Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Leica M with Canon Lens

Purchasing a lens for a Leica used to be a very straight forward preposition; if you needed another lens, you would generally have to buy another Leica lens.  There were only few exceptions, and only for the Leica rangefinder cameras where some Leica screw mount lenses were also available from several German manufacturers and Nikon, Canon and a few other Japanese made lenses as well as some Russian made lenses for the Kiev and Zorki cameras.  No such choices existed for the Leica R reflex cameras.

Leica M9 with Canon 50mm f/0.95

That didn’t change until a few T-4 mounts appeared in the Leica R mount from Soligor and Vivitar and a bit later from Tamron with their interchangeable camera mount Adaptall lenses.  Most of those all but disappeared from the market, initially because sales of those mounts were too low to justify further manufacture and later, when interchangeable camera mount lenses were no longer manufactured.  Today aftermarket lens manufacturers concentrate on the main camera manufacturers like Nikon and Canon.  However, adapters to allow the use of other manufacturers lenses on the Leica R cameras are available from Leica, Novoflex and several other manufacturers.

Leica SL with 35mm f/1.4 Summilux C cine lens

With the introduction of the Leica SL, Leica introduced a number of adapters which allow the use of virtually any Leica lens ever made.  This makes the Leica SL the long awaited camera for owners of the Leica R line of lenses.  In addition, adapters from companies like Novoflex offer the possibility to use lenses from other lens manufacturers on the Leica SL also, making it one of the most versatile professional caliber cameras on the market today.

The Leica M is another alternative for the R lenses, and since several manufacturers, including Novoflex, are making adapters to use lenses from other manufacturers on a variety of cameras, it is possible to use these lenses also on the Leica M.  That offers a huge choice of different lenses never before available for the Leica until the introduction of the Leica SL

Leica M9 with Nikon fish eye lens

Leica M9 with Nikon PC perspective control lens

But does it make sense to equip a Leica with a lens from another manufacturer?  After all, one of the main reasons for owning a Leica is the quality and performance of their lenses.  I basically agree with that, however, I can also see that in some instances a lens from another manufacturer might be a valid choice, especially if we enter cost into the equation.  For instance, Besides the Leica 14-50 f/2.8-3.5 Vario Elmarit on my Leica Digilux 3, I also use a 55mm f/3.5 and a 105mm f/4 Micro Nikkor made by Nikon as well as a 200mm f/3.8 and a 400mm f/5.6 Noflexar made by Novoflex on that camera.  Especially the two Novoflex lenses have proven to be very much equal to their Leica counterparts as have the two Nikon lenses shown to be excellent performing lenses.

Leica Digilux 3 with Nikon 105mm f/4 Micro Nikkor

Leica Digilux 3 with 200mm f/3.8 Novoflex Noflexar

Leica Digilux 3 with 400mm f/5.6 Novoflex Noflexar

This brings up the question, which of these lenses do make sense to put on a Leica camera, especially the Leica M?  Price should definitely part of this consideration.  While some large manufacturers can offer high quality lenses at lower prices, simply because of their high sales volume, nobody is able to perform any miracles.  If the price is too good to be true, it is a safe assumption that this price is the result of considerable cost cutting measures.

A manufacturer has quite a number of means to arrive at lower manufacturing costs.  Aspherical lens elements are a good example.  The most costly approach to making such lens elements is to grind them from a lens blank.  While this is quite expensive, it also renders the best quality lens elements to assure the highest possible performance.  Another approach which, for instance, is used by Nikon is to make high precision molds and then mold the softened glass into its final, aspherical shape.  This method definitely lends itself to larger quantity, mass production.  The least expensive approach to aspherical element production, as used by many of the aftermarket manufacturers, is to make a standard, spherical element and then add a thin, aspherical surface section made of acrylic to it.  These acrylic add-ons are also molded.  This saves a lot of cost, but it also is a considerable compromise.  This process was initially developed by Zeiss in Germany.  It was, however, rejected because it could not assure the performance parameters set by Zeiss for their lenses.  The reason is that acrylics consist of rather large molecules.  Due to their size, they actually scatter the light when it transmits which adversely affects the performance of the lens.  With other words, not all aspherical elements are created equal.  There are a huge number of other cost saving measures that are being used, all of which ultimately lower the overall performance potential of the lens.

Testing of Leica aspherical lens element  Photo: Marlies Amling

I came across two of the worst examples of this a while ago when I was still dabbling in repairing cameras and lenses for my own use.  I was asked to look at an aftermarket lens made by a well-known manufacturer.  The lens did not focus to infinity, even though there were no outward signs of abuse or that otherwise anything was wrong.  I had no choice than to partially disassemble the lens.  Since not all SLR and DSLR cameras have the same lens to film plane distance, this has to be taken into consideration when making an aftermarket lens.  Rather than making the lens specifically with the appropriate measurements, a general lens to film plane distance is used.  Then the rear of the lens has a threaded section which allows the lens to film plane distance to be changed to accommodate different cameras.  After adjusting the lens via this threaded section to assure proper infinity focus, these threads then have to be locked in place.  This is usually done with some set screws.  However, this manufacturer apparently decided that additional costs could be saved by eliminating the set screws and to use a piece of tape instead.  I am not exaggerating; they used a thick piece of tape around the entire threaded infinity adjustment.  The problem with the lens was that the tape had partially lost contact which had allowed the adjustment to change.

A while later I had a similar problem with a video zoom lens from the same maker.  This was by no means a cheap lens, it sold for almost $2,100.  Video lenses routinely come with an infinity adjustment to accommodate different video and motion picture cameras.  Remembering the problem with the other lens, I quickly concentrated on the infinity adjustment of this lens.  My suspicion was confirmed.  Even this relatively expensive lens used a piece of tape to “secure” proper infinity focus.

I am not saying that all aftermarket lenses are made with such extreme cost saving measures, what I am saying is ‘buyers beware’!  The low price has to be arrived at by some means.

My general advice is to equip your cameras with lenses made by the camera manufacturer.  That way there is the general assurance of the best possible performance.  With other words, put Leica lenses on a Leica to get the most out of your investment.

Leica M with Leica Vario-Elmarit-R 28-90mm f/2.8-4.5

Leica M with Elmarit-R 70-180mm f/2.8

But there are valid alternatives for the Leica.  Some of the older Nikon and Canon screw mount lenses are still performing quite well, but just as the older Leica screw mount lenses, they don’t measure up to the current line of Leica lenses.

More modern alternatives are offered by Voigtländer and Zeiss.  Their M mount lenses have proven to be excellent performers, relatively close to their Leica equivalents and considering their cost advantage, they do present a valid alternative.  Other choices exist from Minolta, the older Leitz-Minolta CL lenses, from Konika, Rollei-Cosina and SLR Magic.

Leica M2 with Voigtländer 75mm f/1.8

Leica M3 with Voigtländer Heliar12mm f/5.6

On the Leica R side, adapters allow the use of Canon, Nikon and a great variety of other lenses.  These would need to be adapted to the Leica R mount which then allows their use on the Leica M with the Leica R adapter or with a direct four thirds adapter on the Leica Digilaux 3.

Leica is not at all anymore as isolated as they used to be in the past.  Some of their camera offers a huge selection of lenses from various manufacturers, and some of them are very good choices indeed.


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