CRAZY COMPARISON! Leica 50 APO vs the Zeiss Planar ZM

CRAZY COMPARISON! Leica 50 APO vs the Zeiss Planar ZM

So what happens when you take what is considered by many (even me) to be the best 50mm lens in the world (and costs $8000 though is on special through the end of the year for $7250) and compare it to a lens with a massive ambition to be the best it can be (that costs $860)?

Yep, same mount which is the Leica M mount, and same apertures were used for these crazy comparisons. Basically I was curious how much we lose by going from the $8k APO to the $800 PLANAR. After all is said and done, yea, we lose a bit but not as much as one would think. I only had the Planar for a day or so and was limited to what I could shoot for this test but I have shot both lenses extensively for years and the character you see here, is the character you can expect from each lens, when shot on a Leica SL as these were.

DSC09953

*Before I begin, check out my old Zeiss 50 Planar review HERE, and my follow up from a year or two ago HERE. Then see my 50 APO Review HERE and the follow up HERE. *

The Zeiss 50 mm Planar ZM lens is a stunner, and one that had many buying it up for the M9 as it performed to a higher level than the old Leica 50 Summicron. I still feel the old Leica has the edge in build as many 50 Planar lenses have reportedly become loose after a few years (aperture ring or focus mechanism). Construction will always go to Leica but as for IQ, color, contrast, bokeh…the little $860 Zeiss does in fact IMO beat the old 50 Cron in many ways, and will even challenge the latest Leica 50 APO, which is Leica’s cost no object masterpiece of 50mm perfection.

Before I go on with the samples I will state that in my opinion, the 50 APO wins EASILY in Bokeh and OOC color and the overall smooth butter like rendering. The APO also has no distortion and no issues with CA/Purple Fringing. The Zeiss on the other hand can have busy bokeh which is its main weakness. Other than that the Zeiss has a more muted color (out of camera) at times and looks more “dull” to me. The Zeiss also has some barrel distortion that is visible in certain images (but only straight lines up close).

The 50 APO color and contrast is as good as it gets but the Zeiss holds its own and for a price difference of over $7000 retail, one could buy the Planar, the Zeiss 50 1.5 Sonnar, a Zeiss 25 2.8 (review) and a Leica 90 Summarit (review) and still have over $2000 left over. Yep, 4 new lenses and $2k could be had instead of one 50 APO. But then you lose out on the awesome Bokeh, color and contrast that the 50 APO gives you as well as the distortion free corner to corner amazingness it can offer but EVEN SO, no one “needs” an APO. This lens is all about “WANT” for anyone who buys it and if you have the cash, that is A-OK! But if you don’t want to bust the wallet and want a 50 f/2 cron type M lens, take a look below at what the 50 PLanar can bring to you…

BELOW: CLICK THE IMAGES TO SEE THEM CORRECTLY WITH 100% CROPS – ALL SHOTS LEICA SL

1st set, 50 APO up top, Planar bottom. Here I see smoother bokeh in the APO shot, a tad bit of a bolder color and as for detail in they crop,  they are pretty similar. The 50 APO is like butter.

50apo

planar

What I notice in this 2nd set is the color. The color and tone from the APO is perfect. The Planar is a tad more dull and off, BUT it is pretty close! VERY close! So close many will not see any difference here.

apocolor

plplanarcolor

Hmmmm. Click on these and you tell me which you think is best. Top is 50 APO, bottom is the Planar.

apohose

planarhose

Again, top APO bottom Planar…

apopool

planarpool

This set has 4 images. The top two are shot at f/2, the bottom two was shot at f/4. Click them to see larger. Here you can see the bokeh in the Planar shot is busier…

50apof2net

50planarnetf2

… and at f/4

50apo4net

50planarf4net

AND NOW…CAN YOU SPOT THE APO SHOT?

Look below and click on the images. One is from the APO and one is from the Planar, but which is which? Can YOU tell? Just leave your guess in the poll below the images!

A – Is this from the APO?

rock1

B – or is THIS from the APO?

rock2

Vote in the poll below to take a guess. I will reveal the answer by Friday, Jan 1st!

BELOW is the poll results from the past 3 days. 71.63% of you guessed IMAGE A was from the 50 APO Leica. This is wrong. Image B is from the APO. Image A is from the $860 Planar. Makes you think huh?

poll

So most of you guessed wrong which speaks volumes for the little Zeiss Planar. WOW.

