A Reliable Workhorse. Leica SL 24-90mm F2.8-4 Review

I don’t like zoom lenses, but this is a good one.

For all intents and purposes, the Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4 demonstrates true innovation. That’s the case with Leica trying something new. The standard zoom is a 24-70mm f2.8 lens. The 70mm focal length always felt odd. As I’ve used them, I usually set the lens to certain focal lengths and work with those. I’ve always wondered why they couldn’t go to 85mm. Or why not create a 35-85mm f2.8 lens instead? Leica did something different with 24-90mm. This zoom contains much more usable focal lengths, in my opinion. Objectively speaking, this is a fantastic lens, but it failed to capture my heart and passion for this craft.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Weather sealed
  • It’s built incredibly solid.
  • Nice bokeh, especially because of the longer focal length vs. a 24-70mm
  • A genuine attempt at doing something different
  • Great image quality
  • Like all things Leica, it’s pretty easy to use once you actually understand it.
  • Focuses pretty fast and reliably, moreso with the Panasonic S5

Cons

Gear Used

We tested the Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4 with the Leica SL2s, the Panasonic S5, and the Leica SL2.

Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4 Tech Specs

These specs have been summarized from the LensRentals listing. Try it before you buy it!

  • f2.8-f22 aperture range
  • Weather Sealing
  • 3.46-inch diameter
  • 5.43-inch length
  • 82mm filter thread
  • 15 groups in 18 elements
  • 11 Low dispersion elements
  • Minimum focusing of just under one foot away
  • L mount
  • 2.51lbs, so this is a chunky thing
  • External zooming

Ergonomics

The Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4 is a very standard zoom lens. There are two major controls; the focus ring and the zoom ring. The former is towards the front, and the zoom ring is more comfortably situated to the back. The rest of the lens has a metal exterior. When you grip the lens, make sure you hold onto the rubber rings.

The front lens filter is an 82mm thread. That’s a big boy! And if you’re not going to buy the lens hood, then snag a UV filter. That’s going to be very important here.

Otherwise, the lens is an external zoomer. That means that it gets longer the more you zoom in. Overall, it gets to maybe around half as long as it started.

Build Quality

Created with RNI Films app. Preset ‘Agfa Optima 200’

One of the reasons you pay for a Leica is that they don’t play around with build quality. Leica went ahead and IP rated their cameras, but not their lenses. However, the Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4 is very weather sealed. We’ve taken it out into the rain, snow, and other conditions. The lens kept working: this is a very reliable lens.

Things get odd when you pick it up, though. First off, this is a huge lens. To me, it rivals the Canon 28-70mm f2 RF lens. It’s not as girthy, but it’s probably just as tall. It’s also cumbersome.

I tested a few versions of this lens. While in Germany with Leica last year, I used a copy that they had there. But here in NYC, I went through two different ones. The first copy I had came with a dented lens filter ring. That means someone really used the heck out of this lens. It kept working, but this brings up another big question. Why the heck am I paying $5k for a lens, and I get no lens hood? That doesn’t make sense. I completely understand and sympathize with ensuring your workers are paid fairly. Leica is really all about sustainability, and that should be valued much more than it is. But give me a lens hood!

“Why the heck am I paying $5k for a lens and I get no lens hood? That doesn’t make any sense.”

– A quote from Chris Gampat

Where this lens truly feels at home isn’t necessarily with Leica’s own cameras. In fact, where I found it to be best balanced is with the Panasonic S5. With that camera, the overall package becomes something I’d bring around with me everywhere.

Ease of Use

Using this lens is just like any other modern autofocus optic on the market. Attach it to your camera, point, focus, and shoot. It’s that simple. There are no buttons or switches on the lens, so if you want to switch from autofocus to manual focus, you have to use the Leica menus. To be frank, that can be a bit annoying. I’d much rather have a switch on a camera like Panasonic provides. In fact, I found it easier to use on the Panasonic S5. All the switches on that camera are in the right spot. Most interestingly though, it’s also the fastest to focus on that camera.

Autofocus

Here is the oddest thing about the L Mount alliance. They’re a complicated polyamory between Leica, Panasonic, and Sigma. The idea is the three share the same mount and autofocus algorithms. But though the lenses are all brilliant, they are also incredibly wonky. You’d think that Leica lenses would focus fastest on Leica. Most obviously, you’d think they all perform the same across the board, but the Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4 focused fastest on the Panasonic S5. Pairing this lens with that camera gave me an excellent feeling about the L mount alliance. Previously, I’ve wondered why some lenses wouldn’t work so well on one camera body vs. another. Panasonic says it’s a motor issue, but Leica and Sigma have never really commented on this.

