One lens is not Leica the rest

The Leica R series of lenses was first introduced in 1964 with the original Leicaflex body. Recently, the Leica R lenses have made somewhat of a revival in recent years with the advent of larger digital formats. Fast, sharp, relatively cheap, manual aperture, 270 degree focus throw, and easily mountable to certain modern lens mounts, the Leica R lenses sound pretty much perfect on paper for motion film work. But how do they compare to their modern counterparts?

 

I recently picked up a Leica R 50mm Summicron (Leica’s way of saying f/2.0) to start working on my own set (19mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 90mm). The serial number on my particular lens indicated that it is a Version 2 made in 1978. Version 2 are said to be optically and mechanically superior to the Version 1, which ran from 1962 – 1975, though I have not done any tests to support that claim. Instead, I decided to directly compare my 50mm Version 2 Summicron to other more popular and expensive lenses. The prices range from ~$500 – $20,000 per lens, but would the results align with the price?

 

The Lineup

I chose to compare my Leica R 50mm to other 50mm lenses based on availability and specs — mainly lenses of similar speeds. I would have loved to add Zeiss Ultra Primes, Super Speeds, and Master Primes to the mix, but unfortunately those weren’t available at the time of this test. Regardless, I was happy with my selection below:

 

This was by no means a scientific test; I wasn’t able to control the light as well as I would have liked. In the future, I wish to shoot a more extensive test with video clips to show movement, flaring, and bokeh. But this was simply a visual comparison with stills pulled from the camera.

 

 

I opted to shoot with an Arri Amira at 4k UHD (3840 x 2160), ProRes 444 in LogC, and then with a Rec709 LUT applied in post. With the Amira, I was able to use both EF and PL lenses with a simple mount change on the Amira body. As stated before, I only tested the lenses at a F/2.0 with the exception of the Zeiss CP.2. I kept the exposure index at the Amira’s native 800, 5600K color temperature, at 23.976 frames per second. In addition, I chose to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/250 in order to open the lenses; I didn’t want to use any ND to avoid optical performance loss, and I didn’t want to pull down to a lower EI, as performance at native ISO is important and most people shoot at native. I also knew I would be only pulling stills for this test — videos will be coming in the future!

 

On with the tests

First off, let me get this out of the way: please excuse my dead facial expression. I was pulling focus wirelessly with a director’s monitor off camera right, and I wanted to make sure I achieved critical focus, so apologies for my dumb face. Anyways, moving on…

 

Click the pictures for full resolution!

 

Starting with the focus chart, it’s quite apparent how different the colors vary from lens to lens. To my eyes, the Leica is immediately cooler than the others. The Zeiss CP2 and Schneider Xenar exhibit some more magenta, while the Cooke S4 is slightly warmer than the others, yet brighter. Something that might be worth noting is that the Leica goes by F-stops whereas the Zeiss, Schneider, and Cooke go by T-stops.  F/2.0 on the Leica may not be equivalent to the T/2.0 on the other lenses, but closer to T/2.2 – T/2.5. This might explain why the Leica looks slightly underexposed compared to the other lenses. Another interesting note is that when the Canon L was attached to the Amira’s EF mount, I was given the option to set it’s T-stop rather than F-stop in the Amira’s menu options, even to the extent of being able to choose 1/8th stops (I set it to T/2.0, 0/8). Exposure-wise, the Canon looked similar to the other 3 lenses not including the Leica but I’m not sure how accurate the Amira’s T-stop setting is compared to the Canon’s actual F-stop rating.

 

By sampling the white and middle gray squares of the focus chart, we get a clearer look of the color shift with each lens.

 

swatch

 

The corresponding vectorscopes also demonstrate the color shifts:

 

Now everyone knows that shooting focus charts isn’t the best way to test a lens and make any lens look bad when put under the microscrope. So how do the lenses render skin tones and human facial features?

 

 

100% Crop

 

Compared to the Canon, the Leica seems to exhibit lower contrast and evens out the skin tones within the areas around and underneath my eyes and my nose. Both are sharp, but it looks like there’s slightly less detail in the hair with the Leica, while the Canon seems to hold finer skin detail. I personally like the way that the Leica renders my skintone and has a more “even” look to it.

