Choosing camera gear for travel involves optimizing the equipment for personal preferences, size and weight limitations, and photographic goals. In planning for a camping vacation to southern Utah and a bit of northern Arizona, I needed to minimize the gear taken while having sufficient equipment for landscape photography. Space is quite limited in a camper. For this trip, I opted to take my Leica CL digital camera. In addition to its compact size and excellent image quality in general, I was interested in how it performed for landscape photography. During the trip, we covered a fair amount of ground including the White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, Muley Point, Valley of the Gods, South Coyote Buttes, and White Pocket. Conditions at Muley Point, Utah were the best photo conditions of the entire trip. This provided the perfect opportunity to work with the Leica CL in an excellent situation for landscape photography.
Leica CL Digital Camera
During 2019, I had the opportunity to pick up a lightly used Leica CL digital camera and 23mm Summicron TL 23mm f/2 Aspherical lens from a couple who had purchased it and later decided to get Leica M10 digital rangefinder cameras. When the camera arrived, I could not have been happier. The camera is smaller and lighter than my Fuji X-T2 body and the build quality is outstanding. Leica has maintained simplicity in camera form and function. Design is geared toward enhancing user experience and keeping the photographer focused on photography. This approach really appeals to me.
Judging by the work of other photographers who use the Leica CL, most of them use the camera for street photography and portraiture. I could find very little information on the Leica CL for landscape photography. This piqued my curiosity and so I decided to bring the Leica CL on the trip to Utah as my primary camera. In order to not fall back on my tried, true, and trusty Fujifilm X-T2 camera, I left it at home. This forced me to get to know the Leica CL better and to evaluate its performance for landscape work.
Overview of the Leica CL
The Leica CL is a 24 megapixel APS-C digital camera. It is small for an interchangeable lens professional-level camera, and lighter than many other mirrorless camera bodies. Even though the weight is relatively low, the camera feels solid. In fact, it is produced from a single block of magnesium and the quality can be felt the moment that the camera is held in the hand.
The Leica CL has an essence of elegance. This is evident in the styling, which looks and feels fantastic, as well as physical controls. Controls on the body are limited to two dials and buttons on the top of the camera, plus the shutter release button and on/off switch. The dials and buttons are customizable allowing users to configure them for their personal preferences. The back of the camera has three buttons on the left side: Play for reviewing images, FN for accessing specific camera functions, and Menu which allows access to all camera menu options. The navigation control/selector is located on the right side of the LCD.
Menus provide access to all camera options. What I love about the menu system of this camera is that it is easy to navigate and to find specific items. The menu layout, like the rest of the design, is meant for ease of use without being dumbed down. Options are limited to essentials without extraneous bells and whistles.
The Leica CL natively uses L-mount lenses. Leica has two lines of L-mount lenses. TL-mount lenses are designed for Leica digital cameras with APS-C sensors which include the TL, TL2, and CL cameras. SL-mount lenses are designed for Leica full-frame digital cameras which include the SL and SL2. At the time of this writing, the following Leica TL lenses are available:
- Leica Elmarit-TL 18mm f/2.8 ASPH
- Leica Summicron-TL 23mm f/2 ASPH
- Leica Summilux-TL 35mm f1.4 ASPH/
- Leica APO-Macro-Elmarit-TL 60mm f/2.8 ASPH
- Leica Super-Vario-Elmar-TL 11-23mm f/3.5-4.5 ASPH
- Leica Vario-Elmar-TL 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH
- Leica APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f/3.5-4.5 ASPH
Leica's rangefinder lenses having Leica M mount can be used on the Leica CL with an adapter. Leica makes an adapter called the "Leica M-Adapter L" that will automatically pass lens information to the camera body if the lens is coded. This information is then saved in the image metadata and used for lens-based corrections to JPG files. Raw files are left uncorrected and the user can implement lens corrections in post-processing. For M-mount Leica lenses that are too old to be coded, the camera menu allows for selection the lens from a menu. M-mount lenses made by companies other than Leica are not included in the menu options. In this case, the user can elect to not choose a lens or to choose the closest Leica lens option. Carl Zeiss and Voigtlander make exceptional lenses in Leica M mount.
Leica's L-mount lenses all have autofocus capability. Autofocus on the Leica CL is accurate and fast. Users can also opt to focus manually. The camera has focus peaking and focus magnification for assisting manual focus. All M-mount lenses are manual focus and focus assist tools are beneficial when using them.
The first lenses that I used with the Leica CL were the Leica Summicron TL 23mm f/2 Aspherical and the Voigtlander VM Nokton Classic 40mm f/1.4. Images shot with both of these lenses on the CL were simply fantastic. Colors were rendered in a natural way, images were clean, and absolutely no compromise on sharpness and detail. In addition, conversion to black and white gave some of the best results that I have ever encountered.
