Leica APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55–135mm f3.5–4.5 ASPH Lens Review

Leica APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55–135mm f3.5–4.5 ASPH Lens Review:

As some of you know, I’ve been a Leica user for many, many years.  I was solely an M user for decades but now, I am an SL user.  I was speaking to my camera dealer a few days ago, and he had mentioned that it looks like the SL is the camera I’ve used most out of anything he has ever sold me.  This is definitely true.  I shoot quite a bit with my SL; I schedule about two to three shoots per week with it, and most of the times, these shoots are either half day or full.  So, I feel like I have a lot to say about the L mount system in general but the funny thing is, I’ve only posted my APO-Summicron-SL 90mm ASPH review so far.  Well, I’m definitely going to make a bigger effort to include more L mount gear in my blog from this point on, and I’m starting with the APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f3.5-4.5 ASPH.  Since it is an L mount lens, it can be use on the SL.  However, it was originally designed for Leica’s APS-C line of cameras, so I tested this lens with the Leica CL (which is probably the APS-C camera I lust for most right now), and I have to say, the results were surprising to me but in a very good way.

Leica APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55–135mm f3.5–4.5 ASPH Lens Build Quality:

Let’s start off talking about the overall build of this lens.  I don’t think I’ve come across a Leica lens where the build quality was disappointing, and the APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f3.5-4.5 ASPH (Amazon/B&H Photo) is definitely no exception.  I was expecting this lens to be well-made considering it’s a Leica lens, and the price is a whopping $1,895 but the build quality has exceeded my expectations.  The lens is essentially all metal, and has a very dense, and solid feel to it.  It almost feels bullet proof, and if it were to accidentally bump into a wall (not that I would ever try it), I’d probably be more worried about the wall than the lens.  When operating the zoom ring, it just feels so smooth, and perfect in that it doesn’t give you that loose feeling but at the same time, it isn’t overly tight either.  It’s also worth mentioning that I didn’t experience any zoom creep.  Everything from the clean lines of the barrel, the zoom ring to even the focus ring on this lens just feels completely over-engineered.  This is basically what you’re paying for, and in my opinion, you’re getting your money’s worth.  The seams are tight to the point where it almost looks, and feels like it was made from one solid block of metal rather than assembled from difference pieces.

↑ The Leica CL and APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f3.5-4.5 ASPH.

This is the kind of quality that Leica is known for, and it’s really good to see that it’s not just reserved for their flagship systems.  Like I said before, I was an M user for decades, and I’m now an SL user; M lenses are like beautiful jewels, and SL lenses are build like tanks.  Using the APO-Vario-Elmar doesn’t make me miss or long for an M or SL lens in terms of build. The APO is such a beautifully made lens.  This kind of build quality is definitely not something you would see that often in APS-C, if you ask me.

With wide open apertures ranging from f3.5-4.5 though, the APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f3.5-4.5 ASPH isn’t the fastest lens in town, and I will definitely talk more about that, and how it affects the way I shoot below but in terms of overall size, the more modest large apertures make the APO a much easier lens to carry around.  For an 80-200mm equivalent, this lens is downright compact, and a great match for smaller cameras like the CL or TL2.  It’s something that can be carried around all day.  It’s not only a relatively short lens (for its focal length), it also isn’t that wide.  It has a 60mm filter thread, so the lens doesn’t really take up a ton of space in a bag.  The lens has no problems fitting in my smaller camera bags even when it’s attached to the CL.  In fact, I was carrying around the CL with this lens, AND another camera with a lens attached in a Billingham M Combination bag, which is very compact.  The APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm weighs about 500 g (547 g with the lens hood), so it’s the perfect weight for a lens like this: it’s light enough that it won’t burden you at the end of the day but at the same time, it has a nice heft to it that makes it feel not only like a quality product but also helps with steadying yourself as you shoot.

The APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f3.5-4.5 ASPH also comes with a lens hood, which is fully reversible for easy storage.  I did use the lens hood at times for review purposes but most of the time, I just left it at home.  I didn’t get any flare from this lens, and even though the lens hood is reversible, it does make the APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm appear much longer, and more conspicuous when mounted in the position for shooting.

↑ The lens hood is reversible for easy storage.

I think the only minor issue I had with this lens is the fact that there is no built-in image stabilization.  Normally, it doesn’t bother me at all, if there isn’t any image stabilization.  But it’s different here because holding a long telephoto lens steady can be more difficult than say shooting a 50mm depending on the conditions.  In certain situations, I made up for it by boosting the ISO because I knew I had to shoot at much higher shutter speeds.  The CL performed great at higher ISO; it’s just I’m a bit old school in the way that I shoot.  I always prefer to use the lowest ISO possible.

