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.

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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.

 


Resolution

Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for both types of cameras.

 

Like most fast primes, Leica Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4 showed a dual personality, with somewhat softer results at wider apertures and top notch resolution at smaller ones. The f/1.4-f/2 apertures have a statistically measurable (and visually noticeable) difference compared to resolution from f/2.8 and on. This is particularly the case for the corner quality on full-frame cameras, which unmask even the slightest flaw. Center image quality is not as much of a problem and the MTF50 charts claim that the quality is adequate (not steller though) on either full frame or APS-C cameras. Naturally, how much this might really impact one in real life will be examined next, and in the meantime, take a look at the MTF50 charts, which were recorded at the focusing distance of 8m to the target (the test range was 2m-8m)

 

Canon 400D (10Mp)

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 80mm

Canon 5D (12Mp)

Canon 5DMk2 (21Mp)

 

Below you can find the target's corner crops, comparing border image quality at f/1.4 and f/8. Visually, you can see the difference across all cameras, but the results are not particularly bad, meaning that while the quality around borders is indeed visually worse at f/1.4, it does not completely fall apart and might be tolerable to some users.

 

Canon 400D (10Mp)

Image borders @ 80mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

Canon 5D (12Mp)

Image borders @ 80mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

Canon 5DMk2 (21Mp)

 

Let's actually take a look at how the lens performed in real life situation. Below, you can find the 100% crops taken with a 21Mp Canon 5DMk2, comparing image quality at f/1.4 and f/8 across three areas of the picture frame. The  lens was focused in live view mode first and then the pictures were taken using focus bracketing at around the  original focusing point (around infinity). You could notice a fairly consistent behavior in these tests. There was a slight difference in image quality in the center at f/1.4 when compared to images at smaller apertures, but it is not significant enough to cause concerns. Border quality, on the other hand, did vary more noticeably, and f/1.4 and even f/2 corners were visibly worse in all image corners. This confirms the results from the MTF tests and hence is not particularly controversial. Image quality degrades slightly more as you move to closer focusing distances, but it's impossible to quantify this degradation due to the increased shallowness of DOF at closer focusing distances. For most practical purposes though, this should not be a problem, particularly if your primary use for this lens is going to be portrat type work.

As is the case with all focus bracketed tests, I try to compare the bracketed shots for any sign of field curvature that the lens might exhibit. Naturally, this is not a very scientific experiment, but it at least gives a glimpse into whether one should even worry about field curvature to begin with (and for most normal and tele lenses, this is a non-issue) . Basically, we want to look for shots that look sharper at different focusing ranges, that is if an image taken at f/1.4 and 2m focusing distance is the sharpest from the series, then 2m should be the registered distance and all other apertures should also produce sharpest images at 2m. If that is not the case, then the lens is likely exibiting some field curvature. Bottom line is that this is a rather long introduction for saying that Summilux 80mm did not show signs of field curvature in these tests.

 

Center

L.L.Corner

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U.R.Corner

 


Color Reproduction

Chromatic aberration (lateral) with Summilux did not vary much from camera to camera - with APS-C body, the aberrationhovered at ~1.1px around borders at the widest aperture level, slowly drifting towards 0.4px by f/11, and was only ~0.3px in the center, remaining pretty much constant throughotu the tested aperture levels. CA was about within the same range on full frame cameras, showing very little variance in behavior.


Canon 400D (10Mp)

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 80mm

Canon 5D (12Mp)

Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 80mm

Canon 5DMk2 (21Mp)

 

The lens showed very minor signs of longitudinal chromatic aberration, which can be noticed in image periphery with wide open aperture, but it was fairly mild and one needs to literally pixel peep to find it. Interestingly, the lens showed varying degree of contrast - at closer distances the contrast seemed somewhat lower at wider apertures (f/1.4 and f/2 specifically) then at infinity. This made color pallette look slightly subdued. But more on that in the next section.

 

ISO 100, 1/4000, f/1.4, 80mm (100% crop)
ISO 100, 1/4000, f/1.4, 80mm (100% crop)

 

DOF & Bokeh

There is a common misconception floating around the net which claims that one needs a super fast lens to achieve the best separation between the foreground and background and/or achieve the smoothest bokeh. But in reality, you can often compensate a slow aperture with another attribute - moving closer to the subject or using a longer focal length would do the trick. Obviously, a combination of fast aperture on a medium telephoto lens would be ideal and as can be seen from the shots below, Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4 shows a shallow enough DOF. The first sampel simulates a DOF scale - you can see that only a very small patch of the frame remains in focus at f/1.4, and even slightest move away from the focusing point results in a fair bit of detail loss.

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ISO 200, 1/500, f/1.4, 80mm (Canon 5DMk2)

 

The shots below show what you can expect from the lens when it comes down to the depth of field in real life situations. The first series were made at 80cm (the minimum focusing distance, while the second was made at about 2.5m. As is the case with all bokeh/DOF tests, I would like to warn the reader that bokeh is as subjective item as it can every be and depends on many factors, including the distance to the subject, the distance to the background, the aperture used, etc. As a rule of thumb, the lens would produce the shallowest DOF at its minimum focusing distance and with wide open aperture. As you can observe from the shots below, the lens renders background into a shapeless mask at close focusing distance and wide open aperture. We benefit here from a fairly long distance to the background objects (bunch of trees, tents, building) - different distance and the overall look would be different. With stopped down aperture, the lens starts to bring in more detail into the frame, which is not that unusual obviously, and as you move away from the target, subsequently you get even more detail and busier background. Again, not particularly surprising and so the widest aperture and close focusing render the most pleasing to my eye bokeh.

