in its price bracket that’s fair – not everyone needs a full frame sensor. Unusually for a dedicated camera these days, and doubtless with a nod to the large internal memories of smartphones and tablets, the camera sports a large-ish 32GB internal memory – with Leica claiming sufficient space for 1000 shots.

Perhaps also indicating that its manufacturer expects the audience for this camera to be photographers upgrading from their smartphones, a larger than average 3.7-inch touch screen is provided. Naturally the camera is also Wi-Fi equipped and a free Leica TL app for both iOS and Android camera users was available on release, allowing the smartphone or tablet to be used as a remote control/alternative viewfinder for the camera. Though the camera is obviously thicker in depth than a standard smartphone, it is however roughly the same width and height. Official dimensions are 134x69x33mm and it weighs 384g.

Leica T
Front of the Leica TL

Photography reduced to the essentials is the pitch here. So overall the Leica TL has a very minimalist, uncluttered appearance, thanks to said touchscreen and the fact that with the exception of the raised on and off switch – which doubles as a means of activating the pop-up flash and incorporates the shutter release button at its centre – all other controls are either set into the top plate, or are of the virtual variety, accessed via touch screen.

What is most obviously missing here – and which may be a deal breaker for some – is a built in eye-level viewfinder, something its competitors in this price bracket most definitely offer. An accessory ‘Visoflex’ viewfinder is, however, available in black, featuring both a built-in eye sensor and tilt and swivel functionality for those who do prefer to shoot with the camera held up to their eye, rather than held out in front of them like a smartphone. Exclusively designed for the T system, this will set you back £360 alone. However it does also feature a built in GPS option as an added bonus.

In terms of accessories, Leica provided a compact 23mm f/1.2 fixed lens with our review sample, along with a slightly more versatile – but still relatively compact – 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6mm zoom. We were able to fit it into the pocket of a winter jacket with relatively compact 23mm lens attached.

So, let’s examine the Leica TL’s features and functionality. From the front, then, our silver review sample looks slick enough to prompt ‘wows’ from those in the photo trade we showed it to, the familiar Leica red logo the most prominent feature here, save for the lens mount and small window positioned top right which houses its AF assist lamp.

What passes for a grip (it’s actually more of an undulation to the body) is smooth to the touch – here we’re basically trying to get a firm hold on a piece of polished metal – though at least there’s enough space provided to wrap four fingers around its gently curved frontage. In practice, though, we found ourselves steadying this chunk of metal with both hands to take a shot, with not exactly much real estate to get a firm purchase on over at the other side of the camera either. Overall the experience left us longing for a padded handgrip and thumb rest, if, admittedly, the inclusion of either would of course ‘spoil’ the camera’s feature-lite visual aesthetic. Design wise we guess the Leica TL is a bit of a ‘marmite’ product; it will immediately appeal thanks to its intentional minimalism, or it won’t, and a more traditional control layout and camera design will be sought out instead. We found ourselves admitting it, without outright loving it.

Leica T
Rear of the Leica TL

The Leica TL’s ports – including a single slot for optional SD/SDHC card – are protected via a thin plastic flap that forms the right hand back edge of the camera, and is lifted via application of your thumbnail. Whilst it is easy enough to slot in a SD card of any variety, we found it trickier to retrieve it, as there is not much real estate into which you can squeeze the necessary finger and thumb to grip the card as it emerges. The other flank of the camera features a built-in speaker, with the stereo microphones via which its Full HD video clips capture sound being located either side of the vacant hotshoe on the camera’s top plate. Here we also find the integral flash, sunk and therefore ‘hidden’ when not in use, but raised via a turn of its on/off power switch to arrive at the flash logo setting. At this point the spring-loaded bulb pops up ready for action, its settings selected and implemented via touch screen. It’s another bit of visual theatre that admittedly looks damn cool.

Located just behind the power switch/shutter release button are two identically sized control/command wheels – or ‘click wheels’ as Leica refers to them – that look like they might also pop up if given a firm press, but in fact remain level with the top plate, the ridged edges accessible via the back of the camera only. Said edges are easily accessed and turned via the thumb, enabling the user to scroll through menu options and settings, otherwise selected via a swipe or tap of the finger directly on the screen; so pretty much everything apart from turning the camera on or raising the camera flash can be controlled via the LCD rather than physical buttons.

Just in front of these two top-plate dials, and to the right of the shutter release button/power switch (if viewing the Leica TL from the back), is a dedicated video record button – its use self explanatory due to the familiar red dot in the centre of the button itself. Hit this and the rear screen immediately changes ratio to show a wide screen view as recording commences – with best quality recording at 1920x1080 pixels and up to 30fps. No sign of 4K here yet.

The Leica TL is commendably lightning quick to power up however; flick the power switch to on and we’re up and running as fast as we’d expect to be if using a pro DSLR instead – i.e blink and you’ll miss it quick. Half squeeze the shutter release button and auto focus is not quite as rapid for busier scenes however, the screen before our eyes visibly adjusting, the small square focus indicator changing from turquoise or red to green to let us know focus has been determined. Still, the screen is impressively clear and life-like in its relay of colour and detail and after a while we started forgetting that we missed an eye level viewfinder. In its absence you simply get on with it.

Leica T
Top of the Leica TL

So far, so intuitive, but start to use the Leica TL in earnest and one notices that not only are we missing a built-in eye level viewfinder, we’re also missing a dedicated physical playback button for reviewing our captures at a single control press.

