The ultimate lens list, at Nov 2016 (part II)

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Continued from part 1.

Remember: what constitutes ‘ultimate’ is actually highly subjective; some value smooth drawing quality and tonal transitions over outright resolution; others require zero distortion or high color accuracy or secondary color correction. If anything, my personal preferences tend to lean towards resolution and microcontrast; I can accept some vignetting, distortion, secondary lateral CA (but not longitudinal) – because these are easy to fix in post. Field curvature, smearing, coma etc. are not. Not all lenses on this list are here because of technical perfection or MTF chart performance, either. On top of that, there are two lenses that are not system options, but included anyway because they deserve honourable mentions. There are probably also better lenses I’ve not used yet (and so obviously can’t include them). I’ve tried to give justifications where possible. With that in mind, and in no particular order, here we go.

**Items denoted with two stars are lenses I currently own. *One star, lenses I’ve owned. Links are to reviews or affiliate suppliers. Images shot with the respective lenses mentioned.

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HCD 28, H5D-50c

The Hasselblad HCD 28/4** (review B&H)
Though its sibling 24/4.8 is equally good – if not slightly better optically – I prefer the rendering of this lens, the angle of view, and the slight bit of extra speed you get. It’s crispy, transparent and has a very neutral personality with just enough everything to be transparent, but not overly dominating.

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HC 50 II, H5D-50c

The Hasselblad HC 50/3.5 II** (review B&H)
In many ways, this is the ‘medium format Otus’ – no obvious weak points in the field or aperture, almost flat field, and excellent color correction and micro contrast. If I had to work with only one lens on the Hasselblad, I’d be torn between this and the next one…

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HC 100, H5D-50c

The Hasselblad HC 100/2.2** (review B&H)
This lens continues to be a bit of a paradox to me. It’s both optically rather weak wide open, but oddly compelling: most of my favourite images (and those of the audience) shot on the H system were made with it; though I have to say my affinity towards it has increased since having my copy focus tuned so it locks on perfectly wide open. I think it’s because it has a very smooth rendering style and out of focus areas – both foreground and background. Microcontrast doesn’t come on song until about f4, and below that the lens is smooth rather than biting. At f4-8, it’s as sharp as you’d want – everywhere. I tend to think of it as a portrait or cinematic lens at f2.8 and below, or an excellent f4 lens with an f2.2 emergency speed. It also performs very well with the HTS and extension tubes for macro work. Another chameleon…

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HC 150N, H5D-50c

The Hasselblad HC 150/3.2 N** (review B&H)
There’s something about the 150mm focal length on 44x33mm sensors; this is the second one on the list. It has a nicely compressed perspective that’s not too extreme, but at the same time more than enough to split a scene into planes. This lens has a high degree of secondary color correction and great bite at the focal plane, at all apertures. It’s one of my favourite documentary lenses especially when you can’t physically get any closer, but want to retain some intimacy in the scene. Originally, I borrowed this one for a job ‘just in case’, but landed up buying it because it landed up becoming one of the core lenses…

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250 C Superachromat, H5D-50c

The Hasselblad Zeiss 5.6/250 Sonnar Superachromat**
Built in three versions, and all with the same optical formula. I have a very early first generation ‘C’ type; it’s one of the few lenses whose performance doesn’t appear to improve as you stop down, because it’s already so high at maximum aperture. It doesn’t have the macrocontrast of other Zeiss lenses, but microcontrast in abundance. Note there is no T* coating on any version of this lens, because it interfered with IR/UV transmission. Some care must be taken with flare. It’s tricky to use because of length and vibration and focus throw (very long, so transitions are slow) – but when everything lines up, the results are uniquely transparent – especially on the 50MP MF CMOS sensors. The medium format equivalent of the Voigtlander 180 APO-Lanthar.

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CF150, 501CM, CFV-39

The Hasselblad Zeiss CF 4/150 Sonnar**
An underrated bargain. Best performance occurs stopped down so all secondary color has disappeared, but the transitions are so smooth, the layering so subtle and the price so low (typically $350-500 on the secondary market, depending on condition) that you can forgive it for effectively being a f5.6-11 lens. Yes, the 4/180 is better, but it’s also quite a lot more expensive, and significantly heavier. I carry the 150, but not the 180. And a lens not carried is a lens not used (and a picture left behind).

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XCD 90, X1D-50c

The Hasselblad XCD 90/3.2 (B&H)
The MTF charts promised something spectacular, and boy did they deliver – the 90mm is the undoubted highlight of the native lenses for the X1D; it’s sharp, contrasty, detailed, and has very smooth foreground and background OOF areas. Performance is already outstanding wide open, and holds til you hit diffraction at f13 or so.

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A150, 645Z

The Pentax 645 A 150/3.5*
A legacy lens from the manual focus days, but with some rudimentary electronics to log EXIF data. It’s another one of those truly tiny lenses – smaller than the Voigtlander 180 APO even – but a stellar performer when stopped down a little, and with truly smooth mechanics that make manual focus very easy. Again lacks the outright punch of the modern lenses, but is tonally smoother than Pentax’s later designs.

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21 Loxia, A7RII

The Zeiss FE 2.8/21 Loxia* (review B&H)
This one surpasses even the ZF or ZE 21mm in performance, despite being a 52mm front thread lens, and overall tiny. It’s probably the best FF ultra wide out there, especially for its edge performance. The short flange distance of course helps. Too bad there’s no version of this lens in another mount – nor can there be.