—-

What this entire comparison told me is that while the 50 APO is gorgeous in almost any situation, the little Planar is still up there with the best. Of course the Leica build is on an entirely different level. The 50 Planar is pretty lightweight and as mentioned, there have been many mentions of them coming loose over time. But for $860 the Planar would be the best choice for many as the huge $7000 savings can not be ignored. Oh, and I only had the Planar for one day, so my testing ability was limited to what you see above.

WHERE TO BUY either of these great lenses?

You can buy a Zeiss 50 Planar on Amazon HERE (prime eligible)  or B&H Here.  PopFlash.com also sells it for a better price HERE. 

If you have the desire for the best of the best, even with diminishing returns kicking in, the 50 APO can be bought from Ken Hansen, his email is [email protected]. You can also buy at PopFlash.com, B&H Photo or Amazon. 

46 Comments

  1. B is the APO, I know, sorry Steve, I missed the test in time, but by avoiding reading further down I checked for myself, no doubt at large size, it’s clearly the APO and the planar is total bokeh crap as you can see on any of these pictures. The result only proves that your followers don’t open up their eyes before declaring incompetence. I know not much and don’t pixelpeep like others, but the fuzzyness of the planar bokeh is so obvious that even a “switched” contrast effect can’t cover it up. Yes at first blink someone might think it’s A, but if you don’t only look at the focus point, and catchy colours (contrast set for this picture) but instead look at optical effects you’ll see the difference.

    I prefer the APO, ok, pricewise the planar is so much cheaper, that it’s an easy choice for everybody, but from a technical point of view it’s not good enough to be considered to the same level.

    So I agree and disagree with you. The Planar is an easy buy, but absolutely incomparable in quality. We’re talking high-end expectations here.

    Every normal and normal professional news-photographer should not look back and just take the planar.

    Regardless, happy new year to all, regardless of the tools you use.
    anything can easily make nice pictures.

  2. Lovely comparison and a good read.
    The main difference I see in the pictures, is that the pictures with the APO seem to be made with an additional suble lightsource.
    This gives a nice sparkle to the images.

    Cheerio Mike

  3. I’m a Zeiss fan; have owned Leica lenses over time crons. If I had $8K, though, and was a 50 user (which I’m not), I’d be lusting for this Leica piece of gold. I especially love color and contrast. I didn’t see a problem with the Zeiss bokeh.

  4. One thing is blatantly obvious… as soon as you put in a pool you spend the rest of your life cleaning it.

  5. Hi Steve!

    Nice comparison…not a 9times difference although the out-of-focus area in the last rock-shot clearly votes for the APO, much smoother.
    😉

    Thx for that lens-duell.

  6. Hi, I like these comparisons.
    The audio reviews lack the language so far but harder to quantify I know.
    Would like your take on mobile audio – the Chord mojo maybe – similar philosophy, small with absolute extraction.
    And, can you please edit that Dirk guy – his authoritarian and self righteousness is killing me and the pets.
    Thanks for being

  7. I think the two are very different. If you look at the poll pictures, there is more color and more contrast on picture A and slight differences in the focal plane and the transition out of sharpness (just different angle or rendering characteristics?). The differences in color and contrast are clearly visible, maybe the lightning was different? Or maybe the Leica SL treats the raw-data from an apo image in a different way? Otherwise, there is a very real difference between the two lenses.

      • Ok ok, you said it 😉 I wanted to point out, that it is very well visible, they are not almost the same. Just out of curiosity: How can you be sure, that the SL does not adjust the images for known lenses? Other cameras do that, e.g. the Leica T, all Nikon cameras etc. There’s nothing wrong with that, you just have to remember it if you compare lenses.

        • Because I know what the cameras do to the lenses, They do not adjust color or contrast. They only adjust things such as distortion, CA and vignetting. The APO is made to have the color and contrast of no other lens like it, and this has been stated by the guy who designed it. The SL or M does not boost the color for the APO. In reality, it doesnt do much of anything for this lens as it is optically corrected and as good as it gets. It works the same on my Sony A7S and A7RII..color, contrast, pop, details, etc. And the Sony does not correct for it at all. Ask Leica, they will tell you what is done to each lens in the camera. For some lenses its extreme, for many/most it’s very minor. The T on the other hand does some extreme distortion fixes in camera for the T lenses, but not color.

          • Wow, I’ll have to inverse my statement, the apo has worse contrast and color, the zeiss is better, at least in this comparison.

          • You must be on a dodgy display or on a mobile device. The APO color is clearly superior in all ways as is the Bokeh. Other than that, they are close.

