Dec 282010

FROM STEVE: Another superb guest article! Thanks to all who have been submitting these articles. I think it is amazing that we can all learn from each other and also, it has given me a breather and time to get refreshed and reloaded! I have some amazing surprises coming up soon…something AMAZINGLY special that you all will want to get involved in. Also..yes, my Pentax K5 review is coming SOON! Promise!

Enjoy this article/review of this fantastic lens for your M mount camera and thank you Michael for submitting it!

The Leica M9 with Zeiss ZM 85mm Sonnar Lens Review by Michael Letchford

See his website HERE.

Having recently made the move from Nikon DSLRs to the Leica M9 for most of my general candid photography, I needed a longer throw lens for those can’t quite get close enoughí shots. Like a good chap, instead of rushing out and buying on impulse, I did my homework.

I read whatever I could find on the usual forums and websites, but was still undecided between 75mm and 90mm Leica lenses. Then, my excellent local Leica dealer Robert White’s Stuart Culley, while apologising for poor availability of Leica 90mm lenses, suggested a Zeiss f/2.0 85mm Sonnar as another option; particularly good, he thought, for portraits and full length people shots. That remark resonated because of some first class images I had seen right at the end of Steve’s February 10th article on the Leica 75mm Summicron, shot on the Zeiss, as a comparison to the Leica.

Steve and other writers have been impressed with the Zeiss and so, when I needed to make a final decision for a forthcoming trip, I decided on the Zeiss hoping that it would be the right choice. When it finally arrived, I made some quick test shots to get to know it and was quietly impressed with the way it draws, its colour and just the overall quality of the imagery. Then I took it with me to Venice for a couple of days and these are my first impressions of the combination. First, the test shots.

Yes, I know – is this a boring shot or what? Well, this was the first image from the lens and I kept it in because of the superb, subtle tones in the car’s hood and bright metalwork. This colour is difficult to capture, but the full size non-jpeg version, processed, is stunning. It’s a simple, nondescript image but it signposts the lens’s capabilities. I was encouraged.

But, oh dear. When I took some contra-jour images to see how it would cope with flare, I was somewhat surprised by the colour fringing on the burnt out highlights in some of the test images. Here you can see, on the left above, a 100 percent centre crop from an image taken at f/2.8 versus that on the right at f5.6. You can see substantial colour fringing around very high contrast edges until the lens is stopped down. Hmmm.

As you can see above, this is really significant when you inadvertently overexpose the image, as I did above, while experimenting with the bracketing of exposures. Ooops. Well, after this shoot I was very concerned that I might have a problem lens, so I revisited the articles I’d previously read to see if others had the same issue. Yup, in his 90mm RF Lenses test on the M8, Sean Reid noted the same issue on his pre-production sample, finding more Chromatic Aberration than expected at apertures greater than f4. Also, in his test on the ZF version of the same design his test shots show similar aberration levels on images from wide open to f4.

Hmmm again. However, rereading Sean’s closing remarks in his later comparative test of 90mm Leica. Zeiss and Voigtlander lenses, where he also re-tests a production Sonnar, he concludes;…” ‘it’s really impossible to ignore the exceptional performance of the Zeiss 85/2.0 Sonnar. This is a first rate optic…. (it) may, in terms of technical performance, be the best telephoto lens I have yet tested.”. So, I was comforted enough to try again, and with renewed enthusiasm aided by a gorgeous sunny day, I set off into the village to get the shots below.

Here you can see what can be achieved with the lens when the exposure is spot on. This is an old, very photogenic cottage in my village. The detail in the building and its roof makes it very useful as a test subject – particularly in bright sunlight together with some deeper shadows under the nearby trees. I just liked the way the Sonnar draws it – and those lovely colours. The image was shot in RAW and minimally converted in ACR. No contrast adjustments or sharpening were done.

Here are some 100 percent crops from around the centre and edges of the same image – again, all unsharpened and unprocessed except the bare minimum of conversion in ACR. Although this is reputed to be a high contrast lens, all these details are beautifully drawn and they stand out without the need for adding excessive contrast in post processing. The chimney detail crop reveals how beautifully the lens renders the subtle tones in the eathernware pots – great colours again – and if you’re concerned about how it captures detail at the edges, check out the fine wire mesh at the top of the right hand chimney pot.

