LEICA VARIO-ELMAR-S 30-90MM REVIEW

Vieri at work in Death Valley

LEICA 30-90MM F/3.5-5.6 VARIO-ELMAR-S ASPH REVIEW: ALWAYS TRYING TO MAKE MY BAG LIGTHER, I GAVE THE LEICA 30-90MM A TRY

This is a user Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH review in the field, not one of my usual in-depth reviews. No charts, no images taken under controlled conditions; I’ll just share with you my informed opinion of this lens, based on hundreds of images taken in real world use at all focal lengths.

As a landscape photographer, I am always looking for ways to make my camera bag more compact and lighter for my hikes, without of course losing any image quality in the process. So far, my Leica S kit consisted of the 24mm Super-Elmar-S, the 35mm Summarit-S and the 70mm Summarit-S. Replacing the last two lenses with the 30-90mm Vario-Elmar-S would save me some bulk and weight, while expanding my focal length range from 30mm to 90mm. A great proposition indeed; however, even more important than bulk and weight is, of course, image quality. Reports on the net were few and unconvincing to me, so I decided that I had to see for myself. Having found a good second-hand copy of the 30-90mm Vario-Elmar-S, I decided to try it for a couple of months for my work and see what I’d think about it.

Disclaimer: At the time of writing, I am a Leica Ambassador. That said, I am a professional photographer looking for the best equipment for my work, I buy all my gear with my hard-earned cash and I don’t get paid by anyone to write articles for my blog.

The Dolomites Photography Workshop

BUILD, SIZE AND WEIGHT
The Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH is, to date, the only zoom lens for the S system. With its 24-72mm, f/2.8-4.5 equivalent specs in so-called “full frame” terms, and being weather-sealed, it offers a versatile one-lens travel setup to Leica S owners. The lens is extremely well built. Tt’s solid, its zoom and focus rings are smooth and precise in use, and while it extends when zooming its front element doesn’t rotate either with zooming or focusing.

The only problem with the Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH’s build is a fair amount of zoom creep. The zoom position tends to move, both pointing the lens off level and, i.e., doing things such as adding or moving filters in a filter holder. It’s not a major inconvenience, but I’d definitely preferred it to have had a stiffer zoom action and no zoom creep.

The Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH is not a small and light lens by any means, measuring 3.98 x 4.47″ (101 x 113.5mm) and weighing in at 2.81 lb (1275 gr) without its lens hood. In medium format terms, though, this is not particularly large: for instance, the Pentax 28-45mm, despite featuring half the reach on the tele end, measures 3.90 x 5.96″ (99 x 151.5mm) weighing in at 3.24 lb (1470 gr). In fact, rather than with medium format lenses, the Vario-Elmar-S is comparable to 35mm lenses with similar range (it’s a 24-72mm FOV equivalent, f/2.8-4.5 aperture equivalent).

To give you an idea, the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH measures 3.46 x 5.43″ (88 x 138mm) weighing in at 2.51 lb (1140 gr), and the last Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 VR measures 3.46 x 6.08″ (88 x 154.5mm) weighing in at 2.35 lb (1070 gr).

Of course, the last two are either slightly longer (the Leica), or slightly faster at the long end (the Nikkor), and both feature VR. On the other hand, you have to keep in mind that the lens in this Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH review covers a much larger sensor. Overall, if you are used to a classic 24-70mm type zoom lens, you’ll find the Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH very similar to handle.

USE OF FILTERS
As you know, for my work being able to filter a lens is of fundamental importance. Luckily, the Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH sports a 95mm filter thread, and I could use my usual 100mm Formatt-Hitech square filter system through a 95mm adapter ring zooming out as wide as 33-34mm focal length.

Between 33mm and 30mm, I could get by using the same push-on adapter that I use for the 24mm Super-Elmar-S (see my article 100MM SQUARE FILTERS ON THE LEICA SUPER-ELMAR-S 24MM for more information on how to do so).

If you haven’t got your filters yet, get your kit on FORMATT-HITECH or FORMATT-HITECH USA at a 10% discount using code

VIERIB10

at checkout. Disclaimer: I am a Formatt-Hitech Signature Artist and Brand Ambassador.

AF SPEED
The Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH’s AF speed is slightly slower, compared to fixed focal length S lenses, but it’s perfectly adequate for my work. AF locks precisely enough, hunting just a bit in low light and on the long end (it’s a f/5.6 lens, after all). Both the Leica S and the SL have a great focus aid feature: the top screen of both cameras precisely show you the actual focus point’s distance, as well as the front and back focus distances. For my work, I find combining manual focus with this distance scale to be much faster and precise than using AF. More importantly, it can be done quite effectively with ND filters on the lens no matter their strength.

