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?
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:
- Canon 50mm F/1.2 L EF – $1350
- Leica R 50mm F/2.0 Summicron EF – ~$500-$800
- Zeiss CP.2 50mm T/2.1 EF – $3,990
- Schneider Xenar III 50mm T/2.0 PL – $7,750
- Cooke S4 50mm T/2.0 PL – $19,000
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.
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?
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.
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,