This website has been in existence (at the time of writing) for well over 3 year, but until now there hasn’t been a single proper mention of any Leica lenses, which is clearly not right because Leica-R Lenses in particular are incredibly popular for video use. I can’t try them all, but thankfully a fellow vintage lens user, Johan Cederholm (www.johancederholm.com) has a nice little set and know a thing or two about Leica-R lenses, so he very kindly agreed to share his knowledge with us! Over to Johan!
First of let me tell a bit about my background and why I decided to buy into Leica-land. I make commercials and music videos professionally (www.cinematik.se) as well as like short films for myself, all mostly shot with RED and Blackmagic cameras.
As of now I’ve got seven Leica R lenses, five primes and two zooms, which I mostly use for video. Right from the start I want to add that this lens collection constantly changes, it’s not yet finalized and probably going to grow sooner than later (vintage lenses are quite easy to get addicted to). I also want to add that these are not by any means the *best* or most expensive lenses of the series, they are more of a budget set, but in my opinion a great place to start!
I also have a Zeiss Jena lens set in M42 mount, but in mid 2014 I started looking around for something with a bit more modern look and sharper results in frame edges and wide open, I also wanted something a little bit more solid build. Nothing wrong with the Zeiss Jena’s, I still think they are lovely and use them all the time (especially the 35mm Flektogon for taking stills), but I was on the look for something new.
I knew, I wanted fully manual lenses that would cover full frame and I narrowed my search down to Zeiss Contax & Leica R, two of the most popular choices for cine-use among the stills glass. Zeiss Contax would probably have saved me a few bucks, but there was something that just made the pictures and videos shot with Leicas stand out. Some talk about a special ”Leica glow”, but it’s all very subjective and sensitive to talk about. I have since also owned the Zeiss Contax Vario-Sonnar 28-85mm f/3.3-4 (a great zoom by the way), and compared to the Leica R look I found the Zeiss Contax to be warmer, more contrasty and more saturated. On other hand, I think that Leicas are a little bit more blue/green tinted, flatter and with a nicer bokeh. The build quality is great on both, but I would say the Leicas have the upper hand. These are just my own observations and you can’t really go wrong with either choice. There are of course certain gems in both series that stand out.
Let’s now take a closer look closer look at the various Leica R lenses, which are divided into different names depending on their speed.
- NOCTILUX – Faster than f/1.4
- SUMMILUX – f/1.4
- SUMMICRON – f/2.0
- ELMARIT – f/2.8
- ELMAR / SUPER-ELMAR – Slower than f/2.8
It’s also important to know that Leica-R lenses are not actually called “Leica”. When you look at the name/model on the top, you’ll generally see either LEITZ WETZLAR or LEITZ CANADA followed by one of the names above. Do not be alarmed, these are proper Leica lenses.
A bit of history to make this less confusing: The company was originally called Ernst Leitz Wetzlar, producing microscopes. When they came up with the idea to make a camera, they called it LEItz CAmera, or LEICA for short. The company still continued under the Leitz name, but in 1980-1990s Leitz went through a lot of changes (more in-depth history can be found online), but in short photography division ending up with the “Leica Camera name”. Nowadays, many sellers on ebay name their ads “Leica Leitz”, because Leica is more recognisable name, but the actual lenses were essentially made by the same company, just with the old name.
So now that there is (hopefully) no confusion over the names and models, let’s take a look at my Leica set. My first lens was the Summicron 50mm, a great lens to start with, since it’s both quite cheap and versatile. Like the other Leica’s that I have tried so far, it’s also as sharp as I need wide open. There are two major versions of this lens, the biggest difference is that the late model (with a built-in retractable lens hood) had corrections of coma and field curvature implemented. The earlier version has a separate lens hood (you can see the pins for a lens hood on the two lenses, furthest left in the 1st picture) and is also slightly smaller and lighter. I decided on a late model as there isn’t a significant price difference, however some say that the earlier model has more character. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other; they are just different, which brings me to the question of building a matching set!
The best way to build a set that matches as closely as possible is to try and get lenses from the same era. Small changes in the lens coating formula were made over time, so if consistency is very important you should check the year of manufacturing using the serial numbers, there are sites that have this information collected. The newer lenses often got E55 filter threads too, which are the same as 55mm and it’s much easier to find step rings and filters than it is for the older Series (for example Series 7 / VII). Regarding the different bayonets (1 cam, 2 cam, 3 cam, R-only, ROM), they are simply for using the lenses on a Leica camera and really nothing to care about if you are going to be adapting them to other mounts.
Back to lens choices, other options for a standard prime of course include the faster Summilux 50mm F/1.4, which is very popular for rehousing. The Elmarit 60mm macro f/2.8 is interesting as well, a stop less light sensitive than the Summicron and a little bit more expensive, but with great close-focus capabilities (even 1:1 with a special adapter) and I have seen great photos shot with this lens at infinity as well, so might be even more versatile than the Summicron 50mm, depending on your needs.
For a longer end, I bought a late model of the Summicron 90mm, a really nice and heavy piece of glass that is super sharp and got lovely bokeh. It seems a little warmer than the rest of my set, probably because it’s newer and got a slightly different coating, but it’s nothing that can’t be corrected in post.
At around the same time I also bought a wider lens. I had a choice between the Super-Angulon 21mm f/4, Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 and older version of Elmarit 28mm f/2.8. In the end I decided that all my lenses should be no slower than F/2.8 and I have read very mixed reports regarding the 24mm (not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s originally based on a Minolta design), so I ended up with the 28mm Elmarit, a very small and compact lens that I can highly recommend! It’s is not one of the lenses that gets a lot of attention when you read about Leica R lenses, but it’s actually one of my favourites and most used focal lengths. There is a newer VII version of this lens that I have heard great things about, but it unfortunately was and still is out of my budget.