Cinque Terre & Tuscany Photography Workshop

IMAGE QUALITY
As I mentioned above, during these last months I used the Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH extensively at all focal lengths. Aperture-wise, on the other hand, for my work I normally stay between f/8 and f/16, sometimes going up to f/22 for depth of field. Thus, besides a quick first test done when I bought it, I never used my Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH wide-open, and therefore I cannot report on its image quality at these apertures. That said, while having the faster medium format lenses out there is one of the greatest strengths of the S system, the Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH obviously doesn’t fall into that category. If you need fast lenses for your photography, I’d recommend you look at the great prime lenses in the S line-up instead.

SHARPNESS
Let’s start from the wider end of the lens. The Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH performed great at 30mm, producing sharp images all over the frame with a very pleasant drawing. Moving up towards the tele end of the lens, a focal length of great interest to me was 35mm. Before trying the lens in this Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH review, my 35mm Summarit-S was by far the most used lens in my bag. At 35mm, the Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH didn’t disappoint me at all, being as sharp as my 35mm Summarit-S (which is no small feat!).

Zooming in, the lens kept this level of performance at 45mm as well, outputting perfectly clear and sharp images all over the frame. After 45mm, however, things started to change. While sharpness in the center of the image remained amazing all over the focal range up to 90mm, at 60mm all four corners started to soften up slightly, but visibly; at 75mm this effect worsened, to be most evident at 90mm. I would consider images produced at 60mm useable in 90% of the cases, both for online use and when critical sharpness all over the frame is required; according to subject matter, the slight softness is often all but invisible. Between 75mm and 90mm, if you only use your images resized for online publishing, or if you only need the center of the frame to be critically sharp, the 30-90mm Vario-Elmar-S is perfectly fine. 

Sadly, however, I would not recommend using the lens in this Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH review between 75mm and 90mm, when critical sharpness all over the frame is needed. Corner softness at longer focal lengths, unfortunately, might definitely be an issue.

FLARE RESISTANCE & CONTRAST

The Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH, despite its high amount of glass (14 elements in 11 groups), resists to flare pretty well at all focal lengths. Images are contrasted and punchy, in most cases even when shooting into the sun. Doing this, however, may reveal ghosts and internal reflections, which you might or might not like to use for artistic reasons.

CHROMATIC ABERRATIONS & DISTORTION
There is an on-going debate online about whether the quality of a lens shall be determined before or after software corrections, either introduced at camera level or in post-processing. Of all aspects of image quality, this debate concerns chromatic aberration and distortion control the most. While software obviously cannot make a lens sharper or more flare resistant than it optically is, it can definitely help to remove chromatic aberrations and fix distortion.

I understand that in the film era the optical quality of a lens was just that, a lens’ optical quality; lens designers couldn’t rely on any software help post-shooting. I also appreciate that many photographers today would still keep to that standard when judging a lens’ performance. However, I think that nowadays in most cases, and especially for digital camera system created from scratch like the Leica S or the Leica SL, more than judging a lens by itself we need to judge a camera + lens system. As such, in-camera software corrections are an integral part of the results. More, in most cases these corrections are inbuilt in the RAW files, so talking about the abstract quality of a lens becomes a moot point anyway.

After this long premise, I can say that however the job gets done, optically-only or through a mix of optical wizardry and software corrections, the Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH (as all other Leica S lenses) is very well corrected for CA and distortion: images are clean and pretty much distortion-free right out of the camera.

SAMPLE IMAGES
No Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH review would be any good without pictures! Below you’ll find some sample images shot at all focal lengths. Let’s start with 30-35mm (click on the images to enlarge):

Then 45-50mm (click on the images to enlarge):

Then 60-75mm (click on the images to enlarge):

Then 90mm (click on the images to enlarge):

THE 30-90MM F/3.5-5.6 VARIO-ELMAR-S ON THE LEICA SL
If you are a Leica SL owner and you don’t own, or plan on owning, a Leica S, then I would definitely recommend getting the SL’s native 24-90mm Vario-Elmarit-SL over the Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH. The 24-90mm Vario-Elmarit-SL has amazing image quality, it’s wider, faster, lighter, easier to filter, has image stabilisation and its AF is much faster. At half the price of the Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH it’s a no brainer. However, if you are a Leica S owner and you either already own or are thinking about getting a Leica SL for backup or to complement your S system, then the Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH is a lens you might want to consider: not only it works perfectly on the Leica SL, but here the corner softness I noticed at longer focal lengths is all but absent.