What is interesting to me in these sample shots, however, is the fact that the images at wider apertures have a fairly noticeable drop in contrast across the frame. Ok, it's really hard to tell from the samples below whether the contrast in the center is much worse because the focusing target is not ideal. But arguably, the lower contrast in periphery is not necessarily a bad thing - if the lens manages to maintain a fairly high contrast in the center along with fairly high resolution, then the photographer can achieve very nice, crisp definition to the subjects in focus. This is the key ingridient for the so called '3D effect' when the subject clearly stands out in the frame.

DOF @ 0.8m

ISO 100, 1/640, f/1.4, 80mm (Canon 5DMk2)

ISO 100, 1/160, f/8, 80mm (Canon 5DMk2)

DOF @ 2.5m

ISO 100, 1/4000, f/1.4, 80mm (Canon 5DMk2)

ISO 100, 1/125, f/8, 80mm (Canon 5DMk2)

 

As mentioned earlier, the lens showed minor variance in contrast reproduction, which seemed to depend on the focusing distance. At closer focusing ranges, Summilux produced slightly lower contrast both in the center as well as in the periphery, giving images a softer feel. As you moved the lens further away from your subject, you could see a noticeable boost in contrast, and as you'd stop the lens down, you'd see even more boost. This seems to be a particular characteristic of the optical design of the Summilux, particularly when you compare it to Summicron-R 90mm f/2, which produces a more contrasty and much sharper images at wider apertures. Of course, depending on the photographic needs, one might argue that this is not a bad characteristic in a lens - softer skin tones in portraits for example, might actually boost the pleasing feel about an image taken with Leica Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4.

As you examine the pictures in this sections, note that smoothness of OOF areas, particularly at wide apertures. The OOF highlights are evenly illumited, giving the background a nice, smooth feel to it. If you zoom in to 100% on the image below (taken at 80cm, with the focusing on the cat's left eye), you can notice very minor CA in the OOF areas, but it's barely noticeable and does not create any distraction.


 

ISO 100, 1/125, f/1.4, 80mm (Canon 5DMk2)

 

 



Flare

Leica Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4 showed quite heavy amount of flare., which can be observed in the shots below. With strong light source positioned next to the border of the frame, the lens shows noticeable amount  of ghosting and glare, pretty much throughout the aperture range. Both shots also show a noticeable drop off in contrast across the frame. Now, should this really be a major problem in real life? Doubtful, since you need to be pretty caareless to get such a heavy degree of flare. Even  if you do end up shooting in the direction of the sun, you can significantly cut off the amount of strey light hitting the front element of the lens by using the built-in lens hood.

 

 

 

Vignetting

Pretty much all superfast f/1.4 lenses vignette, so it really is not a question whether Summilux vignettes, but rather how much it vignettes. Turns out a fair bit, particularly on a full frame camera with a wide open aperture. At f/1.4, the lens shows vignetting ~1EV, which slowly drops to ~0.4EV by f/5/6. Smaller sensor cameras are much more forgiving when it comes down to light falloff - at f/1.4, Summilux shows only ~0.6EV, which further falls with stopped down apertures.

 

 

In real life you would see noticeable, particularly in lighter colored scenes, darkening of corners on full frame bodies. The artifact is easily correctable, either in-camera or during post-processing, so I would not stress too much about this. And on APS-C cameras you would not even notice any significant light falloff, so nothing to worry there either.


Vignetting @ f/1.4 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (80mm)
Vignetting @ f/1.4 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (80mm)

 

Distortion

Leica Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4 E67 showed minimal distortion - at ~0.05% pincusion distortion is superficial and will not be visible in real life.

 

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Alternatives

Leica offered two other medium telephoto primes in its SLR lineup. These are APO Summicron-R 90mm f/2 and APO Macro Elmarit-R 100mm f/2.8 (with the second one also being a 1:2 macro). Both of these lenses offer exceptional image quality and typical of Leica lenses build quality, matched by (also typical) high price. A previous model of Summicron-R 90mm f/2 in E55 thread is a pretty good overall performer that would not break your bank account and is probably going to be suitable for most users. In addition to these two models, Leica used to manufacture slightly slower Elmarit-R 90mm f/2.8 and Elmarit-R 135mm f/2.8, but both were discontinued in mid to late 90s. The latest revisions of these two lenses offer very solid image performance, so both are quire popular on used markets. Outside of the Leica lineup (assuming you're entertaining the idea of mounting an alternative lens to your camera body), you might want to consider Carl Zeiss lineup of lenses (both old and new), including Carl Zeiss T* Planar 85mm f/1.4, Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 85mm f/2.8, Carl Zeiss Planar T* 100mm f/2 and Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2.8 all in Contax/Yashica mount. Or their newest revisions Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 in ZF/ZK mounts and Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar 100mm f/2 also in ZF/ZK mounts.

 

Recommendation

Leica Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4 (E67) is a very interesting medium tele lens. The lens does show somewhat of a 'dual' personality, with somewhat lower resolution and contrast at wider apertures, which is not that untypical for fast lenses. Vignetting, CA and flare, while not strictly speaking minimal for a lens in this focal length, are not particularly bad either, and can be either avoided or corrected during post processing. Price is obviously always a concern with Leica lenses, but other then that its a pretty solid telephoto prime.

 

Sample Images