Lens Review: Leica 90mm f/2.8 Elmarit-R
Leica cameras and lenses are renowned for their superb craftsmanship and excellent optical performance. Based in Germany, Leica have always stressed product quality ahead of cost and this has resulted in some of the best performing and most beautifully crafted cameras and lenses ever made. Their equipment has always been well-regarded and highly sought after by pros and top-name photographers, as well as anyone lucky enough to be able to afford the best.
In today's highly competitive photographic marketplace though, there are more choices than ever and buyers seem to be driven more than ever by low prices made possible by cheap Asian mass production. Because to this ever-increasing trend, Leica have seen their marketshare dwindle, especially with the move to digital. While they have recently started producing some equipment in Asia to better compete in price, there is still a lot of vintage Leica equipment around, much of it unused and collecting dust or in the hands of only a few die-hard traditionalists. Vintage Leica equipment, I have come to find, is one the the great treasures of the photographic world, and still has that fanatic attention to quality, craftsmanship, ergonomics and tank-like durability that Leica is famous for. And the best part is that some of these excellent and previously very expensive optics can be mounted and used on today's Nikon SLRs, and better yet, you can buy them for very reasonable prices on the used market !
Leica lenses on a Nikon SLR body?
Leica has been producing cameras and lenses since 1913, but their optics were always designed to be mounted only on their own camera bodies, the most popular of which is their legendary M-series of rangefinder cameras. Leica did produce an SLR body however (the R-series from 1964 - 2009 pictured right), which used an R bayonet mount and was built to the same high standards as the M-series. These R-series lenses are optically equal to the M lenses yet physically larger in order to accommodate the SLR format. Though Leica R lenses were not intended to be mounted on non-Leica cameras, an easy to install Leica-Nikon bayonet ring make them compatible with today's Nikon bayonet F-mount. This means that you can modify and mount almost any Leica R-series lens onto a Nikon SLR (or even a Canon, Pentax, Sony, etc, for that matter). The process merely involves buying a lens mount adapter and about 2 minutes of effort with a small screwdriver (and the process is even reversible should you decide to go back).
Leica made scores of different R lenses throughout the last 40 years or so, many of them legendary for their superb handling and optical qualities. But since they stopped production of the R series in 2009, and since few people shoot film or manual focus cameras anymore, these lenses can usually be purchased for relatively low prices on Ebay and in the used market. Because they can be modified and used on non-Leica SLRs, they offer today's Nikon SLR users a great opportinuty to enjoy some of the greatest optics off all time for bargain prices.
Leitz Wetzlar 90mm Elmarit-R f/2.8
The lens that I will be reviewing here is the Leitz (Leica) 90mm Elmarit-R f/2.8, which comes in 2 basic versions and was manufactured in Germany between 1964 and 1996. Used copies of this lens go for between $300 and $500 depending on the year and condition.
My copy is the first version (2 cams) of the lens, and it was made in 1965 according to the serial number on the front of the barrel. It is a beautiful and solidly built lens with lovely optical qualities that make it a perfect standard portrait lens for FX format cameras or a somewhat long portrait lens on the DX format (approx. 135mm field of view for DX). It's also quite compact, being relatively short and slender for a fast 90mm lens. As far as quailty portrait lenses go, this is an inexpensive option for either format and one that I would definitely recommend, especially for anyone who appreciates old-world quality and craftsmanship and isn't too put off by the lack of autofocus.
When I first picked up this lens before mounting it to my D90 I was impressed with how heavy it felt especially compared to the mostly plastic camera body. This Leica is one SOLID chunk of metal and glass that feels like it could last forever. To say it is built like a tank is an understatement... You could throw this lens at a brick wall and it would do damage to the wall!
Despite being over 40 years old, it still functions with a silky smooth and precise feel that you just won't find on anything coming out of Asia these days. Leica have always been fanatic about quality and it's a pleasure just to hold one of these lenses and turn the lens rings (assuming you get one that is still in good shape, and most are - they were built so well that the bad ones usually only have cosmetic issues or dirt/fungus on the glass). It even comes with a built-in, metal lens hood that can easily be extended or contracted without ever having to worry about it being lost. Why can't Nikon do that?
Manual focus, it's 1980 all over again...
All Leica lenses use MANUAL focus and cannot be autofocused - this is the only major downside of using a lens like this on a modern camera. This means that you must look through the viewfinder, manually turn the focus ring and confirm focus VISUALLY rather than having the camera do it for you. If you've never focused manually before, it might seem difficult, and for the visually impaired even impossible, but remember that autofocus only appeared in the 1980's and before that all photographers had to focus their lenses manually. Some people actually prefer manual focus but it definitely takes some practice if you are not used to it.
