Leica Elmarit-R 35mm f/2.8

Introduction

Leica Elmarit-R 35mm f/2.8 is one of the oldest lens designs in Leica's wide angle SLR lens category. The lens was first introduced in 1964 and went through three revisions before being discontinued in 1996 in favor of a faster and more popular Summicron-R 35mm f/2. The first revision of the 35mm Elmari-R was manufactured between 1964 and 1974 with Series 6 filter thread and snap-on lens hood. The second revision was manufactured from 1974 through 1979 with Series 7 filter thread, while the final, third revision of the lens was manufactured from 1979 until the end. The third revision had a built-in lens hood and an E55 filter thread. Unlike all other modern Leica lenses, Elmarit-R 35mm f/2.8 was only offered as 2, 3 and R CAM versions - Leica never updated the design to include ROM contacts (obviously you can still convert your lens to ROM for a few hundred dollars). The lens reviewed in this test was manufactured in Germany in late 1980s. It's an E55 model with 3 cams. The serial number of the lens is 3332702. First and second versions of the lens are pretty common on used markets and fetch about ~US$270, while later, E55 model is becoming harder to find, with good copies going for as much as US$400 (as of March 2008).

Like all Leica SLR lenses, Elmarit-R 35mm f/2.8 is a fully manual lens, with manual focusing and manual aperture control. The optical construction of the lens consists of 7 elements in 6 groups. The build quality of the lens is simply superb, as is  expected from a Leica lens. Barrel, aperture and focus rings, lens mount as well as built-in lens hood are all metal.  Because of that, the lens looks and feels pretty sturdy. There's no wobbling or shaking inside or out and the focusing ring is very smooth. Despite its all metal construction, the lens is pretty light and compact, measuring 66 x 41.5mm (2.6 x 1.62in) and weighing 305g (10.75oz). The inner cam of the lens extends by a centimeter or so when focusing towards closeup, making the lens slightly longer. The minimum focusing distance is 30cm (11.8in) and the minimum aperture is f/22 (the aperture ring snaps nicely, moving in half stop increments). The filter size is 55mm. The lens has a built-in metal hood that pops out of the outer barrel.

Image

When using the lens on a Canon EOS cameras, I relied on a generic non-AF chipped Leica-R to EOS adapter from Fotodiox. I ended up operating the camera in manual and aperture priority modes with all but center weighted metering disabled. The lens is designed for full-frame cameras, so if you're using it on APS-C type body with 1.6x crop factor, the field of view of the lens will be equivalent to that of a 56mm lens on a full-frame body - so the lens looses its wide angle appeal, becoming more of a standard lens.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 7 elements in 6 groups
Angular Field 62 degrees
Minimum Focus 30cm/0.98ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/2.8-f/22, manual
Filter Size 55mm
Lens Hood Built-in metal
Weight 305g/10.7oz
Dimensions 66x41.5mm/2.6x1.62"
Lens Case N/A

 

Field Tests

When it comes down to Leica and Carl Zeiss lenses, I typically set bar somewhat higher when compared with 'regular' lenses manufactured by companies like Sigma, Tokina or even Canon and Nikon. This is partly due to the renown reputation that these two brands typically carry and their higher price, which obviously is the direct derivative of the quality of a lens (after all, if a lens fails to produce good quality pictures, it would be rather difficult to justify its high price). Unfortunately, after spending a few days snapping pictures with the lens, I was left with somewhat mixed impressions about this lens. Leica Elmarit-R showed pretty mixed performance in the field. On one hand, image performance in the center was top notch, with images staying crisp throughout the aperture range, even at f/2.8. On the other hand, the lens showed noticeable softness around borders, which was especially noticeable at f/2.8. The softness was pretty pronounced on a full frame camera and less so on APS-C body with cropped sensor. While I typically expect softness around borders from wide angle lenses, this is less forgivable for a Leica lens.

 

ISO 400, 1/60, f/2.8, 35mm (Canon 5D)
ISO 400, 1/60, f/2.8, 35mm (Canon 5D)

 

When shot with wide open apertures, Elmarit-R 35mm f/2.8 produced mostly round OOF highlights which often carried carried harshly defined edges (typical of lenses with over-corrected spherical aberration). Contrast transitions in background and foreground OOF areas were somewhere in the middle - not too harsh but not too smooth either. And there was no visible double-edging around fore/back-ground objects.

 

Vignetting @ f/2.8 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (35mm)
Vignetting @ f/2.8 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (35mm)

 

On a full frame body the lens showed very noticeable amount of vignetting with wide open aperture. Stopping down the lens obviously helps reduce vignetting and by f/5.6 vignetting is pretty minimal, almost non-existent. If you plan to use the lens on a cropped body, then vignetting is going to be less of a problem due to the smaller frame coverage of a cropped sensor. Vignetting on an APS-C body is basically non-existent throughout the aperture range.

Color reproduction was pretty accurate across the aperture range - image colors were sufficiently saturated, creating rich texture compositions and carrying good amount of contrast in both shadows as well as mid-tones. Regretfully, the lens fell prone to color fringing, especially around borders (take a look at the image crop below and notice thin pink/magenta fringe at the borders of a chair on the right side). Flare was mostly under control and as long as you don't have sun shining directly into the lens you have nothing to worry about. The lens showed a minor degree of barrel distortion - nothing to worry about though.

