Walking around the city I notice that it’s changing. It’s not been a fast changing place, but lately there seems to be major construction work all around. Is it unusual, to think back on simpler times?←
There are many reasons to want to shoot any particular lens. It can be about specifications; a faster aperture allowing you to shoot in lower light; or a different focal length than you’re used to, opening up new perspectives. You might find appeal in an unusually small size, certain ergonomic features, or perhaps a remarkably nice look to the output. Often it’s a combination of several things.
With the Elmarit 50 however, there was a factor I’ve not previously considered – historic relevance.
Before the advent of 35mm still imaging the most common way of making a final image was through making a contact print. As the 4x5 and 8x10 negative formats common at the time are quite sizable this was a fine way of working.
Doing contact prints from 35mm negatives however, you’d end up with way smaller prints than preferable. Here it instead became relevant to make prints through an enlarger –using a lens to magnify the negative and project it onto a photosensitive paper, allowing one to create prints several times the size of the negative.
This approach however demands a lot more of the equipment used. Both the taking lens (creating the negative) and the enlarger lens (creating the print) must have truly excellent performance to be able to make an enlarged print comparable to a contact print.
This was the entire selling point of the early Leica cameras – sharp 8x10 prints using a much smaller camera than ever before possible. And at the forefront of enabling this was the Elmar 50/3.5 lens.
This little four element lens, derived from the Cooke triplet, was designed specifically for the task at hand. Through insistent refinement of the design it ended up not only sharp enough to create usable negatives, but also performed so well that it could be used in an enlarger to magnify those same negatives and create large, sharp and vivid prints.
But how does a 1930’s lens stack up today? And what is it like to use? Are there even reasons to use one over something more contemporary? Those were the questions on my mind when getting the Elmar, and ones I hope to answer in this review.
Let’s dive in!
Produced in over 360.000 copies since 1926 this lens put Leica on the map as both a lens and camera maker as well as ended up one of their most popular lenses of all time.
This slightly narrower than normal focal length lens is exceptionally light and collapses into the camera, making it almost disappear when not in use.
During the design work of the first Leica in the 1910’s it was also one of the very first cameras to use the 35mm film format. Consequently there weren’t any lenses available fit for the format. Instead Oskar Barnack, the inventor of the Leica camera, got help from Max Berek, a mathematician and physicist employed at Leitz, to design a lens for the camera.
He came up with a five element formula – a 50/3.5 lens with a cemented triplet rear group. Named the Elmax this lens was used in the first production batches of the fixed lens Leica 1.
Later new glass types made it possible to simplify the lens to have one element less in the rear group. This made for better performance and simplified production. This revised four element design was renamed and the Elmar 50/3.5 was born.
The Elmar launched in 1926 replacing the Elmax as the default choice for the Leica 1 camera. It was soon followed by the 1930’s thread mount iteration, for the interchangeable lens Leica Standard, using the same optical design.
Early copies of this version were adjusted for proper focus and use on a specific camera but from 1932 the mount was standardized and lenses could be used across all thread mount cameras. The standardized version of the lens has an “O” marking on the lens barrel (and the standardized cameras have a corresponding mark on the mount).
This thread mount version of the Elmar was produced up until 1959 with an M-mount model also available between 1954–61.
A faster f/2.8 sibling was introduced in 1957 and remained in production off and on until 2007.
Throughout the years a number of changes were made to the Elmar. These tweaks range from subtle adjustments in markings and engravings to more functional improvements such as the addition of lens coating and new glass types, increasing performance. How to mount filters also changed with earlier lenses accepting push on A36 filters and later ones being threaded for 39mm ones.
The Elmar is also one of the most copied lenses around. There are plenty of ones looking almost exactly like a Leica-made lens and more still influenced by the design. Most copies work fine but often performance isn’t on par with a authentic Elmar* and with some lenses there are issues with compatibility. Generally Japanese lenses based off of the Elmar seem like they’re a safer bet than the Russian ones, but going genuine is possibly safer still.
* I’m sure you’d be able to track down some variations on the Elmar design by other manufacturers that perform even better than the genuine article. But I’m not even close to well versed enough in Elmar knockoffs to say for sure which ones that might be.