In the old days SLR cameras used a split prism for focus confirmation, but nowadays autofocus cameras have done away with the need for split prisms. While you can retrofit most SLR viewfinders with split prism focusing screens (such as those from Katzeye), I didn't use one in my testing. The D90, like most other modern Nikon bodies does include a "green light" focusing aid in the viewfinder which beeps and lights up when your subject is in focus. This isn't as fast or as accurate as autofocus, but with practice can work pretty well. That's not to say that it works perfectly all the time though, and Nikon's pro cameras like the D700 and D3 have a better and more accurate focus confirmation system and a brighter viewfinder which make it much easier to manual focus. You'll find using these old manual focus lenses with a full-frame or even semi-professional DX grade Nikon (D200 and up) is definitely easier than with an "amateur" DX camera.
Because of the lack of autofocus, I have to admit that throughout the test period I got lots of photos that were not perfectly focused, and it can definitely be frustrating to use manual focus on a camera like the D90, especially with its small viewfinder. No matter which camera you have though, you'll find that perfect focus with a lens like this takes practice, patience, and sometimes even luck. But perfect focus is something that you will want to strive for with this lens because when you nail the focus, the sharpness and clarity of the image can be breathtaking! Again you need practice and patience to get it right all the time, especially when shooting at wider apertures due to the reduced depth-of-field.
What about metering?
If you want to really go old school, try using a manual focus lens without any metering! This is exactly what I did during the test because the D90 doesn't allow metering with non-CPU lenses unless you install a Dandelion chip (true for all the consumer grade Nikons - D40, D50, D60, D70, D80). If you own one of the professional Nikons though (D200 and up) you're in luck and can at least meter in A and M modes without the chip.
In my case, shooting without any metering and without autofocus was a real challenge at first. While I almost always shoot in manual exposure mode (as opposed to Aperture-priorty, Shutter-priority or Program modes), I always rely on the camera's built-in light meter to determine the correct exposure settings. Without a light meter, your only way to figure out the exposure settings is to guess and then use the LCD screen and histogram to check for correct exposure. With the Leica, you must also manually turn the aperture ring to set the aperture, so EVERYTHING is done manually and it takes lots of time to get everything right. It's frustrating at first but after a while you get better and begin to feel a much deeper connection to the photographic process and appreciate much more how aperture, shutter speed and ISO interact mechanically to influence exposure (amazing how we have forgotten all about this thanks to modern program-driven SLRs). If the scene lighting changes even a bit, you need to adjust either your aperture, shutter speed or ISO immediately to compensate, which can be even more challenging when trying to shoot live moving objects, especially since you may not realize that the lighting has changed until after you take the shot. For this reason, I found that shooting RAW with a lens like this is almost mandatory, since it gives you enough latitude to adjust the exposure post-shot. Otherwise, you will likely get a lot of jpegs that are not properly exposed and don't lend themselves well to fixing in post.
So if it sounds like this lens might be a "bit" of a pain to shoot with, you are right. It definitely does not make for an easy and convenient lens to use that is friendly towards novices. BUT, and this is a BIG BUT... there is a certain joy in shooting old school; in taking the time to get the right exposure and focus properly using manual techniques. It requires a whole new approach to the photo taking process that makes you think like a photographer and gives you a much closer feeling of connectedness and creativity to the whole picture taking process. It may not appeal to everyone, but for me it was a very rewarding experience to go back to the basics again - and I did get some wonderful photos with this lens! It is even more rewarding when everything comes together and you nail the exposure and focus and this is when the lens really begins to shine and show its magical qualities. In fact, the results when you do get everything right really make up for the inconveniences compared to shooting with modern lenses - you just can't get such good quality optics at a price that is even remotely affordable with today's newer equipment
What's it like in the field?
I spent about a week testing this lens and shot over a thousand photos. Of those I'd say that maybe half were less then perfectly exposed (mostly fixable thanks to RAW) and another 20% were at least slightly out of focus (or worse, grossly out of focus). In other words the "keeper" rate with this lens can be a lot lower than what you are used to when using autofocus, autoexposure and in-camera metering. Once again, the experience was frustrating at first, but the ratio of keepers definitely improved the more practice I got and would certainly have been better if I was shooting with a professional body offering in-camera metering and better focus confirmation.
