The orig­i­nal 35mm film CL was de­signed to widen Le­ica’s ap­peal among en­thu­si­ast pho­tog­ra­phers, and its dig­i­tal name­sake is in­tended to do ex­actly the same thing. Paul Bur­rows has been hands-on with Le­ica’s brand new ‘APS-C’ for­mat mir­ror­less camera.

Camera - - CONTENTS -

The orig­i­nal CL 35mm rangefinder be­came Le­ica’s best-sell­ing camera of the 1970s and its dig­i­tal-era mir­ror­less name­sake has the po­ten­tial to do the same over the next cou­ple of years. The new CL bal­ances tra­di­tion and tech­nol­ogy, per­for­mance and pric­ing like no other camera in Le­ica’s cur­rent line-up.

There’s no ques­tion Le­ica has greatly di­ver­si­fied its camera port­fo­lio over the last decade or so. At one time, if you wanted to buy a new Le­ica, you could choose from a 35mm rangefinder camera or… a 35mm rangefinder camera (par­tic­u­larly af­ter the sad demise of the R mount 35mm SLR sys­tem).

Now you can still have a Le­ica 35mm rangefinder camera, but there’s also the mir­ror­less SL and TL sys­tems – full-35mm or ‘APS-C’ size sen­sors re­spec­tively – a gag­gle of dig­i­tal Ms (in­clud­ing the B&W-only Monochrom), the fixed-lens Q with its elec­tronic viewfinder, or the dig­i­tal medium for­mat D-SLRs, S and S-E.

Yet de­spite all this choice, there’s been pretty big hole in the line-up which has just been ef­fec­tively plugged by the new CL. It’s a mir­ror­less ‘APS-C’ for­mat camera as well, us­ing the same L mount as the TL2, but it’s a very dif­fer­ent beast to the oh-so-chic T se­ries bod­ies… which is ac­tu­ally just the point.

There has, of course, been a Le­ica CL be­fore – in 1973 to be pre­cise – the prod­uct of a co-op­er­a­tion with Ja­panese camera-maker Mi­nolta (which, in­ci­den­tally, also pro­duced the R3 35mm SLR). Like its con­tem­po­rary name­sake, the 35mm CL was de­signed to meet the de­mands of pho­tog­ra­phers who wanted to own a Le­ica, but couldn’t find any­thing which re­ally suited them in the cur­rent range. Con­se­quently, the orig­i­nal camera was more com­pact and af­ford­able than the M4 (and cer­tainly the short-lived M5) with the con­ve­nience of built-in TTL me­ter­ing, but re­tained all the clas­sic at­tributes of a Le­ica 35mm rangefinder camera. Need­less to note, for a cou­ple of years in the mid-70s it was Le­ica’s best-sell­ing camera (and is still pop­u­lar with col­lec­tors to­day).

So why to­day’s CL? Here’s why. It’s smaller and more af­ford­able than any of the dig­i­tal M mod­els. It’s smaller and more af­ford­able than the Q, and has interchangeable lenses. It’s def­i­nitely smaller and more af­ford­able than ei­ther the SL or the S se­ries mod­els. And, com­pared to the TL2, it’s a lot more tra­di­tional in its styling and de­sign plus, im­por­tantly, it has a built-in elec­tronic viewfinder.

The T se­ries cam­eras are es­sen­tially tar­geted at a new au­di­ence for Le­ica, hence the com­plete de­par­ture from all tra­di­tion and a com­pre­hen­sive, un­com­pro­mis­ing em­brace of moder­nity (iron­i­cally, more so than any other brand in the mir­ror­less ‘APS-C’ for­mat space). Con­se­quently, the TL2 is not to ev­ery­body’s taste, least of all any­body who wants their Le­ica camera to be dis­cernibly a Le­ica camera, both clas­si­cal and con­tem­po­rary. In the CL, says Le­ica, “old school meets mod­ern age” which means it ticks a lot of boxes for a lot more pho­tog­ra­phers (and, by the way, it’s an­other Made in Ger­many model). Form an or­derly queue now.


There’s an el­e­ment of the ear­lier pre-M 35mm rangefinder cam­eras –specif­i­cally the IIIG – in the CL’s styling and, size wise, it’s clos­est to the X2 than any­thing else cur­rently, but with a built-in EVF and interchangeable lenses (and with­out the pop-up flash). Ei­ther end of the crisply slim­line bodyshell is fully rounded – a very clas­si­cal touch – with a fine-grained wrap-around leather in­sert.

