The Leica 90-280 f/2.8-f/4 Lens review with the SL

LEICA

The Leica 90-280 f/2.8-f/4 Lens review with the SL

You can order the Leica 90-280 at B&H Photo, Ken Hansen, or PopFlash

Hello again and welcome back to SteveHuffPhoto.com! Today I am reviewing a lens that is the largest and biggest lens I have ever reviewed, but at the same time, almost one of the most, IF NOT THE MOST beautiful lens I have ever shot with! Sure, it’s like a bazooka, and it’s expensive. I mean, it is a Leica after all, and it is made for what I feel is probably the best 35mm digital format camera on the market today, the Leica SL.

Remember my SL review? For me it was “Camera of the Year” in 2015 and I still stick by that statement. I have yet to use a camera that delivers this type of quality on build. EVF, pro features, usability and image quality. It’s slimmer than an equivalent DSLR and feels so much better in my hand. While not small, it’s not meant to be. For small, Leica has the M and other solutions. So no, the SL is large, in charge and this new 90-280 is a masterpiece of optical design, proving that Leica is still the best lens maker in the world.

A day at the Butterfly Farm with the Leica SL and 90-280 – COLOR POP

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This lens, and this camera is not for everyone. It’s for those who love Leica, who love quality and who love to have this kind of focal length zoom, in the highest quality possible. This lens, and the 24-90, go above and beyond 90% of M lenses IMO, and on the SL, these two native lenses are stunning. I can not wait to see the 50 Summilux for the SL. I think that will be the best 50 Lux EVER, even though it will be the largest one ever as well 🙂

Leica sent me the lens and asked me to write down what I thought of it. Most here and in the photo community know I am not a huge fan of big lenses, yet Leica sent it along for an honest opinion, so that is what I will give here as well as show some images I snapped with the lens along the way.

All images can be clicked on for larger versions – EXIF has been embedded

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THE BEAST ARRIVES

When the box containing the lens was exposed, I thought it was the SL box! Nope, it was the lens. It was a monster and before I opened it up to bring out the lens, I thought to myself “THERE IS NO WAY I WOULD EVER CARRY THIS LENS AROUND ALL DAY”! Then I pulled it out and thought…”Well, it’s not THAT huge”…then I added the lens hood and I admit, it looked kind of funny being so large, on the SL. It made the SL look SMALL. So at that time I figured I would just need to go out and use it, and for me, the rendering and image quality would have to be at a 10 out of 10 for me to ever consider this lens. Remember, I’m a small prime guy, and have never been a huge zoom guy though lately with these high quality zooms from Leica, Sony and others I am starting to warm up to the new generation of zoom lenses.

After I started using it I realized that the size here doesn’t matter. I mean, many out there are used to the huge 70-200 f/2.8 lenses from other manufacturers, and this lens is only about an inch longer. It was me who was so used to little M lenses and smaller Sony lenses that made this one feel EXTRA huge. IN reality, for DSLR shooters anyway, it will not be that big of a deal.

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Coming in at $6395.00 it is NOT cheap, but Leica is NEVER EVER cheap, especially for a true German made Leica product. Leica is about end game quality, and they achieved it with the SL (IMO), and the 24-90 and now again with this. Image quality perfection from the color, the pop, the depth, the bokeh, the way it renders and records light, the intimate connection you feel with your lens and camera after using them for a while…that bond, all enhanced with a Leica camera and lens, for me anyway.

So there should be no complaining these days about Leica pricing as it has been this way for a LONG LONG time, longer than most here reading this right now have been shooting 😉 It is what it is, and Leica has grown quite a bit from the days of the M8. Today they offer up a complete line of options from the bottom to the top. So that should be applauded as they could have dropped it all and just sold the M line. Instead they are trying to offer up solutions for all, or anyone who has been bitten with the Leica bug. Thats a good thing in my book. More choice for us.

So after the lens arrived, I took it out to see how I could handle it for a few hours of shooting.

I have always loved the colors the SL put out above any and all other digital cameras. 

