#1312. Leica SL2 and Zeiss 35mm F1.4 ZM Distagon Review

By Paul Barclay | Review

Sep 22

Welcome back to my post-repair review of the Leica SL2 and a selection of third-party lens. In this section we will be looking at the Zeiss 35mm f1.4 ZM Distagon lens, which many readers here at Dear Susan fondly known as “Audrey”.

The lens was mounted on the Leica “M Adapter L”, which is Leica’s native adapter for using M-mount lenses on the SL camera bodies. The first part of this review can be found Here, and the second part Here.


The first two images above were made at the end of May before Summer pushed the clouds out of the area. These were from a quick walk around the waterfront in Poulsbo, Washington, one evening while I was becoming reacquainted with the body and lens combination. The second image is a crop from the center of the first image to show the reflection in the water.


Two days later I was in Seattle at my favorite Camera Store attending the annual Photo Fest and made the first image above while wandering around the vicinity of the store waiting for a lecture I wanted to attend, and the second was made during a photo walk to the waterfront park at South Lake Union.

Later that evening I went back to the Fremont neighborhood to see what I could find during our first real summer sunset. The first image below shows that the sunset would be promising. It wasn’t long after this image, that another image would come along that would help me show what the SL2 does in high contrast scenes. The second image is the result of needing to reduce exposure about 2-Stops, beyond the -2/3 stop of compensation I had set for basic exposure. In this case the blinking highlights were flashing strongly on the highlights on the boat, in the boat’s wake, and the highlight just visible behind the grass in the lower center of the image.


The third image above is a phone photo of the Capture One histogram for the second image. Interesting feature of this image are the lumps in the graph at the 75% line on the right side. These lumps are the highlights that caused the blinking highlights in the EVF. Also, I was using the in-camera histogram, and these highlights registered as a single line on the extreme right edge of the graph. It took 2-stops of reduced exposure compensation to change the single line at the edge of the histogram into two lines well off of the right edge. The fourth image above is the same image after processing in Capture One to adjust for exposure, shadows, highlights, along with other settings. The fifth image above shows how the Capture One histogram changed by making these adjustments.

I think that these images, along with some of the images from Part 2, show that the Panasonic developed sensor used in the SL2 has much greater dynamic range than the in-camera histogram and the EVF can show us. The camera can record a lot of shadow detail, and good processing software can bring this detail out for us. Possibly as much as 3-4 stops of under exposure. Therefore, I am much more willing to push my exposure to the left in order to preserve highlights.

At this point I am going to address one of the reasons I returned my SL2 to Leica USA for service and the results. If you looked back to Part 1 of this series, before being serviced, my SL2 was over exposing with every lens I had between 1 – 1 1/3 stops depending on the lens. Since I was now working on Part 3 and it was June, I had consistently bright sunny days. Which meant that I could use the “Sunny-16 Rule” to retest the exposure meter with my lenses, without the challenge of the light changing during the process. The result of testing all 17 lenses was that over exposure was reduced by at least 1/3 of a stop for each lens, and for the majority of my lenses the amount of over exposure is 2/3 of a stop.  An interesting coincidence occurred while I was working on Part 2 of this review, the Leica International Society published a recommendation on Instagram suggesting that SL2 users set -2/3 Stop of exposure compensation as a general practice to preserve image highlights.


Returning to Fremont and the walk back to my car, we get the above images. The first three are repeating my desire to see how lenses record an image that is not intentionally sharp. These images were made; defocused and wide open, focused and wide open, and focused and stopped down (~f5). The other two are favorite subjects that simply must be photographed if I am nearby.


The next four images were made on an afternoon trip out to the Olympic Peninsula and the community of Chimacum, WA. The first image is of a sign located at our favorite Cidery, and the second is the wood fired pizza oven used by the onsite pizza kitchen. If you look closely at the oven you will notice the shape and the dent, which is the namesake of the pizza kitchen; Dented Buoy Pizza. The last two images are of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which is still an active Church in Port Townsend, WA.


If anyone is wondering why there was a delay between Part 2 of the review and Part 3, I give you the above image. I made this image in early June from Keary Park in Seattle, thinking it would be a fun addition to the series. While this image looks very nice, others taken at wider apertures were softer than I expected. And this sent me down a rabbit hole to not only check the focus of this lens, but all of my M-lenses and my Leica adapter. The end result of this was, this lens, my Zeiss 50mm f2 ZM Planar, and my Leica 75mm M lens are right at the ragged edge of not having enough focus adjustment for this scene unless stopped down to f11 or more. My Leica adapter measures correctly, which indicates either the lens mounts may not be shimmed correctly for this camera, or the back focus distance of the camera mount to sensor may be too long. Fortunately, this is not driving me crazy (yet), because all of these lenses focus correctly out to 250-300 meters, and I still have a third-party adapter to try with these lenses at the above location.


Late in June, I returned to Fremont to take advantage of making images in bright sun. The first image is a return to the statues of JP Patches and his sidekick, Gertrude, as a proxy of a real portrait. The next two images were made walking on secondary streets to show color rendition, and the last three were made in an alley.

Some details about using the SL2 that make the camera an interesting tool to master are:

If you like using manual exposure vs. automatic, the SL2 will let you set exposure compensation and exposure independently. As the image below shows, the exposure bar at the bottom center of the viewfinder (screen) has two horizontal scales. When you go into the menu and set compensation, the lower scale shows the amount of adjustment that was set. The upper scale shows the exposure of the scene based on this adjustment. This works just like what we did with film. Changing the ISO to 160, when ISO 100 film was loaded to get -2/3 stop exposure compensation.


