Leica Elmarit-R 135mm f/2.8 E55

 

Introduction

Leica Elmarit-R 135mm f/2.8 is one of the first manual focus lenses in Leica's reflex lens lineup. First designed in 1964, the lens went through a redesign in 1976, but was eventually discontinued in 1998. The first version of the lens was available with Series 7 filter thread, while the later model was offered in both Series 7 as well as E55 threads (the later model was manufactured in Canada). The lens is commonly available on used markets like eBay, with good quality late copies fetching ~US$250. The version tested in this review is an E55 model, serial number 2966817.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 5 elements in 4 groups - nothing fancy here. The build quality is rock solid - the lens feels and looks sturdy, thanks to the all metal barrel, aperture and focus rings. Even the built-in lens hood is all metal. All that metal obviously adds weight, and at 730g (1.6lb), Elmarit-R 135mm f/2.8 E55 is one of the heavier medium telephoto lenses. Fortunately, the lens is pretty compact, measuring 67 x 93mm (2.6 x 3.66in), although the barrel extends by a centimeter or so when focusing towards the closeup. The focus ring is pretty smooth to operate and the aperture is snappy - expected quality from a Leica branded lens. The minimum supported aperture is f/22 (the aperture ring moves in half f-stop increments) and the minimum focusing distance is 1.5m (4.9ft). The lens accepts 55mm screw in filters.

Image

When using the lens on Canon's EF mount cameras, I relied on a non AF chipped adapter from Fotodiox. I ended up operating cameras in manual and aperture priority modes, with all but center weighted metering disabled. Since the lens was originally designed for a 35mm camera, its field of view on an APS-C body resembles that of a 216mm lens on a full frame camera. 

Summary
Lens Composition
5 elements in 4 groups
Angular Field ~18 degrees
Minimum Focus 1.5m/4.9ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/2.8-f/22, manual
Filter Size 55mm
Lens Hood Metal, built-in
Weight 730g/1.6lb
Dimensions 67x93mm/2.6x3.66"
Lens Case N/A

 

Field Tests

Like all manual lenses, Leica Elmarit-R 135mm f/2.8 E55 offers no bells or whistles when it comes down to general lens handling. Don't take me wrong here - the lens design is pretty good and ergonomic,  but not unique. Like with all manual focus lenses, focusing is quite precise - the focus ring goes from the closeup to the infinity in ~250 degrees, with more precise spacing towards the closeup. The lens sports an engraved DOF scale, which is also common to all manual and few AF lenses. The scale is engraved on a non-moving part of the lens, between the aperture and focus rings, and is wide enough to provide a comfortable grip to hold the lens when focusing or switching apertures.

Image quality-wise, Leica Elmarit-R 135mm f/2.8 E55 produced pretty good results in the field. Images remained quite sharp in the center across the aperture range. Borders were a tidbit softer with wide open aperture, but the difference was not very significant.

 

ISO 400, 1/80, f/2.8, 135mm (Canon 5D)
ISO 400, 1/80, f/2.8, 135mm (Canon 5D)

 

When shot with wide open aperture, Leica Elmarit-R 135mm f/2.8 E55 produced well rounded and predominantly neutrally lit out-of-focus highlights. Predominantly, since once in a while you'd see a harshly lit edge. Contrast transitions in OOF areas were a little bit on a harsher end, but there was no sign of double-edging around fore/back-ground objects.

 

Vignetting @ f/2.8 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (135mm)
Vignetting @ f/2.8 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (135mm)

 

The lens showed pretty noticeable vignetting on a full frame camera with wide open aperture. Vignetting is still visible at f/4, but pretty much disappears by f/5.6. On an APS-C camera, vignetting is pretty minimal, if non-existent at f/2.8 and not visible starting at f/4.

General color reproduction was quite decent - images carried sufficient amount of contrast throughout the aperture range. Textures did not look particularly vivid or saturated, but they were not washed out either. There was some noticeable color fringing primarily around borders, but the lens held up nicely against axial CA (halation), which was not visible throughout the aperture range. And both flare as well as distortion were under control, with no visible sign of either.

