Named after its founder, Ernst Leitz, Leica Camera has a rich heritage in designing and manufacturing full-frame cameras and lenses in Germany that stretches back over 100 years. The original concept was to enable large pictures to be created from relatively small negatives, placing great demands on the quality of the lens. That’s every bit as true today, with the 47 megapixel Leica SL2 and the 24 megapixel Leica SL2-S playing host to a range of exotic prime and zoom lenses.
Leica uses the ‘L mount’ for its full-frame digital camera bodies and interchangeable lenses, which has now been adopted in an alliance between Leica Camera, Panasonic and Sigma. The large mounting flange of 51.6mm and its close proximity of 20mm from the image sensor ensures optimum performance with both full-frame and APS-C format camera bodies. The short flange distance also enables the effective use of mount adapters, opening the doors to more than 150 lenses in Leica’s back catalogue.
While the L-mount alliance enables you to mix and match camera bodies and L-mount lenses from Leica, Panasonic and Sigma, we’re focusing on Leica’s own SL prime and zoom lenses in this guide. Indeed, ‘focusing’ is a salient point. Think Leica lenses and you’re probably thinking ‘manual focus’, as with the lenses covered in our guide to M-lenses. By contrast, the SL line-up boasts fast, virtually silent and highly precise autofocus technology, based on the combination of advanced control algorithms within the camera body and ‘Dual Synchro Drive’ motors in the lenses.
Famous names feature in the line-up of SL lenses, derived principally from aperture ratings. The 50mm Summilux prime has a fast aperture of f/1.4, whereas the Summicron primes have a more modest aperture rating of f/2. ‘Vario’ applies to zoom lenses, with an Elmar f/3.5-4.5 wide-angle optic available, as well as standard and telephoto Elmarit zooms available, with an f/2.8-4 aperture rating. All but one of the prime lenses in the current line-up have an APO ‘Apochromatic’ designation, along with the telephoto zoom. This signifies that the optical design keeps chromatic aberrations to absolutely negligible levels.
Remarkably, apart from the faster 50mm f/1.4 lens, all of the primes in the range, which stretch from focal lengths of 28mm to 90mm, are the same size and very similar in weight, as well as taking the same 63mm filter thread. They’re designed to deliver sumptuous image quality and superb all-round performance, but with a fairly compact and lightweight build.
Naturally, the zoom lenses are larger and heavier but add versatility. They have a bigger 82mm filter thread, as does the 50mm f/1.4 prime, and the two longer zooms also benefit from optical image stabilization. Let’s take a closer look at all the current SL lenses and what they have to offer.
Best Leica SL lenses in 2021
Leica SL zoom lenses
Considering that the ‘widest’ SL prime lens has a focal length of 28mm, this zoom gives you far more scope for playing the angles. It can shoehorn sweeping vistas and architectural interiors into the image frame, with a relatively mighty 105.6-degree maximum viewing angle. Meanwhile, the 0.25m minimum focus distance enables you to get in really close to the main subject within a scene, and make it stand out against a rapidly receding backdrop, to exaggerate perspective. Build quality is typically robust and features AquaDura coating, so you can keep shooting whatever the weather. Image quality is amazingly sharp throughout both the zoom and aperture ranges.
We’re well used to hearing about ‘trinity’ zoom lenses nowadays, with wide-angle, standard and telephoto versions all having a fast and constant f/2.8 aperture rating. This standard zoom goes beyond the usual 24-70mm standard zoom, stretching further into telephoto territory, but with the trade-off of having a variable aperture rating, which shrinks from f/2.8 to f/4 at the long end of the range. One upside is that the lens isn’t overly heavy, making it comfortable for long periods of handheld shooting, further enhanced by the inclusion of a 3.5-stop optical image stabilizer. The complex optical path includes four aspherical elements and 11 ‘anomalous partial dispersion’ elements, the latter being highly effective in controlling chromatic aberrations.