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There are no other lenses out there quite like this 90-280 from Leica. Sure, many have their 70-200 pro lenses from Canon, Nikon or whoever but this one offers up a unique focal length. While not an f/2.8 aperture lens throughout, at 280 we get to f/4 and that seems to be just fine for a 280mm focal length.

While using it, I was trying to judge it on weight, size, usability as well as color, sharpness, pop and all of those qualities we associate with Leica. Would it be to heavy to even be enjoyable for an enthusiast? Is this strictly for those who are working pros or could an amateur or enthusiast get along with it and enjoy it as well? When I review, I review from a real world standpoint. I do not worry about scientific specs, or pixel peeping. I have always been and always will be a normal guy who LOVES photography and LOVES the gear we use to practice this craft.

For me it is just as much about the images and quality as it is about the usability and design. It is just as much about the memories as it is making those memories, for me. So at the end of the day, how did my time with the SL and 90-280 go?

FAN FLIPPING TASTIC. 

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Yes, it was heavy. YES, I was getting stares from all of those shooting with their phones. YES, it looked like some form of weapon or cannon hanging around my body. At the same time, I knew that when I left, my images would offer up a quality that I could NEVER EVER get from my iPhone.

It’s funny. Five to six years ago, when at a place like this (Butterfly Farm) I would see DSLR after DSLR. Usually huge zooms, and big flash units attached. This week, 99% were shooting with smart phones, which is showing us where the photo world is headed. I feel that within 10 years, cameras and lenses like this, and the type I write about will be a dwindling breed. Sure, there will ALWAYS be higher level cameras and lenses, ALWAYS. BUT, I feel that most of America who used to come here to look for a nice camera to buy are now out there shooting with a phone, and a majority of them are more than happy with that.

Me, I will ALWAYS have to own a nice camera that I can get along well with. I would never be satisfied with a phone as my sole camera. With that said, my 2nd most used camera is my iPhone 😉 Because it is ALWAYS with me, 100% of the time and that is why these phones have taken over, we always have them and they put out decent quality, especially if you like a huge depth of field.

We now live in a world of social media, selfie obsession and phone addiction. But now I am getting off topic, let’s get back to the lens and camera as it is a beauty and I wish I had loads of cash as I would own it just to own it even if I would use it on only a few occasions per year. To me, there is something special about the SL with its native lenses. While the SL also is great with M lenses, to see the ultimate quality, one must try one of the native lenses. Then it goes to WOW. But it also goes to LARGE, which blows it for some. Even so, I had fun with my dull day carrying and using this lens.

IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS

Keep in mind the two shots below were handheld, and one was at 90mm (1st shot) and the other at 280mm and f/4 and 1/250th. Third one was at 280mm and f/4. Click on each one  to see the 100% crop. 

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While I could have lugged my tripod with me, I always like to shoot handheld and if a lens like this is not capable of that, then I would not even review it. But it is capable and it is usable and it is manageable using it handheld. Look at the bird shot above. Handheld at full zoom of 280mm. I have found no issues with the lens at any focal length. It is just as sharp and contrasty at 90mm as it is at 280mm. No distortions, no lens flare issues, not focus problems or zoom issues. In use, this lens is about as perfect as it could get. 

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How about Auto Focus?

The 90-280 on the SL focuses fast. It is silent as can be, and focuses internally so this is not one of those zooms that grows and grows when you zoom. It does not get any larger, thank God. I also tried continuous AF on a butterfly but that was impossible. I do not think any camera could lock on to a fast moving fluttering butterfly and track it reliably. But even so, the SL tried very hard to get there and almost did it. But AF was fast, spot on and always accurate. No misses. If it said it was locked on, it was.

This setup focused faster than my A7RII and 70-300. So there ya go.

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Today, Leica seems to have matured into the digital age quite nicely. In the beginning with the M8, it was a bit hit or miss but today they are creating and putting out TOP NOTCH quality and SIMPLE TO USE gear, and that is sticking with the Leica philosophy. No confusing menus, not a million buttons on the back, not cheap LCD’s or EVF’s and a quality that is hard to understand until you use a real Leica product. The M, The SL, The S or the T or Q, all of these cameras are simply gorgeous in all ways. The designs are unique and simply, there is nothing like them from other manufacturers.

