LEICA VARIO-ELMARIT-SL 24-90MM ASPH REVIEW
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LEICA 24-90MM F/2.8-4 VARIO-ELMARIT-SL ASPH REVIEW: IS IT THE BEST CLASSIC NORMAL ZOOM EVER?
This is a user Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH review, based on my field use of this lens for landscape photography, not a formal in-depth review. You’ll not find numbers, charts or images taken under controlled conditions. What you’ll find instead is my informed opinion of this lens, illustrated with dozens of real-world photographs taken in the field during one and a half year of professional work with the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH, at all focal lengths.
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.
BUILD, SIZE AND WEIGHT
The Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH is, to date, one of two zoom lenses available for the Leica SL system, the other being the 90-280mm Vario-Elmarit-SL f/2.8-4 APO. As expected from a Leica product, the lens is extremely well built. Its weather-sealed, all-metal body feels solid – indestructible, in fact – and doesn’t show either any play or noise in use, or any zoom creep.
Following Leica’s philosophy of essentiality and clean design, controls on the lens are extremely minimalistic. On the barrel, you’ll find only a zoom ring, closer to the camera body, and a focus ring, closer to the front element. Both rings are very well dampened and feel great in use; the focus ring doesn’t have a hard infinity stop.
The lens extends when zooming; it is at its shortest at 24mm and at its longest at 90mm. Its front element doesn’t rotate either while zooming or while focusing, thus allowing for easy use of filters.
Finally, the lens is optically stabilised, but optical stabilisation controls needs to be accessed from a menu.
The Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH measures 3.46 x 5.43” (88 x 138mm) and weighs in at 2.51 lb (1140 gr). When the Leica SL first came out, I have seen online reports, as well as old Leica users, complaining about the weight and size of this lens.
Personally, coming from DSLR and Medium Format, I find the lens very well balanced and wonderful to use on the Leica SL. Leaving my personal impressions aside, let’s now see what the numbers tell us:
1. Leica SL (847 gr with battery), Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH (1.140 gr): total weight, 1.987 gr or 4.38 lb
2. Nikon D850 (1005 gr with battery), Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 (1.070 gr): total weight, 2.075 gr or 4.57 lb
3. Canon 5DS R (930 gr with battery), Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 (805 gr): total weight, 1.735 gr or 3.82 lb
4. Sony A7R III (657 gr with battery), Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 (886 gr), total weight: 1.543 gr or 3.40 lb
5. Pentax K-1 (1010 gr with battery), Pentax 24-70mm f/2.8 (787 gr), total weight: 1.797 gr or 3.96 lb
The Nikon setup is heavier than the Leica, and the Canon setup doesn’t offer image stabilisation as the other four; that leaves only the Pentax and Sony setup as lighter alternatives offering image stabilisation. However, we have to consider that both the Sony and Pentax setups offer a focal length range limited to 70mm, while in the Leica’s case we enjoy a larger 24-90mm range. Considering the 20mm more reach, I think we can safely consider the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH not really as heavy as one first might think.
Size-wise, rather than giving you numbers, the best thing I can do is sharing here a link to a camera size comparison website (a picture is worth a thousand words!) where you can find the 4 cameras side by side (I didn’t add the Pentax K-1 since the website doesn’t list the Pentax 24-70mm f/2.8, at least for now): http://camerasize.com/compact/#639.496,718.479,596.286,724.515,ha,t. Those thinking that the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH would look and feel enormous on the Leica SL, will very likely be surprised by the results. The camera and lens combination is actually smaller than most competitors, and even more so if you don’t consider the protruding EVFs / OVFs of all cameras in the comparison.
In conclusion, if you are a DSLR user the Leica SL plus Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH combination will feel just great in your hands. You’ll get a slightly smaller setup weighing more or less as the one you are used to, but featuring much better build quality and more reach. On the other hand, if you are used to M lenses on a Leica M body, of course the Leica SL with the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH will feel big and heavy to you in comparison. However, these two systems are so different, from conception to realisation to purpose, that I feel it’s a bit like comparing apples with oranges.
USE OF FILTERS
For landscape work, being able to use square filters with a lens is fundamental. More, I much prefer to use a 100mm system for all my lenses, rather than having to resort to the huge, unpractical 150mm system.
The lens in this Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH review, thanks to its 82mm thread, allows me to use my 100mm Formatt-Hitech Firecrest adapter with its very convenient built-in polariser without any vignetting even at the widest focal lengths (read my BEST FILTERS FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW article for more information on filters).
AUTOFOCUS AND AF SPEED
Autofocus is very flexible and well implemented on the Leica SL, allowing you both to move your focus point all over the frame, and to access two levels of magnifications while focussing, for extremely precise positioning of your focus point.
This is a fantastic feature for landscape photography, and it’s something that no traditional DSLR can offer. AF speed is extremely fast and precise with the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH on the static subjects I normally shoot.
