For a manufacturer that, with its M-series rangefinders, makes cameras that are traditional almost to the point of anachronism, the TL series is pretty radical. But, to be fair, the TL could appear fairly radical in almost any company’s lineup.
I say this because my first impression of shooting with the TL2 is that it’s the camera least like a traditional camera that I can remember using since, well, the original Leica T. However, saying it’s not like a traditional camera doesn’t mean it’s not just as focused on the fundamentals of photography as an M or a well-honed DSLR. Rather, it’s an initially unfamiliar solution to the same problem.
What’s new in the TL2?
Like the previous T and TL models, the TL2 is a primarily touchscreen-driven camera that uses an almost smartphone-like icon-based interface in the place of any menu lists. However, beyond the move to a 24MP sensor for this latest version, Leica has made small but important changes to just about every aspect of the camera.
|Your attention to detail needs to be as intense as the TL2’s designers’ if you’re not to lose the pop-out strap socket covers (though there are two little holes in the retail box’s foam insert in which to house them).|
For a start, the edges of the milled aluminum body are now chamfered, meaning it won’t dig into your fingers as much as the older models did. The pop-out-and-lose strap mounting plugs are still present but, if you decide you want to use your own strap, Leica will now sell you a socket-to-strap-lug adapter (for a Leica-reasonable sum of $65). Meanwhile, the pop-up flash, which owners apparently said they didn’t need, has gone, allowing even more pared-back design.
|The camera’s main settings have been split into nine sections, to make it easier to find the setting you’re after. Any of the options within each sub-menu can be dragged to the customizable Camera menu.|
On the interface side of things, the icon-based menu has been reorganized so that everything is categorized into one of nine sub-sections (Still Image, Exposure, Focus, Motion Image, Connectivity, Monitor/EVF, Play, General and Flash), so that it’s easier to find the setting you want. But, like before, this full menu isn’t your primary way of dealing with camera settings, instead the first panel of icons you reach is one you create yourself by dragging and dropping the options from the main menu.
The camera’s solitary non-shutter button can now be customized. Sadly, though, your choices are: [Rec], Play or EVF/LCD. Of those three options, I’d happily leave it to start recording video, but the camera would be much quicker to operate if I could set it to control ISO or, perhaps, the Auto ISO minimum shutter speed value (‘Maximum exposure time’ in Leicasprache).
So, what’s it like shooting with such an unconventional camera?
‘Unfamiliar’ would be my first response. But oddly, not for the reasons you might expect: it’s not the smartphone-like touchscreen interface that I found hard to adapt to.
My first interaction with the camera was being handed it and asked if I could work out how to reconfigure the second dial to control exposure compensation. I pressed the box that showed the dial’s current function and a menu popped-up offering five alternatives. It’s a very quick and sensible way to operate, so long as you don’t assume the TL2 is like every other camera we test and start hunting around for a configuration section in a sub menu.
While this approach is initially unfamiliar, the core need to specify focus point and exposure parameters is paramount in the camera’s design. You have two dials, meaning you can set aperture or shutter speed easily, with quick access to exposure compensation or ISO. So far, so good.
|There’s a USB 3.0 socket on the side of the camera that allows easy offloading of the camera’s 32GB internal memory. The Type-C socket can also be used for charging.|
Another thing Leica has improved with the TL2 is its processor. It’s the same generation (though not necessarily the same chip) as the Maestro II used in the M10. This allows for UHD 4K capture, 7 fps shooting (20 fps in e-shutter mode) and makes the whole camera quick enough to warrant a USB 3.0 interface (with the new Type-C connector), though only a UHS-I card interface. Significantly, though, this extra processing power boosts both the responsiveness of the touchscreen and the autofocus speed, though the responsiveness appears to drop when the camera is writing to a card or memory.
Overall, autofocus is pretty fast but not really up to the levels of the latest mirrorless cameras, it’s also somewhat lens-dependent. This makes it fast enough for plenty of types of photography but essentially rules it out for moving subjects. Also, I never quite developed enough confidence in the hand grip to shoot anything other than two handed, which often meant having to re-position one of my hands to reach across the screen to move the AF point. This meant that, while the touchscreen operation itself was pretty quick, the process of using it was a little slower than necessary.
Where the wheels start to wobble (if not necessarily coming off completely) are the areas in which Leica seems not to have complete faith in its design. For instance: the camera doesn’t default to touch focus, which seems like an off choice for a touchscreen camera, instead starting in ‘Multi Point’ mode, where the camera chooses the focus point for you, with no over-ride.
|You can limit the Camera menu to only include the functions you want to access most often. Sadly, this design-it-yourself approach doesn’t extend to the camera’s since function button.|
Awkwardly (and more problematically, given you can’t change it), when you turn either of the camera’s dials, the only thing that happens is that the dial becomes active: the first ‘click’ doesn’t result in a change of settings. After a lifetime of experiencing a one click/one increment change relationship, it’s very hard to get used to a the first click effectively being ignored so you have to make ‘number of desired increments plus one’ clicks to make any adjustment.
It’s a really odd choice, since the TL2’s dials have firm-enough click detents and are recessed enough that I never noticed any inadvertent operation. The result is that Leica has added an ‘vagueness’ to its dials without any obvious need to do so. I was genuinely surprised how much this caught me out and the degree to which I couldn’t adapt to it.
Overall, then, my first impressions of the TL2 are mixed. I can see that for some people, the TL2 will chime with them as a beautifully engineered object, as well as a photographic device, and will trigger that same attraction that a mechanical watch will, even though quartz movements are cheaper, more accurate and rendered equally redundant by the phone in your pocket. Unfortunately, I’m both a camera reviewer and, I like to kid myself, a fairly rational, pragmatic* person, which meant that I couldn’t help focusing on the oddities, rather than letting myself fully engage with its material appeal.
However, the more I use it, the more I think my position might change if Leica gains a little more faith in its own design and eliminates the wake-up click on its dials. And, of course, my first impressions are based solely on operation, not on the pictures the camera can produce.
*Or is that spelled ‘cheapskate’?