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Sticking aperture blades on Leica 180mm f/3.5 APO-Elmar-S

My in-depth review of the Leica S2 is in DAP.

I mentioned yesterday a problem with the aperture blades sticking on a brand-new Leica 180mm f/3.5 APO-Elmar-S, freshly out of the Leica box from LensRentals.com, shipped to me overnight in a hurry.

On auto-exposure set for f/8, below is what those sticking blades mean: gross overexposure, presumably f/3.5 instead of f/8.

The sticking blades seemed to have worked out the problem after I used the DOF preview lever 50 or so times yesterday, stopping down to f/32 each time, to make them move as much as possible.

Update! The problem is worse today, as you can see in this series from f/3.5 through f/32; the 180/3.5 will not stop down to the chosen aperture, nor does the DOF preview button do so. In other words, a brand-new $6500 lens is defective. ATFEF (“always test the !%@#$#$ equipment first”). Keep reading for more problems.

Leica S2 + Leica 180mm f/3.5 APO-Elmar-S, f/3.5 through f/32
Leica S2 + Leica 180mm f/3.5 APO-Elmar-S on aperture priority

As a related matter, the blades on my Leica Noctilux-M also stuck at one point (refusing to open all the way, the reverse problem), so maybe there is a pattern here, since I had three other reports from readers of the same problem on the Noctilux-M 50/0.95. So far so good there, the blades have not stuck again, and Leica was not able to reproduce the issue (nor have I).

The S2 focuses about as good as a consumer point and shoot, and with distracting eech-eech-eech high-pitch noise to accompany the focusing operation, it sure doesn’t feel like a $30K system. Which is not to say that the other MF systems don’t also suck this way— but I’m not sure, and I’d like to see the Hasselblad H4D offerings, if only they would loan me one. The S2 focus is crude compared to even the most basic Canon or Nikon DSLR (Nikon and Canon have had 20 years to figure it out). But so was the Mamiya 28 when I reviewed it last year. No medium format camera can compete on autofocus with Canon or Nikon; partly it’s just the large area sensors would have to cover, partly it’s the technology.

Therefore, I consider the Leica S2 a semi-manual-focus camera when precise focus is needed. The problem is that in my tests of the 180/3.5 yesterday, 9/10 shots on manual focus (by eye) were out of focus with the 180mm, and I have 20/20 vision (autofocus was accurate, to the credit of the S2). Combine that with no Live View, and a tedious image zoom capability (to verify focus after taking the image), and it’s frustrating compared to shooting a Nikon or Canon DSLR. A magnifying eyepiece ought to be available for the S2. However, I did find that autofocus was reliably accurate in most cases with the 180/3.5.

The S2 also malfunctioned several times yesterday, getting hung writing to a 64GB SanDisk Extreme Pro card (a superb card in general). I had to “reboot” the S2 by turning it off and on again, losing the last image I shot each time. This happened several times, though a few days prior, I had successfully done a two minute 83-exposure rapid-fire test with the same card. If this had been a paid shoot for a client, it would now be back at the dealer, along with a profanity laced note. I do have the latest firmware installed.

Besides having to throw away some work from the sticking aperture blades (the (kiss of death for a pro camera), this is a good reminder to ATFEF (“always test the !%@#$#$ equipment first”). What makes a pro camera, first and foremost, is absolute reliability of the camera and lenses. But it’s also fair to say that a sample of one lens doesn’t say anything about your odds of having an issue. I certainly would love to have the 180/3.5 in my bag were I to own the Leica S2.

This might not be fair— a lens is designed as it is, but I felt frustrated with the close-focus ability of the 180/3.5. To get any kind of semi-close-up, I was frequently right at the close-focus limit— move just a little too close and the focus hunts because it can’t focus that close (“user error”). But it does make it hard to shoot at the close limit. The 120/2.5 macro should present no such issues, and thus is more versatile, albeit 120mm and not 180mm.

While a reproduction ratio for the 180/3.5 of 1:7 is really fairly good (on paper), the beautiful bokeh and outstanding sharpness (mostly) makes it feel frustrating not to be able to get closer. For such expensive lenses, they should be more versatile eg focus to 1:5 or so (Nikon’s 135/2 DC goes to 1:7.1, Canon’s 135/2L goes to 1:5.3). So in fairness being a medium format lens 1:7 is very reasonable, yet still frustrating given the price of the lenses; it’s a lot more money for a “kit” than with a 35mm DSLR.

Leica S2 + Leica 180mm f/3.5 APO-Elmar-S @ f/6.8, 1/750 sec, pushed 1.5 stops

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