The biggest and oldest names in the photography industry has got to be Leica and Zeiss. Carl Zeiss AG was founded in 1846 in Jena, Germany as a optical systems manufacturer and Leitz Camera GmbH (now Leica) was founded in 1849 in Wetzlar, Germany. Both companies have seen their market share tumble since the Japanese combined high quality optics and manufacturing along with reliability, innovation, and affordability. But Leica and Zeiss are survivors, and within the last few years there seem to a strong resurgence with these two old storied brands.
In my stable of lenses, I have the Leica Summaron 35mm f/2.8 and the Zeiss Sonnar *T 55mm f/1.8. Both 35mm and 50mm lenses are considered “normal primes,” great for street photography and general purpose photography. I’ve had the pleasure of using these over the last few months now, so I thought I’d do a brief comparison review.
The key difference between the Leica and the Zeiss is in their color rendition. The Leica is about 1000k warmer and tints towards magenta. The Zeiss’s white balance is usually spot on with a tiny bit of tint towards green. This is unsurprising since the Zeiss is a native lens for the Sony A7 with the latest generation of multi-coating. I’m sure there is software trickery going on behind the scenes as well.
Above are white balance and exposure adjusted versions of the earlier photos. As you can see, as long as you shoot RAW and use Lightroom to color correct in post, there is no issue at all with the Summaron. If you are still shooting JPG while using these super stars, color balance is the least of which you should be worried about.
Details, Sharpness, and Contrast
Comparing these two lenses is like comparing the sharpness of two surgical knives. Pretty darn sharp. Ignoring the field of view differences between the 35mm and the 50mm, the resolving powers of both the Leica and the Zeiss are amazing. More importantly, both were taken with a fully open aperture. It only gets sharper stopped down, until you go beyond f/11 in which diffraction takes its toll. If you had to nit-pick, which I’m sure the internet will, the Zeiss does have better micro-contrast.
Edge performance for both these lenses are exceptional. The detail, sharpness, and contrast are excellent on the Leica, especially considering the small size, age, and focal length of this 1960s lens. Wider angle lenses usually have a much harder time of keeping the edges clean also.
The Zeiss is even better. It is just on a different level. The edge performance is exceptional, no wonder it’s been called the Best Autofocus Lens in the World. Colors are vivid, details are crisp, and the micro-contrast within the trees are fantastic.
Admittedly, comparing a 35mm and a 55mm lens is a little like comparing apples to oranges. But they both fall into the “normal” lens range and they both are great for either street or portrait work. It’s hard to go wrong with either options. The Leica, despite being an old manual focus lens, held its own against the latest and greatest autofocus lens of this generation. The Zeiss really shows how much optics technology has advanced, especially its dedicated application to the digital mirrorless application. To choose one of the other is a difficult decision but I’m going to try.
If you are in the market for something more affordable, devastatingly sharp, will appreciate over time, and if you don’t mind manual focusing, the Leica would be the winner. In fact, I chose this over the Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm f/2.8 because of these attributes. If you are only in the market for one lens, a lens with unparalleled optical performance, or would like to do video in addition to photography, the Zeiss would be my desert island choice. I could see myself selling the Leica for a profit. But I’d be keeping the Zeiss for as long as I shoot Sony.