Building a Lens Family for your new Leica Rangefinder
By Ashwin Rao
Hi all, with the arrival of the Leica M10, I figured that it was time to share some information regarding building a “lens family” for your newly minted camera. Many of you new M10 users are familiar with rangefinders and RF lens, but others of you may have decided to join the fray of Leica M, having had positive experiences with the lovely Leica Q. Some of you may simply be tired of the automation offered by today’s SLR’s and high-end mirrorless cameras, craving a more simplistic and elemental form of photography. Others of you may be intrigued by the compact build, high quality of construction, and timeless approach that Leica takes to building cameras that have more-or-less looked the same since the 1950’s. There’s certain romanticism to shooting with Leica cameras. Some see a “Leica glow” in images taken by the camera. Some may feel an acute pride of ownership that easily sways the vulnerable and contributes to much future gear-acquisition. With that in mind, let’s get into talking about how to build a rangefinder lens setup that suits your needs and budget.
Ashwin Rao, one of this websites resident Leica enthusiasts. Ashwin has written so many great Leica articles for me over the years. See some of them HERE. He is a great shooter, knows his Leica gear and an awesome friend as well!
What makes for a great kit?
Great question. If you ask twenty rangefinder shooters this question, you are likely to get twenty different answers. The problem lies in the challenge of the rangefinder. Leica inspires 2 general types of buyers: 1) those who enjoy shooting in an elemental, stripped down, controlled manner, and 2) those who enjoy the build quality and craftsmanship of a camera that’s built like a fine timepiece. Depending on the type of person you are (and maybe you are both), you may be drawn to either simplicity or collectability. You may find yourself falling in love with the image quality offered by such lovely and small lenses. Whatever the case, you have so many opportunities to own any number, set, or style of lenses to suit your desires. As you see, Leica offers options, quality, history, and opportunity.
One Lens to Rule the All!
Okay, you are a pure shooter and you want to keep it simple. You wan to keep it to one lens for your one Leica body. Maybe you came from a Leica Q and it’s incredible 28 mm lens and see the value of such a compact kit. OR maybe your wallet is dry from buying a new Leica rangefinder (yup, Leica has a way of doing that to many of us). SO to avoid any further buyer’s remorse, let’s just stick with 1 lens….
So which lens? It’s quite simple. 35 mm of 50 mm are the discerning RF shooter’s two options. You may say, “Wait, that Leica Q that I have loved has a fixed 28 mm lens. Why not a 28?” Well, I will just say that 28 mm lenses are great when one desires reportage style photography, but if you wish to cover more ground, both 35 mm and 50 mm lenses offer the greatest range.
35 mm lenses offer a wide (but not too wide) perspective on the world. You can shoot environmental portraits, landscapes, and street photography with a 35 mm lens, and it’s the reason why camera companies such as Sony often release a 35 mm lens with their cameras at launch. This is also a great focal length to consider if you think you may eventually buy a second lens (such as a 75 mm or 90 mm lens) that covers more reach. It’s a nice starting point for many people who are new to serious photography in general, as most cell phones offer a 28-35 mm effective focal length.
So if not 35, then why 50? I will say right off the bat that I am a 50 mm guy. I find that the 50 mm lens can offer the reach that I desire to do both street photography and portraiture comfortably, and many others would agree. There’s a reason that 50 mm lenses have often served as “kit” lenses for so many cameras. They do many things well. The criticism is that 50 mm lenses can seem like a compromise in every direction: not wide enough or long enough. But consider: Many of the world’s most famous photographs were taken with a simple 50. It’s familiar as a focal length. 50 mm lenses are easy to design and there are numerous options to chose from at every considered price point.
Finally, there’s 28. Having been a proud ower of the Leica Q, I have discovered that 28 mm lenses offer a dynamic perspective that’s nearly perfect for street and documentary work, capturing people together, and seeing one’s surroundings. Most who start with a 28 mm lens will add a 50 mm lens for substantially more reach down the road. It’s almost inevitable.
Okay, the wallet is a bit more open, the budget a bit more flexible, or you already own one lens and desire a second. There are many families to start building.
35/50 is a really valuable kit for many who desire the qualities stated above. Why not have both for a change of perspective, yet accomplishing the same general objective. Many famous photographers, particularly those who developed to concept of documentary or street photography, used only these 2 focal lengths and never moved to others.
