My interest in Leica Zoom lenses has taken me on an interesting journey over the last few years. The first ones I acquired were for the TL system, notably the 11-23 and 55-135 objectives. Now discontinued these lenses are superb, albeit a little slow. Both remain in my collection and continue to be used, particularly when travelling. As I slowly moved into the SL system I read countless reviews as to how good all of the dedicated zooms are, so I thought I should try a couple out for myself. I have never really cared for standard zooms, preferring fast primes when working with my favourite focal lengths - between 35mm and 100mm.
The backstory and lame justification
In the days when I shot film, I had a bunch of wide angle primes that saw regular use, especially my 21mm and 24mm Zuiko’s. At the time, I was heavily into wide angle images and my slide archive from these days is packed with the results. Several years later I used them less and less and became addicted to 35mm lenses. Anything much wider than this became exceptional - hence the purchase of the TL 11-23 - one lens to cover all of the lesser used focal lengths. Wishing to replicate this with my SL I decided to pick up a copy of the SL 16-35 zoom and found the output nothing short of stunning. I could have simply attached the 11-23 to my SL2-S but the image size would have been reduced beyond what I was comfortable with.
Similarly, my days shooting film saw me amass several telephoto lenses, ranging from 100mm to 500mm. It didn’t take me too long to realise that I didn’t stray much beyond 180mm. The 200, 300 and 500mm lenses became a dead weight in my backpack until they were consigned to the cupboard, where they slumbered for long periods between occasional use.The TL 55-135 addressed my needs for occasional longer telephoto use when I went totally digital. But I became increasingly curious about the SL 90-280 after seeing many example images posted on-line. This escalated into a bought of GAS that resulted in having to scratch the itch and buy one…the idea being that it covered some of my favourite telephoto focal lengths with the added attraction of a few of those that I used to use occasionally…all in one package.
How it looks
Leica’s 90-280, or APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90–280 f/2.8–4 to give it its full title, is the largest and heaviest lens I have owned, reminding me a lot of my old Olympus Zuiko 300mm f4.5 telephoto, both in weight and size. Plenty has been written about the 90-280 regarding its heft and technical specifications, so there is little point in me commenting further on this other than to offer my own opinions. Yep it is heavy beast but considering its all metal construction, relatively fast aperture at the short end, and its range, there is little wonder. To manufacture a lens of this calibre out of lighter materials would undoubtedly compromise build quality. And there is a lot of expensive glass used, so it is reassuring to know that it is well protected with premium materials.
In keeping with Leica’s minimalist approach, there is little detail on the barrel. The lens is fundamentally a long black tube with rubberised grips for zooming and manual focussing. While this look works on smaller SL zooms and primes, I initially found it visually a little too barren. Compared to telephoto zooms from other brands the finish looks even more stark. The barrel is devoid of switches and text, with the exception of its focal length designation and several guide settings to give an idea of where in the zoom range it is positioned. Other than this, the country of manufacture and serial number are discreetly stamped on the underside. The only other place that bears any markings is the ring surrounding the front element. Regarding the guide markings, I would have preferred to have seen 90, 135, 180, 200 and 280 instead of 90, 120, 160, 210 and 280, as this would have reflected a more tradition collection of focal lengths. The hood is a large affair and makes the lens look unwieldy when attached. Many people have opted not to use this to keep the size down, but as I do not like using protective filters I see it as an aid to protect the front element.
Usage and Handling
Since I purchased the lens four months ago it has been the sole companion on my SL2-S, as I wanted to put it through its paces to see how well it performed in different situations. As I wrote earlier, it replaces a whole bunch of little used telephotos I used to own, meaning I am now freed from the additional weight of trying to lug them around. My 180 and 300mm lenses weighed more that this zoom combined. If I add to this a 80, 100, 135, 200 and 500 to this, the 90-280 becomes relatively lightweight. Plus if I mount it on my CL or TL2 bodies I achieve an effective maximum focal length of 420mm - not too far away from 500mm. All things considered, I believe it to be a very flexible companion.
