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Which short (28/35-70mm) R zoom?

New 28-90mm ASPH zoom (2004)

In Dec 2003 details of the new R zoom started to appear online. Known as the "Vario-Elmarit-R 1:2.8-4.5/28-90mm ASPH Zoom lens", it promises stunning performance (and price - $US 3295!).

Performance and user details are still a bit sketchy, but our friend Erwin Puts has generated one of his "scientific reports" on the lens - you can wade through it here.

Older Zooms

There are a number of short 28 or 35-70mm R zooms available, which one is the "best"?

Short answer - the #11277 "Vario-Elmar-R 35mm-70mm ƒ4.0".

Long answer…

The Vario-Elmar-R 28-70mm ƒ3.5-4.5 lenses (the #11364 and earlier #11265) are Sigma built and don't have an amazing reputation for mechanical or optical performance. (See Dr Joseph Yao's remarks below.)

The Minolta-sourced Vario-Elmar-R 35-70mm ƒ3.5 (#11244) had problems with vignetting when used with filters and the lens head rotated when focused, making it a pain to use with polarizing filters. The updated version of this lens, the Solms produced #11244, fixed a lot of the mechanical problems but it is still remains a older-style Minolta lens with a minimum focusing distance of only 1m.

The Vario-Elmarit-R 35-70mm ƒ2.8 ASPH is of course the performance champ, but as discussed elsewhere in this FAQ they have become impossible to buy and are super-expensive collectors items.

Which leaves by process of elimination the #11277 Solms-designed / Kyocera manufactured 35-70mm ƒ4.0. A bit slow (ƒ2.8 would be better), but it focuses down to 60cm for macro work and features robust mechanical construction with an ASPH element.

In July 2002, Lisa Fiel sent me a note asking for details on which of the short zooms was better for high quality work. At the time I wasn't up to speed on this topic so I referred her to noted R-Zoom dealer and collector, Dr Joseph Yao.

The following is an edited copy of the reply he sent Ms Fiel (reproduced with permission):

There have been two versions of Leica R 28-70/3.5-4.5 zoom lens. In the early '90s, Leica borrowed a Sigma-designed 28-70/3.5-4.5 and had Sigma build it in Japan, to Leica standard, we were told. Optically it was not bad but mechanically it was not much better than a regular Sigma lens. A few years ago, the same lens was re-designed mechanically (but remained the same optically) and production was transferred to Kyocera, also in Japan. The build and mechanics of this lens improved substantially, but optically, I have to say the 35-70/4.0, launched in 1997, is much better. Both the latest 28-70/3.5-4.5 and 35-70/4.0 share the same mount and build, only the optics are different. The latter is a true Leica-designed lens, both optically and mechanically. The 28-70/3.5-4.5 is a Sigma-designed lens, optically.
If you have the option, I would get he 35-70/4.0 instead. Let's see if your dealer can exchange it for you.
[…] As a Leica importer, dealer, user and collector, I have to admit the Kyocera QC is probably better than that of Leica Germany. While the latest 28-70/3.5-4.5 is a good lens mechanically, I feel the optics could be better, especially at its price. […] FWIW, I export a lot of Leica to a number of NYC dealers.

A day later, Dr Yao added:

The current VE 35-70/4.0 ROM (11277) has constant aperture of ƒ4.0, whereas the VE 28-70/3.5-4.5 offers ƒ3.5 at 28mm, but down to ƒ4.5 at 70mm. IMHO, constant aperture is an important feature.
With ƒ4.0, you lose half a stop compared to ƒ3.5 at the shorter end, but you do gain in terms of optical quality. The VE 28-70/3.5-4.5 is a good lens, but the VE 35-70/4.0 is better still!
In summary:
11265 VE 28-70/3.5-4.5
Launched in 1990, discontinued in 1997 Sigma designed optics, Sigma designed mechanics, built by Sigma, with some Leica input
11364 VE 28-70/3.5-4.5 ROM
Launched in 1997, current model Sigma designed optics, Leica designed mechanics, built by Kyocera (i.e. Optically same as 11265)
11277 VE 35-70/4.0 ROM
Launched in 1997, current model Leica optics, Leica designed mechanics, built by Kyocera
Mechanically and cosmetically, both 11364 and 11277 are identical. I offer the current 28-70/3.5-4.5 (11364) and 35-70/4.0 ROM (11277) at US$799 each.

A note about possible broken links

This FAQ has over 900 external links. Over time it is inevitable some of them will break. If you are bothered by this, see this detailed topic elsewhere in the FAQ.

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