 

The Cooke is exceptionally sharp, as expected for the price. There’s definitely something more to the Cooke that stands apart from all the other lenses; it has a dimensionality that is hard to put my finger on. It really looks like my face is popping out of the image. There’s a glow to the skin and it really looks like it changes the proportions of my head to a flattering level (it’s also very awkward to objectively analyze my own face and facial structure). Perhaps it’s in the way that it handles contrast compounded with it’s sharpness and minimal barrel distortion? Or it’s in the way that it seems to compress my head into a less distorted space? The perspective of the Cooke is something that is very new to me, and I’m still trying to figure it out.

 

Surprising to me, the Schneider Xenars and Zeiss CP.2s are very similar. Both have a reddish magenta hue to them and are very sharp. The Schneiders seem to do something similar to the Cookes in the way that it compresses my face in a more pleasing way, but not quite to the extent of the Cooke. It looks as though the Cooke and Schneider seem to narrow my head around the forehead, pulling the head in, rather than stretching it out like the Canon, Leica, and Zeiss (or perhaps it’s correcting it?). I’m really not sure, if anyone has any insight I would love to hear what you think.

 

Corner Sharpness

 

One more set of images, which holds the most surprising results! I don’t think you’ll even be ready to see this.

 

The Cooke performs the worst by far when comparing corner and edge sharpness. It even goes to the extent of completely distorting the focus circle on the very top left portion of the focus chart. There’s also very clear soft fall off on the edges of the frame compared to any of the other lenses. I found it very hard to believe seeing how a single Cooke S4 costs $20,000 and gets outperformed in a category by a $500 lens. The Leica performs poorly as well when compared to the Canon, Zeiss, and Schneider, which I was somewhat expecting given the age of these lenses. There’s also pretty clear chromatic abberation with the Canon (which isn’t only visible in the corners). The CP.2 also fell victim to this when rack focusing various parts of the focus chart which isn’t evident in the still photos.

 

And there you have it, a fairly unscientific visual comparison between these 5 lenses. I guess what’s left to say is… are the Leica’s worth it? I personally think so, and I’m definitely in the market to look for a few more Leica Rs to complete my set. Overall, I was pretty happy with the performance of these lenses. The Leicas might not be as sharp, but there’s a color flatness and degree of low contrast that I really like. I find it feels “cinematic” and “filmic” in the way that it smooths and blends skin tone and color. There are still a few more things for me to cover but I want to save that for future posts. This was my very first blog post, and I hope to write more and add videos for the next one.

 

Special thanks to Brainbox Cameras in Marina Del Rey, CA for letting me use their equipment to conduct these tests.

 

Please let me know how you enjoyed it and if you found it helpful, I would love to hear your feedback.

Thanks for reading,

Brian

 

About the Author:

Brian is a freelance cinematographer based out of Los Angeles, CA. He’s currently a Cinematography Fellow at the prestigious AFI Conservatory.



9 Comments:

  1. Tom
    November 18, 2015
    Reply

    Hi Brian,

    Thanks so much for the breakdown. Great work – gives an idea when considering various options.
    Never had a chance to work with Cooke S4 and Zeiss CP.2 at the same time and was curious how they compare next to each other.

    • Brian
      November 25, 2015
      Reply

      Hey Tom,

      Thanks for reading! It’s definitely a start at comparing the two, although there are still several things that I wasn’t able to cover, and of course it matters the most when you see how the two lenses compare when in motion. It’s also mostly subjective — I don’t think one lens is necessarily superior to the other but it all depends on your application, budget, and of course, story.

      Cheers,
      Brian

  2. Osman
    March 29, 2016
    Reply

    Hello Brian,
    Thanks for the test. I am having a hard time deciding between Ursa Mini 4.6k and Red Scarlet W. I’ll probably go with Scarlet W but I can’t say for sure right now. I’ll wait for NAB I guess before I buy a new camera. If I go with Scarlet W I will have Sigma 18-35mm, Milvus 50mm, Milvus 85mm. Do you think these would be good choices? Or would you rather Leica R lens set for Scarlet W along with 18 35 sigma? I haven’t purchased the Milvus yet. I’ll do at the same time with Scarlet. I was thinking instead of Milvus I could get Duclos cinemode Leica R lenses but I’m not sure which one would give advantage for freelancing. Well probably Milvus but I liked the Leica R look.

    • Brian
      March 30, 2016
      Reply

      Hey Osman, thanks for checking it out. I think as a freelance shooter, you will have better luck with a full set of lenses and a camera body rather than a couple individual lenses and a zoom. It really depends on what you shoot; the Leicas have a vintage flavor with low contrast and are softer than the Milvus. Milvus are sharp, modern, and pretty clinical with not much character.

