Leica M Lenses on the Sony A7 & A7R – Confusion Galore

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When Sony first announced its 24 megapixel A7 and its 36mp A7R in full frame and with a NEX mount, poor Leicaphiles everywhere rejoiced and danced in the streets. I exaggerate a bit, but let me just state that many people who love and/or own Leica M mount lenses but were unable to or uncomfortable with shelling out $7,000 for the latest Leica M camera to put those lenses on, now saw light at the end of the tunnel and drooled over the possibility of putting those sweet lenses on a much cheaper full-frame camera. Okay, the drooling part might still be an exaggeration, but the rest is just about right.

But since the internet takes up more time for most photographers than actually taking pictures, it was not long before the second-guessing started. On the web, we can never be happy. Otherwise, we have nothing to talk about.

So, the questions emerged: Will these lenses actually perform up to their expensive standards on these Sony’s? Which adapter will be best? Is any adapter good enough? What about color shifts? How will the Sony sensors deal with wide angles, known for vignetting and distortion? Which camera is the better one for Leica lenses, the A7 or the A7R? Lots of sleepless nights, no doubt.

I too was mildly interested in this discussion. I’ve tried Leica film rangefinders in the past and was never smitten with rangefinder focusing, but I do love Leica glass. I picked up a used mint Leica Summilux 50mm f/1.4 ASPH in anticipation of the A7R’s arrival to once again try me some German lens. Yes, a used one, because I can’t imagine paying $4,000 for a lens (though that Zeis OTUS beckons…).

After reading blog posts and forum discussions, I’m thoroughly confused. First there was Lensrental’s Roger Cicala telling us basically that any adapter used to put a non-native lens on a camera will degrade image quality, especially in the corners. That matters now that we’re talking about full-frame sensors on these Sony cameras. So, the very first question then becomes whether it even makes sense to put a really expensive lens on a camera using an adapter if it’s pretty sure the premium you paid for that lens is going to be offset by the use of the adapter? I don’t have the answer. I just have the question. Sorry.

But then came all the various posts from people using actual A7(R)s and actual Leica lenses with actual high-quality adapters. Poor us. Now we were really flabbergasted. As for me, I’m walking around wide-eyed and in a daze over the contradictory conclusions I’ve been objected to.

Take Tim Ashley and Ron Scheffler. They say that most Leica glass on the Sony’s disappoints. Only a few lenses are okay, but still nothing to write home about. Hopes dashed.

But then there’s Steve Huff, proprietor of one of the most popular Leica-oriented sites, and he sees hardly any problems. Granted, Steve hardly ever sees problems with cameras he reviews (except Fuji’s), but he has earned his large following by giving them his opinions straight. Hopes revived.

Except that they can’t all be right.

I do want to know if I’m wasting a couple of thousand quid on a Leica lens that doesn’t perform to standard on a camera that’s part of a system so new it hardly has any native lenses available for it and won’t have many for a long, long time.

A 35mm f/2.8 is nice, but nothing to write home about. Apparently, the kit lens that comes with the A7 disappoints and after the next lenses come out soon (a 55mm f/1.8 and a 24-70 f/4 zoom, again not earth shattering in their specs), we’ll have to wait a while for the later batch.

I’ve done a bit of digging and in the vain hope to clear up the confusion a bit – or at least to show the confusion a bit clearer – I hereby present various conclusions I’ve found on the web:

Here’s Steve Huff: “Another way that the Sony will separate itself from the competition is by being able to mount and shoot SOME/MOST Leica M mount lenses with fantastic results and in the full frame native format.” (The capitals are his). He says ‘the Sony,’ but he’s actually talking about both the A7 and the A7R.

Tim Ashley has this to say about Leica M lenses on his Sony A7R: “it turns out that half my M lenses are effectively un-usable on the camera, and of the rest, all but one are marginal or compromised. As expected, colour shading issues plague the files but with most lenses corner and edge sharpness is not as bad as some people feared and is, at least on some lenses, not notably worse than with an M240.”