Most of the Leica Elmar lenses were sold with a chrome finish but nickel plating is also common. A handful of lenses left the factory with black paint but those are highly sough after by collectors and priced dearly as a result.
What I have at hand for this review is an early 1930’s standard converted, nickel plated, uncoated, thread mount lens.
The Elmar from the front. Note the old style aperture progression and focus lever with infinity lock. You can also just about make out how nice and round the aperture is stopped down.
It’s worth mentioning that with this being a thread mount lens it’s compatible with a huge range of cameras.
It can be mounted on everything from the 1930’s Leica‘s to the very latest digital M cameras with perfect compatibility (including countless cameras by other makers that use the thread- or M-mount). Pretty much all mirrorless cameras also happily accepts the lens.
Note that you need corresponding adapters though and that on some cameras it might not be possible to collapse the lens without damaging the shutter or other internal components (e.g. the light meter in the Leica M5 or CL).
Front and rear of the Elmar 50/3.5, including LTM to M-mount adapter. Samples from Leica II and M9.
The first thing that strikes you about the Elmar is that it’s a very compact lens. In particular once its mounted – as its barrel can collapse into the camera, the lens disappears almost completely. Fitting it to a small camera makes for an exceptionally portable piece of kit.
Already at a cursory glance it’s obvious that this lens isn’t a recent one. It looks a little curious already in its collapsed state but once extended the lens looks downright odd. Its age is certainly given away by how it looks.
That’s not to say it looks bad though, rather that the aesthetics are a bit different than what’s commonly the case today. Arguably it’s visually less refined than current lenses. While there’s a craftsman-like impression to its looks the lens still holds the elegance that comes from anything that’s skillfully made.
The build quality of the Elmar is practically impeccable. My particular copy is closing in on 90 years old but it feels just about perfect still. It’s definitely built to last using high quality materials and excellent tolerances.
Everything is either metal or glass and feels very solid. I’ve no idea when the lens was last serviced but both focus and aperture settings move very smoothly regardless.
The aperture with ten curved blades is just exquisite – the construction is among the nicest I’ve seen. The aperture remains perfectly round throughout the settings range.
– Leica II & M9
Not only does the Elmar look like an old lens, it handles like one too.
First thing’s first – you need to extend the lens before shooting. If you forget this step you end up with a very blurry circle not even covering the entire frame.
To extend it you pull the barrel out from the front and then give it a little twist to lock into place. The barrel rotates freely and can lock into place at three different points of rotation, something that has a bit of bearing regarding the next point.
When collapsed the Elmar is tiny. Shooting with it in this state results in this sort of blurry cirlce.
Setting the aperture is very fiddly on the Elmar. You do it using an absolutely tiny lever on the front face of the lens. So not only do you need to be looking at the front of the lens, but you also need to push it around using a finger nail.
There are also no click stops as in more recent lenses – the lever simply slides freely from wide open to fully closed down (just beyond f/18; or f/22 on more recent copies). There are markings for the full stops though and to pick an aperture you simply line up the little notch in the lever to the corresponding aperture marking.
Depending on what position you’ve locked the lens into place the aperture lever and scale can be either right way up or upside down looking at it from the front. Neither orientation feels totally right* but if you prefer one and then manage to lock it into another position it can be even harder to adjust the aperture.
* My preference is actually a bit counterintuitive as I like to set it to the upside down position when viewed from the front. That makes the scale appear right side up when rotating the camera towards me from a shooting grip.
Putting these things together means changing aperture on the go is tricky and changing the setting with the camera to your eye is something you need to forget about.
Earlier copies of this lens such as the one I’m using have an older style aperture scale progression with different increments than you’re probably used to.
This can cause issue when you’re shooting without an internal meter. Modern light meters use the contemporary aperture scale and as a result readings don’t quite match up with the markings on the lens.
What I’ve done is to simply take the closest stop of the meter and then aimed for a little bit of overexposure. This has worked great for the negative film stocks I’ve been shooting but it might cause some issues if you’re shooting slide film. If that’s something you plan on then picking up a slightly newer version of the lens probably makes sense.
