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Leica Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4

Introduction

Leica Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4 is the fastest telephoto lens in Leica's modern SLR lens portfolio. First released in 1981, the lens was initially available as Series 8 or E67 filter thread models in 3 cams, but since 1998 Leica has been manufacturing the lens only as a ROM variant. If you plan to use the lens on non Leica bodies, then 3 cam/ROM versions make no difference at all. The lens is priced at ~US$4,000, while good quality used, non-ROM copies fetch ~US$1,100-US$1,200 (as of March 2008). The lens tested in this review was an E67 model, manufactured circa 1985.

Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4 is a classical manual focus Leica lens. The optical construction of the lens consists of 7 elements in 5 groups. Build quality is simply superb, as expected from a Leica lens. Barrel, cams, aperture and focus rings are all metal. The focus ring is rubberized and moves very smoothly, while the aperture ring snaps in with a satisfying 'clunk'. There's no wobbling inside or out. The lens is somewhat bulky and a bit heavy for a medium telephoto, measuring 69 x 75mm (2.7 x 2.9in) and weighing 700g (1.54lb). Of course it is nowhere as heavy or bulky as say Canon's infamous EF 85mm f/1.2L Mk2. The overall length of the lens does not stay constant and the inner cams extend a little bit when focusing towards the closeup. The mnimum focusing distance is 80cm (2.6ft), giving max magnification of ~1:8, the minimum supported aperture is f/16. The lens accepts screw-in type 67mm filters.

Image

The lens can be adapted to a number of alternative mount cameras, The easiest adaptation is for Canon and Four Thirds systems - here all you need to do is find an appropriate adapter and you're good to go. The lens can be adapted to Nikon and even Sony systems but you would need to replace the mount of the lens, which is obviously not something we can recommend. Within the scope of this review, the lens was tested on 12Mp and 24Mp full frame and 10Mp APS-C type Canon bodies.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 7 elements in 5 groups
Angular Field 30 degrees
Minimum Focus 80cm/2.6ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/1.4-f/16, manual
Filter Size 67mm
Lens Hood Built-in metal
Weight 700g/1.54lb
Dimensions 69x75mm/2.7x2.9"
Lens Case N/A

 

Handling

The mechanical construction of Leica R lenses is simply suprb and as I have been noting in my other reviews, there is no other lens manufacturer out there that puts as much effort into the build quality as Leica. Carl Zeiss comes a close second in my opinion and Cosino/Voigtlander third. All other mainstream manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, Sigma etc. have long moved away from all metal lens constraction to incorporate composite materials into their lenses, making them cheaper to manufacture but also lighter and more importantly less durable. But, with  very little variance in build quality of Leica R lenses, describing their handling gets kind of repetitive after a while - yep, same great chunk of glass, wrapped into a bullet-proof chunk of metal with all parts moving with German precision.

Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4 is fairly stocky lens - it is slightly smaller then most modern 85mm lenses of similar speed available out there. My guess is that this is predominantly because of the lack of AF drive and a fairly simple optical formula (for example, Canon's 85mm f/1.8 as well as Nikon's 85mm f/1.4 have 9 elements against Leica's 7). But because of the all-metal build, the lens rivals any other modern 85mm in its weight - some might like that, others not so much. Even when mounted on a larger camera like Canon 5D, the lens is a little bit front-heavy, particularly when the barrel is fully extended. Of course, even despite its 'chunkiness' Leica Summilux0R is no heaviweight in the world of lenses and would not pose any problems to anyone wishing to hand-hold the camera/lens combo (try hand-holding Canon 400mm f/2.8 for comparison!).

The ergonomics of the lens are fairly good. I like Leica's aperture ring placement more then on the modern Carl Zeiss ZF lenses (the ring on these lenses is often placed in a groove, located too close to the camera body making it rather hard to grasp with your fingers). The aperture ring has a tight, metalic click to it, which some deslike, but I am completely indifferent about it. I wish the focusing ring was slightly wider, but Summilux's focusing ring is an improvement over Summicron's even narrower ring IMO (E55 version of Summicron that is).

I found focusing Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4 somewhat tricky. Combination of the fast f/1.4 apertuer and full frame sensor produced a fair number of out of focus pictures for me, particularly at closer distances. The lens is not particularly sharp at f/1.4 anyways (more on that later) and so initially I could not quite figure out whether the problem lies with the lens, with the adapter or my focusing. After trying about a dozen different adapters I keep handy, I dismissed the idea of an adapter fault. The AF confirmation did not help much either, with the adapter rarely, if ever, giving a spot-on focusing confirmation (like with most lenses, the AF confirmation beeps in a small, but measurable range). Live view on Canon 5DMk2 worked better and my keep ration went up significantly, but after trying a number of focus-bracketing tests, I just realized that the lens is quite sensitive to even slightest focusing shift at its widest apertures. Focus bracketing of course might not be an option in the field, so a camera with Live View is probably your best bet for getting best results at the widest apertures.

The focusing precision of Leica Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4 is fairly decent, but not particularly unique - the ring has a thrust of about 180 degrees from infinity to closeup, with more spacing between 80cm and 1m, which gives you a little bit better precision for closeup work. The build-in lens hood is a wonderful feature - no need to drag along yet another accessory in your bag! Like with all manual focus lenses, the lens sports a DOF scale, but the usefuleness of it is rather limited - even at f/16, which is the minimum aperture the lens supports, the focusing range is only 7m to the infinity.