Leica has been a prestigious brand for decades. That prestige brought high price tags and eminently covetable gear. This is why last year’s launch of the CL Mirrorless Camera was such an important release for this company, and one that should be very appealing to a wider range of photographers. The CL has a relatively affordable price, much like its film-shooting ancestor of the same name, while it's still compact, powerful, and benefits from Leica's outstanding design.
Classic, Minimalist Design and Modern Technology
One thing you can always be certain of with Leica cameras is that they will have exceptionally clean, beautiful designs. The CL is one of the best and manages to be among the smallest of Leica’s digital releases yet. Its look has a resemblance to the classic M-mount cameras and, by classic, I mean going back to the M3. You can see this in the size and layout of the controls.
As a digital camera, the CL is a bit different from those classic film models, which is made very clear by looking at the back of the camera. Here is where you will find a 3.0" 1.04m-dot touchscreen and a 2.36m-dot electronic viewfinder. These are sharp, bright options for composing and viewing your images, and the EVF is what separates it from Leica's other APS-C mirrorless line. The viewfinder is what makes it feel and operate like a classic Leica camera and it has an extremely comfortable eyecup. Having a large touchscreen on the back also helps them pare down the controls, providing just three buttons and a directional pad to get the job done.
For more precise and rapid control during shooting, the top control dials have remained and feel just as good as other recent Leica releases. There’s even a nice display on the top to give a quick readout of your current settings and mode so you don’t always have to rely on the rear screen or viewfinder. Speaking of settings, the one thing I’ve come to love from Leica digital cameras is that they manage to strip away everything except for the essentials from their menus. They have the easiest and most intuitive menu system available. Do you get all the bells and whistles and advanced functions of some of Leica’s competitors? No. You just get a camera that is a wonder to use.
The included strap is also very nice and comfortable. It makes the CL a good walkaround camera for everyday shooting, especially when paired with an equally compact lens, and it wouldn't be a Leica without amazing lenses. The CL has an L mount, which received a boost in the formation of the L-Mount Alliance with Sigma and Panasonic. Leica was the first with this mount and has a good selection of high-quality glass on offer already.
For this review, we had the Summicron-TL 23mm f/2 ASPH. and the APO-Macro-Elmarit-TL 60mm f/2.8 ASPH. Both lenses are high performers and delivered exceptionally sharp images with natural color rendering. They also have a clean, smooth design that perfectly matches the camera, and the more conservative apertures lend themselves to smaller form factors. The 23mm is a perfect choice for street shooting because of this, and helps create an incredibly discrete system.
Competitive Image Quality
Good design won't save poor image quality, and the 24.2MP APS-C CMOS seen here is on par with some of the best on the market. Being a Leica, it also captures very natural color, something I don't think can be matched by anything except, perhaps, Hasselblad. Images are crisp and clean with a healthy pop. Leica has done a good job with this sensor and the Maestro II Image Processor, with very well-handled noise. However, if you do push up into the extremely high sensitivities (meaning ISO 25000 and above) you will see a pattern to the noise, which makes images in these situations quite tough to work with. In good lighting, the CL excelled and is matched up with some of the best APS-C cameras out there.
One pleasant surprise was the performance of the contrast-detect autofocus. Having grown accustomed to having more and more phase-detect points on my mirrorless cameras, contrast-only systems can be worrisome. With the CL, Leica seems to have optimized it in a great way. Using the 23mm on the street, it was quick to identify and lock onto subjects without much issue. On the other hand, using the 60mm macro did occasionally result in some delays. When the focus starts way off from where you want it to end up, the focus system seemed to get a little lost because it couldn’t find any contrast. If you get it relatively close, however, it ended up being quite quick and reliable. Also, it showed that the overall system can produce incredibly sharp images with ease. Even in the viewfinder it looked great, making manual focus easy.
Dynamic range is competitive. The raw DNG files were very easy to work with, as well, making saving shadows and highlights a breeze. Noise is well controlled at normal sensitivities and gives a lot of room with which to work. On top of that, the noise is more pleasing than most forms of digital noise, so if you do need to push your shadows, a lot it can still be a very pleasant-looking image. Mentioned earlier, the colors are very neutral with the base profiles. This allows for a great deal of flexibility for creating the exact look you want during editing.
Overall, I was very happy with the quality of the CL’s files. It keeps up with all the competition and does so in a more elegant form that feels better to use.
Leica has not shied away from giving its latest mirrorless some competitive features only possible with new digital technology, and one of these options is video. If I had more time with the camera, I would’ve gone much more in depth on this capability. The lowdown is that the CL can capture UHD 4K at 30p—and the image quality is very good. It does have a little bit of rolling shutter, as with pretty much every mirrorless available today, but the images are detailed and with rich color. It is a good option for those who like to have video in their back pocket, though if you want more professional controls, I would highly recommend the bigger SL.
As with most cameras currently, the CL is equipped with Wi-Fi and works with the Leica FOTOS app. It’s a great way to transfer images to your smartphone quickly and can even serve as a way to control the camera remotely. This app works well and, if you are looking to make the CL your everyday camera and want to be able to quickly grab some photos from it, you should be pleased to hear that the app works as well as it does.
Leica may be one of the oldest and most recognized camera brands on the market, but the CL shows that this company can move with the times and create a very competitive and modern system with all the features and capabilities ones would expect. Leica also brought all its traditional charm to this camera, and made it an enviable item that is both functional and beautiful.