Category Archives: Leitz Lenses

The Rare Rigid LTM 50mm f2 Summicron, 1960-1963

In 1956, Leitz introduced a rigid version of the 50mm f2 Summicron, the revolutionary lens first offered as a collapsible version in LTM in 1953 and in M mount in 1954. The 1956 rigid version constituted a revised optical design with a harder front element and deeper rear element. A “Dual-Range” M mount rigid version was also introduced at this time. Leitz produced this “second version” rigid Summicron, both normal and dual-range, between 1956 and 1968.

Between 1960 and 1963, Leitz also produced 1160 copies of  this rigid second version in LTM, making it one of the rarer and most valuable Summicrons produced. Of course, its rarity soon encouraged the assembling of fakes; the rigid Summicron’s lens head can be unscrewed from the rigid mount, and Leitz complicated matters by supplying rigid mounts in LTM for a few years so that owners of M and LTM bodies wouldn’t have to buy two lenses but could simply swap one lens head between two different lens mounts, M or LTM.

The end result is that it’s a good possibility that the LTM Rigid Summicron you’re being offered for sale is a frankenlens and not a true factory assembled version. The situation becomes further confused in that the true focal length of the rigid Summicrons differed slightly, depending on the version – 51.6, 51.9 or 52.2 – while the LTM rigid mount required a specific 51.9 focal length lens head, and many of these self-assembled lenses contain 51.6 or 52.2 lens heads mated to LTM rigid mounts.

How can you tell you’re looking at a rare factory assembled example instead of one made up from a replacement focusing mount and a non matching lens head? Fortunately, on the factory assembled models Leitz engraved the serial number of the lens both on the lens head and on the detachable lens mount. If these serials match, you’ve got a legit factory assembled LTM Rigid Summicron; if not, you’ve got a self-assembled frankenlens with potential focal length compatibility issues, one that can’t claim to be among the 1160 produced by Leitz.

A further complication in identifying a real factory produced version is that Leitz apparently produced them in dribs and drabs instead of one sequential run of 1160 consecutive serial numbers. According to Dennis Laney’s Leica Collector’s Guide, accepted serial number ranges for a legit copy are 1,599,XXX, 1,704,XXX, 1,706,XXX, 1,762,XXX, 1,763,XXX and 1,885,XXX, “but, as always with Leitz, the fact that a lens falls outside of this range does not necessarily mean it is not original” [Laney’s words]. The litmus test is the matching serial numbers.

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I was recently contacted by Bill Moretz, the owner of a reputable brick and mortar photo establishment in business since 1988 doing repair and photo lab services and equipment rental – asking me about a rigid Summicron he had in inventory he wasn’t quite sure exactly what it was. I had him send me some pics, did a little research, and then asked him to remove the mount from the lens head to see if the serials matched. They did. His rigid thread mount Summicron is a rare factory assembled original, serial number 1,607,043. According to Bill, everything in great condition optically and mechanically.

Bill has asked that I put the word out through the blog that the lens is for sale, and I told him I’d be happy to do so in order that he might avoid the pitfalls of Ebay and the various ways dishonest buyers devise to scam honest sellers out of collectible items. He’s asking $1950 plus insured shipping charges of $30 within the States. In my opinion, that’s a great deal as I see undocumented versions with various optical issues offered from anywhere between $1700 on the low end to $2800-$3000 on the high end. It comes with the original matching Leitz hood and lens cap.

If you’re interested, contact me at leicaphilia@gmail.com.