Since I shoot quite a lot with crop-cameras my next lens was even wider, the Elmarit 19mm. It was also one of the reasons why I went for Leica R instead of Zeiss Contax. In the Contax lineup we got the great, but expensive 21mm F/2.8, and the slow 18mm F/4. The Elmarit 19mm is my most expensive lens but it’s wider than the Zeiss 21mm and faster than their 18mm. This lens also comes in two versions, the VII is supposed to be really great, probably on-par with the Zeiss Contax 21mm, but again very expensive; I’d love to try one out someday! If price doesn’t tell them apart, the older one (that I got) has a larger diameter front lens and is more cone shaped, the second version is the same width all the way. If money is no issue, get the second one, but for me it was no choice really. The first version is no slouch, but I can see that improvements could be made. I think that it’s not as sharp as the other focal lengths and there is more of an improvement when stopping down if compared to the others. The bokeh is a little harsher as well and there is some vignetting, but nothing surprising. Good wide angle lenses are generally hard to find when looking at vintage lenses and they can be quite costly too.
My latest prime is a late model of Elmarit 35mm, which fills the gap between 28mm and 50mm nicely, a great focal length for a lot of different shots. Even if 28mm and 35mm can seem quite close, there is a noticeable difference. I also often use my lenses on many cameras at the same time, so having many can be handy. Saying that, this lens is one of my least used primes, not because it’s bad in any ways, I just prefer to go wider or more tele most of the time.
If I were to build a barebones set with the knowledge that I got today, I would probably focus on getting the 28mm, 50mm and 90mm. They are very different and can cover almost everything, especially if you have many camera bodies with different crop factors to choose from.
In order to mount the Summicron 50mm and the Elmarit 28mm on the speed booster, I had to shave down a metal pin on the rear of these lenses. They would have scraped the speed booster glass otherwise. It was done quite quickly and easily, and as far as I know have no impact on the use of these lenses.
I’m not going to talk much about my Vario-Elmars. They are two of the cheapest zooms in the whole Leica R lineup: the Vario-Elmar 35-70mm F/3.5 and the Vario-Elmar 70-210mm F/4. I’m not really a zoom-lens type of guy, and I really only use them if I don’t have the time or possibility to change a lens or if I’m going to do a zoom-shot. They are however parfocal as far as I can tell, you can see that for yourself in the video test below. They also keep their brightness pretty much throughout the entire zoom range. The tele-zoom is a push-pull design, so can be quite hard to do a smooth zoom with; the 35-70mm can be fitted with a lens gear for smooth focusing. Talking about lens gears, I have fitted all of my primes with custom lens gears from the user Helicoptersean on Ebay, and also step rings to give them the same filter diameter.
I would also like to say something about the future of my Leica R collection. 🙂
The next addition will probably be the Elmarit 135mm and I’m looking at the ”Made in Canada” one. In other cases I don’t think there are any real differences between the ones made in Germany and the ones made in Canada, however for this lens it’s the easiest way to be sure that you get the latest lens design. It also have a 55mm filter thread which I prefer as mentioned earlier. As before, one can’t say one version is better than the other. I’ve read that the earlier is nicer when focusing on objects up close, but it’s hard to get real answers without having both on hand to do your own testing. The newer version though is suppose to be a bit sharper wide open with less vignetting and if that is the case,it would intercut more seamlessly with my other late-design lenses.
Another interesting lens is the Super-Elmar 15mm F/3.5. As far as I know it’s actually the same lens as the Zeiss Contax 15mm F/3.5, but only with a different coating and passing through Leicas quality control. The drawbacks of this lens is that it’s slightly slower speed (comparing to the rest), but more noticeably the lack of a filter thread due to the large bulging front glass.
I would highly recommend Leica R lenses to anyone about to build a lens set aimed at cine-use. They have a long and smooth focus throw, manual aperture in half-stop increments and all metal housings. This makes them nice to use and handle, but equally important, they also got a lovely look to them. It’s a nice balanced look between vintage, with its flares and something a bit more contemporary, but without looking boring and soulless, like many modern lenses often do. I can’t really find any other word to describe these lenses, rather than that they make things look pretty!
As I said before, they are also easy to adapt to different mounts, like Canon-EF and they cover full frame, which makes them quite future proof, with cinema sensors scaling up rapidly. If one someday decides to sell then, you are most likely getting back what you paid, if not more. And lastly, owning and using these lenses is a joy 🙂 / Johan Cederholm
- Great look and feel
- Great metal built quality, fully manual
- Flat look (can give more information to work with in the grade)
- Easily convertible to other mounts
- Flare quite easily (compared to modern lenses)
- Some lenses can be quite costly
- F/2.8 is the fastest speed on the wide lenses
- When closing the aperture you get ”stop-signs” in the bokeh
- Quite short focus throw on the Vario-Elmar 35-70mm
- Rotating front element on the Vario-Elmar 35-70mm
- Flare quite easily (compared to modern lenses)
I want to thank countless webpages, reviews and online forums, for bringing knowledge and inspiration to this article / Johan Cederholm
Massive thanks to Johan. I don’t know about you, but up to this point Leica lenses were quite “new” to me and I’ve learned a lot! I’ve also asked Johan what videos shot with Leica R lenses have impressed & inspired to get his own set, so here shared two very impressive creations by Ed David (below), which of course were shot with Leica R lenses. Enjoy! 🙂
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