With the introduction of the new CL ($2,795+), Leica now makes two interchangeable lens APS-C cameras. Its older brother, the TL2 came out earlier this year with a focus on minimal design and a modern, smartphone-derived touchscreen interface. Most loved its sparse, chamfered body and excellent image quality, but camera nerds couldn’t stand its lack of an electronic viewfinder and inability to change the ISO by turning a dial. Like they did with the refresh of their flagship M10, Leica has again yielded to the nerds with the new CL.
Let’s get something straight before things go too far, the Leica TL2 is a good camera. It’s really pretty, wonderfully fast, the sensor is on par with the rest of the industry, and the system’s higher-end L mount lenses (just look for the most expensive ones) are beyond APS-C peers from Sony and Fuji. The new CL, however, aims to take all that was good about the TL2 and add a big, bright, integrated viewfinder and the general control scheme from the M10 and Q. The good news is, it totally worked.
After testing the CL for a couple weeks with the also-newly-launched 18mm f/2.8 (28mm equivalent) pancake lens, here’s what you need to know.
The Good: The CL keeps all the power and imaging performance of the TL2 and adds all the photo-nerd bits that are so essential to the Leica shooting experience. The addition of buttons inside the two top dials make for quick mode swaps, the button layout on the back will be immediately familiar for anyone who’s used a Q or M10, the addition of a top-mounted display for key settings info goes miles to make this camera feel like the analog Leicas of yore, the viewfinder is bright and lag-free, and aesthetically the CL is way more hit than miss —- at least to my eye.
Who It’s For: Anybody who wants to get into the Leica APS-C ecosystem or has a bunch of Leica lenses laying around. Also, if you want the flexibility of interchangeable lenses and can’t deal with the gigantic-ness of the SL.
Watch Out For: The sensor tech isn’t quite as impressive as other compact interchangeables, but if you’re chasing specs, the CL isn’t really for you anyway. The viewfinder hump is less elegant than the Q, but it’s hard to complain too much at this size. One strange thing worth noting is that the camera has absolutely no physical connectivity options (USB or HDMI), though it does have wi-fi.
Alternatives: And so we arrive at the requisite part of every review of every Leica camera ever: the disclaimer that, relative to its competition, the CL is unabashedly expensive. At $3,795 with the 18mm lens, it’s about the same as Sony’s brand new A7R III — a great option for those who want a great camera and every single feature known to man — or a really big Fujifilm kit based on the X-Pro or XT-2. But if you’re into the lovely and ineffable Leica-ness of cameras from Wetzlar, the CL is your pick for a semi-affordable modern interchangeable compact, the Q is your choice for compact fixed-lens and the M10 is your pick for everything but sports and macro photography.
The Verdict: The CL is, on the whole, a really great camera and a worthy addition to the Leica lineup. You’re paying a premium to get into the Leica ecosystem, but this is the least expensive way to do it that we’d recommend. If you’re a camera enthusiast who likes physical controls and a viewfinder (and I’m guessing you are), it’s absolutely worth the small premium over the TL2.
All that being said, unless you have at least two lenses or some really specific use cases — macro photography comes to mind — it may be worth considering shelling out the extra cash for one of Leica’s full-frame offerings. If you’re just going to buy the 18mm kit, you can have an unequivocally better travel camera in the Leica Q for about $500 more.
Sensor: 24 megapixel APS-C
ISO Range: 100-50,000
Storage Media: 1 SD/SDHC/SDXC slot
Rear Display: 3″ Touchscreen
Electronic Viewfinder: 2.36 megapixel with a magnification of 0.74x
Battery Life (CIPA Standard): 220 Photos
Body Materials: Top and bottom plates are milled aluminum, front and rear are magnesium
Dimensions: 5.16″ x 3.07″ x 1.77″
Weight: .89 lbs