This article will present some test shots along with 100% crops. These I will evaluate for sharpness, contrast and bokeh. I'll discuss the lens handling and note some quirks. If you want scientific test you'll have to look elsewhere. I have to admit I only spent one day shooting before writing this article, which is a measure of my enthusiasm if nothing else! But I did also test in the real-world scenario of some live events I was documenting. I'll present those images later.
With the camera in Manual mode I set ISO to 100 and exposure to 1/60s. I used the timer to further minimise camera shake (this also turns off the in-camera Shake Reduction). Then I varied aperture through five settings: f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11. At the same time I manually set flash power on the Metz 58-AF1 to: 1/16, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1. This was being bounced off the ceiling in a room that was lit by low and constant ambient light from a window looking out on an overcast day... a perfect scenario for a test since I had full control over the light. In theory each shot should be lit exactly the same, but the aperture ring does not have clicks for each setting, so it is impossible to know when one has set it precisely.
Focus distance was 54cm. With this lens/body combination working distance is 12cm less than that, so 42cm. Being a macro lens, one can get very close indeed.
I then processed the PEF files through Adobe Camera RAW into Photoshop with default settings and sharpness turned all the way down (since it defaults to being on). I did no post-processing at all, except the resizing. This is not a very real-world scenario, but at least ensures a constant baseline. Here are the shots -- you can click through to slightly larger versions in Flickr.
Can anyone say "bokeh"? The out-of-focus region is beautiful! I had deliberately placed a printed page on the desktop so that there was a busy background to work with. I cannot imagine it looking more appealing. Bokeh is a matter of taste; there are those who love the busy look of certain Russian lenses, or the mad swirling effect, and so on. Not me... I want a nice smooth gradation from in-focus to out-of-focus, with a subtle bit of "pop" where the transition occurs. I dislike special effects being added by the lens.
The busy nature of the flowers is difficult for glass to render nicely. If you pay attention to the branch on the left, it is plain to see how it comes into focus as the lens is stopped down, taking until f/11 for all of it to be in focus.
Then next thing I did was take a 100% crop from the central in-focus portion of each image, and arrange them side by side for ease of comparison. In this case you will definitely want to look at the full-size version, since close inspection is the whole point.
The sharpness appears perfectly reasonable, even wide open. The lens gains significantly in resolution and contrast stopped down one to f/4 but otherwise is consistent. In fact the difference between apertures is really not that large. I can see some fall-off in quality by f/11, which is a bit disappointing since I would have hoped diffraction would not yet have been a factor. But this is not a lens I bought to be using at such apertures, so it matters little to me. So far this looks to be a lens that deserves its accolades!
Finally, I took the wide open shot and subject it to my usual minimal processing: default sharpening in ACR, contrast correction, exposure compensation and colour adjust (slight cooling). This gets rid of the grey cast that made the unprocessed image less than appealing. It turns out that all the shots were underexposed a little (though consistently) in my attempt not to blow the highlights. I would have had to increase the shutter speed to 1/30s to correct for this.
I have a few comments about handling. The focus ring is so heavily damped that I find it rather difficult to turn. Since I have no basis for comparison I do not know if this is something servicing would fix, or if it is the normal standard for Leica. I realise that this is a macro lens and so precision in focus is a priority; nonetheless the friction is rather over-done.
The macro nature of the lens also accounts for the long focus throw: 340 degrees. That is actually perfect in my opinion. Significantly less of a turn is required unless one gets into close focus territory; the amount that remains allows for precision. This would not be the first choice for street shooting or journalism where fast focus adjustments are required. But it's great for more contemplative shooting.
I mentioned the stopless aperture ring; this turns smoothly and rather too easily. I can certainly see this being a problem. It's very easy to accidentally turn the ring, which of course is a disaster in the middle of a shoot. I imagine this is a result of the mount conversion and is not a factor in the original R-mount lens.
The front lens element is so deeply recessed into the lens housing that it looks like an optical illusion! I have no idea why the lens was built this way, but it means a hood is completely superfluous.
In case it is not obvious, one has to use this lens completely manually. There is not even the M/A switch that makes other manual lenses easier to manage. The stop-down procedure is as follows. Put your camera into Manual mode, set the aperture on the lens, and then press the Green button on the camera to set the appropriate shutter speed. Then shoot at will. However, as you set a smaller aperture the viewfinder gets darker and so composition (especially focus) becomes difficult. Therefore it is preferable to focus and compose wide open before setting the aperture. This is where not having an accessible M/A switch and not having a stepped aperture ring becomes a real problem.
However, I will be using this lens close to wide open most of the time. In this scenario there enough light in the viewfinder, so the aperture does not need to be changed for the purpose of focusing.
What can I say about the build of this lens? It is perfect, a solid block of metal and glass. It weighs 400g, which is quite a lot compared with my FA Limited lenses. But it's not so heavy that usage is in any way compromised. The length of the lens is 65mm but since it does not need a hood that is OK, though again much larger than my prized FA77 Limited.
At the macro end the lens achieves 1:2 reproduction and close focuses to 27cm. The lens extends to 98mm so one would have to be careful of casting a shadow over the subject. Of course off-camera lighting is recommended in these scenarios in any case. I have no plans to obtain the optional adapter that allows for 1:1 macro. Being only focal length 60cm, I think of this as a mild telephoto that allows for arbitrary close focus, rather than considering it as a macro lens. I'll continue to use my Vivitar 105mm for that purpose.
In my next article we'll see some real-world images.