The all-metal body con­struc­tion com­prises alu­minium top and bot­tom cov­ers with a mag­ne­sium al­loy chas­sis. The ‘EyeRes’ EVF is lo­cated at one end of the body – RF camera style – with most of the rear panel taken up with a flush-fit­ting LCD mon­i­tor screen, ac­com­pa­nied by just a trio of func­tion but­tons and a four-way nav­i­ga­tor key­pad. In­ter­est­ingly, there are no tra­di­tional con­trol di­als as such and in­stead Le­ica has adopted an ar­range­ment of twin multi-func­tion wheels sim­i­lar

to that on the T se­ries cam­eras, but more widely spaced and with ad­di­tional func­tion but­tons set within each. In be­tween the di­als is a small LCD read-out panel – with au­to­matic back­light­ing – which shows the ex­po­sure mode plus the aper­ture and/or shut­ter speed, any ex­po­sure com­pen­sa­tion and, as it’s be­ing set, the ISO speed. Here then, in terms of ex­po­sure con­trol, ev­ery­thing is at your fin­ger­tips and read­able at a glance… it’s tra­di­tional, but in a thor­oughly mod­ern way. Le­ica says this “feels me­chan­i­cal and ana­log” which it does, although, of course, it’s ac­tu­ally elec­tronic and dig­i­tal.

Wisely, Le­ica has still en­dowed the CL with some touch­screen con­trols given the in­her­ent ef­fi­cien­cies and the fact that it’s now be­com­ing a stan­dard op­tion for both mir­ror­less and re­flex cam­eras. These in­clude ‘Touch AF’ (with or with­out au­to­matic shut­ter re­lease) and var­i­ous brows­ing func­tions plus play­back zoom­ing or ac­cess­ing the thumb­nail pages. More un­usual is the ges­ture con­trol for switch­ing be­tween the photo and video modes… swipe left or right af­ter a longer touch. Swipe up or down and the CL switches be­tween record­ing and re­view. Once you prac­tice a few times, it’s ac­tu­ally a very nifty – and con­tem­po­rary – way of chang­ing the camera’s ba­sic op­er­at­ing modes.

Nev­er­the­less, the CL is still very much more con­ven­tional than the TL2 – de­lib­er­ately so, of course – us­ing stan­dard menus which are nav­i­gated via the key­pad or, more con­ve­niently in some sit­u­a­tions, the right-hand con­trol wheel (with its cen­tre but­ton ac­cess­ing the sub-menus).


The CL has the same ‘APS-C’ for­mat CMOS sen­sor as the TL2 which has an imag­ing area of 23.6x15.7 mm and a to­tal pixel count of 24.96 mil­lion (24.24 MP ef­fec­tive). This gives a max­i­mum im­age size of 6000x4000 pix­els for JPEGs and 6016x4014 pix­els for RAW files. The sen­sor’s na­tive sensitivity range is equiv­a­lent to ISO 100 to 50,000 and Le­ica claims a dy­namic range of 14 stops at ISO100.

A new ver­sion of Le­ica’s ‘Mae­stro II’ pro­ces­sor does the num­ber-crunch­ing, in­clud­ing en­abling 4K video record­ing in the UHD res­o­lu­tion of 3840x2160 pix­els (see the Mak­ing Movies panel for the rest of the CL’s video story). More im­por­tantly for stills pho­tog­ra­phers, it en­ables con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing at up to 10.0 fps (with AF/AE locked to the first frame). Data is recorded to a sin­gle mem­ory card slot for the SD for­mat and which sup­ports UHS-II speed SDHC and SDXC de­vices. As is the case across the Le­ica dig­i­tal camera range, RAW files are cap­tured in the Adobe DNG for­mat. RAW+JPEG cap­ture is pos­si­ble. There’s the choice of three JPEG im­age sizes, but in the spirit of keep­ing things sim­ple – as per the “Das Wesentliche” phi­los­o­phy – no al­ter­na­tive com­pres­sion set­tings.

How­ever, there are a few more op­tions for work­ing with JPEGs in-camera com­pared to, say, the very spar­tan Q. There’s a choice of five ‘Film Style’ pre­sets – Stan­dard, Vivid, Nat­u­ral, B&W Nat­u­ral and B&W High Con­trast – with ad­justable pa­ram­e­ters for con­trast, sharp­ness and sat­u­ra­tion (over Low, Medium Low, Stan­dard, Medium High or High set­tings). Mind you, that’s pretty well it in terms of man­ual ad­just­ments so, for ex­am­ple, all the cor­rec­tions (noise re­duc­tion, lens aber­ra­tions, etc.) are han­dled by the camera be­hind-the-scenes. While Le­ica has un­doubt­edly been ju­di­cious with the CL’s fea­ture set, it does nev­er­the­less get an in­ter­val­ome­ter which can be pro­grammed for time-lapse se­quences of up to 999 frames at up to 24 hours apart.


