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Leica Leicaflex SL

by Douglass Herr, 2003-2005


Disclaimer: I'm biased. The SL is my all-time favorite 35mm SLR camera. It has its faults, which I'll explain as best as I can, but, IMHO, for the photographer who wants a no-frills 35mm film SLR, the SL will last a lifetime while delivering first-class results.

By modern standards, the Leicaflex SL's features are primitive: no exposure or focus automation, no interchangable viewscreens, and not even a hot shoe. Just a reliable shutter, a clear, uncluttered viewfinder, an accurate meter. IMHO, the lack of additional features makes the camera easier and quicker to work with: I don't have to set or verify exposure modes, focus modes, film transport mode, or custom functions. Each time I pick the camera up I know exactly how the meter is responding to the scene, the focus point is wherever I look in the viewfinder and I can override the camera's suggested exposure or focus in the blink of a neuron.

History

The second model of Leica reflex cameras, the Leicaflex SL was made from 1968 through 1974 by E. Leitz, Wetzlar, Germany. In the tradition of Leica rangefinder cameras, the SL is a precision-crafted, robust tool made for the photographer who demands the utmost in durability and image quality and can work without modern conveniences.

The original Leicaflex camera from 1965, now known as the Leicaflex Standard, has a non-TTL light meter, and a viewscreen which, although extremely bright, is not a full-focussing screen and can not be used to evaluate depth-of-field, nor can it be used easily with macro or very long lenses. The SL's design addressed these problems with a bright full-focussing viewscreen composed of coarse microprisms in the central area with fine microprisms in the balance of the screen, and a selective TTL light meter that measures only the region corresponding to the coarse microprism area of the viewscreen.

The Technical Stuff

Shutter:

SL shutter release Mechanically-timed, horizontal-travel rubberized cloth, speeds from 1 to 1/2000 sec, plus B, continuously-variable except between 1/4 sec and 1/8 sec, and between 1/30 sec and 1/60 sec. Electronic flash sync is at 1/100 sec. The shutter action is smooth, solid, and responsive, with minimal lag time and exceptional sensory feedback. One of the SL's best components.

Mirror Lock-up: No mirror lock-up :-( but if you flick the shutter release (like you're flicking a pea off the table) not straight down but from the side and above (and not hard), the mirror is released. Normal pressure or a cable release will then fire the shutter and return the mirror. I've used this technique; the trick is to flick the shutter release quickly enough that it starts the mirror upward but not so much that the button is still depressed when the mirror reaches the top of its motion. It works but IMHO it's a clumsy work-around

Viewfinder:

SL viewfinder Eye-level, non-interchangable prism and viewscreen, with meter needle and shutter speed display. Viewing is at full aperture, with DOF preview. The standard viewscreen has a coarse central microprism area with fine microprisms on the remainder of the screen. This screen can be changed by qualified service technicians to either a plain matte viewscreen or the SL2's standard viewscreen, which includes a split-image focussing thingie in the center of the coarse microprism area. My advice? Leave it alone.

The viewfinder eyepiece does not have adjustable dioper correction and the original Leitz correction lenses are bulky and difficult to find; Canon diopters originally made for the EOS IX, IXE, A2, A2E, Elan II and IIE, and EOS 3 can be made to fit the SL's eyepiece frame. It's not a perfect fit but it seems like a workable solution.

Light meter: Selective through-the-lens CdS meter cell, powered by a 625 mercury battery or equivalent. Light for the meter cell passes through a semi-silvered region in the reflex mirror and is reflected by a secondary mirror to the meter cell on the floor of the mirror box. DIN film speeds from 12 to 39, ASA (now ISO) film speeds from 12 to 3200. Set exposure by lining up the meter's needle with the shutter speed/aperture/film speed lollipop in the viewfinder. The meter reads a limited area of the picture area corresponding to the coarse microprism area of the viewscreen. Because of the semi-silvered mirror, linear polarizing filters will cause erroneous meter readings. A circular polarizing filter should be used instead. The meter switch is activated by the film advance lever (except for the SL MOT, which has no meter switch). Low-light metering sensetivity is one if its weaknesses; for better low-light metering consider the Leicaflex SL2.

The 625 mercury battery is no longer legally available. Replacment 625A alkaline and 625S silver-oxide cells will physically fit the battery chamber but the voltage is slightly higer than the mercury battery's 1.35 volts, so meter readings will be inaccurate unless the meter is re-calibrated for these cells. The voltage of alkaline batteries drops as the cells age, so if you use these batteries you should check the voltage frequently with the camera's battery test button. 625S silver-oxide cells do not change voltage nearly as much as they age so this is my preferred alternative to the mercury cells. The C.R.I.S. MR-9 adapter fits some SL battery chambers, but not all. Another alterative is the Wien air-cell battery.

