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Reader Comments: “how a lens draws” — Leica vs Zeiss/Nikon/Canon/Pentax

Tom S writes:

I didn't want to say quality, as that diverts everybody to talking about resolution and sharpness.

You keep mentioning the importance of how a lens draws, but I was slow to understand what that means until I was struck by how powerful, colorful and contrasty my Leica images are. I have been using Velvia 100 taken with my M6 using the 50mm Summicron-M, 35 ASPH Summicron-M and 90 Elmarit-M and then getting inexpensive lab scans.

I sometimes call this quality "molten light", which I chalked up to the Velvia (velveeta!) effect, until I scored a deep-discount Leica M9 and noticed that I still see the great contrast and energy. Wow! There is just no comparison to my other images on Nikon D90 and Pentax K5 (All Velvia on M6; probably 90mm Elmarit-M):


(1) You can pixel-peep, show MTF charts and talk about resolution and sharpness all day (and many do). But, Lens Drawing and Image Energy seem subjective and maybe content-dependent. Is it possible to objectively describe or categorize these other qualities? Or are do we have to rely on fuzzy descriptions and "I know it when I see it".

(2) Nikon and Pentax and others have a long reputation of lens-making. Are they really unable to match this "molten" quality and energy, or am I lacking in technique and post-processing?

(3) Do you retain the same lens drawing qualities when you put a Leica lens on the NEX 7 or and m4/3 camera?

(4) What about medium format? Does Leica glass and an S2 really blow the Pentax 645D out of the water?

DIGLLOYD: Contrast and color coupled together, along with the way a lens “draws” as it goes out of focus (especially off-center) all contribute to a whole whose visual impact is not easily quantified. Those qualities are why I am particularly fond of both Zeiss and Leica.

The great contrast Tom S likes is MTF and the Leica MTF charts in fact do strongly correlate with the perceptual effect (but MTF is not the only factor by any means). Leica MTF exceeds that of most Nikon or Canon or Zeiss lenses (most but not all). With current designs, Leica also goes to great pains to blacken the interior of lenses, keeping contrast high even in adverse lighting. But MTF captures only one aspect of lens performance.

With any discussion, context is important. Leica targets its products towards the ultra high-end buyer. Certain compromises are still made (some designs cannot be built reliably, so a slightly less optimal design that can be built reliably is chosen) and there are size/weight and other constraints. In general, Leica spares little expense in producing its lenses, and the price is the price. That includes utilizing expensive types of optical glass and high quality aspheric elements. Leica aims for state of the art within the limits of current production technology. To a significant extent, the Leica M designs could be even better (and cheaper) if Leica relaxed the size/weight constraints, but to date, Leica thinks they are buildling lenses for 1990's cameras, when instead the ALLVIEW camera is the new paradigm.

Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Zeiss sell far more lenses at much lower cost than Leica, so they aim for 90% of the performance at 20% of the cost, and they do very very well there (and sometimes they get 98% of the performance!). In that sense, Leica is not a good value. But if you want the best, then Leica awaits you. I’m speaking of course of the totality of the lens line, since every vendor has a few standouts.

The most direct comparison is the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar (about $725), or the Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 C-Sonnar. Compare that to the Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH (about $4000). While a good chunk of that daunting price difference is inefficient production (hand-assembled, low volume), the Leica 50/1.4 is simply an exotic design, utilizing special glass types of near-APO performances, as well as aspherics. It should be clear that if Zeiss offered a 50/1.4 for $4000, that Zeiss is perfectly capable of offering considerably higher performance. Ditto for Nikon/Canon/Pentax/Fuji/etc. As it stands, stopping down the 50/1.4 Planar to f/4 - f/5.6 delivers performance that is not far off the Leica 50/1.4 Summilux-M. It is at the wider apertures where one really sees the differences. There the 50/1.4 Summilux outclasses anything else.

The Leica lens characteristics are very much in evidence as shown in my review of the Sony NEX-7 (the 50/1.4 Summilux examples). It is my conclusion that if the Sony NEX had 48 megapixels, the Leica 50/1.4 would continue to deliver to the sensor potential. Which is why an 18MP Leica M9 disappoints— it records a fraction of what is actually possible with Leica M glass. It’s as if we had a huge piece of film, and chose to scan it at 72 dpi. That sucks.

And yes, the Leica S lenses do blow the Pentax lenses out of the water. The Leica S lenses stand head and shoulders above all the other medium format lenses. WAY above other brands. I know of no better production lenses in existence today (excluding $25K cine lenses). See my review of the Leica S2 for examples. I would gladly invest in the lenses, but to date, I am loathe to invest in the S2 camera body. Make it 60 megapixels (instead of 36), and then it make sense as a longer-term investment.

As shown below, the Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH on the Sony NEX-7 delivers contrast and sharpness that are stunning. Higher-res versions and actual pixels crops accompany my reviews, suffice it to say that no other 50mm lens available today can perform to this level at f/1.4. If you have the money, go buy yourself a Sony NEX-7, a lens adapter, and a Leica 50/1.4 Summilux. You will never regret it.

Incredible contrast and detail, wide open
Leica M9 + Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH @ f/1.4
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