Ex­po­sure con­trol is based on TTL light mea­sure­ments from the imag­ing sen­sor with a choice of multi-zone, cen­tre-weighted av­er­age and spot modes. The pro­gram and semi-auto ex­po­sure modes have the usual over­rides – an AE lock, com­pen­sa­tion (up to +/-3.0 EV) and auto brack­et­ing (over se­quences of three or five frames, up to +/-3.0 EV ad­just­ment per frame).

There’s a set of sub­ject pro­grams which in­cludes all the usual sus­pects, plus Digis­cop­ing, Minia­ture Ef­fect, Panorama and HDR modes. The last three are pretty ad­ven­tur­ous for Le­ica, but these ‘frills’ are tucked away in the scene mode menu so, if they of­fend your purist sen­si­bil­i­ties, you don’t have to go near them. The Digis­cop­ing mode, by the way, is for when the camera is at­tached to a spot­ting scope (an­other big part of Le­ica’s busi­ness) or a tele­scope.

The CL’s fo­cal plane shut­ter has a speed range of 30-1/8000 sec­ond with flash sync up to 1/180 sec­ond, but there’s also a sen­sor-based shut­ter (a.k.a. an “elec­tronic shut­ter”) which runs from 30 sec­onds up to 1/25,000 sec­ond. Here there’s the op­tion of an ‘Ex­tended’ set­ting which will au­to­mat­i­cally switch to the sen­sor shut­ter for speeds faster than 1/8000 sec­ond. Of course, it’s also com­pletely silent and doesn’t pro­duce any vi­bra­tions, but rolling shut­ter dis­tor­tion can be an is­sue with fast-mov­ing sub­jects.


The CL has the same 49-point con­trast-de­tec­tion aut­o­fo­cus­ing sys­tem as the TL2 with man­ual switch­ing be­tween sin­gle-shot and con­tin­u­ous op­er­a­tion, and the choice of ‘Spot’, ‘Field’ and ‘Multi Point’ area modes for man­ual or auto point se­lec­tion. Face de­tec­tion and auto track­ing modes are also avail­able. ‘Touch AF’ con­trol al­lows for very speedy point se­lec­tion from across the en­tire mon­i­tor screen, but dis­ap­point­ingly isn’t avail­able when us­ing the EVF. Man­ual fo­cus­ing is as­sisted by a mag­ni­fied im­age at ei­ther 3x or 6x, and/or a fo­cus peak­ing dis­play in a choice of colours (red, green, blue or white.

Auto white bal­ance cor­rec­tion is sup­ple­mented by a set of five pre­sets, pro­vi­sions for mak­ing two cus­tom mea­sure­ments and man­ual colour tem­per­a­ture set­ting (over a range of 2000 to 11,500 de­grees Kelvin), but no auto brack­et­ing or fine-tun­ing.


Although there’s no hand­grip, the CL is still very com­fort­able to hold with the fine-grain of the leather in­sert de­signed, ap­par­ently, to en­hance the tac­tile ex­pe­ri­ence. It does, but it’s also not hard to see it get­ting a bit marked or worn over time so you have the choice of an op­tional hand­grip or a leather half-case (which is un­doubt­edly the more el­e­gant op­tion). Need­less to note, the CL has the clas­sic, high-pre­ci­sion Le­ica feel, and the build qual­ity, fit and fin­ish are all su­perb.

The twin-dial er­gonomics are also su­perb and you can eas­ily do ev­ery­thing by feel when us­ing EVF. Use­fully, im­me­di­ately upon switchon, the LCD mon­i­tor briefly shows the func­tions as­signed to the con­trol wheels – as per the set ex­po­sure mode – which serves as a handy re­minder. The multi-func­tion­al­ity of these con­trols is es­sen­tially reg­u­lated by the ex­po­sure mode in op­er­a­tion, but the right-hand dial’s cen­tre but­ton can be user-as­signed from a se­lec­tion of 33 func­tions as can the sole ‘Fn’ key on the camera’s rear panel. And that’s your lot as far as con­trol cus­tomi­sa­tion goes.

