I have been contemplating going back to basics with my Leica SL. One lens, one camera. Manual focus of course. For everything else I have my Sony setup but if I want to slow down and immerse myself in the process of taking a photo, I will turn to my SL. I currently have a 21, 35, and 75mm setup but that is too cumbersome. I want to simplify. After long deliberation, I ended up back at the beginning. It was going to be a 50mm lens. But which one?
Having had quite a few 50's in the past, including the Leica Noctilux F1 (review), I was quick to narrow down my choices to five contenders. I was going to choose between the Leica Summilux ASPH, the Summilux pre-ASPH, the Summicron latest version, or two options from Voigtländer, the F1.2 or the newly released APO-Lanthar.
I looked at the Summilux pre-ASPH and I was drawn to the rendering that reminded me of my Noctilux F1, but I felt that this wasn't the right choice at this time in my evolution as a photographer. I eliminated the Voigtländer f1.2 for the same reasons. It is a beautiful lens and really good value but not what I was looking for. So that left me with the Summilux ASPH, the latest Summicron and new APO-Lanthar. I had a Lux at one point in time and I know what it can do. It can do pretty much everything. But it is also quite expensive and I wasn't ready to invest that amount of money. It would have served the purpose of a single lens for the SL quite well but it was not to be this time. So the final showdown was between the Summicron and the APO-Lanthar. I saw the raving reviews for the E-mount version of the APO-Lanthar and when the VM version was announced, I was intrigued. I found one online for a good price and I decided to buy it. The plan was to try the APO-Lanthar first, and keep it if I like it. And if not, I would go back to my very first Leica lens I ever owned, the reliable Summicron. But back to the APO-Lanthar. It arrived last week and because there is not that much info out there yet about this VM edition, I decided to do a quick write up of my impression so far. I can be very short, it is very good. As a matter of fact, I think it is stunning.
The ergonomics are excellent. The aperture clicks are solid and reliable, the focus throw has just enough resistance. It's the small things that sometimes make a difference. Take my Zeiss 35mm f1.4 ZM, a lens that is capable of producing stunning images (review). It is a stellar performer, but it doesn't handle well. The focus throw has too much resistance and focusing needs more force than I'd like. This is personal of course, but for me, the APO-Lanthar ergonomics are just right. The size is good too. I use it on the SL so I don't have to worry about finder blockage but I think this will work well on an M too.
What about image quality? I think it does extremely well here. You can search for all the technical details why APO lenses are special. But in practice, it is very sharp while not creating an image that is so sharp that it hurts you to look at. It is.....crisper than most of my lenses. Even my Leica APO Summicron M 75mm. It has a very nice and gentle falloff and I do like the colors a lot. They tend to be a bit more on the warm side. It wouldn't be a lens for studio portraits as it might be a bit too sharp for that, but for environmental shots of people like below, it works very well. There is plenty of detail for sure, and it creates this crispy effect that I quite like.
I did a very quick comparison with some other lenses I own to show you what I mean about crispiness. I shot two scenes using the APO-Lanthar, the Leica APO Summicron M 75mm, the beforementioned Zeiss Distagon 35mm F1.4 ZM, all on the Leica SL. On my Sony A7, I added the Zeiss 55mm F1.8 to the mix. All these comparison shots are straight out of camera.
The APO-Lanthar is on the bottom right. Forget about the aperture read out, this is done in camera and then via Capture One Pro and is an estimation as there is no link via the M adapter to the SL body. Anyway, I shot them all on F2 and I compensated for the distance to subject with the 35mm and 75mm. I think the APO-Lanthar holds his own quite well here among this bunch.
Shooting my model Porsche 911 shows the same result The APO-Lanthar does really well here. The 35mm Distagon and the Leica APO 75mm also show some of that crispness. The Sony Zeiss 55mm tends to perform a bit less. Now, if we take into account that both the Leica APO 75mm and the Zeiss Distagon are quite a bit more expensive than the APO-Lanthar, I find this outcome quite impressive. Voigtländer have been releasing some incredible lenses over the past few years. They are so good that I don't see the justification to spend so much more money on Leica M lenses in some cases. The APO-Lanthar is only a bit more expensive compared to the Sony Zeiss 55mm F1.8 which in itself is quite a good lens. But it is no match for the APO-Lanthar. Take a look at the next comparison.
The APO-Lanthar is the upper image and clearly a lot crisper. But it is not just sharpness that matters. Shot wide open, the lens creates very pleasing images while retaining that special look. Front and back out of focus areas ease into the focus pane. I have never shot with a Leica APO 50mm, but that is what I understand sets that lens apart from the rest, this 'look' where subjects are separated from the rest of the frame even with a modest aperture of F2.
I shot these images today on a small walk in my neighborhood, in between meetings. They won't win any prizes but I hope they give you a sense of what this lens can do. My first impression of the lens is that, for the short while I had it, it is proven out to be everything I hoped for and more.