Leica, Zeiss, and Voigtlander have long been three companies that really compete with one another.
I’ve been considering writing this article for a long time: I know it’s information that someone will want. In the battle between Zeiss, Leica, and Voigtlander, it can be tough to figure out which is the best option. There are many different parameters, and you can always consider which one is best for you and your needs. Each lens manufacturer makes a variety of options for the market, and each one also makes excellent optics overall. In many circles, they’re seen as overpriced in comparison to the Asian made optics. But after years of testing and owning lenses from all of these brands, I’ll tell you that each of them has something unique to them. The right one for you just depends on your needs.
Cost, and Their Worth
By and large, Voigtlander is the most affordable of the bunch across the board. That goes for M mount and optics for various other mounts. You can score Voigtlander lenses for Sony FE, Leica M, Micro Four Thirds, and several DSLR mounts. And they’re really pretty good. On the other hand, Zeiss lenses are made for Sony FE, Fujifilm X, and all the proper DSLR mounts except for Pentax K mount. Zeiss is very much the middle of the road when it comes to lenses. They’re more affordable than Leica but more pricey than Voigtlander. Optically, you can tell the difference. Zeiss is all about their MTF charts in their marketing and realizing their vision of perfection. Yet somehow, their Milvus lenses for DSLRs have this wonderful character to them. Leica makes lenses for Leica M mount, their other mounts, and notably the L mount. They’re often the most pricey and hold their value as well. Optically speaking, they’re excellent. Leica M lenses have a beautiful character to them that stands out from Zeiss and Voigtlander both.
If I were going to buy any of these brands, I’d first look at the used market. They tend to be very pricey brand new, but it can be worth it to get them new in the box if you’re doing professional, paid work. If you’re just a hobbyist, Voigtlander will be the most attractive of the bunch because they’re so affordable comparatively speaking. But in all transparency, they’re also the most likely to be dinged up or have some sort of build issue. No Voigtlander lens is sold or marketed as being weather resistant or weather sealed, but tons of Leica and Zeiss lenses are, while nothing for the M mount is at all. So if you’re buying something in M mount and plan on adapting it to your Sony a7 camera body, get ready for even more dust issues than you already have. Similarly, if you get a native Sony FE mount lens from Voigtlander, you’ll have the same problems. On the other hand, the Zeiss Loxia and Batis lenses are very well sealed.
We’re going to dive more into build quality later. But build quality surely adds into cost when you’re hunting on eBay for a lens in good condition.
If we’re talking about the M mount lenses from Voigtlander, Zeiss, and Leica, then I’m positive that no one can tell the difference between them in a blind test. All three brands make their lenses from metal. They all feel pretty much similar. Leica overall makes the biggest lenses, but they also arguably make some of the most exciting optics. Zeiss tends to stick to the same optics as Leica for the most part. And Voigtlander can sometimes go off on tangents. They’ve been known to make things like a 40mm lens. Leica’s only iteration of a 40mm was with Minolta as a partner. Ergonomically speaking, overall, the lenses from all of these brands will feel the same.
When it comes to other mirrorless camera systems, that’s where things start to get different. Zeiss lenses and Voigtlander lenses for Sony FE feel massively different. Where Zeiss feels like a refined piece of modern gear, Voigtlander has a classic feel. To each other own, of course! Zeiss also has two lines: the more classic feeling Loxia and the very modern Batis.
When speaking about the L mount, Leica’s lenses feel very much like DSLR lenses. Of anything available for L mount, I’d argue they’re the best feeling lenses ergonomically. They’re solid and feel that way if you’re willing to pay the price for them.
Build quality is where Voigtlander really starts to show its cracks. Voigtlander doesn’t make a single weather sealed lens. Typically, that means the Voigtlander 17mm f0.95 lens that I have for Micro Four Thirds doesn’t come with me. In recent years, I’ve realized how vital weather sealing really is. Even if you’re not taking your camera into inclement weather, you need sealing to ensure that things like dust do get into the sensor. Nearly every time I’ve been out with Reviews Editor Paul Ip, I’ve heard him complain about dust on his sensors with his Sony cameras, even when using weather-sealed lenses. If you don’t have a weather-sealed lens, imagine how difficult that will be with a Sony FE body! Despite their metal build, consider the fact that you’re paying less for a good reason.
Arguably, Zeiss dominates the build quality category. Their ZM lenses aren’t weather-sealed, so don’t even bother there. Part of this is because Leica refuses to weather seal their M mount camera bodies. They say it would make all their older lenses useless, but I don’t think that’s the case. Their lenses for Sony are all weather sealed. We’ve taken the Zeiss Loxia series lenses into the snow, and they survived with no issues at all; they’re very impressive. The same can be said for many of their DSLR lenses. Specifically, I’m talking about everything that’s currently in their lineup. If you want top-end of build quality, consider the Milvus lineup. They’re weather-sealed and pretty unstoppable when it comes to build quality. Sadly, their Otus lineup isn’t weather sealed. Why? Lord only knows. The Otus lineup is supposed to be no compromise, but I guess that’s not the case when it comes to weather sealing.
Leica’s lenses, though still well built, vary accordingly. Nothing in M mount is weather sealed as previously mentioned. However, we’ve taken Leica lenses into the rain with an M6, and the combo worked absolutely beautifully. I’ve also heard horror stories about Leica M cameras and lenses going through hell and continuing to work, but they will never say their products are weather sealed. For L mount, everything that I’ve used is incredibly well made. The weather sealing is fantastic, and we’ve put their lenses through hail and rain both. They stood up to some incredibly bad weather that would deter most photographers. They’re right up there with Zeiss’ build quality, but they’re more pricey. For what it’s worth, though, Zeiss still makes more weather-sealed lenses.
All three companies are primarily known for their manual focus lenses. In fact, Voigtlander doesn’t make a single autofocus lens. But they have lenses with Exposure contacts. Zeiss lenses made for DSLRs are all manual focus and have both Focus confirmation and exposure reading settings. I really like them on Nikon DSLRs because of the Nikon rangefinder system. Of course, you’re probably saying that one can use focus magnification and focus peaking to get good results when adapting. Still, there isn’t a single focus peaking system these days that impresses me much with the except of the one in the Canon RF lineup of cameras. So, unfortunately, that goes out the window.
Zeiss and Leica make autofocus lenses. The Zeiss lenses on Sony cameras work pretty fast. They’re licensed as a Sony partner. Leica L mount lenses aren’t all that fast to focus. It’s been an issue I’ve had with L mount for a long time. Hopefully, they’ll fix it.
Again though, Zeiss on Sony is coming out on top here unless you know how to zone focus very well.
Here’s the big one: Zeiss tops the charts of DxO Mark. Leica lenses are no slouch, though, and Voigtlander’s lenses typically are more about the character. So I’m going to post images from each and let you choose for yourself. I’m purposely not naming which ones or what systems they’re on because you can somehow or another get a feel no matter what.