Film transport: It's your thumb. Rewind is a manual crank. It's all silky-smooth and silent. A special model, the Leicaflex SL MOT, accepts an optional 3 frame-per-second motor drive. Only about 1000 SL MOT bodies were produced; collectors have influenced the price of this model, and the Leicaflex motor is as large and heavy as the SL body.

Lenses: Leica-R lenses, with one, two or three metering cams, focal lengths from 15mm to 800mm, plus zooms, macro, and perspective-control lenses. The mechanical and optical quality of Leica-R lenses is legendary. The SL cannot use some R-lenses that were designed for the Leicaflex SL2 and later cameras, which have more clearance between the reflex mirror and the rear element of the lens. These lenses include both 15mm rectlinear lenses, the 16mm Fisheye-Elmarit-R, the current version of the 19mm Elmarit-R, the 24mm Elmarit-R, the 35mm Summilux-R, the 80-200 f/4.5 VARIO-Elmar zoom, the current version of the 50mm Summilux-R, and the 35-70 f/4 Vario-Elmar-R. Leica-R lenses with ROM electronic contacts cannot be used with any of the Leicaflex cameras, but many can be retrofitted with the Leicaflex metering cams. This modification requires removal of the ROM functions and contacts.

Bugs, quirks, problem areas: The original lens release lock is a red plastic tab which will break if it hasn't already. The replacement lock tab is metal. Replacing a broken lock is a trivial job, once you get the lens off the camera! The meter battery test button, on the side of the prism (see photo above), is positioned so that when you tilt the camera for a vertical composition, odds are that your left hand supporting the camera will press the button, making you think the meter has gone bad. The SL's viewscreen may yellow with age, and the viewfinder pentaprism may also start de-silvering in spots. Neither of these problems will affect picture quality but will make viewing and focussing less pleasurable than it ought to be. Replacing a viewscreen or viewfinder prism is an expensive repair but I consider the expense well worthwhile.

Though the last Leicaflex SL cameras were made over thirty years ago, service and parts are readily available in the USA from Leica Camera, Inc. , and service is also available from independant repair technicians.

In the Field

The SL's lack of automated features limits its competetiveness in many areas of photography such as sports where digital capture, fast frame rates, auto-exposure, auto-focus and electronic anti-shake technologies define the productive tool. There are however many approaches to photography, many types of subjects and personal styles. In fast-changing action I often wish the camera would handle the routine chores of focus, film advance and correct exposure calculation so I could concentrate on capturing the particular moment I want: the split second when the bird's head is turned just right with a glint of sunlight in its eye, the yawn, the wing stretch or when the animal's foot pauses in mid-stride. So what keeps me coming back to the SL when so many other fine cameras offer so many conveniences? Apart for the superb Leica lenses, it's the SL's viewfinder. The big, bright, contrasty, uncluttered viewfinder that allows me to see my subject clearly, see if it's in focus no matter where it is on the viewscreen, is equalled only by the viewfinder of the Leicaflex SL2. It's a camera for composed photographs, not for production photography.

The SL's sensory feedback is a delight: the smooth film advance, the heft, grip and feel of the body, the quiet solid click of marked shutter speeds, the quick, predictable response of the shutter release, and above all else the viewfinder tell you that this is a durable, precision tool that will not be to blame if your pictures aren't good enough.

For examples of photographs made with the Leicaflex SL, see my photo website

Variations:

 

Leicaflex SL, silver chromoe finish
Leicaflex SL, silver chrome finish

Silver Chrome, by far the most common finish, was available throughout the SL's production run.

Leicaflex SL, black enamel finish
Leicaflex SL, black enamel finish
photo courtesey of Leo "bigleo" Wolk

The Leicaflex SL was also made with a Black Enamel finish during early production years. This was replaced with a Black Chrome finish through the remainder of the camera's production.

Leicaflex SL, black chrome finish shown with second model of the 50mm Summicron-R lens
Leicaflex SL, black chrome finish (shown with second model of the 50mm Summicron-R lens)

Leicaflex SL cameras with black chrome finish are more common than the older black enamel cameras.