28/50. Another great combo that adds a wider perspective, introducing the 28 mm lens along with a 50 mm “all arounder”. 28 mm lens offer an added benefit in being compact (for the most part, save the 28 mm f/1.4 Summilux), and don’t get in the way much unless need. If you have a 50 mm lens, I would personally add a 28 mm for the most noticeable step off, compared to 35 mm
35/75. Another classic combo. Adding a 75 mm lens such as a Leica Summarit, Summicron, or (gasp, the amazing 75 Summilux) provides a lovely lens with more reach, nearly perfect for head/shoulder portraits, and complements a 35 mm lens so well. The primary negative of using a 75 mm lens on current rangefinder bodies involves the horrid frame lines. Attaching a 75 mm lens brings up the 50/75 frame lines, where 75 mm-dashed lines seem almost an afterthought. That being said, if you are able to adjust, the 75 mm Leica lens family (and let’s not ignore Voigtlander) offer some of the finest optics available on the planet. The 75 mm f/2 Summicron and Mandler’s favorite 75 mm f/1.4 Summilux each offer their own magical rendering.
Okay, 3 lenses…let’s build a complete kit!
35/50/90 is a classic 3 lens kit that covers 95% of everything a photographer will ever dare shoot, and further a comfortable range that makes photography easy. The kit only is really limited in the RF world in gathering a wider perspective, and thus, one may wish to choose:
28/50/90. For most photographers who prefer 50 mm as their primary lens, complementing that lens with a 28 mm for a wide perspective and 90 mm lens for telephoto and portrait work is nearly perfect. This would be my choice for a 3 lens kit. (Mine to, and is – Steve)
35/75/135. If you have started by building a 35/75 mm lens set, you can always go super long and into 135 mm. I will say that the small focus patch and frame lines of the 135 mm lens makes focusing these lenses accurately on a rangefinder challenging. That being said, 135 mm lenses are often critically sharp and can be had for a song (for example, the 135 mm Tele-Elmar performs very well and is one of my most discussed reviews).
As many of you know, and some of you will discover, there are a few lenses that deserve mention as special lenses that defy the lens set ups discussed above. For those of you with deeper pockets, adding a special lens to your current kit may add artistic flare or purpose to your kit.
The most special of the “special” lenses is the 50 mm Noctilux family. This lens has magical properties, according to many of its owners, and while one pays the price (literally) in volume and cost, the reward is one of the most unique ways of seeing in current photography. There are not many lenses in production that are more sensitive to light or offer narrower depth of field than the 50 mm Noctilux. Go do an image search, and you may be convinced.
Beyond the Noctilux, there are a few specialty lenses that could be discussed, but I will try to keep this simple. The only other that I feel is currently in production and truly unique is Leica’s 21 mm f/1.4 mm asph lens. It on3 or the only 21 mm ultrafast prime of its aperture available for 35 mm cameras, with its competitors being huge or poorly rendering ( a much cheaper Rokinon for SLR’s is your only other option at this speed). The 21 mm Summilux is truly a unique piece of glass that must be tamed. It’s not often that a photographer would need something so wide and so fast for their work, but for those of you who are willing to pay the price (say, maybe you are a well paid concert or wedding photog), your return in imaging will be magical.
Specific lenses for specific focal lengths
Okay, having gotten all of that out of the way, here are a few recommendations when seeking out lenses to buy to fill your family 28 mm lenses
• Leica 28 mm f/2.8 Elmarit Asph. Prior versions of this lens are solid performers as well.
• Leica 28 mm f/2 Summicron Asph. A great standard wide lens with legendary rendering recently reformulated by Leica to play well on mirrorless bodies.
• Voigtlander 28 mm f/3.5 Color Skopar. Tiny but mighty, and unfortunately, out of production. This was one of Voigtlander’s only brass-bodied lenses, and it’s heavy and incredibly well built for its diminutive size. I feel fortunate to own one and pair it with my 50 mm lenses often.
35 mm lenses
• The Leica 35 mm f/2 Summicron family is legendary. From the first version of this lens to the current aspherical design, you simply can’t go wrong with this family of lenses, and if you are starting in the rangefinder world, you would be hard pressed to go in a different direction. The older 35 mm Summicrons, particularly the 2nd and 3rd versions of the lens, are affordable and perform admirably on digital bodies.
