The Leica SL (Typ 601)

Sep 29, 2015  By Jonathan Slack
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Sfakian Sunset. Leica SL (Typ 601) with Leica Vario-Elmar-M 16-18-21mm at 21mm

The Leicaflex SL and SL2 were manufactured by Leica in Wetzlar from 1968 to 1976, they are reputed to be the best made cameras in the history of photography. Despite being around twice the price of the equivalent Nikon F2 Photomic, Leica nevertheless made a loss on every camera produced.

In 1976 production was stopped, and the next R mount camera was the R3, which was based on the Minolta XE-1/XE-7 camera, this was first built in Wetzlar, and later in Portugal. Leica had been doing research on auto-focus for about 20 years and the project was called Correfot, the first prototypes were based around the Leicaflex SL2, later ones around the R3 and R4 (as an interesting side note, 5 Correfot prototypes were sold in the Westlicht auction on Dec. 5, 2009, Lot # 229 which sold for €50K). However Leica didn’t see a future in AF, and sold the technology to Minolta, who, in 1985 brought out the Minolta Maxxum 7000: the worlds first autofocus camera.

This August Andreas Kaufmann posted a photograph on Facebook of Lenny Kravitz shooting with a Leicaflex SL, I thought this was delightfully oblique, and it prompted me to buy a Leicaflex SL2 secondhand at a very modest price, it’s wonderfully made and just lovely to use, and my 41 year old beauty is still working perfectly.

Of course, the Leica SL might also be construed as Leica S L(ight), and the new camera does indeed take full advantage of the 7 years of in house development and interface design of the Leica S cameras. Added to which, Leica will provide an adapter which provides AF with S lenses.

I’m afraid that I’m as hooked on photographic forums and social media as many photographers. One of the special pleasures for me is to read the rumours about new camera introductions when I already know the truth; sometimes it’s really hard to stop oneself from making comments!

In this case it was particularly tantalising, in that the rumour sites had conflated the idea of a new Leica M with the rumours of a full frame camera with autofocus. Stir in talk of a Leica Q with interchangeable lenses, add a little guesswork (the demise of the Leica T and the re-emergence of a Leica CL) and you can end up with the strangest conclusions. The only thing which I really haven’t seen suggested is what we actually have here; The new Leica SL.

In recent years Sony, Olympus and Panasonic have been the real innovators in camera design, leaving Canon and Nikon to keep refining the single lens reflex camera. Conventional wisdom was that Leica could not compete directly, and needed to focus on niche cameras like the Leica M, where there wasn’t a great deal of direct competition. The Leica Q changed all that, outdoing the Sony RX1 on every level, it’s a stunning camera.

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