So Much Amazing Character. Leica 16-35mm F3.5-4.5 SL Review

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Wide-angle lenses are enjoyable! The team likes them because you get a much different perspective. And that’s the case with the Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL lens. This lens initially confused us because we wondered why Leica didn’t just make an f2.8 lens? In contrast to the Sigma 14-24mm f2.8 Art DG DN, it’s got a lot more character. It’s also lighter, better built, and can actually accept a front filter. But of course, it’s also pretty pricey. We spent some time with the Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL and seriously enjoyed it.

Too Long, Didn’t Read

The Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL is a fantastic lens with a ton of character and versatility. It’s weather-resistant, focuses pretty fast, and simply works. But it’s kind of heavy. To be fair, I also don’t like a lot of zoom lenses. However, Leica did their best to make this one feel like a prime. And ultimately, it does. I also wish it had a constant aperture, but I’ll gladly sacrifice that for durability.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Lots of beautiful lens character. It doesn’t feel sterile at all!
  • Built like a prime, pretty much
  • Fairly fast autofocus
  • Great build quality

Cons

Innovations

The Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL isn’t exactly an innovative lens. It’s a first of its kind in modern photography, but manufacturers have created constant aperture lenses like this for years. If anything, this is the only one that’s got this level of weather sealing and an all-metal build. In many ways, though, Leica is like Fujifilm in that you’re better off reaching for their prime lenses much of the time. 

Gear Used

We tested the Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL with the Leica SL2s.

Tech Specs

Specs are taken from the LensRentals listing.

The Leica 16-35mm f/3.5-4.5 Super-Vario-Elmar-SL is a versatile wide-angle zoom for full-frame L-mount cameras. Key features include:

  • Great for landscape, event, and architecture photography
  • High-quality optical design
  • Autofocus with full-time manual-focus override
  • Durable, weather-sealed build

Wide-Angle Zoom. The Leica 16-35mm f/3.5-4.5 Super-Vario-Elmar-SL is a wide-angle zoom lens that’s great for a range of applications, including landscape, architecture, and event photography. Its f/3.5-4.5 variable aperture doesn’t give much flexibility in low light, so you’ll want to stick with decent lighting conditions with this one. Using an APS-C camera? You’ll have a focal length equivalent to 24-52.5mm.

High-Quality Optics. As you’d expect from Leica, the Super-Vario-Elmar-SL features high-quality optics. Its twelve-group/eighteen-element design includes two aspherical elements and three anomalous partial-dispersion glass elements that minimize aberrations and distortion while improving sharpness and color accuracy.

Focus, Focus, Focus. This lens’s stepping autofocus motor provides fast, precise, and nearly silent autofocus performance that’s great for video and still photography alike. You also get full-time manual-focus override for even greater precision. The 16-35 boasts a 9.8-inch minimum focusing distance, and its internal-focusing design means the front filter ring doesn’t rotate during use. This makes it easier to work with circular polarizers, graduated ND filters, and other types of filters that depend on a specific orientation.

Durable Build. The weather-sealed design keeps the dust and moisture out, so you can keep working even in inclement shooting conditions. Water-repellent AquaDura coatings on the front and rear optical surfaces protect against moisture and other elements.

Ergonomics

Here’s a look at the Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL lens. It’s fairly minimal with two zoom rings. The one on the back is made of rubber and operates the zoom. The one near the front is also rubber and controls the focusing.

A really good thing about the Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL is that it’s mostly made of metal. Luckily, Leica has found a way to make it not weigh as much as a brick. With that said, though, I still oddly expected this lens to be smaller.

The Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL uses a massive 82mm front filter thread. And luckily, the design lets it accept filters. This lens is right around the size of Canon’s 15-35mm f2.8 L IS USM lens. The Leica is also around half a pound heavier. Granted, the Leica came out in 2018, and the Canon was released in 2019. Canon’s lens also boasts a constant aperture, image stabilization, etc.

The Leica has two more glass elements than Canon’s. Plus, there’s the metal body. But for the life of me, I still can’t fully understand why they couldn’t do any of the things I asked.

Build Quality

Well, the Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL has a heck of a lot of weather resistance. This is incredibly important for photojournalists. Indeed, when I took this lens out into the rain, it was the only night of the Astoria Carnival in Queens. I walked around the MET, went to a bar, and headed to the Carnival on a whim. I didn’t expect it to pour, but the Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL and the Leica SL2s took quite a hard rainfall. However, they kept clicking.

