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Lens 'Presence' with Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar and Leica M 24/3.8 Elmar-M ASPH

In reference to my Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar Erratics in Tuolumne River piece, where I describe the 135/2 APO-Sonnar as having a compelling 'presence', Peter W writes:

I really like the characterization you offer about the "presence" in an image and how this term describes the look of a great lens. You have coined a very useful term that takes into account all of the elements we look for in lens assessment beyond just 3D look and sharpness.

For example, I have tested five different 24/25mm lenses on my M240 and Leica M Monochrom, as I try to find a large aperture companion for my Leica M Elmar 24 f/3.8… no dice. I do not see the images from other Leica, Zeiss or Nikon lenses jump out like Elmar. The ZM Biogon is quite close, and the ZF.2 Distagon is razor sharp and contrasty. But none of the five have the same presence as the Elmar!

On the other end of the typical scale based on "sharpness" or 3D look, presence can describe a dreamy quality. My Noct-Nikkor 58mm is really great on the M240, and more crisp in the center than Noctilux f/0.95, but there is some indescribable smoothness in the images from the Noct that gives its prints unique presence.

I have avoided buying a Noctilux (so far), but LensRentals Zeiss 135 APO is already on the truck coming my way. Thanks much!

DIGLLOYD: Surely the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar is one of the very best lenses ever produced for the 35mm format. I can’t think of a better lens actually, unless the new Zeiss 55/1.4 Distagon displaces it, or rather, joins it in the best of the best club.

The Leica 24mm f/3.8 Elmar-M ASPH is the technically best wide angle lens that Leica offers: with a flat field and almost perfect correction of lens aberrations, the images it produces are neither clinical nor overwrought with “personality”. Rather there is a 'transparency' to the images that comes from having nothing add or subtract from the image itself. Many Leica M lenses have similar qualities, but many also overlay various oddball behaviors (field, curvature, color errors, etc) that detract from the clarity; the water is not quite still in viewing the fish, so to speak.

I would say that the Leica 50mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH has similar qualities to the 24/3.8: a high level of correction without being clinical or overlaying superfluous 'visual interference' onto the image. Which is not a statement that it is “best”: the 50/1.4 Summilux and 50/0.95 Noctilux have their own presence, but the style is very different. Which is why all three have a place in the bag for a serious M shooter.

What I refer to as 'presence' comes primarily from contrast and sharpness or apparent sharpness (but also color correction and a flat field). What I mean by 'apparent' sharpness is represented in the Noctilux or Summilux shot wide open: the placement of strong blur near reasonably sharp and contrasty details is seen by the eye as sharper than reality, and it produces a certain type of presence. But these effects can be strongly diluted by off-center field curvature and a drop in lens performance; this the 50/2 AA does not suffer from and so its “effective blur” is greater at f/2 than one might assume (when focused precisely). And its apparent sharpness is very high on top of its very real sharpness.

Back to the 24/3.8: focusing it at closer range adds more defocus blur and this is strongly emphasized by the superb correction of aberrations and high sharpness and contrast (where in focus). This is what gives it a very strong presence. Shot at longer range, the juxtaposition wanes, though the high quality still permeates the image.

Glacial Erratics in Meadow at Sunset
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ f/2
Magenta on Green
Canon 5D Mark III + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ f/2
Glacial Erratics in Meadow at Sunset
Canon 5D Mark III + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ f/2

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