Sony 135mm f/1.8 vs Leica APO Summicron-SL 90mm f/2: A Game of Inches

Are you in the market for a high-quality prime lens but can’t decide between the Sony 135mm f/1.8 and the Leica APO Summicron-SL 90mm f/2? Look no further, as we dive into the details of these two incredible lenses in this blog post. Both lenses offer stunning image quality and performance, but each has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. So, let’s explore the nuances of these two lenses in this game of inches to help you make an informed decision on which one is right for you.


Sony 135mm f/1.8 vs Leica APO Summicron-SL 90mm f/2: A Game of Inches

Hey everybody I’m Hugh Branson for three blind men and an elephant and I guess I’m still in a sports metaphor or analogy state of mind. I was about to attribute life his game of inches to the great football coach Vince Lombardi until I realized he wasn’t the one who actually said it. What Lombardi said was quite literal football is a game of inches, yeah okay, it took a screenwriter John Logan to turn Lombardi’s words into an analogy and then bring it back to football via the character of Tony D’Amato in 1999’s Any Given Sunday, the head coach of a fictitious Miami Sharks. D’Amato, played by Al Pacino (stellar and surprising cast, if you don’t remember it, check it out), delivers one of the great sports film soliloquies of all time beginning with “Life is a game of inches, and so is football.” But in either case, life is a game of inches are the words that immediately came to mind as I pored over images I shot last week with these two lenses.

Sony’s 135mm f/1.8 on a Sony a7 III

Sony’s 135mm f/1.8 mounted on Sony’s a7 III (Thank You Sony for the loaner) and Leica’s APO Summicron-SL 90mm f/2 on my own 24 Megapixel APS-C like a CL (B&H thank you guys for lending me the lens), because while both setups are absolutely brilliant – super crisp corner to corner even wide open, no chromatic aberration apparent on first glance, really the best imagery I’ve ever seen at this field of view – though hold that thought, I don’t think you can consistently say one is better than the other in purely technical image quality terms, specific use cases, sure, but not all of them.

The Game of Inches

I realized that the difference in these photographs almost inevitably came down not to the gear but literally to a couple of inches. For a few seconds, I’d shoot a second too early or late, not wait the extra second or two for autofocus to settle, inadvertently rotate an inch or three beyond axis as I switch from vertical to horizontal, leave the depth of field a bit too shallow by just two or three inches, and turn potential keepers into rejects. Or move a few inches to the right and turn okay shots into better ones.

Although I was occasionally reminded that even the most advanced autofocus systems can still make mistakes. I long for the day, and it will come when autofocus knows what it is seeing without me first having to menu dive to tell it what to look for. But that’s a game of inches or seconds too, isn’t it? Because if I take just seconds to reacquaint myself with the details of the a7 III menu system, which, when you think about it, leaves choices just inches, millimeters apart from each other on different screens…

Even now, the menu system still leaves me scratching my head. Or an even shorter amount of time to tune the CL because its menu system is significantly easier for me to navigate. Or taking a few seconds to calculate the depth of field of a 135 1.8, but say 6 feet is only 7/10 of an inch and I might want more depth of field. You get the point.

Autofocus and Minimum Focusing Distance

Although this may surprise you and it certainly surprised me, IAF was on and I still had difficulty getting the Sony to focus on this little one. I actually had better success with the theoretically inferior autofocus of the CL. In hindsight, I’m thinking it may have been a function of the minimum focusing distance because while the 90 has a minimum focusing distance of 60 centimeters, the Sony’s is 70.

Oh, and this is a trip I noticed for the very first time ever that when looking through an EVF with preview turned on, the aperture blades don’t move at all. The image in both of these cameras simply simulated exposure without changing depth of field. I mean, I am frigging stunned. With the Sony, you at least have the option of going into custom settings and assigning what’s called aperture preview to a button, though it does slow everything down. The CL, best as I can tell, doesn’t even have that option.

