A Lens Reborn? – The Leica 135 mm f/4 Tele-Elmar Review on the Leica M9, by Ashwin Rao

The Leica 135 mm f/4 Tele-Elmar Lens Review

By Ashwin Rao

Hello, guys! Another week, and another article for me here at SteveHuffPhoto.com! Today, I bring you a few words and a quick n’ dirty review of the Leica 135 mm f/4 Tele-Elmar. The “Tele-Elmar” is a heritage lens, meaning that it’s no longer made and has been replaced by the newer 135 mm “APO Telyt” f/3.4 lens.  As it was manufactured to very high standards, many lenses are still available on the used market, often found in excellent condition. While the Tele-Elmar was discontinued from production in 1998, it has also gotten more press recently on the various Leica forums and is widely available on the used market.  It is widely regarded as one of Leica’s best offerings at the 135 mm focal lengths, and it’s a screaming deal to boot! In fact, I feel strongly that this is one of the best deals currently available in terms of bang for your buck in the Leica lens department.

Many Leica photographers who have moved from the Leica M8 to the Leica M9 have reported missing the longer focal length effect from the M8’s 1.3x factor (hence, a 90 mm lens would carry an effective 117 mm lens on the M8).  Plus, the M8 and M9 have frame lines for 135 mm lenses, and given that the M9 is full frame, some old film shooters have unretired this long lens back into their lens lineup for the digital age. In summary, 135 mm is getting popular in rangefinder photography again! So let’s get into it. Is this a lens worth owning? Does it represent good value for your investment? How do images look from this lens?

A Brief History of the Tele-Elmar 135 mm f/4

The Leica Tele-Elmar 135 mm f/4 is a venerable lens in the Leica lens lineup. It was first introduced into the Leica M lens line up in the mid 1960’s and stayed there until 1998, when it was replaced by Leica’s current 135 mm lens offering, the 135 mm f/3.5 APO Telyt.

There are actually 2 versions of the 135 mm Tele-Elmar. The first version, which is the one reviewed here, had a different, old-school tapered-barrel design, which ran from the 1965 until the mid 1980’s, when the barrel (but not the optical formula) was re-designed for a more modern look (more like the APO-Telyt, that is), probably to sell some more of this lens. However, when changing barrel designs, the same optical formula was maintained. There are reports that Leica changed lens coatings over the years without making formal announcements to the effect, but all in all, this lens did not change much from the mid-1960’s through 1998! Now that’s staying power…over 30 years of staying power!

The version 1 Tele-Elmar has a removable head for use on the Visioflex. Additionally, it utilizes a clip on hood and has a 39 mm filter tread size. All images displayed here are of the version 1 lens.

The version 2 Tele-Elmar incorporates a built-in hood as well as a 46 mm filter thread, along with a flatter, non-tapered lens barrel.

Both lenses bring up 35/135 mm frame lines on every Leica from the M3 through the M9.

Of note, both lenses benefit from the use of a 1.25 x or 1.4 x magnifier applied to the view finder to magnify the frames, which helps with focusing. By no means is it necessary to use the 1.25x or 1.4x magnifier, but it helps, given that the 135 mm frame lines get pretty small on the Leica M8 and M9’s 0.67x viewfinder.

The 135 mm Tele-Elmar vs. the 135 mm APO-Telyt. What’s the difference?

In reading through the forums, most who have shot with the 135 mm Tele-Elmar lens report that it is very sharp, albeit marginally softer than its newer APO-Telyt sibling. But as older lenses go, the Tele-Elmar’s out-of-focus rendering and transitions (see my article on bokeh) is more gentle. Many real world shooters out there like how the Tele-Elmar renders in real world shooting, and some like it’s rendering even more than the far more costly APO-Telyt. As I have nerver shot the APO-Telyt, I cannot comment on the differences between these two lenses from personal experience, but from what I have seen of the Tele-Elmar, it is impressively sharp and renders beautifully….more on that to come….

Yet other small difference in maximum aperture. The 135 Tele-Elmar opens upto f/4, while you get a bit more f/stop with the APO-Telyt, which opens upto f/3.4. In the real world, the difference is marginal, though theoretically, the APO-Telyt does give you more light gathering capacity and slightly more control over depth of field.

