Some time with the Leica CL
As an obvious and long standing Leica aficionado, I must admit that I fell for the promise of the Leica CL:
“Dream Big. Pack Small.”
With its iconic design, its mechanical precision and compact construction made in Germany, it felt like the perfect candidate as an everyday camera and light-weight companion. It offered fancy new features such as WiFi, an outstanding EVF, 24 megapixels, the Maestro II processor and all kinds of bells and whistles. It even supported the Leica Photos iOS companion app. With Leica’s latest L-Mount bayonet it also allowed access to newer (and also considerably more affordable) Leica lenses as well as to nearly all lenses ever made by Leica with adapters to M- or R-mount. I was intrigued. And so I got the Leica CL Vario Kit with an Vario-Elmar-TL 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH lens.
The Leica CL is very compact indeed and this felt amazing. The build quality was outstanding, the EVF worked fine (despite my hesitance to ever embrace an electronic viewfinder) and everything turned out as one would expect. The simplicity of the interface made the camera operation very enjoyable and I fully immersed myself in the CL experience. I took the camera with me on many days and almost got the feeling I could live up to the “always wear a camera” mindset (let’s not discuss the iPhone in your pocket fix to this aspiration). Although the vario lens specifications don’t sound like much on paper, I can attest that it is an outstanding kit lens with very nice performance and IQ. Even in low light, I was able to use it within acceptable limitations, thanks to the great but not excellent high ISO performance of the camera.
I really embraced the form factor and versatility of the L mount and so I got some adapters to try some other glass. Since I have quite a few Leica R lenses, I opted for a cheap Novoflex Leica-R adapter (less than 100 € but without digital contacts compared to 700 € for the original Leica adapter) and extended my usable lens lineup. Even with my super old and rarely used Leitz Vario-Elmar-R 70-210mm f/4.0 lens, I took some nice shots that I would have never imagined feasible thanks to the EVF.
I also got an original Leica M-Adapter L and was able to use even more compact M-mount lenses. With the focus peaking feature of the EV, I achieved a much higher level of precision than during my Leica M8 trials some year ago. For sure, it was the most compact setup of any interchangeable lens camera system I ever used. Compactness is a key requirement for me, as I don’t like carrying heavy things around with me. After some weeks, I was only using manual lenses and rarely relied on the new L-mount lens with autofocus. But it soon dawned on me, that this was not meant to last…
The ASP-C Sensor Dilemma
Within all my excitement, I overlooked the fact that the Leica CL has an ASP-C sensor and as a result a crop factor for 1.5 for all lenses I used. It’s not like I didn’t notice this fact before I bought it. I was aware of it. I read a lot of reviews, I considered the consequences and in the end I believed it wouldn’t matter. It was almost as if I had forgotten the main reason why I got rid of the Leica M8. Back in the day I was determined to never buy a cropped sensor camera again, and yet I fell for it again.
There is nothing wrong with ASC-C sensors or crop factors. I cannot complain about image quality or something sensor specific. ASP-C cameras came a long way over the years and in general there is nothing to complain about as long as all consequences are considered. Some are key for me, but I apparently overlooked them. For one, full frame sensor tend to have higher dynamic range and perform better in low light. Since I like available light photography, this alone could be a good enough reason to use full frame sensor cameras exclusively. Also, the depth of field is considerably more shallow with a full frame camera, which is also something that I would prefer. In any case, all of this is not super critical, it’s just not as great as I would like it to be. The camera has good high ISO performance (although other cameras outperform it easily) and my lenses have high aperture values and a quite shallow depth of field as a result.
Most importantly, the crop factor just doesn’t work for me with the lenses I have, the lenses I would want and what this would imply for any lens purchases in the future. It would mean that any focal length I would like to achieve would require me to buy wider lenses to result in the desired crop on an ASP-C camera. With many manufacturers wider lenses tend to be more expensive, but more importantly, any lenses I would buy would hardly be used anymore if I would ever upgrade to a full frame sensor camera. This might happen sooner rather than later.
With lenses being substantial and more importantly lasting investments, it doesn’t really make sense for me to buy lenses with focal lengths I would not prefer on a full frame sensor. And since the experience with the Leica CL was amazing, I really wanted to dive deeper into the experience and get different lenses to express myself, it finally occurred to me like in a revelation: The Leica CL is not for me.
As amazing as the camera is and might be for many years, it was just an intermediary step in my journey towards the inevitable end. With every step on this journey I am getting closer to the M System, hardly finding any more excuses on why this cannot be a justified and perfectly viable choice for a camera system.
So as a result, I sold the Leica CL and the kit lens after just few months, again fully determined to focus on full frame from now on. On the journey towards the M system, the next logical step is the Leica SL. Let’s see how it goes. It might be amazing as well.