Another set of tests done with the Sony A7 by Ron Scheffler notes this conclusion: “My take on the results: I’m hoping these lenses will fare better on the a7R. Results on the a7 are for the most part disappointing. All I can surmise at the moment is that the toppings on the a7′s sensor work against achieving optimal (or in some cases, good enough) results with the rangefinder lenses I had available for this test.”

All three used the Novoflex adapter. Tim only tested the A7R. Ron only a pre-production A7. Steve tested both and in another post of his mentioned that in his view, the A7 is the better camera to use with Leica M lenses. Sony itself told me that this is not the case, since the sensor make up on the A7R is better suited to deal with non-native glass because of its gapless on-chip lens design, which the A7 lacks.

Those are the overall conclusions. Now let’s go into a bit more detail. This is Steve Huff about lenses that worked well for him. He tested his cameras with many M mount lenses from Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander and wrote: “All worked great besides the ultra wide M mount glass (Though the Leica W.A.T.E. 16-18-21 works very well without any real issues). The Zeiss 35 Biogon f/2 performed wonderfully for me as did the 50 f.2 Planar. The Voigtlander 35 1.2 Ii was amazing … and the Leica 50 Noctilux f/1 and 75 Summilux also knocked it out of the park with results bettering what came out of the Leica M for me. Crisper, more detail from the A7 and A7r.”

A little further, Steve describes the A7R with the Leica 50 Noctilux f/1 as ‘an amazing combo.’ Tim Ashley, on the other hand, says this lens requires f/8 to f/11 for good sharpness across the frame but says he “can live with the colour shading issues by using it for B&W up until F5.6 and crossing my fingers thereafter.” He also says chromatic aberration is so bad on this lens from f/1 to f/2 that it’s impossible to clean up.

Tim calls the color shading of the 50mm Summilux ‘livable with.’ He says f/11 is needed for sharpness across the frame with this lens, but that diffraction is limited so he considers this a keeper. I respect his opinion, but personally I don’t buy a f/1.4 lens to use at f/11 only.

The one lens that Tim Ashley tried and calls problem-free in terms of image quality is the 90mm Macro Elmar.

Ron Scheffler writes: “I’ll spill the beans now – none of the rangefinder lenses performed as well on the a7 as they do on the M9, specifically referring to image smearing into the edges/corners. Some are not so bad and are good enough when stopped down sufficiently, but some are outright horrible (ZM21, 28 Cron), to the point where one would think the lens was defective.” Ron is waiting for an A7R to run his tests again.

Tim’s conclusion is that if you already have Leica M glass and can’t afford a Leica M, the Sony A7R is an ‘interesting and useful option.’ He cautions against building a collection of M lenses and the A7R.

Steve is happy with what he sees, with the exception of wide-angle lenses. Actually, the problem with wide-angle lenses is something they agree on.

I’m still confused, to be honest. Besides reading the posts discussed above, I’ve browsed forum discussions and many sample images that others posted online of various M-mount lenses on their A7(R)s. In many, I don’t see problems, at least in the low-resolution web images. But I also often don’t see anything special.

And to me that’s where the real issue comes in. If I use an expensive lens or a lens that offer f/1.4, I want special. If for some reason the camera the lens is mounted on cannot yield that unique character (bokeh, edge-to-edge sharpness, contrast) then the premium price of the lens is wasted.

I have to conclude this piece somehow and the usual way to do that would be to say that the jury is still out. But it’s not. The jury is stuck. With some exceptions where results are really bad, the jury will be all of us using our own standards and expectations for our own purposes. And we will not agree. And that’s okay.

Enough navelgazing. It’s time to pick up my own A7R and do some shooting.

Comments

  1. “I respect his opinion, but personally I don’t buy a f/1.4 lens to use at f/11 only.”

