Leica Elmarit-R, 90mm f2.8 Adapted to the S1R
with a Novoflex adapter.
However you feel about the value proposition of current Leica models it's hard to argue that, through the decades, they've made some of the finest lenses in the world --- and continue to do so today. In the early 1980s one of the most sought after lenses for the M series cameras of the day was still the Dual Range 50mm Summicron (f2.0) which was designed in the 1950s. It could stand up to anything on the market some 30 years later, and it was better than the majority of its competitors. I know, I bought one when I started shooting with a single stroke M3 in 1979.
I was a Leica fan in the film days and throughout the 1990s I shot with both Leica M6 and M4 cameras as well as a very functional collection of R lenses and a motley (and ever changing) collection of Leica R bodies, including: The original Leicaflex, the SL, the SL2 Mot, the R3, R4, R5, R6 and R8 (for some reason I skipped the R7...). I did not own them all concurrently but at any one time I usually had one of the totally manual classics, a mechanical R6 and finally, until the end (death by digital), the R8s.
But the reason to own Leica R cameras (all SLRs) wasn't for the bodies (some were better than others) it was to be able to use lenses of the same quality that we'd come to enjoy using on the M cameras. There were some things the M lenses did better. I don't miss semi-wide or wide-angle R lenses much; the M versions always seemed better. But the longer lenses (from 80mm on up) were much better suited to SLR style cameras and we started adding R cameras to our systems to get easier good results with fast 90mm lenses, 180mm's and longer. The longer focal lengths were harder to use on rangefinder cameras because the finder images got smaller and smaller while focusing accuracy got worse and worse.
My favorite working combinations by the late 1990s were M6 cameras with 28mm and 35mm lenses combined with an R6 or R8 equipped with, alternately, the 80mm f1.4 Summilux, the 90mm f2.0 Summicron or the 90mm f2.8 Elmarit. Most Leica R shooters gravitated to the faster lenses not because they were optically better than the slower ones but because the very narrow depth of field on those fast, short telephotos made manual focusing so much easier in dim lighting. Also, we were more or less constrained to use films rated at 400 or 800 ISO at a maximum. So, easier focusing and better light gathering capabilities pushed us to reach for the fastest glass we could afford. And, for the most part, Leica lenses delivered very decent images even when used wide open (as long as you didn't care too much about field flatness...).
Most of us were aware that the f2.8 lenses were either just as good at f2.8 and slower as the fast lenses, the only reason to spend more was for speed, not quality. But we also learned, by shooting thousands and thousands of frames, that when it was possible to shoot in good light and take time to focus accurately, that the last generations of the Elmarit 90-R lenses were better. By f4.0 the f2.8 lenses were sharper and resolved more detail. They were also flatter field lenses so there was less compromise on the edge of the frame.
Sadly, Leica stopped making R lens compatible cameras for a number of years and interest in the orphaned system of optics waned until the rise of the mirrorless cameras along with their shorter lens flange to sensor distances which allowed for an almost unlimited use of adapters. This brought all kinds of really good, film era, SLR lenses back out of drawers and off shelves and back onto the fronts of cameras. And with highly superior high ISOs (think 6400 and 12500 on the S1 and Sigma fp) the slower aperture hardly matters anymore.
I really like the lenses I've accumulated for the Panasonic Lumix S1 series of cameras I'm shooting with now and my only complaint has been the huge size and ponderous weight of the lenses that correspond to the focal lengths I'm most interested in using. I love the image quality I can get with the Sigma Art Series 85mm f1.4 but the lens is huge and weighs a ton. I'm waiting impatiently for Panasonic to release their 85mm f1.8 but I fear it will still be a beast; especially if the 50mm f1.4 gives us any indication of their design aesthetic for modern lenses.
What I really wanted was what I had back in the days of Leica R stuff: a very good lens that's small enough to carry around for a full day and which will blow the doors off many more modern lenses available for other systems. Like the Leica Elmarit 90R. It's not light, even by modern standards, but it is compact and easy to use. The focusing ring on my copy, which is probably 25 years old, is like clarified butter. And the image, even just in the finder, is superb. Quintessentially Leica.
I bought this current copy of the 90mm from a friend who bought it in a moment of impending Leica lust only to be distracted at the last minute by the Leica S2 camera system instead. I bought it from him immediately.
I ordered a cheap adapter ring from Amazon.com but in their current disarray, and fervor to ship more toilet paper and Diet Coke in bulk, the adapter ring would not arrive for the better part of a month. Not acceptable. I canceled that order and paid ten times the price for a Novoflex R to L-mount adapter from Camera West in California. It came in a few short days and it fits perfectly.
I haven't had much opportunity to shoot much of anything with the new/old lens but will take it with me tomorrow on a shooting expedition outside the city. If it's half as good as I remember I'll never take it off the camera.
Tomorrow I'll shoot it on an S1R outdoors in nature. But what I'd really like to see is how it will deliver when used on the Sigma fp, in the studio, for a nicely lit portrait. That vaccine can't come quick enough.
Anyway, just wanted to let you know that we're up and running on what will be a multi-post test of the lens. Nice to be back in the Leica glass world. Hope this doesn't lead to any rash purchases of current Leica SL lenses, that way lies financial madness...