 

ISO 100, 1/3200, f/2.8, 135mm (100% crop)
ISO 100, 1/3200, f/2.8, 135mm (100% crop)

 

Lab Tests

Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for both types of cameras.

 

Canon APS-C: Leica Elmarit-R 135mm f/2.8 E55 showed pretty decent performance on an APS-C body. Center image resolution was quite good throughout the aperture range, although performance peeked in the f/4-f/8 range. Border image quality was lagging somewhat, especially at wider apertures, where quality was OK, but not very impressive. Quality improved with stopped down aperture and reached its maximum around f/5.6, where the lens is capable of producing excellent 16in and decent 24in prints. Conclusion? The lens shows pretty solid overall results - it's not the best performer in its class, but certainly not a complete slouch either, falling somewhere in the top 50% bracket of all telephoto lenses tested to date.

 

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 135mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 135mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 135mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 135mm

 

Chromatic aberration on an APS-C body was quite low in the center, where it averaged ~0.5px across the tested aperture range, and slightly higher around borders, reaching ~1.2px at f/2.8 and gradually dropping to ~0.7px by f/11.

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 135mm
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 135mm

 

Here are 100% crops taken with an APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi comparing image borders at f/2.8 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 135mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 135mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8

 

Canon FF: The lens managed to produce pretty decent performance on a FF camera as well. Center image quality was excellent throughout the tested aperture range. Border performance was also quite good throughout the aperture settings, but particularly excelled in the f/4-f/8 range. Overall results are pretty consistent - border quality lags center a bit, but the difference remains more or less constant across the aperture range. Conclusion? All in all, the lens is showcasing very good performance that would meet the needs of most photographers.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 135mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 135mm

Leica Elmarit-R 135mm f/2.8 E55 exhibited barrel distortion, but at 0.292% it can be considered pretty minimal and should not cause any problems in general photography.

 

Distortion (FF) @ 135mm
Distortion (FF) @ 135mm

 

Chromatic aberration on a full frame body was well under control in the center, where it never exceeded ~0.5px across the entire tested aperture range. CA around borders was quite higher, especially at wider apertures - at f/2.8 CA approached ~1.2px, gradually dropping to ~0.8px by f/11.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 135mm
Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 135mm

Here are 100% crops taken with a full frame Canon 5D comparing image borders at f/2.8 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 135mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 135mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8

 

Alternatives

Currently Leica offers 3 medium telephoto lenses in its lineup, one of which is actually a macro. Unfortunately, all of them are shorter telephotos - Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4, APO Summicron-R 90mm f/2 (or its older, non APO variants) and APO Macro Elmarit-R 100mm f/2.8. The next telephoto lens in Leica's lineup is an 180mm prime, so there's an '80mm gap' that currently has no alternatives. Technically speaking, Leica has three 180mm models - APO Summicron-R 180mm, APO Elmarit-R 180mm f/2.8 (including its older non APO versions) and APO Telyt-R 180mm f/3.4. Outside of the Leica SLR mount lenses, consider Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 135mm f/2.8 and Carl Zeiss Planar T* 100mm f/2 (both in the now discontinued Contax/Yashica mount) as well as the newer Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 (in Nikon AiS and Pentax K mounts). Other then that, there are the obvious choices from Canon and Nikon, including excellent Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM and Nikon AF 85mm f/1.4D IF.

 

Recommendation

Despite the age of its optical formula, Leica Elmarit-R 135mm f/2.8 E55 still shows some spark. The lens showcases pretty solid performance on both full frame as well as APS-C cameras. Artifacts are mostly well under control, with CA around borders being the only exception (but even CA is not disastrous to spoil your experience). Combine that with excellent build quality and very reasonable price, and you will get a pretty good overall package. This of course assumes that you are willing to use a manual focus lens and are willing to go through additional steps of adopting it to your favorite SLR system.