$30 Jupiters On Your $8000 Leica

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5cm 1.5 Jupiter-3

Lomo’s recent recreation of the Jupiter-3, the Jupiter 3+ Art lens, is encouraging news for fans of vintage optics. Designed (presumably) for out of the box use on Leica bodies and offered for sale at $649, it’s a reasonable alternative to stratospherically priced Leica offerings, modern Zeiss variations, and numerous Voigtlander 50mm lenses, all of which exhibit varying levels of modern clinical excellence. Some of us like the less resolute character of the vintage Sonnar designs, the Zeiss Optons, Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnars and their progeny – the Nikkor-S and H.C and the soviet made Jupiters. They’ve got what optics fans refer to as “character.” While I wish Lomo all the best and hope they sell a million of them, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that you do not, however, necessarily need to spend $649 for a Jupiter-3 or Jupiter-8. You can pick up a Jupiter-8 (the 5cm f2 variation) on Ebay for next to nothing, with a vintage Jupiter-3 fetching not much more.

A few years ago, succumbing to the lure of the esoteric (and cheap), I picked up a chrome soviet made Jupiter-8 5cm LTM lens on Ebay, to use as a cheap alternative standard lens on my IIIg and M bodies. Having read the usually dismissive internet comments about the Jupiters, I wasn’t expecting much, a novelty lens at best that I’d use occasionally as whims dictated. The seller was Ukrainian, and stated that the lens had been completely dismantled, lubricated and adjusted to “Leica specs”, whatever that meant. I bought it for $30, free shipping. Imagine my surprise, then, when I received a beautiful, clean, incredibly smooth focusing lens that produced beautiful vintage images even wide open and had the tactile feel the equal of any other lens I’d ever owned. A soviet clone of the Zeiss Sonnars first produced in the 1930’s, the Jupiter-8’s appeal is its small size, sharpness, low distortion and excellent flare resistance because of the Sonnar design’s minimal glass surfaces. Plus, it’s cheap, as in, cheaper than a typical lens hood for a Leitz lens.

Of course, any honest discussion of soviet optics needs to address the real issue of the build quality, which in the Jupiters can be a hit or miss proposition, seemingly dependent on the day of the week the lens was assembled and its relationship to the given vodka ration at that time. You can tell a Jupiter’s assembly year by the serial number – the first two numerals indicating the year of assembly. I assume my particular lens felt so smooth and well put together because of the servicing it had received from the seller. But it appears to be a nicely machined, tightly assembled piece. It has a 64xxxxx serial number, meaning it was produced in 1964, and as a general rule, the 50’s and 60’s era Jupiters are more consistently manufactured and assembled than the later lenses.  In any event, even if you get a sloppily assembled one, its usually, easily enough adjusted to spec by a competent lens repairman.

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5cm f2 Jupiter-8 on an IIIf

A larger problem, one that I think has contributed the most to Leicaphiles’ negative perceptions of the Jupiters, is the “focus shift” issue.  Chances are your Jupiter-8 will be noticeably out of focus wide open when mounted on your Leica. Most people chalk it up to either the inherent focus shift of the Sonnar design at maximum apertures or the belief that it’s just the nature of a crappy Russian lens. Actually, the Jupiters, when correctly matched to your Leica, are capable of wonderful results, their focus issues mostly down to an inherent incompatibility between the soviet made LTM Jupiters and the design parameters of Leica rangefinder bodies.

Photographers in  the 1930’s had a choice of two excellent camera systems – Leica or Contax. These two cameras have different focusing systems. Both are built around 50mm lens but use different assumptions for coupling to the rangefinder system. Leica has a short-base magnifier, which connects to its thread-mount lenses. Every lens has a rangefinder cam, which transmits the focusing distance to the camera, and uses the rate of movement of the focusing helicoid of a 51.6mm lens (the actual focal length). This rate of movement is used to calculate a multiplier, which is then used in calibration of the rangefinder for every lens – a wide angle lens will have a shorter helicoid rate of movement, while a tele will have a longer rate of movement. The multiplier serves to position the rangefinder at the right focusing distance. Contax, which has a 50mm focusing helix, is standardized at a 52.3mm lens as the choice for a 50mm lens. As such, the rate of movement for a Contax standard 50mm is different from Leica’s. To have a lens work properly on either Leica or Contax body, designers use one of the focal lengths assumptions (51.6mm or 52.3mm), exact rate of movement and multiplier, and finally the distance from the back focus of the lens to the film plane. Change one of these and you have a lens that won’t focus correctly. Ergo, Contax standardized lenses, even in LTM, don’t focus exactly on Leica bodies given the differing rangefinder design parameters.