  8. An interesting comparison, Steve, not “crazy” at all! I wonder about a few things.
    1) I guess you took the shots with the SL. This means that the body would have a profile designated for the APO. I wonder how much the color rendition is influenced by that. Or in other words, the Planar should need some processing in post to compare apples with apples. Since I always process pictures that I wanna keep, I don’t know if the Leica really would make a difference in this regard.
    2) The APO absolutely wins in bokeh. No question. Still the Zeiss’s bokeh is far from ugly. So one needs to be financially véry strong to justify the buy of the APO.
    3) I have used the ZM Planar for many years as my most used lens (no loosening of the rings with my example), until the Loxia Planar was launched. Comparing those two, ZM with Loxia, the latter performs considerably better in the corners and regarding distortion, which brings it again closer to the APO. Comparing those two would be another interesting test, which should have to be done on the A7RII, whereby the APO should loose it’s profiling by the body. (Didn’t you already publish this comparison, Steve? Or is my memory playing tricks with me?)
    4) I know you consider that a lens should be shot wide open. I consider this to be only one aspect. I believe there is still a big difference to be seen between lenses when going for large dof. I once did a series of direct comparison shots with the Zeiss ZM Biogon 28 and Leica 28 Summicron. Again the Leica beated the Zeiss for shallow dof, but for large dof, the Zeiss was the clear winner. Bottom line: I so much would love you, to also add some large dof shots in those comparisons. Say at around f/8 to f/11. And why not go all the way to 16 or even 22? I know this must sound like blasphemy to many readers… 🙂 But if those aperture would be really useless, I wonder why manufacturers still provide them… Now, I don’t expect the Zeiss ZM to win from the Leica APO, even for larger dof, but I just wonder how big the difference would be, if any…
    5) The results being so close, and in regard of earlier comments, this prooves why I absolutely admire Zeiss: offering an IQ that plays in the same league as Leica for a fraction of the price is IMHO a bigger achievement, ànd one that I can take profit of, as so many others can.

    • The SL does not adjust COLOR for any lens. The 50 Zeiss was set up as a 50 Cron in the menu. The APO has a richer color and better contrast than any 50 made – that is what it does, mainly. It also offers no distortion or fringing. Its an amazing lens. The Zeiss is also amazing, for the price. At F8 both lenses would perform the same with maybe the Zeiss pulling ahead because the APO starts to lose it after f/5.6. It is best at f/2.8. How it was designed. Its made to be shot at f/2.

      • I can totally get that, Steve. The richness of color of the Leica (both the SL as the lenses) is obvious. Indeed it clearly delivers the best OOC IQ. But what you say about IQ at f/8 means that for shooters for whom large dof is dominent, like me, Zeiss is the better choice. You can imagine that I’m exalted about the Loxia performance and, after what I read about the 21mm, that I’m so much looking forward to the arrival of my example in January. But I’m getting more and more admiration for the SL, I have to say… I can imagine the joy, shooters like you experience from it. I can’t help thinking about how we shot up till say ten years ago. What we experience today was so unthinkable!

        • True Dirk. Today, for us imaging geeks, pros and enthusiasts we have so many amazing cameras, lenses and things to choose from. For us, it’s pretty exciting times. Can only imagine what is to come in the next 5, 10, 15 years.

    • +1. You’re absolutely right. And bokeh is subjective. While most people prefer buttery smooth, some people would prefer that organic, slightly busy bokeh of the planar. I personally prefer it when there’s something going on in the background, not too much as it would be distracting.

  9. I would now like to see the same test done, but this time using a Leica Monochrome. I think the results may be to close to call at all? Just a thought 🙂

  10. I really love Steve’s work. It tells me, what I’ve noticed over more then 40 years of press photography:
    in the end the difference is so little the readers would never see it.
    I use lenses from Leica, Zeiss, Voitgländer and even Angenieux: after a tour thru the photoshop it’s only me, who knows what lens has been used.

  11. I found an example of a photo I saw from you that just had that special quality: in your original review “The Leica 50 Summicron f/2 APO Review Part 1 by Steve Huff” there is a shot of some old clothes hanging on a line in what looks like an abandoned building. The sharpness and brilliance of colors make those clothes looks like they are cut out from the background with an exacto knife. That’s what makes the Apo special.

    • Your hypothesis may not work, because human eyes are programmed to feel contrast (in your example, between the dark background and the bright clothing). Even though the photo in reference is great, I would guess other lenses may achieve the same effect that you feel special. By the way, I own a 50 APO, which is sort of one of my everyday lenses on my Sony 7RII (the other being the 16-18-21 Tri Elmar).