The other HUGE difference between the 135 mm Tele-Elmar and the new APO-Telyt is cost! Whereas the APO Telyt sells new for $3,195 (and used for around $2,000), the Tele-Elmar sells used for around $400 to $500, depending on condition and version. Expect to pay slightly more for the 2nd version of the lens. Basically, in getting the Tele-Elmar, you may save as much as $2,700 on a lens that’s nearly as good as the APO-Telyt. In my mind, this is a no brainer: Get the Tele-Elmar.

Why did I purchase the 135 Tele-elmar?

I have been shooting the M9 for a couple of months now, and one thing that I missed from my days shooting with the M9 was the longer focal length conferred by the M8’s 1.3x crop. I didn’t expect to miss this, but go figure, right?  I started scouring the web for information regarding 135 mm lenses, and I came to find that the Tele-Elmar was very highly regarded. When compared to the 135 APO-Telyt, photographers felt that the improvements represented in the newer lens were not worth it’s vastly increased price tag over the Tele-Elmar. Some of the images that I saw from this lens, furthermore, were magical! It has a very nice out-of-focus rendering, and I loved what I saw in the bokeh department. I was concerned that the maximal f/4 aperture could lead to a busy bokeh, but this doesn’t realy turn out to be the case if you chose your backgrounds wisely.

Is it any good?

In a word, YES! This lens COMPLETELY blew me away in the image quality department. I did get lucky in purchasing one from a popular online retailer for a VERY reasonable price, and it came perfectly calibrated for my M9. I have had the 1.4x magnifier for the Leica M8/9 viewfinder, and I do find that this is a handy tool for focusing this lens. Without it, the 135 mm frame lines are small. I found the images to be much sharper than I had expected. To my eyes, this lens does approach the sharpness of my aspherical lenses, and this is supported by many discussions on the various Leica forums out there.

The images that come straight out of camera have a flatter tonality and less macro-contrast than Leica’s modern aspherical offerings. However, this quality has really allowed me to push my post-processing. Shadows continue to hold details, as do highlights. In general, I would say that some of the older Leica lenses really do well with the digital format due to this flatter tonality, particularly if you shoot in the RAW/DNG format and convert your files during post-processing. The 135 mm Tele-Elmar is no exception here.

Then, there’s the bokeh. It’s quite pleasing. I have given this lens a fairly high rating in the bokeh department because I found it’s out-of-focus elements to be quite pleasing. Not harsh or jagged. Transitions in out-of-focus objects are rendered smoothly. Keep in mind however, that with a maximum f/4 aperture, this is not a lens that will throw the background into a “sea of blur”. Details are still observable, to some degree, but they are rendered in a pleasing way to my eyes.

Oh yeah,  I almost forgot to mention build quality. This lens is up to Leica standards as far as build is concerned. It is built solidly and feels great in the hand. It is a bit front heavy when mounted on your M camera, but it is solid. Not flimsy at all.

Finally, there’s the price. I love the price of this lens, and I would argue that it’s one of the best deals that can be had for your Leica in today’s marketplace. If you enjoy shooting in the telephoto range and you have a film M or M9, this lens would be a wonderful addition to your set up at very little cost. As of February, 2010, this lens sells for $420-$500 used. I suspect that prices will slowly crawl up, as more of you pick up this lens and it becomes harder to find

What’s not to love? Well, given its long focal length and narrower aperture, it’s not an ideal lens for low light shooting. In fact, I’d make the argument that this is a lens for daytime shooting only. The 135 mm frame lines will be too small for some shooters, but I have enjoyed the challenge of working with it.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Leica 135 mm f/4 Tele-Elmar:

Strengths:

  • Image Quality: Lovely rendering on the Leica M9
  • Build: My copy is over 40 years old and looks nearly new
  • Cost: Bargain of the Century in the Leica world
  • Nearly as competent as the much costlier 135 mm APO-Telyt
  • Nice bokeh for an f/4 lens
  • Flatter macrocontrast allows one to push post-processing more (if you shoot JPEGs, your out-of camera images may be flatter, so this could be a negative for you JPEG shooters out there)

Weaknesses

  • The 135 mm focal length is not for everyone
  • Maximum f/4 aperture limits shooting options in lower light
  • Length: It’s a longer lens, and balance is a bit quirky on the M9

Thanks once again Ashwin for a great write up and pointing out what a deal can be had on this lens!

Be sure to visit Ashwins blog HERE, and his Flickr HERE!


