Art of Gear Addiction: The Leica CL

The Leica CL

I’m a happily married man.

I have a well-established home and family that I love and that I’m heavily invested in. It took years to shape our relationship, and while it was initially shaky at times with many nay-sayers on the side, it all worked out at the end. We have never been stronger together as a duo. We continue to grow together, as we age and appreciate the little things in life.

I’m talking, of course, about my Leica M and the M-mount system.

We have thirteen wonderful lenses together, lined up perfectly on our designated shelf at home and we make sure they are dust-free and well-protected with lens caps and filters before bedtime each night. Five spare batteries are always fully charged and ready to go, and other accessories such as the handgrip and extra SD cards are neatly set within an arm’s reach. Everything is in perfect harmony.

But I have a dark side.

A side piece that I visit on occasion when no one’s watching. Dressed in all black and sporting a tight athletic frame, a quick and easy yet supremely satisfying experience is reached with my devilish little temptress… the Leica CL.

Leica CL
New age digital CL with the old school film CL lens, the 40mm Summicron-C.

“…a quick and easy yet supremely satisfying experience…”

The Mistress Camera

As much as I love that pure and wholesome rangefinder shooting experience only available in a Leica M, there is absolutely a desire for a dirty little modern camera that produces high quality photos. Many may try to look into other manufacturers such a Sony or Panasonic for this role, but I stick to the red dot family, for I am a true addict. Because the CL doesn’t just product high quality photos, it produces the Leica-look. Maybe it’s all in my head, but to me it most definitely exists.

I’ll man up and admit it now, I cheat on my M all the freaking time with this thing.

Leica CL
With the top dials and [FN] button being programmable, you can create a quick setup that works well for you. You can also set a favorites menu and bury the settings you don’t care about.
At first glance as an M shooter, this may just seem like another digital camera that Leica produces for the poors and masses, but really look at this camera for what it can be: a compact and lightweight backup to the M with real modern capabilities. A miniaturized M-inspired body with simple, yet sophisticated Barnack-styling mixed in, and of course a red dot and all the fuzzy feel-good stuff that comes with it.

“… a compact and lightweight backup to the M with real modern capabilities”

A Closer Look

The build is as expected, super high quality and the finishes look and feel great in-hand. The leather cladding used is a softer and grippier leather than used on an M. The dual unmarked and re-programmable dials on top are tactile and have a deliberate positive retention to them without being hard to operate. The shutter button provides one of the most satisfying sounds and even the power switch itself is a treat. Both the EVF and LCD screens seem bright, sharp, and offer high-resolution viewing pleasure. You also get another modest but helpful LCD screen on the top plate as well, to remind you of how terrible you are at settings. The snazzy little top LCD is back-lit, but kept black and white so it doesn’t distract the user from concentrating on photography. I really appreciate the overall stealthy and elegant design of this camera.

I just love this thing.

Leica CL
The 35mm Summilux-TL is a hand cannon. A handgrip and thumbs up is highly recommended here to handle the big boy.

APS-C Power

The native lens system for the CL (and TL) is the APS-C 1.5x crop factor TL-mount. It’s a relatively small lineup, but it easily has all the basics covered. As usual with Leica, there seems to be no real compromise in build or image quality… and price (insert shocked Pikachu face) throughout the entire range of TL lenses. In the “entry” level, there is the 18-56mm Vario-Elmar and the 18mm Elmarit, and both of them are damn good. Hardly entry-level at all. With those two lenses being the floor of what the TL-mount is capable of, it says a lot about the craft that the CL can do.

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Sharp and clean. The native lenses can be quite incredible. CL+23mm Summicron-TL.

Nice Glass

On the premium side, you have lenses like the 35mm Summilux. First thing you notice when you slap this bad boy on is that it’s thick, long, heavy and black. It totally mocks your manhood. You just emptied your wallet to make your camera look like a chic potato gun. The perfect balance and weight distribution of the diminutive CL is now jacked. You are now forced to go on eBay at 2:30am to snipe a handgrip from a seller in Nebraska to use in conjunction with this lens. Of course he marks it “signature required” and you miss the FedEx guy 2 days in a row.

Leica CL
Figure 1-1. Chic Potato Gun.

