A few years ago I wrote about how Leica’s 55-135 and 11-23 zoom lenses for the APSC TL/CL cameras had changed my opinion of zoom lenses for the better. I moved away from zooms four decades ago due to being very unimpressed with the output from them. The only exception to this was a 11-22mm Zuiko zoom for my Olympus E-1 in 2005. This was a good lens but suffered from severe purple fringing in high contrast areas. So when I got into Leica’s APSC system I decided to give zooms another try and could not believe how good they were. Over the decades I had become very used to fast aperture primes and realised that by going the zoom route, I was going to have to compromise speed for something more sedentary. With this in mind I held onto the couple of primes I was already using with my TL2 so that I would have access to fast aperture glass. The combination of zooms and primes worked very well and is one I still use when travelling.
In recent years I have built a system around Leica’s SL2-S camera, a much larger beast that my TL2 and CL cameras. Up until a few months ago, I had only used the prime Summicron and Summilux lenses designed for it. However the widest focal length I had was the 35mm Summicron. The 24mm and 21mm Summicrons, while on the roadmap, have not yet materialised. As wonderful as these optics are likely to be when they do eventually emerge, the expected high cost was not something I could justify, as I do not use these focal lengths as regularly as anything in the 35 to 100mm range.
It was with this reasoning I decided to take a look at Leica’s Super Vario Elmar SL 16-35mm model. The biggest problem I had justifying it’s purchase was that is was pretty much the same focal length as my 11-23 zoom. However when I put this on my SL2-S the resulting files are 10 megapixels - a little less than I was comfortable with. The 16-35 is better corrected and weather resistant than the 11-23, and being very happy with the output from it, I was confident that its larger sibling would be at least as good.
I took delivery of the 16-35 zoom at the beginning of November 2022 and, with an upcoming project on local stone circles on the horizon, had plenty of opportunity to get to know it. I took the lens out on a couple of very local walks to get familiar with its handling and shortly after this commenced my stone circle project using just this lens.
It has been regurgitated ad nauseam how big and heavy native Leica Lenses are for the SL system. Yes, they are a bit on the hefty side but with zooms and fast glass I expect this and would be a little suspicious of their resilience if they were not so. So I accept that (with the exception of two brand new 35 and 50mm Summicrons recently announced) high optical and build quality comes at the expense of size and weight. To mitigate the weight when using the SL system I usually take just one or two lenses out with me, so I need to be sure I understand my subject matter ahead of a shoot. A zoom allows me to do this far easier than a prime lens.
Similar to other SL optics, the 16-35 is a robust creature that complements the SL2-S body very well. It has minimal markings on the barrel and these show common focal lengths only. If you come from a background of prime lens usage, it is good to be able to set the focal length to 16, 19, 21, 24, 28 and 35mm quickly by simply glancing at the barrel. The front and rear elements are treated with what Leica term ‘AquaDura’ coating’ which is technology brought over from their sporting optics. From my experience with previous SL lenses, this technology really does help to reduce the amount of dust attracted to the glass elements, and also causes water to bead off easily.
The lens is a little front heavy, causing the whole rig to hang ‘nose down’ a little when slung from a camera strap. While this troubles some photographers, I cannot say that it concerns me much - if it wasn’t hanging down it would be stuck out in front of me or over my shoulder, increasing the risk of it colliding with something. In my opinion, the larger a lens is, the more likely I am going to approve of it hanging nose down to help keep some if it’s bulk out of the way. It is reassuring to know that it is weather sealed as it will be exposed to rain and snow when I go out walking in the Peak District. Like it’s 24-90mm and 90-280mm siblings, the 16-35 shares an 82mm filter thread. A quality filter of this size is expensive, and the only type of filter I use is a C-Pol, so it is good to know that if I expand my SL zoom collection, I will only have to purchase one.
Unlike the APSC 11-23 counterpart, I love that the barrel of the 16-35 does not extend when zooming and focussing. This is something that I have not experienced with a zoom lens before, although all of my primes benefit from this. It also shares this feature with the large 90-280 which I find myself increasingly interested in. On a personal note, if I do pick up this tele-zoom, I will be very happy that the whole of my SL lens system has non-extending barrels.
As mentioned earlier in this article, the image quality from the APSC 11-23 and 55-135 zooms has continued to impress me, the 11-23 exhibits very little Chromatic Aberration and the edges of the frame are reasonably sharp when stopped down a little. The 55-135, being apochromatic, has yet to surprise me with any chromatic aberration at any focal length or aperture. It goes without saying that my expectations were high for the 16-35 and I am glad to say that it did not disappoint in this area. Even when stress testing it in an attempt to force CA, the amounts were very minimal and took a second to remove in Lightroom. For my real-world Stone Circle project, I have not noticed any CA at all. There is a little corner softness when used wide open at 16mm, but this only becomes apparent in some situations, for example when photographing several standing stones in a row at the same distance from the camera. I quickly learned to stop down to reduce the problem. While sharpness is not everything, the 16-35 is without doubt a Leica lens. Other than the situation described above, I have found it produces beautifully sharp results that contribute a lot to the wow factor of its output. Add to this the signature Leica colour rendition and a very uncanny ability to minimise flare in situations where I expected it, and I have found myself loving using it more and more. In fact, since I purchased this zoom, I have not used my SL 35mm Summicron at all. For my Stone Circle project, it has consistently delivered stunning results while giving me the flexibility to create a very interesting perspective on what could be considered mundane subject matter.
When I first attached the lens hood I was sceptical about its usefulness as it seemed way to shallow to have any real world ability to reduce stray light. I get that it needs to be shallow so as not to cause vignetting at its widest aperture and focal length. But the rectangular nature of this hood just didn’t feel like it would contribute anything other than increasing the lens’ footprint. A few weeks ago I found myself working on high moorland in North East Derbyshire, capturing images of a stone circle in lonely surroundings. I arrived late in the afternoon to take advantage of low winter sunshine, but photography aside, I also wanted to experience sunset in such an ancient and spiritual place. While I was working, I used the 16-35 with and without the hood. It soon became very apparent that its use helped greatly toward the reduction of flare when I positioned the camera at right angles to the setting sun. It also helped maintain contrast across the entire image. As the results were so obviously better when using the hood, I now leave it attached at all times.
When it comes to the results, there is a crispness within the files that remind me a lot of those from prime lenses. While this zoom is not quite up to the standards defined by the SL primes, in my experience it comes pretty close and replaces a bag full of primes without sacrificing much in terms of image quality. Using the 16-35 as a sole lens over the last several weeks has been a complete pleasure and not left me feeling that my subject matter would have been better served by my primes. It seems that in the last 40 years I have gone full circle with my attitude to zoom lenses. I recall them being big, heavy and slow which is no different to the 16-35. However build quality and results of this marvel could not be better. To say I am a convert to modern zooms is a bit of an understatement and I will probably be taking a very close look at the behemoth that is the 90-280 in the coming months.