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Old 7th of November 2008 (Fri)   #1
fWord
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Default Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples

About 10 months ago I lay my hands on the Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2, which was my first serious attempt at the use of manual focus lenses. Since then I've acquired a number of other Leica lenses and I'm happy to report that all of them have been an absolute joy to use. As long as I get the focus spot-on, the results are pleasing, time after time.

The Leica 35-70mm f/4 (with ROM contacts), sometimes called the 'R9 kit lens', is my newest acquisition. Unlike its predecessor, the 35-70mm f/3.5 (Minolta-designed), the f/4 is designed by Leica but manufactured in Japan by Kyocerca. It is an example of a modern high quality zoom lens with a moderate aperture. On paper this looks fairly unexciting, and the majority of people wouldn't even pay $200 for a run-of-the-mill autofocus f/4 standard zoom. The Leica has a going rate of approximately US$600 on Ebay (and sometimes more if in good condition as a full box set). Is it really worth the price?

Initial Impressions

This is a two-touch zoom lens sporting an all-metal barrel in black-paint finish, with rubberized zoom and focus rings. There is some friction to the zoom ring while the focus ring is buttery-smooth. Compared to the Summicron 35/2, the Vario-Elmar has a very short focus throw which makes it quicker to focus but less precise.

Like other Leica lenses, the 35-70mm f/4 feels like it was built to very tight mechanical tolerances. The barrel is engraved with numerals that are large and easy to read. There is a 'Macro-Release' button on the zoom ring that allows the user to access the Macro function when the button is depressed and the ring is turned towards the right, past the 70mm setting.

There is no distance scale. The aperture ring clicks crisply in half-stops from f/4 to f/22. A round metal screw-in lens shade is included in the package. The lens takes unusual E60 (60mm) screw-in filters which are rather expensive. The front lens group extends or contracts depending on the focal length setting and rotates when the lens is focused. Regardless of the focal length setting the front lens group never extends beyond the hood when it is mounted, which makes the use of polarizing filters a frustrating process. I have decided to never use a polarizing filter with this lens.

The optical design features 8 elements in 7 groups. One of them is an aspherical lens despite there being no mention of this in the lens' name, and interestingly four out of the eight elements are made of highly-refractive glass. The Vario-Elmar is obviously no ordinary 'kit lens'.

When working normally, the closest focusing distance is an unremarkable 0.6m at all focal lengths. But push the lens into Macro mode and the distance drops to 0.26m for a reproduction ratio of 1:2.8, excellent for a standard zoom. This zoom weighs in at around 500g, compact and easy to handle despite the first-rate construction and finish.


Rich color and subtlety of the Vario-Elmar lens

The Quirks

As with all other kinds of 'alternative glass' that is adapted for use on a Canon camera via a detachable adapter, the Vario-Elmar is an all-manual lens. The lens must be focused manually and preferably done with the aperture wide open before stopping down to the desired setting and then taking the picture. This is hardly a speedy process.

As an aid to manual focusing, there are some detachable adapters on the market that feature AF confirmation chips, prompting the camera to beep and/ or display the focus confirmation light in the viewfinder, depending on your camera settings. But they aren't always accurate. Alternatively the user may opt to search for other focusing screens to make MF easier on the eyes.

If your camera has a large viewfinder, then you have the advantage when it comes to manual focusing. Because of the moderate aperture of the Vario-Elmar the viewfinder can already appear visibly darker and MF becomes more difficult.

Optical Quality

As with any lens review I am quick to admit that I'm just an enthusiast, not a professional lens tester. Any opinions pertaining to the optical quality or characteristics of this lens are purely subjective, but sample images have been included for your perusal.

Images from the Vario-Elmar are characterized by subtle colors and tones, with greens and browns appearing especially rich and reds somewhat muted compared to what I remember seeing with Canon L lenses in the past.


Rich greens and muted reds

Straight from wide open and at all focal lengths, the lens astounds with both high resolution and stunning contrast, lending a life-likeness to its subject and almost a tactile response to textures. There is a clarity to the images that nearly makes the lens a window to the world. The images from the Leica Summicron 35mm f/2 are similarly crisp at f/4 but the performance of the Vario-Elmar is more even across the field and certainly better in the extreme corners. The term 'sharp from corner to corner' describes this lens perfectly.

