First off, I wish to thank all Macfilos readers for their interest in The M Files project. I was delighted to read all the polite and knowledgeable comments, including further questions and an enjoyment of the shared experience. As a small extra, I decided to give you a quick overview of the lenses I used, and to share some advice, including those lenses I would particularly recommend. This also answers some of the questions I was asked several times.
All in all, so far, I have used 15 lenses for the The M Files project, and most of them are wide-angle or standard lenses. I cannot say an awful lot about non-Leica M mount telephoto lenses. I know there are quite a few more than the ones I’ve used, but my interest is and will be more focused on shorter lenses. I want to emphasise once more that I do not claim to have scientifically tested the lenses, so I do not speak about reviews in the narrower sense. But I think I do have something to say about the lenses in practical use, and that is what they were made for, weren’t they?
The really wide angle lenses
For The M Files, I used the Voigtländer Super-Heliar 15/4.5, Voigtländer Color Skopar 21/4, the Zeiss Biogon 25/2.8 and the Minolta M-Rokkor 28/2.8 quite intensively. These are the four really wide lenses that are featured in my articles. Additionally, I had briefer encounters with Leica’s Super-Angulon 21/3.4 and Elmarit 21/2.8 ASPH. In the past, I also used the Zeiss ZM 18/4 and the Zeiss ZM 21/2.8. The 18 was not fully convincing on my then digital bodies (M 262 and Alpha 7), but reports from M10 users are encouraging. The Zeiss 21/2.8 I swapped for the excellent Super-Elmar 21/3.4. I now had the chance to use this lovely lens once more, and I started to regret selling it.
The slightly-wider-than-normal lenses
You might have noticed that 35 mm is my favourite focal length. If I were allowed to take only one lens to the proverbial desert island, it would have to be a thirty-five. That is, unless I intended to take lots of portraits of cocoanuts when something a bit longer might come in useful.
In The M Files, no fewer than three lenses with the wonderful ca 63-degree angle of view were used. These are the Voigtländer Color Skopar 35/2.5 (a pancake lens); the Voigtländer Nokton II MC 35/1.4 (version II, multi-coated); and the Zeiss Biogon 35/2.8. I add here the three 40 mm lenses (Leica Summicron-C 40/2; Minolta M-Rokkor 40/2; Rollei Sonnar 40/2.8). They are at least as versatile with their slightly narrower 56-degree angle of view. Unfortunately, most rangefinder cameras do not directly support 40s (you need an external viewfinder or, with a digital camera, you use live view workarounds).
The standard lenses
Even though my preference is for 35 mm, I also seriously advocate the 50 mm focal length. It is still my best teacher in photography because it forces me to focus on something and to concentrate my work on a rather small part of the whole reality around me. I am convinced that you get lenses that incorporate all the expertise gathered by engineers and photographers over more than 100 years.
The 50/2 has been a classic for decades, and it appears here in two manifestations. For The M Files, I worked with Konica’s M-Hexanon 50/2 and Zeiss’s Planar 50/2. Unfortunately, I have not yet had the opportunity to shoot the new Voigtländer Apo Lanthar 50/2 and the much-discussed Zeiss Sonnar 50/1.5.
The telephoto lenses
To be honest, I am not a great fan of telephoto lenses on rangefinder cameras. As a result, I cannot claim to be an expert. Some time ago, I wrote about Leica’s Summarit range and came to the conclusion that the 75 is great, if you want to call this a tele. In the 90-mm focal length, my 90 Elmarit serves me very well. For The M Files, I worked with three different telephoto lenses: Leica C-Elmar 90/4 (quite extensively), Minolta M-Rokkor 90/4, and Zeiss Tele-Tessar 85/4 (sporadically). None of them is really fast, and I included them more out of curiosity. I know that Voigtländer also offers a 75/1.5 that is supposed to be similar to the legendary 75 Summilux. But I I’ve had no opportunity yet to use it myself.
