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Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux vs Nikon 28mm f/1.4D - Analog Edition + Digital Epilogue

Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux vs Nikon 28mm f/1.4D - Analog Edition + Digital Epilogue

Anna has been away visiting family, and there hasn't been any notable development in the world of photography. I'm still waiting for my Sony A9 to come. So until then, reviews of newer gear will be few and far between.

Besides, even if Anna were here, the weather would have been too miserable to do anything meaningful. It's been pouring all week long.

Without anything new to say, I had to resort to being resourceful. Yes, that meant digging through the backlog of my photo archive to find something interesting, if not newsworthy or useful at all. Luckily, I came across a curious image set that I haven't posted yet. It was a rush-job I did before flying off to Northern Japan, a couple of weeks ago, right before Easter.

Rush job is code for not my best work... not that my work has ever been exceptional?

Still, it was a curious little image set, despite its inauspicious inception. It was a comparison between the Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH and the Nikon 28mm f/1.4D. Not exactly your usual run-of-the-mill comparison. It was done on an overcast day before the storm. We had already rushed through another comparison earlier that day, in hopes of avoiding the on-coming tempest. But since the weather seemed to have held out, having not rained on our parade, we decided to continue and power through a second comparison for that proverbial rainy day in the future.

Rainy day is code for when Anna's out of town again.

Nikon F4 + Kodak Portra 800 + 28mm f/1.4D. Leica 0, Nikon 1.

Nikon F4 + Kodak Portra 800 + 28mm f/1.4D. Leica 0, Nikon 2.

Nikon F4 + Kodak Portra 800 + 28mm f/1.4D. Leica 0, Nikon 3.

Leica M6 + Kodak Portra 800 + 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. Leica 1, Nikon 3.

So why compare the Nikon 28mm f/1.4D with the 28 Lux? Aside from the obvious "why not" or "because I can", the Nikon is a special lens... dare I say legendary, in the annals of Nikon photography. After all, it is a much coveted lens, given its historically groundbreaking use of aspherical elements during the heydays of Nikon's market dominance. Though to be perfectly frank, it's really because I have a copy of it, and I'm not going to go out of my way to get the Zeiss Otus 28mm f/1.4 Distagon.

It's no secret I have a soft spot for fast 28mm lens. I've always liked it. As an aspiring young photographer, I always had the 28mm f/1.4D as my go-to lens mounted on my Nikon. And now that I'm no longer young and aspiring, I seem to always have the 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH mounted on my Leica M10. So from a personal perspective, I believe it would be educational to see which fast 28mm lens performs better... hint... hint... it's going to be the Leica.

Admittedly, this will not be a fair comparison. The Nikon was designed for film photography, while the 28 Lux was designed for digital. So in order to level the playing field, I decided to conduct this comparison with film - Kodak Portra 800 to be exact. The camera used in this comparison were the Nikon F4 and the Leica MP-6. 

This should be interesting. I've never done a lens review with film before. 

And just for fun, by making this comparison appear less tedious and redundant, I decided to turn it into a competition to determine which of the two lens is better - hint - it's the Leica. The rules are the same as my previous challenges. Whichever combination has the most images on this post will be crowned the better lens.

Admittedly, not the most scientific way of doing this. But in all seriousness, does this blog look like DxO?

Leica M6 + Kodak Portra 800 + 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. Leica 2, Nikon 3.

Nikon F4 + Kodak Portra 800 + 28mm f/1.4D. Leica 2, Nikon 4.

Nikon F4 + Kodak Portra 800 + 28mm f/1.4D. Leica 2, Nikon 5.

Leica M6 + Kodak Portra 800 + 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. Leica 3, Nikon 5.

Clearly, the 28 Lux has a characteristically more modern rendering than the Nikon 28mm f/1.4. The Leica appears to retain more contrasts across the tonal range than the Nikon, giving the image more of a 3D pop. But that is to be expected, since most lens designs during the film era were typically less contrasty than contemporary lenses designed for digital output. 

However, that is not to say that the Nikon isn't sharp. It could be, if I weren't such a hack in retaining focus when reframing the shot for composition. With that said, the impression of sharpness is evident when there is sufficient contrast between shadows, mid-tones and highlights in the focused regions.

With regards to bokeh, I am of the opinion that the Nikon 28mm f/1.4D renders it better wide open. To my eyes, the detail of the background blur appears more diffused than the 28 Lux. Perhaps this has something with the less contrasty nature of the older Nikon lens. But whatever it is, the Nikon does seem to bring out the beauty of the grain more than the Leica.