 

ISO 100, 1/4000, f/2.8, 35mm (100% crop)
ISO 100, 1/4000, f/2.8, 35mm (100% crop)



Lab Tests

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

 

Canon APS-C: Leica Elmarit-R 35mm f/2.8 showed outstanding image resolution in the center throughout the aperture range. Performance around borders is a different story though - at f/2.8 border performance is OK, but not quite comparable to the center. Border performance improves with stopped down aperture, but does not reach its peak until f/8, where the lens produces the most balanced overall results. Here the lens is capable of delivering outstanding 19in and decent 24in prints. Conclusion? Overall resolution capabilities of the lens are pretty decent, falling within the range expected from a good quality wide angle prime. Are the results exceptional? Not really. But then again, resolution is not everything one should look for in a lens.

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 35mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 35mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 35mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 35mm

 

Chromatic aberration on an APS-C camera was mostly under control. I say mostly because CA was averaging ~1px around borders the widest aperture setting, but consequently dropping to a much more manageable ~0.6px by f/5.6. And center CA was nothing to worry about to begin with, averaging ~0.3px across the aperture range.

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 35mm
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 35mm

 

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

 

Image borders @ 35mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 35mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8

 

Canon FF: Regretfully, Leica Elmarit-R 35mm f/2.8 did not manage to hold its ground on a full frame camera. Specifically, while center performance continued to remain consistently high throughout the aperture range, border quality suffered a bit. Especially at wider apertures, where the border performance is rather mediocre. Stopping down helps somewhat and border performance improves, but even at f/4 it is still not at the level one would expect from a Leica lens. Only at f/5.6 and beyond, border resolution can be considered pretty good. A bit disappointing performance, since it makes using wider apertures more challenging. Overall peak is reached around f/8, which is similar to what was observed with an APS-C body. Conclusion? Border performance is disappointing - prepare to stop down to achieve best results. Double disappointing considering that we're dealing with a Leica lens here.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 28mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 28mm

 

Chromatic aberration did not improve much on a full frame body, continuing to average ~1px around borders pretty much throughout the aperture range. Like with the APS-C camera, CA in the center was pretty minimal, generally not exceeding ~0.3px across the aperture range.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 35mm
Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 35mm

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

 

Image borders @ 35mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 35mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8

Alternatives

As mentioned above, Leica discontinued Elmarit-R 28mm f/2.8 in 1999. This is a third wide angle lens (along with Elmarit-R 24mm f/2.8 and Super Angulon-R 21mm f/4) that the company discontinued in late 1990s, early 2000s. Fortunately, Leica offers a number of other alternatives for those seeking a wide angle lens. Summicron-R f/2 comes to mind first, although users report that only the latest E60 model is significantly better then Elmarit-R 35mm f/2.8. At ~US$1,800 used, it better be! For a slightly wider lens, take a look at Elmarit-R 28mm f/2.8. Again, the latest E55 revision offers the best image quality, but unfortunately is quite expensive. Finally, Elmarit-R 19mm f/2.8 offers an even wider field of view, however, if you plan to use this lens on Canon bodies, you need to keep in mind that the latest revision of the lens does not clear the camera's mirror box, so you will have to either shave the mirror or shave protruding metal strip on the back of your 19mm Elmarit-R. Needless to say, neither of these operations is not recommended to general public. Outside of the Leica camp, take a look at Carl Zeiss lenses. Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2 ZF/ZS/ZK or its older, Contax/Yashica variants, Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 and Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2.8 offer very good image and build quality (prices obviously vary, with the latest ZF/ZS edition being the most expensive). Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 28mm f/2.8 (also in Contax/Yashica mount) and its modern revision Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 28mm f/2 ZF/ZK are two other lenses to keep in mind, and for an even wider field of view, take a look at Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8. Finally, Olympus OM 21mm f/3.5 or its faster version Olympus OM 21mm f/2 are worth exploring, although both lenses are quite difficult to find these days. And for a side by side comparison on a number of 35mm primes, including a few ones mentioned above, check out the 35mm Challenge.

 

Recommendation

For a relatively late lens model, Leica Elmarit-R 35mm f/2.8 (E55) shows somewhat weak results. The lens behaves better on APS-C type bodies - better resolution around borders, better handling of vignetting. But put it on a full frame camera and things start to fall apart. At f/2.8 border performance is simply mediocre and does not really get to decent levels until f/5.6, which is a little bit too late. Vignetting is also much more noticeable, but this is kind of expected. Add to that chromatic aberration at wide apertures and then pause to think. What does this lens deliver that other, potentially cheaper, lenses don't? Overall results are clearly not the best in the industry, and the only major characteristic that would set this lens apart from other, similarly performing 35mm primes like Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2.8 (in Contax mount) is good color handling/reproduction. This by itself should not be marginalized, however, does greater color handling worth 2x the price? Depends whom you ask obviously. But all in all, Leica Elmarit-R 35mm f/2.8 is rather a mixed performer.