Reading of a lens with outstanding contrast and resolution, you'd at first be forgiven for thinking that the 35-70/4 is a terrible lens for portraiture. Quite the contrary. Despite these characteristics, the subtle rendition of tones actually seems to render a pleasing smoothness throughout that looks incredible for skin (at least for the subjects that were photographed to date).


Flawless complexion?
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Old 7th of November 2008 (Fri)   #2
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples

In my previous review of the Summicron 35/2, I attributed this 'smooth yet sharp' appearance to high contrast but low resolution. But this characteristic seems common to most of the Leica lenses in my bag, being the Summicron 35/2, 90/2, Elmar 180/4 and also the Vario-Elmar that is reviewed here. Is this one of legendary signatures of a Leica lens? Regardless, this characteristic, and the richness of tone and color makes an image more attractive in my eye (composition and lighting aside).


Lovely colors

The Vario-Elmar is not a 'cream machine' when it comes to producing bokeh. With a short focal length even at its longest setting plus a moderate aperture, the bokeh is difficult to analyze in an image that has been resized for web viewing. But when a full-sized image is viewed at 100% the bokeh is very pleasing and the subject has good 'pop'. Considering the focal length and aperture the bokeh is excellent.


Underdeveloped because of the small aperture, bokeh is attractive nonetheless

Here is an attempt to demonstrate the level of CA in the zone between the groom's suit and a blown-out sky. A terrible scenario to say the least, but despite careful examination of the entire picture the level of CA is almost negligible.


Near-zero CA in this backlit shot taken with fill-in flash

Similarly, vignetting is a non-issue from wide open. The only fly in the soup is the visible barrel distortion at the 35mm end, which is actually noticeable in the viewfinder of a FF camera. That said, it's minor and hardly a deal-breaker for all but the most critical photography for architecture and the like involving lots of straight lines. Distortion is not visible at the 50mm and 70mm setting.


Move out of the 35mm setting and there's no visible distortion

While I have yet to note incidences of flare in my actual photos, I once pointed the lens towards a bare sun while it was very low in the sky, and found it possible to induce flare spots in this lens (visible in the viewfinder) when the sun was just out of the frame. The included lens shade did little for this scenario at the 35mm setting.

Macro Setting

Featuring a 'macro' setting that drops the minimum focusing distance to just 26cm, this lens surprises in its ability to hold its performance down to the closest focusing distance. This is indeed commendable, because just about every other lens I've used has demonstrated an obvious drop in image quality at MFD, while the Leica lens behaves almost like a true macro lens, just that it doesn't focus down to 1:1 magnification natively.


100% crop at MFD

Conclusion

If it sounds as if I'm very excited about the Vario-Elmar 35-70mm f/4, it's because I am! Aperture and focal length differences aside, this is perhaps the greatest lens I've tried to date, sporting unbelievable clarity, attractive color, pleasing [if albeit too subtle] bokeh. It is commonly assumed that zoom lenses are convenient but compromise on lens design. While this is partially true where barrel distortion at the 35mm end is concerned (it is more than that of the Summicron 35/2), the lens breaks barriers with great performance corner to corner, extremely low CA and eye-popping resolution even at its minimum focusing distance.

As a package, it represents great value as a walkaround zoom but unfortunately does not appeal to everyone because of the lack of AF and electronic aperture control. The moderate aperture is a double-edged sword: providing almost perfect amount of depth of field for portraiture, negating the need to stop down in most instances, yet darkening the viewfinder and making accurate focusing more difficult.

If you are already involved in the world of alternative glass, do yourself a favor. Pick up a copy of this lens, and experience the imaging for yourself.



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Old 7th of November 2008 (Fri)   #3
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples

Colors and contrast look great! This lens is definitely not a 'standard' zoom!
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Old 7th of November 2008 (Fri)   #4
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples

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Originally Posted by hk300 View Post
Colors and contrast look great! This lens is definitely not a 'standard' zoom!
Indeed. 'Standard' in terms of focal length range, but in terms of performance, it's a 'standard' that stands on its own!
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Old 7th of November 2008 (Fri)   #5
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples

Sounds great! Have you had a chance to use the Contax Zeiss 35-70 f/3.4, by any chance? If so, how does it compare to the Leica? (I've heard wonderful things about that lens).
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Old 7th of November 2008 (Fri)   #6
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples

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Originally Posted by Jman13 View Post
Sounds great! Have you had a chance to use the Contax Zeiss 35-70 f/3.4, by any chance? If so, how does it compare to the Leica? (I've heard wonderful things about that lens).
Hey, that's a good question. Online there are frequent comparisons made between the two lenses but the comments have been mixed. The Contax is cheaper than the Leica yet there are some that say it's sharper. Others talk about the Leica being sharper, even when both are at f/4 and construction is better.