Leica didn’t send me a lens hood with this lens, but it kept working no matter what. It’s durable. And as you can tell from the images, some of them have water droplets on the front. That’s a testament to this lens and how well it works. Zooming in and out, I didn’t have any trouble with the build quality.

This is what I’d expect from the industry. Some brands really do a great job. But the extra assurance that Leica puts an IP rating on their cameras really makes me happy.

Ease of Use

The Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL is simple to use. Manual focus will need to be activated through the camera body. But otherwise, it’s a point-and-shoot affair. Point it. Focus it. Shoot it. And fall in love. I surely did when using this lens. In real-life use, I questioned whether or not I really cared about it not being a constant aperture. I highly doubt from the images that anyone could tell what aperture I was using.

With image stabilization on the Leica SL2s, I was able to get pretty cool shots like this. I created purposeful motion blur while everything else was sharply in focus. Granted, I could also do this with Canon and have image stabilization. The same goes for Sony and Nikon both. I’d also have a constant aperture, but I couldn’t guarantee this level of build quality. 

Nikon doesn’t easily let me put a lens hood and filter on. Sony’s lens isn’t as well built, but it’s around the same size. Again, there’s a lot I’m confused about with the Leica. But for all intents and purposes, it works.

Autofocus

During our tests, we were a bit surprised at the autofocus. There were times where it could give me a hiccup, but I’m blaming that on my copy. The Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL I received was a bit banged up. In practical usage with the Leica SL2s, it rarely ever missed a shot. I set the camera to face and body detection. And it consistently did a great job. Combined with a high enough ISO, a fast enough shutter, speed, and image stabilization, the duo performed admirably. 

For what it’s worth, though, every other lens on the market that competes with this can focus faster. But again, in practical terms, I’m not sure it matters. Wide-angle lenses have so much in focus at a given aperture anyway.

Image Quality

Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of zoom lenses. Tamron and Canon have made the only ones I truly adore. But It’s not like Leica zoom lenses are awful. And the Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL delivers where it counts. Some may call it distortion, but I call it lens character in a world where everything is so clinical. It’s also exhibiting sharp image quality, beautiful colors, and decent bokeh. 

Bokeh

I’m a big Grand Seiko fan, and I couldn’t help but look at their new Skyflake in person. So when that happened, I wanted to photograph it. The bokeh in this shot is surprisingly creamy. It can focus to just under 10 inches. And at 35mm and f4.5, I’m amazed I can get bokeh like this. In fact, it almost doesn’t make sense that I would. But surely, this isn’t a 16mm shot.

Color Rendition

Something I truly adore about the Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL is the color. Combine that with fixed white balances, and you’ll be very, very happy. Part of that comes from Leica’s sensors and processors.

Lens Character

The Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL surely has distortion around the corners. And that’s where you’ll see the bokeh sbegin to warp. But it has a bit of charm that I honestly can’t get over. I love the images it produces, but I just wish the lens wasn’t as heavy.

Sharpness

Wide-open, the Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL is sharp. But stopped down; it just gets better. I can’t complain at al about how it performs. It’s a stunner overall.

Extra Image Samples

From day one, The Phoblographer has been huge on transparency. Nothing from this review is sponsored. Further, lots of folks will post reviews and show a ton of editing in the photos. The problem then becomes that anyone and everyone can do the same thing. It doesn’t show what the lens can do. So we have a section in our Extra Image Samples area to show edited and unedited photos. From this, you can make a decision for yourself.

Edited

Unedited

Conclusions

Likes

  • Build quality
  • Lens character
  • Image quality

Dislikes

  • It’s heavy
  • It’s pricey.

This is a complicated lens. I don’t like that it doesn’t have a constant aperture, but in real-life performance, it doesn’t matter. (It might if I shot TTL flash, but Leica’s flash system support isn’t great.) It’s heavy and has extra lens elements vs. a few other lenses with constant apertures. Yet, at the same time, it has a beautiful character I can’t get over. It also boasts gorgeous colors. And it’s got the build quality that puts it in a league of its own. But if I really had to, I’d reach for Panasonic’s 16-35mm f4 PRO first. It’s smaller, faster to focus, and weather sealed. I wouldn’t reach for Sigma’s 14-24mm f2.8 because it’s bigger. It’s also not as versatile or as well built. Then you attach the price tag to the Leica, and it just doesn’t make sense.

Despite all this, it’s still a very good lens. And if you want a wide-angle in the Leica lineup, it’s your best bet.

The Leica 16-35mm f3.5-4.5 SL gets four out of five stars. Want one? Check out Amazon for the latest prices.

Chris Gampat

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