More importantly, thanks to its wonderful EVF, the Leica SL can focus with the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH even with a ND filter mounted on the lens. This makes my work in the field much less complicated and much faster than with a traditional DSLR, where with a ND filter on I couldn’t see anything and I had to remove and reattach my filter holder every time I needed to adjust framing, composition or focussing.
For my work, I prefer to set my Leica SL to manual focus altogether: I find that combining MF with the distance scale on the top LCD is a much faster way of working. Plus, even when setting the camera to MF, the Leica SL still allows me to use single-AF by pressing the rear joystick, if needed.
The Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH is my workhorse; together with the Voigtlander 15mm Super Wide-Heliar f/4.5 v. III, it’s definitely my most used lens on the Leica SL. I used it extensively in the field at all focal lengths, day-in, day-out, both for my work and during my Workshops, since first getting the camera in early 2016. Aperture-wise, for my work I normally stay between f/8 and f/11, sometimes going up to f/16 or even f/22 either to maximize depth of field or for sunstars effects, as needed. After testing the lens when I first got it, and besides the occasional portrait, I almost never used my Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH wide-open for my professional work. Therefore, I won’t discuss image quality at larger apertures in this Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH review.
This will be a very short section. The Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH is extremely sharp all over the frame, over the whole lens range. During these 18 months of work with it, I never came upon any sharpness problems caused by the lens.
FLARE RESISTANCE, GHOSTS & CONTRAST
The Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH resists to flare pretty well at all focal lengths, especially considering that – due to my constant use of filters – I almost never use this or any other lens with their lens hoods on.
Despite the high amount of glass (18 elements in 15 groups) of its optical formula, images created with the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH are contrasted and punchy, in most cases even when shooting into the sun. Doing this, however, may reveal in certain cases some ghosts and internal reflections. This doesn’t happen very often, and when it does you can either slightly change your shooting angle to try and get rid of them, or use a lens hood, which works very well to completely eliminate flare and ghosts. On the other hand, when shooting into the sun you might decide to keep whatever little ghosts there are for artistic reasons as well – as we know, there are situations where photographers add them after the fact.
The Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH features very high contrast both at macro and micro level, and this results in images with extreme clarity and detail, giving the feeling of huge depth. During post-processing, I routinely examine all my images at 200% on my computer, both for thoroughly cleaning them from sensor dust and to check the quality of the file. Enlarging the DNGs created with the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH at 200%, you’ll almost see no loss of detail, which is something I have never seen with any other camera I have used in the past. The Leica SL with the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH definitely punches above its weight when it comes to resolution. Overall, I would describe images created with this lens on the Leica SL as extremely detailed and with a very tri-dimensional feel to them. They are, at the same time, technically impressive and artistically very beautiful.
CHROMATIC ABERRATIONS, DISTORTION & DIGITAL CORRECTION
As I mentioned in my LEICA 30-90MM F/3.5-5.6 VARIO-ELMAR-S ASPH REVIEW, there is a long on-going debate online about whether the quality of a Leica lens should be determined regardless of eventual software corrections transparently introduced at camera level.
Of the various aspects of image quality, this debate touches mostly the correction of chromatic aberrations and distortion. Obviously, software cannot make a lens sharper or more flare resistant than it optically is, but it can definitely help to remove chromatic aberrations and fix distortion digitally. To me, this is somehow a moot debate: I appreciate that in the film era the optical quality of a lens was just that, a lens’ optical quality, and that lens designers couldn’t rely on any software help after-shooting.
I also appreciate that many photographers today still like to stick to that method when judging a lens’ performance, either because they are used to do so from the old days, or because it sounds better philosophically, or for any other reason.
I understand that for many it is “better”, perhaps even somehow “nobler”, to have an optically perfect lens rather than a lens digitally “helped” to reach perfection by in-camera processing software. However, it is clear to me that when we judge lens quality in a digital-only camera system created from scratch, such as the Leica SL or any other similar systems, more than judging lens quality by itself we are in fact judging a camera-plus-lens system. Speaking about the abstract optical quality of a SL native lens becomes quickly a moot point just because there is no way to examine and determine such quality other than using the lens on the Leica SL. On the Leica SL, in-camera lens correction cannot be turned off, it is simply an integral part of the resulting image.
As a photographer and an artist, my cameras and lenses are my tools of the trade, my brushes and colours if you will. What counts for me is the results they help me get, not how they get there. If I get a picture with no distortion and no chromatic aberrations, and if I don’t see any perceivable quality loss caused by the digital corrections applied to the file, then I am extremely happy about the result. Whether this has been achieved purely optically or with the help of in-camera software is really of little interest to me.
Back to this Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH review, I can say that however the job gets done, whether through Leica’s optical prowess only or through a mix of optical wizardry and software corrections, the lens is extremely well corrected both for CA and distortion at all focal lengths.