Focusing is also unusual by todays standards. The lens is equipped with a protruding lever that you push around the lens circumference to focus. Its shape is less than ergonomic and the focus throw is super long at 180°, making the lens slow to focus. At least the accuracy is high as a result.
Focus travel is very smooth. There’s also an admirably clear focus scale on the barrel of the lens.
At the infinity mark the lens locks in place. To disengage the lock you need to press a spring loaded button on the focus lever while sliding it to a closer distance. This seems like a very odd feature at first but it’s actually added to make it easier to lock or unlock the lens in its extended state. The feature can get in your way at times though.
These last few paragraphs might sound like the Elmar handles quite poorly. That’s not really the case though. It’s certainly not as fast in use as recent lenses, but it’s still well thought out and very functional, especially considering the size of the thing.
– Leica II
Shooting a lens that’s over eight decades old it’s probably good to keep you expectations in check when it comes to performance. A lot has happened since this Elmar was cutting edge – coatings were invented and refined, new glass types discovered, molding and polishing can be more precise these days, as can tolerances at assembly.
Still it’s not nearly as bad as you might expect. It’s possible to get excellent results from the Elmar, almost indistinguishable from what you get from modern lenses. It’s just that this performance is limited to narrower circumstances than with something more contemporary. Outside of forgiving conditions you’ll end up with a more or less pronounced vintage look. Depending on how you feel about that the Elmar could be a very nice choice indeed, or one that falls short.
Before dissecting let me just also note that with any lens there is variation in performance from copy to copy. And that’s something that’s going to be even more true with a lens as old as this one. The state the lens is in can have as much impact on the performance as the original design. So the evaluation of the performance written below is more of an analysis of my particular copy than anything else.
My copy of the Elmar is somewhat hazy and has a few cleaning marks on the front element (old lenses have much softer glass/coatings so it’s unusual to find ones totally without marks). I’m sure a lens in better shape could offer improved output, not to mention versions produced more recently with more sophisticated techniques. I’m equally convinced though that there are also plenty of copies performing worse (surely even ones that look cleaner; if they’ve seen rough times in other ways). Overall I’m guessing my copy’s a representative, if not quite perfectly performing early Elmar.
With that out of the way – let’s figure out how it performs.
My Elmar holds its own surprisingly well in terms of resolution. Details are reproduced well in the central portion of the frame, already at wider apertures. There’s a bit of unevenness moving out towards the sides and the midfield is a little indistinct with the edges actually being a little bit sharper*. Corners are rather soft though. The overall frame isn’t quite up to par to modern glass, but you actually need to look closely to notice.
* Sacrificing a bit of definition in the midfield to get a more even impression of the overall frame is an approach that Leica have stuck with. The same behavior can be seen in much of their modern glass too, for instance the Summicron 50 and 35 ASPH.
Contrast characteristics are a little harder to pin down.
My particular copy has very low global contrast, but it’s hard to say how much is due to the lens design and how much is due to my copy being hazy. I’m sure cleaner copies have higher contrast, but I’m not sure by how much. I’d wager you’re never going to end up with a very high contrast lens though.
At higher frequencies my copy holds up better. Micro contrast isn’t too bad and follows a similar pattern as resolution with a good showing in the center of the frame, a midfield dip, slightly better edges and poor corners. Mid-level contrast behave similarly but is also rather low.
Wide open then the impression is that of reasonably high resolution but low overall contrast robs the full frame of clarity*.
* This can be interesting to compare to for instance the behavior of the Zeiss ZM 50 Sonnar that I reviewed somewhat recently – a lens that has low resolution compared to its peers, but very high contrast at lower frequencies. The opposite behavior to the Elmar that leads to a very different impression.
But as even contemporary lenses often have uneven performance at wider apertures the performance isn’t really worlds apart. Sure the characteristics are a bit different to a modern lens and contemporary lenses usually open to wider apertures, but the output is still very serviceable.
Where the performance differs the most however, is how things improve when you stop down. Or rather how they don’t.
With a modern lens you can generally close the aperture down a stop or sometimes two to improves output to the point where you can only really nitpick. Not so with the Elmar I have.
