Wednesday, August 18, 2021


By José Manuel Serrano Esparza

© Claire Yaffa

In 1986, seventeen years after working as a successful photojournalist for The New York Times, Associated Press, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Daily News, The Wag, News Day, Food Patch, Woman´s News, etc, and counselled by her great friend Cornell Capa (Robert Capa´s brother, who had founded the International Center of Photography in New York in 1975), Claire Yaffa made the decision to change from a medium format 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 Rolleiflex 2.8f K7F Type 1 with Carl Zeiss Planar 80 mm f/2.8 lens and a 35 mm Nikon FM2 (a remarkable 100% mechanical camera featuring shutter speeds up to 1/4000th second and flash X-sync of 1/250th second, highly resistant vertical metal shutter blades made of lightweight titanium and able to work at extreme temperatures between -40º and +50º C) with Nikkor 50 mm f/1.8 Ai lens and MD-12 motordrive as main photographic gear

to a Leica M6 rangefinder camera, model which had been launched into market only two years before.

Cornell Capa, who along with Nikon F reflex system had been using rangefinder cameras for many decades, particularly Contax II from 1936 and a wide variety of Leica M rangefinder models from mid fifties, convinced Claire Yaffa to buy two Leica M6 cameras,

explaining her that though being a limited photographic system in terms of the range of focal lengths compatible with its core rangefinder principle ( roughly between 28 mm and 135 mm objectives),

it was by far the best one for the kind of pictures she made from very near distances, thanks to the tiny size and weight of camera body and lenses,

the almost imperceptible whispering sound generated by its horizontally travelling cloth shutter on being released, its unmatched levels of discretion and immersion in the core of action during the photographic act, its second to none handling convenience and its flawless optimization to unobtrusively get pictures in which human interaction takes place, with the added bonus of yielding peerless image quality, thanks to the uncompromising optomechanical level of its non retrofocus M lenses.

This way, mid eighties were a turning point in Claire Yaffa´s photographic career, because from then on, she would make vast majority of its images

with Leica M6 rangefinder cameras coupled to 35 mm, 50 mm, 75 mm and 90 mm lenses, managing to do her landmark reportage in Hart Island New York Potter´s Field in 1990, as well as completing amazing photobooks like Reaching Out, The Problem of Child Abuse and Rehabilitation (1987), Light and Shadow (1998), A Dying Child is Born : The History of Tracy (1992), The Story of New York Foundling Hospital (2001) and others.

Cornell Capa with his wife Eddie Schwartz inside the ICP of New York. 
© Claire Yaffa

But simultaneously, from mid nineties, it dawned on Claire Yaffa that both Cornell Capa and his wife Eddie Schwartz, great friends of hers, were approaching to the ends of their days.

Cornell Capa (the youngest of Julianna Henrietta Berkovit´s sons) had been born in Budapest (Hungary) in 1918 and Edith Capa had also been born in Budapest in 1913, so the former was eighty years old in 1998 and the latter eighty-five.

Therefore, she decided to get as many portraits of Cornell Capa as she could between mid nineties and early 2001, to have a good remembrance of their mutual great and sincere friendship.

And to properly attain this aim, she used a non stellar performing but highly efficient for portraiture combo : a Leica M6 coupled to a single coated 4 elements in 4 groups Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 (1974-1990, far better than the 5 elements in 4 groups Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 first version manufactured between 1964 and 1974, as well as sporting less weight and a slimmer lens barrel) without any haze in its rear group of optical elements.

Top view of a Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 second version, a remarkable and very compact lens for portraits designed by Walter Mandler at the Ernst Leitz Factory in Midland, Ontario (Canada)

Evidently, this lens lags behind the Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 (1990-2008) in terms of widest aperture, resolving power, sharpness and contrast, a difference that would be infinitely bigger in comparison to the benchmark 5 elements in 5 groups Apo-Summicron-M 90 mm f/2 ASPH, which was introduced in 1998, particularly at the widest apertures.

And obviously, it can´t compete with the capabilities of the also 4 elements in 4 groups Macro-Elmar 90 mm f/4 (introduced in 2003 and likewise featuring single coating and very compact dimensions, with a length of 65.77 mm and a weight of 222.6 g, though being less luminous) when portraits with a lot of detail are needed.

But sometimes, a lens can be too sharp, depending on what you are using it for.

As a matter of fact, broadly speaking, obtaining stratospheric resolving power, sharpness and contrast hasn´t usually been top priority in the scope of portraits, but capturing the atmosphere of the instant, the mood prevailing at the moment, getting nice bokehs highlighting the subjects and specially drawing the key personality traits of the photographed person.

Back diagonal right view of a Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 (1974-1990), showing the gorgeous and very sturdy mechanical construction inherent to the lenses designed by Walter Mandler. Part of the superb brass focusing helicoid can be seen protruding from inside the rear area, surrounded by top-notch aluminium, everything made with a painstaking level of accuracy. German thoroughness at its best.

