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Leica vs Zeiss Ikon: My impression from the Asahi Camera review

Maestro Logos , Jan 15, 2005; 12:37 p.m.

Finally picked up January's Asahi Camera magazine. (You can too if you live near a Japanese bookstore such as www.kinokuniya.com) Basically the magazine tests four pairs of lenses:

1) ZI 25/2.8 vs Leica 24/2.8 ASPH. (one photo each)

2) ZI 28/2.8 vs Leica 28/2.8 (one photo each)

3) ZI 35/2 vs Leica 35/2 ASPH. (one photo each)

4) ZI 50/2 vs Leica 50/2 (two photos each)

All the pictures were portraits of the same lady taken at (pairwise) comparable settings on Provia 100F and printed at very high quality (FAR better than the average North American photo publication). Differences in lens signature, although sometimes subtle (true for modern lenses in general), can be seen from these pictures.

Overall the magazine views the two groups as equally strong, with perhaps a slight preference given to the Zeiss group. (This has been noted in another message.) HOWEVER, before reading the conclusion I did a test of my own. Essentially I looked at each pair of pictures very closely and decided my own winner, before revealing to myself which lenses took which pictures. Here are my findings:

1) Among the 5 pairs of photos, I picked Leica over Zeiss 4/5 times. The only exception was with respect to the 35mm's.

2) My wife, who has no experience in serious photography of any kind, picked Leica over Zeiss 5/5 times. (She took her picks without first knowing what my picks were, or which lenses took which. We did this completely independently, and I didn't guide her through which traits to look for in the pictures.)

3) To both of us, the images were not large enough to show sharpness or resolution differences. All pictures appeared equally (and very) sharp.

4) Color rendition, subtle color nuances and bokeh, however, were visibly different, and both of us ended up picking pictures based on these qualities. (This is a bit interesting as I didn't tell my wife those qualities were what I based my decisions on. But some how the differences, although subtle, were compelling enough.)

5) In terms of color rendition and subtle nuances, the Leica's appeared to be superior in every case (to both of us) except the 35mm. Leica's colors were more natural, real, and showed slighly finer and smoother gradations. The Zeiss's were punchier and tended more red/magenta balance; 35mm was the only exception where the situation was reverse. Even there, however, my wife picked the Leica feeling that the Leica image was overall more "pleasing". I picked the 35mm Zeiss as superior to the Leica.

6) In terms of bokeh, there was a visible difference with the 50mm pair. The Leica had a more classical look, while the Zeiss was smoother and more controlled. Both of us rated Zeiss bokeh as superior here, but interestingly enough neither of us thought it was a sufficient reason to pick the Zeiss as voerall winner. We both felt that the Leica colors were just more pleasing and real, and the Zeiss colors were a bit bloated which was slightly distracting and diminished the effects of subtle tones. In the end, we both picked the Leica as overall winner despite it losing out in bokeh. (Again I find this to be interesting because we didn't communicate our findings/choices but came to exactly the same conclusion.)

7) Overall our findings as well as the magazine's are all very subjective. These are not based on any "objective" or measured criteria. Purely personal preferences. However I do think this is the only way to really judge a lens.

Aside from the ZI vs. Leica test this issue of Asahi Camera has some very nice pictures taken with Leica lenses, including a small calendar of "cat pictures" taken by famed photographer Iwago using an R6.2. These pictures are excellent in composition and tehnique and printed at an exceedingly high level of quality. Well worth a look. I'd encourage anyone to check out this issue.

Discalimer: I have been a Leica user for many years and owned both R and M systems. Prior to those I used two Contax systems. I regard Zeiss lenses very highly and I'm certainly not biased towards Leica.


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Bob Atkins , Jan 15, 2005; 02:02 p.m.

Much of the difference seems to be in subtle rendition of color.

How much can you trust magazine reproduction to accurately represent subtle color differences between images shot on slide film (presumably different rolls of film), scanned for reproduction, digitally edited and printed in a magazine?

seb v. , Jan 15, 2005; 02:04 p.m.

Maestro, Thanks for taking the trouble. A really interesting comparison. I had a G2 for a couple of years before getting into Leica and people can tell from the photo album where the Zeiss glass ends and the Leica starts. I prefer Leica too.