Sure f/4.5 is marginally better than f/3.5 and f/6.3 better still. But to get the same level of improvement that you expect from just a stop or two down in a modern lens you need to close the aperture down a lot more, preferably almost as far as it can go – to f/12.5 or even f/18. It’s only by this point that contrast feels fully balanced across the frame.
This sample is shot on the Leica II at around f/8. Center and midfield crops shows the discrepency between a sharp center and less defined midfield. Interestingly the perfomance at the edges is better than in the midfield.
This particular Elmar was made long before color film became common and it’s not wholly unexpected that the color response isn’t particularly optimized or sophisticated.
The overall impression of the palette is one of subtlety, sometimes delicacy even. Separation of close shades is fair but colors simply aren’t as vivid as with modern lenses. Still the pastel-like palette can often look appealing.
Occasionally there’s a difference in color response depending on luminosity, visible as a slight color cast in the shadows. This can sometimes make the output look a little less balanced.
At the modest speed the Elmar offers you’re never going to see extreme amounts of blur and subject isolation.
Planes of focus are still surprisingly distinct though and transitions are pleasant. There also doesn’t seem to be much curvature of field so no nasty surprises in this regard.
So despite the modest aperture there’s still a nice sense of depth.
There are outlines to blur circles, hinting at over-correction of spherical aberration, that sometimes leads to a nervous bokeh.
Thanks to the nicely designed aperture blur circles stay nice and round when stopping down. Still the overall out of focus rendition remains consistent at the relevant aperture settings.
Overall I wouldn’t call the bokeh objectively great, but it’s also not awful. It’s sort of middle of the road and in terms of character I actually find it rather pleasant.
Wide open and at the closest focus distance there’s a noticeable amount of bokeh, despite the lens’s modest speed. Transitions are nice and surprisingly distinct. As evident in the above crop blur circles have quite clear outlines and there's some texture in the bokeh as a result.
There’s not much in the way of obvious aberrations, and frankly I haven’t been looking for any less prominent issues too hard. What I’ve kept my eye on has generally given some positive surprises.
Impressively the lens is totally free of distortion. Straight lines remain straight throughout the frame.
The lens is also quite resilient to flare, surprising considering that it’s an uncoated lens – I’ve seen far worse issues in much newer lenses.
When shooting high contrast scenes a large part of the frame often washes out on my copy.
Transmission also isn’t on par with more recent lenses. At the same f-stop a well performing modern lens might let through up to half a stop more light. So with the Elmar you generally need to pick slightly slower shutter speeds than you’d expect.
Once again it’s hard to say for sure how much of these last few points is due to haze in my specific lens and to what extent they carry over to cleaner copies.
Even under challenging conditions the Elmar doesn’t show much ghosting or flare.
The evaluation above is accurate regardless of camera, but how the characteristics are perceived can vary with medium. Different people also have different tastes so depending on your preferences the below might not apply to what you’re after.
I tend to prefer as high contrast as possible shooting color film and the Elmar doesn’t fully deliver in this regard, at least not at wider apertures. In most other ways it delivers a pleasant output though.
Other than me preferring a higher contrast the Elmar does nicely in B&W. There’s a roundness to the rendering that can be quite appealing. Subjectively I find the way haze washes out some scenes quite nice in monochrome in particular. Still the output can come across as a little flat compared to most other lenses I have at hand.
On digital I don’t mind the lower contrast at wider apertures as much as on film. It’s possible to partially compensate for in post and it can also work to smoothen some of the harshness digital can introduce. So for some subjects in particular it can look rather nice. The occasional color cast in the shadows can be more apparent on digital though and can at times lead to an unbalanced impression in terms of color.
In terms of overall performance then, my Elmar is a bit of a mixed bag. Resolution is surprisingly solid and aberrations are very well controlled. Contrast on the other hand is often much lower than I’d like.
As I’ve already stated it’s difficult to say for sure how much of the downsides I’m seeing are down to the lens design and how much of it is down to my copy being not quite perfect. If I were to guess (based mainly on looking at other people’s samples) I’d say it’s a combination and that even with a pristine copy you’d not quite end up with optimal performance from contemporary standards.
That’s not to say that the output can’t still be appealing though.
Even with my less than perfect copy I’ve made a good number of photos I’m happy with and at times I feel like the images have benefitted from the rendering. Once sufficiently stopped down the output offered is hard to criticize.