Walking a bit further down the lane, I shot the image below. It’s shows an example of a dying craft called ‘Pargetting’. This is done by lime plastering a section of wall, or as here a decorative panel, and then drawing into the wet plaster to illustrate a rural scene. It’s a technique that was used on many village and civic buildings from the Late Tudor period (1500s to 1600s) right up to the early 1920s. Here you can see local farm workers felling and trimming a tree. Anyway, the image helps to show how the lens captures the textures without having to emphasize them with contrast adjustments.

There is also no trace of the aberrations I detected earlier. The high contrast edges around the windows in the shot below show that all is well when you get the exposure right.

Here is a 100 percent crop detail from the upper left of the image. No contrast adjustments or sharpening were added. Great colours in the roof tiles.

Below is a 100 percent crop detail straight from the RAW file from the centre of the image. No contrast adjustments or sharpening were added. Great rendition of the flint wall details too, and again, no trace of chromatic aberrations on the high contrast edges.

So, with that modest, but successful test behind me, I was ready for the real trip – an all too brief, two day vacation in Venice!

This image (below) was my first shot from the balcony of our hotel. It’s only about a third of the frame, from the centre – 85mm focal length doesn’t really isolate everything at this distance. It was shot at f4.0 at 1/1000th sec at ISO 160 – handheld. I was just trying to get used to the framing at this sort of distance, and framing your shot is a bit of a challenge with this lens. If composition is critical, to use as much of the frame as possible, then you’re going to have to practice quite a bit before you get what you were hoping for first time. Even if you dial in an appropriate lens code, you still get the 90mm framelines and they are different enough from the real view that critical composition is quite tricky. I need to practice more, obviously.

If you look closely, you can still see some chromatic aberration on the left shoulder of the gondolier and you can just detect the purple fringing on the near horizontal surface of his shirt, but it’s not too bad.

Look at the detail though – even at this modest sized picture you can still see the potential of this lens – finely drawn lines, nice colour and wonderfully subtle tonal gradations. Very nice, and the way it picks up the variety of tones and the translucency of the water, under the gondola and by the oar in the bottom left corner, is also excellent. Again, minimal processing and no sharpening.

Lots of people have commented on this lens being an ideal portrait lens, including Zeiss themselves. I think I’m right in remembering that they say that, because of deliberately uncorrected spherical aberrations inherent in their design, the lens gives beautiful renderings of slightly soft portraits and so lends itself directly to that kind of work. Well, actually, I was hoping that it might be capable of a greater range of subject matter than that. I think these shots suggest that’s very possible. Well then, how about some group shots?

This one is also only half the frame, from the left edge to the centre, so the standing gondolier is imaged on the extreme edge of the lens coverage – beautiful. The lower gondola is at the extreme bottom of the frame – check out the detail in the girl’s hair and the beautiful skin tones in her arms. The red haired chap in the bottom right hand corner has a printed T shirt on that is nicely rendered too. The gondola decoration, bottom left, and the water droplets are finely captured as well.

Unexpectedly, I really like this shot because of the ‘X’ composition of the people, the ‘chaos’ of detail and its overall sense of humour. Wherever you start looking at the picture, your eye is constantly drawn back in by the many lines of interest in the image. They really look like they were having such great fun! Shot at f/8.0 at 1/350th at ISO 160, handheld.

While I was busy concentrating on the shot above, I could hear someone below me, out of frame, singing the ‘Just One Cornetto’ Walls advertising campaign song to the tune of ‘O Solo Mio’. When I glanced down from the balcony there was this crazy guy singing his head off, in mock Italian, with his arms flung wildly apart at the crescendo of the song. A quick refocus and, pop, I got him. Of course my composition was off, so this crop is from one corner of the frame but, I like it. Not exactly posed, but he got my attention! I like the way all the heads lined up and the way the others are trying to ignore the noisy one; the guy in the grey T shirt is, I think, wishing he were somewhere else. Shot at f/5.6, 1/350th at ISO 160.

Next up was a walk around the Fish and Vegetable Market and here are a couple of shots using the lens at close up range, handheld, in very poor artificial light. Here are some red and green chillies shot at f/11.0, 1/45th at ISO 160. I made no contrast adjustments, nor did I add any sharpening.

This shot, is disgusting. These are some kind of eel, no idea which, but skinned the way they are and such an awkward and subtle colour to capture in the crazy lighting, I think it’s a creditable result from the lens. Again shot at close quarters at f/4.0, 1/45th at ISO 160. No sharpening or contrast adjustments – straight off the camera with minimum work in ACR.

