The Leica CL film camera for years was the “poor man's Leica” and if the same cannot be said of the digital CL, it is in any case the cheapest digital camera with interchangeable optics from the German manufacturer. But fortunately, entry-level does not rhyme with “cheap” finishes at Leica, quite the contrary. In accordance with German DNA, the case is sleek … and beautiful, really beautiful – a subjective judgment, it must be admitted – and poses as an elegant passer of witness between the silver and digital lines of the history of Leica. Faced with Japanese industrial behemoths, Wetzlar’s company is much more trapped in its past, but the brand is aware of this and knows how to move its designs in small steps.
The feel of the imitation leather coating is really pleasant and the click of the wheels is pleasant, even if they are a little loose for our taste. The layout of the controls and the search for ergonomic simplification offer a minimal look to the CL that we would like to see more often in the competition – who talked about Olympus? With its 1950s look, it is difficult for a neophyte to determine whether it is a film or digital device: the contract for the visual signature is fulfilled.
Good data sheet, stabilization absent
Copy / paste or almost: the CL relies (very) largely on the data sheet of its brother the TL2: same CMOS 24 Mpix sensor, same image processor. The major difference of the device lies in the ergonomics and the adjoining equipment: when the TL2 plays the card at all with the optional touch screen and external viewfinder, the CL offers a more classic approach. Here we take advantage of real physical buttons and knobs and – hallelujah! – an electronic viewfinder. A good electronic viewfinder, small protrusion placed on the side, telemetric way, when the optional TL2 viewfinder is placed in the middle of the camera, reflex way.
To maintain the compactness of the system and therefore of the optics, Leica chose the APS-C sensor for the TL / CL line, a choice that we regret a little when we remember that the film-coated CL 135 could ( and can still!) receive the optics from M without cropping. On a digital CL, the M optics are applied a coefficient of x1.5 (just like the SL optics, 100% M compatible since the frame is the same). A detail in our opinion since the target seems to us quite different: if we have grievances against the 18 mm (read below) its modern design “pancake” extremely compact is an invitation to walk easily with the device. The digital CL is not a device aimed at pros or purists, but which serves as an entry step into the Leica universe, with a slightly more modern relationship.
The technical shortcoming that we deplore, however, is the lack of sensor stabilization technology. In this area we would have liked a less dogmatic approach and for Leica to get closer to partners or develop stabilization solutions: once you have tasted mechanical stabilization, it is difficult to do without it.
AF: better but competition is ahead
The first Leica T (now TL) had disappointed us a bit and the TL2 from which this CL came has progressed well on the AF side. This means that both the TL2 and the CL are devices with sufficiently effective AF for 90% of situations. However, in the field of hybrids, the battle is fought over the remaining 10%, that is to say AF capable of tracking mobile objects and seeing in the dark.
In these two areas, the CL is a good step below the competition with pumping when photons are scarce and monitoring of subjects not really at the level. If Leica certainly continues to improve its partition and finally offers a suitable AF, the most nervous photographers will rather look on the side of Sony (Alpha A6300 / A6500) or Fujifilm (X-T2 / X-T20 / X-E3) for a Compact APS-C hybrid with sufficiently aggressive AF functions.
Looking at why Leica is still below the Japanese we note the choice of an AF system with simple contrast detection – probably the Panasonic tab? – when the rest of the competition (Sony, Olympus, Fujifilm, etc.) have all switched to hybrid AF based on both contrast detection and phase correlation. For the next generation?
Grain and not noise
If Panasonic is partly at the helm in the hardware development of Leica devices (excluding M) like the SL, the signal processing is that of German engineers. This is a compliment since we find in the CL the same relationship to the management of high sensitivities as in the previous devices: no excessive smoothing, few strange colored artifacts in the shaded areas, the CL generates a digital noise that has all the finer of the “grain” of the time of analog film.
Another quality of the device is its ability to maintain faithful and constant colorimetry in low light. Not perfectly fair, which avoids the “clinical white balance” side of certain Japanese devices, but a coherent atmosphere from one shot to the next which shows Leica's know-how and determination in the field of interpretation colours.
Another strength: the natural smoothness of the image processing which makes it possible to recover the sharpness, either in the camera settings in Jpeg, or by the processing of RAW files. Why is this an advantage? Simply because when the optical quality is there, you can accentuate the details to give punch, while the opposite, that is to say, the softening of the images is more difficult. Note in passing that Leica always uses the open RAW .DNG format which allows files to be opened with any development software.
Ergonomics to tame
If we had a really hard time getting used to the innovative but slightly messy touchscreen ergonomics of the TL2, the CL's hardware ergonomics is much more pleasant … with a certain amount of time to adapt. Taking up a bit the philosophy of the double wheel appeared in the Sony NEX7, the CL software interface also relies on the visual codes (and buttons) of the M series. Once the switch between the integrated modes and the wheels set to our sauce, the CL behaved very well. If a more classic Fujifilm-style interface is less disturbing for photographers with a little bottle – ah, the weight of habits – Leica has the merit here of continuing to look for ergonomic options.
The criticism that we do however is Leica's desire to keep the lines of the M at the sacrifice of a grip. The decision was made in high places to satisfy Leica fans – the brand owes them – but they are wrong: a grip may break the line of the “iconic” device but offers a much better grip. Fortunately there are accessories to add a grip, but it comes at a cost. Also note that in cold weather and with gloves, the Leica CL offers little roughness and its handling is a little difficult – thank you gloves.
Another shortcoming is an adjustable screen. If this is contrary to the philosophy “the CL is a device that takes up the codes of the M at a lower price”, its absence limits comfort when shooting at arm's length or at ground level.
Too expensive optic (s)
If Leica hybrids progress regularly to reach, thanks to Panasonic, the level of quality which a Leica SL can claim, the level of optics including APS-C is less glorious. The 18 mm f / 1.8 with which we reviewed this CL is just good, a level of quality far from the Leica promise and especially not at all in line with the price of 1500 euros. This criticism of value for money can also be made at 18-56mm f / 3.5-5.6 Asph. VARIO-ELMAR, a “classic” zoom which is far below what competing systems can offer: it is dim, unstable, not very sharp and expensive (1500 euros!). For comparison in APS-C, the XF 18-55 f / 2.8-4 R LM OIS from Fujifilm is also good, but it is stabilized, brighter and cheaper (we find it between 400 and 600 euros on the net ).
If the M optics are exclusive, fully assembled and calibrated by hand and from small volumes, the TL APS-C optics from Leica, which want to be more democratic, have fewer excuses for being so expensive.
The verdict of the review
Very beautiful and efficient, the Leica CL is the cheapest entry ticket in the Leica universe. A romantic M-style point of view and manual focus, the CL is a modern body with autofocus, electronic viewfinder, 4K video and everything in between. If performance is a notch below the competition (especially from Sony and Fujifilm), Leica is no longer technologically dumped. And its very elegant image processing can be, just like its design or its name, an argument of choice … for those who can afford it. Because if the price of the case is high but quite acceptable for a device Made in Europe, that of optics is less justified.