It has simply never occurred to me that I wasn’t seeing a proper depth of field preview these last few years of using EVF only cameras. Then again, our daily driver has been the Panasonic GH4, and it does preview exposure and depth of field. I was seeing proper depth of field preview. The only other times I’ve shot this shallow, at least in the past few years, were when I tested its little brother, the 85 1.4 G Master and shot last year with Leica M10. P.M.10-D with the 85 1.4.

I wanted razor-thin depth of field and shot wide open with results I just loved. With the M series twins, I used the Type 20 EVF for critical focus with manual glass when shallow depth of field was also an integral part of my street work. In these instances, of course, I saw the actual depth of field because the aperture was actually adjusting as I turned the aperture ring.


Moving on, I didn’t bother with a bokeh test because I’m sure other reviewers have already covered it and because I’m fairly uninterested in it. If I shot at night, I might have seen the impact between the Sony’s 11-blade diaphragm compared to the eight blades of the Leica, but I might not have seen it either because in the real world, that’s not where I’m looking.

I use depth of field to isolate the subject, not the context, or it simply wouldn’t be significant. If I were, I should at least check that, shouldn’t I? Hang on, yeah, no big difference in a sample size of one.

I think life is especially interesting when you consider it as a long game, a game of bigger distances, a game of decades, a game of perspective. All the more obvious when you compare these lenses to the manually focusing only 135mm upon which I cut my teeth.

The lens that led me to prefer 135 over 85, 105, or 200. Although Nikon AF-S 105 1.4 II is outstanding, Canon’s early 1970s era of manually focusing only FD 135 f2.5. My sister recently discovered carousel trays full of slides from that time, and I was stunned to see just how soft those Kodachrome and Ektachrome look…

To return to that thought I asked you to hold, I think it’s fair to say that a mid-90s manually focusing only Leica APO Summicron-SL 90mm f/2.8 is right up there with them, if not on an MTF chart I haven’t checked, certainly by any useful measure at appropriate viewing distances. Dramatically smaller, lighter, and less expensive – a clean manual only focused Leica APO Summicron-SL of that same vintage, all of 484 grams, can be had on eBay for $4,000 give or take. A brand new auto-focusing only 75 1.8 tips the scales at a petite 300 grams or so and is $900 new at B&H or Adorama.

Compare that to the 700 grams of the 5150 Leica or 950 grams of the less than half the price but still not inexpensive at $1,900 Sony. While we’re at it, the stonking big 1,130-gram but only $1,400 Sigma 135 1.8. We’ll come back to that pricing in a moment. I guess I could mention that the Sony 135 1.8 is a top of the Sony line G Master, big brother to our 2017 Lens of the Year – in fact, their 85mm 1.4, which means beyond optics, it offers superb build quality and a real aperture ring…

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Which lens has better image quality, the Sony 135mm f/1.8 or the Leica APO Summicron-SL 90mm f/2?

The Leica APO Summicron-SL 90mm f/2 generally has better image quality due to its superior optics and construction.

2. How do the maximum apertures of these lenses compare?

The Sony 135mm f/1.8 has a wider maximum aperture of f/1.8 compared to the Leica APO Summicron-SL 90mm f/2’s f/2 aperture.

3. Which lens is better for portrait photography?

Both lenses are excellent choices for portrait photography, but the Sony 135mm f/1.8’s longer focal length may provide slightly better compression and subject isolation.

4. Are these lenses compatible with all camera bodies?

The Sony 135mm f/1.8 is designed for Sony E-mount cameras, while the Leica APO Summicron-SL 90mm f/2 is designed for Leica L-mount cameras. They are not interchangeable without the use of adapters.

5. How do the prices of these lenses compare?

The Leica APO Summicron-SL 90mm f/2 is typically more expensive than the Sony 135mm f/1.8 due to its premium build quality and optics.

I hope you find useful my article Sony 135mm f/1.8 vs Leica APO Summicron-SL 90mm f/2: A Game of Inches, I also recommend you to read my other posts in my blog at this link.

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