Every now and then there is a time when some interesting camera models pile up on my desk. Usually this happens during a transition the from one model to another one. Recently the stars aligned again. Since I moved up to a Leica M240 a few months ago I wanted to test it against my older Leica M9P. While I like the M240s high ISO performance I wasn’t fully sure how it compares when being used during the day. This comparison had been on my agenda for a while and it just happened that a Sony A7R showed up. So what better time to actually test all three against each other by using the same settings and the same lenses for the same shots. I still have my Novoflex Leica to Nex adapter from my Nex 7 which perfectly attaches to the Sony camera. With this adapter in place I can switch Leica M mount lenses between all three bodies. These three lenses came to mind: A Leica 50mm Summilux ASPH. Probably one of the best 50mm lenses out there. A Leica 35mm 2.0 ASPH. This lens is not the newest. I bought it roughly ten years ago and it has been my trusted companion since. Last but not least a Zeiss Biogon 21mm 2.8. I bought this lens a few years ago for a Magnum Photo workshop. I wasn’t sure if I would like it but it actually became one of my favorite lenses on the M9. I shot almost all of the photos during that workshop with that lens. It is great for close-up street photography. I noticed some color cast with that lens when I switched to the M240 and since the A7R is known for poor wide angle performance with manual-focus lenses, I thought that trying this out would be a good idea. Would the color cast of the Sony actually be stronger than the one of the M240? This photo-shoot would give me some answers on that.
Here is my approach. I mount one lens on each body and start to walk around my neighborhood. When I see something interesting I take the camera with the appropriate lens attached. I set the settings and take a photo. Then I switch that lens to the next body, using the same settings for F stop, shutter speed, and ISO and take that photo again. Then I do that step again with the third body. Needless to say that creativity suffers a bit since I have to find still objects, and rotating the lens and adjusting the settings is an exhausting exercise. I shoot all photos as uncompressed Raw, not Jpeg. At the end of the day I import all images into Lightroom 5.3. It supports the new Sony A7R files. Once imported I do not make any adjustment but export as Jpegs for online viewing. All shots are handheld. Why don’t I use a tripod? Because almost 95% of my photography is being done handheld and I believe that many buyers of these cameras will use them that way unless they do some landscape or architectural work. This exercise is purely to evaluate which camera/lens combination provides me with the most ‘keepers’. It is not a scientific test nor is it a statement on how these tools can unleash your creativity. Be aware that the metadata of the Leica files shows estimated F stops. They may differ from what I actually use. Some readers may suggest that I should try this or that but what I am trying to do makes sense to me.
So here are the results, always in the following order:
Leica M9/Leica M240/Sony A7R
Leica 50mm 1.4 Summilux, 1/4000 f1.4 ISO 200
Here is a detailed view of the Sony (left) versus the M240 (right)
Looking at the files it shows that the M9 renders a scene a bit colder. The M240 images are warmer in tone and the Sony creates the warmest files. Seeing all the images next to each other shows that the M9 creates the darkest files, followed by slightly brighter M240 and an even brighter Sony output. Using the 21mm on the M9 leads to some light fall-off. The M240 shows less fall-off but indicates a hint of magenta cast on the right side. The Sony creates the weirdest colors possible, with strong magenta casts on the side and a yellowish tone on the top. For black&white conversion this may not be a problem but for color photos it is. The Sony clearly shows more detail than the M240, like the M240 shows more detail than the M9. Surprisingly the A7R captures good details along the edges with this wide-angle lens. I did not expect that. It is amazing to see what this small camera can pull off. Have a look at the red pipe close-up. Notice that for the the Sony photo I stood slightly further back than for the other ones. Still it presents more detail when properly focused. Focusing the Sony is tricky. With the 50mm you can look throught the viewfinder and dial in the focus. As wider the lenses get as more difficult it is to see the focus changes. Several times I found myself dialing back and forth the 21mm lens (wide open) without seeing any difference. Often the focus peaking distracts more than it helps and I switched it off on most shots and focused by sight. Close-up shots are easier since the focused area is more pronounced.
Leica 50mm 1.4 Summilux, 1/4000 f2.8 ISO 800
Overall the Sony is fun to use. I don’t find the shutter to be too loud outdoors. I did not take any photos of people but I didn’t get the impression that the sound would hold me back from doing so. Indoors is a different story. People clearly notice that sound every time you take a photo and they react to it. The M240 shutter in comparison is smooth and discreet. When I take photos indoors with the Leica people may react to the first shot but will ignore the following ones because the shutter sound is very ingorable. The feel of the Sony is similar to the Nex 7. Once you have it in your hand it feels like the Nex 7 with an electronic viewfinder mounted to the top. It is a bit thicker than the Nex 7 but still lighter and thinner than the Leicas. The interface of the A7R needs a bit to getting used to. I am not a fan of many buttons and I can easily get confused. Usually I don’t spend much time with the manuals and I don’t explore all features. I stay with the basics. Once I had discovered how to quickly adjust the shutter and ISO on the Sony I happily ignored most of the other buttons. The M9 in comparison is so simple to use that you don’t really need a manual. It is very intuitive and I noticed that it is the only camera that I managed to use with thin gloves. I tried to press the buttons on the M240, which are more flush with the body, but never really hit them correctly.
