Conversations regarding build quality in lens reviews, particularly Leica lens reviews, perplex me. The vast majority of camera lens reviewers, including me, have probably never opened a lens, they dont repair lenses on a routine basis, nor do they get input regarding how well different lenses hold up over time. As such, it seems that even though lens reviewers might have domain expertise using lenses and can reliably comment on lens function, their palmares regarding recommendations based on build quality often seem suspicious.
I could be mistaken but after watching several Youtube videos where the reviewer assesses “build quality” by commenting that the lens they are holding feels heavy for it’s size, the focusing ring is smooth, and the aperture ring is either snappy or smooth depending on their preference, I am let scratching my head wondering what they are talking about.
If I am correct, and that is how “build quality” is evaluated in lens reviews, that is like a caveman picking up a lens and saying “uh-oooh, heavy lens, build quality good. Lens light – build quality bad.” without any deeper understanding of what is going on inside the lens that will actually determine how long the lens will last before it needs repair or how much beating it can take without needing repair.
Are these reviewers really saying that we should buy lenses like we buy fruit because the lens is “heavy for its size? Since camera lenses don’t ripen with age, this advice seems suspect. Moreover, I have experience with Russian lenses that are stupidly heavy for their size but oil seems to accumulate on the aperture blades by the hour and stuck focusing rings are the norm. Clearly, the lens size to weight ratio is not the best predictor of build quality. We need to do better than judging lenses like a caveman.
I am here to tell you that I am no better than your average caveman when it comes to assessing build quality. I do, however, know how to send an email and ask for help. In an email exchange with the venerable Youxin Ye (1), I asked:
“I see so many people online talk about the “build quality” of a lens in lens reviews. What I am thinking they mean is “This lens feels heavier than I thought it would be and the focusing ring is smooth.” My question to you is “Is there any way anyone normal person can assess build quality from just holding and feeling a lens?” Commenting on build quality by normal people has always seemed stupid and my experience with this Summicron [ill get back to my comment regarding “this Summicron in a minute] would seem to support my contention. It is relatively heavy but the build quality is not great if it comes out of alignment this easy.”
To which he responded (posted with permission):
“Regarding Leica lenses:
In the early time, Leica used brass as lens body, the classic lenses were built solid, the earliest ones had lower precision due to the era, later become better and better. From 1950’s, Leica started to use aluminum as lens helical and body parts. Those lenses were lighter than earlier productions but still solid. From mid/late 1970’s, due to financial difficulty, Leica used a lot plastic parts in lenses, they did not compromise on optical parts and quality, but lens body structure was vulnerable. This was typical in the 4th gen Summicron 35/2.0 lens, Summicron 50/2.0 4th version, etc. Resulted some of those lenses, after years of usage, material hardening, some plastic parts broke apart no more new parts anymore.
After mid 1980’s, Leitz family sold Leica, Leica redesigned a lot lenses, in the body structure, brought back metal structure again.
Basically Leica kept black chromed lenses in aluminum body, lighter weight, silver chromed in brass body, heavier. The brass body lenses are more solid than the aluminum body lenses, but with proper usage, without fell of hit, the black chromed aluminum body lenses still survive well.
In recent a few years, many newest lenses, Leica changed the silver chromed lenses into aluminum body, due to today’s technology, anodize aluminum with different color finishes becomes available.
Any lens, is a precision instrument, does not resist hard hit, or it may suffer damage.
The only lenses you have to avoid are, some lenses made in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s from Canada, with many plastic parts inside.
For me, his response mostly confirms my suspicion that discussions regarding build quality should be left to the experts. Specifically:
- Well-meaning people who recommend that Leica Canada lenses are the same as other Leica lenses may not have the full story.
- Weight is not always a determinant of build quality or at least survivability into the future.
- I have never read that I should avoid Leica lenses from the 1970’s or early 80’s. It is very (very) possible that I overlooked this fact but the prices for Leica lenses from this era suggest that I am not the only one.
- Whenever someone says that Leica has better build quality than Zeiss, Voigtlander, or other lens, this might not be true in all cases.
- Youxin did not recommend avoiding the much maligned Summarit line of lenses because of build quality issues.
A little more about “The Summicron.”
This email exchange with Youxin Ye was part of a discussion we had after I sent in my Summicron 35mm ASPH for repair. After a relatively minor tap, it went completely out of alignment. I have owned so many lenses over the last 30 years and minor trauma like that has never crippled a lens. I don’t feel that a tap like that should have caused that degree of suffering for this particular lens which, I might add, is heavy for its size.
You know where this is going don’t you? Come on. You have to know what I am about to say. Right?
Youxin was not suprised. In fact, the mentioned that this is an issue with this particular lens. He went on to advised that I keep a small screwdriver with me to make adjustments to the tension on the screws on the back of the lens mount if the focusing ring ever gets jammed.
My experience with the 35mm Summicron ASPH suggests that the weight of a lens may not always equate to build quality; and normal people should leave discussions regarding build quality to the experts who service them.
1) Youxin Ye doesn’t need any introduction. If you are not familiar with him you should be. Now would be the time to google “Youxin AND Leica.” Although I am absolutely certain he has all of the business he needs, the following is an unpaid and unsolicited plug for his service. He is top quality, has excellent communication, rapid turnaround, and the price is right. What else could you ask for?