- Review Price: £1700.00
- 24-million-pixel APS-C CMOS sensor
- ISO 100-50,000
- Leica L mount
- 3.7-inch, 1.3-million-dot touchscreen
- Up to 20fps shooting
- 4K video recording
Hands-on with Leica’s latest mirrorless
The Leica TL2 is a 24MP mirrorless camera with a one-piece aluminium body and very smartphone-like touchscreen control. It has a gorgeous tactile design with one of the best touch interfaces you’ll find on any camera. Sadly its stratospheric price means that few photographers will ever get to experience its unique charms.
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Mention Leica and I’ll bet most photographers immediately think of its exquisitely crafted, old-fashioned M-series rangefinder cameras, which have barely changed since the days of film. But its T-series mirrorless models are about as far removed as it’s possible to imagine. They have sleek unibodies painstakingly crafted from a single block of aluminium, with just a few well-chosen physical controls complemented by a large touchscreen that covers most of the camera’s back. They feel like the kind of camera Apple might make – stylish, minimalist, but still highly functional.
Oh, and expensive. Very, very expensive. The TL2 will cost £1700 body only, which is similar money to the best APS-C mirrorless models on the market, such as the Sony Alpha 6300 and the Fujifilm X-T2. But to actually use it you’ll also need to buy a lens, with the matched Vario Elmar TL 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH zoom costing £1300.
Leica TL2 – Features
The Leica TL2 is an update of the TL that was introduced just eight months ago, which itself was a relatively minor revision of the original Leica T from 2014. This latest model uses a very similar design but adds an array of improvements, with the most obvious being a 24-million-pixel sensor (up from 16MP). One feature that’s been dropped is the TL’s pop-up flash, but I don’t think many users will miss it. Far more problematic, given the camera’s size and price, is the continued lack of a built-in electronic viewfinder. You can use an accessory unit on the hot shoe, in the shape of the £390 Leica Visoflex, but it’s not an elegant solution.
With its 24-million-pixel sensor, the Leica TL2 moves into line with other current APS-C mirrorless models in terms of resolution. Coupled with the Maestro II processor, it provides a sensitivity range of ISO 100-50,000, and the TL2 includes a well-considered Auto ISO mode that aims to keep shutter speeds high to eliminate blurring from camera shake. This is particularly important, as neither the camera nor its dedicated TL lenses include image stabilisation, which in this day and age is a very strange omission indeed.
The mechanical shutter provides a range of 30sec to 1/4000sec, with the new silent fully-electronic shutter extending this to 1/40,000sec. It also allows faster continuous shooting, at 20 frames per second compared to 7 fps with the mechanical shutter, with a useful 29-frame buffer even when shooting raw. But it seems the only way to select the electronic shutter is to manually set a speed faster then 1/4000sec, so unlike with other cameras you can’t easily use it in situations that require the camera to make no noise – hopefully Leica will fix this with a future firmware update. Thankfully the mechanical shutter is pretty quiet anyway.
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Unusually, the TL2 includes internal memory for recording files, and at 32GB it’s a very decent amount – enough to record around 400 files in JPEG + DNG raw format. Some users may even decide they don’t need to buy an SD card at all. The camera can copy the images you’ve taken from the SD to the internal memory (or vice versa), which can be used to back up your pictures after shooting, or get images off the camera without having to plug it into a computer using its USB-C socket. Unfortunately though you can’t record files to both the SD card and internal memory simultaneously.
For power Leica has used the same BP-DC13 battery as in the older T-series models, which cleverly slots into a compartment in the base of the camera with no need for a conventional battery door, as you can see in the picture above. However where this previously gave 400 shots per charge, in the TL2 it’s rated for just 250 based on CIPA standard testing, which is rather disappointing. In practical use it didn’t seem to last very long, either.
Wi-Fi is built-in for remote control of the camera and sharing images to a smartphone or tablet, using the free Leica TL app for Android and iOS. Unfortunately the app hasn’t been updated to be compatible with the TL2 at the time of writing, but with previous models Leica’s Wi-Fi implementation has worked perfectly well.
Leica has included 4K video recording at 3840 x 2160 resolution and 30fps, alongside Full HD (1920 x 1080) at 60fps. There’s also a 120fps slow-motion mode, and electronic image stabilisation. But there’s no facility to attach an external microphone, so sound is recorded purely through the built-in stereo microphones either side of the camera’s hot shoe. However there’s an HDMI output for connecting the camera to a TV, hidden behind a flap in side along with a USB-C connector and the SD card clot.
Once you get beyond the core spec, the TL2 offers very little in the way of extras. For instance you don’t get any kind of dynamic range expansion tools for shooting JPEGs, in-camera raw conversion, an intervalometer, or even built-in electronic levels. It’s also worth noting that Leica only makes a small range of matched TL lenses, and they’re eye-wateringly expensive. It’s possible to use Leica’s famous M-mount lens range, but you’ll need to buy the £300 M-adapter L to do so.
Leica TL2 – Build and handing
When it comes to design, the Leica TL2 follows on from its predecessors in being quite unlike anything else on the market. Other cameras use a metal chassis onto which the internal components are bolted – sensor, shutter, processor board etc – with a cosmetic skin then placed over the top. However the TL2 has a unibody design crafted from a solid block of magnesium, into which those components are attached. This brings a rare sense of quality and solidity when you pick it up. But it also means the camera is quite large and heavy, measuring 134 x 69 x 33mm and weighing in at 399g, before you even add a lens.
The shallow but wide handgrip gives a surprisingly secure hold, despite the body’s silky smooth finish. However if you’d like the added security of a strap, in a triumph of style over substance Leica has used completely propriety plug-in connectors, and nothing else will fit. Attach the supplied silicone strap and you’ll find it makes the camera less comfortable to grasp, with the connector digging in between your forefinger and middle finger.
