Robert Hirsch takes us through history in this interview about his new book, beginning with the groundbreaking 60s to contemporary work of today, featuring artists in his book that "...literally have...
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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 cameras with black chrome finish are more common than the older
black enamel cameras.
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, 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.
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
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.
photo courtesy of Robert Mode
Leicaflex SL, gold finish of unknown origin shown with early model of the 50mm
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
text Copyright (C) 2003 - 2005
Douglas Herr - all rights reserved