A look at the Zeiss 50 Sonnar ZM on the Leica SL
By Steve Huff
Ahhh the Zeiss 50 Sonnar C ZM lens. A sort of “classic” in the way it renders and draws, especially wide open with its classical bokeh and subject isolation. I reviewed this lens around 7-8 years ago at my original website and I loved this lens on my Leica M8 and M9 back in the day for its unique way that it would render a portrait. My original review is long gone, but my follow-up on the M 240 and MM can be seen HERE.
Not everyone is a fan of this lens as it has a way of creating bokeh that can, at times, be nervous and odd. But on many occasions, it can create an image with gorgeous beauty in the way it will deliver the subject and background, usually allowing the subject to POP off the screen.
The Leica SL with 50 Sonnar. Nope, can’t shoot THIS lens on a Nikon or Canon 😉 Works amazing on the SL. Click image for better version..
After testing this lens on the M8, M9 and 240 I wondered what it would be like on the Leica SL. I feel the SL sensor is a mix between the M9 and M 240 with much more contrast and pop than the 240 but much nicer color than the M9 (IMO). The SL feels like a 3rd gen product and while it is a first gen, the camera is amazingly intuitive and delivers consistent results. Since I love the 50mm focal length, I am testing all of my fave M 50’s on the SL this year and will be doing little follow ups like this all year with the SL and Leica M lenses. The fact is, these lenses render much differently on each Leica camera. The way a 50 Lux renders on an M8 is not the way it renders on an M9 or M 240 or SL. So with the little Zeiss, I wanted to see just what the Sonnar gave me and I have to say, I really really love what it can do, though it has some negatives I will touch on in a few…
Good ol’ Olive. She has learned to sit still and pose for me as I have been shooting pictures of her since she was a puppy. This was at night, in my bedroom, shot at f/1.5
Last week I wrote a refresh on the Leica 50 APO. The world’s best 50mm lens with the world highest 50mm price of $8200. The Zeiss 50 1.5 Sonnar, luckily, comes in at around $1200 and it is worth every cent of that $1200, especially when you compare it to other Leica big money lenses. But those who ADORE something like a 50 APO may not jive with the 50 Sonnar as it is much different. Expect soft corners in detail landscape shots, expect Bokeh that is a tad busy at times and get ready to take a step back as the close focus distance is 1 meter, not the usual .7 or .5 meters of many M lenses.
Ashwin Rao during his visit to AZ. We hung out all day with Jurt Kamka and shot with SL’s and an S006 (Kurt’s). It was a Leica day for sure 😉
Kurt Kamka talking with Ashwin. This is an OOC JPEG, f/1.5
Just a cowboy at Goldfield Ghost Town in AZ, shot wide open at 1.5. This should put to rest the myth that this lens is soft at 1.5. On the SL or A7RII, there is no softness issues as focus can be spot on every time.
If you are OK with the 1m minimum focus and the unique classical bokeh, the 50 Sonnar is quite nice. Some would say “special” as it is for many, one of those “artistic” lenses allowing you to create very unique photos as nothing renders like a 50 Sonnar. The C in the name stands for COMPACT and CLASSIC. This lens is tiny, and on the SL it worked out fantastic. Focusing with the EVF was a breeze and very quick and easy. I have gotten the hang of focusing with the SL and M lenses without using magnification and I can be quite quick if I need be.
Saw this poodle who had sandals on and snapped even though I blurred out the sandals! Even so, the lens shows it can be quite sharp in the center of the frame 😉
Ashwin Rao and Kurt Kamka. Two names you probably know if you have been in the Leica community for a while. Both great guys with a serious passion for photography. I shot these wide open with an ND filter.
The Zeiss 5o Sonnar is a lens that everyone who shoots and M or SL should at least try. While it it not technical perfection like a 50 APO, and while it is not quite like a 50 Lux in character or bokeh, it does render so pleasantly at times I feel like I want one around at all times for when I want that look that this lens can give (but of course I do not NEED one). In some ways, I prefer this to the APO or any 50 made. In other ways, I do not but even so, it’s a lens one can use for low light or portraits or street as it will offer you a look that no other modern production lens can. At times, it appears to have the bokeh of an f/1.2 lens and I have seen some call it the poor mans Noctilux for the dreamy cool look it can give, but I would never compare it to the Noct as its not a Noct.
I would say that if you want a fast 50, and do not want to spend $4000 and up, take a long hard look at the Zeiss 50 Sonnar C and see if it works for YOU. I can tell you that it does very well on the SL. It’s a lovely lens. Jewel like in its build and feel and as I said, under $1200.