Leicaflex SL MOT, black enamel Leicaflex SL MOT, black enamel

The Leicaflex SL MOT, a special model with fittings to accept the Leicaflex motor, lacks a self-timer. Most SL MOT bodies were made with Black Enamel or Black Chrome finishes. The Leicaflex motor can be used with either the Leicaflex SL MOT or the Leicaflex SL2 MOT.

Leicaflex SL MOT, black chrome finish shown with Leicaflex motor
Leicaflex SL MOT, black chrome finish shown with Leicaflex motor
Leicaflex SL MOT, silver chrome finish Leicaflex SL MOT, silver chrome finish
photo courtesy of Maria F. Bohanec

A few SL MOT bodies were made with the silver chrome finish. Note also the Leicaflex Standard's silver shutter speed and film speed dials in this photo.

Modifications

A testament to its popularity, Leicaflex SL cameras have been modified or re-finished by third parties to create unique models.

Leicaflex SL, with chrome fittings from the Leicaflex Leicaflex SL, with chrome fittings from the Leicaflex

The silver chrome shutter speed dial and self-timer lever from the Leicaflex are readily interchangable with the SL's black parts, and a few of the Leicaflex's chrome film speed dials may also be modified to fit the SL.

Leicaflex SL, gold finish photo courtesy of Robert Mode

Leicaflex SL, gold finish of unknown origin shown with early model of the 50mm Summicron-R lens.

Leicaflex SL, hammertone gray finish shown with soft release and early model of the 50mm Summicron-R lens Leicaflex SL, hammertone gray finish (shown with soft release and early model of the 50mm Summicron-R lens)
photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Yao

Dr. Joseph Yao's Leicaflex SL was re-finished in hammertone gray by Shintaro Yaghinuma in Japan.

text Copyright (C) 2003 - 2005 Douglas Herr - all rights reserved

Readers' Comments


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Arthur Yeo , December 18, 2005; 01:53 A.M.

It would be good to either show us some sample images or links to them. Thanks for sharing your thots.

john wintheiser , December 18, 2005; 09:20 A.M.

Good article. I'd like to see more reviews of classic film cameras.

Jim Simmons , December 18, 2005; 09:20 P.M.

Good, balanced overview, Doug. One surprise for many people, and I didn't see this mentioned, is the heft these things have. Good for steady shooting, but a real shoulder-denter with a telephoto. Every time I look through the viewfinder of another camera, I am so glad I've got an SL (and have had for 30 years)! My feeling is that an SL/90mm Summicron combo is one of photodom's great pleasures.

Gregory Gardner , December 19, 2005; 10:09 A.M.

Instead of frequently comparing this camera to the auto-everything wundercameras of today, I think it would be more interesting to compare it to contemporary manual cameras. For example, how does the lovely finder compare to, say, a Nikon F2?

Jim Simmons , December 19, 2005; 06:05 P.M.

Good suggestion, Gregory. I can't speak to the F2, but I gladly sold my Nikon F (with non-metering prism finder) when I bought my SL. Brighter viewfinder as I recall, but, as Doug said, focussing on the SL's fine microprism screen is a unique experience. The image simply snaps into focus in the way that only microprims do. I liked the ergonomics of the F, but liked the ergo of the SL even better. The film advance mechanism was amazingly more pleasant to use than the Nikon's wobbly (by comparison) advance lever. I also had to be a bit more careful to make sure the film was wound onto the Nikon takeup spool, not so much of an issue with the SL. I would have to say that the Nikon Fs are as rugged as the Leicaflexes, just based on the equal amount of dropsee abuse I put them both through. But the SL's amount of extra casing around the camera would give me more confidence. It is overbuilt almost to a fault.

Douglas Herr , December 21, 2005; 04:39 P.M.

As Jim Simmons has done, I can compare the SL's viewfinder with the Nikon F (FTn in my case, with E screen). When I first bought the SL the difference in the viewfinders was startling and the FTn soon began collecting dust. Stuff just pops into focus on the SL's viewscreen, anywhere on the screen, even when using one of the f/6.8 Telyts with an extender. I sold my original F after a few months with no regrets. I now have my brother's old FTn and the difference is still startling.

jacques minassian , January 08, 2006; 04:29 P.M.

if my memory serves me correct, flash synch is at 1/90th and the meter is center weighted and not directly restricted to the center round focusing grid. there is a mirror behind the mirror that directs a portion of the light downwards to the cadmium-sulphide cell. there are various modifications to the machine over its production life. if your camera has the original door you can lift gently the pressure plate and there should be a number in yellow behind it on the door. this indicates version number and all the mods related to it.

Douglas Herr , January 10, 2006; 06:31 P.M.