    That seems to be the takeaway from most of the reviews so far. It would be great if the Sony A7 was a magic solution for using 3rd party lenses, but it does appear that the native glass will be best.

  2. Thank you for your objective and thorough review. Well done!

  3. Then to add to the confusion Michael Reichmann’s analysis after using the A7r with a bevy of Leica lenses is that from 35mm and up Leica lenses are a great combo with no problems. On the other hand Lloyd Chambers has found ultra-wides and Leica 28s and a Leica 90mm to not work well for the same reasons everyone else gives.

  4. I have a Sony A7R and various Leica lenses. I was initially impressed, but my enthusiasm has since waned. That Leica look (rich colours, pop, creamy bokeh) is absent with the Sony. My images seem flat. I am mostly using my Noctilux 0.95. The Sony seems like a very well made little camera and full of useful technology, but it’s not a Leica. The answer could be that I am used to the M9’s CCD sensor and that a CMOS is inferior, but my Nikon D800E has a CMOS sensor and it is superb. Probably a camera is indeed a ‘system’ and the lenses need to be matched, and tested, with the body. I hope the M240 proves a better solution.

    • Hello Lance. Your comment of preferring CCD sensor caught my eye as you are not the only person who has made that statement. Is there anything specific about the CCD sensor that you like? Thanks in advance.

      • Hello Anthony, I think it’s all academic now because Leica has decided on CMOS, probably because it’s less noisy at high ISO and has lower power consumption. I confess that I have not tried the new Leica M240, but the images I have seen online lack the richness of M9 images. They seem dull by comparison. My hope was that the Sony A7r would be a good solution for my many Leica lenses but they do not perform well together. CMOS in itself in not bad of course. My D800e and Canon 1Dx both use CMOS and produce great images, but CCD is a special. CCD is used extensively in astrophotography where maximum sensitivity is essential. The CCD M9 produced special images. It’s hard to put into words what that magic was. The images seemed moody, atmospheric and alive: they seemed to talk to me.
        La’nce

    • Lance, so you have an online portfolio of your shots? When you say flat, is it something that can be corrected in post? I’m thinking of investing in a noctilux and an A7r. Just going through as much research as possible before I decide to take the plunge. Any advice is most welcome

  5. So I just purchased an a7… Going to sell off my nikon body and glass. For my first lens, should I just buy the Sony e mount (Zeiss 35mm f2.8)? Or should I spend a little time trying to pick up some vintage lenses? (Voightlander maybe Summilex) – I’d be willing to drop some dough on some interesting lenses if the resale value is right. Any thoughts on choosing the right lens(es)?

    • Congrats on your A7. I would buy the Zeiss 35. It’s a great lens and gives you autofocus. As you get used to the camera, you could pick up some new or used lenses to try. You might also consider holding on to the better Nikon lenses and try those with an adapter on the A7. I just ordered the adapter for Canon to NEX to try that combo. Good luck.

  6. I have tested on my an E-M1 the Panasonic M to micro 4/3 adapter. I consider this nearly OEM adapter; does not work correctly, infinity is reached after the mark 8 and if you keep rotating to infinity it all becomes more blury.

    Using the Novoflex adapter the focus works better but the desired/expected sharpness in both cases does not exist.

    There is visible difference among the adapters.

    Focuing is quiet hard in manual mode. The resulted images though are a notch above with the E-M1 rather than what A7 outputs.

    It seems that the only chance to use these excellent lenses is to mount them on the M240.

  7. I have shot with the 90mm F2 as well as the WATE 16-18-21 and have what I feel are very nice results. http://www.flickr.com/photos/113057562@N02/11800221095/

    On the CCD vs CMOS I am afraid I do not like the M240 results in comparison with the M9. The M9 is simply more beautiful with that leica je ne sais quoi. Again my opinion.