© Claire Yaffa

In addition, Claire Yaffa knew that some optical imperfections of the Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 (1974-1990) designed by Walter Mandler at the Ernst Leitz Factory in Midland, Ontario (Canada), became significant assets to get a kind of dreamy portraits with character : its softness in sharpness and contrast on the corners at the widest f/2.8 and f/4 apertures, its incredible handling convenience because of its very reduced dimensions and weight (length of 62 mm, 51.5 mm diameter and a weight of 225 g) for its focal length, and above all, a unique smoother rendering at the largest f/2.8 and f/4 diaphragms with good ability to capture subtle nuances.

This way, in spite of being flare prone and suffering from a lack of uniformity of performance between center, borders and corners in comparison to much modern 90 mm aspherical lenses, the Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 is a bang for the buck when it comes to getting portraits, particularly leveraging black and white films like the Kodak Tri-X 400 (with which it achieves a remarkable symbiosis) used by Claire Yaffa to do the pictures of Cornell Capa during nineties.

Anyway, a 90 mm lens can be hard to focus on a rangefinder camera, including the Leica M6 with a 0.72x viewfinder magnification used by Claire Yaffa to photograph Cornell Capa, since the bright-line frame for the tele lens inside the camera is a tiny rectangle inside the 28 mm one.

© Claire Yaffa

Therefore, the amazing compactness and very low weight of the Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 was a great advantage to comfortably shoot handheld her 0.72x viewfinder magnification Leica M6 and focus carefully and accurately in comparison to other much bigger and heavy portrait lenses at the time which were more cumbersome to handle and brought about more fatigue in the photographer on being used, like the single coated 5 elements in 4 groups Summicron-M 90 mm f/2 1980-1998 (length of 79 mm and weight of 690 g), the 7 elements in 5 groups Summilux-M 75 mm f/1.4 1980-2007 (length of 80 mm and a weight of 560 g) and the Apo-Summicron-M 90 mm f/2 ASPH manufactured from 1998 (length of 78 mm and a weight of 660 g).

Because a 0.72x magnification Leica is not as good as a 0.85x or 0.91x (Leica M3) on precisely focusing with a 90 mm lens, and the excellent Leica 1.25x VF magnifier to be attached to the camera´s eyepiece turning the 0.72x VF magnification into a 0.90x one wouldn´t appear until 2001.

In addition, the Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8, a very discreet lens for its focal length, boasted some further virtues like a medium contrast (lower than Summilux and Summicron lenses, which had the upper hand for colour photography in this regard) optimized for black and white photography, a very nice and soft unobtrusive bokeh, together with a pretty well damped and silky smooth focus and aperture rings, so any photographer can revel in using it shooting handheld.

Cornell Capa with his wife Eddie Schwartz and Yousuf Karsh in 1999, two tears before Eddie´s death on November 21, 2001. Eddie had been very ill for some years and the two photographers appear in this image taking care of her. 
© Claire Yaffa

Therefore, the symbiosis between a Leica M6 and the Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 lens offered a raft of fundamental advantages and traits for Claire Yaffa´s most important goal on photographing Cornell Capa : to capture him mostly inside the ICP of New York,

© Claire Yaffa

depicting his true generous and cheerful nature, together with his genuine expression the best she could within his usual working place, devoted to the memory of his beloved brother.

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  1. I read, including on this blog, that Leica did not jump on the multicoating bandwagon, like most other lens manufacturwrs did. Instead they used a different technique, selective coating, where each lens element received several, separately transferred coating layers, to assure the best possible antireflection coating.

    1. That is correct. The reason is that indiscriminately applying a multicoating layer does not necessarily achieve optimum results. To be specific, to achieve optimum elimination of reflections, the refractice index of the coating layer needs to be the value of the square root of the refractive index of the glass it is applied to. Unfortunately that only works for a certain color. With other words, taking the entire spectrum of visible light into account, only a small part of the spectrum is addressed by a single coating layer. That is the very reason why the multicoating technique was developed. However, addressing the specific properties of each individual glass element and its function within a lens, the Leica selective coating technique can achieve better results.

  2. I also have to question the statement that none of the Leica M lenses at that time were of a retrofocus design. Didn't Leica redesign several of their lenses to a retrofocus design to clear the light meter arm in both the Leica M5 and Leica CKL?

    1. That is correct. However, you could refer to tose lenses as 'mild retrofocus' lenses because they definitely require less clearance to the focal plane that what is the case with SLR lenses.

    2. So lenses for mirrorless cameras do not require retrofocus lenses at all.

    3. That is correct, unless there are other parts of the camera that might interfere with the lens. However, retrofocus designs might perform bwetter with mirrorless, digital cameeras because they will display less fall-off at the corners. That continues to be a problem with using Leica lenses on other makes of cameras. Leica addressed that problem with the microlens cover over their sensors.