Having said that, this is not a lens I would simply chuck in a rucksack on the off chance it might get used. I tend to take it out with a purpose in mind. Even though it saves me a few kilos and an aching back, it still becomes heavy on a ten mile hike. Having completed a few walks of this distance I noticed that by mile seven things are getting a little uncomfortable. It is simply too large to sling over one’s shoulder while not in use. I have found a combination of alternating neck, right then left hand works for me. Hooking the tripod foot into clothing relieves some of the weight but I remove it for much of the time to save a few grammes of weight. Of course this does not apply if I am on an early morning or evening shoot and need to use a tripod.
A feature I love on my 16-35mm zoom is that the barrel does not extend when zooming or focussing. The 90-280 takes a similar approach which is certainly a positive thing on a lens of this size. The zoom and focus rings are very well damped and even though they are not mechanically driven, provide a pretty good simulation electronically. Operation is not silent but is very quiet and perfectly acceptable. As I have not used telephoto zooms from other brands, I cannot say how its speed and accuracy compares when acquiring a target. Some will argue that it is slow to obtain auto focus, but for my use I have found it to be fine. Accuracy of focus is superb, only on a few occasions when light was low and contrast uniform did I notice it struggle. This is more a limitation of the CDAF system used by Leica in their camera bodies and will almost certainly be a thing of the past when new bodies find their way onto the market containing PDAF or a hybrid system.
So what we have here is an expensive, high-end, made in Germany, apochromatic optic. With such a promising bunch of adjectives assigned to the 90-280, it is very reassuring to find that the output is nothing short of stunning.
This lens has been the only one attached to my SL2-S for three months now, and used whenever I have been out walking in Derbyshire’s Peak District. It is a heavy companion compared to all of my other lenses. But having experienced the results I feel it is worth the extra effort, even when my arms begin to tire after several miles. I also consider carrying it for miles and miles an upper body workout so when I arrive home, it is not only my legs that need a well earned rest! I use my MindShift BackLight 36L backpack when transporting the lens, so I can stow it in this when not in use. However this prevents me from taking spontaneous images as the rig is not in my hands. Still, it is nice to know I can store it comfortably if things get a little challenging.
I find it difficult to put into words how the lens renders results. I am not really into the technical data provided my MTF charts, other than to reassure me that it is a more than capable performer. Like all of my Leica Lenses I use them wide open wherever possible, stopping down only if extra depth of field is needed. At all focal lengths the images are beautifully drawn with out of focus areas like nothing I have seen from any zoom used previously. At close distances they are presented with a beautiful mix of softness and colour that makes the sharp in-focus areas stand out in an almost three dimensional manner. When focussed at further distances, there is sufficient depth of field to lead the viewer to the subject matter without any distracting foreground/background effects. It may appear a strange choice for environmental portraits but I have found it works very well at all focal lengths as subject isolation can be well controlled.
Reviewing my output from the lens, I have lost count how many times I have said ‘wow’ to the results. They make tired, aching arms seem like a fair trade. When presenting a collection of images to my family, I do not have to tell them which lens I have used as the results speak for themselves.
With the 90-280 being designated an apochromat, chromatic aberration is very well controlled and even when stress testing it under harshly contrasting conditions, I have failed to notice any. The enormous hood ensures that flare is kept to an absolute minimum, no mean feat considering there are 46 surfaces for light to pass through. But even when using it without the hood, flare is superbly controlled and the little that sometimes appears can be used creatively if so inclined.
Like all Leica made lenses for the SL system, this one is environmentally sealed against ingress of dust and moisture. This should not be confused with being dust and waterproof - it it not. However the level of weatherproofing ensures that it can be used confidently in wet or dusty conditions. I cannot personally comment much regarding this yet as each time I have taken the lens into the field, conditions have been kind. I am certain that the fact that the lens is devoid of switches, external helicoid’s etc contribute much to its resilient design as the only externally moving parts are the zoom and focussing collars.
I cannot rate the 90-280 highly enough. While it is very unlikely I will tote the lens around in foreign climes due to it’s size and weight, it will be a regular companion at other times. Competitors simply do not offer the same focal length and due to this it stands alone, unique in its design. And it is not really much larger or heavier that most of the ubiquitous 80-200 ish f2.8 zooms that are offered by other brands. The hefty cost needs serious consideration as even used copies hold their price well. But when you pick one up, you know immediately that you have something in your hands that instills pride of ownership. Life is short, so if you think you have a need for this tele-zoom, try one out - I doubt very much that you will be disappointed.
Dedicated to Brenda Lane 1936-2023.