Also worth noting are signs of chromatic aberration on the Nikon 28mm f/1.4D. From my experience, I know the 28 Lux can at times be prone to minor purple fringing - but nothing like this Nikon. A large portion of Anna's hair against the bright sky was purple on the Nikon image below. Mind you, it's not as if chromatic aberration was excited on each and every shot. But when it did occur, purple fringing went beyond the fringe. Being unsightly, I corrected it in Lightroom.

I also noticed significant distortion on the Nikon as you approach the edge of the frame. Again, I've seen my fair share of distortion on the 28 Lux. But again, nothing like the Nikon. The distortion on the Nikon made true the common perception that the camera can add twenty pounds to the subject. Needless to say, much intervention went into Lightroom to resolve the unwanted weight gain.

Leica M6 + Kodak Portra 800 + 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. Stopped down.  Leica 4, Nikon 5.

Leica M6 + Kodak Portra 800 + 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. Stopped down. Leica 5, Nikon 5.

Nikon F4 + Kodak Portra 800 + 28mm f/1.4D (-10 Distortion and +7 Purple Defringe). Stopped down. Leica 5, Nikon 6.

Leica M6 + Kodak Portra 800 + 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. Stopped down. Leica 6, Nikon 6.

Seemingly, with the burden of proof against the Nikon, you think I'd give the nod to the Leica - which I'm going to. But, it isn't because of the chromatic aberration or the distortion. As important as those considerations are, need I remind you the basis of this comparison. It's a challenge... remember? The 28 Lux beats the Nikon 28mm f/1.4D 6 to 6 by tie breaker! The title image was taken by the 28 Lux. So based on the parameter of this challenge, the 28 Lux outperformed the Nikon. Take that DxO!

But in all seriousness, the 28 Lux performed better because it's more modern. The Nikon could never compete. How could it? The Leica benefits from newer technology that wasn't available when Nikon designed the 28mm f/1.4D over a decade ago. So on any purely objective comparison, it wouldn't be likely for old vintage lenses to outperform contemporary modern lenses based on measurable criteria.

That's why newer lenses do better on DxO... year after year. Such is the nature of progress, for without it, manufacturers wouldn't be able to convince us to forsake our perfectly good aged equipment for incremental improvements.

Still, the appreciation of vintage lenses could never be about quantifiable measures like sharpness or contrast. It must be about subjective traits like character. In the case of the Nikon 28mm f/1.4D, it does have character, as demonstrated by it's bokeh. And if that isn't enough, it's also comparatively more forgiving in portraiture than the 28 Lux, in that it softens minor imperfection with reduced contrast.

It is for this reason it took a tie breaker for the 28 Lux to beat the Nikon. Apparently, I like the look of the Nikon 28mm f/1.4D.

Having said that, film has its limitation in lens review. When it comes to measurable criteria, it's still better to do it on a digital sensor. So for the fun of it, I decided to add a quick bonus digital epilogue comparing the Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH to the Nikon 28mm f/1.4D adapted on the Leica SL and then on the Sony A7r Mark II.

Leica SL + M to SL Adapter + 28mm Summilux-M ASPH. The storm had arrived, as we waited for our ferry to arrive.

Leica SL + Novoflex Nikon F to SL Adapter + 28mm f/1.4D. With the winds gusting, it started to get cold.

Sony A7r Mark II + Metabone Leica M to FE Adapter + 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH

Sony A7r Mark II + Novoflex Nikon F to FE Adapter + 28mm f/1.4D

On a digital sensor, the Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M appears sharper and more contrasty than the Nikon 28mm f/1.4D. No surprises here. Moreover, the 28 Lux resolves more detail at higher resolution. Sorry, I'm not going to post a high magnification crop of Anna's eyes. So you're just going to have to take my word on it.

However, what the Nikon lacks in contemporary sharpness and contrast, it makes up in the subtlety of rendering. Blemishes are softened, with bokeh seemingly a tad more diffused. This makes the Nikon a more forgiving lens for portrait use, since its rendering will result in a more muted and neutral look. So yeah... same as in film.

Personally, I can appreciate the character of the Nikon 28mm f/1.4D. But I am pretty sure that most would prefer the more contemporary rendering of the Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. The highlights are more brilliant, while the shadows are deeper. There's just more of a 3D pop from the Leica. It's just easier to like. In the end, I suppose that's why I prefer the Leica over the Nikon. So, no surprises here.

But was there ever any doubt? Like I said throughout, the Leica was going to outperform the Nikon - which it did.

All images have been optimized in Lightroom. Digital images optimized with the same preset. Only film images have been cropped. All analog images shot on Kodak Portra 800 and likely shot wide open unless stated otherwise. I'm sorry, I didn't scribble down the exposure setting. Digital images also shot at ISO 800. 

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