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24 Comments

  1. After reading your review and that of Ken Rockwell, I bought the Leica M tele-elmar 135mm f/2 for my Sony A7-II. I then set up a studio test board like dpreview. since I am an artist I used a fan brush, a sable brush, newspaper and a dollar bill, took a few shots. The results I got were much better and sharper than what dpreview was showing with their camera tests. So, I now am wondering, what kind of lenses does dpreview use for their camera tests, when I can get sharper and more detailed shots with this lens?

  2. I bought this lens for use with my M9 and was quite pleased with the images it produced. Now I have the M240 I find that when focused using live view with magnification I am getting brilliantly sharp images. It really is an excellent lens and quite a bargain.

  3. My 135/4 does not focus at infinity with my M9 and it is a real pity because I love the lens. Is it worthed to have it calibrated?

    • Sal, I got the same lens and it was front focusing when I got it. I had to play with the rangefinder focusing mechanism adjustment. Its simple procedure with a 2mm hex key (do a google search and you will find the procedure). I had to make sure that my adjustment didn’t throw off my other lens, 50mm summilux at wide open. At the end my both the lens focus “almost” correctly. There is still a little bit of rangefinder patch misalignment at infinity for this lens but I am not going to worry about it since the image is sharp when focus ring is turned to infinity. The “gain” adjustment is tricky (adjusting the length of the arm) and I am not going to mess with it.

      Just with 2mm key and a test target to check focus you can do a decent job in an hour. Try it.

      • thank you Jayant, but there is something I do not understand. while I can focus the lens fairly well at intermediate distances, it does not focus at infinity, regardless of the rangefinder collimation. Focusing should be performed by the lens rotating barrel and even with the focusing ring completely retracted the image is blurred.
        With the camera on tripod in daylight, I took several pictures each with a tiny difference in focus from infinity to closer settings. The result is from mild blur (infinity) to severely blur (closer focus setting). It is as if the front lens cannot come close enough to the plane of focus.I made sure that everything was well screwed in and tight but no difference. Recently I bought the 135 Apo Telyt and it focuses perfectly on my M9 but I had to go through a couple of them before finding the one that is spot on.

        • Sai, it seems that lens has a problem then. Irrespective of rangefinder patch, the lens should focus correctly on infinity objects when the focusing ring is turned all the way to infinity (note that end of hallway is NOT infinity, you really need to shoot far far away tree branches or something). As a disclaimer I should add that I am new to Leica system but now totally fascinated by it. It takes me back to my manual focus film SLR days. 🙂 Enjoy taking pictures !!

  4. 135/4 Tele Elmar is a great lens, but I sold mine years ago for its immediate predecessor the (ca 1960-65)135 f4 Elmar which is nearly as good with better bokeh. Sells for less than half the price of a tele Elmar (M mount only , the SM 135 Elmars are dear).

    The 135 f4 Elmar is the real 135 deal of the century!

    Marco

  5. I bought a first version of this lens from Malcolm Taylor who serviced and coded it for my M9. I also got a visoflex III which takes the lens head unscrewed from its focussing mount. I have been delighted with the quality of the results. I have managed OK with the 135mm viewfinder lines without a magnifier. As you say given the huge price difference to the Apo I would rather put the saved cash towards another lens.

  6. Just bought the tele, though I came close to getting the 4.5 Hektor for $400. less. I have the Canon 135
    2 L which I have used on my 5DII and Sony nex7—a bit heavy there so I scouted out a Leica 135.
    It is 200MM on the Sony and just about as wonderful as the Canon which is f2. but so much easier to handle on the nex 7 and my Leica m9. But I bought it for the Sony nex extension and its first try out today produced sharp pix with stunning color.

  7. Thank you Ashwin for your new great review.
    I live in Argentina and is quite difficult today obtain a lense so special like the tele Elmar M 4/135mm for my M6 in my country because Leica stop working in this market 10 years ago.
    Obviously second hand.

  8. There is no question as to how sharp and nice the 135 is. It can be had for a couple of hundred dollars and for the quality, that is a crazy price. The only problem is with the M9 and getting the two to work well together due to focus calibration. I am on my second tele trying to get this resolved as I like using the 135 length (my first 135 will not calibrate to the M9 and two of the best Leica repair people have tried).

  9. I purchase mine today!. Your article helps in the final decision,thanks!.
    Soon i will post some shots taken with her and my M6.
    Regards,
    Marcello.