AND NOW A FEW FROM THE LENS ON MY SONY A7RII – ALL AT f/1.5
You can buy the 50 Sonnar ZM at B&H Photo HERE. This is where mine came from 😉 More on this lens from me can be seen HERE!
I think a lot of the modern glass in Leica mount is over rated, I for one appreciate the older qualities and classic look of either older lens designs like this or just simply older Leica glass per se. Whilst a lot of the modern stuff is technically excellent, I find all the brand new Leica glass range to be a look that I don’t care for that much. I applaud Zeiss for having this in the line up. I’ve owned many Leica lenses over the years but almost always older Leitz stuff. The newer Voigtlander classic line chrome stuff is also worthy of consideration to those who appreciate such a style.
Many of the projects on my site (shot on black and white film in Thailand) are with brass and chrome Leica gear from the 50’s and it’s still a look that I love today. Check out modern Thailand through old German glass here:
Thanks for a great review of a lens that is intriguing to most Leica Sony shooters. I have heard all about it’s wonderful classic rendering.
Frankly sometimes this stuff is over my head but your interpretations are a valuable insight for us all.
We both love 50mm lenses and if wewere to meet in person over a few beers I imagine we would have some fun comparing the wonderful 50mm lenses available to us at the moment.
Why would you buy this lens for such an expensive camera? Would you ever pick this lens over a lens that provides just as much isolation and, perhaps, more reliable bokeh like the Leica 1.4 Asph? This just seems like an odd combination that no SL owner would ever seriously consider. Steve, I’d be surprised if you ever pick this combo again when you go out for fun, but let us know if you do. Sorry to be a sour-pus, just find this is an odd choice. Love your content otherwise!
So you are saying simply due to PRICE, why would one buy this lens for a $7500 camera? Lol, many use $30 lenses on their $7000 M’s, and I adore my $69 Jupiter 9 on the SL. What a lens costs means nothing, as most (nearly all) Leica glass is way way way overpriced for what it gives you. The much less expensive Zeiss Zm options give you 90% for 75% less money. This Soinnar is a classic, and has been VERY popular with those who shoot $5-8,000 M cameras. Itr’s about its character which you can not get from any other lens. It resembles the $11,000 Leica Noct the most, so why would one pay $11,000 for a Noct that produces a similar effect? Hmmm. The beauty of the SL is the fact that it can shoot any M lens, no matter the year or make or model. There are many jems that you can get for $100-$349 for the SL when buying M glass. To deny yourself of those treats would be a shame. This Sonnar is every bit as good as the 50 ASPH, in its own way. In fact, I slightly prefer the Sonnar to the Lux ASPH as the Lux, as gorgeous as it is, can be a tad sterile at times, and to top it off it is 4X the cost.
I always like to push back on individuals that complain/comment about pricing on some Leica gear, in this case the SL. Back in 2008, my DSMKII body cost $7,500 new. In today’s dollar, that was about $8,300! I still mount a $300 Canon lens on it because it works. IF I could mount my M lenses on the MKII, I would, from the 50mm Zeiss Planar that was $800, or the 35mm 1.4.
I love this lens much, it is not about the price but about quality and color, Zeiss always please me with their superior lens from SLR to rangefinder. I owned it before, then I bough a Noct and very pleased with it, but after all, it is very big for walking around and its value sometime prevents me to use it frequently, then I am buying back another Zeiss Sonnar as its compact size and superior quality!
Lovely review of the 50 Sonnar (“moody, modern, retro”} on a Sony A7r over at Dear Susan: http://www.dearsusan.net/2015/06/14/365-zeiss-c-sonnar-1-550-zm-on-sony-a7r-moody-modern-retro/
One reason I pick Nokton over the Sonnar is the MFD which only goes to 1m. I like the size of the sonnar though…but i don’t regret it at all. I’m very satisfied with the Nokton. I hope you test it on the SL, Steve!
The Nokton is 90%+ of the Lux ASPH at 1/4 the cost. Super lens!
Can you please advise what lens adaptor you used with this brilliant lens. Are there any other adapters available, apart from the Leica adapters for M and R lenses??Thanks
I use the Leica adapter that was made for using M lenses on the SL. It allows the coded M lenses to be read and will be the best adapter you can buy for shooting M lenses.
Thanks Steve. But what adaptor did you use for the Zeiss 50 Sonnar on the Leica SL. Will greatly appreciate your response. Thanks
The Leica adapter for M glass to the SL.
