Leica SL Primes: Another Degree Of Freedom

After almost two years of shooting with my Leica SL kit consisting of one body and two amazing zoom lenses, the only thing that I had wanted to expand the system with was some lighter and faster native optics. While both M and R lenses can be easily adopted and successfully used, only the native lenses provide the access to all capabilities of the system, even for someone who prefers focusing manually.

Specs of the new short telephoto SL primes made me very curious. I already knew that Leica made a very impressive progress in lens design, which resulted in such marvels as 2/50 APO-Summicron-M and 1.25/75 Noctilux. Both 75mm and 90mm Summicron lenses feature aspheric and apochromatic design, which means that they are free of chromatic and spherical aberrations. Considering Leica’s most stringent standards for optical excellence, I was really looking forward to seeing what this all meant in real life. 

Thanks to folks at Leica USA, I did not have to wait for too long: two weeks after my request I found myself picking up a box with 2/75 and 2/90 APO-Summicron-SL ASPH lenses at a local UPS store.

Built quality and ergonomics

The first thing that is immediately apparent is that both lenses have the same form factor. Moreover, an upcoming 2/50 APO-SL-Summicron ASPH, 2/35 SL-Summicron ASPH and other SL primes will also be of the same size. This is a nice feature to have in still photography, as one can share filters, but in it is absolutely great for video applications, when the camera is mounted on a rig with a follow-focus and matte box, or on a gimbal where even slightest changes in the lens size and weight may require recalibration.

Both lenses are surprisingly light, yet feel very solid. Lens hoods are made of plastic, which is, I guess, a modern trend that we have to contend with, whether we like it, or not. 

As good as the 24-90 Vario-Elmarit-SL is, I have always felt it to make the camera nose-heavy. Primes, on the other hand, are perfectly balanced on the SL body making the rig much easier to handhold for long periods of time.

As the rest of the system, SL primes are weather sealed. I decided not to take this claim at its face value and test it firsthand the same very evening, as the sky gave me no doubt that some seriously dramatic weather changes were imminent. I packed light: no camera bag, just the SL with 2/75 mounted and 2/90 in a pocket of my raincoat. 

Michigan weather did not disappoint: it was pouring, like there were no tomorrow. Not thinking about water all over my camera was not easy. As my usual camera choice for street photography is M10, and M-lenses are not sealed, they require at least some degree of protection. However, after just a few minutes in the rain, all I was thinking about was pictures. Not worrying about the camera was a wonderfully liberating experience. I have never been so confident of my equipment before.

Fig. 1 Leica SL, 2/75 APO-Summicron-SL, f/2.4

Optical quality

Aprochromatic design makes it possible not only to focus three main colors in the same plane, but have them behave identically at any level of defocusing. There are some lenses out there that are very well corrected at the plane of focus, but outside of the DOF areas things get pretty messed up, and bokeh looks like a rainbow. This is is a sign of a poor correction of the longitudinal chromatic aberration characteristic of inexpensive fast lenses like Nikkor 1.8/50 and the like. 

Fig. 2 Leica SL, 2/75 APO-Summicron-SL, f/2

Fig. 2 is an example how 2/75 APO-Summicron-SL handles a similar situation. As you can see, specular highlights have no hint of spectral decomposition in at least four different planes. Some reddish fringing on the top the musician’s head is more likely due to backlighting with a red-colored light source. The green curve closer to the back of the head is actually a result of  the hair partially obscuring the neon sigh in the back revealing its true color. Most of the sign above the head is overexposed and therefore rendered white. I should point out that this example shows lighting conditions extremely challenging for any lens (specular highlights, glaring wet surfaces, several planes outside of bokeh), and the result delivered by the 2/75 I consider outstanding.

In situations less challenging these lenses perform just as great: Excellent color fidelity, good microcontrast and incredible sharpness at the plane of focus. These lenses render images that are three-dimensional and incredibly vibrant, yet lifelike. This is exactly what one expects from a perfect portrait lens. Interestingly, I have not found these lenses to be “brutally sharp”, as some reviewers mentioned. It all depends on the distance and f-stop, and it is always possible to find a focus point at which slight defocusing will take care of the problem. As the last resort, there is always a twenty-cent solution in a form of a piece of black tulle attached to the front of the lens with a lens hood.

Fig. 3 APO-Summicron-SL 2/75, f/2.2

What I found surprising was that both lenses had a substantial degree of focus breathing, a phenomenon showing itself as a focal length change with focusing. While it may be a problem in motion picture, however, in still photography this is a non-essential flaw that has no effect on image quality.

Fig. 4 Leica SL, 2/90 APO-Summicron-SL, f/4

Shooting with Leica SL is an experience that can be described with just one word: Freedom. Its extra-long battery life when shooting stills, rids you of worries about cutting a shoot short due to no power. Weather sealing is good enough for working in the pouring rain, or shooting at the water level (our post about shooting sailboat races is coming soon). Almost grainless results at ISO3200 and usable photos at ISO12500 makes one rethink the need for auxiliary lighting. Now, addition of a whole host of fast primes opened yet another degree of freedom: SL’s high-resolution  viewfinder, when used with f/2 lenses in PASM mode, works almost like a night-vision scope, only in full color. Shooting in the rain, at night with no flash and getting perfect results without ruining the camera… James Bond would have killed for a gadget like that.


Irakly Shanidze © 2018

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