Leica Super-Vario-Elmar-SL 16-35 f/3.5-4.5 ASPH Full Review

Have been shooting the Leica 16-35mm SL Lens pretty much since it first shipped.

Below is my full review, complete with full size samples – as always!

 

Specifications

Order number – Number of lenses/groups – 18/12
Number of Aspherical Lenses – 2

Entrance pupil position
Focal length 16mm: 105.9mm
Focal length 24mm: 101.5mm
Focal length 35mm: 105.0mm

Distance setting Working range  – 250mm to infinity
Smallest object field Focal length 35mm – 90 x 135 mm
Largest reproduction ratio Focal length 16mm – 1:7.7
Focal length 35mm: 1:3.7
Aperture Setting/function Electronically controlled aperture, set using turn/push wheel on camera, including half values.

Aperture setting range
Focal length 16mm: 3.5-22
Focal length 35mm: 4.5-22
Lowest value 22

Bayonet/sensor format Leica L bayonet, full-frame 35mm format
Filter mount E82 or 82mm

Length to bayonet mount 123 mm (without lens hood)
Largest diameter 88 mm
Weight – 990 g

Bag weight (with generic front cap, end cap, and a B+W UV Filter) – 1.05kg/1050g

 

The 16-35mm rounds out Leica’s zooms for the SL, with an operation range from 16-280mm using the 16-35mm, 24-90mm, and the 90-280mm. This is now a very flexible system with excellent optical quality, albeit somewhat heavy.

In the Box

Box, lens, hood, caps, canvas case – folded, & manuals

 

Ergonomics & Handling

My initial impressions of the lens are, that it is slightly shorter than the 24-90mm, and slightly lighter. It is about 230g lighter than the SL 24-90mm zoom. It is the same form factor in terms of width, and just a bit shorter in length, as you can see in the photo. In the hand, it feels very well balanced on the SL, in fact better than the 24-90mm. Zoom action is smooth, and it takes about a 45 degree turn to zoom through the full range. Zooming is quiet with minimal noise. The manual focus ring is the same as the 24-90mm, smooth and silent. It does turn continuously, without stops in both directions.

This lens is somewhat fatter than the equivalents from Nikon and Canon. I suspect that the type of AF motors are responsible for this and they are different from the ring type used by Canon and Nikon. The finish is a nice smooth black that seems robust and resists scratching. The finish is not slippery and Leica adds textured grips at the base to assist with mounting and dismounting the lens. My only complaint is that the red dot, which is the marker for aligning the lens is way down on the side, this makes viewing the marker more difficult than if it was on the top. This is a traditional location for Leica on the M series, so I doubt that it will change.

Each SL lens has its zoom range printed on the lens. This is immensely helpful in identifying the lens in the bag, as the SL lenses are very similar.

The 16-35mm is an 82mm filter mount just like the other two zooms, so all of your filters and attachments will work on this lens. When using a single filter polarizer or UV filter, I did not see any vignetting.  I did attach my B+W variable ND B+W 82mm filter, and it did vignette at 16mm. As an alternative, I found that using an 82-95mm Step ring and a B+W 95mm variable ND combination, there is no vignetting. I am also using the Nisi 100mm system, and the holder with the polarizer does not vignette either. I do see a little X polarization out of this filter though. I suspect that a wider system maybe required.

 

Autofocus Performance

Autofocus was tested using firmware 3.2

Autofocus on this lens is very fast, essentially the same as the 24-90mm. Being a wide angle lens, the depth of field is quite large even wide open, so I would expect very little autofocus travel in the wider focal lengths. Once we zoom out to 35mm, the wide open autofocus performance becomes more important. I can safely say, that it is accurate and fast, at this focal length and aperture. Autofocus is almost silent. I experienced almost no hunting with the SL and 16-35mm combination, even in low light. I also shot the lens with a polarizer installed, and I did not experience any discernible loss in autofocus performance with this combination. The addition of a UV filter had no effect as well.

This lens does not have any sort of stabilization. it is easy to shoot at lower shutter speeds. The mass of the SL and the lens, do create a stable platform for shooting. I do hope that Leica adds stabilization to the next SL body (hint).

 

Leica SL 16-35mm test

Lens Performance

As expected, this lens is a very good wide angle lens. Is it flawless? No – but no wide angle lens ever is. Its hard to take a super wide view and compress into a flat plane without distortion, chromatic aberrations, and vignetting. Some modern lenses do a very good job, and the Leica SL 16-35mm is one of the best. It will give you those beautiful Leica colours, tonal graduations, and contrast control. Micro contrast is exceptional for a lens this wide. Most other manufacturers tend to favour macro contrast, as it speeds up autofocus acquisition. Happily, Leica has maintained its emphasis on micro contrast with the SL line of lenses, including this one.

