3.06.2021

An interesting afternoon in which I walked around with a new (to me) zoom lens and took a lot of images. Mirrorless actually means "endless adaptations."

Leica R series 28-70mm f3.5 to 4.5 zoom lens
mounted on a Panasonic S1 camera.

Leica made a whole series of SLR cameras called the "R" series, starting in the 1960s and running up to the turn of the century. Most were well built although some were re-badged Minolta cameras and a few were prone to reliability problems that could be traced back to the electronics. From the beginning they made a number of lenses for the "R" series that were very good in their day. A few were "just okay" by Leica standards but were still excellent by anyone else's measure. Many R lenses are still highly coveted for their optical character and performance.

The company discontinued their R line completely in early 2009. They faced a choice between allocating thin financial resources either to continue the analog film SLRs or to go "all in" with digital versions of their rangefinder cameras. The R9 was their last SLR film camera and when it was discontinued a big fan base of R series fans where left with large collections of very, very good lenses and nothing new to put them on. Leica did produce an R to M series adapter but putting big and heavy lenses, designed for SLRs, onto the svelte rangefinders wasn't such an elegant solution. 

As the market for mirrorless cameras grew from 2009 to the present the shorter flange-to-sensor plane construction of the newer cameras allowed for the adaptation of many "orphaned" lenses from various older film systems. This revived the used market for Leica R series lenses as photographers could now adapt them to the Sony A7 series cameras, all of the micro-four thirds cameras, and each successive generation of mirrorless cameras from other makers, like Nikon and Canon. 

In 2015 Leica launched their own mirrorless camera; the SL. It also had a short flange-to-sensor gap which allowed the SL to use (with one or two exceptions) all the lenses in the R system; all the way back to the mid-1960s. When Leica introduced their new flagship mirror-free camera, the SL2, in 2019 it was immediately backwardly compatible with most of the R lenses and both Leica and Novoflex already had R to L lens adapters to make grafting the old lenses onto the new cameras easy. 

I bought a Leica SL2 last month and it's been mostly a great camera to work with. I'd already bought a couple of adapters that let me use older lenses on the Lumix S1 series cameras and, of course, the same adapters worked on the SL2. I bought a couple of adapters for Contax Y/C Zeiss lenses and a couple for R to L conversion as well. Last week I put my older (1983) R 90mm f2.8 Elmarit lens on the SL2 camera and I was curious why I couldn't find a way to set the focal length for the lens for IBIS as I could on the S1 Lumix cameras. After looking around in the menus for a few minutes I came across a sub menu that allows one to set a profile for a very large number of M or R lenses which, I assume, gives the camera's brain a lot of valuable information about the lens currently attached and aids in making various corrections which improve optical quality. I went through the menu and found a setting specifically for the R series 90mm Elmarit and set it. 

The images from that day's experiments showed me that the 90mm Elmarit was a really good lens and that it left little on the table when compared to current lenses from other manufacturers. The extensive catalog of Leica legacy lens profiles pre-loaded on the camera was a pleasant surprise and adds value to the SL2 for people who might still have a bag full of lenses from the R system (or the M system for that matter). 

Later on, just after the snow all melted from our "Ice-apocalypse" I happened to be sitting in the office waiting for a call when I started surfing around on Precision Camera's hit-and-miss website. I came across a listing for a "good" condition Leica R series zoom lens. It was a 28-70mm f3.5-4.5 lens, a focal length range that's always welcome, so I called my "guy" at the store and asked him to hold the lens for me. 

In the interim between requesting the hold and finally getting around to visit my research informed me that Leica started making this lens in 1990 and it was discontinued in 1997. The lens was a mechanical redesign of a Sigma zoom lens made during that time. Meaning that Leica had control over how the exterior of the lens looked and worked but the actual construction and the optics were all in the hands of Sigma. There is conjecture that Leica specified the multi-coatings on the lens but that's not verified. Sigma made the optical elements and was responsible for the optical design for the lens throughout its life but at one point the lens was updated to have electrical connections to the R8 camera and the lens was then called a ROM version. The consensus of Leica geeks is that the mechanics of this version were improved and this version of the lens was built by Kyocera but the actual optical system continued to be sourced from Sigma.

The lens was discontinued when Leica came to market with a much improved, new lens (still built in Japan) which was the 28-90mm R lens. Optical and mechanical designs by Leica but still made in Japan. This is a lens that is still highly sought after by collectors. 

My research into the reviews of the period for the 28-70mm Vario Elmar R suggest that it matches up with the expected lens performance across manufacturers at the time. It's basically always sharp in the center but the sharpness tends to fall apart in the extreme corners; even if you valiantly stop down. If you use the lens around f5.6 to f8.0 you can expect really good, overall sharpness from the lens, and it does seem to deliver high contrast results. Where the lens absolutely falls apart is in geometric distortion. There is wild (5-7%) barrel distortion on the wide end of the focal length range and then nearly as bad pincushion distortion at the long end. 

So I went into the purchase with my eyes wide open. I wanted to play with the lens and my consistent prejudice is that most people didn't know how to focus well back in that period (and the R series were all manual focus cameras) and that the sloppiness of film and developing/printing,  and the variability of film plane channels in cameras all gave rise to an obscuring of most lens' actual or potential performance. I've found, for instance, that Contax Zeiss lenses from the same period, when focused in a mirrorless camera, punched in with magnification at 8X or 16X times, are magnificently sharp; some even when used wide open (the Contax 50mm f1.7). Being able to focus at high magnification has also given me much new respect for older wide angles such as the Contax Zeiss 28mm f2.8. It's blossomed into a super sharp lens, as far as I can tell. 

