Home Cameras/Lenses Leica The Kit Zoom: Not so boring after all

The Kit Zoom: Not so boring after all

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  At the Royal Automobile Club’s Regent Street car show on November 3, with the Leica CL and 18-56mm Vario-Elmar “kit” zoom
At the Royal Automobile Club’s Regent Street car show on November 3, with the Leica CL and 18-56mm Vario-Elmar “kit” zoom

The “kit” 18-56mm Vario-Elmar-TL zoom has been in my stable since I got my first Leica T. But to my shame I have not given it many an outings since the arrival of the CL. Instead, I have been more focused on the sexier 50mm Summilux-TL and the 23mm Summicron-TL, as well as the handy 18mm Elmarit pancake lens. Recently, spurred by correspondence on the qualities of the Leica X-Vario with a similar zoom lens, I have been using it more.

  For an event such as this it is useful to have a zoom choice — zooming with your feet isn’t always possible and a quick flick of the wrist brings up that closer shot with more detail
For an event such as this it is useful to have a zoom choice — zooming with your feet isn’t always possible and a quick flick of the wrist brings up that closer shot with more detail

I use the word ‘kit’ because the 18-55mm (56mm in this instance) zoom is the workhorse of the APS-C DSLR starter market. It’s the lens, often built down to a price and with a plastic mount, that comes in many low-priced kits. As a result, the mere description of 18-55mm is something of a downer in many eyes. There is a perception that a medium-range zoom such as this is somehow inferior — it is often seen as the lens used by people who know no better. This is totally irrational, of course, and Leica’s offering in this segment gives the lie to the prejudice,

  At Brooklands on November 4, Bentley magnificence
At Brooklands on November 4, Bentley magnificence

There are kit lenses at bargain-basement price and more expensive, much more competent zooms in this range. The Leica 18-56mm TL is one of those lenses that is different, as you might expect. 

  Those magnificent men in their driving machines: David Martyr, left, is a noted collector of veteran cars. He is CEO of Swiss-based international group Tecan and a former President of Leica Microsystems Group. To his left is a fellow car enthusiast, Andreas Bader. Andreas is an old friend of Leica’s chairman, Andreas Kaufmann. Perhaps next year we can entice Dr.Kaufmann to the London-Brighton run
Those magnificent men in their driving machines: David Martyr, left, is a noted collector of veteran cars. He is CEO of Swiss-based international group Tecan and a former President of Leica Microsystems Group. To his left is a fellow car enthusiast, Andreas Bader. Andreas is an old friend of Leica’s chairman, Andreas Kaufmann. Perhaps next year we can entice Dr.Kaufmann to the London-Brighton run

The full-frame equivalence of 28-85mm range of this lens offers a useful span of focal lengths without undue size or weight penalties. It weighs only 260g, is 58mm long at rest and, when mounted on the CL, produces an everyday combo weighing 670g (compared with the 710g of the Leica X Vario and viewfinder — but see below).

  Auf wiedersehen, pet Moggie: This wonderfully preserved Morgan three wheeler sets off for home from the Brooklands classic car event last weekend
Auf wiedersehen, pet Moggie: This wonderfully preserved Morgan three wheeler sets off for home from the Brooklands classic car event last weekend
  Morgan, still going strong. This 2018 model is No. 39 of 50 limited-edition vehicles to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the legendary Plus 8. This model is supplied by    Richard Thorne Classic Cars
Morgan, still going strong. This 2018 model is No. 39 of 50 limited-edition vehicles to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the legendary Plus 8. This model is supplied by Richard Thorne Classic Cars
  Magnificent Moggie, 50 years on but bang up to date
Magnificent Moggie, 50 years on but bang up to date

The focal-length range is, as I say, useful and acceptable but it isn’t ideal. These days I prefer 24-120mm which, to me, is the perfect carry around lens — seen at its best in the beautiful 12-60mm Leica DG lens for micro four-thirds. But the 18-56mm is a great performer within the restriction of its range. It’s light, small and produces sharp images with plenty of interest. 

  With a focal range of f/3.5 to f/5.6 you aren’t expecting a bokeh fest, but this little lens is quite capable of isolating a subject effectively
With a focal range of f/3.5 to f/5.6 you aren’t expecting a bokeh fest, but this little lens is quite capable of isolating a subject effectively

Like the stellar 18-46mm (28-70mm) fixed zoom of the Leica X Vario, the 18-56mm is considered slow. It has an aperture range of f/3.5 to f/5.6, slightly faster than the lens of the XV. If you liked the X Vario, you would like the CL combined with the 18-56mm Vario-Elmar. But, as with the X Vario, this perceived slowness is not a big issue. For most general photography it is ideal. And we have to bear in mind that a fixed f/2.8 zoom, or even an f/2.8-4.0 range, means more glass, more weight, more size. In designing the TL zooms, Leica contrived to offer great image quality in a lightweight package. And this means dealing with more modest apertures.