Focus peaking is more sensitive when the camera is held in Portrait orientation than Landscape. I originally noticed this when using an inexpensive third-party M-mount adapter, which led me to think the adapter wasn’t holding the lens square to the sensor and ultimately to getting the Leica adapter. But I now have enough experience with the camera that I know this is the case with native L-Mount lenses and adapted lenses.

Focus peaking is more sensitive when the EVF is set to display a B&W image.

Much like all of the current generation of mirrorless cameras, the EVF and the rear display screen could really benefit from more pixels (dots).

If you are casually looking at the rear screen to review full images, you may get the impression the image is not sharp. A little bit of in camera zoom, or looking at a raw image on a dedicated monitor, will show the images are sharp.

If you are trying to manually focus on a subject that is at the infinity limit for your lens and you are trying to zoom into the view more than one step, the number of EVF dots to sensor pixels being viewed may not be adequate.

Using a non-electronic (i.e. dumb) adapter, or lens, may be preferrable to using one with active electronics. The reason is, if you are using an adapter and or lens that have internal electronics, such as the Leica M-adapter or the Sigma MC21, the camera will recognize the adapter or the lens, and may limit the menu options available to you for lens stabilization.


The SL2 has been repaired and is functioning the way Leica intends it too. Plus, as a platform to use with adapted lenses, I still think it is the best high-resolution option we have as a universal digital back in general. And specifically for vintage range finder lenses and wide angle SLR lenses that don’t perform well on mirrorless cameras that use a thicker sensor cover glass.  

The Zeiss 35mm f1.4 ZM Distagon (Audrey) is my first choice when I only want to carry one lens, and could easily be my only lens.  When it is mounted on the SL2, its size and weight balance the body very well. Plus, the fast aperture and higher contrast rendition, allow easier focus in reduced light and faster focus in bright light. Optical performance wide open has a pleasing character, and stopped down to f5.6 or more it gives the sharpness or clarity that I want from a modern lens. If you like to make environmental portraits, this lens won’t disappoint you if stopped down to f2.8 or more.


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Love the street sign, with entries like “milky way”!

    You’ll be relieved to learn I can’t comment Paul – my brother loved Leicas, I prefer Zeiss (cameras & glass). All I can do is appreciate your photos. My favourite is the second one – the crop.

    • PaulB says:

      Thank you Pete!

      Reflections are some of my favorite subjects, not to mention that street sign whenever I am near it.

      I seem to have a soft spot for Zeiss lenses as well. I have 5 of them (2 M, 2 EF, and 1 F mount) that I have adapters for. It has gotten to the point that I have to force myself to walk away when I find one in a used case.


  • Sean says:

    Hi PaulB,
    Thank you for this body of work. I appreciate it that you’ve coupled a superb Zeiss M lens on to that camera. your images are testament to just how good “Audrey” is. I too, have that particular lens, but I couple it onto my Panasonic Lumix S1R, which is also a good pairing. In fact, I’m a die hard Zeiss M and Canon ME tragic, as well as a Canon FD SSC ASPH (original versions) tragic, too. I hadn’t realised that focus is better served by having the viewfinder set to B&W; from now on, I’m on it with this recommendation. Lastly, well done, on your series and images. Regards Sean.

    • PaulB says:


      Thank you for your comments, I do appreciate them.

      I am sure there are strong family ties between the S1R and the SL2, and the S1R will serve you well with your lens selections.

      I like to work with JPGs being recorded in B&W, and that is how I noticed focus peaking working better with a B&W image. Though my choice of peaking color (blue) may play a small role in this, as blue is more noticeable in a B&W rendering than it might be in a color rendering. The reverse may be true if you prefer to set white as the peaking color.

      Enjoy your S1R, and please show us some of your results.


  • Chosei Funahara says:

    I primarily use Zeiss optics for the motion picture, and it covers super 35mm, not full flame (get vignette four corners), but my Zeiss Super Speed MK2 set is sharper than Leica lenses. My favorite Zeiss SS foul length is 25mm T1.2(F1.1)Distagon. Zeiss’s Floating mechanism is superb, and with a minimum distance of 3cm to infinity, it is the mighty lens. The only negative aspect is the PL mount.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you very much Chosei. Why is the PL mount a negative aspect ?

    • PaulB says:


      Thank you for the comment. I have wondered how well the Zeiss Cinema lenses covered the full frame of the 35mm format. I just haven’t had the opportunity (or funds) to try one. I would like to see some of your images using the Super Speed lenses, if you would like to post any.

      Like Pascal, I wonder what about using a PL mount is a negative. Is it the lack of communication between the lens and camera body, the need to shim the mount/adapter to assure proper focus on the camera body, or something else?

      From my experience adapting lenses to mirrorless camera bodies, having an adapter that was made to be shimmed, and having dedicated shims would be wonderful. Set it up and don’t worry about it again, unless you need to mount the lens on a different camera.


  • PaulB says:

    This is a follow up to my comments about focus performance of the Zeiss 50mm Planar ZM and the Leica 75mm APO Summicron at infinity.

    I have tried using both of the above lenses with a 7Artisans M-to-L mount adapter, and had similar results to those using the Leica M adapter L.

    In addition, I have adapted 3 Zeiss lenses in Canon EF mount using the Sigma adapter and not had issues with infinity focus. Which leads me to conclude that the situation with the Zeiss 50 ZM and Leica 75 M lies with the internal shimming of each lens rather than the camera flange distance.

    Considering that 2 out of 7 M lenses are challenged in focusing at infinity, I can accept that this is a case of sample variation between individual lenses.

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