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.
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.
By John van Rosendaal