Below you’ll find some sample images, not taken especially for this Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH review, but to show you what the lens can do in the field. These photographs have been shot during one and a half year of work with the Leica SL and grouped for your convenience according to their focal length. Let’s start with 24mm (click on the images to enlarge):
Then 28mm (click on the images to enlarge):
Then 35mm (click on the images to enlarge):
Then 50mm (click on the images to enlarge):
Then 75mm (click on the images to enlarge):
And finally, 90mm (click on the images to enlarge):
This Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH review reinforced what I already thought: this lens is practically perfect for landscape work. The lens is a wonderful performer all over the frame and at every focal length, producing very clean images, crisp, sharp, with beautiful colours and with a very pleasant drawing signature. Images pop on the screen, are very easy and rewarding to work with, and most importantly they are very malleable in post-processing.
ZOOM OR PRIMES?
People often ask me how the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH compares with prime lenses. As well, I often read online opinions telling me that it is “almost as good as”, for instance, M lenses on the Leica SL for any given focal length. Personally, I don’t find such comparisons either very interesting, or very useful. In the first place, it doesn’t make much sense to compare a f/1.4 prime with a f/2.8-4 zoom anyway. More, such comparisons depend so heavily on what you shoot that they rarely hold universal value.
In particular, for my work I think that the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH is not just “almost as good as” primes; rather, I think that it’s overall “definitely better than” primes. First, for my landscape work I almost always shoot between f/8 and f/11, so I don’t have much use for f/1.4 to begin with. Second, I am very often shooting in precarious, even dangerous, conditions: I work on cliff edges, in the ocean, in the middle of rivers, on sand dunes, and so on. I work under the rain, in strong winds, sometimes with very cold hands and sometimes with sweaty hands. Therefore, not having to change lenses in the field often, not having to move filter holders from one lens to the other, perhaps while balancing on boulders in the middle of the water, and things like that, is a huge advantage for me. It simply makes my job easier, both in terms of sensor cleanness, in terms of reducing possible damage or even loss to the camera and lenses, and – finally – in terms of working speed and workflow’s practicality.
Therefore, a zoom lens that covers the 24 to 90mm range with prime-like image quality at f/8-11, for me and my work is definitely, and without a doubt, much more useful than a set of primes with equivalent image quality.
70MM or 90MM?
Let’s not forget the extra 20mm the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH gives us, compared to the “classic” 24-70mm lenses. On paper, they might seem to make little difference; in the field, however, they often save your bacon. We all know that 70mm is really not that long. Personally, when I was using my Nikon system years ago, I always had to bring a 70-200mm or a 105mm, together with my 24-70mm, to cover for the lack of a longer end. With the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH, instead, I almost never want for more reach: 90mm is enough for most of my work.
IS THIS THE PERFECT LENS FOR LANDSCAPE?
Between my landscape photography work and my Workshops, I am on the road more than half year. All I need to carry, everywhere I go, is the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH, plus – since I am an ultra-wide lenses lover! – the Voigtlander 15mm Super Wide Heliar v. III to take care of the wide end. These two lenses cover about the 80-90% of my work, day-in, day-out; and if you are not such an ultra-wideangle fan as I am, then very likely the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH will be pretty much all you need.
So, the answer is yes: between its very useful range and the amazing image quality it outputs, as a result of this Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH review I find it to be perfect suited for landscape work with the Leica SL.
THE PERFECT LANDSCAPE KIT
People often ask me what the perfect landscape kit is. Of course, the answer to this question depends mostly on what you shoot, what kind of landscape work you favour, what your aesthetic vision is, and so on. I can answer by telling you what you’ll find in my bag as my standard kit:
1. A Leica SL with the Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH always on;
2. A second Leica SL body with the Voigtlander 15mm always on (and for backup);
3. A Voigtlander 10mm Hyper Wide Heliar f/5.6 to cover even more on the wide end.
If the work and the location requires it, I add my Leica 90-280mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH to cover the long end; my 100mm f/2.8 Macro-Elmarit-R if I want to do macro work; and my 50mm f/1 Noctilux-M if I want to do narrow depth of field work or take advantage of the peculiar aesthetic qualities of this lens.
As I said before, this is the perfect kit for me; my recommendation, however, is always to gather as much information as you can first, to then be able to design your kit around your requirements, which are different from mine or anybody else’s.
WHO IS THIS LENS FOR?
As a result of my Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH review, and after using it for more than a year day-in, day-out, I definitely recommend this lens without reservations to everyone who needs a lens to cover this range. The Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL ASPH is as close as it gets to the perfect normal zoom. If you do landscape, in particular, it is a no-brainer: this is THE lens to get to make the most of your Leica SL. More, if you are using a different brand and you do landscape, I’ll go as far as saying that this lens, together with the possibility of using the family of hyper-wides from Voigtlander with perfect results, is a good enough reason to make the move to the Leica SL. It’s that good.
Thanks for reading this Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit-SL 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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