While we have the Sony A7RII, which is also a masterpiece for what it is, it does not match the output, for me, of the SL when it comes to color, and overall smoothness of the files. While beautiful in its own way, the A7RII, is not the same level of camera in any way as the SL. It just isn’t, even though my A7RII gets more use (DUE TO SIZE) and let’s be honest here, that A7RII can do amazing things and has no real weaknesses that I have found. So we are lucky to live in this world today with CHOICES that can bring us all some sort of personal joy from day to day.

LEICA SMOOTH

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Leica has created a fantastic system with the SL, and now with this new and only 2nd lens for the system available, their streak of perfection continues. While not for those who want a small solution, the 90-280 and SL system is top of the field for everything us enthusiasts and pros love about a camera system. It is borderline perfection in design, control and performance. While other systems can beat it for low light and high iso as well as versatility, if you want ULTIMATE quality and have a fat wallet, do not discount the SL system.

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How about VS the Sony A7RII and new 70-300? Or the Olympus PEN and the new 300mm Pro?

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Now this may seem like a silly comparison, and to many it will be. Shooting a brick wall and nail with an SL and 90-280 side by side with an Olympus PEN and 300mm as well as a Sony A7RII and 70-300 G lens if truly a crazy comparison. The Sony G 70-300 is more of a Budget (but very good) 70-300. The Olympus while being a stunning lens, and probably the best optics of them all, is giving you a 600mm equivalent. So not the same focal length. Even so, I wanted to add it to show you what you get from each system, with the same shot.

It’s funny but the Olympus, while having WAY more noise at its base ISO, is the sharpest and most detailed of them all. The Leica has that balance of medium format looking smoothness and sharpness while the Sony here falls flat. To be fair the Sony is using the 70-300 G which is not a pro spec lens while the Olympus and Leica are. With that in mind, the Sony keeps up very well, even with their “budget” zoom.

Leica setup here is $14,000.  Sony setup here is $4500. Olympus setup is $3800.

Let’s see how they do. You must click them for larger and full 100% crop. 

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The one with the most detail is the Olympus, the smoothest most pleasing file, for me is the SL.

BOTTOM LINE ON THE Leica 90-280 f/2.8-f/4

This lens is a masterpiece of modern lens design. The build is Leica all the way. Never cheap or hollow feeling, it feels like it will last 1000 years. Size is the only weakness here for me, as it is the largest lens I have ever used, owned or reviewed. It truly looks like a bazooka or some sort of paparazzi lens. With the size taken out of the equation, everything else is stunning. From the buttery smooth focus ring to the nice zoom action to the high quality exotic glass used to create the lens, the 90-280 can not be faulted optically, in any way.

Contrast is high, higher than even the 24-90. Sharpness is there, detail is there. Color is up there with the 50 APO M lens, which is quite the feat. (Part 2 of the 50 APO review, as used on the SL is HERE).

As for size, sure take a look at it compared to some DSLR 70-200mm Lenses…It’s not that much larger, maybe an inch or so..but you get 280mm vs these which max out at 200mm…

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If you do not mind the size, or the cost, and you own the SL system, this lens is a MUST see, MUST check out. Head to your local Leica shop, or email Leica dealer Ken Hansen for the lowdown at [email protected] . The 90-280mm means business and wedding pros will LOVE This lens as I feel for weddings, this lens will create some stunning masterpieces.

WHERE TO BUY?

The Leica 90-280 can be purchased from any of the highly recommended Leica dealers below:

Ken Hansen – E-mail him at [email protected] 

PopFlash.com

B&H Photo

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47 Comments

  1. I see what might be two vertical photos (no way of knowing if they were cropped from a larger frame). My first thought after seeing the lens on the body was “wrist killer”. I used a Canon 5DMKIII without a grip and a 70-200IS for about 2 months and it was murder. Finally left that lens on the 1DMKIV and used the wides on the other.

