#206. Leica Elmarit-R 19/2.8 – superwide on steroids for the Sony A7r

#206. Leica Elmarit-R 19/2.8 – superwide on steroids for the Sony A7r

Generally speaking, Leica-R lenses are a well kept secret, yet produce brilliant results on the Sony 7r. But this Elmarit-R 19mm version II is definitely at the top of the quality list.

Boats and old buildings under blue sky in the old port of La Ciotat, Provence, France. Sony A7r & Leica Elmarit-R 19mm f/2.8

The old port of La Ciotat, Provence, France. Sony A7r & Leica Elmarit-R 19mm f/2.8 (click for full size image)

At f/8, it is more or less the perfect lens. Easy to say, I know. But as a strong supporter of the removal of AA-filters from cameras, I have been quite vocal in the past about moiré being a false problem and never appearing in real-life situations. Well, here’s one shot with moiré, showing the ultrawide lens outresolves the 36Mpix sensor … in the corners.

The image above is largely untouched out-of-camera. You can download the full-size file by clicking on it (7Mb large file). Look in the top left corner and you will see definite moiré on the white shutters. It is much more evident and colourful in the RAW file than this heavily compressed jpeg shows.

Colours are also very lifelike, distortion very low. If you’re in the very wide-angle market for Sony’s A7r, get one, while stocks last. The end!

For those interested in a bit more information – and a couple of flaws – there’s more ;)

Ultra-wide?

When I compared this lens on a Sony NEX-5n to co-author Philippe’s Zeiss 18mm, the difference in FOV semed far greater than 1mm of focal length indicated. 19mm might well be an optimistic figure for this lens.

Cliffs falling into the sea in La Ciotat

Cliff trio – Sony A7r & Leica R Elmarit 19/2.8

Nonetheless, I was still in two minds about keeping it, not having ever used anything this wide (on FF) before and being unsure I would be able to make good use it. I mean, in the picture above, the yellow stones were not far in front of my feet and the cliff required a definite upwards twist of the neck. A field of view new to me and a bit of a specialty lens, to my eyes. But it is so good, I’ll just have to go back to school and learn to use it to its full extent :)

Anything bad to say ?

Flare control is the single most obvious characteristic of Leica-R glass that reveals the range’s age. And this wide-angle is no exceptions. While coatings are good enough for very transparent looking images, placing the sun in or around the frame will induce strong flaring from the R19. And with that sort of field of view, keeping the sun out of sight doesn’t leave you much sky to play with. If flare control is a deal breaker, this is not the lens for you.

The sun in the frame produces strong flaring with the Leica Elmarit R 19mm

Major Sun to flare control – Sony A7r & Leica Elmarit-R 19 / 2.8

The picture above represents the worst-scenario, wide open at F/2.8 and with the bottom of the frame in the shadows. In this specific image, you could argue the flare circles contribute something to the pictures, but it won’t always be as pleasant.

I have a second, more puzzling, negative to report. A larger-than-average proportion of my photographs were out of focus with this lens. Slightly ironic considering the depth of field a 19mm should have on offer at f/8. But that may actually be too much for focus peaking to handle efficiently and I advise you use the magnifier on every important shot for a fail-safe solution.

Now for the good stuff

Colour rendition is subjective. I personally find it absolutely superb. For me, the main justification for leaving the Canikon stables and hop into alt photography wonderland is the quantum leap in colour quality that some of the legacy lenses floating around the internet will give you over the most recent offering from the major stables from Japan. Ever since my first taste of Voigtlander fun on a Sony NEX-5n, I have been hooked and never looked back. And during my year with a Nikon D800e, all my lenses were Leica-R. To my eyes, they’re the key to a different world where artists take over from lab rats dressed in grey (Monty Python anyone ?)

Yellow graffito - Sony A7r & Leica Elmarit-R 19:: f/2.8

Yellow graffito – Sony A7r & Leica Elmarit-R 19mm f/2.8

If you’re reading this in a non colour-aware navigator on an average laptop screen, you’ll think I’m talking nonsense. But on a great screen and in print, the difference isn’t subtle.

Pale greenn acti on a slope of yellow stones

Cacti on a slope – Sony A7r & Leica-R Elmarit 19mm f/2.8

Sharpness: more or less perfect across the frame at f/8, it isn’t as impressive at full aperture. f/2.8 is visibly softer in the corners but the good news is that this appears quite uniform and progressive across the frame rather than sinking suddenly at the edges as some designs do. All in all, excellent performance from such a wide-angle.

Contrast: this is another Leica-R strong point. Contrast is lovely in that scenes in flat light do not appear drab, but is also well controlled. This is a superb lens for B&W. Highlights are rarely blown and the general look is dynamic but refined. Amateurs of ultra punchy lenses such as the Zeiss 21/2.8 ZF2 will not find the same impact, but this is more to my taste.

A classic wooden yacht in the old port of La Ciotat

Yachting – Sony A7r & Leica R Elmarit 19mm/2.8

Bokeh probably shouldn’t be your first concern with a 19mm lens, but it’s always possible to throw a lot out of focus with a Leica-R given how close these gems can focus. Bokeh is highly subjective. To the eyes of yours truly, it deserves a solid B+. Generally smooth, with no nasties on specular highlights, but a tad bubbly and agitated compared to the best in class performers.

