Long lenses suit the way I see the world better than wide-angles do, so let me begin my reviewing of Leica lenses on the A7r with my most recent acquisition : the Leica-M Apo-Telyt 135mm f/3.4.
I purchased this used from Schouten Select. It is a fairly expensive lens (over 2000€ for good samples) that competes head to head with much more modern designs such as the mighty Zeiss Apo Sonnar T* 135/2, which ranks as one of the best lenses ever designed for this format. So how does it fare on the A7r ?
Truth be told, it looks slightly priapic on the small Sony. Definitely happy to be shooting 😉 It’s certainly not a lens you’d dangle on the camera around your neck all day long.
But, in hand, it feels perfect and never unbalanced. It’s light, smooth and accurate. The sliding shade is a dream and the lens cap fits perfectly (which is not something the Zeiss competition can say …) All controls are positive and precise.
How anyone uses this on a M9 is beyond me as focus depth is hair thin even at infinity and closed down. The A7r’s 14x focus magnification and focus peaking are a god send for critical focus and even with these handy tools, rigorous technique is essential. Any trembling of your hand sends huge wobbles through the magnified viewfinder, so you soon learn to brace yourself and breathe like a Zen master when using this Apo-Telyt.
All this concentration is well worth the effort, though. The Apo-Telyt-M 135/3.4 is an optical gem. The essentially perfect MTF curves tell only part of the story. This lens exhibits the tiniest bit of rolloff that controls highlights beautifully and eliminates harshness from most scenes. Its signature is lovely to the eyes of yours truly. The picture below is a testament to the quality of this lens (detail detail everywhere but all in a smooth consistent picture) and the Sony’s sensor (contrast has been boosted very strongly and the image doesn’t break up).
Note that the MTF curves for the Zeiss Apo-Sonnar T* 135/2 are almost identical at f/2 and F/4 than the ones above at f/3.4 and f/8. Impressive, to say the least. But the Zeiss makes a fire extinguisher look and feel small 😉 Ah, compromises …
I’m not a technical reviewer, far preferring real-world situations. So here are some scenes aimed at highlighting some of the qualities of this lens :
The photograph above is a heavily processed sunset shot from my bedroom window. Below are two 100% enlargements from the area around the sun and at the lower left border.
I find this first picture particularly impressive (try this with your average 28-300 kit zoom). Millimeters away from where the sensor is saturated, it’s like the sun isn’t even in the frame. Contrast is stunning. Colours are perfect. Everything is clean as a whistle. The silhouette of the tree to the left of the sun is not totally black but that’s about all the light dispersion you can spot in the whole frame. A+ performance. And sharpness isn’t bad ! (be sure to click for a 100% view).
The second enlargement simply illustrates sharpness and contrast away from center and in difficult conditions (darkness and against the sun). If you click, you’re essentially looking at a 6 foot print. Unprocessed and at max aperture. Good enough ? 😉
Bokeh is subjective. On this lens, it isn’t swirly or special in any way. Planes simply come into or out of focus through a progressive variation of sharpness mostly with no added nasties.
Agitated bokeh can often be detected by examining how out of focus highlights are rendered. Severe onion rings or bright rims often lead to nervousness in contrasty backgrounds. There is nothing like that to complain about with this lens.
On real-life subjects, bokeh it is a bit more harsh than I’d have liked, even at full aperture, though not excessively so.
The enlargement below shows exactly how sharp this lens can be. I’ve no technical info about this, but it seems ever sharper at close range than infinity.
And two more shots just for fun 🙂
If this lens can falter slightly, it is on low contrast scenes, such as winter landscapes in miserable light.
In those conditions, the Apo-Telyt sometimes lacks the strong micro contrast that the best Zeiss will provide. Pushing clarity in post-processing works to some extent, but the results can look a tad more artificial than with a lens of a more modern design.
It’s no inherent flaw of the lens, simply a design choice that makes it brilliant in contrasty situations but requires a little more work in drab conditions, particularly if you’re post processing in B&W.
I’ve never used the Zeiss Apo-Sonnar T* 135/2 on a Sony A7r so any comparisons with the Leica lens under review would be flawed.
But from my experience of top modern Zeiss glass on the Nikon D800e, I’m tempted to say the Zeiss would have the edge over the Leica in low contrast situations. Besides, the Zeiss offers almost two stops of extra aperture with no loss of quality and at a lower price. I really hope to get my hands on one soon to compare the two.
But a photographer wouldn’t compare these two lenses on technical criteria. They are too close for meaningful differences to sway you one way or another.
What matters more is the look produced by these two master stroke lenses, with the Leica’s perfectly summed up in the photograph above, taken during a burst of sunlight in a heavy rain storm.
Detail is everywhere but never in your face (at 100%, tiny detail on the red leaves in the background are visible between the drops). Colours are strong but subtle. Highlights are always in check. Out of focus areas display little or no harshness.
Compared to the Zeiss, it’s like printing on Satin paper rather than gloss. And that suits me perfectly. But others prefer the bolder colours and higher micro contrast of high gloss and Zeiss. Both these lenses will suit the A7r perfectly and make the most of its great sensor!
Isn’t it a perfect situation when a photographer can choose his lenses based only on the rendering he/she prefers rather than on technical limitations ?
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