    • This lens is my favorite of all lenses I have ever used. Optical quality and AF speed is really outstanding. Often I use it wide-open. Apo correction delivers perfect images under all circumstances (near or far).
      It looks terrible on the photos – but who cares. And it is definitely no wrist killer – not for me, a humble office worker (without fitness coach).
      Typically I use it handheld (OIS is so great) or just with a light monopod. It replaced all my CaNikon 70-200 or 100-400 gear – because of IQ and because it is ideal for portrait (at 90mm the distance is only 0.6 m). Together with noiseless AF and “infallible” OIS this is a lens for all occasions (church, concert, court-room, but also for chasing difficult prey) even the worst scenario – struggling in a crowd.

      It is the last lens I will ever sell (in a emergency situation) – it gives me the most “keepers” of all lenses.

  2. Steve,

    Thanks for the nice review. Perhaps I missed it, but I did not see what aperture you were using for the “nail-in-the-wall” test. My suspicion is that the cameras focused on the wall (looks sharp in all 3 photos) and the reason the nail in the Olympus photo looks sharper is due to greater depth of field caused by the smaller sensor. The nail in the Sony and Leica photos is likely just out of the plane of maximum sharpness.

  3. I’d love it if Leica would come out with a bridge camera like Sony Rx10, ideally with a bigger sensor. I’m fine if it will be bulkier along the line of Sony DSC-R1–a superb bridge camera.

    Leica SL and its lenses as they are now are way too bulky for non professionals like me. My only reason for buying them is for show off.

  4. While the hogh income earners pile up on the savings to buy this, the everage Joe can take millions of great photos with our budget line equipment.

    • Actually, I don’t think high income earners need to pile up savings up for this. I’m sure they could buy one as an impulse buy. Don’t be jealous, it’s not attractive.

  5. Hi Steve.

    I was amazed by that picture of you hand holding the Leica SL with the 90-280mm lens. It looked like you were holding a bazooka. I can’t imagine the impact of the weight on your arms if you had to hand hold the behemoth for more than a few shots. That said, the photos look great. However, I can’t say that they look much better than the comparisons. I know that we are looking at Leica mystic and that ineffable whiff of quality that Leica exudes. However, let’s be honest. Would you want to carry that monster around on an all day hike in search of wildlife? As for me, I’m perfectly happy with my light weight Fujifilm X-Pro 2 and its excellent 55-200 mm lens. We should all remember that Fuji invented digital photography and their all Japanese made X products exhibit the same Japanese quality cachet that rivals Leica quality.

    • Hello James. I agree completely! Though I respect the Quality and cache of Leica, I too, find that the FujiFilm X-System exudes Quality, as I’ve used Fujinon lenses in my large format photography days back in the ’80’s. Fuji really knows optics, and it shows in their stellar XF lenses…in fact, in my experience using mostly primes in various systems (Nikon, Pentax, FujiFilm), I find that the Fujinon XF16-55 actually rivals primes in the range, in terms of AF speed, accuracy, and most importantly (to me), image sharpness and detail rendition!
      I’ve yet to try the XF 55-200 on an X-Pro2, but your positive comments make me look forward to it! Thank you.

    • Isn’t choice a wonderful thing. I for one would hate it if the only cameras in the world were made by Fuji, no matter how excellent they might be.

      • Strictly speaking, you are correct. Kodak did invent the first digital sensors. However, it was Fuji that invented the first hand held digital camera, the DS-1P in 1988. So I guess you could say that digital imaging preceded the the Fuji. However, my take is that Fuji, with its successor to the DS-1P introduced digital cameras to the general public.

  6. Nice to see another lovely lens for the powerful SL camera. I handled one in the store the other day and I came away very impressed by two things. World’s best EVF. Giant size camera. Really, it is just a beast with a huge standard lens. Although, putting a GM series zoom on a Sony A7r2 is no lightweight either.

    It looks like zoom lens quality has recently made a leap forward. The GM series from Sony appears to be at least the equal of the Leica, likely with even nicer bokeh. And even lower range zooms are now good enough for the vast majority of uses.

