The Leica Vario-Elmarit SL
24-70 f/2.8 Asph
Jonathan Slack May 6th 2021
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/100th f10 53mm Vario-Elmarit SL
Here it is, Leica have just announced the new Vario-Elmarit SL 24-70 f2.8 ASPH for L mount cameras. It's smaller and almost 300gm lighter than the 24-90, has a constant f2.8 aperture and is only a little bit more than half the price of it's bigger sibling. Even cheaper if you buy it as a kit with the SL2 or SL2S.
Conventional wisdom would have made such a lens both bigger and more expensive than the 24-90, so what's the story? A careful examination of the lens body gives a clue: "Made in Japan" (all the other SL lenses are "Made in Germany").
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/640th f5.6 49mm Vario-Elmarit SL
Leica have had successful collaborations for many of their products over the years, more recently with the D-Lux and V-Lux cameras. Lens collaborations with Konica, Minolta, Kyocera, Zeiss, Schneider and Sigma have all resulted in fine lenses over the years, sometimes at more 'sensible' prices than Leica originals.
In this article I'm going to look at the new lens with relation to the existing 24-90 zoom in the hope that it will help photographers make a reasoned decision about which they should buy, or whether they might need both.
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/500th f7.1 24mm Vario-Elmarit SL
The new lens has an all metal construction and looks exactly like the other members of the Leica SL zoom range, it has an 82mm front element (as do all the other zooms). It is weather-sealed and has a beautiful metal petal shaped lens hood (slightly ironic that the other Leica zooms have plastic lens hoods!). The lens hood actually works well on the 24-90 without causing vignetting. The lens is manufactured in accordance with Leica tolerances and QA requirements.
It also focuses extremely close; as is often the case it focuses closer at wide angle. More unusually the reproduction ratio is greater at the wide angle end: 1:2.9 at 24mm and 1:4.5 at 70mm. In contrast the 24-90 is 1:7.2 at 24mm and 1:3.8 at 90mm
Gorse and Campion
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/250th f9 70mm Vario-Elmarit SL
The Leica Vario-Elmarit does not have buttons for AF/MF focus lock and zoom lock, however the manual focus over-ride works really well on the SL cameras and in my view makes the buttons redundant; by touching the manual focus ring you can invoke manual focus or focus lock at any time. I guess it might be more of an omission if the lens was used on another brand of L mount camera.
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/320th f6.3 70mm Vario-Elmarit SL
The lens does not have Image Stabilisation - which might be a disappointment using it on the SL, but as the newer models have IBIS it doesn't feel like a problem. It would inevitably have been larger and heavier if it did have it. Another slight irritation is that the zoom ring works the other way round compared to the rest of the Leica zoom lenses.
Tender Bilbo Baggins
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/800th f2.8 70mm Vario-Elmarit SL
Constant Aperture vs Variable Aperture
A Constant Aperture Zoom lens is one (like this Leica 24-70 f2.8) where the aperture does not change as you increase the focal length. A Variable Aperture zoom is one where it does change (like the Leica 24-90 f2.8-f4).
Traditionally variable aperture zoom lenses were cheaper and smaller than constant aperture lenses, However Peter Karbe once explained to me that in designing a zoom lens you either had a variable aperture or you were forced to 'throw away' the opportunity of a larger aperture at the wider end. He felt this was a waste, and I'm inclined to agree. Certainly there is nothing 'cheap' (or small) about the design of the 24-90, Leica made the best lens they possibly could, but decided not to make it a constant f4 (which of course it could be).
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/1000th f2.8 62mm Vario-Elmarit SL
There are various reasons why constant aperture lenses are considered to be advantageous, some of these are better than others!
Definitely there is a snobbery amongst some photographers, probably fuelled by the fact that the most expensive zoom lens from any manufacturer is usually of constant aperture.
For Video you certainly don't want the exposure to change when you zoom in or out. So this lens will be a welcome addition for video photographers who would have had to limit themselves to an aperture of F4 or smaller when shooting with the 24-90.
The Rock Point Inn
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/500th f7.1 35mm Vario-Elmarit SL
Stills photographers, many of whom shoot with manual settings would also say that they need a constant aperture, but it seems to me that this is a problem from the days of film, where the ISO value was fixed (and the low light performance pretty poor).
These days if you want to shoot with manual exposure in low light - for example a concert when you want to set the slowest sensible shutter speed and a suitable aperture, then you can use the Auto ISO feature to ensure the correct exposure, and, unlike video, it doesn't matter if this changes when you zoom in and out (and of course it will be advantageous to have the widest aperture possible available).
Bucket and Spade
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/250th f7.1 46mm Vario-Elmarit SL
The image quality with the 24-70 Vario-Elmarit is quite excellent. The lens is sharp at all apertures and focal lengths. Like all zooms there is a little fall off towards the corners, but it's never serious. Being so good wide open, there isn't a great deal of benefit to be had by stopping down. Like many mid range zooms sharpness drops a little at the telephoto end.