All in all, Leica is promising new firmware later this year. Autofocus performance should improve then, but as of January 2021, the fastest and most reliable autofocus with this lens comes with the Panasonic S5. It’s not too shabby on Leica’s bodies, but I noticed some slowness.

“Most obviously, you’d think they all perform the same across the board. But the Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4 focused fastest on the Panasonic S5. Pairing this lens with that camera gave me an excellent feeling about the L mount alliance.”

– A quote from Chris Gampat

In the pandemic, it’s been really tough to take images. For the record, I moved from East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Woodside, Queens. The COVID positivity rates aren’t the best here, so I did most of the testing within my own apartment. That means a lot of documenting myself in my daily routines. I’d set the Leica SL2 and the Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4 on a tripod for food photography. Then I’d shoot in the interval mode with the system shooting a photo every two seconds. I could tell when it was struggling to focus. And that happened more than I’d have liked it to.

At a price point like this, the autofocus should be flawless. It is nearly so with the Panasonic S5, but on Leica’s own camera bodies, this lens can sometimes let you down.

Image Quality

Autofocus and weight issues aside, the Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4 produces incredibly stunning photos. Leica sent me the lens without a lens hood, and maybe that added to the lens’s character. This lens doesn’t have the same character as M lenses (something about those lenses is just pure magic). However, this lens is sharp, has nice bokeh, and no major problems at all. It’s even better that Capture One 21 supports the Leica SL lineup now too.

Bokeh

The wider end of the Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4 isn’t going to win any major awards. The bokeh isn’t anything I haven’t seen from other camera manufacturers. With that said, though, I generally find the bokeh pleasing. For the best results, combine the long end with effective color and lighting usage.

Overall, the bokeh is nice, but not anything I haven’t seen before. 

Chromatic Aberration

I didn’t find many issues at all with distortion or chromatic aberrations. In fact, there were none for the latter. Capture One 21 has a lens profile for it, so that will handle any big concerns. However, again, I didn’t find any.

Color Rendition

If you’re a Leica M user, then you can probably spot Leica colors. And you’ll get those here with the Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4. They’re not like Sony, Canon, or Nikon colors at all. If anything, I’d call modern Leica colors something like old Sony colors. Remember back in the day of the Sony a900 when everything would have a slightly purple tint to it? That’s what the SL system is like. But it’s more vivid.

So if you crave those old early Alpha/Minolta days, you’ll like this.

Sharpness

The SL system doesn’t have any outstanding flashes available for it. So I had to do everything with ambient, natural, or LED lighting. Still, this lens is competent in the sharpness department. I hate pixel peeping, and if you’re looking for the sharpest lenses, then this isn’t it. But if you’re not pixel peeping, it’s more than satisfactory. And overall, it’s still quite sharp. However, you should know that both Sigma and Panasonic’s 24-70mm f2.8 lenses are sharper than the Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4. It’s one of the reasons I never liked variable aperture zooms and let alone zoom lenses. So much can go wrong with them.

Extra Image Samples

Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4 Review Conclusions

Likes

  • Colors
  • Character, though not the same as M lenses
  • Performance on Panasonic bodies
  • Build quality
  • Image quality

Dislikes

Objectively speaking, the Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4 is a solid lens. It’s built well, it’s weather-sealed and it’s reliable, so you can take it anywhere with you. But it’s also heavy, especially with Leica bodies. The image quality is good all around, but it’s also not the best in any specific department. However, it trades that for versatility and character. You’re getting more than a 24-70mm lens at the expense of a variable aperture. Further, the Japanese made lenses mostly seem to engineer the fun out of the images. The German-made Leica doesn’t do that. 

Most amazing is the autofocus performance on the Panasonic S5. It outdoes even Leica’s own camera bodies. In fact, I’d say that the combo is nearly on the same level as Canon and Sony or even a hair ahead of Fujifilm. That’s a weird thing to say, I know, but in good lighting, it’s totally the case. It won’t always be the most accurate, but it will surely be fast. 

Then there are the elephants in the room. Why is a Leica lens faster on a Panasonic body? Most importantly, why is this a lens over $5,000? To add to the insult, there’s no lens hood included. For the rest of the features, I can see a solid case. Admittedly too, I don’t like zoom lenses. Canon’s recent RF lenses and Tamron’s E mount lenses are the only ones I’d probably truly consider. Leica has always been strongest with their primes. And this is a good example of just that.

The Leica SL 24-90mm f2.8-4 receives four out of five stars. Want one? It’s $5,495, but you can find it for a bit cheaper on Amazon or if you check eBay.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.