Leica 50mm 1.4 Summilux, 1/4000 f1.4 ISO 200
Zeiss 21mm Biogon 2.8, 1/250 f8 ISO 200
For the following set I was looking into 3D rendering of the scene. I used f1.4 to get very shallow depth of field. Focusing on the frame with a range finder is easy. You can’t get it wrong. The bicycle frame provides enough contrasting lines to quickly and accurately overlap the rangefinder images. With the Sony I used focus peaking. Through the Sony viewfinder it looked as if the frame was in focus. I used focus peaking and the bicycle frame was surrounded by white highlight of the focus assist. When you look at the detailed view you can see that the actual focusing point was on the wall, not on the frame. The focus peaking range is sometimes not tight enough to precisely pinpoint a wide-open Summilux lens. The only way to get this right with a manual lens is to use the magnifying feature of the camera. But that requires an extra step.
Leica 50mm 1.4 Summilux, 1/4000 f1.4 ISO 800
Looking at these files shows how much detailed the Sony can capture….in the center. Right in the middle of the image the files are clean and super rich. Once you move to the edges the photos start to look soft and the details are less than in the M240 file. Actually you don’t have to look at the edges. The softness starts gradually once you get off-center. It seems to me that the camera has not been designed to work well with Leica’s lenses. Is that a design flaw? For those who are looking for a cheaper ‘Leica’ to use with Leica glass it definitely is. From Sony’s perspective it may just be a basic calculation. Getting the full potential with Sony glass versus Leica glass will drive sales of Sony lenses. That’s where the money is. Buy one camera and then add a set of high-margin lenses to it. So while I can’t really recommend this camera as an alternative body to use Leica glass (unless you only shoot wide open with tons of blur around the edges), I still believe that it will match or outperform the M240 once you put a Sony/Zeiss lens on it.
Leica 50mm 1.4 Summilux, 1/500 f2 ISO 400
Here are a few more examples that show Sony’s image softness when used with my manual-focus Leica and Zeiss lenses.
Leica 50mm 1.4 Summilux, 1/500 f8 ISO 400
You may be wondering what happened to my photos taken with the 35mm Summicron lens. I took a few and when I came back and processed them I first thought that I had screwed up the focus. So I sorted them out. Later I realized that it seems to be the lens/camera combination that just doesn’t work. Images are overall soft and just outside the center area start to be awful. Here I will show a few just taken with the Leica m240 and the Sony A7R.
The only other thing that came to mind was shutter vibration since I didn’t use a tripod. But I used fairly short shutter times like 1/250 or 1/500 with a 35mm lens. ( I use Medium Format backs at 1/300 for an 80mm lens and I get sharp images despite the huge mirror slap). So I don’t think it is blur caused by the shutter. To make sure that the focus was not accidentally a bit off I took one more shot out of my window and set the focus all the way to infinity with objects being far away.
Overview with Leica M240 first and Sony A7R second.
Leica 35mm 2.0 Summicron, 1/250 f5 ISO 800
So what do I take from that? My hope was to find a good, more affordable way to combine my Leica and Zeiss glass with a full-frame camera by using a Sony A7R. A 36 megapixel camera in a compact size, joined with a Summilux sounds like an interesting combination. My exploration showed me that the the Sony A7R is not that camera for me. My results were far below of what I believe the camera sensor is capable of. There are several possibilities that may lead to the unfavored outcome.
1. The lenses could have some issues.
I would think that this may happen with one lens but getting bad and similar results from all lenses seems to suggest a different reason. On the M cameras the lenses perform very well, which would suggest that they don’t have any issues.
2. Motion blur
As mentioned, since I did not use a tripod it is possible that the image got impacted by motion blur caused by the shutter or freezing fingers. It was cold!
The shutter speeds that I used were short. Usually I would get crisp results at these speeds. The Leicas had no issues. If my hands would have caused the soft images then I would think that the whole image would be soft and not just the sides. It could be that the shutter causes some rotational movement around the lens axis that would lead to more movement along the outside and less in the center. I don’t think that this is the case but don’t want to rule it out.
