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Heavy, But Beautiful! Leica 90-280mm f2.8-4 SL Review


This is a lens that has had me scratching my head. Leica is hitting the ball out of the park in so many ways with this lens, but they’re also making something a bit odd. The Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL is a heavy lens with great optics and beautiful image quality. And you also just can’t deny how great the build quality is. Plus, there’s a very useful focal range attached with a pretty wide aperture. Though at the same time, you’ll wonder who exactly would use a lens like this.

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Models

Too Long; Didn’t Read

The Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL is a big, heavy lens that’s pretty capable of doing everything except fast-moving sports photography. It boasts beautiful image quality and a very hefty price tag as well. For what it is, it’s a great lens. It’s very useful. But I’m still trying to wrap my head around who the buyer for this lens actually is.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Big
  • Weather sealing
  • A very useful focal length set
  • It’s kind of a 70-200 and a 70-300mm all in one
  • Only one stop of aperture change
  • Fast to focus
  • Fantastic image quality.
  • Internal zooming and focusing
  • Work very well with Leica’s image stabilization

Cons

  • Big
  • Heavy
  • Expensive
  • Looking through Behance, it’s tough to find what photographers are shooting with this besides random stuff
  • Doesn’t really have the autofocus speed for action

Gear Used

We tested the Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL with the:

  • Leica SL2S
  • Flashpoint Zoom Lion R2

Innovations

The Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL isn’t particularly innovative except for a few points. It’s the only one of a focal length like this made. And because of that, it fits the bill somewhere between a traditional 70-200 and 70-300mm lens. But it does that with a pretty fast aperture.

Tech Specs

These tech specs are taken from LensRentals.

Angle of View 26° – 9°
Autofocus Autofocus
Brand Leica
Compatibility Crop and Full Frame
Focal Length 90.0-280.0
Hood Included Yes
Image Stabilization Yes
Item Type Lens
Lens Type Telephoto
Max Aperture 2.8
Minimum Aperture 22.0
Mount L Mount
Weight 4.08 lbs

Ergonomics

Here’s the front of the Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL lens. It’s big. Really, really big. But the good thing is that it doesn’t get any bigger when you zoom all the way in. This is an internally zooming optic. And that typically helps with build quality.

This lens has a lot of metal on the build. But it’s also characterized by the rubber rings on the outside. These are nice for grip in the cold weather. Realistically, you’ll probably just hold the zoom ring and not worry about the focusing ring at all.

The lens also boasts a tripod collar. More often than not, it acts as a nice grip if you’re shooting handheld. But most of the time you might not bother with it.

Here’s a bit more of a view of this lens. It’s big, black, durable, and heavy. 

Build Quality

Well, there’s a lot to take in here. First off, the Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL is very solidly built. It’s weather sealed and there’s a metal exterior. Plus, consider that the Leica SL series of cameras have IP ratings for durability. The lenses have to be able to keep up. So when it comes to reliability, I’ve got no qualms with the Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL. However, all of this comes at a cost!

The Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL is pretty heavy and large. In fact, I’d consider it almost unwieldy. You’ll need a large backpack to put this lens in. Plus, you’ll also need to have a job that requires you to have a lens like this. As it is, Leica’s zoom lenses for the SL mount are different from what other manufacturers make. This one is incredibly different. And I’d probably only see an adventure photographer wanting to use this lens consistently. Even then, I’d recommend that they’d use it with another L-mount camera that has animal and bird detection.

To give you an idea of how heavy this lens is, I was using a Vi Vante heavy-duty camera strap on the Leica SL2s. If I let the camera and lens dangle down, it really weighed down. So I’d have to tuck the tripod collar into a front jacket pocket. It worked almost like a holster, and even then I’d still hold onto the camera and lens.

Autofocus

The Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL is a bit of a mix here. With stagnant subjects, it’s going to do very well. During a sunset shoot with Anthony on a rooftop in Manhattan, we were able to get beautiful photos. With face and eye detection, the Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL and Leica SL2s nailed the photos each and every time. It didn’t miss once and was pretty awesome.