Having been exhausted by trudging around a crowded Venice all day, I thought to catch some culture. So my wife and I took in a Vivaldi chamber music concert at a local Chapel that evening. Naturally, I made myself a bit of a nuisance in the interval by periodically popping up and down out of my seat, like a Jack-in-a-Box, to try a get a shot of the artists before they began the second part of the evening. As they were retuning their instruments, I managed this shot at f/2.0, 1/60th at ISO 1250 – handheld. Not a bad result at ISO 1250! The keen eyed among you will notice the aberrations again at the edge of the music’s maxed out highlight in the centre of the image. Ah well. Check out the lovely colours in the marble in the background upper left and the rendering of the Cellos on the right.

The following day, I tried again, and while my wife was trying out her new LX5, I experimented with some extreme backlit shots. This is one of my favourites. I can tell you that the upper 25% of this scene was completely washed out in the camera’s default jpeg. I kept it in, with the minimum of work in ACR to recover the highlights, to show you just what this lens is capable of in such conditions. The shot has its own grace and atmosphere, capturing the very spirit of the Venitian moment. Once again, check out the details in the distance and the way the scene is drawn – very, very nice stuff. Taken at f/5.6, 1/500th at ISO 160; no sharpening etc.

Just to make the point a little more obviously, here are some 100 percent crops from the same image – straight from the camera.

A little further along, I came across one of those surprise juxtapositions which catches your eye and you then spend the next ten minutes working out how to lay on the ground to get just the right angle to compose everything into the best geometric relationship while passers by step nervously over your prone body; hence this shot. I like the way the chimneys are out of focus but recognisable and the overhanging lamp is tack sharp in contrast. Image shot at f/5.6, 1/1000th at ISO 160 – handheld, on my belly in the dirt! Fabulous blue sky gradations.

As we returned to the hotel, looking across the Grand Canal, I noticed a beautiful, almost completely grey building facade with wonderful detailing caught in acute lighting, greatly emphasizing the texture of its stonework. Hence this shot. Taken at f/5.6, 1/3000th at ISO 160 (loads of light), handheld, with no sharpening or contrast adjustments, its shows what this lens can do right across the frame – it’s even caught a flying gull mid-flight on the upward wing beat – perfectly! If you can’t see it in the main image take a look at the 100 percent crops below. All straight from the camera.

And now for the humorous moment! This is a hilarious example of exasperated Italian temperament. The gate sign, so my wife tells me, which we just happened to walk past, says – ENOUGH! Stop with the Dog Shit! We are Furious! I’m not sure what the Arabic says below it, but I can guess. Couldn’t resist the image, and you can see how the lens has made a first class job of rendering it at close quarters. Taken at f/5.6, 1/180th at ISO 160 – handheld. This shot supports Erwin Puts’ conclusion that the Sonnar excels at close distances.

And here is a 100 percent crop from the centre of the image, again, straight from the camera.

Finally, a contra-jour shot of four gondoliers edging down a narrow canal towards the light. Since most of my work is usually monochrome, I thought I ought to just put one in among this unfamiliar orgy of colour. I just love the way this image is drawn – simple as that. Maybe it’s just me, but those subtle tones translate through to monochrome exceptionally well.


I think, without a shadow of doubt, that this lens is a genuine winner. Although my work is almost exclusively monochrome these days, this lens has a habit of reminding you that colour has it’s own intrinsic photographic value and it can seduce the eye with its own subtle rendering of scenes where colour is a major pictorial element of the overall image. It has a ‘personality’ – softer rendering when completely wide open, but rapidly rendering pin sharp, contrasty images as you stop down past F/2.8 and is wonderful at F/5.6. Couple this with beautifully subtle colour when it’s appropriate and it’s ability to record very fine details and I don’t think you could be disappointed with this lens.

Of course, it’s not a budget lens alternative to a comparable Leica lens and so it has to stand as an equal performer but with a different ‘character’. I think it achieves that with plenty to spare.

Incidentally, you’ll of course have noticed that I deliberately didn’t shoot any portraits. Ha! I hear you say – it’s a portrait lens. Well, that’s because I’m now working on the next step, which is how to use the lens as creatively as I can. Having satisfied myself that the Sonnar is a keeper, my challenge now is to see what can be achieved creatively – and I shall begin with a portrait or two. Hmmm.