The Zeiss FE 2/50 Loxia* (B&H Amazon)
There are now no fewer than three native FE mount Zeiss 50mm-e lenses; the 55/1.8 is a bit clinical and harsh, and suffers the typical Sony-made sample variation; the 50/1.4 is truly massive, but the 2/50 Loxia is a little gem and has a really pleasant rendering that seems to be very much at home with human subjects.

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20 Art, D5500

The Sigma 20/1.4 Art** (review B&H Amazon)
Best bang for the buck wide angle, and there’s nothing faster. I think of this as a really excellent f2.8 lens, but with an f1.4 emergency speed that’s critical sharp over the middle third or so of the frame, even on the D810. It’s big and heavy and won’t take filters, but show me another lens that can do what it can…

The Sigma 18-35/1.8 Art* (B&H Amazon)
A real surprise because its performance is the equivalent of the Art primes in the same focal length range on DX (this is a DX only lens) – but it’s a zoom. In fact, I found it superior to the 35/1.4 Art. As a bonus, it covers 1.2x crop from ~20mm upwards with some correctable vignetting, and FX from ~28mm upwards. Once properly tuned with the USB dock, focus performance was fast, consistent and sharpness excellent. A bit large and the zoom ring was a bit stiff overall, but these are minor niggles for a lens of this performance (let alone this price and performance).

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Leica Q

Honorable mention: The Leica 28/1.7 Summilux in the Q 116** (review B&H)
I throw this one in because it’s very much a modern lens in that central sharpness is always outstanding, with excellent edge performance – even wide open. Stopped down, it gets much better; however, it requires significant software correction to reach this level. We don’t normally notice it, so I’m prepared to give it a pass. The rendering style is very pleasant, and out of focus areas are surprisingly smooth and well-separated despite being a wide angle lens.

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GR (V)

Honorable mention: The Ricoh 18/2.8 in the GR (V)* and GR II (VI) cameras (review B&H Amazon)
Yes, it’s a small format, yes, it’s a fixed prime – but for a lens of that size, that close to the sensor (the rear elements are actually larger than the front ones to spread out the rays for telecentricity and to avoid edge issues) – the performance needs no excuses. It resolves very highly at all apertures and in the corners, and surprisingly, distortion and secondary color are very minimal. Micro contrast is also excellent.


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  1. Hi Ming, any thoughts on the HC 150/3.2 non N version (vs the N) in terms of optical performance? Looking to use on the X1D with adapter. Thank you, Pieter

  2. Hi Ming, i use my OLY pen-f mainly for travel. I have the panny 20mm,45mm,and oly 9-18 wide angle…Suggestions on picking either the oly 25mm f1.8 or 17mm f1.8? Or will my current lenses suffice? Thanks

    • 17, 20, 25 are too close – especially since you have the 20 already. Add if you feel like you’re missing something, otherwise – no need…

  3. Nemanja Raziel says:

    Cool list overall…
    In the meantime, some new lenses have appeared, and lots of them are noteworthy.
    I would say that Zeiss lenses are not considerably better, if better at all these days.
    Everyone make good optics now. Zeiss disappointed me when I saw the photos from Samyang lenses. Samy 35 1.4 literally outperforms expensive Distagon 35 1.4 at every aperture.
    Not to mention 35ART. 85ART is on par or even better than OTUS, 135ART is the best 135mm at the moment.
    Canon is also better and better, for example 16-35 2.8, 35L II
    I know that Ming dislikes SONY, but the best FE lenses are neither Loxia nor Batis. Batis is actually Tamron design (and that is the reason why new Tamron SLR primes are excellent). FE 50 1.4 is one of the best normal lens on the market. FE 70-200 2.8 too.
    85GM works wonderful with eye AF. I really enjoy it -unlike MT 🙂 I am into photography again, after I have switched to α7R II. 🙂

    • Brian Kern says:

      I have the Samyang 35mm 1.4mm and though I enjoy the photos it takes, it’s enormous and I never use it. I actually use my adapted Nikkor-O 35mm F2 a lot more. It’s not quite as sharp and flares more but I think the overall rendering is much better. Not to mention it’s about 1/3 the size. For me, there is a lot more to photos than just sharpness, especially since this is just a hobby that I do for fun. Part of the fun for me is not having a 700g 35mm lens around my neck. Which also brings up the topic of the Loxias, they’re brilliant lenses considering the size. And they’ll last forever. I considered the FE 55mm F1.8 but after reading lensrentals article about all the focus motor failures they’ve been seeing, I’d rather my money go to something I know will be reliable for the long haul. Obviously YMMV and other people don’t seem to mind lugging around gigantic lenses (or the risk of motor failures) to get that extra 10% in performance. For me I’d rather buy the Loxias.

  4. Carol How says:

    Hi Ming, my Zeiss 100 ZF.2 is not focussing for close up all of a sudden. I looked at your list of lenses hoping to see a suggestion for general macro close up. I already have the Nikon 60 macro – and it is great! What would you suggest (being a bit price sensitive) as an alternative for my Zeiss 100? I am thinking just to replace it with another 100 if I can find the classic (original). What about using the 135APO in lieu?

    • Why not just get the 100 repaired? Seems like a very strange problem. Also, the 135 doesn’t focus close at all.

      • Carol How says:

        I’m in western Canada. Seems like it needs to be sent to New York from what I can see on the Zeiss website. I’m checking with a couple of local camera stores to see if they have a service to ship out instead. Sorry, wasn’t very clear in my previous post which was actually 1:40am -not pm -here. The focus seems to start at about 5 feet away. It’s NEVER been dropped. Doesn’t look like anything is out of place and definitely no damage that I can see. I had used it on the D810 and D5500 about 2 months ago… and seemed fine. Yes a strange problem.