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Vignetting: specs rate max vignetting at over 2 stops. In real-life it doesn’t look so bad and definitely shouldn’t stop you using the lens at full aperture. Below are two shots processed identically made at f/2.8 anf f/8. Vigneting is there, but not in any disturbing amounts. Also good is the absence of colour and focus shift as you close down!

DSC04613 DSC04615

Purple fringing: Chromatic aberration becomes visible on extreme contrast zones such as white masts in the sun against a dark sky. But none of my test frames have required correction.

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Leica R 19 on Sony A7r : Closing thoughts

In hand, the Leica Elmarit-R 19mm f/2.8 version II is superb. The rectangular lens shade makes you feel like you’re Stanley Kubrick, focus is absolutely perfect with a fantastic mix of precision, weight and smoothness. And the aperture ring feels very tight and positive between the half-stop clicks (for those who still know what an aperture ring is).

On a Novoflex adapter (thank you Philippe for ending my misery and lending me one) the lens protrudes quite significantly, but the controls are perfectly placed (much more accessible than if no adapter was used) and the adapter soon becomes the natural handle for the whole camera system. Perfect.

As I wrote above, this is a great lens for fans of B&W. The way it controls highlights in very sunny situations is wonderful and shadows are full of detail as well.

But it’s the most shallow of all features – one I shouldn’t even care about – that make this old trooper stand out from the M-mount alternatives : sharpness. The medium-tele photo below is in fact a very severe crop from a R19 file.

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I initially had reservations about such a wide-angle lens but, after a day of shooting with nothing else, the need to quickly switch back to more familiar ground never appeared. In fact, the lens is still on my camera 4 days later …

Be seeing you :)


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8 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Christopher Mark perez March 13, 2014

    Fascinating. It looks like the images are critically sharp.

    With the A7r, how is it shooting fast manual focus lenses lenses wide open? Can you accurately select/know what’s in focus? Or is it a little challenging without zooming in/focusing/zooming back out, like with the NEX?

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy March 13, 2014

      Thanks Christopher.

      I have found focusing ease to be highly lens-dependent. Obviously depth of field matters : with huge DOF, focus peaking tends to be “ON” for almost all of the frame, including areas that aren’t critically sharop. But some lenses seem to respond differently. My set of Mamiya 645 lenses (45/55/150) all result in thin and sharply defined slices of the world that move back and forth as you change the focus point whereas the falloff in other lenses isn’t as clearly defined, making focusing harder (in/out/in/out … ;)

      That being said, image magnification in the EVF works is very well implemented and I’ve yet to miss a shot when I use it. It’s fast and reliable. And much more pleasant than trying to correct a wayward autofocus … (more later on this topic ;)

      • Avatar
        Christopher Mark Perez March 13, 2014

        … so… with the in-EVF magnification function, you can swiftly transition between full scene and magnified? I can see how that could work well. Have you experienced any problems using this approach in low light? Or is the EVF’s auto-gain function pretty good?

        • Avatar
          pascaljappy March 13, 2014

          I have programmed a button next to the shutter release to cycle through the OFF / 7x / 14 x / OFF magnification settings. It works brilliantly and soon becomes second nature.

          In low light, the EVF becomes noisy, colours and resolution drop a bit. But by that point, autofocus is so out of its depth that it still remains the safest and most leasant way to focus. I have focused on stars at night like this. It’s not 100% reliable but not bad at all.

          • Avatar
            Christopher Mark Perez March 13, 2014

            I really appreciate your insights.

            Last question for now :-) – I understand AF non-performance in low-light when using contrast-detect systems. How did the Nikon 8000 DSLR (with phase-lock AF) behave in low light? Was it pretty accurate? Or did it “hunt” or find the wrong AF point?

          • Avatar
            pascaljappy March 13, 2014

            I’m afraid someone else will have to answer that one as all my lenses on the D800 were manual focus ;) Maybe Paul can weigh in. But my understanding is that the D800 autofocus is OK, not great. Nowhere near Canon’s top of the line competition.

  2. Avatar
    Michael June 06, 2014

    My experience with the D800 autofocus system was one of frustration. My Nikkor 85/1.8 focussed quite reliably. Nikkor 50/1.4 did not – I returned three copies. The Sigma 35/1.4 DG had to be tuned via the camera menus to get anything approximating decent focus and this process took me quite some time. Ultimately the body had to go to Nikon for adjustment – a known problem with the cameras.

    Coming from an all manual focus past before the D800, this was altogether too much for me and I was quite happy to give up spotty and inconsistent yet fast PDAF for the trustworthy CDAF system in the A7r. I never got to really experience the D800 with good focus as I sold it once it returned from service.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy June 06, 2014

      Unfortunately quite a few others share your experience. Live view has changed out lives forever and whatever the foibles of the A7r, going back to a camera that doesn’t have it (or doesn’t implement it well) is unthinkable. Shame really, because the D800 is such an excellent camera in other respects. But I have no regret selling mine either.

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