After one year of research: Just some recommendations
I have worked on The M Files project throughout 2020 and well into 2021. So I have some justification in claiming that I can now make informed judgements about the lenses I used in real-life conditions. Following, I present my top five. It is important to bear in mind, however, that I have selected neither “the best” lenses (that would be pretentious) nor “my favourite” lenses (that would be subjective). I have simply chosen five lenses that I consider to be particularly recommendable to a larger audience in which necessarily various needs and interests are represented.
And one more proviso: I am covering lenses from the traditional manufacturers such as Minolta, Zeiss and Voigtländer here. I have not used any 7Artisans or TT Artisan or Iberit or Laowa lens. The main reason for this is that I have to keep The M Files project manageable in every respect. However, in the case of some manufacturers, I can’t help feeling that they are lavish with intellectual property, not to say that they seem to sell more-or-less plagiarised products.
5: Carl Zeiss C-Biogon T 2,8/35 ZM
What makes this lens recommendable? The Zeiss Biogon ZM 35/2.8 is a stunning lens when used on film cameras or Leica monochrome digital bodies. From wide open, it offers excellent sharpness right into the corners, almost breath-taking contrast and exemplary resolution. Stopping down adds depth of view but no visible improvement otherwise. Thanks to its excellent formula, it can deliver images with real 3D pop. In addition, it is small and lightweight and of very good build quality. Flare is very well controlled. Ergonomics are great, there is next to no finder obstruction.
What are the weak points? The Zeiss 35/2.8 would have deserved one of the absolute top positions in this list were it not for some problems in digital use. Depending on camera and lighting situation, you are likely to catch red colour-cast towards the margins of your image. As a rule of thumb, I would say that the problem is bigger on older digital M cameras, and you can experiment with correction profiles. Lightroom’s flat-field plugin should also solve the problem (on which Sean Reid provides very helpful advice on his excellent subscription-only website), but not everybody wishes to invest so much time in post-processing.
What should I know before buying? The lens comes without the bayonet-mount hood which has a hefty price when you want to add it. A much cheaper 43-mm screw-in aftermarket hood might serve the purpose as well. Zeiss lenses are said to be prone to showing focus wobble; that means that the mechanics of the focussing group get loose. Check that before you buy second hand. If the 35/2.8 will be your only lens with the rather unusual 43 mm filter mount be prepared to invest in some filters if you need them for wide-open or black and white photography.
What are the alternatives? The Zeiss Biogon 35/2.8 is available new as of writing this article (spring 2021). The same manufacturer offers a faster Biogon 35/2 about which I can say nothing. Voigtländer has the very small pancake 35/2.5 which is less complicated in digital use but clearly behind the Zeiss 35/2.8 in overall optical performance. A pre-owned Leica Summarit 35 is always a good recommendation but even a heavily used copy might cost more than the Zeiss lens new.
4: Minolta M-Rokkor 28mm 1:2.8
What makes this lens recommendable? The M-Rokkor 28/2.8 is a very small and lightweight wide-angle lens that can be used with most rangefinder cameras without needing an additional external viewfinder. Its fastest aperture of f/2.8 is enough in digital use, and even with a 400 ISO film you will have lots of opportunities if you have a halfway steady hand (the short focal length and the rangefinder concept with few moving parts will also help). The M-Rokkor is optically good, with nice sharpness if stopped down a little, and beautiful contrast. For me, there are no limitations in use on digital cameras, especially no nasty purple areas towards the margins.
What are the weak points? Many copies of the M-Rokkor 28 suffer from the white spot disease. If affected, the inner surfaces of the front lens group show failures. If the effect is clearly visible, image quality is likely to be affected. Repairing is difficult to impossible because Minolta does not exist anymore. Modern lenses that cost several times as much show better performance, especially on digital cameras, thanks to ASPHerical lenses and (in the case of Leica lenses) in-camera-correction algorithms.
What should I know before buying? Beware of the white spot issue. Good 28 mm M-Rokkors are not easy to find. Many come from Japan, and you might have to pay import tax. The original lens hood is very nice with its bayonet mount, but any 40.5 mm screw-in wide-angle hood made from metal or rubber might do as well. Speaking of a 40.5 mm thread: You will need exotic filters for this lens; this is certainly a drawback if you do not also own the other M-Rokkors with the same thread.
