Ahead of a landscape photography trip to Scotland shortly, I am keen to understand how the Leica 18-56 Vario-Elmar-TL lens compares with two of the most desirable of Leica M lenses, the 24 Summilux and 50 Summilux. This is £1,255 versus £8,600 by the way.
This follows the comparison I did of the 55-135 v 50 ‘Lux v 90 ‘Cron which showed that the 55-135mm was really rather excellent. If the 18-56mm is anything like as good, then my landscape photography gear can be minimised down to just the two L-mount zoom lenses and the Leica CL, plus a few filters. This will give me a really useful 27mm-200mm range in a tidy little relatively lightweight package. One thing I was really missing from my M10 experience was the ability to use longer focal lengths, so 27-200 is very nice.
The purpose of this comparison is to look at relatively small apertures that I’d generally use for landscape photography, rather than wide open f/1.4, so bear that in mind. Obviously the variable-aperture L-mount zooms won’t keep up with the amazingness of the Summiluxes at f/1.4. Usually I’ll be around f/8-f/11, and sometimes at f/16 when landscaping, so I decided to compare the lenses at both f/8 and f/16 to see how they got on.
18-56 versus 24mm Summilux-M
The 24 ‘Lux is just a lustworthy lens. It’s a fantastic piece of kit that gives a unique look on a full-frame M, and renders beautifully at f/1.4 as a 35mm equivalent on the CL. It’s crisp and clear and beautifully made, a king amongst lenses. Unfortunately it is wider than the 28mm framelines on a Leica M so it’s tough to get critical framing right unless you use an electronic viewfinder or an appropriate optical finder (the rear LCD being too small for high accuracy).
So here we go, brace yourselves. First at f/8 and then at f/16. Click on the images to see them full size. All images have been set to daylight white balance, and ISO was 100 throughout. Images were taken into Lightroom which applied the Adobe Standard profile, and then exported straight out again as full size jpegs. The river was in flood by the way – lots of rain round here recently – hence the rather unattractive colouring.
As with the previous test of the 55-135, the medium-range L-zoom is giving a warmer image despite white balance being set the same. Getting in very close shows both lenses to be equally sharp, which is impressive from the 18-56 I think. The 24 ‘Lux is showing some slight purple fringing in the tree branches, but it’s pretty minor and easily corrected. The 24 Lux is also a little bit more contrasty. I’d say the 24 Lux colour is more realistic and representative of the scene so I may make up a profile for the 18-56 lens to match.
Now onto f/16 with the same lenses.
At f/16, both lenses suffer a reduction in sharpness, likely from diffraction due to the very small aperture. The 24 ‘Lux is better than the 18-56 at f/16, which one would expect for a prime lens costing 4.5x as much (£5,600 v £1,255). You’d have to be zooming in at 200% to really notice much difference though. A bit of sharpening cleans up the 18-56 version to the point where there is barely any discernible difference.
18-56mm versus 50mm Summilux-M
The 50mm Simmilux is another simply gorgeous lens. How do Leica make them so small and lovely? While the 50mm Summicron could be regarded as a bit sharper wide open (mine was), there’s just no substitute for a Fifty f/1.4 wide open. On the CL it becomes an interesting 75mm equivalent so an ideal portrait lens. Could the “cheap” 18-56 hold a candle to it?
As before, starting with f/8 then f/16. I thought I had the 18-56 at 50mm but it turned out to be 46mm – I can’t find anywhere that the focal length is displayed on the CL screen which is why there’s a discrepancy.
Once again there is very very little in it at f/8. The colour difference is still there which shows how consistent the two Summilux lenses are. Really very impressive from the cheaper lens.
Moving on to f/16, as I know you’re desperate to see this:
It’s the same story as with the 24 Summilux here, with both lenses losing some sharpness to diffraction as the aperture closes down. The 18-56mm is slightly worse than the 50 ‘Lux, but again not by very much.
Another remarkably exciting test as I’m sure you’ll agree.
Seriously though, this has been a key bit of research for me. The closeness in quality of the top-end M lenses to the L-mount zoom is really quite enlightening. Now I know I haven’t checked for flare handling in contre-jour situations (haven’t seen the sun for days) or wide-open characteristics, but the key thing is how good the 18-56 is within its operating parameters. I’m actually quite surprised as one usually thinks of 18-56 range lenses as “kit zooms” to be removed and replaced as soon as possible. But this one is really rather impressive as it should be for its £1,255 price tag. You can see that Leica have put a lot of effort into these lenses and, to keep them small, have accepted that a relatively slow variable aperture is the way to go. If you want f/1.4 they have some lovely M lenses waiting for you that are a dream to use on the CL, as well as the 35 f/1.4 Summilux L-mount (which is a bit of a porker to be honest – I’ll stick with my 24 ‘Lux).
This comparison has enabled me to have confidence that I can take just the two L-mount zooms out on my landscaping trips, and leave the M-mount primes behind unless I’m after something particularly special (that is, shallow depth of field for a particular shot). This gets me much longer range than my three M-lens setup, less frequent lens changes, with no compromise on image quality. And for those who insist on quibbling about full-frame versus crop-sensor, please please watch this video – it’s worth it!
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