Jaques, according to the instruction manual (scanned copy available here) the flash sync is 1/100 sec and my experience over the last 25 years is that the metering area is clearly defined by the coarse microprism focussing region. Are you thinking of the Leica R3?

jacques minassian , January 11, 2006; 08:43 A.M.

When i went to repair training for this camera in Rockleigh i was told to set to adjust that speed to 1/90th....perhaps we are spitting hairs. i do not have a manual but i have seen other manuals that give a center weighted diagram. moreover it is not possible for the meter to be restricted that center spot. the CdS cell is about 5mm in diameter and there is no lens on that cell only a window. in fact depending on the version, if it is very early CdS cell, it is a large area type. there has been differing types of baffles on these cells depending on the vintage of the SL. the mirror that swings down behind the main mirror redirecting light through the semisilvered center of the main mirror is very large compared to the CdS cell. in the days when these were upgraded from the early large area CdS, the kit included a new baffle which did not have a lens as part of the cell and never did. in order for the meter to exactly restrict itself to the center spot one would need to put a lens and foucus it as such. also if you are to use a Zn-0 battery in the place of the old Hg battery one needs to drill a vent hole somewhere in the battery housing....<1mm will do. old Canon SLRs solved the problem of restricting the light meter sensitivity to an specific area by using semisilvered spot as part of the screen-planoconvex optical set. also just from interest Hamamatsu makes large area Gallium-Phosphide cells that have similar response curve to a standard observer. unlike the silicon counterpart it does not require the BG-18, (Schott number) mired shift filter. a very tiny version of the GaP:N cell can be found in Penatx MX/ME cameras and they do not need filters. the large area cell will directly drive the SL meter without a battery at all replacing the CdS cell, (you need to create the proper bridge wiring).

Douglas Herr , January 11, 2006; 02:07 P.M.

Jaques, very useful info, thanks!

Keith Goldstein , February 23, 2006; 05:04 P.M.

Good article Douglas. After 21 years of lusting for a SL, I finally got one, a black enamel, last summer. Used, but not abused. I love it!

Terence Mahoney , February 26, 2006; 12:58 P.M.

The semi-spot meter, serviceable 1/2000 shutter speed, brilliant yet high-contrast focussing screen were quite incredibly innovative in their day and indeed it took many years for them to be matched or bested. Had it been Leica's maiden foray into the realm of the single-lens-reflex, building on their immense name-recognition at the time, I daresay it could've made a pivotal difference in their future. However, Leica buggered the original Leicaflex to such a degree that by the time the SL saw the light of day most photographers had already invested heavily in other marques and in those days there wasn't the tendency to casually jump ship as there has been in modern times. It's quite sad really, that this marvelous camera is today a mere footnote in camera history, experienced and admired by only a handful of people. Equally sad is the common conception that the second (and third, SL2)in a line of perhaps a dozen bodies was the high-point in Leica's reflex series.

And whilst on the subject of comparison, one mustn't forget that for the professional, the Nikon F-series was set out as much more of a "system": replaceable prisms, a plethora of focussing screens for specific applications, even a 250-exposure back! Not to mention an incredible diversity of lenses, including very fast primes which Leica lacked for many years (in fact they never had 2/24mm, 2/28mm, 2/135mm or 2/300mm, or the exotic Noct Nikkor). Remember, in those days "High Speed Ektachrome" was ASA 160! (And it was dreadful!) What I remember of the SL in its day, was that it was highly coveted for being a beautiful and fine machine, in the typical over-engineered, over-built Teutonic ethic, but nonetheless, as is the case with most of Leica's products to this day, admired from afar due to it being (at that time) hideously expensive.

Barry Calero , January 27, 2007; 08:30 A.M.

With what I read concerning the SL....I now own a Nikon F3......Just to compare the SL with the F3????? I want to go for a 'test' shooting thinking that I just may change ooooover.......Good advise Leica Lovers.........Barry Calero

DC Chhayanat , January 31, 2007; 01:01 P.M.

I do recall the luminosity of the viewfinder of a Leicaflex SL in the possession of a hunter from Alaska who was then in search of bighorn sheep or its equivalent in Mongolia. The SL had just been serviced by Leitz USA.

Always wondered whether the central microprism had a blackout with small aperture long focus lenses? Certainly seems to happen with the microprism collar and central split image mechanism of SLRs from other brands.

Don Gillette , December 05, 2007; 10:54 P.M.