        • Sounds like something internal in the focus mechanism slipping/ not engaging…it would still probably be cheaper to fix it than buy a new one, though.

  5. Ming, thank you for such an excellent article! I appreciate your extensive experience and lens testing, and I certainly can’t quibble with your conclusions, as most of the exotic lenses you mention are out of my league in terms of budget. That said, I currently use the superb Fujifilm X-System, and find their XF lenses to be quite superb in terms of sharpness.

    • I’ve heard the same, but not done sufficient testing myself. Given they also build excellent lenses for the Hassy H system I’ve got no reason to believe otherwise…

  6. Dirk De Paepe says:

    I wonder if you ever tried the Loxia 2/35, Ming. It is by some (IMHO wrongly) assumed to be of lesser quality than the 21 and 50, being a Biogon instead of Distagon design. I find it rendering very beatifully though, seemingly a bit softer than its siblings, but still with surprisingly perfect detail at the 43MP resolution that the A7 provides. And it’s color transitions are marvellous. If I would have to think of one word to describe each of the three Loxias, I would call the 21 brilliant, the 50 reliable and the 35 lovely. BTW, I took a few shots with the new 2,4/85 at Photokina and was absolutely surprised by it’s IQ throughout the whole aperture range. This is, like the 21, an astonishing lens, I think. Of course I ordered one and will probably do >95% of my shooting with Loxia lenses for the rest of my life.

    • Nope, 35-e doesn’t work for me (as I’ve said often…)

      • Dirk De Paepe says:

        As a matter of fact, I only read about gear to eventually make up my very own opinion. Still I like reading other’s opinions, because I see them as a scale and like to know where I “balance” on it. But I don’t mind at all being far from the center of “the average scale”. So you’ll understand that I don’t really remember who said what.
        BTW I personally prefer your articles about photography a lot above those about gear. 🙂 (Although the latter are very much appreciated as well). The analyzing of the way how to create content is essential IMO and rarely find on the net, still it’s at the pinnacle of what matters. And even when I don’t (fully) agree, it’s still stimulating me to think further about the essentials.
        Your last article for example (about the “withering” decisive moment – one h) is really great again. I’m still wondering about a reply…
        About the Loxia 2/35, it doesn’t surprise me that it doesn’t work for you. Still I love it for it’s character. I guess we differ here, because we have (slightly) different scales of what we want to achieve, where we put our priorities.

        • Hardware is just a tool, and can only be really taken in context with the output you want to produce – different tools for different goals. So, it’s always necessary to understand both…

  7. Joachim Hadeler says:

    How does the Pentax 2.8/55 compare to the Hasselblad CF 50mm FLE on the 645z in terms of microcontrast and corner performance? Which one is the better lens on the 645z?

    • I never did a direct comparison, but my impression is that I wouldn’t bother with the CF 50 FLE if you’v got a native and smaller, lighter, faster AF alternative already.

  8. Hi Ming,
    why the Zeiss Batises did not make it in your list ?


    • I may have had a bad sample, but the 25mm didn’t impress me. The 85mm was good in MF but had AF focus consistency issues on the Sony bodies. Since you can’t mount it to anything else, that’s rather limiting…

  9. Egmont Bonomi says:

    If I may make a few additions to this list: Contax 645 Zeiss Tele-Apotessar 350/4 and Apo-Makro-Planar 120/4 and for technical cameras the Rodenstock 90 HR SW and Schneider Apo-Digitar 180/5.6 Aspheric
    These lenses are the only ones that I have used (hopefully the lenses I have yet to try will merit to be on this list) that can approach Otus level image quality (perhaps not 85mm just maybe 55mm). I have been using the Zeiss Otus 55 and 85 on my FPS for the last few weeks with a 44*33 sensor and I can say that the results are just breathtaking! The 85mm makes my 50MP sensor feel like its not doing it justice. If only Zeiss could introduce shift movements to the Otus line! In that sense these lenses that I just listed above do have the upper hand…
    Have you every used any of these Ming? If so, could you share any impressions you might have had? I am curious to know what someone with your technical prowess has to say. 🙂

    • Nope, nothing to mount them to (and no way of finding such rare birds, unfortunately). In the supertele range, my favourite has to be the Hasselblad Zeiss 5.6/250 Superachromat 🙂

      Ah, finally somebody with an FPS, Otuses and a MF back! I guess the results confirm what I expected; not surprising as the 85 still outresolves sub-4u pixels wide open (e.g. M4/3) – the 5.3u pixels of the 44×33 50MP sensor don’t really make it break a sweat. I was told the lenses were designed for up to 200lp/mm plus. How do the corners fare – especially for the 55?

      • Egmont Bonomi says:

        If you like I could email you some RAW files or full resolution jpegs. Just give me an email address and I can shoot them off to you later today. Chinese email service providers offer huge online storage for large files so that won’t be an issue, unlike hotmail or gmail. I actually just got back from a week long trip to Japan yesterday, even got to experience the wrath of the earthquake yesterday at 6am when I was getting out of bed on the 11th floor of my hotel. I could send you some shots that I took from the Tokyo Skytree with the Otus 85mm handheld using the FPS as a glorified mirrorless camera, luckily I have some muscle to hold that thing up because otherwise it would not have taken too long for me to call it a day. hahaha
        As for the 55 it does have much more vignetting than the 85 at f1.4, shot down at f16 I honestly can’t see any issues even in the extreme corners, however I realize that you are much better than I am at judging these things so I can send you some files at different apertures so you can have a look for yourself.

        • Earthquake: ouch! Having lived in New Zealand for several years, I know just how unnerving that can be.