Then there are some who say that Leica lenses in general are 'colored', that is, they create images that are so saturated they look like something out of a fairy tale, while Carl Zeiss is more neutral.

And of course, there are those that say otherwise. I take all these opinions with a pinch of salt. Until I've had the chance to try both for myself I would not be able to make a fair comment.

However, those who have used the Carl Zeiss will say it's an excellent lens. I have never read a bad review of the CZ and the Leica has a similarly good rap. Erwin Puts, whom I sometimes refer to as the 'Leica Man' is pedantic in his analysis of Leica lenses but is noticeably very excited about the Vario-Elmar 35-70/4, praising it for its high resolution and contrast plus 'pure colors'. I can see why he has such a glowing report on this lens. Have a read of what he says in the 'Know-How' section:

http://en.leica-camera.com/photograp...nses/3813.html

At this time the Leica lenses I've tried all look like (or are better than) L-grade lenses to me, except they're not produced by Canon and they don't have a red ring.
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Old 18th of November 2008 (Tue)   #7
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples











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Old 30th of November 2008 (Sun)   #8
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples

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Old 4th of January 2009 (Sun)   #9
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples


Zoom-Zoom
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Old 4th of January 2009 (Sun)   #10
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples

Popping colour and contrast. As typical as Leica, I am going to get the lens myself!
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Old 4th of January 2009 (Sun)   #11
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples

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Originally Posted by roentarre View Post
Popping colour and contrast. As typical as Leica, I am going to get the lens myself!
Thanks, glad you're thinking about trying this lens. It's an excellent standard zoom. When wading through the shops or online inventories remember Leica has a few 35-70mm lenses:

Leica 35-70mm f/3.5 E60
Leica 35-70mm f/3.5 E67
Leica 35-70mm f/4 E60 as discussed here
Leica 35-70mm f/2.8 (legendary, you'll know it when you see it)

The first two supposedly have the same Minolta cell but there's a member at another forum who tells me the E67 edges out the earlier E60 and even the newer f/4. This is in stark contrast to everything I have read online which states that amongst the first three lenses in that list, the f/4 is the clear winner and the first two perform the same (same optics, only different mechanics).

There's also the Contax 35-70mm f/3.4 which I've never tried before but people say it's another stunning standard zoom. It's a good deal cheaper than the Leica and there's some debate as to which is better. All I can say is, if you do try the Leica, I'm sure you'll be pleased with the results, if you get the focus right.
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Old 4th of January 2009 (Sun)   #12
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples

I have the C/Y 35-70/3.4 and it is stunning. I have never seen a zoom so sharp. "Sharper than any Canon prime lens in it's range..." including the 50 macro. A quote from the lens test at 16-9.net. Also has nice bokeh and very close MFD. I have seen many comments from people saying it is the last lens they will ever sell. I tried the Leica but wasn't impressed enough to warrant the money or switching. I do suggest you try the C/Y first as it is less money.
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Old 5th of January 2009 (Mon)   #13
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples

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Originally Posted by gasrocks View Post
I have the C/Y 35-70/3.4 and it is stunning. I have never seen a zoom so sharp. "Sharper than any Canon prime lens in it's range..." including the 50 macro. A quote from the lens test at 16-9.net. Also has nice bokeh and very close MFD. I have seen many comments from people saying it is the last lens they will ever sell. I tried the Leica but wasn't impressed enough to warrant the money or switching. I do suggest you try the C/Y first as it is less money.
Pity you did not have a good experience with the Leica. As far as I'm aware, the 35-70/4 ROM which is discussed here is said to be a superb lens while the older 35-70/3.5 E60 is very so-so. I'd like to try the 35-70/2.8 but can't cough up the money to upgrade.
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Old 10th of April 2009 (Fri)   #14
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples

Still my go-to lens for closeups:

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Old 11th of March 2010 (Thu)   #15
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Default Re: Leica Vario Elmar-R 35-70mm f/4 Review & Samples

Like somebody else says, the colors are very good! contrast/saturation very good and natural.
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