Sp ... , Jan 15, 2005; 03:08 p.m.

"...people can tell from the photo album where the Zeiss glass ends and the Leica starts."

Do have any examples you'd care to share?

Fazal Majid , Jan 15, 2005; 03:08 p.m.

Interesting. What made you pick the Zeiss 35mm over the Leica?

S. Linke , Jan 15, 2005; 03:08 p.m.

Here is a translated blurb on this issue of Asahi Camera:


Asahi Camera and Nippon Camera both have excellent photo reproductions.

Jan Virtanen , Jan 15, 2005; 03:16 p.m.

Are the Zeiss glass physically larger than Leicas?

Maestro Logos , Jan 15, 2005; 03:35 p.m.

Hi Bob. Your concerns are certainly valid, in that printed magazine pages are not the most ideal medium for judging subtle color differences. Nevertheless I believe Asahi did their best in giving a most accurate comparison. It is specifically stated in the article that they used the same camera body (Hexar RF, just to be "unbiased") and roll of film in making the pictures.

I do think that some properties are probably less prone to the effects you described. For example if the Leica pictures started out with coarse colors then it's unlikely that fine gradations can be recovered by printing alone; similarly if the Leica and Zeiss images started out with equally fine color nuances then it's not very likely that effects of printing would diminish the fine gradations in Zeiss images while boosting Leica's. Bokeh is also visibly different and cannot be due to printing.

On the other hand something like color balance could easily have been swayed in either direction, depending on printing, lighting, film, etc.

Bottom line is, as I emphasized the above was a very subjective (and casual) comparison. Personally I don't think the evaluation of a lens is a science or could ever be 100% objective (despite every effort on the part of some publications/manufacturers to pretend that it is so). Afterall, it is aesthetics that we're talking about.

I also think that modern lenses have very little room to deviate from one another. Most lenses are very well "optimized", often based on the same set of criteria. This is unlike the old days when either measurable properties had not been formally quantified (i.e. MTF) or when the limitations of technology were such that significant tradeoffs had to be made, possibly based on very subjective preferences. For example, I have here another Japanese publication where they compare lenses from Zeiss, Leica, Canon and Nikon. Because these are lenses from an earlier generation, the respective "signature" of each lens is extremely visible. In one comparison, one lens unlike any other produces a very "swirly" out-of-focus rendition. No one can possibly miss that.

Additionally modern Leica and Zeiss lenses are designed based on a very similar philosphy to begin with. The lead designer of Leica lenses in the 90s as well as the current CEO both came from Zeiss. So any differences between to two lineups probably were never meant to be too dramatic.

Stuart K. , Jan 15, 2005; 03:39 p.m.

2) My wife, who has no experience in serious photography of any kind, picked Leica over Zeiss 5/5 times. (She took her picks without first knowing what my picks were, or which lenses took which. We did this completely independently, and I didn't guide her through which traits to look for in the pictures.)

That, for me, is the acid test.

BTW, does your wife have pert boobs and a cute arse? These minor characteristics matter

Maestro Logos , Jan 15, 2005; 03:58 p.m.

To my knowledge, yes, the Zeiss lenses are quite a bit larger than their Leica counterparts. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Zeiss can achieve very much the same performance without resorting to the use of aspherics (i.e. fewer restrictions on design parameters).

I picked the Zeiss 35mm over Leica's because I thought the Leica is getting too "magenta" in that image, which I find uncomfortable. But that's just me, and also the color balance can easily be due to a number of different factors.

On the issue of print quality of Asahi Camera and Nippon Camera magazines, I can't say enough good words about them. It's my belief that the Japanese "equipment" publications do a far superior job in print quality (so much so that you can REALLY tell a good lens from a bad one), the better photography not withstanding. They also don't pretend that lens evaluation is down to a science, and would rate a lens highly based on subjective evaluation even if all objective properties measure poorly. As a result I think the Japanese are fortunately less infatuated with resolution charts and MTF figures. Take the Voigtlander 40/1.4 Nokton as an example. It is a modern lens designed around paramters of 50s-60s lenses (and single-coated!) to evoke feeling of that era. That wouldn't have been a marketable lens if not the public believes that, on some subjective level and for certain applications, older less-optimized lenses can actually do better.

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