          Raw files: yes please! Something on the end of download link would be ideal, as unfortunately I am subject to gmail limits 😦

  10. I used the Sigma 18-35/F1.8 on the Pentax K-70, the color and rendering is very good, matching Pentax prime lens in sharpness and beating them in fullness of color output, I had no focusing issues luckily, for the money it is an absolute bargain

  11. Hi Ming,

    Surprised not to see the canon 24 and 17tse lenses here, I thought you had used them in your coverage of the 5dsr, perhaps they are not exceptional in your view? However the 17 especially is practically unrivalled almost in its class of its own.

  12. Any thoughts on Phase One lenses, if you’ve used them? How do they compare to Hasselblad?
    Leica S lenses are awesome but the AF failure rate makes it a deal breaker IMO

    • Not used them, sorry. I’m sure they must be great (one would certainly expect so at MF prices) – but I’ve never had the chance to use them. Let’s say that Phase One international has never replied to a single enquiry or demo request I’ve sent from when I started investigating a medium format switch in 2013, and the only Phase One reseller I know in this part of the world personally shoots with a Hasselblad H3D despite having an XF100 and all lenses available. I suppose neither I nor my readers are of any interest to them 🙂

  13. John Prosper says:

    I am always appreciative of your take on top lenses. They are very much, indeed, the most indispensable buys in photography.

    I had been hoping that Olympus would upgrade the 75/1.8 to PRO status, making it dust-proof, splash-proof, and freeze-proof. The lack of weather resistance is what has made me reluctant to purchase what seems like an otherwise exceptional lens. I was caught in a few sudden downpours where my camera and attached lens were heavily soaked, and I doubt I would have had any peace of mind if my equipment were not weather-resistant. Although shooting in fair weather is fine, adverse conditions almost always come with such interesting light that you feel inspired to bring out your best optics.

    • My Hasselblad H system isn’t weather sealed, either – I just bring a waterproof hat and small towel to wrap it in and keep shooting.

      • John Prosper says:

        Always the practical one. I should be able to find water-resistant lens wraps out there so I can stop depriving myself of this prestige optic.

        • Actually, it’s no more than part of the practical business of photography: you can’t bill if you can’t get the shot, and you should use hardware that makes economic sense… 🙂

        • John, supermarket plastic carrier bags should do the trick. Will fold up and fit into a pocket, cost peanuts to buy, if they are not free anyway, easily updated to the latest variant, and you don’t have to fret if you lose one. :D)

          • John Prosper says:

            I get plenty of those bags with each grocery shopping trip. This takes me back to my early days using film and improvising on accessories using commonly available material. 😉

  14. I’ve read all I can find about the Sigma 18-35mm and the Sigma 50-100mm. What I’ve found was optically great glass like the art primes but also numerous reports of af issues both by reviewers and buyers.

    1. Severe front/back focus (more on canon mount before firmware upgrade) Somewhat correctible by dock but also reported to cause more problems on the distances beyond the distance you use when calibrating.
    2. Simply failing to find focus and gives up.
    3. Severe front/back focus when using outer focus points. Even more of a problem on D500. Sigma seems unable to fix this as reported by the people who has sent in their lens to Sigma.

    Care to share your experience on the AF on the 18-35 Ming?

    • My 18-35 was fine after calibration, on the D5500, D750 and D810. Can’t comment on the 50-100 as it was only released much later than writing of this article (and I wouldn’t buy one since I have no DX Nikon to put it on, and it’s somewhat pointless on FX). Sigma is known to have issue with AF inconsistencies on various cameras…no idea why that should be, though.

      • FWIW, I just finished a 2-week evaluation of the 50-100/1.8 on a D500 shooting dance in a somewhat low-light setting (ISO800, f/1.8, 1/200), and the 50-100 performed flawlessly. An AF fine-tune on my D500 of +4 was good enough at the 3 focal lengths and the shooting distance I use, so I didn’t even have to fine tune it with the dock. AF performance was accurate, fast, and worked well on all cross-sensor points including the outermost ones: it never hunted on me even once. I had read complaints online that the outer points would front-focus, but I didn’t find that to be the case for my sample. I was using continuous, single-point AF.

        About the worst thing I can say about the lens is that it’s huge, heavy, and takes 82mm filters. Even with the battery grip on the D500, it was still a little unwieldy to handle, but it does everything else is so good that it’ll be the next lens I get.

        That said, the thing I worry about most when I get my own copy is whether it will perform the same as the rental copy given Sigma’s reputation for inconsistency. I wonder if the 50-100 is still constructed using the same techniques as their earlier lenses that Ming and LensRentals describes: there is no adjustment at all for the lens’s internal groups. The accuracy of placement of the various glass elements depends on the molding (and presumably some machining after they come out of the molds) of the barrels that hold them in place, so it could still be a crapshoot to get a good one.

        • Does it work with Nikon’s auto-AF fine tune too?

          As for consistency/accuracy in construction: I was told that they could get tighter tolerances and better consistency through moulding rather than individually seating and aligning elements; given that the master moulds can be made to 1-2 micron tolerances, and the plastic group carriers the same, I’m inclined to believe them. The variance probably comes at time of assembly as there’s a mix of cemented and friction fit elements.

          • I didn’t test the auto AF fine tune because the last time I tried it on a 3rd party lens (a Tamron 85/1.8), it didn’t work. I used the Horshack method instead.

            I guess I’ll see what I get when I get the lens …

  15. Unless I’ve missed it, no mention is being made of the Nikkor 60 2.8 micro, which I believe you use(d) extensively. Any thoughts on why it’s not included ?