  Colour and detail from the Vario-Elmar
Colour and detail from the Vario-Elmar

In practice, the CL and Vario-Elmar do precisely the same job as the X Vario. The CL has a denser sensor, 24MP instead of the 16MP of the X Vario, and sports a more modern electronic control layout. Aficionados of the simplicity of the X-series Leicas might not appreciate this change from clear, physical dials of the earlier cameras. But I continue to warm to the CL’s layout, with its twin soft dials and tiny info screen on the top plate. 

  Power house of a 1973 Ford Mustang in all its glory
Power house of a 1973 Ford Mustang in all its glory

The big advantage of the CL+Vario-Elmar combo over the X Vario is in its versatility. Pop on the 18mm Elmarit or 23mm Summicron and you turn this X Vario replacement into an X1/X2/X replica. It is marginally bigger than the X1, but is about the same size as the 35mm X, especially with the built-in viewfinder of the CL taken into account. 

  Back to Regent Street and a close inspection of a classic Bentley. Below, the snapper snapped in the Bentley’s rear-view mirror. A crop too far, but interesting nonetheless as a demonstration of the detail captured by this lens
Back to Regent Street and a close inspection of a classic Bentley. Below, the snapper snapped in the Bentley’s rear-view mirror. A crop too far, but interesting nonetheless as a demonstration of the detail captured by this lens

The CL is not the only option if you fancy this lens. The 18-56mm also complements the TL2 admirably and, with the advent of the L-Mount Alliance there is the possibility of more suitable APS-C cameras appearing in the future. The Alliance has opened up the L-mount to the world, and I am excited about the future. 

  Surrey without a fringe on top, a colourful and compact tourer ready for last Sunday’s RAC London-Brighton veteran car run
Surrey without a fringe on top, a colourful and compact tourer ready for last Sunday’s RAC London-Brighton veteran car run

There are just two negative aspects of the Vario-Elmar. First, it has no stabilisation (missing on all TL lenses) but, accordingly to its designer, Peter Karbe, this is a deliberate move to keep down size and weight. Second, I would be happier if the wide end started at 24mm instead of 28mm. It doesn’t seem like much of a difference, but having tried many 24mm+ zooms, I do prefer to have this wider angle at my disposal.

  Just one word of warning about the Vario-Elmar: If you happen across dancing leprechauns in Chinatown, make sure you have dialled in sufficient speed, ‘cause there ain’t no stabilisation in this lens. I snapped this energetic reeler on aperture priority at 1/50s, too slow as it turned out. Auto ISO was set to 1x focal length but the minimum speed should have been higher. The Almighty would have had the shoelaces frozen in motion.
Just one word of warning about the Vario-Elmar: If you happen across dancing leprechauns in Chinatown, make sure you have dialled in sufficient speed, ‘cause there ain’t no stabilisation in this lens. I snapped this energetic reeler on aperture priority at 1/50s, too slow as it turned out. Auto ISO was set to 1x focal length but the minimum speed should have been higher. The Almighty would have had the shoelaces frozen in motion.

In the meantime, the 18-56mm Vario-Elmar-TL is a great lens and serves as the bread-and-butter option for all Leica’s APS-C offerings. Except in terms of wider apertures for greater subject separation, this lens is not a second-best. You definitely do not feel short changed by any of the TL zooms,

  The Leica CL complete with the 18-56mm Vario-Elmar-TL is a similar size and weight to the discontinued X Vario and offers similar, if not better image quality, with the added advantage of lens interchangeability. There isn’t much not to like.
The Leica CL complete with the 18-56mm Vario-Elmar-TL is a similar size and weight to the discontinued X Vario and offers similar, if not better image quality, with the added advantage of lens interchangeability. There isn’t much not to like.

The Vario-Elmar even works on the SL, although addressing only the central part of the sensor, approximately half the available pixels. But it works and will offer results at least as good as those from the X Vario, probably even better. If you own a T or CL camera, though, this is the first lens you should get.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I enjoyed the photos – most of them from a very different world than I move in! I also enjoy the XVs focal length with the equivalent length. I wonder how the CL handles macro by comparison with the XV 70mm solution? And of course, the CL EVF is built-in but on the other hand not vari-angle. Still, you make a tempting case……..

    • John, in this regard the X Vario is far superior. Why? I find it limiting and frustrating having to use the wide angle end of the zoom for macro or close-up photography. Add a living insect to the object and it is difficult to retain its interest when probing so close to the subject. Macro as implemented on the XV operates at the tele end of the zoom. I am surprised Leica swapped this with TL lenses. (Perhaps it gives us a clue who else was involved outside Germany}

      • David, I confess that macro isn’t something I considered when writing this article. But it is a good point, as is John’s comment on the static viewfinder. I agree with that. I find photographing cars, for instance, is easier with the tilting viewfinder of the X2.

      • I had never thought of that, David, but in practice it is absolutely true. I got a "close-up at a distance" of a dragonfly recently which would have flown away if I’d been fiddling around close to!

  2. Being in North America, where most things look fairly recent, this was a treat to read this post and enjoy the gorgeous images. I would love to have the Morgan but then I guess I would have to be extroverted out and about!

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