I've done detailed comparisons between the new 24-70 and the older 24-90 . I shot a series of images at 24, 35, 50, 70mm and f2.8 (or the largest aperture available in the case of the 24-90), f5.6 and f8. One setup was a brick wall at about 3 metres, and the other a poplar tree at about 40 metres.
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/80th f7.1 38mm Vario-Elmarit SL
Red and Blue
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/100th f6.3 55mm Vario-Elmarit SL
1. Chromatic Aberration
Both lenses are admirable in this context - even tree branches against a grey background seem to be okay - I think it's a draw
Shooting daylight white balance (in the daylight) I think that the 24-70 has a very slight yellowness compared to the excellent colour on the 24-90 - nothing in it again.
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/200th f2.8 70mm Vario-Elmarit SL
I spend a lot of time shooting into the sun, and both of these lenses perform admirably in very difficult lighting.
It's very difficult to make any real judgements here, but my instinct is that the bokeh on the 24-90 is a little more 'nervous' than the 24-70.
5. Resolution / Sharpness
I was really expecting the 24-90 to be sharper right down the line, but it is very nuanced and the difference quite small (as you might expect by looking at their respective MTF charts). Both lenses performed extremely well at all focal lengths.
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/4000th f2.8 27mm Vario-Elmarit SL
I've come to the conclusion that the 24-90 is slightly better, especially at longer focal lengths, but it's a very close call.: At 24mm the 24-70 is sharper at the corners and the 24-90 sharper at the centre, by 35 mm the 24-90 is slightly sharper at the corners, it's a dead heat at centre. By 50mm the 24-90 is a little better and by 70mm it is noticeably better if you really look. The 24-90 is still excellent at 90mm at all apertures.
It should be emphasised that both lenses are extremely good at all focal lengths and apertures, and I think it's vanishingly unlikely that these small differences would make the difference between a good shot and a failure.
The Shell Line
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/1000th f4.5 24mm Vario-Elmarit SL
Which should I buy?
The big question! In terms of image quality the difference is small enough not to matter, but I suppose that shooting landscape I would probably prefer to use the 24-90, partly because of the longer range and partly because of the sharper corners.
If you are contemplating buying into the Leica SL system then I really think that the new kits with either the SL2 or SL2-S are a 'no-brainer', and if you plan to shoot a lot of video, especially in low light, then the 24-70 with it's constant aperture is a definite attraction.
For event shooting, weddings and concerts, I think I'd still use the 24-90 for it's longer range, but there is a real argument for using the new, lighter lens if you are going to have to carry it about all day!
In the Scoobie Doo Van
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/250th f2.8 70mm Vario-Elmarit SL
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/250th f2.8 70mm Vario-Elmarit SL
The new lens certainly feels and operates just like any of the other SL lenses, the only real distinction is the "Made in Japan" engraved on the body. Most SL users would prefer to have a Leica lens, and if Leica can achieve it this way I hope that they do more collaborations in the future. The L mount is really gathering momentum, but there are lots of users who would like Leica telephotos and extreme wide angle, and this is a great way to achieve it.
the 24-70 Vario-Elmarit is a fine lens and a welcome addition to the stable of SL zoom lenses, the image quality is really good, it has lovely bokeh and is great for close up. The build quality is just what one expects from Leica and the lens handles very nicely on any of the SL cameras. The lens is compact and relatively lightweight and very well priced, it also has a constant aperture which will be welcome for videographers. What's not to like!
Leica SL2 ISO 125 1/100th f6.3 53mm Vario-Elmarit SL
Acknowledgement and Links
First of all to Emma, my partner in crime on the trips in the van to Cornwall, Lyme Regis and Shingle Street where most of these pictures were taken.
Special thanks to Stefan Daniel at Leica, always a delight to talk to, and also Steffen Rau who has been very patient with my many questions.
Thanks also to Roderick Field for many fun messenger conversations and for his spiky good sense (and wonderful photographs and articles).
Finally thanks to Bill Rosauer, editor of the LHSA magazine and Kirsten Vignes of Leica Store Miami who between them do such a grand job with the excellent Viewfinder Magazine.
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/200th f2.8 64mm Vario-Elmarit SL
Leica SL2 ISO 125 1/125th f2.8 70mm Vario-Elmarit SL
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/320th f2.8 70mm Vario-Elmarit SL
Dead Swan Lake (Redgrave and Lopham Fen)
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/1200th f8 24mm Vario-Elmarit SL
Clint - the Obligatory Chicken Picture
Leica SL2 ISO 100 1/800th f2.8 70mm Vario-Elmarit SL