My presumption was (and still is) that the Vario Elmar would have some faults but that the combination of punched in manual focusing, along with focus peaking, and image stabilization, matched with a super sharp, high resolution sensor, would unlock more of the potential lurking in an older lens such as this one. As far as distortion goes I never thought much about using the 28-70mm R for serious architecture and most of the distortion is uniform enough to be easily corrected in post production software. The wild cards would be how the coating on the rear most element would deal with reflections of light back off the sensor and how well the lens was designed to be more tele centric (it wasn't). Reflection artifacts show up from time to time...

I paid $350 dollars for the lens which is in pretty nice physical condition and has optics that are perfectly clean, unblemished and unscratched. The one issue (and it's one mentioned often in user reports of this lens) is that the telescopic hood is very loose and won't stay in position. I have it gaffer-taped into its recessed position and so now I just ignore it altogether. 

Yesterday, after I brought the lens home and modified the hood with tape I set the actual lens model profile in the menu of the SL2 and headed into town to shoot a bunch of frames and see how I liked the lens. The images that follow, below, are from that one and a half hour first run. I gleaned a lot of information from them in the first hour or so of post production. 

My take? The lens is flawed in little ways but if I were a struggling beginner I could certainly do a lot of good work with this one. If you are shooting wide and doing it for a commercial client you should always take a step backwards after you compose and resign yourself to cropping the extreme corners out of the frame before you deliver it to the people who write checks. This is mostly a caveat for people who might tend to spend a lot of their time dialed in at 28mm. 

For general work in bright light the lens can be quite good. I kept the camera locked in at f5.6 unless I felt like I needed more depth of field for certain subjects. The results from the lens are  sharp, contrasty and it has good resolution at nearly all focal lengths (if you discount the corners at the wide end). I tried to use the lens the way I usually use standard zooms and that means mostly shooting around 35mm to 60mm. In that range, at f5.6 I feel as though I'm getting the same excellent optical performance I would out of a really good prime lens at those focal lengths. It's really a very friendly, middle of the range shooter. 

There was one disquieting thing I did discover on my maiden jaunt and that is that the (very expensive) R to L converter from Novoflex, in conjunction with this lens, is unable to focus all the way to infinity. There is a mismatch somewhere in the mechanical system. It's not grievous as the combination is able to focus out hundreds of yards --- just not all the way to infinity. I'll give the cheaper Fotasy brand adapter a chance to outshine the Novoflex next time I go out. That's an easier fix than finding out that it's all up to the lens and that the rear flange needs to be adjusted. For the record, all the L lenses I own, used without adapters, are well able to hit infinity so I'm letting the camera itself off the hook. 

As a portrait oriented shooter who mostly pays attention to stuff in the middle of the frame I'll go ahead and say that I'm happy with the lens as a banging around addition to the lens crew. I wish I'd been able to source a Leica 28-90mm for the same price but those seem to fetch upwards of $3,000 when in very good condition. The one standout performance feature is the lens' resistance to flare and veiling light. There is one image in the bunch below where the lens is aimed right into reflective glass for a bright reflection of the sun and the flare is negligible. If I really want top quality, neutral optical performance in a wide ranging zoom I think I'll still give preference to the 24-105mm Lumix lens. It's pretty superb all around. Stuff changes. Check out the images and see what you think...


so we've got a guy sitting in the hatchback/trunk of some spiffy Mercedes and 
he's shooting video with a Canon 1DX of his friend's shiny red Ferrari.
I guess it's a new, downtown thing. So many car commercials shot on the bridges here.
I'm thinking this was just playing around. No cleaning crew in sight. 


full into a glass/sun reflection and all I can see is a little red discoloration in the sky area just to the right side of the reflection area. Not bad performance for flare resistance. 

Even cropped to less than 1/4 of the original frame this image is still full of detail. 
The photographer had some sort of Canon on one strap and a Contax 
Medium Format film camera on the other. This felt like more of an 
editorial shoot than a personal commission...

Yes, the lens can do a relative close up. Lambert's bar and BBQ on 2nd. 

would not be an afternoon of photography in the downtown area without 
one of my trademark mirror shots. Bitch all you want; I'm not paying attention. 





Felt kinda dumb wearing my rock climbing shoes on flat earth. 
they were just screaming to get out of the closet and outside. 
I'll take them along to Enchanted Rock next time.






You're so lucky! You got two mirror shots and no diet advice today!








End of the walk. Back to the parking. Heading home at dusk.

 

Keeping things square. Another photograph of a favorite collaborator.

 


We both laughed when we saw the final image of this pose. I think it's over the top cliché and thankfully so did she. But when it surfaced in a computer cleaning this week I looked at it again but from a different perspective; one of just being able to let go on any given day and have fun. 

But the interesting thing about photographing people is that you go out with a plan in mind and your plan ends up being pure crap but all the stuff you shot on the way there and all the stuff you shot after you got the shot you thought you wanted ends up (many times) being where the good stuff is. This is one of the few "hard" direct flash in sunlight shots I was able to do with the little Sony Nex 7. The camera and me and the flash just didn't seem to often work in the same "language." 

This was obviously done with the Sony Nex 7 but on this shot I used the much disparaged 18-55mm zoom lens. The little chrome finished one. It really wasn't bad at all. But once you get past f5.6 I guess every lens looks better and better. 

The area behind Noellia is the spillway down stream from the actual pool. The spillway is where people go to get into the cold, clear water if they can't or won't pay the admission price for the actual pool. In Austin there always seems to be a workaround.