Long Lens Shooting with the Leica SL

The Leica SL was clearly designed with outdoor, nature, landscape and travel photographers in mind; the abundant weather sealing, GPS. and high-speed shooting were not put into the camera for studio photographers. 

As a landscape photographer, I routinely have use for a telephoto lens. So today I'll discuss the long lens setup I use with the Leica SL.

Using the vehicle as a blind while shooting in Grand Teton

Using the vehicle as a blind while shooting in Grand Teton

For starters, I do not own the Leica 90-280mm lens made for the SL system, much as I would like to. The reason for this is multi-fold:

  1. The Leica 90-280mm, while well made, is overpriced at $6,400. Every other camera manufacturer has a similar telephoto lens offering (normally in the 70-200mm range), and those lenses generally retail for $3,000 or less, with plenty of used options coming in around $1,500.
  2. Competitor lenses, which are already less than half the price, also are faster. The Leica lens only musters f/4 at full zoom, while the Nikon and Canon counterparts are f/2.8 through the entire focal length of the lens. 
  3. In Canon-land, you could buy a 400mm f/4 lens for the same price as the 90-280mm from Leica. In Nikon-land, that same money would buy you a 600mm f/4 lens and still have $2k leftover to spend on a trip! The reality is that for the money they are charging, this lens needs to either be as fast (or faster) as the competition, or it needs to have more range.
  4. The 280mm focal length is just at the short end of what most wildlife photographers would consider a reasonable starting point for their lenses. Most wildlife shooters will carry a 400mm or longer lens.
Bull elk in Yellowstone. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter. 

Bull elk in Yellowstone. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter. 

As it stands currently (October 2017), I am pretty miffed with the rate at which Leica has released lenses for the SL system. Three lens offerings in the two years since the camera was released is weak. Nothing wider than 24mm is weak.

Instead of making a 50mm prime for the SL, Leica should have expedited the production of the 16-35mm lens. There a number of 50mm lenses available on the market for Leica M mount is incredible, so there wasn't a dire need to release that lens first....but that's beyond our discussion here.

Frustrated that I have been left to jerry-rig a long lens solution together, I turned to a manufacturer who knows a lot about how to make great long glass....Canon. For decades, Canon has been a leader in the long lens market, and there are thousands of used lenses to select from. 

IMG_2263.JPG

I happened to find myself a very old 400mm f/2.8 bazooka of a lens, and had it modified to accept a Leica R mount. I call this lens a bazooka because it has to weigh upwards of 25lbs! There is no autofocus or image stabilization - it's just a big, old, and solid piece of glass. Because it lacks some of the more modern touches, the Canon 400mm f/2.8 bazooka was pretty affordable - I paid around $800 for the lens with conversion. 

Unfortunately, because it is a bazooka, it's not terribly portable, and I need to have a hefty tripod solution to use it. But that is okay - with the sack of cash saved by opting for this lens, I was able to afford a nice Wimberly head for my tripod to resolve that issue.

You lookin' at me? Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8

You lookin' at me? Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8

L1020348.jpg

The nice thing is that this lens is extremely sharp, and the EVF of the Leica SL makes it easy to manually focus and track a moving subject. I have now used this lens in Yellowstone for a number of wildlife images, and also used it to shoot the 2017 solar eclipse. In both applications, the lens has done a wonderful job resolving details. And when 400mm isn't enough, I also have a Leica R mount 2x teleconverter that makes the lens an 800mm f/4 lens. Not too shabby!

IMG_2706.jpg

As you can see from the snapshot of images included, the Canon 400mm f/2.8 renders beautifully and is incredibly sharp. When supported properly, I am very impressed by the sharpness that can be achieved at f/2.8. I have used the lens for a few landscape images as well, and am very pleased with the results - I don't know if it's good as the 90-280mm lens, but at the price, the results are spectacular. Remember, this isn't a cheap $800 lens -- this lens used to cost $10k, but since it is a few generations old, the lens price has dropped significantly while the quality remains unchanged.

Pronghorn in the snow. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens

Pronghorn in the snow. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens

Two young deer graze in Grand Teton National Park.

Two young deer graze in Grand Teton National Park.

Have you adopted another long lens for your Leica SL? Or did you purchase the Leica 90-280mm lens? Leave me a comment and let me know how you solved this problem!