Soviet lenses, “heirs” to the Zeiss Contax way of doing things, perpetuate this incompatibility. The Russians took Zeiss’s designs and machinery as war reparations after the Second World War. They took the specifications for the Contax lenses and used them for the Leica mount lenses they were producing for their own LTM bodies – Zorkis and Feds- most notably the nominal 50mm focal length that the camera’s rangefinder expects as a standard, the Jupiter-3 a clone of the Zeiss 1.5, the Jupiter-8 that of the Zeiss 2.0. This made soviet LTM Jupiter lenses technically incompatible with Leica cameras. In the 50’s through 70’s this wasn’t an issue – soviet photographers didn’t, or couldn’t, use Leicas anyway; the LTM Jupiter lenses were built to be used on Feds and Zorkis with the focal length assumptions of a Contax. And it isn’t evidence of some half-cocked technical shortcoming on the part of the soviet camera industry; Nikon did exactly the same thing with their rangefinder system – which otherwise used the same mount as the Contax rangefinders but with a different rate of movement, so Nikon/Contax rangefinder users face the same problem as the Leica/Fed/Zorki ones – wide angles nominally compatible between the two systems given greater inherent depth of field, faster and longer lenses mis-focusing at close distances and wide open.

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The 8.5cm Jupiter-9

The difference between soviet LTM and Leica LTM is real, and while it doesn’t affect most lenses (the various Industar 50mm lenses and the 35mm/2.8 Jupiter-12 are almost totally unaffected, due to their wider depth of field), once you start getting into faster and longer lenses it does become a problem. If you understand the limitations of soviet lenses on a Leica (or Leica spec) body, or if you know how to modify a Jupiter to Leica spec, you can get some rocking good lenses really cheap for your screwmount or M mount Leica.

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If you want to use soviet Jupiters on your Leica, the solution to this incompatibility is to have  your Jupiter “shimmed” to Leica spec. Jupiter-3s and 8s can be easily shimmed, but the Jupiter-9 85/2 apparently can not. These Jupiter lenses are all Sonnar type lenses, subject to the focus shift inherent in the Sonnar design. The Jupiter-3 shim fix relies on using the focus shift to allow full focusing capability, while shimming the Jupiter-9 apparently causes further focus shift.

The second option is to ignore the Leica mount altogether and use vintage Contax mount Jupiters on your Leica M with an Amedeo adaptor that negates the need to shim the lens.  Contax mount soviet lenses are built to the same specifications as native Zeiss Contax mount optics, so the Amedeo Contax to Leica adapter will ensure correct mounting and focusing when mounted on a Leica M. Of course, you’ll need to pay two hundred dollars for the Amedeo adaptor so that you can use cheap soviet lenses on your M, but you now have a lot of cool vintage lens options for your M: the Helios 103 (a.k.a the Soviet Summicron), a correctly focusing Jupiter-9, a Jupiter-11 that can focus closer than the LTM one, a Jupiter-8m (a shorter Jupiter-8 with click stops) – not to mention the Zeiss Optons and other assorted goodies made by Zeiss in Contax mount, all that you can pick up for a fraction of the cost of a like, or often inferior, quality, vintage Leitz lens.

Or you can go really esoteric and use a Contax mount Jupiter, shimmed for a Nikon, adapted to Leica M mount via an Amedeo Nikkor-S to Leica M adaptor. I’m the lucky owner of a 1958 5cm 1.5 Jupiter-3 in Contax mount, shimmed to Nikon S spec, the Frankensteinian creation of Sonnar guru Brian Sweeney. I can use it on my SP, S2 or S3 without adaptor, or on one of my M bodies with the Amedeo Nikon to Leica adaptor. Is it a little rough around the edges mechanically? Yes. But then again, Brian gave me the damn thing, and, I must admit, it produces some really nice negatives (or files if you prefer).