The EVF has a res­o­lu­tion of 2.36 megadots and gives, of course, 100 per­cent scene cov­er­age. The mag­ni­fi­ca­tion is 0.74x (35mm equiv­a­lent) which makes for com­fort­able view­ing and the eye­piece has built-in strength ad­just­ment. It also in­cor­po­rates a prox­im­ity sen­sor (with ad­justable sensitivity) which en­ables au­to­matic switch­ing be­tween the EVF and the mon­i­tor, but ei­ther dis­play can be set to op­er­ate by it­self. As noted ear­lier, the mon­i­tor is flush-fit­ted with the camera’s back panel which means, of course, it’s fixed but to be quite hon­est, an ad­justable screen would just ruin the CL’s clean lines. The mon­i­tor screen’s bright­ness can be set to one of five man­u­ally-set lev­els or for au­to­matic ad­just­ment. The main menu sys­tem – es­sen­tially the same as the M10’s – com­prises one con­tin­u­ously-scrol­lable set of items which cov­ers ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing set-up. It’s an in­di­ca­tion, if ever there was one, that the CL mostly sticks to just the ba­sics… This is “Sim­plic­ity that in­spires,” ac­cord­ing to Le­ica. Press­ing the ‘Menu’ but­ton brings up a cus­tomis­able ‘Favourites’ page and this can be pop­u­lated with the seven func­tions you use the most. You’ll prob­a­bly end up us­ing it too, be­cause it al­ways dis­plays first and ac­cess­ing the main menu sub­se­quently re­quires scrolling down and click­ing on ‘Main Menu’ which is a bit con­fus­ing at first… and al­ways re­mains an ex­tra step.

The EVF and mon­i­tor dis­plays can be con­fig­ured with a real-time his­togram, a high­light warn­ing, a dual-axis level dis­play and a 3x3 guide grid. Ex­po­sure pre­view­ing is avail­able with all the ‘PASM’ modes or just the auto ones. Both a bright­ness his­togram and a high­light warn­ing are avail­able in re­play which dis­plays a full-screen im­age, but there’s the op­tion of pages with ei­ther 12 or 30 thumb­nails. There’s also a play­back zoom, but no slide show or in­cam­era edit­ing func­tions such as crop­ping or re­siz­ing.

Built-in WiFi is, of course, now a stan­dard re­quire­ment and the Le­ica CL App al­lows for both the shar­ing of im­ages and re­mote


camera con­trol with a live view feed to the smart de­vice (ei­ther An­droid or iOS).

Speed And per­for­mAnce

Us­ing our ref­er­ence mem­ory card – Lexar’s 128 GB SDXC UHS-II/U3 (Speed Class 3) Pro­fes­sional – the CL cap­tured a burst of 200 JPEG/ large files in 19.755 sec­onds, giv­ing a shoot­ing speed of 10.1 fps. We ar­bi­trar­ily picked 200 frames as the burst length, but the camera would have gone on shoot­ing at top speed un­til the mem­ory card was full. It took around eight sec­onds to empty the buf­fer which is pretty snappy given the amount of data in­volved. The test files av­er­aged 14.5 MB in size.

The con­trast-de­tec­tion aut­o­fo­cus­ing is very fast and re­li­able, even in low-light sit­u­a­tions and the track­ing is the best we’ve seen in a Le­ica dig­i­tal camera. We tested the CL with the new Le­ica El­marit-TL 18mm f2.8 ASPH ‘pan­cake’ prime lens which is equiv­a­lent to a 27mm and makes for a very com­pact over­all pack­age. It brings the line-up of ‘APS-C’ TL mount lenses to seven, span­ning 11mm (16.5mm) to 135mm (202.5mm) and while you can also fit the SL’s full-35mm for­mat lenses, it’s hard to see why you would, given their size and weight. Much more likely is us­ing the M mount adapter as plenty of these man­ual-fo­cus RF lenses look right at home on the CL body (there’s also an R mount adapter should you be lucky enough to have any of these Le­ica 35mm SLR sys­tem lenses hang­ing around).

