Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Leica CL: 18-56 Vario-Elmarit-TL versus 24mm Summilux-M and 50mm Summilux-M

Leica CL: 18-56 Vario-Elmarit-TL versus 24mm Summilux-M and 50mm Summilux-M

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  Leica CL with the 18-56mm Vario-Elmarit-TL lens
Leica CL with the 18-56mm Vario-Elmarit-TL lens

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).

  CL with the 24mm Summilux-M
CL with the 24mm Summilux-M

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.

  18-56 at 24mm f/8
18-56 at 24mm f/8
  24 Lux at f/8
24 Lux at f/8
  24mm f/8 100% comparison. TL 18-56 left, 24 Summilux right.
24mm f/8 100% comparison. TL 18-56 left, 24 Summilux right.

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.

  18-56 at 24mm f/16
18-56 at 24mm f/16
  24 Lux f/16
24 Lux f/16
  24mm f/16 100% comparison. TL 18-56 left, 24 Summilux right.
24mm f/16 100% comparison. TL 18-56 left, 24 Summilux right.

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?

  CL with the 50mm Summilux-M
CL with the 50mm Summilux-M

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.

  18-56 at 46mm f/8
18-56 at 46mm f/8
  50mm Lux f/8
50mm Lux f/8
  50mm f/8 100% comparison. 18-56 TL left, 50mm Summilux right.
50mm f/8 100% comparison. 18-56 TL left, 50mm Summilux right.

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:

  18-56 at 46mm f/16
18-56 at 46mm f/16
  50mm Lux f/16
50mm Lux f/16
  50 f/16 100% comparison. 18-56 TL left, 50mm Summilux right.
50 f/16 100% comparison. 18-56 TL left, 50mm Summilux right.

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.

Conclusions

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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9 COMMENTS

  1. Any serious student of lens design would tell you that virtually every non macro lens ever made was designed or nowadays computed to give of its very best performance roughly two stops down from its maximum aperture and then after that loses definition due to diffraction your f16 test thus seems absolute madness to me.

    How often I must ask do you really need to stop down so far to get enough depth of field? I certainly never have too for my landscapes and perhaps more to the point I for one am most certainly never going to waste the wonderful potential let alone the vast costs of my superb 50mm f1.4 Summilux Asph (or any of my CL) lenses by so limiting their potential performance down to that of any old cheap and cheerful bit glass.

    Anyway please do not take offense and no need to just take my word for it even though I did study lens design full time for two years when much younger, but before just throwing ever more top definition away please do read up more in such as one of Erwin Puts tomes like ‘Leica Lens Compendium’ or better still the later ‘Leica Compendium’ which certainly for me are the bibles of Leica lens performances.

    • Don,

      Do you not think that these tests by Andrew are primarily meant for landscape photography which frequently depends on massive depth of field in order to achieve what is wanted. A longer exposure for greater overall sharpness from front to back?

      Indeed there was an American group in the 1930’s led by some very well known contemporary photographers, who called themselves "Group f64", the name being coined by no less than Ansel Adams.

      Anyway, just a thought, and I agree that technically you are correct, but surely your contention is moot?

      Stephen

      • Stephen,
        I think you are overlooking the fact Ansell Adams and the ‘Groupf64’ photographers were using VERY large format cameras. I.E. Anything up to and including 10" x 8" so large in fact they could easily afford to lose quality whereas we cannot.
        Don

        • Don is correct. I would never shoot a landscape at f16 with a digital camera because of diffraction effects, but I would not hesitate to use f16 with a film camera. F8 should be sufficient for either medium in most cases, particularly if you use a lens which shows the depth of field for each distance and aperture. Unfortunately, most modern lenses have lost these features. You also need to carefully choose your point of focus even with today’s AF lenses. Allowing the camera or the lens to do it for you is not good enough for landscape. Finally, I don’t need any more convincing that native lens are best for any camera. I have used M lenses on other makes, but they have never been as good as the native lenses. Using one particular lens or another is only the start of the game. Knowing how to use them is equally important.

          William

          William

  2. I have found this and your previous article very valuable and will file them against the day – if ever! – I upgrade from my X Vario to a CL, because you make it clear that, for my purposes, I shall not need anything else but the two zooms and understand where their limits lie. Thank you from a non-expert.

    • There is a fix for the SL — but only when using field rather than cross-hair centre. However, nothing has transpired with the CL and the focus point still wanders when it isn’t wanted.

  3. Hi there
    This is really useful, but I would expect them to be comparable at f8.
    What is the comparison like if you shoot at f4? Is there more of a distinction?
    Best
    Jonathan

    • Yes, that’s a good point Jono. I seldom shoot landscapes at f/4 but I’ll do some comparisons next week in Assynt and report back. From what I’ve seen so far (unscientific comparisons) the CL zooms are rather good wider open as well.

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