What are the alternatives? Despite being so useful with most rangefinder bodies, the supply of third-party 28 mm lenses for M mount is somewhat limited. A 28/2.8 was in the Konica Hexar line-up, and it seems to be a very good lens (but not easy to find). Voigtländer has the 28/2 Ultron, and Zeiss offers the 28/2.8 Biogon. Both are available new as of writing this article, but I have never worked with any of them. Or you look for an original Leica M 28/2.8 of whatever vintage. However, the pre-ASPHerical versions are significantly bigger than the petite M-Rokkor.
3: Carl Zeiss Biogon T 2,8/25 ZM
What makes this lens recommendable? The Zeiss Biogon 25/2.8 might sound a bit exotic due to its unusual focal length, but it is in reality more or less a 24, which has always been a popular focal length for SLR users. The Biogon has excellent sharpness and remarkable resistance to flare. It is great for all kinds of photography, especially if you are shooting landscapes with difficult lighting situations. This lens has very little distortion, so it will also be a good choice for architecture. Resolution is far beyond the limitations of 24 MP sensors and might also be enough for 47 MP cameras. Zeiss itself claims it is one of the highest-resolution lenses they have ever made.
What are the weak points? Optically, the only drawback I found was slightly limited off-axis sharpness when used on older digital Leica bodies such as the M262 or the first SL. But this only occurs wide open. Faint red colour-cast towards the margins might sporadically occur, depending on the lighting situation. Framing is not precise if you (instead of using an external finder) work with the full finder of a Leica M6 or a digital body. But if you wander with your eye from corner to corner, you can at least get a good idea of your frame.
What should I know before buying? In my experience, the mechanical quality of Zeiss lenses is good. But check for a well-aligned focusing ring when buying this lens second hand. For super-correct framing, you will need a proper 25 mm external finder. There are two original lens hoods you can use; both are mounted with a bayonet. The one is round and works for Zeiss’s ZM 25/2.8 and 28/2.8, the other one is squared and fits also both 21s from Zeiss. The protective effect of the squared hood is limited. Filter size 46 fits neatly into a Leica outfit.
What are the alternatives? It is the lack of comparable third party lenses that makes the ZM 25/2.8 even more outstanding. The 24/25 focal length, despite being extremely popular for SLR setups, never really caught on for rangefinder systems. Probably it sits rather uneasily between the 28, which is still manageable with the camera’s own rangefinder, and the really-wide 21 where you get a more spectacular image for the hassle you have with an external viewfinder. There are older Voigtländer 25s, or you go for the Leica Elmarit-M 24/2.8 or Elmar-M 24/3.8. Both are discontinued, and for either of them, you might have to fork out considerably more than for a brand new Zeiss 25/2.8.
2: Voigtländer Nokton Classic 35mm F1.4 II MC
What makes this lens recommendable? Generally speaking, I am convinced that no rangefinder photographer should be without a fast 35. It is the most versatile lens you can possibly own: It works indoors and outdoors, for landscape and cities, for environmental portraits and for reportage style photography. Voigtländer’s Nokton Classic 35/1.4 II has good optical performance (it is creating a dreamy look wide open but it is sharp stopped down), sufficient flare resistance and acceptable distortion. All this comes in a very small package (no finder blockage) and at a very moderate price. Quality of manufacture is really good. Even if this lens is not perfect, it will be difficult to get better value for money when it comes to 35 mm rangefinder lenses. And: This lens has a unique signature!
What are the weak points? Speaking of a unique signature, you might strongly dislike the way this lens renders. There is some visible swirl in the unsharp areas, and specular lights in the background create a bokeh that might be considered as harsh. Wide-open sharpness is just okay in the centre and not really good off-axis. Despite it having been updated with a new optical formula to Version II, this is not a modern, perfect lens.