Hands-On Preview of the Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 Lens

I just had the opportunity to use the new Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 ahead of the official late-March 2016 release date. A demo lens was available at the Photography Show in Birmingham, UK, and I spent awhile shooting and handling the lens during the exhibition today. Although I’ve had a chance to now go “hands on” with the lens, I won’t call this an official review, but it will hopefully help anyone who is considering the purchase of this lens when it releases next week.

Leica was kind enough to let me mount the lens on my body, so not only did I have a chance to handle and shoot it in the trade show, but I have some image results to evaluate….

First and foremost, this lens has the same incredible design and construction we’re used to seeing with Leica glass. While it’s big and heavy compared to most lenses they make, it’s actually quite compact and comfortable compared to similar zoom lenses from other manufacturers. I was particularly impressed with the internal zoom mechanism; looking down the front element of the lens while rotating the zoom allows you to see several glass elements that are adjusting internally. This process, which was incredibly smooth, allows you to zoom from 90-280mm without the lens expanding in size. When a lens expands as you zoom, the center of gravity of the lens shifts, which can make it harder to shoot. With everything internal, it was easy to hand hold and zoom in and out without experiencing any need to adjust my hand positioning. 

Leica, in typical German engineering form, also improved on the tripod collar mechanism. Unlike most Nikon / Canon tripod collars that just have alignment markings for rotating between portrait and landscape orientation, the Leica tripod collar has little stops that click into place. These stops would make it extremely easy to rotate the lens when mounted on a monopod or tripod without having to guess if you’ve correctly reoriented the camera - you can feel it click into place. The collar rotates all the way around the camera so it can be used as a carry handle if you fancy. Rotating the tripod collar is achieved by the traditional loosening of a knob. A second knob closer to the base plate allows for the removal of the tripod base plate. The base plate has a grooved notch on it to ensure that it can be mounted back square to the collar if it was removed. The lens hood is a long cylindrical hood- maybe 3-4 inches long. It used a twist to lock into place.

Size comparison between the 24-90mm and 90-280mm lenses.

Sample Images

Click on any image for a larger preview

First, I conducted a few tests of the lens’ performance at close focus. I stepped about 3 feet away from my subject and was able to focus on his eyes at 190mm and the result has incredible detail and clarity. Zooming out to 90mm at f/2.8 gives a sense of the soft bokeh that can be achieved with this lens; notice how the edge of his cap softly fades out of focus.

Shot from about 3 feet away @ 190mm, f/3.5. Nice soft bokeh!

Zooming out to 90mm @ f/2.8

Likewise, Leica boasts a 3 stop image stabilization, and while I can’t validate that figure, it was certainly very good. Normally anything below 1/60th of a second can be tricky for me to hand hold and keep tack sharp, but this image was taken at 1/50th and is perfect. 

The image stabilization was good enough that I hand held this photo at 90mm 1/50th

The bokeh on this lens is also very pleasing - shockingly so, actually. At 280mm, the lens shoots at a best f/4, but I still found the bokeh pattern very pleasing. In this image, you can see the bokeh renders in a circular / oval shape. While it’s certainly not the dreamy melt of the Noctilux, the bokeh results I see in my demo shooting suggest this lens should be great for framing sports, action, or even portrait photography. Personally, I’ll be using this lens for outdoor and wildlife photography applications, and I cannot wait. The bokeh throughout the zoom range should give very pleasing storytelling opportunities, no matter what the situation.

An example of the bokeh at 280mm @ f/4

Bokeh at 250mm, f/3.8

The autofocus speed of this lens is not to be overlooked. It’s easy to build long lenses, but long lenses that can jump instantly to proper focus without lots of hunting are another story. As much as I liked my Nikon 80-400, it would often do the obnoxious “dunk-dunk-dunk” of a lens hunting for focus. My experience is obviously limited, but the lens had no issues keeping pace with the busy exhibition hall, particularly as I turned from far away subjects to close-up shots. 

280mm @ f/4..... see crop below. Notice there were no corrections for any lens distortion or vignetting.

Crop of above image

Reviewing the results now in Lightroom, I’m noticing almost no vignetting and only minimal distortion. It’s the type of artifact that I’d probably never take the time to bother correcting (and that cannot be corrected now since Adobe doesn’t have a lens profile for this lens yet).

Included is a clip showing the internal focus mechanism - apologies for the video quality.

Thank you to Leica Camera for letting me demo their new APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 lens today - any doubts I had about the pricing have been erased and I’ll be looking to snag a copy upon their release this week.