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  26 Responses to “The Leica M9 with Zeiss ZM 85mm Sonnar Lens Review by Michael Letchford”

  1. Maybe, we will see an “re-birth” of this lens, in an improved modern LOXIA-design!

  2. I just bought the last 85 sonnar from Robert White.. Zeiss is no longer making them.. This article convinced me to buy it plus the fact the leica lens are so hard to come by now.. I think the price was too close to the Leica 90 and 75 and not enough people know about this lens.. The only review of it is the one above…

    The Sonnar T* 2/85 ZM is no longer available until further notice. The Sonnar T* 2/85 ZM is based on a very complex construction model. Thus the production of this lens requires batches with a certain number of units. Unfortunately there is no sufficient market potential to realize an adequate production size of this exceptional lens. Therefore we have stopped the production until further notice. However, Tele-Tessar T* 4 / 85 ZM is still available.

    Kind regards,
    Carl Zeiss Lenses Team

  3. I know this is sacrilege for L owners, but it seems to me the fringing is the fault of the camera’s digital imager, not the lens. It occurs only when whites are blown overexposed, which strongly indicates an imager problem. If it were the lens, the fringing would appear more consistently across the entire spectrum: example, blonde hair against the water. I suspect strongly the fringing is caused by the microlenses on the Kodak imager.

  4. […] item is the Sonnar 2/85 ZM, Zeiss’ Leica-mount fast-tele/portrait lens, which has a very good reputation among rangefinder shooters and will probably be dearly missed. Its disappearence was noticed as […]

  5. Hello again,
    Many thanks to all those that read the article and who took the time to add their views. I very much appreciate your interest. For those who would like to dig a little deeper, I have revised and extended the original article, adding more images, background to CA and downloads.

    You can find the updated article at

    Thanks again to Steve for hosting the original article on his excellent site.
    Cheers, Mike

  6. Michael

    Very nice images. When I shot with Nikon gear I used an 85mm for well over half of my images, and I used it for everything I was interested in. I suggest that you don’t concern yourself with having 90mm frame lines vs. 85mm. Just compose the image as you see it in the frame lines, which will give you a closer rendition than the lens will capture. Then crop the image as desired during your post processing. This is a variation of a technique used in the old film days to ensure you had enough room around your subject to get the image you want on paper.

    • Thanks for reading and for commenting, Paul. I’ve also been told that the Zeiss is probably nearer 87mm or 88mm focal length in practice. You’re suggestion is a good one. There will be some safety factor to play with without wasting too much frame. Cheers

  7. Sorry, but with that amount of purple in most of the shots, I don’t see how this can be a “keeper” lens. It honestly just looks like you’re trying to deceive yourself into believing that it’s great.

    And, not to be skeptical, but from what I know, most people street shoot a Leica with wide-angles. “Getting in close” with a telephoto is just going the DSLR way.

    • Hi G. Thanks for reading and for your opinion.

      Actually, my final decision was made not on the potentiall negative of the CA I found in my first effort with the lens, although I think I exacerbated the perceived problem by significantly, but inadvertantly, overexposing the featured image at the beginning of the review, but on the positives I found in the later images.

      Naturally, I have many other shots from the same session which support the positive conclusion, but here’s a limit to how many you can include. Also, I felt I ought to relate the story as it unfolded. In retrospect, I think I should have used a more representative example of the typical CA I found this copy of the lens to exhibit. The one I did use, as I said above, was overexposed and exaggerated the effect, which I thought would serve to demonstrate the care that’s needed with this lens in these sorts of circumstances.

      In most other shots the occasional visibility of CA was far less than it that shot, and not untypical of that found by Sean Reid in other premium lenses under similar conditions.

      The later images show that the lens, when used appropriately, is IMHO a winner.

    • I’ve just come across Thorsten Overgaard’s review of the fabulous $11,000 Leica 50mm Nocilux-M ASPH lens at

      His shots from this lens show similar purple fringing to that which I encountered with the Zeiss whilst inadvertently overexposing at high contrast edges. Thorsten takes the same kind of shots deliberately, to see what happens. His explanation of the chromatic aberrations and that of Leica’s makes very interesting reading.

  8. The review fails to show the type of shots regularly composed with an 85mm lens, portraits. People buy 75-90mm lenses for the creamy bokeh and three dimensionality, not flat crops of buildings and hoods of cars.

    • Hi Robert,

      Yes. I agree, but, as I said in the later paragraphs, I also wanted to see whether the lens would have wider application than ‘just’ portraits. For that reason I tried to shoot other scenes, with and without people in the frame. It was also my intention to dedicate a further review based on portraits alone, both straight and more ‘creative’ shots and I don’t have that material completed yet. Maybe Steve will give the follow up article the space so I can finish the job.