Overall though, while I don’t want to be repetitive, I wanted to say one more time that the APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f3.5-4.5 ASPH is just so well-made.  This is the kind of quality that you would get in the old days before a lot of manufacturers started using CAD (computer aided designs) to figure out how to cut cost, and make things just good enough haha (I’m mostly joking here) ;).  It definitely lives up to the Leica name in this way.

↑ Here’s the CL and APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f3.5-4.5 ASPH next to my Leica SL and Summilux-SL 50mm f1.4 ASPH.

Leica APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55–135mm f3.5–4.5 ASPH Lens Autofocus:

As for the autofocus, I found it to be very quick.  I tested the APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f3.5-4.5 ASPH (Amazon/B&H Photo) with the CL (latest firmware as of this writing) and overall, there’s no drama here.  I tested it in a variety of conditions, and it locked on quick enough that I never once felt like I needed anything faster.  It had no problems locking on to the models that I shot with, and it never disturbed the rhythm of a shoot.  It was very accurate as well.

Leica APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55–135mm f3.5–4.5 ASPH Lens Image Quality:

Now, let’s talk about image quality, which I have to say, is absolutely phenomenal.  I knew it would be good for two reasons: it’s a Leica lens and overall, while not every Leica lens is equal, all the ones I’ve used have always been up to a certain standard of excellence.  There are also the APO markings on this lens, which mean there are elements made with special glass featuring anomalous partial dispersion for correcting chromatic aberrations.  But as many Leica fans know, APO makings on a Leica lens also mean we’re dealing with something a little bit more special.  Bottom line is I was quite frankly surprised at just how good the APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f3.5-4.5 ASPH is in terms of image quality.  I don’t think it quite matches my SL lenses but I would argue it’s as good as some of the M lenses I’ve used.

↑ This was taken with the 91mm focal length at f4.5.  1250 ISO and 1/500s.

↑ This was taken with the 55mm focal length at f11.  500 ISO and 1/500s.

↑ Here’s another shot taken at f11.  The lens was set at 71mm, and the camera’s settings were 1/500s and 500 ISO.

For one, the APO is an extremely sharp lens throughout the frame.  I do a lot of lens reviews, and I would normally expect to see slightly softer corners at wide open apertures but it’s kind of difficult to even see a huge difference between shots taken wide open and shots at say f8.  In other words, feel free to use this lens at all apertures because the sharpness is quite impressive across the entire frame.

↑ This was shot in the morning with the 88mm focal length at f8.  The lighting was terrible almost everyday that I had the lens for review but sometimes the mornings were a bit better.  the camera settings were 200 ISO and 1/640s.

↑ Here’s a 100% crop of the photo above.  This area wasn’t really the main focus point but look at the walls of the buildings.  They are still very sharp.

↑ This is another 100% crop of the WTC picture.  Look at how clean the lines are in the antenna area.

↑ This was shot wide open (f4.5) at 135mm.  The camera settings were 800 ISO and 1/500s.

↑This is a 100% crop of the photo above, and as you can see, this lens picks up plenty of detail even at 800 ISO wide open.  You can clearly see the textures and roughness of the statue.

↑ This was taken at f6.3 with the 110mm focal length.  The camera settings were 1/500s and 125 ISO.

↑ This is a 100% crop of the photo above.  If you look closely, you can see that this lens picks up even the wrinkles in the metal.

↑ I really wish I had this lens during better weather.  The days were just so cloudy, too bright or hazy.  This was taken using the 66mm focal length at f3.8.  The camera settings were 1/320s and 100 ISO.

↑ This is a 100% crop of the photo above.  Look at the details in the clock.

↑ This is another 100% crop of the Grand Central Station photo.  As you can see, the lettering is tack sharp even though this isn’t exactly the focus point.

↑ Here’s one more 100% crop of the Grand Central Station photo.

But of course, sharpness isn’t the only important factor that we look for in a great lens.  We look for other traits, and the APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f3.5-4.5 ASPH has plenty.  The micro detail is there, there’s decent contrast, and the color rendering is beautiful.  The files have that crispness, and clarity you would expect from a high end lens.  The photos also have a lot of pop.  That three dimensionalism that give those photos that organic/lifelike feel is there.  All that good stuff that Leica lenses are famous for is in this lens. There is a little vignetting wide open but nothing out of the ordinary.  Stopping down to f5.6 nearly eliminates it all, and by f8, there’s none.  This lens is also highly resistant to flaring, since I didn’t experience it at all while I was shooting with it.   The only thing I wish for was better weather while I had the APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm for testing.  Most of the days were either cloudy, hazy or sunny to the point where the lighting was terribly harsh.  I should’ve used some of my strobes but honestly, I was just enjoying the heck out of this lens in general, and sometimes, strobes slow me down a bit.

↑ Here’s a shot taken at 56mm wide open (f3.5).  The camera settings were 1/500s and 1250 ISO.

↑ Here’s a shot taken at 320 ISO and 1/500s.  The lens settings were 58mm and f13.