    • Hi Bill. Though I regrettably have no experience in either Leica or Sony systems, I do concur with your statement about zoom lens image quality! My Fujinon XF 16-55 f/2.8 WR is stellar in both image and build quality, easily the equal of many primes I’ve used in several systems such as Nikon and Pentax. (Prior to this Fujinon lens, I was generally a “prime only” guy, but now I think that’s an antiquated philosophy!

  7. Would you aim this lens at ordinary people, from any closer distance than three metres?

    Celebreties and models make a living from being at the receiving end of “pro”-DSLR and “pro”-lenses, “pro”-photographers by carrying such gear all day. My friends and I are neither if them.

  8. Hi Steve

    Looks great. I wouldn’t apologise for the f4 aperture at 280mm because all other rivals barring Sigma (which has a 100-300 f2.8 constant) do not have a 70-300 that is any faster at the 300mm end and certainly not as fast at the 90mm end.

    Aside from the cost, if there is one “complaint” of Leica is that they did not release any lenses that were different fast. Too much “me too” in the lens choices.

    A 200mm f2 would be great. A 28 f1.4 better still. Is there a 75 f1.4 out there for an SL? I can go on (I will a 70-180 f2.8?) but Leica chose common focal lengths 28-90 at a relatively slow aperture at the 90mm end. There isn’t even a decent 35 f1.4.

    I am sure they will arrive at some stage and when they do, will cost my left kidney to buy.

  9. Time to mortgage the house! A really super review, Steve, and stunning pictures. I think you really hit the nail on the head with that comparison. I’ll just have to be content with eye-candy for now……..

  10. The sample images are not overwhelming me. They look flat, and the bokeh is not significantly different from the competitor’s xx-400mm supertelephoto zoom offerings.

    You state that Sony G lenses are not pro grade and that the 70-300mm is a budget lens. From what I understood, G has always been Sony’s pro grade. Lenses like the 70-200/2.8 G II, 70-400 G II, 90/2.8 G Macro are most definitely not consumer grade.

    I haven’t had the chance to try the new 70-300, but if it performs like a budget lens, then it is massively overpriced. It is priced the same as the 70-300L. It is three times (3x!) more expensive than the Nikon 70-300.

    Your sample of the Sony 70-300 is disturbingly soft in the center! I’m really hoping that is due to user error.

    • I don’t see flat, I see many of the images shot in open shade. There is ample contrast in all of the images IMO. Bokeh to me, is an aesthetic consideration that 99.9% of clients could care less about, and that’s who I am there to please. What I do see, is an intense level of sharpness with this lens wide open. Are we splitting hairs? Probably, but with a lens that costs $6,000+ I’m guessing that’s to be expected!

      • Chris, I agree with your assessment of these images. Maybe it’s just because thus system is beyond my financial reach, but I wonder how the FujiFilm XF 50-140 f/2.8 on an X-Pro2 would compare, in terms of sharpness and dynamic range. Thanks.

    • The G line is not their pro line. The GM is the Sony Pro line. Of course the Sony will be a tad soft when compared to a $6500 lens. The Leica is using true exotic glass, and is on another level from ANY 70-200 type of lens ever made. The Sony is 1/6 the cost, and will not be able to match the Leica. You also mat need a new display if these look flat (or you did not click on them).

  11. There is no reason whatsoever to invest in the SL system besides:

    1) You are a Leica fanboy
    2) You have lots of money and you also are number 1

    I get it when back in the day Leica was the only compact full frame.. but now… there is not a compelling reason to even imagine that a Leica will bring it’s value to the table

    • Pretty simplistic view of an incredible camera. Not sure what you think is lacking. Lenses? It’s a brand new system, even Sony didn’t have any lenses when they first came out with the Nex and they are a huge company. Leica is a small company making much higher quality lenses with less manpower. In the meantime you can use M lenses (which I’ve been doing) and the results are incredible. To love this camera is to hold it, to use it.This isn’t about “value”, it’s about quality and pride of ownership.

  12. Hi Steve, the Sony in question (pictured w/lens) does not look like a A7R II? Otherwise a great review with beautiful pictures.