What should I know before buying? The Nokton comes without a lens hood, and the one from Voigtländer (LH-6) is expensive. You might consider buying it nevertheless. On Voigtländer and Zeiss lenses, the bayonet mount is in bright chrome and can create unwanted reflections. The original lens hood covers this annoyingly shiny element. You will need exotic 43 mm filters that, depending on the rest of your outfit, might be of no use for any other lens. There is an older version of this lens, which looks pretty much the same, so watch out for the “II” in Roman numerals after the 35mm F1.4 on the front ring. This lens is also available in a single-coated version that is marketed as even more “classic”. I would definitely go for superior optical performance. You can always take something away in post-processing while adding quality is difficult to impossible.
What are the alternatives? Zeiss has the Distagon 35/1.4 for M mount in its line-up. This is a thoroughly modern, much larger and much more expensive lens. It has aspherical lenses, a floating element and all other boxes you could think of ticking. So, the Distagon seems profoundly different from the Nokton in terms of construction, ergonomics, rendering, and general image outcome. I have not yet had the chance to use it extensively, so I cannot give advice on choosing between these two fast 35s. Voigtländer also offers a 35/1.2 Nokton that is now in version III. If you opt for this one, you pay roughly double the price and have to carry almost double the weight. If you think of working with a fast 35 as your only lens and if you are ready to invest for decades to come, you might want to consider the current 35 Summilux, which is simply outstanding.
1. Zeiss Planar ZM 50/2
What makes this lens recommendable? Despite my verdict that 35 is the most versatile focal length in rangefinder photography, a good “nifty fifty” is an equally sensible choice. The narrower angle of view forces you to compose your image more consciously, and you can play more creatively with depth of field. The Planar 50/2 convinces with pure image quality. Sharpness, contrast and flatness of field are just excellent, and stray light is no issue. This lens is a joy to use, and it will perform very well both on film and sensor. For landscape and architecture, it is close to perfect and even more so given the moderate price.
What are the weak points? Extremely high contrast over the whole image implies that objects off your focal plane are rendered in a somewhat harsh way. There are certainly 50s with better bokeh, so the Planar may not be the ideal portrait lens. In very challenging situations, you will have some chromatic aberration. As with all Zeiss ZM lenses, the front caps are really bad – hard to put on and, nevertheless, easy to lose.
What should I know before buying? The Planar is one more lens from the Cosina factory that needs rather unusual 43 mm filters, and again, the bayonet mount hood must be bought separately. A screw-in-model from a third party manufacturer might be a good and far cheaper alternative. Look out for mechanical issues concerning the focussing ring when buying this lens second hand. As with all ZM lenses, I would recommend the silver version because the markings are easier to read. But, all in all, the Planar 50/2 is a no-brainer if you are looking for an affordable standard lens that also sets standards in value for money.
What are the alternatives? Of course, everyone will think of the Leica Summicron when talking of a 50/2. There are several generations of this lens, but any of them might cost more, even if worn-out and decades-old, than the Zeiss Planar brand new. The Konica M-Hexanon 50/2 appears to me to be mechanically as good as the Planar and optically not much behind. As an alternative to the Planar, Zeiss’s Sonnar 50/1.5 comes to mind. It costs one-third more than the Planar, and it is said to have excellent bokeh but some focus-shift issues. Voigtländer also offers a 50/1.5 in several versions at a price point comparable to the Planar. Voigtländer’s Apo-Lanthar 50/2 might be a game-changer when it comes to value for money in a lens. I hope I can use this one quite soon, probably side-by-side with the new Apo-Lanthar 35/2.
But what about…?
How dare you? – This is what some of you might think now. No 40 mm lens in the top five. No telephoto lens at all. And where is the latest version of the Voigtländer 15/4.5, the tiny Zeiss ZM 21/4.5?, the (in)famous Zeiss C-Sonnar 50/1.5? All these and many more are certainly very interesting lenses. I am in no way claiming to have the ultimate wisdom. There are still many lenses with the M bayonet out there that I never tried so far but which I really would like to use one day.
