A 50 year old lens – Leica 135mm f/4

Leica 135-8

When I bought this camera, I decided that I would stay with a single lens and not have a large bag to carry around all of the time which would get in the way (I can stuff most of what I need in the pockets of my jeans if I need to).  So I have for the last 12 months and have been pretty happy with the results, applying foot zoom (running backwards and forwards) to get my framing sorted out, thankfully without any major mishaps involving large bodies of water (I think that one foot in a moderately deep puddle has been the worst so far).  Then I started to notice that when I was watching sports, particularly those on water, my 50mm lens just didn’t have the reach.  So, what were my options? The modern Leica lenses are eye-wateringly expensive and which one anyway?  So, trawling the internet I came up with the crazily priced Leica 135mm f/4 Leitz Wetzlar Elmar.  There are some articles that say that it’s OK… mainly from internet sources that seem to be regarded than less than reliable.  The obvious issue is that my camera is a rangefinder and that the things you’re focusing on tend to be a bit further away than normal and that’s it… or so I thought.

Leica 135-5

So, one Saturday, cash in hand I trawled the second-hand dealers and found one at an amazingly reasonable price (equivalent to about $150 or under a hundred pounds)!  It was the f/4 version given that the older, still cheaper f/4.5 gets frighteningly bad press.  Was I worried? Yes! Having an atypical attack of common sense I thought that I should try one out and examine the results at home before jumping in.  The experience was sobering: the first lens I tried I really couldn’t focus; it was a bright sunny day and try as I might I could not get a clear image.  Then I tried a modern 90mm from the Leica shop. That was amazingly easy to get right… so what next.  Another 135mm from another shop – with better light (less glare) and some patience I finally managed to get some shots in focus.  So, I bit the bullet and stumped up the money (I could always eBay it if things didn’t work out).

OK, so what did I find the real issues were?

Well, first of all there’s the paper thin depth of field at anything approaching maximum aperture

Leica 135-2

or at any aperture if you’re closer than 5m or so

Leica 135-3

Then there’s the huge angle you have to turn the focus ring through (it must be 20+ degrees for a foot at close range).

Leica 135-4

The age and lack of coating on the lenses may be an issue but has not caused me any problems so far (I’ve added a UV and an orange filter but no hood yet).

I suppose the only other thing is the size of it. It’s not a telephoto lens and so is full length – somewhat lacking in subtlety!

But really, none of this is insurmountable – particularly in the digital age where you can have another go if you’re not sure about your focus (the preview on the back of the camera is not really good enough to be certain).

This weekend was my first proper outing. I was looking for a sports event but ended up going for a walk in the countryside instead.  And just happened to run into a group practicing on a canoe slalom course; a perfect opportunity I thought.  The problem with an open lens and thin depth of field was the only real issue I had.  And the only way out of it was to ramp up the ISO.  The shots below are my first attempts, I’m pretty happy so far but you can judge the results (note: the meta data shows 35mm as the lens is not coded and I have linked the images to as full-sized versions as I can within a maximum of 10MB per image, in case you’re interested).

Leica 135A-1

ISO 1250, 1/125s

Leica 135A-4

ISO 1250, 1/350s

Leica 135A-2

ISO 1250, 1/125s

Leica 135-3-2

ISO 1250, 1/125s

Leica 135-5-2

 Tripod mounted, ISO 320, 1/12s, making us of f/22 for a long exposure

Looking at focus and sharpness, I know that the Japanese Diet (parliament) building is well beyond the infinity on this lens. But is it sharp? I’m struggling to see myself…

L1004131

ISO 320, 1/90s, lens supported but not on a tripod

L1004131-Edit

100% of building front.

I am really not completely convinced about the focus… or sharpness… or steadiness of the support I used.

L1004136

ISO 320, 1/125s

Then, this shot looks a lot better… apart from a lot of spots I had to remove (circles, not dots) which I think are in part due to my not having a UV filter on at the time… possibly.

Some rather more controlled experimentation this coming weekend I think!

The Leica glass doesn’t have the character of my Zeiss Sonnar but ultimately I’m fairly satisfied with the results. That said, this lens will only be coming out on special occasions and I won’t be buying a camera rucksack!

Update

Well, a bit of an update. It turns out the the spots were from my sensor which was slowly corroding… but free replacement (no limit on time either), due to a manufacturing fault.  A few days without a camera but things could have been worse!

Anyway, playing with the 135 a little more I have produced the following results which appear a bit better than the earlier efforts (I’ve included some 100% zooms below the main image).

Test135-1006311

 ISO 1600, 1/125s, f/8

Test135-1006311-4

Test135-1006311-3

Getting used to it

I’ve had this lens for a while now and have done some outings with nothing else (The Sumida River on a sunny afternoon).  A bit of a challenge for close-up street photography (DoF and speed being the biggest factors, as I highlighted before) but it can be done (Shibuya Crossing, a profile or two). However, I am much happier with the results and think that this lens now has a longer term and more active future.