Steve can the Leica SL tether in lightroom?
The 3D look of the first shot is amazing. The Sonnar 50 is my favorite lens on the Sony A7rII. On the M9 it can be brilliant, but focus shift makes getting consistent results a challenge
I’ve been a Sonnar fan for years, and currently own four (the modern C Sonnar, a pair of vintage f/1.5s and a vintage f/2). These are unique lenses with a character all their own. The one thing I dislike most when using an SLR is the lack of a similar lens to the 50/1.5 Sonnar.
Think Jupiter 3.
Sorry; rf only…
One of my favourite lenses, particularly with my MP and my a7r2 with close focus adaptor. Perhaps not as consistent as my lux, or as sharp as the Sony/Zeiss 55 (which is almost Otis-like in quality), but the sonnar has a real classic quality. By that, I mean it renders almost like an old-school pre-digital 50mm (you know, all those georgeous Hollywood portraits?). Personally, I would say it’s not a lens for the pixel-peepers – it’s a ‘poet’s lens’. Nice on the M9 also.
its minimum focus distance of 0.9m helps keep the focus throw shorter which aids in quicker manual focusing. Out of all the MF lenses I’ve ever owned i had more in focus keepers with this lens than any other because of this. The 3D pop is exaggerated due to the field curvature of the lens. which in my opinion makes the bokeh extra special. It must be one of the smallest 1.5 lenses around and nicely built to boot. Lovely little lens…
If you use the lens on the Sony a7xx with the close focus adapter it makes the lens much more usable
Looks great I just wondered did you notice any difference after the latest firmware update of the SL
It would be great see a comparison of the same shot with Voigtlander, Leica and Zeiss mounted on SL!
While I sold the one I had for some time and while I find the Planar to be much more “reliable” for what I do, again I’m pretty astonished about the pics you publish here, Steve. Expecially the first one is flatout fantastic with great color rendering, a marvelous bokeh and incredible pop. It’s apparantly a wonderful match, the Sonnar and the SL.
Hi Steve, glad that you did sonnar again with SL. I have this glued to my a7m2. I tried a number of 50s before settling with that, loxia, mitakon, Sony 55, lux, cron. However this little sonnar won me hands down. It has that Zeiss 3D pop, colours, lovely bokeh (haven’t seen anything to complain about), Petit size, no need for filters in most but extreme circumstances, sharp, lovely rendering… I can go on..
If anyone is sitting on the fence, please just go ahead and buy. It is a no brainer in my opinion.
Great article!! I just bought the Sonnar for my M-E on Friday gone. I love it already!! Any chance of sending a quick picture of how it looks on the SL?
Thanks a mil,
Can someone define “classic” rendering for me? I read this a lot, hell I even have a lense that supposedly does this. But I’ve never read what it actually means technically? Low contrast…lots of ghosting/flaring? Can someone take a photo with a classic rendering lense and a non classic rendering lense of the same subject and show us what it means?
Searching on internet will provide you answers and samples to your question but here is a good reference:
I hope the above helps.
Hi Steve, great pictures! I love about your editing is that it doesn’t really matter which camera you are using they all have a similar look.
Very nice Steve. This is my favorite 50 for its compact size, reasonable price, and dreamy bokeh rendering. At one point I had the Summilux pre-asph, ZM 50/2, Voigtlander 50/1.1, and this lens, when I decided to slim down my gear this is the one I ended up keeping and never looked back. If there’s one thing I could change it would be the 0.9m minimum focus distance, other than that I love everything else about the lens.
Steve, you and Ashwin are killing me with these SL images. Stop! 😉
Come on Peter, sell your D800; the SL is calling to you :)))
Very nice to see you reviewing the Sonnar again on the SL. I am new to Leica M, and I am so tempted by the Sonnar but still scared that I will not fall in love due to the focus issue of the lens. I have a slightly back-focusing 90 Elmarit-M and it is very annoying especially that I bought the M to use the rangefinder. I have no interest in live view …
Steve, can you try this one on the a7rii? Also, which one do you think is better, this or the voigtlander 50 Nokton?
Both are very different. The Nokton is much more like the 50 Lux ASPH. This Sonnar is more like a “Noctilux Lite” – depends on the look you are after.
I’ve used it extensively on an A7ii and an A7Rii and love it – no focus issues, beautiful booked and sharp enough even for the 43mp sensor, esp. once stopped down a tad. I especially love it with the Leica M close focus adaptor when it becomes a wonderful macro lens. I had to sell my Noctilux 0.95, but this is a good substitute.