Leicaflex Original

I have used Leicaflex original and sl both are great, the reason I enjoy using the original so much is the viewfinder. Granted just the central if for focusing but with such a bright clear screen I thought that I was using an M3 Leica. It was an easy transition and I still love using them. They are truly built like a tank and the shutter feel is excellent. These cameras are well worth fixing when needed. Which is seldom. I have also found that many of the parts are exchangable another plus. One lense I adaptded to fit my originals was a canadien 50 f2 It tool some milling on the oudter plange rim to fit,what a wonderful combination. ?Any questions email me ,,,dgillette4@excite.com........../Good luck Don

Paul Neuthaler , October 14, 2008; 02:03 P.M.

For some reason, I like my Leicaflex"Standard" most. The focusing spot doesn't bother me at all; Doug will know best, but this first model of the Leicaflex feels smoother & seems built stronger than either the SL or SL2, both of which I also own. In addition, my wild 21mm 1:3.4 Super Angulon R can only be used on this Leicaflex model (as well as on a Leica M with adapter 22228).

Stephen York , June 03, 2009; 09:24 A.M.

The viewfinder on these cameras is as advertised -- big, bold and beautiful. The microprism focusing screen is excellent for telephoto and macro work. The image just pops into focus. It is less successful in low light situations, but functional. Resilvered prisms are a little darker, and lose some of that ease of focusing. And the aesthetics of the camera itself is very reminiscent of an M3, M2, M4 or current model MP. As far as the meter, which people say is the one weak spot in the camera, it's sufficient to meter at those speeds where you can hand hold. All in all, a very nice camera.

Bart VH , November 18, 2009; 03:08 P.M.

Thank you for the mirror lock-up trick! Fantastic :-) It works on the SL2.

Zapata Espinoza , January 21, 2010; 06:52 A.M.

We write the year 2010, the L-flex is outdated, if not obsolete. Nonetheless film users are frequent and there's still some supply from the used market. However, the lurking question is: Will Leica ever come up with a new mechanical Flex again?

Scott Gardner , February 04, 2010; 06:23 P.M.

> Zapata Espinoza asked:

> Will Leica ever come up with a new mechanical Flex again?

No.

rui morais de sousa , August 18, 2010; 06:56 A.M.

Who cares if a camera is (theoretically) obsolete?

What counts is the quality of the photographs that it can produce when wisely controled by a competent photographer.

Thank you for the excellent article, Doug. Keeps me on longing for a Leicaflex, after I have been using Leica M cameras for over 30 years. Maybe now, that I wait on a Telyt 6.8/400mm?

Also congratulations on your outstanding work, Doug, you do have the right of being proud!

Cheers,

Rui

Zapata Espinoza , December 14, 2010; 11:24 A.M.

Well, it seems Scott is right. Leica is fully heading after the digital market. Even MPs are produced only in very limited number these days. 

I still have a Leicaflex MKII in good condition. So let's hope that Leica keeps going strong and keeps providing service for these cameras.

Karel Van den Fonteyne , April 15, 2011; 05:16 P.M.

Still use my leicaflex and what a fantastic tool it is. Only a few camera's can give a real feel of craftmanship and this camera does!

I agree that it isn't made for fast shooting. The use of old 1-cam lenses slows the action even further. But I love quality of the lenses, the briliant design and the fact that even after 30 years, one knows there is still an active second hand market for lenses.

Stephen York , September 29, 2011; 07:26 P.M.

I've now had an opportunity to put a bunch of rolls through some of the cameras mentioned in this thread (Leicaflex Standard, Leicaflex SL, and SL2, and Nikon F w/ a microprism screen).  They're all very nice cameras.  I could very happily use either one exclusively, which is something I can't say for all 60's era cameras (e.g., Contarex Bullseye -- what a beast to use).  I found the Nikon F to be brighter than the SL, and a joy to focus (I believe their microprism screen is the type H), but the SL had a greater 3D effect in focusing.  I think this is because it has the two types of microprisms on the focusing screen.  I concur that the Standard "feels" better made, and functions lots smoother, and if you come from a rangefinder background it is intuitive to focus.  The Standard is actually easier to focus in low light, because the screen is so bright.  And it has the more sensitive meter.  Both Leicas feel better made then the Nikon F.  In the end I kept the Leicas ((Standard and SL).  I'm not a big fan of the SL2, mainly because I'm not a big fan of rangefinder split image focusing in an SLR.  

Aziz Dustmamatov , June 28, 2014; 12:06 P.M.

May be somebody knows how meter can be re-calibrated for silver-oxide cells?

Thanks


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