Just to recap, the idea of The M Files is to cover lenses and cameras that have an M mount but that do expressly not belong to Leica’s own M system. I have learned (and, probably, so have you) that If you are looking for interesting lenses, third-party products are worth consideration. But, of course, Leica lenses from whatever vintage might also be an attractive option. Some of them have long since been fetching collectors’ prices, while others are still available for reasonable sums.
Some last thoughts about 21 mm lenses since none of them made it into my top five recommendation list. Twenty-one is an excellent focal length, and I was able to shoot quite a few 21s, partly thanks to the help of David Babsky. I shared some of my experience in the episode about the CLE. Of the non-Leica-lenses, I would most recommend the fast Zeiss Biogon 21/2.8 for its usability both on digital and film cameras. If you are shooting mainly on film and searching for a super-compact and very affordable lens, take the tiny Voigtländer 21/4.
As I mentioned above, I am no big fan of telephoto lenses on rangefinder cameras. You are caught in the systemic trap of getting least focusing accuracy when you need it most. Rangefinder photography is, for me, wide-angle photography. And I seem to be not alone with that, just look at the current line-ups of the manufacturers including Leica. But if I were to recommend one of the longer lenses I used, it would be the Zeiss Tele-Tessar 85/4. It gives you excellent imagery. Value for money wise, there’s a good case for the M-Rokkor 90 with its (compared to the Leitz Elmar-C) uncomplicated 40.5 mm filter and lens hood thread.
So many options – isn’t it wonderful?
All in all, these are just my thoughts based on the experience that I have worked quite hard to acquire. But this knowledge is neither all-encompassing nor faultless. It is quite possible that many readers will come to a different conclusion. I look forward to receiving comments – just let us know which of the lenses you would recommend or if you have other insider tips. After all, I don’t make any rules and don’t do the thinking for anyone. Fortunately, everyone can decide for themselves.
The M Files in English
The M-Files series reviews cameras and lenses that are equipped with the M bayonet without actually belonging to the Leica M system. The ten parts are also available in the German language (see below):
- Introduction to the M Files series
- Voigtländer Bessa R4M with Voigtländer 35/1.4 and 21/4
- Konica Hexar RF with Konica 50/2
- Rollei 35 RF with Sonnar 40/2.8
- Zeiss Ikon with ZM 25/2.8, 35/2.8 and 50/2
- Bessa T with Voigtländer 35/2.5 and 15/4.5
- Leica CL with Leica’s compact 40/2 and 90/4
- Minolta CLE 40/2, 28/2.8, 90/4 and several 21mm wide-angles
- Encore: It does not always have to be Leica – my top lens recommendations
Die M Files auf Deutsch
Die M-Files sind eine Serie über Kameras und Objektive, die mit dem M-Bajonett ausgestattet sind, ohne zum Leica-M-System zu gehören. Die zehn Teile sind auch in deutscher Sprache erschienen und stehen auf www.messsucherwelt.com bereit:
- Einführung: Worum es in den M-Files geht
- Die Weitwinkel-Expertin: Voigtländer Bessa R4M mit Voigtländer Nokton II 35/1.4 und Color-Skopar 21/4
- Die moderne Messsucherkamera: Konica Hexar RF mit M-Hexanon 50/2
- Ein großer Name: Rollei 35 RF mit Rollei Sonnar 40/2.8
- Design trifft auf Tradition: Zeiss Ikon mit Carl Zeiss Biogon 25/2.8, Biogon 35/2.8 und Planar 50/2 ZM
- Der Messsucher-Sonderling: Voigtländer Bessa T mit Voigtländer Heliar 15/4.5 und Color-Skopar 35/2.
- Die andere Leica: Leica CL mit Summicron-C 40/2 und Elmar-C 90/4
- Das unterschätzte Innovationspaket: Minolta CLE mit Minolta M-Rokkor 28/2.8, 40/2 and 90/4
- Zusammenfassung: Die Vermessung der Messsucherwelt
- Zugabe! Gedanken zu Nicht-Leica-M-Objektiven und eine persönliche Top-5-Hitliste