↑This was another hazy day.  This was also midday.  This was taken at 100 ISO and 1250s.  The APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm settings were f3.5 and 55mm.

As for shallow depth of field shots, you’re not going to get anything like what you would get from say a 90mm Summicron at f2.  Even with my 50mm Summilux-SL ASPH, it’s so easy to get that isolation.  The modest large apertures of the APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm simply won’t give you that ultra shallow depth of field but with that said, you can still get decent isolation given that this is an 80-200mm equivalent lens.

As some of you know, I shoot a lot of portrait and boudoir (I post a lot on my Instagram).  I usually use primes, so every time I get a zoom like this one in to review, it takes a little getting used to; however, once I play around with the distance, and focal lengths, I achieved very nice isolation and inviting, smooth bokeh.  Yes, a lens with a large fixed aperture, such as, an 80-200mm f2 lens will give you plenty of isolation but you have to remember that it’s all about trade-offs.  With a lens like that, you’d probably use it for more specific purposes, since it’ll probably be pretty large, physically.  With the APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm, you’ll still get decent isolation, and bokeh but at the same time, this lens is arguably more versatile in that you probably won’t leave it home as often.

↑ While this isn’t the fastest lens out there, there’s still plenty of isolation, and the bokeh is very smooth even with trees in the background like in this picture.  This was taken at 1/250s and 800 ISO.  The lens settings were f4.5 and 135mm.

↑ Here’s another picture demonstrating the depth of field and bokeh.  The lens settings were 135mm and f4.5.  The camera was set at 100 ISO and 1/800s.

↑Here’s a photo that was taken at 4,000 ISO and 1/500s.  The lens was set at f4.5 and 135mm.

↑ This was taken with the lens set at 135mm and f4.5.  The camera was set at 1/500s and 320 ISO.

Leica APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55–135mm f3.5–4.5 ASPH Lens Verdict:

Overall, I believe the APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f3.5-4.5 ASPH (Amazon/B&H Photo) is a great addition to the line of TL lenses.  Build quality is superb, and image quality is everything you would expect from a true Leica lens.

↑ This was shot in some seriously harsh and hazy light.  The ones with my SL and Summilux-SL 50mm came out better (can be seen on my Instagram) because I was in very tight quarters here, and the 50mm gave me a little more space.  This was taken at 55mm and f3.5.  1/320s and 100 ISO.

↑ Here’s a shot taken at 100 ISO and 1/1250s.  I used the 111mm focal length and had the aperture set at f4.5.

Of course, there are things that you’ll have to accept.  For one, this isn’t a bokeh monster lens.  It’s modest large apertures, and lack of image stabilization also made me have to boost my ISO up at times.  Lastly, the asking price of $1,895 is definitely not for the faint of heart.

↑ I used the 135mm focal length here, and I took this wide open (f4.5).  The camera settings were 400 ISO and 1/1600s.

↑My only black and white in this review, which was processed in Camera Raw in Photoshop CC.  I’m beginning to really love Photoshop CC.  I took this at f11 and 400 ISO.  1/500s and 56mm.

↑ This was taken using the 55mm focal length at f8.  1/640s and 200 ISO.

With all that said, it’s modest large apertures allow this lens to be more compact.  The APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm is something that you can definitely carry around all day without feeling burdened.  It also balances quite nicely with smaller cameras like the CL.  For a lens of this focal length, I was quite surprised at how easy it was to treat it almost like an “everyday” lens.  I love the fact that even when it was attached to the CL, it fit perfectly in my smaller bags like the Billingham M Combo, and Hadley Small.  Keep in mind that I still had space left for other gear.  This is a lens that you just wouldn’t want to leave behind, which means it’s not only great for whatever you shoot regularly, it’s something you won’t leave at home when you want to just shoot for fun, like when you go on vacation, for example.

↑I took a lot of boat pics this time but it definitely took some time for me to get used to this lens, since I don’t normally shoot with such long focal lengths.  The lens was set at 55mm and f8.  1/500s and 500 ISO.

↑This was shot at 6400 ISO and 1/125s.  The lens was set at 135mm and f5.6.

As for the price?  It’s a Leica lens, so we know it’s going to be expensive.  However, the combination of overall design, incredible build quality, versatility, and absolutely superb image quality make it worth every single penny, if you ask me.

↑The APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm balances nicely with the Leica CL.

Bottom line is, if you’re willing to pay the price of entry, you’re going to get a truly high end product that I feel will exceed expectations in terms of performance.  I don’t think many will be disappointed with this lens.  I sure wasn’t.  Every time I test something related to the Leica APS-C line, it makes me want to buy a CL :).

Thanks for taking the time to read my review!  If you’re considering purchasing the APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm, and my review helped you decide, please help support this site by purchasing from any of the links in this review.  It will not cost you anything extra.  Thank you for your support!

APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f3.5-4.5 ASPH at:

Amazon or B&H Photo

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