Just how good are Leica lenses?

Thanks to ffordes again I just got a LEICA SUMMARIT-M 90 mm f/2.5 lens at a good price. Together with my 1965 vintage 135mm Tele-Elmar I now have 2 "genuine" Leica lenses. Having used Voigtlander and Zeiss previously it's been interesting to see how these lenses compare, as there is a substantial difference in price. Do Leica lenses justify that?

These days its possible to track down a sample file taken with virtually any lens you are interested in. A while ago I was having problems with a Voigtlander 15mm f4.5. There is a serious magenta cast down one side of images taken with this lens and I was looking around for some alternatives. I found lots of samples of the Leica 16-18-21 WATE lens. None of the samples I found (including full-size) jumped off the screen at me. I went on to a couple of Leica forums and asked for comparisons. Not surprisingly the owners of the Leica lens tried to persuade me it was superior. Those who had used both usually offered the opinion that the Leica was better, but the Voigtlander was a decent lens in comparison, apart from the design causing the cast problems.

The LEICA SUMMARIT-M 90 mm f/2.5 lens is one of Leica's "cheaper" lenses. Cheaper in Leica terms that is!! Its a relatively light lens, which is what I wanted. There's a reasonably scathing view of its construction from Ken Rockwell here though he is full of praise for its performance. He's doing one of his over reactive pieces on this lens. Its actually beautifully made and has one of the nicest focusing rings I've used.

Having taken a few test shots, it is impressive.

Very sharp, very little distortion and CA and excellent wide open. It has excellent accurate colour rendition and with the M9 is capable of extremely high resolution.

Those who have read this blog before will know that I have always been full of praise for my recently departed Voigtlander 75mm F2.5. I've always been very impressed by its sharpness.

The Leica lens is around 3 times more expensive than the Voigtlander. So what exactly do you you get for that significant increase in price?

Well you get better construction. Voigtlanders look well made, but I've experienced a few problems here and there. Screws that work loose, built in lens hoods that move slightly. Nothing major, but noticeable. My 45 year old 135mm is testament to the quality of Leicas build quality. This is not to say that Voigtlanders if looked after wouldn't last as long. They probably would.

The major difference in performance between the 75mm & 90mm lenses is their performance wide open. Both have f2.5 apertures. The Leica is terrific wide open. Sharp & with very little CA (you really have to look hard to find it) whereas the Voigtlander is slightly soft and has a serious amount of CA and purple fringing that takes a lot of work to remove. However from f4 > its absolutely fine.

The final difference is that the Leica has much better bokeh. It has wonderfully smooth out of focus areas. I've always found Voigtlander lenses disappointing in this area. I had a Nikon fit manual focus 20mm f3.5 lens and it was very sharp but with really nasty out of focus rendition. Since it was a lens that focused to .2 metre it should have been really useful as a semi-macro but this awful bokeh made it less so. That lens also suffered from serious barrel distortion. I just couldn't get horizons straight.

From a comparison of just two lenses I seem to have come up with with much the same conclusions that many others have concerning the differences between Leica and Voigtlander. In terms of sharpness, to me by far the most important consideration, Voigtlander can certainly equal Leica. Certainly my 35mm F1.7 is a gorgeous little lens. Good enough for me to sell my 50mm f1.1 Nokton. The latter lens is superb in many ways but ultimately its not that great wide open, which defeats the point really. At f1.1 its somewhat soft and with significant purple fringing. For low light indoor work I've gone back to using my Nikon MF f1.2. fitted onto my Canon 550D which with its great high ISO performance gives me a very useful low light camera/lens combination.

So if you are thinking about buying a Leica but are put off by the cost of Leica lenses then, in my view, Voigtlander offers a cheaper alternative that means you won't be compromised on sharpness. The M9 sensor is a truly remarkable device for capturing images and I believe the best you can get without moving into medium-format. Choosing a Voigtlander lens rather than a Leica won't prevent you from experiencing the full capabilities of that sensor. If construction, bokeh, and performance wide open are important then choose Leica but be prepared to pay the price. Personally I'm not going to be taking out a second mortgage to buy such wonders as the 21mm f1.4 or the 50mm f0.95. Apart from the financial cost these lenses are also extremely bulky and heavy and seem to defeat the point of using Leica in the first place.

Coming shortly - In my attempt to find a wide-angle for the Leica I like, my little cave of delights in the Scottish highlands, ffordes, have a mint S/H Zeiss 21mm f2.8 which hopefully will arrive after easter. More on that if and when it arrives.