The camera’s unconventional design extends to its back, which has no buttons or dials at all. Instead there’s just a large touchscreen that’s used to change almost every setting. Unlike on other cameras, Leica hasn’t added touch-sensitivity as an afterthought by adapting a pre-existing interface designed for button-driven operation; instead it’s built a new interface from the ground up, with large well-spaced buttons and a consistent design. You get a fully user-customisable quick menu for your most-used settings, while the main camera menu is logically organised into a set of nine sub-menus. It’s all very intuitive and quick to learn.
There are still a few physical controls, of course, and aside from the lens release button on the front, they’re all located on the top-plate. The power switch encircles the conventional two-stage shutter button; as usual a half-press activates autofocus, while fully pressing the button takes a picture. Beside it is the video record button, but in a move that should please purist photographers, this can be re-assigned to either enter playback mode, or switch between the electronic viewfinder and the LCD screen instead.
Twin electronic dials are used to change the main exposure settings while you’re shooting. In manual-exposure mode, one changes shutter speed and the other, aperture. In the other modes the left dial can be quickly switched between a range of options, most usefully exposure compensation and ISO, using an onscreen emnu you can see in the picture above. To help you choose your exposure settings, the camera previews onscreen how light or dark your image will turn out, and when you half-press the shutter button it stops down the aperture to preview depth of field. Overall this set-up works remarkably well.
Leica TL2 – Autofocus
The TL2 uses a contrast-detection autofocus system, which operates across almost the entire frame. You can allow the camera to select the focus point itself, in which case it will usually focus on the closest subject within a 7×7 grid. Face detection is also available, with the camera falling back on auto selection if it fails to find a person in the picture. But I preferred to use touch focus mode, in which you simply tap the screen to select your focus point. With the 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom, focusing is fast, silent and accurate, and with static subjects there’s really nothing to complain about at all.
Manual focus is also available with a choice of focus aids. Magnified view comes with a choice of 3x or 6x, but it’s always in the centre of the frame; there doesn’t seem to be any way to specify an off-centre subject, which you can do on any other mirrorless camera. The TL2 also adds a peaking mode in which high-contrast edges are outlined in red; this can be combined with magnified view if you like.
Leica TL2 – Performance
In use the TL2 is mostly pretty nimble. It turns on in a fraction of a second, and reacts near-instantly to the shutter button being depressed. The touchscreen is generally very responsive, although it can sometimes be oddly reluctant to respond to your commands when you get deeper into the menus. About the only time the camera leaves you waiting is when writing a full burst of images to the memory card, during which you can’t enter playback mode to examine your shots.
If you leave the camera to its own devices it likes to expose images distinctly brightly, which in turn risks losing highlight detail irrevocably. So it’s best to keep a close eye on your exposures while shooting, and I often found myself applying negative exposure compensation to tone things down, aided by the live histogram display. In the shot below I had to apply -1EV compensation to avoid losing detail on the bridge and in the sky.
When it comes to image quality, it’s very much a game of two halves. The JPEG files produced in the TL2’s Standard Film Mode are uninspiring to say the least, with decidedly anaemic colour rendition – you can see this in the sky and brickwork of Tower Bridge. I’m sure Leica would claim that they’re colourimetrically accurate, but that’s not what most photographers want to see. For everyday shooting I’d be tempted to bump up the saturation or notch or two. Another option might be to use the Vivid setting instead, which gives much more attractive colours, but on the other hand its high-contrast tone curve clips shadow detail heavily, so choose your poison. Monochrome shooters should at least appreciate the camera’s B&W High Contrast mode, which can give some pretty nice results.
Switch to raw, though, and the quality of the camera’s sensor shines through. It resolves lots of fine texture at low ISO settings, and there’s plenty of scope for extracting detail from deep shadows without excessive noise. The image above was processed from raw using Adobe Camera Raw, and the difference from the corresponding JPEG is huge, with much stronger colour. High ISOs appear to be remarkably usable too; the image below was shot at ISO 4000.
With the quality of current APS-C sensors, though, this is nothing out of the ordinary. You’d get similar raw image quality (and immeasurably more attractive JPEGs) from the £500 Fujifilm X-A3, which costs around £500 complete with lens. At least with the TL2 recording its raw files in the DNG format, you don’t have to update the your software on your computer merely to get it to recognise the camera’s raw files.
The Leica TL2 is in many ways a lovely camera, but it’s also a mass of contradictions. With its sleek aluminium body and touchscreen-based interface, it’s simply not what you’d expect a traditional camera company like Leica to make. But it mostly works really well, and despite its blocky-looking shape is unexpectedly pleasant to hold and shoot with. I said earlier that this is the kind of camera you might expect Apple to make, and I can’t help but think that everyone would be raving about it if they had.
The thing is though, I also can’t help but think that it’s just not what photographers want from Leica. If you’re going pay a huge premium for that famous red dot, chances are you understand the firm’s heritage and the kind of camera it does best. But unlike the M rangefinders, or the equally lovely fixed-lens, full-frame Leica Q, there’s no obvious motive for choosing the TL2 based on its prowess as a photographic tool.
Instead, you’re being asked to fork out your money for what is, when all is said and done, a fairly simple APS-C mirrorless camera that just happens to have been beautifully, but above all expensively crafted from a solid block of metal. And while it includes some great ideas you won’t find anywhere else, it also lacks key features such as image stabilisation. To buy it, you’d really have to value design and style over practicality.
This is a shame, because a camera this interesting really deserves to be experienced by more people. But ultimately the TL2 just costs way too much for what’s on offer. If you’ve got £3000 burning a hole in your pocket and want to buy a Leica, you should probably do yourself a favour and put it towards a Q instead.