Just like with the SL 24-90mm standard zoom, this telephoto lens beats typical 70-200mm zooms with a bigger zoom range that enables longer reach, at the expense of a variable aperture rating that narrows to f/4 at the long end. Even so, at the long end, the focal length and aperture combination equates to using a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens with a 1.4x teleconverter. The starting point of 90mm is also ideal, neatly taking over from both the standard zoom as well as the longest prime lens in the current SL line-up. It’s comparatively heavy for an SL lens, tipping the scales at 1,710g but is still sufficiently lightweight for comfortable handheld photography which, as with the 24-90mm lens, benefits from a 3.5-stop optical image stabilizer.
Leica SL prime lenses
Billed by Leica as a modern classic, this prime lens has a focal length that’s been highly popular down the decades, for it’s wide-angle view. Like all the other Summicron lenses in the line-up, it has an f/2 aperture rating which, despite the relatively short focal length, can deliver quite a tight depth of field for isolating the main subject, at least at the short end of the focus distance range, which also enables a 0.2x magnification ratio. Suffice it to say you can get in close and create dramatic wide-angle perspective effects. Image quality is excellent in all respects, boosted by three aspherical elements which have six aspherical surfaces in total.
In full-frame shooting, the 35mm focal length is often preferred for street photography, thanks to its moderately wide-angle perspective. It’s also great for reportage, architectural photography, environmental portraiture and more. As with other Summicron lenses, there’s a fairly modest f/2 aperture rating but you can still isolate the main subject very effectively. Lecia says this is because the optical design makes perceived contrast particularly strong for in-focus areas, dropping away in defocused areas to give a three-dimensional effect with real ‘snap’. While autofocus is typically fast and virtually silent, the electromagnetically coupled focus ring works really well for manual focusing, as in other SL lenses, which is a bonus for traditional street photography.
A major handling benefit of Zeiss Summicron SL primes is that, regardless of focal length, they’re all pretty much the same and weight. Handling therefore feels entirely consistent when swapping between lenses, even when focusing manually. The downside is that, for a 50mm f/2 lens, this one feels a bit on the heavy side, although it’s significantly smaller and lighter than the f/1.4 Summilux lens. That said, it’s wonderfully robust and well-engineered. The range of three aspherical elements with four aspherical surfaces, and the typical use of ‘anomalous dispersion glass’ keeps chromatic aberrations to an absolutely negligible level.
Weighing in at over a kilogram, this standard lens is about a third heavier than any of the other SL prime lenses in Leica’s line-up, and noticeably bigger with an 82mm rather than 67mm filter thread. The 82mm attachment thread is also used in all of Leica’s current SL zoom lenses. The key attraction of the 50mm Summilux over the Summicron edition is that the aperture is boosted from f/2 to f/1.4. A tighter depth of field is therefore available, along with faster shutter speeds for freezing motion. It’s the only SL prime that lacks APO credentials but, even so, both lateral and longitudinal chromatic aberrations are extremely minimal. The minimum focus distance is about twice as long as in the Summicron 50mm and the maximum magnification ratio is only half, at 0.1x, so it’s less ideal for extreme close-ups.
Designed as a ‘universal lens for all situations’, this 75mm prime aims to bridge the gap between standard and telephoto focal lengths. As such, it’s highly versatile and works well in all sorts of situations, from street photography to intimate portraiture, as well as being ideal for shooting wildlife and action sports. As with other SL lenses, the Dual Synchro Drive autofocus system is super-fast and virtually silent, while high-speed communication with the camera body also enables similarly fast and accurate control of the electronically driven aperture diaphragm. Sharpness and contrast are typically excellent, even when shooting wide-open at f/2.
Arguably better than the SL 75mm prime for portraiture, this lens enables a more natural working distance for intimate head-and-shoulders portraits, with the added bonus of an even tighter depth of field. Fast and impressively consistent autofocus performance combines with superb optical abilities to deliver superb results time after time. Thanks to the lens’s short 0.6m minimum focus distance, it delivers the same 0.2x maximum magnification as the 75mm lens, making it highly suitable for isolating small areas in still life images, against defocused surroundings. Despite having the longest focal length of all the Summicron primes in the line-up, it’s still the same size and weight, and is easily manageable.