In fact, this is probably the closest you’re going to get to be able to photograph birds with a Leica SL lens. The L system has other lens options of course. And those options will probably also focus faster when it comes to tracking moving subjects. If anything, I’d probably want to use a teleconverter with this lens to get closer. In the situation where birds or your furry friends are stagnant, this lens will totally rock. But when it comes to tracking, things will change a bit.

The Leica SL2S doesn’t have animal autofocus, but it has an autofocus profile for tracking wildlife. The closest I could get was our local community garden cat. The Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL and SL2s could keep Kumra in focus as she was moving towards the camera at times. But overall, it’s still not a good as I’ve seen from Sony and Canon. The entire tracking sequence is below, and you’ll be able to see for yourself.

Ease of Use

From a usability standpoint, the Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL is very straightforward. You attach it to the camera, point, focus, and shoot. It’s really simple. There’s nothing very complicated about it as it’s going to use image stabilization from your camera. In fact, pretty much all the controls except for zooming will be done from the camera.

Image Quality

The Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL gives off beautiful image quality. Overall, we can’t find a single fault with it. Leica colors always end up blowing our minds away. But then there are great things like the bokeh, the sharpness, and more. It’s hard to not like it when you look at the image quality.

Bokeh

The bokeh this lens creates is beautiful. You’ll get the best at the longer end when shooting wide open. If you’re shooting portraits with this lens, we think that you’ll like the bokeh and the little bit of “pop” this lens can give. When the sun hits your subject just right, the words “Magic Hour” ring true!

Color Rendition

Here’s where I was really pleasantly surprised. The colors that this lens can give off are really vivid and gorgeous. They’re different than some of the SL prime lenses. But they’re also still very nice to look at. 

Lens Character

In our tests, we didn’t find any issues with lens flaws like chomatic aberration, etc. Any fringing we found was nearly negligible. And it’s not anything we’d fret over. 

Sharpness

I’ve always believed that the best sharpness from a lens comes when you’re using a flash. And that’s no exception here. The Leica 90-280mm f2.8-f4 SL can exhibit super sharp image quality with little trouble. As long as the focus is nailed and the lighting is right, you’ll have beautifully sharp photos.

Extra Image Samples

From day one, The Phoblographer has been huge on transparency with our audience. Nothing from this review is sponsored. Further, lots of folks will post reviews and show lots of editing in the photos. The problem then becomes that anyone and everyone can do the same thing. They’re not showing what the lens can do. So we have a section in our Extra Image Samples area to show edited and unedited photos. From this, you can make a decision for yourself.

Unedited

Edited

Conclusions

Likes

  • Sharpness is great!
  • Colors are wonderful!
  • Overall image quality is pretty stellar
  • Performance for portraiture is pretty great
  • Amazingly versatile

Dislikes

The Leica 90-280mm f2.8-4 SL is in a special place. It can perform admirably when it comes to image quality and autofocus. It also gives you a very versatile focal length range. But at the same time, I’m not sure who would buy it for a few reasons. It’s a great lens for photojournalism, but it’s way too heavy. It’s a good lens for documentary work too if you’re being slow and don’t mind carrying around a mammoth lens. It’s positively stellar for portrait photography. It’s got potential for wildlife, but it would be better suited to be used on a camera like the Panasonic S5 for sure. Can it take great photos? Absolutely. That’s not even a question at all. But practically speaking, you’d be better served with a other lenses instead. 

So who would buy this lens? Well, I did some research around Behance and Instagram. It seems like it’s mostly shooting portraits, landscapes, and a bit of sports. But take it from the guy who’s reviewed every one of the Leica SL lenses; there are other lenses you’d be better off reaching for on the shorter end. Still, this lens has a ton of versatility, and that can’t be discounted. I just think that any photographer considering it would have a tough time justifying the purchase. I mean, could you really make back $7,000+ in gigs after spending that much on this lens?

The Leica 90-280mm f2.8-4 SL receives four out of five stars. Want one? Check it out on Amazon or rent one from LensRentals.






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