We had to delve into the Leica TL’s set up Menu and select the ‘Auto Review’ option before we could review our just-captured images; here we can select the duration that the images are displayed before they disappear from view. A brisk downward or upward swipe of the finger lets us look at pre-captured images, which is simple enough, though it does feel a bit disconcerting to be missing a physical button to enable review of our stills or video. At first the TL also appears to be missing any eyelets for attaching a strap or any sort, until a read of the manual reveals what we’d at first thought to be covered screws on each flank of the camera are in fact recessed and therefore hidden eyelets, retrieved with the aid of metal pins provided in the box – of the type you would use for retrieving your SIM or memory card from your smartphone. All very 21st century. At times, the camera’s intended minimalism and concessions to style do seem to make for an unnecessarily fiddly user experience, but at least the touch screen is rapidly responsive to each selection and easy and intuitive enough to navigate.

For example, top right on the menu bar – as viewed on screen – is a selection of shooting modes. As expected these include the familiar Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual priority and a fifth option – being a smattering of scene modes, which illuminate in red as you touch upon them. Here we find a fully Auto shooting option, along with presets for shooting sports, portraits, landscapes, night portraits, snow/beach scenes, fireworks, candlelight, sunset and, most unusually, a digi-scoping preset.

The rear screen, which features its own built-in brightness sensor, also naturally provides access to the Leica TL’s set up modes. Here we’re provided with a grid-like array of virtual buttons, each large enough to respond to a finger or thumb press without the user accidentally selecting the adjacent control. Viewed from top left of screen to button right, the first virtual button provides access to light sensitivity settings including auto and otherwise running from a manually selectable ISO100 to ISO12600, which is plentiful. Next up is a selection of white balance settings including user-definable options, whilst exposure compensation is likewise accessed via the LCD, here offering a standard +/-3EV gamut. In terms of shooting file formats – well this feature gets its own button too. User selections include Fine or Super Fine JPEG settings, plus JPEG + DNG files combined, again in either Fine or Super Fine mode. The advantage of DNG files over standard Raw format being that they can be opened in just about any software and quickly too; we were able to use the built in Adobe Preview software that came with our iMac.

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The Leica TL In-hand

In terms of the on-screen menu, user-selectable resolution is up next, ranging from 1.8 megapixels if you really get caught short of memory, up to the full 16-megapixel capture. The adjacent button is for the flash modes; incidentally, even if you’ve raised the flash, if you want to force it to fire you’ll have to delve into this menu. The other option is just to leave it on full auto setting, which is the default. There are also either forced/fill-in flash and red eye reduction settings and auto/red eye reduction settings combined, plus slow sync and slow sync and red eye combined. Self-timer settings, Wi-Fi activation, and adjustments to focus mode can be made via the subsequent three buttons on the back screen. Auto focus wise we get a choice of AF continuous, single shot or manual focus. The latter can be an option if you find the AF momentarily confused by busy scenes. Drive mode can also be controlled here – with the choice of either single shot or continuous capture – plus the monitor brightness and colour adjusted.

The options don’t end here however. The last button on the screen is a ‘+’ mark. Press this and you can add other options to the screen menu, including metering – Spot, Multi Field Metering or Centre Weighted options – and access the likes of video resolution (choose from 720P or default 1080P). In fact, the more you play the more you find – including a familiar nine zone compositional grid overlay and a live histogram. Whilst Fuji has its film simulation modes on its cameras, ape-ing the likes of Velvia if you're looking for a well-saturated image, Leica has similar here and has termed them ‘Film’ modes. The regular default option is Standard, whilst we also unsurprisingly get Vivid, Natural, B&W Natural, plus B&W High Contrast. Sub options here also include the ability to adjust Contrast, Sharpness and Saturation for each.

A mains charger for the lithium-ion battery provided is included out of the box, though the battery can also be replenished if left in the Leica TL via aid of a USB lead. To retrieve the battery, the battery release catch/lever at the base of the camera has to first be turned/thrown, at which point the ‘head’ of the battery pops up. At first we were puzzled as subsequently grasping this with finger and thumb and trying to retrieve it proved fruitless; there was a degree of resistance from the camera that we didn’t want to force. After a little head scratching it emerged that a press down on the partially emerged battery prompts it to spring out fully, and we were then able to slot it into the provided charger/ mains plug. Battery life is a respectable 400 images, or 160 minutes of video. Likewise at the base of the camera, centrally located, we also find a familiar screw thread for the tripod – some features obviously being sacred.

So far, so good. While there are various quirks, as outlined above, that we found a little disconcerting when comparing the Leica TL to a more traditional camera – ultimately it feels as though it sits between the twin stools of smartphone and dedicated compact in terms of the functionality being pared back and built around the LCD screen – it is nevertheless usable, swift and responsive. So, at the end of the day, you don’t really have to concern yourself too much with how to achieve something; it just does it, leaving you free to concentrate on your subject. Talking of subject, how does the Leica TL fare when it comes to image quality? Read on to find out!

Entry Tags

review, samples, 1080p, test, jpeg, compact system camera, movie, csc, jpg, raw, touch-screen, touchscreen, sample, touch, aps-c, 5fps, leica, apple, screen, dng, 30fps, touch-sensitive, leica t, unibody, mirrorles, tl

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