The JPEG im­age qual­ity is ex­cep­tional, par­tic­u­larly in terms of the def­i­ni­tion and dy­namic range which is ex­tremely wide for an ‘APS-C’ size sen­sor. With its op­ti­cal low-pass fil­ter re­moved, the CL’s sen­sor de­liv­ers beau­ti­fully crisp de­tail­ing and seam­lessly smooth tonal gra­da­tions. The colour re­pro­duc­tion is absolutely re­al­is­tic across the spec­trum with the Stan­dard ‘Film Style’ pre­set, but if you like a lit­tle more punch, then the Vivid pre­set de­liv­ers en­hanced sat­u­ra­tion with­out com­pro­mis­ing ei­ther fidelity or tonal­ity. Le­ica has al­ways gone for a slightly con­trastier look and it makes for en­hanced clar­ity and a more dy­namic, three-di­men­sional feel with both colour and B&W im­ages. In­ci­den­tally, Le­ica is par­tic­u­larly proud of its ‘APS-C’ L mount lenses which, you may be sur­prised to learn, are ac­tu­ally the sharpest it makes (along with the Q’s 28mm f1.7), with a re­solv­ing power of 60 lines per mil­lime­tre (com­pared to 40 lines/mil­lime­tre for M mount lenses) which, in essence, can­cels out the sen­sor’s smaller-than-35mm size.

The high ISO per­for­mance is also a bit of a rev­e­la­tion with the noise re­duc­tion pro­cess­ing skil­fully man­aged up to ISO 3200, en­sur­ing no per­cep­ti­ble loss of sat­u­ra­tion, con­trast or sharp­ness. Slight grain­i­ness starts to be­come ev­i­dent in ar­eas of con­tin­u­ous tone at ISO 6400 and 12,800, but both de­tail­ing and sat­u­ra­tion are still well pre­served and even the ISO 25,000 set­ting is us­able pro­vided you don’t want to make big en­large­ments.

Con­se­quently, the Le­ica CL heads to the top of the low-light per­for­mance class in terms of ‘APS-C’ sen­sor cam­eras, ei­ther mir­ror­less or D-SLR.


The chal­lenge of balanc­ing its il­lus­tri­ous her­itage with con­tem­po­rary com­pet­i­tive­ness must haunt Le­ica’s en­gi­neers ev­ery time they sit down to de­sign a new camera. With the T se­ries they sim­ply threw the his­tory book out of the win­dow, but it’s clearly been a stud­ied ref­er­ence for the likes of the Q, the S se­ries and any of the dig­i­tal Ms. With the CL, the fine line is more care­fully trod­den than ever be­fore.

The clas­si­cal el­e­ments are deftly han­dled and, in fact, are quite mod­ernised in their im­ple­men­ta­tion while the con­tem­po­rary as­pects are dis­tilled down to largely the tra­di­tional es­sen­tials plus the few ex­tras that are well on their way to be­com­ing es­sen­tials. The re­sult is the most ap­peal­ing dig­i­tal-era Le­ica camera to date and, it has to be said, the one most likely to at­tract new­com­ers to the mar­que, es­pe­cially from among the ranks of pho­tog­ra­phy en­thu­si­asts. It’s still dis­tinc­tively a Le­ica in looks, feel and op­er­a­tion, but it’s also more ‘main­stream’ in that you don’t have to tap into the her­itage to un­der­stand what it’s all about or ap­pre­ci­ate its form and func­tion.

Le­ica also has to tread a fine line be­tween ex­clu­siv­ity and pop­u­lar­ity which it also very finely bal­ances with the new CL. Will it re­peat its name­sake’s suc­cess? Well, be­yond any­thing else, the Le­ica CL is a very fine camera, beau­ti­fully crafted and ca­pa­ble of class-lead­ing per­for­mance. The fa­mous badge on the front is a wel­come bonus.

‘EyeRes’ EVF has 2.36 megadots res­o­lu­tion. Prox­im­ity sen­sor on the eye­piece en­ables auto switch­ing be­tween the EVF and mon­i­tor. Ex­ter­nal con­trol lay­out is dis­tilled down to a hand­ful of keys, but ev­ery­thing you need is there. It’s not all old-school though… touch­screen con­trols in­clude swipes to switch be­tween the main op­er­at­ing modes.

While it shares a lot of the TL2’s tech on the in­side, the Le­ica CL is a very dif­fer­ent camera on the out­side with more clas­si­cal styling and a dial-based con­trol lay­out. Twin in­put di­als change roles ac­cord­ing to the se­lected ex­po­sure mode as do the read-outs in the smaller dis­play panel be­tween them. Along with the cen­tre but­tons, ev­ery­thing im­por­tant is at your fin­ger­tips.

The orig­i­nal 35mm Le­ica CL was a best-seller in the mid-1970s, the new CL’s bal­ance of size, fea­tures, per­for­mance and (com­par­a­tive) af­ford­abil­ity may well see his­tory re­peated.

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