Sunday, January 20, 2013

Leica 135mm shootout: fastest vs slowest

Long Leica lenses don't seem to get much love. The 135mm is by far the least popular focal length for the M series cameras. The M2 and the M8 didn't even have 135mm frame lines. Some people find them too hard to focus. However, this lack of popularity provides some bargains for those seeking authentic Leica glass in the second-hand market.

The current f3.4 ASPH APO-Telyt is already known to be the sharpest Leica 135mm to date. It retails for $3495 and at the time of this post was back-ordered on every site I checked. I don't have one, and I probably never will. What I do have are copies of both the fastest and the slowest 135mm lenses Leica ever made.

The 135mm Hektor f4.5 was the first 135mm available in the M-bayonet mount, produced from 1954-1960. However, screw-mount versions were produced from 1933-1959 and can be adapted to M-mount. It has a 15-blade diaphragm and weighs in around 1 pound. It is the slowest 135mm Leica lens ever made. They can be had for around $100. Read more about it here:

The first version of the 135mm Elmarit f2.8 arrived in 1963. There were three versions, all made in Canada, the last going out of production in 1996. This 135mm lens is easily identifiable by the built-in goggles. The lens pulls up the 90mm frame lines and the goggles magnify the focus area. In theory this was to enable the more precise focus needed with the shallow depth of field of f2.8. It seems a bit gimmicky to me, but it does allow for better framing when using the M2 or M8, which don't have 135mm frame lines.

The Elmarit I tested was the second version from 1974, which weighs in at a whopping 1.61 pounds. It has a 9-bladed aperture, a slide out lens hood, and uses those annoying Series VII filters. They can be had for around $500. Read more about it here:

Because of price, the Hektor was the first Leica brand lens I ever owned. It went to Brazil with me and an M8 and did a great job. Sometimes I had to review shots to check framing, but I was not disappointed in it.


However, I'm always tempted by faster lenses, so when a 135mm Elmarit showed up at the right price, I grabbed it too. I wandered the Illinois countryside with it on the M8 and was quite pleased with the results as well.

The old farmhouse

The most obvious downside to fast lenses is the weight. Now that I'm shooting with an NEX-6, if I pack the Elmarit, it will literally double the weight of my bag. I keep asking myself if I really need the extra 3 stops since the NEX-6 can compensate very well by upping the ISO.

At sunrise and sunset, it might be worth it because I can't hand-hold 135mm lenses without blur at shutter speeds less than 1/100s. I'm shaky like that. However, for most daytime shooting, the Elmarit seems like nothing but extra weight. I decided to put the Hektor and the Elmarit head to head to see which one stays in my bag.

Like all my tests, this one was super scientific. For the first part, I set up some props on my kitchen table. I shot the scene with the Elmarit at f2.8, f4.5, and f8. Then I shot the scene with the Hektor at f4.5 and f8. Here's what I got:

Elmarit f2.8
135mm Elmarit at f2.8

Elmarit f4.5
135mm Elmarit at f4.5

Hektor 4.5
135mm Hektor at f4.5

Elmarit f8
135mm Elmarit at f8

Hektor f8
135mm Hektor at f8

Although the renderings are very similar, the Elmarit had the edge in sharpness. I was using live-view on the NEX-6 to focus, so there are no questions of rangefinder calibration. When it comes to detail, the Elmarit wins. If you view the images at 100 percent you'll notice the Hektor has just a tad more fall-off in focus at f4.5, but that seems to be due to the fact that it's overall softer than the Elmarit. Other than that, the contrast and color renderings are very similar between the two lenses.

For the next test I pulled out the Christmas lights to check the out-of-focus areas.

Elmarit bokeh at f2.8
135mm Elmarit bokeh at f2.8

Elmarit bokeh at f4.5
135mm Elmarit bokeh at f4.5

Hektor bokeh at f4.5
135mm Hektor bokeh at f4.5

Elmarit bokeh at f8
135mm Elmarit bokeh at f8

Hektor bokeh at f8
135mm Hektor bokeh at f8

It's easy to see that when it comes to rendering out-of-focus areas, the Hektor wins, hands down. The Hektor bokeh stays a perfect circle and is very soft and pleasant. The 9-bladed diaphragm of the Elmarit creates jagged, harsh shapes.

So how do I pick a winner?

At web sizes, the difference in sharpness is hardly noticeable. For portraits the softness of the Hektor is also more flattering. I may not be able to shoot as late into the night with the Hektor as I can with the Elmarit, but the Hektor is going to render out-of-focus lights and foliage in a nicer manner and neither one is fast enough to do much once the sun is down.

But, if I need to crop into the photo or I need to print at a high-resolution, the sharpness of the Elmarit is going to give me a better print.

Let's face it, technically the Elmarit has a newer and better lens design, but considering the $400 price difference, I'm going to declare the Hektor the winner. However, both lenses are a bargain when you're talking Leica prices. Although I won't be lugging around the Elmarit all the time anymore, I'm not going to get rid of it just yet.

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