Excellent and thorough reviews covering all aspects of the camera can be found elsewhere on the internet. Hugh Brownstone's video review and David Farkas's review are recommended. Both reviews delve deeper into the specifications, features, and performance of the camera. Other reviews can also be referenced for more technical aspects and evaluations of the camera.
Muley Point, Utah
Muley Point is a gem of a spot located about 1,000 feet above the goosenecks of the San Juan River in Utah. It is situated on the southern portion of Cedar Mesa. A commanding view overlooks the wide expanse of canyons wrapping around the point. Monument Valley can be viewed to the southwest and the beautiful Raplee Ridge can be seen to the southeast. The broad profile of Navajo Mountain is visible beyond a long mesa, situated in the distance between Monument Valley and Raplee Ridge. Directly below Muley Point lies a portion of Johns Canyon through which the San Juan River flows.
We spent one night at Muley Point in March, 2020. Camping overnight allows for time to take in the amazing scenery and to photography both sunrise and sunset. Arriving in the late morning, we set up the camper and took the rest of the day to explore the immediate area on foot and to plan for photographs. The rim of the Muley Point area is made up of large jointed sandstone blocks. These made for both easy walking as well as cautious approaches to the rim edge. Over the course of the afternoon, clouds formed which held promise for good sunset photography.
Muley Point Sunset and Sunrise Photos
Conditions at sunset were outstanding for capturing views from this stunning location. Sun angle provided low side lighting for the Monument Valley features. In addition, soft warm light fell on the canyons and goosenecks below, with illumination of the nearest mesa wall. To top it off, Raplee Ridge was softly lit which showed off its form and texture. With such beautiful formations, clouds, and light, I shot the same scenes repeatedly but from slightly different angles. During sunset shooting, I also changed the focal length on the Leica APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f/3.5-4.5 ASPH lens. These changes in focal length allowed me to feature different parts of the scene, taking advantage of the light falling on features ranging from the foreground through to the background.
Sunrise provided for stunning photos as well. Before rising over the mesa just east of our camping spot, the sun softly lit the sky, canyons, and mesas. Clouds and landscape features were bathed in soft pinks and purples, with orange sky to the east. When the sun broke over the nearby mesa, conditions were perfect for capturing a sun star. Sunrise photos were shot with a Voigtlander 35mm f/1.7 Ultron Aspherical M-mount lens.
Impressions and Recommendation of the Leica CL
Conditions at Muley Point were excellent for landscape photography and provided for an opportunity to use the Leica CL for landscape work. Results were quite impressive. Images have beautiful color and tonality that requires minimal post-processing. The camera did an amazing job of rendering the light very realistically. I was very happy with images straight out of the camera. Just a little editing of the raw files put finishing touches on the images.
Performance with the Leica APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f/3.5-4.5 ASPH and Voigtlander VM 35mm f/1.7 Ultron Aspherical M-mount lenses was impressive. Colors and tonalities were rendered beautifully and naturally. Both lenses are sharp without being clinical.
Traveling with the Leica CL is easy owing to its compact size and light weight. The minimalist design and ease of use contributed to a very enjoyable experience as well as straightforward functionality in the field.
With all of the positive attributes of the Leica CL, there are a few areas that could use improvement. When light comes from the side, the eye cup is not sufficient to prevent stray light from entering into the viewfinder around the eye. Light entering from the side can make the EVF difficult to view. When strong side lighting occurred, I had to shade the eye cup with one hand.
A second weakness is battery life which is rated at 220 images. Battery performance will vary depending on how much the EVF and LCD are also used. Low battery life is dealt with by carrying spare batteries. Overall, I don't feel that the cons of the camera overshadow its strengths.
The Leica CL is certainly a candidate for the best travel camera available today. It is a little powerhouse of a camera. Well built, beautifully designed, simple, small and light, and with top notch image quality. This is a camera that one can carry around all day without feeling like a brick is hanging from one's neck. Lenses are generally more compact and lighter than those available for other APS-C cameras. Leica has met their goal of providing an enjoyable user experience with this camera. This has been accomplished through ease of controls, minimal menu diving, simplicity, and nothing extraneous.
Leica is well known for exceptionally high-quality cameras and lenses. They have a long history of designing and producing equipment renowned for optical excellence and build quality. The Leica CL digital camera is no exception. Leica engineers have merged classic camera styling with modern digital features. The CL produces stellar images, has a truly amazing build quality, and functionality that works on a fundamental level without over-complication of menus and options. Design of this camera emphasizes user experience and image quality. It does not disappoint.
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