  16. Always an interesting read. My eyes popped when I saw the prices of some of those Hasselblad lenses, but I suppose that given that they’re designed for bigger than full frame they are, in relative terms, priced competitively.

    Couple of questions if you have a moment :

    Disregarding the camera’s quirks, what keeps the lenses on the DP Merrill Sigmas (the 50mm, which I believe you have used, in particular) off the list? They seem to be extremely good lenses in their own right, paired perfectly with the sensor.

    Secondly, in the first part when discussing the Olympus 75 1.8 (which I agree is a superb lens) you made reference to “secondary colour”. I’ve not heard that expression before. What does it refer to?

    Thanks if you get the time to answer these.

    • I think it’s more to do with the small volumes they produce them in. Sigma offers great bang for the buck because they produce a huge number of lenses (I was told about a million a year) – in comparison with probably at most a couple of thousand of the H lenses.

      DPM: yes, they are good lenses. I just don’t have enough experience with them under a sufficiently wide range of situations or number of samples to comment conclusively.

      Secondary color: a somewhat catchall term for longitudinal CA, purple fringing, coma etc.

  17. I noted your inclusion of the Contax Vario-Sonnar 100-300 on part 1. Have you tried its little brother, the 35-70 f/3.5? I’m far from a lens connoisseur and don’t particularly like either the single ring push-pull zoom design or the rotating front element, but the results from f/5.6 to f/11 are impressive. Or is it another that you haven’t personally used?

    • It’s the need to stop it down that gives me pause – I don’t have to with most of the lenses on the list; especially important for both creative freedom and since new cameras’ pixel pitch start to hit diffraction at relatively large apertures…

  18. another opinion says:

    I like the Leica 50 mm APO, 35 FLE and 50 Noctilux. The 135 Nikon DC, 24 f1.4 G and 50 mm Sigma Art are nice too.

  19. Thoughts on the Coolpix A lens compared to the GR?

    • The GR has better corners, and slightly better micro contrast. Both are excellent, but the GR is amazingly good.

      • Alex Carnes says:

        I made three attempts to find a decent Coolpix A and eventually just gave up. I think the copy you got for your A/B comparison with the GR was a fluke golden sample! I already owned a GR so I could compare easily enough and the Nikons were all a bit of disaster.

  20. I thought (I may be mstaken) that you used the Pentax 2,8/90 macro on the 645z at some point. Any thoughts?

    • I did. It was one of the better lenses in the Pentax lineup, but not on an absolute basis. It’s also very expensive, placing it in the same sort of category as the Hasselblad 4/120 II Macro, the Zeiss Otuses etc. – and it simply isn’t as good. That, and the number of broken 90SRs I’ve seen gives me pause…

      • How does the Pentax 2,8/90 macro compare to the Hasselblad HC 100/2.2 (leaving out price and mechanical construction)? I have seen it three times for 2000€ (2200$) used in the last year and feel very tempted (I would pull the trigger the next time at this price if there were not any optical issues). This lens and the 35mm for the 645z would be enough for 98% of what I shoot.

        • They’re very different lenses. One focuses close, the other doesn’t, and one has another 2/3 stop aperture. If you stop them down to equivalent apertures and use at equivalent distances, I think I’d have to give the edge to the Hasselblad – but they’re pretty darn close. OIS is nice to have but not as effective as with smaller optics, and beware the usual possibility of double images. The 90 SR is a much larger lens than the 100 though – twice the length and weight.

  21. Thinking the Leica M cameras don’t have much of an advantage over the A7RII these days…

    • The main advantage of the M lenses is their size and the fact that they will work for some time to come as they don’t rely on electronics to change aperture or focus.

      I can’t explain Ming’s QC experience. My versions of those M lenses that he has had problems with have all given me great pictures.

      As for the SL lenses, I haven’t noticed the focus shift that he has. I think that there was an issue in earlier firmware that mean that the focus point was not where the cross-hairs indicated, but that seems to have been fixed in more current firmware.

      I do use Nikon gear for specific shoots (where I need reach, speed, or flashes) but the lenses are not in the same league as the Leica lenses. (They are also significantly cheaper.) I also use Sony A7rII with Batis lenses when I need more megapixels or want eye focus. The system is also as portable as the Leica system. But I enjoy shooting the SL with native and M lenses the most.

      • “I can’t explain Ming’s QC experience. My versions of those M lenses that he has had problems with have all given me great pictures.”a
        We may need to separate the photographic/creative part from the hardware: a technically poor lens can make a pictorially strong image, strong enough that the resolving characteristics don’t matter. The detached aperture blade made for some very interesting images, but not a good lens 🙂

        As for the SL: try shooting with the 24-90 at 90mm, f11 and f4, and compare the results. The f4 result will be sharper because of focus shift. I don’t consider this a good lens at all for any purposes, creative* or technical – in fact, it’s really quite unacceptable at that price and size, and when you have a mirrorless body that can focus directly at the sensor plane.

        *Absolute resolving power isn’t the problem. It’s when you intend your focus to be one one subject, but lands up on another through fault of the camera – that is not acceptable.

        • I don’t find my Leica lenses poor technically. On the contrary, I moved to Leica when I found that you could get sharp 50mm images at f1.4 with 1970s style soft-porn backgrounds. My Nikon / Sigma lenses never managed at least the former. My back is the better for the move.

          These days, the manufacturers have cottoned on to the fact that the only people using cameras are pros or well-heeled enthusiasts so lens performance standards have risen, as has the size of the lenses. The X1D is just the latest manifestation of that trend. (It will be interesting to see whether it is you or Lloyd that is the first to uncover a hidden fatal flaw or frailty in it :-). I thought that he was particularly unlucky with his gear until I read some of your lists.)