  3. Osman
    March 30, 2016
    Reply

    Hi again Brian,
    Along the way I’d complete the set of Milvus. So the real question is should I go with Milvus set or Leica R set. You already said that it depends on what I’m shooting. Milvus lenses are becoming popular. It seems to me that Set of Milvus would be an advantage but personally I’d prefer the look of Leica R lenses. I’m preparing to shoot my first feature film in two years. The first act takes place in Turkey 1980’ies and the second and the third acts takes place in present day New York. Probably set of Leica would be nice for that purpose. I wonder if there are movies shot by using Leica R lenses. I’d love to see them. I could always rent a set of cine lenses when shooting a film but you know it’d be nice to have a set which you don’t mind shooting a film with them. Anyway probably I’m taking too much time of you by my comments. Sorry about that. I’ll research more. Also thank You for your post which gave me the idea of getting a Leica R Lenses.

    • Osman
      March 30, 2016
      Reply

      After checking more on Leica R lenses, I feel even more excited about them. I watched a trailer of a movie shot in Tibet by using Leica R set. It blew me away. Here is the link for the trailer: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1793915/ There are a couple of things to consider before I decide. With the Milvus EF lenses I’ll be able to control them by fool control etc… With leicas Everything will be controlled manually I assume. Or I’ll have to get a wireless follow focus if I need help by another person or if I want to use it on a gimbal etc… I hope these are the only limitations when working with Leica R’s. Also flare and the bokeh on the background highlights are not round but shaped like a stop sign. Well these are the matter of taste I guess.

      • Brian
        March 30, 2016
        Reply

        Yes, the Leicas do have a beautiful look to them. Judging by your story for your feature, Leicas would work perfectly seeing as most of the lenses were produced in the 80’s and have a more vintage flavor. Like I said before, the Milvus have a very clean and modern look to them, very clinical. I would also not recommend using FoolControl to control focus on the Milvus, it’s simply not a reliable way to pull focus for an entire production. That limitation is the same as any other cinema lens on the market, no one expects to be able to use the electronics to control focus, it’s simply not a professional and reliable tool and it’s really not meant to be.

        Bokeh shape is completely subjective; Cooke S4s are one of the most popular and expensive cinema lenses on the market and they have the same stop sign shaped bokeh like the Leicas. It’s simply a characteristic and it hasn’t stopped thousands of productions to use them.

  4. Osman
    March 31, 2016
    Reply

    Thank you so much Brian. I appreciate your thoughts on this. You are right. Now I’ll do a research on what type of Leica R lenses I should choose. It seems like people favor summicrons over summilux for their being sharp wide open. I wonder if summilux lenses perform as good as summicrons at f2. If so I’d probably choose summilux lenses in case I need a lower f stop. In the end I think I’ll go with Leica R lenses. I wonder if you use them with focus rings or you have them cinemode added. I have a matte box so I’ll use that for filters when needed. I also have a follow focus with lots of rings. Later on I think I’ll have them modified by Duclos for declicked aperture. GL optics sells a set of 6 Leica R lenses for $30,000. Crazy 🙂 thanks again and I wish you the best in your life Brian.

  5. Osman
    August 31, 2016
    Reply

    Hi Brian,
    Finally I placed my order for Red Scarlet W two weeks ago. I created a package consist of the brain, base I/O V lock expender, 240gb memory card, card reader, 4.7 LCD touch, AL canon mount, top handle. I am planning to use small HD 702 as the main monitor and use 4.7 to control the camera. I’m new to Red system. Do you think I am missing something? is a side kick necessary or useful? Do I need that? I am sorry this is not the right article to post this question maybe but the main reason I’m writing right now is to ask your advice about the Leica R lens set I’m building right now. Right now there are 5 lenses on my list. 19mm VI and 50mm f2 are made in 1980. 35mm f2, 90mm f2 and 135mm f2.8 are made in 1981. They are very clean but a little more expensive than the earlier years. As I know the lenses made between 1977 and 1990 are supposed to be the same versions. So I’m assuming there shouldn’t be any difference between two 50mm lenses made 1 or 2 years apart. Am I wrong. Do you think I should look for all 1981 or 1980. Or maybe you know a year and tell me the lenses were made better than 80’ies even though earlier. I’m sorry I am asking you to spend time for me but I did researched a lot. I’d appreciate any suggestion. Thank you very much in advance. I really liked the short film you shot. Dad moments. Keep up the good work.

    Best wishes

    Osman


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