  9. Interesting but one question. Since Zeiss and the rest of the world says it´s a fabulos portrait lens, why didnt´t you take a couple of portraits. Let´s say, at 1m and 2m, wide open and stopped down, with noisy background to show bokeh. Sure in Italy there is no problem finding some pretty faces. By the way writting on your close up says in italian ” enough with dogshit, we are mad, furious”. Ciao!

  10. Might be a problem with the way the website handles the accompanying photos but the 100% crops don’t look very sharp to me at all. I’d be a bit worried if this was the level of detail I was getting from my M9 and an old Russian lens let alone a £2500 Zeiss. The shot of the “flint wall details” simply looks out of focus (so much so that I’d recommend getting the RF checked for front-focus).

    • Hi Watts. Hmmm, now there’s a thought. Actually, that’s an interesting observation on that partuclar image. The sharpness of the lens is not, IMHO, in question in other images taken from my later efforts as shown in the later images i the article and in other shots not published. But, thank you for the observation, I’ll have another look at it and maybe do some focus bracketing on other test shots.

  11. Thanks, Michael, for a thorough and well-written review. Great job! I agree it’s a keeper; enjoy it!

  12. The words “straight from the RAW file” should never be uttered by anyone again. There is no such thing as straight from the RAW file unless you open it using a text editor. If I can see a RAW file it has been decoded into a viewable picture by some kind of decoder and usually that decoder does something to the RAW file by default in order to translate it. Mine for instance automatically ads some kind of sharpening in order to counteract the AA (Anti Alliasing not Acoholics Anomously :-)) filter of my GF1…….now an M8 does not have an AA filter by the way and that helps to create razor sharp images……and this Zeiss lens helps as well. For the rest excellent test. Pitty though they sell it as 2.0 when as as a 2.0 it suffers so much from CA however, a bit of CA can be corrected in a RAW file… I guess that if you have to you can use it at 2.0 too, but only if youre RAW converter supports CA-correction (as mine does).

    Greetings, Ed

    • Hi Ed,

      Thanks for reading and commenting, and of course, you make a good point.

    • Just wanted to add, by way of clarification
      Image opened in ACR6, everything set at 0 except; brightness at 50 (standard), contrast at 25 (standard). tone curve set at linear, sharpening amount set to 0, noise reduction set to 0.
      Image then cropped and opened in Photoshop CS5, then resized for this blog using Bicubic only NOT the Bicubic sharper algorithm. Image then saved as a jpeg at quality 12 and set to an sRGB colour space for the web.

      In other words, ‘straight from the RAW file’ meant this is what you will see if I gave you the RAW file and you opened it in ACR6 to visualize the raw data with no additional processing other than this raw converter’s basic algorithm. The minimum necessary to turn the sensor image data into a picture for a human eye to review. :-)

  13. Thanks for this review. I am happy for you that you have a keeper lens in your kit.

  14. Great article. I love the Zeiss lenses and think they stack up in image quality as good or at times better than some Leica lenses. I purchased a new Leica 28mm Elmarit as well as a Zeiss 28mm ZM for my M9. I ran a side by side test using a tri-pod and the Zeiss was actually sharper! The Leica had better construction but the Zeiss performed better (IMO) for half the cost. I am also a little partial to the slightly warmer hue the Zeiss lenses render. I’m also a HUGE fan of the 18mm ZM lens. For the money, it can’t be beat and I feel it’s as sharp as anything Leica makes. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE Leica glass but there are times when the wallet dictates the choice and for me, Zeiss has never been a poor one.

    One quick note: If you use the ZM lenses it is important to manually input the lens into the M9 camera. I’ve read about a lot about people getting color casts and I have to be honest I have not had issue with this. For the 18mm ZM lens I manually input it as a 21mm 2.8. I have not had an issue with color shifts. If you wish, I would be happy to email you some samples.

    • Hi Garon. Thank you for reading and commenting. I also have other Zeiss ZM lenses and I agree with your view about colour, performance and relative value for money. I am particularly impressed with their 50mm lens, superb colour (warmer than Leica, as you say) and superbly sharp.

  15. Love the last shot.

    As for the lens itself, I was surprised to discover that its price positioning is is not competitive when compared with the 90mm Summicron.

    Thanks for the contribution, Michael.


  16. My favourite lens has a ton of fringing, and I too worried about it when I first got it, then realized, I dont actually see it in my photos, or large prints, only when I pixel peep. And even if its a problem it can be minimized in software.


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