  12. Steve, with all due respect, I find that this rather close object distance is not where the 50 Apo really shines. I did a lot of research before I finally bit the bullet and bought the 50 Apo. I did my own side by sides at the Leica store with my 50lux aspherical, but I couldn’t quite see the difference. But every once in a while one of those pictures popped up, sometimes in your samples, that just had a quality I had never seen from any other lens. I finally figured out what it was: when shot wide open at medium distance, say a three-quarter shot of a person, the immediate fall-off between the incredibly sharp in focus and the out-of-focus areas is really what makes this lens special. Look through your archive, and I’m sure you will see those shots I am talking about.

  13. I actually think the bokeh from the Leica looks busier/harsher than the zeiss on the swimming pool net photo.
    I’m not stingy when it comes to buying nice lenses, but… I don’t know if I’d pay more than an extra $100 for the Leica, based on the images produced. I’m just not seeing that big of a difference, in these shots and others.
    I certainly wouldn’t pay $7300 extra. No way Jose!

    Maybe I just prefer the Zeiss ‘look’?

  14. I bet that new APO 50 is a great lens to use, but I wonder who is *really* using it? I have to be impressed by the talent currently using the APO 50, it’s kind of sad actually. I have the 50 Planar, no interest in the overpriced APO.

  15. These kinds of comparisons need more “difficult” shots IMO. Things that will show onion ring bokeh and longitudinal chromatic aberration, for starters.

    • Yes.
      If we’re to seriously compare and evaluate bokeh, there needs to be more shots showing different real life examples.

      Backgrounds like: a busy street scene, some Christmas lights, some portraits, various foliage examples(preferably with color, such as flowers) etc.

      • Indeed. These samples don’t show a whole lot of difference in character the lenses impart on a shot. Real world examples would show the feel of a shot with different lenses better.
        Too much pixel peeping to see a difference here, while the difference in character can have a far more noticeable effect on a normal series of images.

        • It is what it is, and I have done this comparison before with the same results. There are differences in the lenses that are clearly seen on the right displays, but its not night and day, no matter what you are shooting.

          • Thanks for your replies and the comparison, it was an eye opener, wouldn’t have thought, that the differences are so easily spotted. The 22% who got it wrong in the poll are those with a bad screen I guess 😉

          • I’m sure there’s a difference in the way the two lenses render out of focus highlights- the planar has a special organic feel, especially the way it renders “washed out” oof highlights. I haven’t seen any lens that renders bokeh like the planar. Also the APO has aspherical elements that will likely create some ‘onion rings’. We didn’t get to evaluate whether there’s a difference regarding 3D Pop, somethings we know the Planar is very good at.

  16. I actually like the zeiss better it’s slightly softer the apo is too sharp for me sounds weird but I like character in a lens the apo doesn’t have that for me imo

  17. If it’s not about comparing leica APO and Zeiss I would say the zeiss looks awesome. I can’t even tell the different on bokeh. The color is a little flatter, but that’s because we compare it to leica apo. If the image is standing alone, it looks awesome

  18. Interesting comparison Steve.

    Picture A seems like the APO to me. More color contrast in the yellow and orange moss.

  19. The reason I think I was able to accurately guess the APO in that last shot is because it’s more contrasty. I think that’s why you think the color is better on the APO. Because the color is “richer” on the APO due to it being more contrasty.
    IMO, I don’t think that’s better because it means you “lose” more detail/info in your image. You can do that with the Planar by bumping up contrast a bit (darkening it) but if you did the reverse with the APO, you’d be raising shadows and potentially adding some noise to those areas.

    Still both incredible lenses though.

    • You guessed it correctly? Did he post the answer? It’s hard to judge using web jpgs, the comparison would be better in a photo with more shadow as in bright light you won’t see much difference according to Peter Karbe (50 APO designer)

  20. Interesting comparison!
    I always want to know the difference between these two for the 10 times price.
    However, if i want to go for Zeiss, I like the zeiss c sonnar more than the planar for more characteristics.

    • If you compared the Planar to C Sonnar, how would they compare after f2? Is one objectively better than the other (sharpness, IQ, CA, vignetting, etc.)?
      I’ve never seen the comparison between them in that regard. And I’ve always wondered if that characteristic is still there when you start going into higher f stops.

      • Vernon, I don’t have comparative shots anymore but sonnar is much better if you like the 3d pop and also the 1.5 aperture. Even at f2, the sonnar has a pop which planar lacks in my view.
        I tried a few 50mm lenses on my Sony a7m2 and sonnar had the best rendition.

  21. Schockingly close IMHO…. in every aspect shown in this non-scientific comparison: Bokeh, color, rendition, sharpness….

Comments are closed.