The overall frame tends to feel neutral and balanced and the lower contrast lends a bit of roundness to the images that combined with the gentle color palette often gives a nice look. At times the output looks decidedly vintage but under many circumstances the rendering is very transparent.
– Leica II & M Typ 262
I ended up with the Elmar 50 mainly because it came attached to a camera I was keen on – a 1930’s Leica II. Thats not to say I hadn’t been curious about the Elmar though. The compact form factor looked very appealing and I found its historical relevance intriguing too.
I wouldn’t say I had too pressing of an interest in it though. I hadn’t picked one up prior to getting the Leica II after all. The slow speed was the main drawback holding me off, but its odd ergonomics and age also contributed.
But as it turned out I still ended up enjoying the lens a lot.
Now don’t get me wrong, the Elmar would definitely not be my first choice for a day to day lens. It’s too slow for that – both in terms of ergonomics and light gathering. The slow maximum aperture combined with a need to stop down to get high quality results means that it’s restrictive outside of optimal conditions*.
* I almost feel sorry for the photographers using this lens when it was new, trying to get good quality images when common film speeds were well below ISO 50.
However with the Elmar attached to the Leica II, and for the type of shooting I want to do with that camera, the lens makes perfect sense.
Both camera and lens are very compact and the resulting combination is easy to bring along when you’re out and about. Both are slow to operate so you’re pushed into a more considered pace of shooting. This, combined with the modest light gathering offered, forces me pursue just a subset of subjects compared to what I usually do – but as those align well with my intended use of the camera I don’t really mind.
When mounted on any M camera though I’m less lenient with the lens’s foibles. For me an M is a much more general purpose camera, but the Elmar is far from an ideal general purpose lens. It’s of course still possible to shoot at the same slower pace as with the Barnack Leica and I’ve enjoyed doing so. But as I have the Leica II at my disposal it just feels more compelling to shoot the lens on that camera.
Overall I could certainly put the Elmar to good use though, regardless of camera, even if it isn’t ideal for every type of use I’ve happily shot to its strengths.
Still all wasn’t totally rosy. Even at its best the image quality simply isn’t quite up to the standards I’m wanting for the type of photos I like to make with it. And as I covered in the image quality section I’m not sure how much of this is just my copy and how much it’s inherent in this design.
So I faced two options – try to get a cleaner copy of the Elmar (or get my copy cleaned, which is almost as expensive) and hope that the output would then end up more to my liking – or – find another alternative that offers a better trade off for my wants. I was weighing the pros and cons between the choices for a while, but when a Voigtländer Skopar 50/2.5 recently popped up for sale locally I decided to pick that up instead. Time will tell how that’ll work out, but for now it feels like it’s probably a better fit for what I’m personally looking for, even if it’s a bit less compact.
The Elmar 50/3.5 and Voigtländer Skopar 50/2.5 juxtaposed, mounted on the Leica II. There are certainly some appealing lenses out there, but very few come close to being as compact as the Elmar. Even the Skopar, among the smallest rangefinder 50's, looks huge in comparison to the Elmar.
Before moving on I want to quickly touch on how the Elmar works on a few different cameras, as the experience is a little different with each.
I’ve already described how natural a fit the Elmar is on this tiny Barnack. It’s quite evident that the lens and camera were made for each other. The combination is exceptionally compact and handles well (if slowly). It’s also possible to get very contemporary looking results, despite both lens and camera closing in on a century since being made. Overall a super enjoyable and surprisingly capable combination.
The Elmar actually feels quite at home on the M3. The camera is just exceptional for shooting 50mm lenses and the Elmar of course benefits. It’s still slow to shoot obviously, but at least focusing and composing can be done together and very comfortably. Collapsing the lens the combination easily becomes jacket pocketable. It even feels like a good match aesthetically, even if the nickel version I have clashes a bit with the silvery chrome on the M3 – a chrome lens would look nicer still. The slow aperture combined with film limitations makes the combination hard to use in low light.
As with the M3 the combination of the M4-P and Elmar makes for a very compact setup that’s difficult to shoot in low light. The M3 is slightly better with 50mm lenses, but the M4-P is just a hairs breadth behind and the overall shooting experience is still exceptionally pleasant. Aesthetically I think the nickel and black chrome combination looks rather fetching.