          • “…with 1970s style soft-porn backgrounds.”
            Soft porn backgrounds aside (?!), a lot of the reason why modern lenses are perceived as unsharp or soft wide open has to do with both QC tolerances and AF tuning: if one or both of those are off, it’ll look as though nothing much is in focus at all.

            Lenses have to get bigger to perform better because more elements are required for higher levels of correction and resolution. As for discovering hidden flaws – if anything, it’ll be the opposite. I suspect that it’s simply because we often use equipment under conditions outside what it’s been designed for. I’ve been beta testing and trying to kill (yes, my official mandate) the X1D in every way possible so that the final product is as robust as possible. If they fix everything on my list – I’m very confident it will be pretty darn well sorted 🙂

            • Well there are always trade-offs. The massive new Sony 50mm f1.4 has slightly better resolution than the older compact 55mm f1.8, but it transmits less light presumably because of the extra glass. Newer lenses also have better resolution, but the depth of focus is narrower (which can be a good thing). AF and OIS seem to add considerably to bulk: look at the new SL 50mm f1.4, which is Otus-like, despite the fact that it relies on software correction. In the end, I have opted for the compactness and versatility of M glass for fast lenses, combined with Batis lenses for things that need AF. The SL zooms leave me wanting for nothing in sharpness when there is adequate light as a lighter alternative to carrying several primes.

              • “but it transmits less light presumably because of the extra glass”
                That actually doesn’t make sense given faster aperture and the state of modern coatings (usually less than 0.5% light loss at each interface – even with double the number of elements and a 1% loss, it’s still not 2/3 stop) – I wonder if it could be something else?

                Do you find focus shift on your SL 24-90?

                • I don’t with mine, conducting the test you outlined. There was an AF problem with v1 software, but that was resolved with v2. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough …

                  • Tested with v1, v2, and a whole bunch of cameras and lenses that Leica supposedly selected not to have the problem before allowing me to use. Basically – try any inclined subject with about 20-30m focus distance, 90mm, and you’ll see f11 is much softer than f4 – to the point the focal plane may be out of the frame entirely in some cases – but it gets much sharper towards the camera.

                • I’m just quoting a test performed by one of the Sony Artisans on the light loss.

                  I have not noticed any focus shift on my 24-90mm; my pics seem critically sharp. I resisted getting the 24-90mm because I thought that it would be like my Nikon equivalent (which is vg, but surpassed by the primes) but I found it to be at least as good as the M primes. Having a humongous 90-280mm has also been surprisingly useful. The Nikon 70-300mm is much lighter and pretty good from 70-200mm at medium apertures, but not in the same league as the Leica (which should be the case, given the price and size difference).

    • Well, they retain value better, have more perceive status…? 😉

      Leica’s FF sensors have been lagging a long way behind for some time now. They’re not even on par with the current 24MP APSC offerings in dynamic range and color…

  22. No Leica M lenses at all?

    • Honestly, no. Given my experience with them – for the price paid, you expect perfection. Instead, I got half a dozen new 50/1.4 ASPHs with various degrees of softness, decentering, detaching aperture blades (!), stiff points in the focus; my 21/1.4 had rear element separation. The Noctilux 0.95 had a bubbling rear coating. The 35/1.4 ASPH FLE might have made the list if the Zeiss 1.4/35 ZM wasn’t quite a bit better AND cheaper. The 50/2 APO suffers from serious flare. I’m willing to write off some sample variation, more proportional to price paid – this is unavoidable in any assembly – but not that kind of poor QC, and not when a 50/1.4 now costs nearly $4,000.

      • Ming, that is some defects list! Never heard of detaching aperture blades in an (undamaged or abused) lens before. My old film Leica lenses are still going strong and apart from a stiff focusing 24mm R lens (lack of use) they all still have silky smooth focus, and this includes my 65 year old f1.5/50 Summarit.

        Many moons ago, and I assume it was true, I read that Leitz had a representative sample lens for each of their focal lengths that the production lenses had to match. I understood that this lens wasn’t necessarily the very best of its breed, but represented the minimum acceptable performance. This was said to partly explain the high cost as each lens had to be tested, not sample batches as happens today with most, if not all, manufacturers. What I find somewhat alarming is that apart from optical performance causing softness, and decentering issues, the other defects you have experienced are all visual. How did they get past the QC department?

        • I suspect the older lenses were better built; the new stuff seems to be done as quickly as possible to get out the door and converted into $$. I have no other explanation of how the 24-90 SL made it to market with that kind of crazy focus shift…

          • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

            You are right on the build of older Leica lenses. The mechanical part will never be as good. Leica M3 likewise is pinnacle of watchmaker quality. Nikons S and F were not far behind. I remember a guy long time ago explained to me the lasting value of old Leica lens. I dont remember which one was it, He dropped it couple times on wooden (concrete would be to much of course) floor and said. Right out of factory many lenses that are carefully assembled, will come close to Leica, but how they perform after a year of heavy abuse is another story. Those were the days my friend…. That`s why movie lenses cost so much.

            • I’d put the Zeiss Hasselblad V stuff in the same category: these lenses are still amazing after 20, 30+ years. Modern stuff has visible drift after just a year or two of heavy use – I’ve seen it with a lot of my supposedly ‘pro’ Nikon lenses, for starters.

      • After years of Leica GAS, it become pretty true to me too. I sold all my new Leica lens, except the16-18-21, and keep the old lenses for its history and old rendering style. I sold my new leica bodies too and wish to get a M9P instead. I brought a Noct 0.95 and try my friends’ Noct95 as well. I am not try to be very demanding but the picture is so soft in center, which always requires post-sharpening, then I decide to keep my old Noct v4 instead which has a more Leica character I prefer.