  10. Hi Ashwin,
    Firstly, great images. I bought this lens and it was front focusing so I gave it back and got another that that too front focus on both my M8 & M6. Any place that you know that could fix this problem?
    Many thanks–Ajit

  11. Thanks Ashwin, I do agree with your comment of this lens, I’ve both Leica 135/4 Tele-Elmar & 135/3.4 APO lenses, the contrast of 135/3.4 APO is much higher than 135/4 Tele-Elmar, the 135/4 Tele-Elmar produce more detail in the shadow area, in fact I prefer the 135/4 Tele-Elmar in overall performance. I’ve use the 135/4 + 16464/OTZFO + adapter on Canon 5D, later 5D II with excellent result, in fact on 5D is much easy to focus. My friend have use the 135/4 (with viso adapter) compare with his Canon 135/2 L USM lens side by side, he claimed the 2 lenses has the same performance, the guy is a diehard Canon user, I consider the 135/4 Tele-Elmar has batter rendering, of course the 135/2 L has more control over depth of field due to extra 2 f stops.

  12. I followed you, and bought a 66 135/4, 178 bucks..here in germany 132 euro!!! and… it blew mw away.. the results with the M8 (panda ;-)) and this lens where great.. and it is possible do focus it !! Thank you for your review..

  13. Thanks for the great article, Ashwin. The 135 Tele Elmar was one of the first lenses I bought with my M3 and it is so much easier to focus there with that bright .92 finder. Haven’t used it much but every time I do, I absolutely love it. Focusing is the biggest hurdle but once we got that managed, it surely is a keeper and one the best bargains out there, in Leica world.

  14. To everyone, thanks for the kind responses. This is a lens that I have really come to adore, and I do feel that it is one of the few “great deals” among Leica lenses!!!

    @ David: Thank you very much. I hope to have more articles for you and others in the coming weeks and months. Steve has been so gracious to allow and encourage this, and I am psyched!

    @ Designed: Thanks for the feedback. I was a bit intentionally repetitive, but maybe I should scale that back in future articles.

    @ Pete: Thanks! I hope that a Leica finds its way into your camera bag soon

    @ Christian: You are absolutely right about the M8. That was my oversight. I meant to say that the lens is useable on the M8. Some have said they used the viewfinder patch as a de facto frame line for the lens, but that’s just a work around

    @ Lars-Goran: Great to hear from you from Sweden!!!! I’m glad that Puts and I fall into the same category. I do feel that this lens is a close match for the much more expensive APO-Telyt, and this is one instance where I wouldn’t go for the newer lens…I love this one

    On a second note, I have printed off several images at 11x-17 though 17-24 from this lens…it holds detail very impressively, even at larger sized prints. Wonderful lens!

  15. Ashwin! It´s really interesting that Your review is on par with Erwin Putz analasis of Tele-Elmar 4/135 in his booklet “Leica M Objektive – Ihre Seele und Gehemnisse, 2002”. After reading both of You I´m now looking for a Tele-Elmar. Seems right thing to do, adding that lens to my M9. Thank´s for great writing.
    Regards from a white and snowy Sweden,
    Lars-Goran

  16. Thanks, Ashwin, for this nice review!

    Yes, I can confirm that this lens can produce wonderful pictures, I have recently tried it myself.

    Just a little annotation for the owners of M8’s (like myself): there are NO frame-lines for a 135mm lens in the M8’s viewfinder (it is different from the M9). The M8 frame-lines are 28+90, 50+75 and 35+24, so Leica has replaced the “old” 135 frame-lines of analog Leicas with 24 frame-lines for the M8. So it’s a little “trial and error” shooting this lens just using the focus-area in the center of your viewfinder as a guideline for framing. Nevertheless: it’s fun!

    kindest greetings
    christian

  17. Great job Ashwin. As a fairly new member to this blog, I read every thing that is put in my face. I currently do not own a Leica. I had a Digilux once and let that go, but I’m working toward that goal and try to store as much info as I can for later use. Also great website stuff you have. Keep up the good work….. Cheers

  18. Thank you Ashwin again for a great review and a valuable addition to Steve’s site, this is very quickly becoming The Leica Knowledge Base.

    My only concern is a bit of repetitive writing, i.e. you talk about the price on two separate occasions. It’s not a big deal, but on an otherwise good review it pops up.

    Oh, and a few more example shots in color would be appreciated.

    But thanks again and please keep contributing to this excellent site.

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