As far as ergonomics and handling are concerned, the Leica is wonderful to use and operates as smooth as silk. Unfortunately we have all become too accustomed to the cheap, mass produced, plastic products that flood the market nowadays and handling a precision engineered and machined optical instrument made of real solid metal is a revelation. Everything functions crisply and accurately and it is a joy just to turn the focus ring and listen to the clicking sound when you change aperture. Speaking of aperture, the amazing thing about this lens is that it displays as much sharpness and contrast wide open as it does when stopped down. This is the main difference with lenses from Nikon and Canon for example - you seldom get decent sharpness wide open and almost never great contrast and color like you do with these Leica lenses. The Leica is also extremely well-corrected for nasties like flare, ghosting and chromatic aberration, all of which tend to be exacerbated when shooting wide open. When shooting into the sun for example, the Leica does wonderful things with stray light rays that would choke other lenses or produce nasty flare.
With the Leica the only reasons to stop down from f/2.8 are to cut down on the light coming to the sensor or increase the depth-of-field. The colors and contrast, especially when shooting wide open, are the things that impress most about this lens. There is also a definite "Leica look" which becomes apparent once you view your photos on your computer monitor. It is definitely different than the "Nikon look" and you will notice it, especially in terms of color and contrast. I also found that in some cases, like shooting in bright sunlight, the photos even look nostalgic, almost 70's like (see the beach scene below shot into the setting sun). I like this look (kind of like AGFA film) and it probably reminds me of the 70's because Leica equipment was much more in use back then.
In general, I found that the colors have a soft but very natural look with a nice 3D quality to them when the focus is spot-on. The "Leica look" is something that is definitely well-known and sought after among Leica afficionados and it's great to be able to get this on my Nikon. And good news for portrait photographers, I think this lens does extremely well with skin tones. It seems that human portraits are in fact what this lens is best suited for (no big surprise there given the focal length). I found that it excelled at shooting people portraits, especially in natural light. Colors, contrast, skin tone, bokeh, everything looks gorgeous!
Everybody talks about "bokeh" these days (the quality of out-of-focus elements in the photo) and I would say this lens has quite good bokeh though it definitley looks better in some cases than others. For example I found that the bokeh looks much better when the background is less detailed than when there are lots of small details like a leafy tree or bushes in the background. In cases like this, the bokeh can get a bit busy. Keep your objects far enough behind your subject and avoid trees and bushes and you should get great results when shooting at f/2.8 and even up to f4.
The 90mm focal length normally falls exactly into the portrait range but I did find the field of view was a bit too tight when using my 1.5x cropped D90. In almost every case I found I had to step back several extra steps to get the framing I wanted, or sometimes couldn't get it at all. For this reason I think the 90mm focal length would work better on a full-frame camera. It is much easier to crop into a photo than to zoom out after the photo has been taken (actually it is impossible to zoom out in post without some serious Photoshop skills). This makes it harder to compose and get the right framing when shooting with a longish prime like this, but once again with practice you can improve on this and this deficiency is also one of the best things about the lens - it forces you to improve your technique as a photographer and to think more about your spatial relationship to your subject. Because there is much less room for laziness or bad technique, I felt as much satisfaction in my progress and results after a few days as i felt frustration in the beginning when first using the lens. Shooting with this lens will make you think more about your shots and thus become a better photographer. It happened to me even after only 1 week.
To conclude, the Leica is a great lens for shooting people or other objects that aren't moving and in any kind of light or in the studio. It is great for available light photos of relatively stationary subjects, but not a good choice for shooting fast moving objects as it takes too much time to compose, focus and adjust your settings. I see it as a photographer's lens for people with the skill and patience to get back to the basics and shoot old school but who appreciate the great skin tones, colors and contrast that Leica lenses can deliver. I had a lot of fun shooting with it and got some really nice results, some of which you can see below. As you can tell, I really liked this lens and hope you enjoyed reading about it! It is optically and mechanically a wonderful piece of equipment and has some very nice characteristics that make it a great addition to any photographer's equipment bag. For under $500 it is a steal and will last longer than anything else in your lens kit and deliver lots of great photos, while making you a better photographer in the process. Get one if you can!
Here are some of the shots I took with the Leica using a D90 and capturing in RAW (minimal processing applied). Unlike most lens reviewers out there, I don't shoot brick walls and I don't care about MTF charts - instead I shoot real things that real photographers shoot and tried to go for what people would likely use this lens for in actual day-to-day shooting. Besides portraits, I also managed to test it with a wide variety of other subjects and in different lighting conditions, so hopefully you find this gallery useful and reflective of how you might use this lens. Thanks for reading and check back again for more lens and equipment reviews in the future!
Review and photos by Paul Vachier ©2010, all rights reserved.
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