Got of a thing for Leica glass? You have probably considered buying a Leica camera or looked at how you could attach a Leica lens to your existing snapper. I know I did. I wanted to know whether there was such a thing as a budget Leica camera experience so I (perhaps unwisely) decided to stick a Leica lens on a Sony NEX-5 to find out.
Does a good adapter and a Leica lens still work its magic on an APS-C sensor-equipped NEX? I had my doubts, but it turns out it can work if you have a bit of patience – and for a lot less money than buying, say, a Leica T. Here’s my guide and thoughts on the ‘Sleica’ (Sony Leica) combination.
How can I use a Leica lens on a Sony NEX?
If you have Sony NEX, Alpha A5000, A6000 or a Alpha A7 or A7R you can use a Sony E-mount Sony lens adapter. I’ll be looking into two of them in a comparison soon to see whether a cheap eBay adapter can match the most expensive Novoflex.
Until then, I would recommend the Novoflex NEX/LER available from Speed Graphic in the UK. The delivery was fast and the adapter itself is very well built and fits perfectly. It costs £99.99, which is hardly cheap but it does the job faultlessly.
Having heard the slightly cheaper Metabones adapter can fall apart, I decided to put my Leica lenses in good hands. I was in no mood to see a faulty adapter let a relatively expensive Leica lens drop to the floor.
Once you have a suitable adapter, you can attach the adapter straight to the NEX camera and then attach the Leica lens.
“Cannot recognise lens. Attach it properly”
Now for the last couple of steps. If you are getting the error above, fear not. All you need to do is head to Settings and then under Setup find the option to ‘Release w/o Lens’. Enabling this option will stop you getting the error.
To ensure your photos are in focus (more on this topic later), set MF Assist to ‘No Limit’. This allows you to use the manual focus assist magnification option indefinitely, as opposed to 2 or 5 second intervals, which is usually not long enough for the task at hand.
You will see MF Assist is now located at the bottom right of the display for easy access once you back out of Settings. Hit the respective button on the right to zoom in at 7x magnification and again for 14x. A third press returns to 7x. The directional pad lets you move around the area you see magnified, which is handy if you want to keep maintain your composition while adjusting the focus.
A last useful tip is to use manual, aperture priority or shutter priority settings so you can easily adjust shutter speeds and ISO. I use the directional pad wheel for the former and the middle custom button for the latter. Aperture can only be done on the lens so it’s a surprisingly natural system to use. Later NEX cameras like the NEX 6 and NEX 7 have more control in this regard, thanks to dedicated dials.
Battery life. I cannot stress how much autofocus must eat battery life, because I was able to get a few days of use out of my NEX 5 during testing with only the Leica Elmarit-R 28mm attached.
The photos I took that were in focus were definitely crisp, bright and detailed. In overcast conditions I did find the colour was a bit off, but nothing a few seconds of Photoshop couldn’t handle. That likable Leica look was present and correct and I suspect a much better performing Leica lens would yield far better results.
Quirkiness is another pro. There’s something oddly satisfying about trying various Leica lenses on a digital camera. Some seem to work better than others. It helps that the tiny body of an NEX camera makes it extremely portable. Depending on the lens, of course.
When the Leica Elmarit-R 28mm plays ball, the image quality is extremely likable. The problem is, even with focus peaking seemingly on point, a fair few shots were just out of focus. I had to discard a quarter of photos from a day out at the Bath & West Show in Somerset because they were beyond the point of fixing.
Each shot was taken with focus peaking enabled and visible at the time of shot. This makes me wonder what is to blame. The lens is immaculate, while my NEX 5N provides great results with an equivalent length Sigma. Maybe focus peaking struggles to process all the detail it sees?
I soon realised my best bet was to use the zoom magnification, which pretty much ruled out moving targets and anything that requires a fast reaction. I was (almost) guaranteed to get the subject in focus using this method.
Another gripe, albeit one you can fix with photo editing software, is the untouched images in certain conditions. On overcast days the images looked particularly grey and drab, although this is an issue with most cameras and it took five seconds in Photoshop to correct.
So Leica lens on Sony NEX body, worth it?
I would say it depends. I’m guessing you could learn the point where focus peaking is actually in focus if you wanted to. Whether you have the patience is another thing.
Unless you only ever take landscape shots or portrait photos, you are better off getting a Sony or an aftermarket equivalent from Sigma as you benefit from similar image quality and autofocus.
In all honesty I was hoping for a cheaper alternative to the Leica T, a usable combination of Leica glass and Sony portability. Sadly the hit and miss nature of the Leica lens on a Sony NEX makes me fear I will miss the shot I want and so it’s not quite a marriage made in heaven.
With that said, some of the photos really impressed me, even with the 4/3rds sensor of the NEX 5 holding back the potential of the lens. Older glass seems to have a produce photos with an imperfect warmth the eye seems to appreciate.
Know the limitations and there’s certainly no reason why your Leica lens should spend time only on your Leica camera. For those who want a top-notch lens for their Sony camera, however, should bear in mind the lack of autofocus will limit the types of photography you can do.
Below are some images taken using my Sony NEX 5, Leica Elmarit-R 28mm lens and Novoflex adapter. I’ve edited most of the shots unless I say otherwise so you can get a feel for the end result. RAW images and Photoshop and Lightroom should be your friend if you are serious about digital photography, if only to give a photo the finishing touches.
With that said, most corrections I made are compensating for any mistakes on my part or, in the case of the inside tent shots at the Bath and West Show, the unsightly lighting lighting conditions.
The editing is fairly reserved. Somebody once said you should stop editing a photo at ten minutes and I’ve found sticking to that is a great move. It stops you from trying to turn a bad photo into a good one, while it reminds you the importance of taking a good photo in the first place.
I’d be interested to hear your experiences of shooting a Sony NEX or Alpha camera with Leica glass in the comments below. Anyway, I hope enjoy.
Check out my round-up of the best Sony NEX lenses.