Leica's CL gives an iconic design the modern tech it deserves

The M-like camera has manual dials and a fast new electronic viewfinder.

Up until recently, Leica built lovely, expensive cameras that no-one ever called "state-of-the-art." The TL2, however, recently marked a change in direction. Not only was it relatively cheap for a Leica at $1,950, but it was endowed with modern features like 4K video. It's pushing that idea further with the CL, its new $2,795 flagship 24.2-megapixel APS-C mirrorless that looks and feels more like an old-school Leica, thanks to a new body and manual dials. At the same time, it's got the tech you'd expect in a modern camera, including an all-new electronic viewfinder.

Leica's aim with the TL2 was to bring modern performance and specs to the T, its first APS-C camera. It replaced the sensor and electronics wholesale, endowing it with a new 24-megapixel sensor, 4K video, a touchscreen interface and relatively fast autofocus performance. "Everything the customers asked for, we gave it to them in July with the TL2," Leica Product Manager Maike Harberts told Engadget.

What it was missing, though, was a Leica-like tactile feel, which is where the CL comes in. The new model has the same electronics as the TL2, but looks more like the German company's more traditional M or Q full-frame models with a smooth, low-profile metal body and manual dials. "The CL got its inspiration from the cameras like the IIIG, with a classic design, and we transferred that kind of idea onto the CL camera," said Harberts.

More importantly, it has a new 2.36 million dot electronic viewfinder (EVF) built expressly for it. "It's for people who love to take the camera to their eye, adjust the most important values and just be in the zone and take pictures," explained Harberts. In exchange for that manual functionality, the CL has a smaller 3.0-inch touchscreen with menu functions driven by the D-pad. Touch options are reserved for reviewing and zooming in on photos via pinching and draging, and switching between video and photo modes. In video mode, tapping lets you switch between record and review modes.

Looking at the numbers, the Leica CL has the same 24.2-megapixel sensor, 49-point contrast autofocus and Maestro II series processor that's on the TL2. That gives the CL 10 fps burst shooting speeds in both mechanical and electronic shutter modes, letting you capture around 33 RAW images before the buffer fills.

ISOs range from 100 to 50,000, while the shutter speed goes up to 1/8000th of a second in mechanical mode and 1/25,000th electronically. The electronic shutter makes nary a peep, which is good news for street or golf photographers. Unfortunately, there's no optical image stabilization on either the body or TL lenses. The only way to get it is by using a full-frame, stabilized SL lens, which can be mounted without an adapter, but will cost you a hell of a lot more than a TL lens.

For video, max resolution is (yay!) 4K at 30 fps, or 60 fps 1080p, but no microphone input (boo!), so you're limited to the onboard mic or an external recorder. It's fair to say, however, that not many folks in Leica's intended market will be using the CL for anything other than casual video.

You also get WiFi -- the only way to transfer pictures directly from the camera, since there's no USB port -- and a single UHS-II-supported SD card slot. The TL2 didn't have great battery life, and the CL is even worse, letting you shoot about 220 photos on a charge. In other words, order at least a spare battery or two.

I've had a few days to play with Leica's CL, equipped with a brand new 18mm f/2.8 pancake lens. Together, they make a combination that's ideal for street photos, something Leica is famous for, so that's what I tested in my Paris neighborhood.

Built in Germany, the body is magnesium with anodized aluminum top and bottom covers. If you're into that classic Leica style, it's hard to call this camera anything but "gorgeous," especially if you add the optional leather half case. It's pretty light at 403 grams with a battery, less than Sony's A6500 (453 grams) and the Fuji X-T2 (503 grams). With the pancake lens, it's about as light an APS-C interchangeable-lens camera can be, and I could (just) fit it in my jacket pocket.

The top left button/dial combo is reserved for aperture or shutter, depending on the mode, but the right-hand dial can be programmed for shutter, exposure compensation, ISO and five other settings. The two dials and their buttons let you change most settings, but it's not quite as nice as having, say, five dedicated dials like you get on the X-T2. There are also three rear buttons ("play," a programmable "function" and "menu") and a D-pad. There's a small, backlit screen on top that shows essential settings like shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation.

The camera was fairly easy to learn, and I could indeed shoot without taking it away from my eye. The EVF is as bright and fast as promised and delivers accurate colors. The rear display is visible in sunlight, but it's not tiltable like on most of the CL's rivals. That's unfortunate, especially for low- or high-angle street photos, but then again it would add weight and take away from the camera's solid-slab-of-metal feel.

Thanks to the silent electronic shutter, it was easy to be discreet while shooting. That said, the mechanical shutter makes a very satisfying sound, so I was sort of torn between the two. Given the lack of stabilization, you may want to go with the electronic mode in low light to reduce vibration.

That lack of stabilization isn't a huge issue on a wide lens like the 18mm; I could shoot sharp photos at a shutter speed as low as 1/25th of a second. On a longer, heavier lens it would be, though, and shooting hand-held video is pretty much impossible unless you have steadier hands than I do.

With the color set for "natural" (there's also "vivid," "standard" and two black and white settings), the Leica CL produced accurate colors that were just on the side of "warm" that I prefer, with fairly punchy contrast. I took most of the photos at ISO levels of between 1,600 and 6,400, and found noise levels to be very acceptable. When you push it up to 12,800 and beyond, however, images start to get a bit crunchy. The CL's DNG images carry a decent amount of image data (14 bits), so it's easy to pull details out of sections that are too dark or too bright.

In sum, the CL isn't terribly different from the TL2, but Leica is clearly pitching it at Leica-philes who prefer the classic form and dials. The biggest addition is the built-in electronic viewfinder that goes a long way to transforming it into a rangefinder-like model beloved by fans of the brand. What's missing compared to rivals is image stabilization and USB transfers, items that probably aren't deal-breakers for most wannabe Leica buyers.

The $2,795 price tag for the CL (in anodized black only) isn't cheap, but it is still less than most Leicas, making it feasible for well-off amateurs and professionals. Leica glass is also notoriously expensive: The 18mm f/2.8 pancake lens (in black or silver) is now Leica's cheapest TL lens at $1,295, while the 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6mm model is around $1,695, and you can get the CL in a kit with those lenses for $3,795 and $3,995, respectively. The Leica CL mirrorless arrives at the end of November.