At 16mm wide open you will see very slight softening in the extreme corners. This is less pronounced a distances, so a fairly flat field curvature is playing a roll in this softness as well. You will see in the distance shots, taken at the 45 degree angle, that the lens is very good into the corners. Normal shooting of the lens at closer distances wide open will show greater softness due to the filed curvature being flatter than most wide angle lenses.

The following crops are from an unedited image, no sharpening applied

Lens Performance at 16mm

Top LeftTop RightCenterBottom LeftBottom Right
F/3.5
F/8.0

Lens Performance at 21mm

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F/3.8
F/8.0

Lens Performance at 24mm

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F/4.1
F/8.0

Lens Performance at 28mm

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F/4.4
F/8.0

Lens Performance at 35mm

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F/4.5
F/8.0

Vignetting

The lens seems to have very little natural vignetting. This is quite remarkable for a wide angle lens, as they tend to have significant vignetting. I see about half a stop of vignetting at 16mm wide open, this diminishes to almost zero at 35mm. By F5.6 there is basically no vignetting.

Hood

The hood is huge, personally, I don’t use it. It adds some serious bulk to the lens for travel. If you are a landscape photographer then it is always a good idea to use the hood.

Flare

Flare is extremely well controlled, even wide open. I was able to generate sun stars at F/11.  All of the SL lenses display very consistent flare performance across the range.

Flare at F/8.0Flare at F/11
Flare at F/10Flare at F/8.0

Bokeh

Bokeh with any wide angle lens this slow is going to be somewhat less than say a F/2.8 lens. Typically, bokeh on wide angle lenses is a function of close up photography, shot wide open. It is a useful tool because you have the drama of a wide angle lens and bokeh effects. The bokeh on the Leica SL 16-35mm is actually quite pleasing. In the samples you can see that there is little to no chromatic aberration, and distortion is well controlled.

Detail is preserved in the bokeh, which is to be expected given the slow speed of the lens. There are nice out of focus bokeh circles. Foliage, which most wide angle lenses have trouble with, is rendered rather well at both 16 and 35mm.

F/3.5 @16mmF/3.5 @16mm
F/4.5 @35mmF4.5 @35mm

Conclusion

This lens is clearly targeted at landscape users. It has little to no vignetting, superb chromatic aberration control, and is very sharp all the way into the corners. The lack of vignetting is quite unusual for a wide angle lens. Some of this will be attributable to in-camera processing, but I am not seeing the additional noise in the corners typically associated with extensive processing of vignetting. The raw file is delivered from the SL with the processing complete, and I do not have Capture pro to examine the non processed file. The output is exceptionally good, and that is what we really care about.

Given the size of the lens, I was hoping that Leica would have gone for a continuous F/2.8 aperture throughout the zoom range. 35mm at F/2.8 or even F/3.5 would have been a nice option. But, I have a feeling that absolute performance was the driving factor here. Most other manufacturers wide angle lenses are usually a compromise. They all have greater vignetting than this lens, and most display some chromatic aberrations at extremely wide focal lengths. This lens is very clean all the way into the corners.

It is a big lens, almost the size of the 24-90mm. Surprisingly, the 16-35mm does not extend when zooming the lens. The lens is comfortable in the hand, and well balanced on the SL camera.

Filter size is 82mm, and the lens does not vignette with a single filter on it. I was able to use the Nisi system with the polarizer, 100mm holder and three Lee filters with no vignetting. This will be a very nice option for landscape users.

Leica has given us a very competent wide angle zoom lens from 16mm to 35mm. This lens is essentially better than any other offerings from Canon, Nikon or Sony. Is it a 12-24mm – no, and quite frankly comparisons with this focal length are pointless. I do hope that Leica is considering this zoom range for a future lens. The 16-35mm is not as fast as Canon’s latest offering, but it does perform better, which is not surprising given the Canon’s faster aperture. The lens exhibits Leica’s fine contrast and tonal graduations that are hallmarks of the Leica look. Colour reproduction is superb, and works well with the SL’s excellent white balance. Th lack of vignetting is quite exceptional for a lens this wide. All in all, a very capable zoom that completes the range for Leica. The SL now has 16-280mm covered.

Highly recommended!

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Check out our initial preview of this lens

Our test of the Leica M 16-21 Tri Elmar

 

Sample Images

  
16mm @F/1630mm @F/11
35mm @F/4.516mm @F/7.1
16mm @F/7.116mm @F/16
16mm @F/8.020mm @F/11
  
30mm @F/4.535mm @F/4.5
16mm @F/8.016mm @F/9.0
35mm F@/4.535mm @F/8.0
35mm @F/11
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