The Hot Pursuit of Excellence or the careful testing and adaptation to what you already own?

I recently went through the exercise of trying to decide if it was worth it to me to buy a new zoom lens. My foray into Leica SL cameras started pushing the buttons of avarice in relation to that company's one and only standard, SL zoom lens; the 24-90mm f2.8-4.0. At a lusty $5500 even the most spendthrift among us might take pause and at least investigate to see if there are more rational options. 

Of course, the obvious choice is the lens sitting on my desk and currently muttering derisive remarks about my lack of credit given to its exemplary performance. That lens would be the very, very good Panasonic Lumix 24-105mm f4.0. I've used it over and over again and have always been happy and satisfied with the final results but the powerful lure of Leica legend always makes me wonder if their lens will supply just that tiny bit more "edge" or "magic" that will elevate images and make each image sweeter. 

It's interesting that I find myself so interested in the cameras and lenses at a time when there are still so few real opportunities to push the creative envelope and do the kind of work that might elevate a great lens above a pile of really, really good lenses. But as I've read recently so much of our feelings of boredom, lethargy and lack of initiative are a direct result of our feelings of lack of control. We're not completely in charge of our ability to go to the places we want to go or to photograph the people we want to photograph in the same way we did before the pandemic hit. This translates directly into our feeling as though certain potentials of control have been taken from us. 

On a whim I bought an older, 28-70mm f3.5-4.5 Leica Vario Elmar-R lens. It is well used and the built-in lens hood is floppy and rattles. I wondered if I could get some of the character that gets credited to Leica lenses in general with this lens. The price was too good to pass up so I added it to the collection and bought an "URTH" brand adapter to mate it to the SL body. 

It's interesting to research some of these lenses and learn just how intertwined camera makers and other brand lens makers were (are?) intertwined. This particular lens is a re-badge of a Sigma lens from the early 1990s. Leica's input apparently extended only to the cosmetics of the exterior design but didn't involve any optical design input. Perhaps the lens coatings are different from the Sigma version but that's just conjecture on my part. So, essentially you are putting an older lens from what was at the time a very second tier lens maker on the front of a much more modern and capable camera. What could go wrong? 

Apparently this lens suffers from mediocre build quality and that's evident in the floppy, built-in lens hood. At some point Leica decided to find a company that might do a better job with the basic lens construction so they partnered with Kyocera and also took a more direct hand in the mechanical build quality; but the optical design stayed the same. The newer version is NOT the version I have....

I got tired of the lens hood self-retracting and rattling around so I extended it to its full position and gaffer taped it there. Then I went out and shot with it. One thing you can say about the lens is that it appears very sharp and contrasty in the middle of the frame. Another thing you can say about the lens is that the geometric distortion at the edges of the frame is very, very high at 28mm and vacillates all through the focal length range. Ending up with above average pin cushion distortion at the long end. 

And, in my first tests I found the lens to have oddly manifested vignetting. With extremely dark corners that were hard to correct; if they could be corrected at all. I compared it with the Lumix 24-105 and found the later to be so much better. So I stuck the older lens in a drawer and ignored it for a while. 

But at some point this last week I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote down, on a small sketch pad, "faulty hood." and went right back to sleep. Yesterday I re-visited the 28-70mm and also looked around the web at the very few samples I could find from this lens. I wondered if my middle of the night writing was somehow intuiting the issue. I took off all the tape and pulled the lens hood into its fully retracted position and re-taped it there. I took some shots around the house and noticed that the aberrant vignetting had vanished. There was still the usual vignetting of a lens of this type, and it becomes more apparent it a time when most new lenses are corrected for vignetting in the camera software. But it was nothing like the bizarre vignetting I was experiencing before. 

I decided, after photographing several lawyers during the work day, to go back to the downtown area and take some test shots with the newly "modified" 28-70mm lens. At the end of my experiment I found that the lens still distorts like crazy --- but I never expected that to change. It's pretty easy to correct in post processing so I don't worry about it. But I really don't worry about it because it's not a lens I'd chose to use for exacting architecture for clients... The vignetting, however, was massively better and completely correctable in Lightroom. 

I do like the look of the the colors and the acutance of the lens. I understand that it was designed to have more contrast and to only match the needed resolution of film at the time but the impression of sharpness for so much content that hits the web makes this lens seem more modern than it otherwise might be. 

The vignetting clears up almost in a linear progression with stopping down. By f5.6 or f8.0 it's mostly gone and easily manageable with one of the Lightroom sliders. 

To be frank, while I like playing with this small and likable lens it's really the great performance of the 24-105 Panasonic lens that quells my desire for the big, fat and pricey Leica lens. If I'm honest with myself there's probably never a use case which would dictate that I need the Leica lens. I can't think that any client would see a demonstrable difference between the Leica and the Lumix in real world use. But the expensive lens and all its promise hovers around in an orbit just on the edge of my consciousness, waiting for a moment of weakness, a glitch in my fiduciary logic, to pounce and ingratiate itself into my camera system like an invasive species of bamboo. 

Till then, I guess I'll get along well enough will all the other toys in the collection...

P.S. I thought I should explain the silly and over the top posters below. 

When I was on the 23rd story of a downtown office building photographing an attorney I looked out one of the windows and saw, down on Colorado and Third streets, a big crane with a nine-light (giant cinema fixture) on the front of it and a gaggle of movie grips trying to look cool, professional and on the ball surrounding said crane. I knew they were movie grips because they were busy attaching sheets of color correcting gels to the lighting fixtures. And they had the little, worn grip pouches hanging off their belts. And the production company T-shirts, mostly in black. And the black, cotton baseball caps, ala Ron Howard. 

When I came back downtown to do my lens test with the 28-70mm Leica I walked over to that area and conferred with the intelligence experts out in the field. Those would be the two young guys running the valet parking station across the street. They had the scoop. Austin is currently home to filming the re-boot of "Walker Texas Ranger" and the production company is using a number of downtown locations for the effort. These posters went up on the first day of shooting and are nothing like the usual posters downtown. They are obviously a movie art director's idea of punk rebellion coupled with dated commerce. 

The production had also taken over on the store fronts on Third St. and created a canopied entry for a fake business. On every corner was a large grip truck with grips hanging out smoking and desperately trying to look like the prevailing stereotype of a movie crew. I thought the posters were funny and photographed them. Nobody seemed to mind me being in their (temporary) space. It's almost always interesting...