        Standing from the angle on modern lenses and gear, I would go for X1D now. Unfortunately, it has no large aperature lenses.

        Ming, how about Leica Q? Is it worth for the money? Does it still got the “Orange” face? Thanks.

        • Noct softness could be due to RF calibration. But if it’s still soft even with LV, then it’s probably a dud. They are at least reasonably sharp in the middle, but not really at the edges…

          MF and large aperture isn’t really possible; firstly the physical size and weight of glass becomes impractical, then you compound that with resolving requirements over a very large field area, and for many systems – finding a leaf shutter large enough to span the aperture. F2-2.2 seems to be the limit. F3.5-4 is normal.

          • What will be the portrait lens for X1D?
            I’m hoping for a 110mm f2.

            • Right now, the 90/3.2, but I’m sure there will be longer options eventually. All H lenses also work with the adaptor, so that opens up the 100/2.2 and the 150/3.2 also. You can of course make portraits with any focal length…

              • Thanks Ming,

                Do you have 100/2.2 portrait samples? I saw your previous post that it kinda soft wide open. I want to see how soft it is. Or is it better than the legend 110mm f2?

                Btw, looks like your don’t the XCD 45mm. May I have your thoughts before I switch? Well, it is a big move to me. Thanks.

                • Hasselblad

                  It’s not soft, but there is some uncorrected spherical aberration that doesn’t go away til f4 or so. It’s probably got that reputation because the focal plane is razor thin and any slight movement by subject or photographer is very visible. It’s one of my workhorses. Still easier to focus than the 110/2!

                  I don’t personally like the XCD 45 because of the focal length – not the lens, which is excellent. Just don’t get along with the 35-e FOV. The 90, on the other hand, I absolutely love.

                  • Woo Thanks. It’s not soft all all and it kinda has the old 110/2 rendering style (i know it is not a Zeiss though). From your below picture, it seems the bokeh is on par with the Noct (indeed from calculation, the 100 f2.2’s bokeh is shallow than Noct if keep the size of the subject the same in the frame). That’s nice.
                    H51-B0000129 copy

                    On the other hand, the 90mm is amazing. I saw in Bloomberg.

                    I just check my local official provider and checking the availability of X1d, 30mm and 90mm. At first, I want to buy the limited edition, but I want to skip the 45mm. So, I placed my order for the silver and 30mm first.

                    It’s a hard choice between 90 and 100 with adaptor. They are just 10mm apart. Hard choice. May I know your view.

                    • As I said, often it’s operator error or poor AF calibration (like everything mechanical, there’s wear and tear and this can create drift over time and heavy use) that gives it its reputation for being soft. I recently tried it on the H6D-100, and was pretty darn surprised by how sharp it was in the centre even wide open with accurate focus.

                      The 45 and 90mm lenses prove two things: it’s much easier to design a slightly slower but higher performing lens (MTF charts here), and of course technology moves on – the 100/2.2 is a much older early 2000s design (I believe) and shows it. That said, if you shot it at comparable apertures, it’s really not far off. I tend to think of it as an awesome f4 lens with an f2.2 emergency speed 🙂

                      I have samples from the 90mm here.

  23. Samuel Jessop says:

    Such a great list, and a great read.

    The last mention, the Ricoh 18.3/2.8, I long to see with the 24MP Sony sensor from the recent Nikon DX cameras.

  24. I’m surprised the Zeiss Sonnar T* 2/35 didnt at least make your Honorable Mentions. That little gem might be one of the best AF lenses ever made 😉

    • …in 35mm of course.

    • The one on the RX1R? Once again: the list is obviously restricted to lenses I’ve used… 🙂

      To the best of my knowledge there’s no other AF version of that lens. The ZF/ZEs are Distagons anyway, and the FE version is f2.8.

  25. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I can’t afford such a wonderful range of lenses, Ming – but then I’m not a professional photographer and even if I had that kind of cash, it would be a foolish indulgence to buy (or try) so many.
    You don’t mention the Sigma ART f/1.f 24mm – I tried that, but it was rather disappointing in several respects, and nowhere near the standard set by its counterpart, the ART f/1.4 50mm. So I traded it in on the Otus 28mm.
    Deliriously happy, now – I’ve never had a lens as good as either of my Otus lenses (I also have the 55mm) – certainly there are features in other lenses which I cannot expect from them, but they produce PRECISELY what I am seeking to capture, and I shan’t miss the things they can’t do.
    I found your description of all the various lenses you do (or have) used absolutely fascinating, Ming – thanks for going to so much trouble, to share your experience with the rest of us.
    And the collection of photographs illustrating the article is mind blowing.

    • I’ve not used the 24 Art – as mentioned, the list is limited to what I’ve used (admittedly still quite a lot of lenses 🙂

    • Alex Carnes says:

      The Sigma 24/1.4 is never going to match the giddying sharpness of their 50/1.4… what can apart from the Otus 55?! Distortion is well controlled for a wide. I chopped mine in for the 24-35 f2 . Like all Sigma Arts I use it as a manual lens; the AF isn’t kosher with any of them, even using CDAF in live view. Both these lenses are dear to me though. By the way, I snapped my 24-35 in half and Sigma UK fixed it for me and returned it good as new for less than £100. That’s service!!

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Maybe my ART f/1.4 24mm was one of those “Friday afternoon” jobs, Alex. It had awful back focus problems, the AF (as you suggest) was pretty useless, but worse than all of that, the optics didn’t stack up. The results it produced didn’t begin to compare with what I expected from the test reports I’ve seen on the lens. Frankly, I get better results from the kit zoom on my half frame, and I was extremely disappointed with the 24mm.