The experience of shooting the Elmar on the digital M9 isn’t that dissimilar to the experience of shooting it on film. It’s still limited by the slow aperture but on the flip side there’s no issue with collapsing the lens on the M9 and the overall package becomes very compact. In terms of performance I actually don’t mind some of its shortcomings as much as on film as they feel a little easier to correct for with a digital starting point. Beyond that there also aren’t any unexpected surprises so the overall impression is pretty good.
I’ve best enjoyed using the Elmar for urban and outdoor scenes, as evident by how many such samples are included in this review. However mounting it on a contemporary digital camera – with good high ISO performance, like the Leica M Typ 262 as used here – makes it usable even for low light work.
This is an interesting combination. The improved high ISO performance of this more contemporary digital M gets around some of the limitations caused by the slow aperture of the lens. Suddenly it’s not too big of a hurdle to shoot in low light. And even in mediocre light it’s possible to stop down enough to get just about optimal performance. So this anachronistic combination has proven to be a quite enjoyable one.
An odd combination if there ever was one. The lens using close to the most primitive design imaginable, and the camera using the most cutting edge architecture available – still they get along swimmingly. Like with the M262 you get a bit of the usability back thanks to the good performance at higher ISO sensitivities, meaning that the slow speed of the lens has less of an impact. There also aren’t any unpleasant surprises – the lens performs as expected across the board without noticeable ray angle induced issues. A surprisingly nice way to shoot the Elmar.
– Leica II
Coming up with alternatives to the Elmar is a little tricky – depending on the specific reasons you’re considering getting it the options change a lot.
With there being so many 50mm lenses available for LTM and M mount cameras there are a few circumstances where I feel the Elmar is really worth considering.
Here the Elmar is fantastic. In its collapsed state it’s absolutely tiny and as it’s also light it pretty much disappears on your camera. It’s an especially good fit on the early Barnack cameras where they make the combination jacket pocketable.
Leica Elmar 50/2.8
Voigtländer Heliar 50/3.5
The f/3.5 Elmar is probably the cheapest Leica lens you can get a hold off so in this regard it makes sense as a budget choice. However nice copies have been creeping upwards in price and often they sell for close to what some even more capable lenses go for. Note that Russian copies of the Elmar are cheaper still, but it can be hard to track down a good lens and there can also be some issues with compatibility.
7Artisans 50/1.1 (M-mount)
Voigtländer 50/2.5 (LTM)
Voigtländer 35/2.5 (M or LTM) – Review
Here the Elmar makes perfect sense. It’s one of the lenses that proved 35mm photography as a valid option and in turn changed photography fundamentally. It offers a glimpse back while still remaining a usable and pleasant lens to shoot.
Beyond these cases though I don’t find the Elmar an as easy recommendation. There are plenty of 50mm lenses that offer better performance, higher specs and less involved handling with just slight penalties in size or price. And for most people most of the time I think something a little more contemporary ends up a more practical choice.
Most people don’t read reviews like this though, so if you’re curious about the Elmar I’d say there’s very little to lose.
– Leica II
The Elmar isn’t my first choice for a lot of my day to day use (e.g. photos of my kids), but for certain uses I find it almost pitch perfect.
It’s hard to get around that the Leica Elmar 50/3.5 is an old lens, and pitted against contemporary ones there are some trade offs to be aware of.
Still the lens has been a positive surprise in many ways.
It can be a fascinating experience to find out that you’re able to make great looking images even with gear made almost a century ago. Using the lens is certainly an anachronistic experience, but a very pleasant one that puts you in a different mindset compared to with more contemporary options.
Beyond that it has quite a few other things going for it too. The small size perhaps being the main one, but also the surprisingly solid performance and low price.
So if you’re able to track down a good copy the Elmar is a viable choice even today.
Photos in this review were taken using the Leica II, Leica M9 & Leica M Typ 262. Photos of the lens were made using the Sony A7. All film was developed by Team Framkallning and scanned using the Plustek 8200i. Exif-data is intact. Open any image in a new window for a closer look.