How does the Leica 90mm Elmarit R look on the Leica SL2? Let's find out.

One week ago today we'd just suffered through two nights of near zero degrees, the wind was howling and our expectation for the low last Wednesday night was somewhere around 12°. What a difference a week makes. It hit 87° Fahrenheit here in Austin this afternoon. Time to put on a pair of shorts, grab a sun blocking hat, and hit the streets. What better reason to go out than to try and divine just how well a 40 year old lens might work on a brand new, big res, camera body?

The lens in question is one that pops up on the used market every once in a while. It's an Elmarit-R, 1:2.8, 90mm and it's old enough that they lens is inscribed "Leitz" instead of "Leica" which was used on more modern lenses (but not on Elmarit Rs). Mine is worn such that the numbers on the aperture ring are faded but the lens is physically solid with a silky smooth focusing ring and no play in it at all. I bought my well used 90mm Elmarit from a photographer friend for around $350 but a pristine, late model, three cam version can go from anywhere from $500 to $750. While the optical design is simpler than modern lenses picking up the lens informs you that the optics are dense, even though the system is comprised of four elements in four groups.

Mine is a type 2 variant which was a redesign adding a built-in, collapsible lens hood and, after 1983, a third cam for sending the camera lens information. The one I own, according to serial numbers, was built in 1983, and the entire run of Elmarit R 90mm f2.8 type two lenses, over a decade and a half, numbers about 16,000. 

The camera of the day today was the Leica SL2 and I mounted the lens to the camera with a Novoflex R to L lens adapter. It's a "dumb" adapter so the lens is used in a totally manual mode but interestingly enough, if you dive into the sub-menus on the camera you can set the actual lens model, letting the camera know the basic characteristics of the lens. This is a good feature since the information is used for image stabilization as well as exposure metering. As a result, the camera actually records the aperture used and this is shown in Adobe Lightroom. I don't know but I wonder if Leica has also included in their in-camera lens profile information about the basic characteristics of each lens; including its amount of vignetting, and geometric distortion. If I used more R lenses on the camera I'd probably be motivated to find out but I'm happy with the combination as is. More information won't improve or reduce the quality of the lens...

I owned a copy of this lens back when I was shooting with a bunch of R series cameras in the 1980's and 1990's and I found that I was most successful if I stopped down to f4.0. Using it wide open was hit and miss and mostly limited my contrast and overall sharpness. An aperture of f4 cleaned up most of the performance issues--- but the lens really comes into its own at f5.6 and f8.0.

Since there's no autofocus I depended on the SL2's focus peaking. The FN button on the back of the camera allows one to toggle through four screens for shooting. One screen is totally clean with no information, one has basic information and a level while yet another one includes focus peaking. You needn't dedicate a separate button for this, you just toggle through the available screen options. 

Today I shot almost exclusively locked in at f4.0. I like stuff to go out of focus in the background so it's a nice compromise. All of today's images were shot in the Natural profile as large, fine Jpegs. I did not apply sharpening to the images but did mess with highlights and shadows where I was looking for a different balance for a few of the shots. 

Older lenses tend to have been computed and designed to perform best at certain distances. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this one performs best when used between 6 feet and about 30 feet. That's not to say it can't be used at infinity or at its close focus distance of approximately 25 inches, it's just that entering the range I described above gets me the best optical performance. 

I've reviewed the photos shown here at 100% and I find them to be sharp, but not in the way my more modern Lumix 50mm f1.4 or the Sigma 85mm Art lens are. Those two show off a very high level of resolution along with a well balanced contrast. The Elmarit doesn't resolve anywhere near those lenses but the simpler design goes a long way toward delivering high contrast. It's a different look. Probably part of what gets described as a "film" look. But it is different from modern optics and so has a place in the equipment drawer for those times when contrast and acutance are more aesthetically important that a tamer, high resolution look. 

In the end I have to say that I find the look the lens delivers to be really nice. I feel that many of the R series Leica lenses shared that high acutance and high contrast look but it was mainly attainable in the 35mm, 50mm, 80mm and 90mm lenses in the R catalog where you can really see this. The wider lenses were good in their day but nothing special compared to current wide angle primes. 

If I intended to put together a group of R lenses to use with the SL2 I would have a small list. It would include the 50mm Summilux 1.4, the final version of the 50mm f2.0 Summicron, the 80mm f1.4 Summilux, this 90mm Elmarit and the 180mm f3.4 Apo-Telyt. While there are other good lenses in the range these are the ones that always delivered the best looks for me. If you are a real portrait geek you'd also add in the 90mm f2.0 Summicron but you'd be aware that it's softer wide open than the others. Not a fault, more of a feature. Stop it down and you'll find it fits right into the family.

When adapting wider lenses to the SL cameras I think I'm happier with some of the Contax Y/C and N series lenses. My current fave being the 28mm f2.8. But when considering wides I always come back to modern, well corrected zooms for the few times I use them. 

Take a look at the images and tell me what you think. Do they look different from the zoom lens photographs I usually post? Maybe it's all in my head...
The camera does quite well at ISO 5,000. I did drop down to f2.8 just to stay under ISO 10,000. 
Not bad for such a high megapixel camera!