        • That sounds like bad QC to me. It’s not going to beat an Otus, but the few I tested were not that far off, either. And by f4 it’s anybody’s guess.

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            Ming, that’s exactly what I thought of the ART f/1.4 50mm – I have superb results from that one, although I have to say the Optus does outpace it.
            But the contrast between the 28mm Otus and the 24mm ART . . . am I allowed to say that the ART was appalling, by comparison? Your suggestion of a quality control issue is the most likely explanation, because the reviews I’ve read are WAY more flattering than I would be, in summing up what I thought of the 24mm ART

            • Alex Carnes says:

              Sounds like QC to me too. Bear in mind it’s easier to make a sharp standard lens than a wide, which is why the 50 seems so much better than the 24. Actually, come to think of it, I seem to recall I returned my first copy of the 24/1.4 for poor performance. It focused all over the place, but then all Sigma Arts do, but it was clearly too soft. They all have great optics though, I’m not sure I’d fancy my chances distinguishing the 50/1.4 from the Otus much after f/2.8, but I’d be interested to try some time. In fact, I shot the Sigma 50/1.4 against my cheapo Nikon 50/1.8G a few weeks ago, and there wasn’t all the difference in the world by f/5.6; at f/8, only the cheaper lens’s extra little bit of barrel distortion gave it away: both lenses were beautifully sharp corner to corner.

              • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

                I love my ART f/1.4 50mm – it is an amazingly high quality lens, and performs exceptionally under all sorts of conditions. It completely blew me away when I came back from the first trip I used it on – one photo (hand held, at 1/250th) was of a scene extending something like 3 kilometres – and it was possible to read the names on buildings, even at that distance – the only handicap being I was shooting with a full frame, and not a medium format camera, so the lens was still stretching the envelope, but the pixel count on the sensor couldn’t match its performance. And yes, Ming, if I ever win Lotto, I’ll be buying a ‘blad, too. It’s been a while, since I last had a larger format cam – sigh !!!
                But I also love my Otuses – and the 55mm does outperform the glass of the Sigma 50mm – noticeably. Not that I’m complaining – both take astonishingly high quality photographs, but the edge that the Otus has is quite an edge. Where the Otus would not appeal is when you’re taking action shots – there’s no AF, of course – but that’s of no concern to me. I have a couple of other cams that I use for action stuff.

  26. I fell in love with the 28mm lens of the GR (and bought it thanks to your review). It’s a pity that after a year of use the camera jammed and it seems there’s no way to get it repaired. I then waited for the current version to be released, and was disappointed to see the “if it ain’t broke, don’t change it” rule applied: no evf added, only a wifi connection.
    And could not risk to have the little beast jammed again.
    Can you believe I had it in my suit internal pocket at my wedding? 🙂
    Then went for the Q workhorse and love it, despite the camera likes to suck dust now and then (but cleaning is a free service at Leica).
    If I’d be sure the GR would not jam, I would buy it again. Love the rendering of its tiny lens.

    • I guess it’s pretty sensitive to dust and bumps in that mechanism – the price of pocketability, I guess. My GR was fine, and usually rode in the holster.

    • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

      You are right on the build of older Leica lenses. The mechanical part will never be as good. Leica M3 likewise is pinnacle of watchmaker quality. Nikons S and F were not far behind. I remember a guy long time ago explained to me the lasting value of old Leica lens. I dont remember which one was it, He dropped it couple times on wooden (concrete would be to much of course) floor and said. Right out of factory many lenses that are carefully assembled, will come close to Leica, but how they perform after a year of heavy abuse is another story. Those were the days my friend…. That`s why movie lenses cost so much.

    • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

      I have mine some two year in constant use and beside broken LCD ( my fault ) it never let me down.

  27. I love my GR!!! You’ve mentioned the Ricoh GW3 21mm conversion lens is surprisingly very good and think I will glue that to the GR for my wide end. I have Canon’s 100D/SL1 and 24, 50 STM lenses. Now my question – will the Sigma 18-35mm Art shine well on the 100D/SL1’s sensor?

    • I don’t see why not. It does just fine on the higher density 24MP D5500 sensor. I don’t have one to test in Canon mount though. Not sure this is a wise pairing ergonomically, however…

    • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

      Ricoh GW3 21mm conversion lens is really good at 5.6 and has three advantages at this focal lens. Vibration free shutter, daylight sync up to 1/4000sec and no need to expose the sensor while changing focal length.

      • Seconded on the GW3. It’s an amazingly good WC – no doubt the whole thing was designed as a single optical unit. Interestingly it is useless on any other camera as an add on (I really wanted it to work on the Leica Q), which only further supports that theory…

  28. What about the great Fujifilm XF 90mm f/2 R LM WR ? 🙂

    • It would be meaningless to comment on something I haven’t used…and that’s why the list is also non-exhaustive

    • Alexander, my thought exactly…Thanks! I’ve used everything from Nikon, Minolta, Pentax, Olympus, and large format Nikkor, Schneider and Rodenstock over the years, and I feel that the Fujinon XF lenses are some of the best, in terms of sharpness, micro contrast and build quality. It’s the main reason I moved to the Fujifilm X-System, other than the lack of AF front/back-focus issue!

  29. Ban Hup Teh says:

    Agree with you on the Sigma 20/1.4. I was about to sell my D800E (to get the D810) until I took a few shots with it on the 800E. After that I can’t think of any compelling reason to upgrade my camera.

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