When we think of Leica optics, it’s usually to do with high-quality prime lenses. Not necessarily zoom lenses, which is why taking the Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 for a test run will be very interesting to see how it measures up against the prime lens camp. As this zoom lens covers the 90-280mm focal range, it should be an ideal candidate for anything from portraits to wildlife, events, and action shots.
However, as this is top draw Leica glass, it’s a given that it’s expensive. But that should also mean it’s one of the best zoom lenses around, in theory. Therefore, let’s have a closer look at what this lens can offer and if it does justify its high price tag.
If you are used to using a huge whopping 70-200mm f/2.8 lens on a traditional DSLR or mirrorless camera, then the size and weight of the Leica won’t be so much of a problem. If you’re only used to dainty prime lenses, then you will have to get used to holding a large and heavy tube for most of the day. The lens measures 88 x 238mm, weighs in at 1.85kg, and thankfully comes with its own rotating tripod collar, with indents at 90-degree intervals for quick positioning.
On the surface, the Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 is a very straightforward and simple lens, with a rock-solid build quality. The whole lens has been fully weather-sealed and feels like it can stand the test of time.
There are no fancy bells and whistles on this lens, just a very long tube-like structure that is broken up by the rubberized focus and zoom rings. Surrounding the zoom ring are engraved markings for the different focal lengths and a yellow 90-280 marking on the lens barrel just in case you forgot which lens you’re choosing.
Focusing on the lens is done by fly by wire, which has its plus and negative points. But this essentially means that the manual focusing speeds up and slows down depending on how fast the focusing ring is turned. The implementation of the system on this lens is very efficient, allowing for quick sweeps and very precise movements depending on your needs.
Internally, the apochromat design is made up of seven anomalous partial dispersion pieces of glass wrapped around a total arrangement of 23 elements in 17 groups. There are also two elements involved in the internal focusing, which results in an internal zoom design and a non-rotating front filter. The front and rear elements have also been treated to an AquaDura coating to keep away the usual amounts of environmental nasties.
One surprise was the inclusion of an image stabilization system, which in this case offers up to 3.5 stops of compensation. This feature is almost a prerequisite these days for the longer focal lengths.
The Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 in Use
It’s clear from the start that this lens is extremely sharp throughout the aperture and focal range, with a close focusing distance of 60cm. The Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 is very good at isolating a subject. Even with the aperture wide open at f/4, images have excellent sharpness in the center of the frame, along with very good edge sharpness.
As with many zoom lenses that cover a wide focal range, corner sharpness is just a touch behind the center at the extremes of the focal range. When the lens is set to 90mm, the corners display the least softness, but for most types of shots, this is only a tiny amount ahead of the rest of the focal range. The middle of the focal range thus provides the most precise results. But in any case, stopping down to f/5.6 produces very sharp images across the frame.
At the longer focal lengths, bokeh or background is extremely creamy, rivaling the look of some prime lenses. To make sure everything is in sharp focus with a subject, using an aperture of f/5.6 seems to be the best bet. With the aperture fully stopped down, blurred backgrounds have a very painterly look without any nervous transitions of color.
The Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 doesn’t suffer from any huge amount of lens distortion and although some vignetting can be seen in the corners of the frame, the effect isn’t overly distracting. This effect also goes away quickly when the lens is stopped down to f/5.6.
At the longer focal lengths, the image stabilization system works extremely well, allowing shutter speeds around a 100th of a second. This allows for far more keeper images than expected when the lens is handheld. It’s always a good idea to lean on the side of caution with higher shutter speeds, but the system is there for when you need it. The system can also intelligently detects if you are panning a shot in any direction.
Overall, the image quality is outstanding at all focal lengths. Colors are rendered with a rich quality and micro-contrast is available in abundance.
How Does It Compare?
It’s usually the case that Leica owners stick to native optics. But if you want to stray from this camp, then a good alternative is the Panasonic LUMIX S PRO 70-200mm f/2.8 O.I.S. The Panasonic sticks to the traditional 70-200mm focal range and benefits from a constant f/2.8 aperture, image stabilization, and a lighter overall mass of 1570g.
The Panasonic also follows the traditional build and design of most 70-200mm lenses, with the usual array of onboard switches for governing image stabilization and a focus limiter. Although the Panasonic benefits from a constant f/2.8 aperture, the Leica has just that bit extra when it comes to overall definition and micro-contrast.
However, the Panasonic LUMIX S PRO 70-200mm f/2.8 is far more affordable coming in at almost a third of the price of the Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4.
|Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4||Panasonic LUMIX S PRO 70-200mm f/2.8 O.I.S.|
|Optics||23 elements/17 Groups||22 elements/17 Groups|
The Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 offers a premium-level quality in all departments, displaying very fast autofocus and a very usable image stabilization system. It’s clearly a heavyweight lens, but not that much different from the traditional 70-200mm variety.
It will be hard to find fault with its overall optical qualities, with the lens displaying only a slight amount of vignetting in the corners of the frame. If you don’t mind its high asking price, this lens is everything you could need for short to medium telephoto images.
To learn more about the best Leica prime and zoom lenses available, check out the expert-recommended Leica lenses.