  13. Great review & lens! I’m assuming the lens is not stabilized? My long lens (Canon), is the 70-200 F4L, which at 200mm I can easily hand hold inside a fairly dark environment. I also have a Leica 180 APO R, 3.4, that I shoot with my M. Using the 180 without stabilization shakes like crazy in comparison. Great quality but I’m concerned about handholding the SL lens at 280mm.

  14. I’ll bet the Olympic 40-150mm f2.8 pro on EM1 with 5 axis IS would compare very favorably too. And at nice price. I was very impressed with your review of that combo. I own that body with 12-40mm f2.8 pro and find at 40mm I don’t need a macro for closeup on many items. Had 60mm f2.8 macro but never used its very close focus distance so traded for the zoom.
    The Olympic 43 stuff is fine for my printing with Epson P600 don’t have wall space for FF LIKE I had with Canon and L lens.

    Love your reviews. Bob G Chicago burbs.

  15. Excellent photos from what looks like amazing lens. I just cringe at the proce though… my whole D750 kit which includes 12 lenses and among them 24 1.4G too is less then this lens alone.
    Anyone need a kidney ?!? :p

  16. Great review Steve. I recently picked up a used X Vario and was extremely impressed by the quality of the lens. Autofocus and the slowness of the aperture are of course an issue, but it really made me a believer in the quality of Leica designed and made glass. Due to budget constraints, I’ll stick with the X Vario for now, but will keep eyeing the dropping prices for the T system. I hope a new T body will eventually be released for folks like me where the SL system is just too far out of reach.

  17. Good Evening Steve!

    Fine review of this marvelous lens…and yes, AF speed and reliability is not as good as with Pro-DSLRs but you do get the better IQ from the SL-lens. For sure the best zoom-lens on the market,
    as I can second that from my own use in the past weeks.

    best regards,
    Michael S.

  18. hmmm… you’ve got me thinking, Steve! I might just go for this lens. I’ve been using three M lenses (the latest 28mm Elmarit, 50mm APO, 90mm APO) with my SL with very pleasing results. The size is what bothers me, but I’m amazed you were able to get such sharp images handheld with this bazooka of a lens!

  19. Very nice article and review of the Leica zoom! With regard to your sharpness comparison between it, the Sony and Olympus systems, I also think it would be interesting to add the FujiFilm X-Pro2 with the Fujinon XF50-140 f/2.8 zoom to the mix. The color and clarity comparison would be interesting as well. Thanks for your excellent photographic insights!

    • I have both the SL/90-280 and the XPro2/50-140 combos. The Fuji is superb and I’d have no problems recommending it. The Leica combination has just a bit extra. If you set the same white balance the colours are very similar in Lightroom. The SL is about a stop better in noise at mid ISO’s. The Fuji is cleaner at high ISO’s (3200++) at the expense of detail. Both retain great colour at higher ISO’s. The SL noise looks better in ACR than Fujis.

      The Fuji zoom focuses a bit faster and noticeably faster in dim light on the XPro2. It’s as good as the A7R2 in the same light. The SL/90-280 locks on but at a more leisurely pace. The sharpness is similar but the Leica has smoother and nicer transitions and it really doesn’t have a strong or weak part of the range. The blur of the Fuji can get nervous at times. The 90-280 is better in this regard but is still a modern lens in rendering.

      The SL is a lot of money for probably 10-15% more overall performance. But if I could only keep one it would be the SL. The usability and build quality is out of this world.

      Gordon

      • Hi Gordon. Well, first may I say that I am impressed that you have BOTH the Fuji and Leica systems! As a Fuji X-System user, I mainly got into it (from 35+ years in SLR/DSLR land) for the “relatively” small size/weight, and primarily the stellar Fujinon optics. I am quite glad to hear that the “sharpness is similar” to the Leica lens!! As a sharpness fanatic, I always strive for maximum detail in my landscape and product images, and so far, have found that the Fuji X-System requires minimal post processing in that regard!

  20. Fascinating lens. I assume the AF draws power from the camera’s batter. Any impressions of power drain on the battery? And what about the mount…will it work with any other cameras?

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