Thinking of buying a new lens? Well, with new Leica lenses costing several £1,000s, one can understand the disbelief that good old used specimens can be bought for low £100s. The trick is to know what is available and what is worth considering. Falling within that category is the Leica Elmar 135mm f/4 lens, manufactured in Germany between 1960 and 1965, the subject of this article.
I bought mine for £150 when it was nearly fifty years old and it arrived inside its original clear plastic dome keeper/container. You don’t see many of those nowadays. Despite some evidence of use in its lifetime, the lens handled like new, with smooth focusing.
Its predecessor, a fine lens in its day, was the Leica Hektor 135mm f/4.5 (see foot of this article for more details) which can often be found for less than £100 and is still capable of interesting imaging. However, the Elmar was an improved design and represented the longest focal length lens capable of operating with the coupled rangefinder camera. It was succeeded by the Leica Tele-Elmar 135mm f/4 (1994-1998) which is also a superb lens, but it comes with a rather higher price tag. The newest version of the Leica 135 mm lenses costs over £2,000. So, for occasional use of this focal length, the Elmar is a clear candidate.
When I first bought my Leica M3, the contemporary 135mm lens did not match my requirements, although I had often considered buying one, just in case. However, when I entered the digital era with the Leica M8, I was attending air shows and could see that it would be a useful focal length for ground-to-air photography. With the crop sensor, the 135mm Elmar became, effectively, an equivalent 180mm focal length, more useful than my alternative 75mm and 90 mm lenses for that application. Of course, with APS-C cameras such as the CL or T/TL the reach is even longer – 200mm equivalence.
Framing the narrow 18° field of view is challenging. The viewfinder frame is tiny or, in the case of the M8, non-existent. Leica designers assumed no customers would attempt to use a 135mm lens with a modern rangefinder camera. It is possible to find an old optical viewfinder for the 135 mm lens, but the imaging is perhaps too small to be practical. So I improvised, using the rangefinder patch for tight framing knowing that, in reality, there would be a little more space included in the captured picture.
It was an imprecise method, but it worked. All of this was to change with the introduction of live-view (LV) with the M240 and M10 cameras. That technological advance enabled perfect framing, using either the monitor screen, or through the electronic viewfinder (or EVF). The latter shows, very clearly, and accurately, the framing of the subject to be recorded. Whichever method is used, the photographer who is prepared to practise accurate framing will be rewarded with surprisingly good results.
Into the air
Air shows offer so many photo opportunities. Mixing with the crowds surrounding the static displays is like a serious session of street photography. There are numerous static displays attracting big crowds of visitors. No need for a 135 mm lens at this level. It is the flying displays which offer a real challenge of anticipation, lens selection and reactive skills.
My first use of the lens coincided with my ownership of the Leica M8. I really enjoyed the freedom to scan the skies during an air show and capture an aerial formation display or solo specimen from yesteryear.
I grew to like the 135mm focal length so much that I eventually upgraded to its successor, the Leica Tele-Elmar. I expected to sell the Elmar, which I thought would become superfluous. It didn’t happen. Its rendering endeared itself to me, mainly for isolating people’s heads in portraiture. So it joined my M3 as a memory of a past era. However, the arrival of the Leica CL, with its capacity for using older M-lenses, gave the Elmar a new lease of life, mainly as a novelty because the excellent Leica 55-135mm zoom lens is superior. True it covers the same extreme focal length, but the zoom lens is so much more versatile.
How does it handle?
Compared with lenses with a shorter focal length, the Leica 135mm f/4 lens is notably longer, at 13 cm without the lens hood. It weighs 420g. The lens focuses from 1.5 m to infinity and has its own tripod bush to provide support at the combined camera and lens centre of gravity. Where possible, I use a tripod for optimum results, although for action photography it can be used hand-held, giving greater freedom to target hunt.
The comparatively slow starting lens aperture of f/4 might seem a disadvantage compared with the Elmarit, Summicron and Summilux lenses, more frequently contained in the kit bag. In practice, however, a slower lens is not an impediment to applied telephotography. Often, in landscape, a tripod is used to eliminate camera shake at optimum ISO settings. It is also useful when singling out details within a landscape or building, for example. Resolution is remarkably good at f/4 and improves only marginally when stopped down to f/11. Aperture settings continue for f/16 and f/22 where depth of field becomes important.
The lens also finds a role in portraiture, despite its long focal length. Working at f/4, at manageable distances, the Elmar renders complexions sympathetically. It is also possible to throw the background well out of focus for pictorial emphasis.
When photographing animals, wild or tame, the 135 mm Elmar is a useful lens, giving a non-disturbing shooting range. If I could change one characteristic, I would like it to be less conspicuous. Chrome finish is too flashy for stealthy work but much less of a problem in landscape or aviation fields. For this reason, most of my lenses are finished in black, including the Tele-Elmar, mentioned above.
Although it is not an everyday lens (but which lens is when most Leica photographers own several for a variety of purposes?), I enjoy using it and have travelled with it when I have anticipated a need. (See the Alpine landscape ‘Silberhorn’ with a comparison picture taken with a modern 75mm Summarit)
For the occasional use of a 135mm prime lens, the Leica 135 mm/f4 Elmar has proved to be extremely good value for money. Remember, this lens was designed for film cameras, but has seen service on four of my Leica digitals. Although no 6-bit code was allocated to this lens, it can be set manually in the menu and saved as a 135mm profile. That helps with retrospective analysis of pictures in my library.
How does the Leica 135 mm/f4 Elmar lens compare with its successors in that focal length? I am unable to give a complete answer because I do not own the latest in the line. I have detected subtle improvements in the succeeding 135 mm Tele-Elmar and I am sure that difference is evident when comparing that lens with its successor, the current Leica 135mm Apo-Telyt lens.
Some modern lenses give clinically sharp results which is not always relevant to specific photographic subjects. For portraits, in particular, it is good to have the option for more sympathetic treatment.
Older lenses, such as those famously designed by Walter Mandler (including the 135mm Elmar), find favour with such photographers because of their difficult to define, possibly magical rendering while still possessing pleasing sharpness. Mandler’s influence on the design of Leica lenses is often the subject of discussion. Suffice for me to say that the subject lens owes a great deal to Walter Mandler.
This lens is something of a bargain in Leica terms and is an easy way for you to discover if such a long prime is for you. It complements all modern rangefinders but becomes really useful when combined with the CL or TL2 because of the resulting 200mm focal length equivalence.