  8. I have been testing the a7r for the past 20 days with several Leica lenses and a few canon fd lenses that I pocked up for peanuts and to tell you the truth I have yet. To get a usefull image out of the lot I have a feeling that my camera suffers from some sort of severe shutter shake I have not yet picked up a native lens I am going to pick one up soon and make my final call on this
    Anyone wondering about the m240. ??? It is incredible. If you have the $$$$. Then dive in

  9. I tell you another observation that I have seen from a number of web camera reviewers out here in cyber land, I would not put much faith in those that review cameras and end their columns with a “help me keep this site up an visit my sponsors “.
    I have as much faith in them as I do with “popular photography article”
    As of now there is no substitute to native glass on the body that it was designed for
    Or should I say the body that was specifically designed for M glass.
    The M240 is at this point the best match for M glass everything else is just second fiddle.

    • I sold my M9 when I heard the M240 was imminent; mainly because of the terrible battery and a few other annoying issues. The M9 delivered some outstanding results. However I’ve yet to see a decent image from an M240 user. It is very frustrating because I have a collection of expensive Leica lenses. I’m using a Sony A7R in the meantime.

  10. I purchased my Sony 7R about a month ago and I pretty much disappointed in the quality of the pictures taken with my Leica M lenses on it. All of the advanced electronic features on the 7R are really great but the pictures are not even close in sharpness as with my M9P. After noticing this I see that the pictures posted by people on the web using a 7R are similarly lacking in sharpness but somehow many are praising the results. If you look at the images themselves with a critical view you should see this easily. Anyway, I still hope the problems is with my Novoflex adapter and that it can be somehow corrected because the camera itself is really great and it would be a killer combination if the two were able to dance together…

  11. Re A7R, anything from 35mm and wider are crap on mine. I have tried the Summilux, Summicron (both new versions) Voigtlander f/1.2 II, 21mm f/1.8, 21mm f/4 Voigt, 15mm Voigt and all kinda sucked.

    • The A7r seems to be a great video camera, but a not very great stills camera. Detailed, sharp images can be obtained with patience, but for shooting models and the like it’s hopeless. This is due to the poor handling and hopeless ergonomics; slow and often inaccurate focusing and lack of support for pocketwizard, high speed studio flash etc.
      It’s been a massive waste of money for me. The D800E is a far better camera. My Leica lenses await something good from Leica in the future – a Leica ME-P perhaps.

  12. Sucked as in, purple vignette..

  13. Hello!
    Very nice article. I was looking at the picture at the top and noticed two things…
    1) Beautiful Strap
    2) I need it…. NOW
    so my question is, where did you get that strap from?
    Thanks, Moritz

  14. I have an m9 and have recently picked up an A7 as a multi use platform as such… I do some macro stuff and need to mount a 105 micro Nikkor on a copy stand for medium format neg scanning and also I have some leica lenses so the body fit the bill very well.

    So far I have found the 25mm Zeiss Zm a but weird in results, but overall some care and the A7 makes a great wee camera for m lenses. The real missing thing is using a correction plugin such as the beta adobe light field one. This effectively does 99% of what the M firmware does and yes it’s not going to correct high incident light paths, but I have found with 6 or so lenses going from the 12mm to a 90mm summicron if this is factored into the post workflow the A7 is a very reliable camera and capable of stunning results maybe not poster sized print results but easily 16×20 prints.

    On the kit zoom too it us a surprising lens. Nothing spectacular again, but for a walk around lens cap it is as good as my Nikon 24-120 f4 was before I moved to the M system… And that was easily 3 times the price.

    In general I say the A7/R is a typically internet crippled camera. So much hope was put into it by people who wanted a poor man’s M and too many people who have cone from other systems it blows away.

    In conclusion it’s a useful tool that when you come to accept what needs done to handle the files it seldom disappoints.

  15. Hi, could you post the full name of the correction plug-in that you mentioned? I tried to find it using “light field” etc. but could not. Much appreciated.
    Miranda

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