Normandy & Brittany Photography Workshop

CONCLUSIONS
This Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH review shows the lens to be very good for landscape work, especially at the wide end where it is extremely strong all over the frame. Between 75-90mm, while keeping its amazing center sharpness, the lens becomes progressively softer in the corners and it is decidedly soft in the corners at 90mm, which might or might not be an issue according to your subject matter.

A great advantage of the Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH is that it allows you to easily replace your 30, 35 and 45mm primes with it, with basically no loss in IQ except perhaps for a little flare resistance and only when shooting directly into the sun. For critically sharp work all over the frame, while a bit weaker at longer focal lengths in the corners, if you consider the Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH to be a dedicated wide-angle zoom with just an extension in the longer range, you’ll happily get a really amazing wide-angle zoom from 30mm up to 50-60mm, with the added bonus of a very good 60-70mm and a useable 90mm when needed.

WHO IS THIS FOR?
I’d recommend the lens in this Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH review without any reservation, all over its range, to people shooting for online publishing and to people who mostly need center sharpness. I’d also recommend it without reservations to people looking for a single, versatile and weather-sealed lens to travel light with their Leica S, even if some IQ compromises needs to be made on the tele end. For people needing corner-to-corner sharpness for their work, I’d recommend it without any reservation as a great replacement for their 30-35-45mm Leica S lenses in a single, smaller and lighter package; however, if you need corner-to-corner sharpness at the long end, according to subject matter this lens might not be the right one for you.

Death Valley Photography Workshop

Thanks for reading this Leica 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmar-S ASPH review, I hope you enjoyed it! Why don’t you share it with your friends, or drop me a comment to let me know how you feel about this?

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JOIN THE DISCUSSION

6 thoughts on “LEICA VARIO-ELMAR-S 30-90MM REVIEW”

  1. Vieri, thanks for your analysis of this lens. I have the 30 S and 70 S I was also thinking about getting the zoom to replace both lenses.
    I love my 70 S for when I want to do Pano’s so in your opinion after 60mm on the zoom things start to fall apart?

    Reply
    • Hello Steven, sorry for the delayed reply – have been on the road for two months with limited time for the net. About your question, I think the zoom will be OK at 70mm, but the 70mm is probably going to be better – this depending on your copy of the zoom, of course, since I have seen reports of zooms that have a better long end than mine. If you use filters, keep in mind that the zoom has a 95mm thread, and at the long end you’ll need to be creative to use 100mm filters without vignetting (and without having to move ne size up in filters, which is a pain).

      Best regards,

      Vieri

      Reply
  2. Say Steve I’m planning to buy an S to replace my SL with, but in the meantime was thinking about trying out a pano bracket from Really Right Stuff. A local fine art / landscape photographer said he doesn’t use one and has no trouble stitching by simply panning his 007 usimg his ballhead. He added that he likes to keep his gear as light as possible while hiking, forgoing the parallax corrextions. Looking for a second opinion. You too VIERI, I’d love to know if you into panning as well.

    BTW Vieri , your well written contributions are fast becoming some of the most useful, objectively written articles I come across. Quite refreshing in this very difficult to discern marketing from serious assessment, internet world I’ve come to rely on. Your objectivity is as rare as an Italian who talks more about Death Valley than he does the ruins of Roma. .

    Caio, Lucas Paolella

    Reply
    • Hello Lucas,

      thank you very much for your comment and for your nice words about my writings, much appreciated indeed. I simply tell it as I see it :)

      About panning, a pano bracket is very useful to use your lenses revolving on their nodal point, in order to avoid parallax errors. However, even without one stitching softwares do a pretty good job of fixing such errors, at the expenses of resolution and “real estate” though – meaning, stitching will crop your images, and so you’ll get less “image” in the software stitched image than what you get in your viewfinder. Other than that, you can definitely manage with no bracket and software corrections in most cases. As always, use longer lenses for pano, WA open the way to a lot of problems.

      Best regards,

      Vieri

      Reply
  3. Thanks for your unbiased review of the Leica 30-90mm Vario. The durability and versatility of the lens seems like a good investment. Very informative. Best Regards,
    Stan Stennett

    Reply
    • Hello Stan,

      thank you for your comment and kind words, I am glad you found the review useful. Yes indeed, the lens is built like a tank and I have no doubts about its durability, and it’s very versatile as the only zoom lens for the Leica S system (and, you can use it on the SL as well via the adapter). Best regards,

      Vieri

      Reply

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