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?
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.
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.
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).