But while it is awkward hold, it makes up for it in image quality. I think the pictures that this glass cannon draws are simply stunning. Background separation pop is precisely executed and the subjects are super sharp and clean. It almost feels like the camera knows where to perform the focus drop offs, it’s always bang-on. Low light is also handled like a champ. This lens peacocks the TL-mount and showcases that crop sensors can hang with the big boys. To me, this is a must have lens for this camera, cost and manhood be damned.

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The 35mm Summilux-TL is one of my go-to lenses for portraits. Clean subject isolation is super easy to achieve and it performs very well in low light.

“…the pictures that this glass cannon draws are simply stunning.”

But it’s Not Full Frame

Never feel under-gunned with a crop sensor. If it can generate a great image, just be happy and use it. In fact, use the smaller form factor to your advantage and actually carry this around with ease. This is much better than not wanting to carry a large camera setup at all.

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The CL is the definition of a modern portable street camera.

All the native lenses seem to be pretty damn good and have plenty of resolving power. If anything they are commonly overlooked by most people, Leica users included. Perhaps it’s gated by its cost of entry or maybe Leica’s APS-C system is just too niche. Probably both.

Make Her Happy

In the end, it doesn’t matter. The mistress demands gifts and so you buy them to keep her happy. Acquiring new glass for a system you don’t already own is like running into a concrete wall at full speed. You are at full pace with a familiar system and suddenly you are at full stop. You start back at zero, and it’s painful. But once you accept the fate of G.A.S., you slowly but surely begin to unfold your worn out wallet.

Adapting M to L

One important aspect to the CL, and it’s actually the best characteristic of all, is the fun and amazing experience you get when you mount M glass to it. Given that you mounted a 6-Bit M lens using the Leica M-L adapter, the EXIF data is automatic and the camera internally selects some unicorn magic setting to optimize its rendering for that particular lens. If your lens isn’t 6-bit, you can always select it in the menu as you would on other digital M cameras.

Leica CL
The Leica M-Adapter L opens up the entire library of M-mount lenses at your disposal. Non-Leica manufacturers included. Imagine the possibilities and feed your GAS!

The dials then automatically switch to a more classic M style dial layout. You now have control over aperture and focus via the lens and shutter on the center-most dial. It’s now in miniature M mode with modern enhancements. Shoot off the rear LCD or EVF and if you want, with focus peaking activated. You cannot miss with these hacks. Once you start pressing the shutter, super clean and crystal clear images are then written to your SD card.

“A healthy dose of f/1.4 can help you out there though. Just open up that ripped up tattered wallet of yours.”

Not All is Peachy

I can harp about how cool this camera is all I want, but it isn’t without faults. Battery life can be short, especially when you start having a lot of fun with this camera. Between the LCDs, EVF, auto focus and other hocus pocus a toll is put on the battery. So stock up and carry a few in your bag.

Pro Tip: Panasonic makes the same battery, but cheaper. There are other poverty options out there, but none of those are as good – they just seem to drain much faster. Also, when swapping batteries, be cautious of the battery door. While it has never broken on me, but it does seem a bit flimsy for my liking.

No Night Vision

In low light situations when the ISO skyrockets, the EVF can stutter a little. Not an ideal “feature” to be looking at a slideshow when you are trying to work in the dark, given the price you pay. This really should be improved upon. During this situation, the end product can be a bit grainy due to high ISO, but at least it is handled well and still looks good. Overall, slightly annoying, but livable. A healthy dose of f/1.4 can help you out there though. Just open up that ripped up tattered wallet of yours.

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However, auto focus is quick enough to capture children, which is a big feat. The Leica TL, which is only one generation behind the CL, would have issues here with focusing speed.

Just Pick One

I’m extremely grateful that I don’t have to live with just one camera. But in the imaginary event where all my gear is gone and I had to start over with just one camera, I think I would pick the Leica CL. Not because it’s the greatest camera of all time, but because it offers what I feel is a great blend of what a modern Leica camera should be like today, plus a splash of M. This is indeed the mistress I would run away with.

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National Harbor with “golden hour” hacks on. This camera always gives me warm and fuzzy Leica feels.

Art of Gear Addiction is a series of whimsical opinion articles written on the subject matter of Leica gear ownership by Chris C., a friend and contributor to Cosmotographer.

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