In 1974 Leitz Wetzlar introduced an evolutionary camera to build on the foundation laid by the first and second Leica SLRs, the Leicaflex and Leicaflex SL. This new camera, christened with the wild abandon so typified by the Germans as the Leicaflex SL2, was designed and built under an uncommon ethos in which no expense was spared. Naturally, the camera was extremely, almost cripplingly expensive (double the price of the comparable Nikon pro-spec SLR against which it was directly competing), but it was also remarkably beautiful, built to exacting standards, and was the first truly complete system SLR from Leica.
If all this sounds like the first chapter in what would become a runaway success and subsequent dynasty of SLR dominance, that’s because we’re only telling half the story. In the era in which the SL2 debuted, Leica was in dire financial straits, and every Leicaflex the company sold reportedly sold at a loss – not a good business position. The result is that after just two years, an incredibly short lifespan in the world of professional SLR systems,SL2 production would come to a close.
But even this isn’t the full story. And that’s because the book on this entirely mechanical camera is still being written more than four decades after the final example rolled out of the factory. The SL2’s all-mechanical construction, advanced technical abilities, exceptional lenses, and sheer durability make it an heirloom machine that’s as capable today as it was back then, and in 2017, the SL2 is the Leica SLR to own.
A bold statement, for sure. Let’s back it up.
The first handshake with any camera is made with the eyes, and this camera grasps with a hand that inspires confidence. That’s because it’s gorgeous. Aesthetically speaking, the SL2 is everything I want in a camera. Though fans of Leica’s more famous M and that machine’s bauhaus simplicity might find the SL2 downright inelegant, as a professional SLR, this thing is quintessentially classic, with a profile and silhouette that’s timeless and utilitarian. The pentaprism is squat and compact, the body muscular with stoic angles. Top plate controls are reminiscent of fine machine tools and built and deployed with a nod to symmetry. Like all the best machines in the world, there’s an economy of form that those in-the-know will recognize as the brass ring of design.
This purposeful and timeless aesthetic carries through to the camera’s feel in the hand – mostly. As with all cameras, there are some minor annoyances, chief of which is the sheer heft of the machine. Like the Minolta XK, which was found to be a technically incredible camera with a major failing in the weight department, the SL2 will be undeniably too heavy for some users. Shooters who travel, or the adventurous among us may be put off when packing an SL2 and a couple or three lenses in a bag. For those shooters there are certainly better SLRs to choose.
But the substantial (and somewhat excessive) weight is a natural product of the camera’s old-world construction. The materials selection department at Leitz in 1974 had not yet been seduced by the siren song of plastics. As such, a shooter holding an SL2 would be hard-pressed to put his finger on anything not made of brass or some other alloy, and if featherweight users will be turned off by the camera’s heaviness, an equal number (or more) will accept this heft in order to use such a strong, all-mechanical, all-metal camera. It’s a heavy machine, yes, but it’s a good heavy.
Functionality could also be described as timeless. This is a tool camera in the same way that a Rolex Submariner is a tool watch. It’s been meticulously designed to not only look good, but serve its function in the most direct way possible. All knobs, dials, levers, and switches are placed in a position that makes simple sense, with a clarity of purpose that eschews the “multiple-functions-for-every-switch” design sensibility of other contemporary and today’s cameras. The ISO dial is an ISO dial. It’s not an ISO dial with a built-in exposure compensation dial and multiple-exposure lever. To call this camera a simple camera is accurate, and not a disparagement.
On the top plate we have the shutter speed selector, ISO dial, film type indicator, rewind knob, and film frame counter, which is a gorgeous jewel-like affair reminiscent of the M3’s. Atop the pentaprism is a hot shoe, and an ingenious light meter illumination button, which when pressed, activates a light within the pentaprism to assist in meter readings in low-light situations. The front of the camera carries on this simplicity of layout, with only a self-timer (which you’ll never use), a depth-of-field preview lever (which you’ll occasionally use), and the lens removal button. On the opposite flank of the lens mount are the flash connectors and a battery compartment (which holds a battery to power only the viewfinder illumination). The bottom shows another battery compartment for powering the light meter, and a film rewind button. On the back, there’s nothing except a viewfinder, and in the case of my 50th year edition, a special serial number. Neat.
This simplicity of design shouldn’t surprise long-time Leica fans – their M series has forever been a minimalist machine for discerning shooters (or so the marketing goes). This camera is no different. The only shooting mode the SL2 offers is full manual with meter assistance. That’s it. So you’ll be in charge of controlling your shutter speed, lens aperture, and everything else necessary to make a photo. For new shooters, this might be intimidating, but don’t let it be. The CdS light meter is extremely accurate, and its match-needle display is simplicity itself. Wide open through-the-lens readings are taken from an average area mostly in the center of the frame. Point your camera at your subject and the meter will tell you how much light you’re seeing via a delightful analog needle that swings up and down in the viewfinder. Now align this metering needle with the needle that corresponds to your settings and you’ll make a properly exposed image. No big deal.