• The Leica 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux Asph family is also legendary. You gain a bit of size and weight, as well as a lighter pocket book, but the 35 Summilux lenses offer some impressive rendering that some consider to be magical. I have owned a 35 mm Asph Pre-FLE or FLE lens for nearly a decade. I find that the Summilux designs at this focal length have a bit of pizzazz, that legendary Leica glow. Well worth the investment.
• Voigtlander 35 mm f/1.7 Ultron or 1.2 Nokton lenses. Cosina Voigtlander is often poo-pooed as Leica’s ugly stepsibling, but in truth, make incredible designs at a far more affordable price point than offered by Leica. Both of these lenses are legendary performers well regarded by many rangefinder enthusiasts, and in fact, Leica does not offer a fast competitor to the Nokton. SO take that Leica.
• Let’s not sleep on the Leica 35 mm Summarit lenses. Designed as a cost-friendly alterative to the Summicron and Summilux families, the Summarit lenses (35/50/75/90) are all incredible performers that are only “hampered” by a maximum aperture of 2.4. If you are on a budget, yet value the Leica name, the Summarits are the way to go, and oftentimes, an entire set can be had for the price of 1-2 Summicrons.
50 mm lenses (so many options. Here are but a few)
• Leica’s 50 mm f/2 Summicron family is very difficult to argue with. Leica’s Summicron lens offer a tame, calm, perfected way of seeing the world at f/2 or stopped down. The 50 ‘cron has a venerable history dating to luminaries such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, who’s preferred lens was a collapsible (1st version) Summicron. Summicron lenses tend to render a bit more clinically, particularly the modern versions, but that’s really in the eye of the beholder. The current standard bearer as “Best 50 mm ever built” is the 50 mm f/2 APO Summicron Asph. Compact, sharp wide open and at every aperture, and capable of out-resolving every sensor currently on the market, yet with a gentle out-of-focus rendering. Magical.
• Leica’s 50 mm f/1.4 Summilux family is the faster sibling of the Summicron family, and again, often adds a bit more speed and pizzazz, partly by nature of aberrations necessary to develop a fast and compact design. That being said, many Leica photographers consider the Leica 50 mm f/1.4 Asph lens to be the perfect lens for size and performance, and it’d be hard to argue with that.
• Voigtlander offers several 50 mm f/lenses, including the outstanding 50 mm f/1.5 Nokton lens, which would be my choice were I budget constrained. This lens really is beautifully constructed and produces a sharp, rich, slightly vintage image that is appealing to the eyes of many.
75 mm lenses
• Leica’s 2 legends are the 75 mm f/2 Summicron and the 75 mm f/1.4 Summilux, the latter which was reported to be Walter Mandler’s favorite lens design.
• Don’t sleep on the newer Leica 75 mm f/2.4 Summarit, with it’s slower aperture and slightly more distant minimal focus distance, both which are major drawbacks for portraiture, but yet the Summarit costs a third or less than either of its older siblings.
• I have heard great things about both of Voigtlander’s 75 mm lenses (the f/1.8 and 2.5 mm Heliar lenses). They don’t offer the same magic for portraits as Leica’s options, but they offer a great price and sharpness, if you are pinched to buy a cost-effective alternative.
90 mm lenses
• The 90 mm f/2 APO Summicron Asph is one of the finest 90 mm lenses ever made. It’s sharp, and some consider it to be too sharp for portraiture, particularly for those of us who have skin blemishes. That being said, it’s a lens that can be tamed and turned into a wonderful portrait lens with lovely bokeh, perfect color reproduction and a bit more reach!
• The 90 mm f/2.4 Summarit is Leica’s current in-production option that performs plenty well for a 90 and may be a better option for its more gentle handling of skin for those who shoot portraits regularly
• If you desire the ultimate compact 90 mm lens that can do Macro to boot, you may wish to entertain Leica’s 90 mm f/4 Macro Elmar. Sure, you lose some aperture, but you gain tiny size and macro capabilities on the M system. Maybe not a bad trade off?!? It’s costly but powerful….like Leica!
So there you have it…a lot to digest, and there’s much more to consider once you get into it. This article should get you on track to building a great kit for your new Leica. These are exciting times for photographers, who are granted so many options and ways of seeing.
All the best to you, and I hope you enjoy the opportunities that rangefinder cameras allow you to possess!