3. The Novoflex adapter could have issues.
Who knows. Usually the Novoflex is one of the most precise adapters for the Nex series. Since it only defines the lens mounting distance and angle I would not think that a faulty adapter would lead to a sharp center but soft peripherals.
4. The sensor
Is the Sony sensor outresolving the Leica lens? No. The M240 images show more detail along the sides than the Sony images. That indicates that the lens resolution is fine but that the sensor can’t appropriately capture the light. That leads to another reason. It could be that the angle in which the lights hits the sensor is to steep. Because the legacy lenses are mounted so closely to the sensor, the angle that the light hits the surface is very steep. Leica corrects this with microlenses above each sensor pixel. It looks to me that Sony did not go that path. It may just be too expense to do so or they want to show that a Sony camera and Sony lens combination is superior to a Leica lens combination, which would lead to more lens purchases and more revenue. To me this seems to be the most logical explanation. The only doubt that I have comes from some other tests and reviews on the internet that show a flawless performance of these lenses on the Sony A7r. Even Michael Reichmann recommends the use of legacy lenses above 35mm for that camera. But others have witnessed similar results to mine and have returned their cameras. So it is a bit unclear what the full story is.
All that being said, or written, the quality that I see in the center of the A7R images, taken with a 50mm Summilux, gives me a glimpse of what this camera is capable of. Combined with a specially designed Zeiss lens it may turn this camera into a fantastic image capturing tool. But the idea that a strong performing Leica lens would make the Sony sensor shine is just not the case. At least not for me. It seems to me that they have not been designed for each other and the results show this. Personally I will stay with the M240. It could be that my output is a result of bad photographic skills. I hope that is not the case. If so then the camera seems to amplify that since I am getting great results with other cameras. The quality of my M240 files is fabulous. That is what is comes down to. If I can not extract a perfect image from a several thousand $ camera, for whatever reasons, then it is not a camera for me. I will continue using the M240, which gives me overall superb image quality with my legacy lenses. Never change a winning team.
What about the M9 compared to the M240?
Some may ask about the M9P results. I prefer the tones of the M240. It is something that can be easily corrected in Lightroom, still I prefer how it comes out of the camera. I thought that the CCD would give crisper images right out the camera, but I did not see that in my shots. The overall quality is very similar, just more detailed with the M240 because of more megapixels. The better high ISO performance lets me take photos under conditions that previously would have been impossible to do with the M9. The battery life of the M240 is superb. In the past I was concerned when I grabbed the M9 with a half-full battery and walked out for a short stroll to take some photos. It always felt that the last 50% of the battery charge would disappear much more quickly than the first 50%. Now I take the M240 on a few days trip with 50% of battery charge and I know that it will last long enough to get a few hundred shots in. I did not do any scientific research on the battery lives of all three cameras but when I started taking my photos the M240 was at 92%, the Sony A7r at 88% and the M9 at 75%. With the M9 I took 60 images, with the Sony 68 and with the M240 107 (While the other two stayed in a bag the M240 was around my shoulder and I snapped some additional photos here and there while walking around). At the end of the shoot the M9 was empty, the A7R at 62% and the M240 at 68%.
There are a few things that I don’t like about the M240. The biggest issue is the slow startup time. It roughly takes 2 seconds after switching it on until the camera is ready. That is a 2003 standard but not 2013. It is too long and I missed a few shots because I was waiting for it to come to life. Interface wise it has too many buttons and wheels. Not as crazy as the Sony but still more than the M9, which to me feels very Zen-like. The interface of the M240 is sometimes difficult to use. The ISO numbers show up really small along the top edge of the screen while 90% of the screen is empty. I need to put on my glasses to read them. So why not make them a bit more prominent. I like the grid selection for ISO on the M9. The position of the highlight within the grid makes it easier for me to select an ISO number, even when I am not able to read the text. While the M9 is still a beautiful tool to use the M240 does better. Actually it performs better than the M9 in almost all categories, including image quality.
I am somewhat unhappy with the outcome of the photo-shoot. I am not fully sure on what causes the soft image performance of the Sony A7R paired with high-quality legacy lenses. I wish I would have used the new Sony 35mm 2.8 in addition to my lenses to fully explore the camera’s potential. Despite the softer edges I think the quality is good enough to make some stunning photos. Most people won’t see the difference on smaller prints. But for an expensive camera combo you expect it to perform perfectly with absolutely crisp and consistent sharpness across the image. I personally did not get that done. In a way the test raised more questions than it answered. The only answer that it gave to me is that a combination of my photographic skills, my lenses, and a Sony A7r don’t lead to great results. I believe that the answer lies in Sony glass and that you need specifically designed lenses to make that sensor shine. I am curious to see what other people think.
I hope you enjoyed the article. D!RK