This ease of use puts the SL2 in a surprising category of machine that’s equally at home in the confident and weathered hands of an experienced photographer as well as in the cold and clammy hands of a brand-new shooter looking to learn. For a camera to serve those two markets equally well, and be so damn perfectly built at the same time, is quite rare.
Of course, there’s no auto-exposure modes here, so users who absolutely need aperture-priority or full auto should probably look elsewhere, perhaps to Minolta’s XE series. And as the auto-focus revolution had yet to occur in 1974, this is a manual-focus only machine. Something to keep in mind for the lazy slobs among us.
What makes the SL2 the Leica SLR to own today? For me, it’s the combination of improvements over what came before it and a lack of the superfluous stuff that came on bloated Leica SLRs after.
The SL2 improves on the Leicaflex and Leicaflex SL in ways that seem insignificant on paper, but are practically very important. The viewfinder is much-improved, showing both the selected shutter speed as well as the selected lens aperture. This makes the process of taking a photo intuitive and effortless in that we never have to remove our eye from the viewfinder. The inclusion of a split-image focusing screen with micro prism surrounding band brings the SL2 up to speed with its rivals and makes focusing a breeze when compared to the earlier Leicas. We’re also benefiting from a more sensitive light meter, which is always helpful.
But the greatest improvement is one that reaches to the very core of what a pro-spec system SLR camera should be. Leica and Minolta were both producing R mount lenses at the time of the SL’s production cycle, and due to a design element within the SL’s mirror box, certain wide-angle lenses were unusable on that older machine. The SL2 rectifies this with a new mirror design, allowing for the first time the use of the full range of wide-angle lenses.
And when we consider the SL2 against the SLRs that came after it, the R series machines built in cooperation with Minolta and later Leica cameras, there’s little competition. Sure, the R3, R4, and later machines topple the SL2 on the spec sheet, and these cameras even feel pretty good in the hand, but they just don’t have it where it counts. They’re less reliable, depend on electronics just a bit too heavily, and lack the finesse of the earlier machine. Plus, if you’re buying an R body you may as well save some cash and go for the excellent Minolta versions, which are often simpler and better-designed.
Of course, all of these improvements, the desirousness of its looks, and the robustness of its construction mean very little if the camera isn’t fun to shoot. Happily, it is.
This machine is the very essence of why I shoot old cameras. There’s something here that you simply cannot get with today’s digital machines, no matter how nice they might be. There’s a tactility that is impossible to convey accurately (how many times have I read about how great something feels, and dismissed it as hyperbolic brand worship?), but it’s here. The film advance mechanism actuates with a refined ratcheting feedback that reminds us that something fantastically mechanical just happened inside the dense body. The shutter release button offers a perfect resistance before finally clicking home to release the shutter. The lens mounts with a robust click that’s impossibly satisfying.
And more than these unquantifiable tactile pleasures, the camera just works. The viewfinder is gorgeous and bright, looking more like ground glass than any other SLR finder I’ve used (there is, in fact, an optional ground glass focusing screen that was available as an install from the factory and standard equipment on the SL2 Mot). The metering system has never guided me wrong. The shutter is indestructible, as is the body itself (I’ve heard a true tale about an SL2 that fell from an airplane to the floor of the Mojave desert, and was still repairable). And the images this machine can make are, without bluster, beautiful.
And since the image is the reason for any camera to exist, this is imporatnt, and something Leica has always understood. Their range of R mount lenses are second-to-none. The standard 50mm F/2 Summicron, which could be described as this camera’s kit lens, has quickly become my favorite standard lens. Images made with this lens are consistently surprising in their color rendition and sharpness. Leica’s coated glass does exceptionally well at coaxing as much punch out of film as any lenses I’ve used, and on my a7II it performs just as well.
The all-metal lens hoods feel pretty damn sweet, too.
What we have with the SL2 is something that’s rare, not only in the world of cameras, but in the whole history of stuff made by humans. It’s rare to own an object that we can use for fifty years, that can then be passed onto our kids or a friend for their use over the next fifty years. The SL2 is this kind of object – it’s an heirloom machine in a segment of consumer devices that is and has always been obsessed with improvement, advancement, and replacement.
There’s a term in the German language, verschlimmbessern, that roughly describes something we’re all familiar with – the act of accidentally making something worse when trying to improve it. With the SL2, Leica avoided doing this to their SLR. The SL2 is better than any Leica SLR that came before. Unfortunately, the verschilmmbessern was strong with the cameras that came after the SL2, and for this reason the SL2 will forever be the high water mark of Leica SLRs, and it’s right there in the conversation for the high water mark of SLRs on the whole. For users who love the feel of Leica machines and the rendition of Leica glass, but who don’t find themselves falling in love with rangefinders (like myself), the Leicaflex SL2 is the SLR to own.