So, invariably, my $1000 “minty” (!) DR Summicron stays at home mounted on my “minty” M2-R, a collector’s piece, while the M’s that jostle around in my bag mount the Jupiter 8 with a cheap LTM to M adaptor, or a Zeiss CZJ 5cm 1.5 Sonnar shimmed to Leica spec by Mr. Sweeney, or a Nikkor-S 5cm 1.4 with Amedeo adaptor, or a Jupiter-3 5cm 1.5 shimmed to Nikon spec and mounted with the Amedeo Nikon to Leica adaptor. I paid, for all of them combined, less than half of what I paid for the DR Summicron, and, being the admitted optics dilettante I am, I’ll be damned if I can tell enough of a difference to justify the huge price differential. As for the CZJ Sonnar, the daddy to the Jupiter-3, it produces a look all it’s own, one I discussed at length here, a look that, coupled with a nice grainy film, brings you back to the glory days of the iconic B&W photography of Capa and HCB and Frank.

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A Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm 1.5 Sonnar, the Daddy of the Jupiter-3

The bottom line is this: if your interest is optical performance at a price un-inflated by status considerations, a decently put together Jupiter can hold its own against much pricier lenses, judged solely on its optical quality. As for “soviet made,” well, life is full of trade-offs, and what Russian technology lacks in fit and finish it’s often made up for in inexpensive yet robust functionality. Apparently, they’re still pulling soviet WW2 tanks out of bodies of water that, after a hose out, new batteries, a jug of oil and a few gallons of fuel, can more or less be driven away. Just a couple years ago in the Ukraine, there was a war memorial some rebels actually drove off with for further use.

That Lens Has Character. Really?

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Peruse any photography forum these days and you’ll find any number of multi-page discussions about the relative qualities of various lenses. Lens quality seems to an overriding obsession of most hobbyists, much more so than with working photographers who, in my experience, will buy something for their particular needs and get on with it.  Most folks discussing lenses on websites want to know if a given lens is “sharp” or does it “resolve” well? Such discussions often devolve into popularity contests about lenses forum denizens either own, have owned or want to own, usually with detailed a discussion of Leica optics, either on their own or in contrast to other manufacturer’s optics, accompanied by the de rigueur claim that Leica’s are the “finest optics in the world,” with unique “signatures”.

As someone serious about defining terms, I’m never quite sure what that all means. I suspect, like most things claimed on the internet, it’s a confused mental stew of truths, half truths, ignorance, groupthink, and incoherence, and you can either mindlessly agree and not rock the boat, or you can question it at the peril of being labelled an argumentative troll and risk being exiled forever from the docile, cud-chewing forum herd.

Or you can simply stake a claim for the truth, that is, that the entire discussion about sharpness and resolution is completely irrelevant if your interest is images as opposed to gadgetry. Who cares if a lens is sharp? Whatever photographic excellence is, it isn’t achieved by making “sharp” or resolute images.  For all of the hobbyists needing nothing less than the latest aspherical offering from Leica to do proper justice to your vision, go check out a book by Robert Klein or Antoine D’Agata or Trent Parke or Robert Frank or Eugene Atget and get back to me; and if the identity of the equipment you’ve used to make an image is the most important thing about it, chances are you need to re-evaluate the role of the image itself in your photographic calculus.

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So let’s talk for a second about sharpness and definition. Here’s what we should mean when we talk about these things:

Sharpness  –  the overall impression of a print or projected image, measured scientifically as “acutance “, seen from normal viewing distance.

Definition  –  the extent to which fine detail is recognizably rendered in a print, etc. When acutance of fine detail is good, then definition is good.

Acutance  –  the contrast at the edge of significant detail, a scientific measurement of the density gradient at that point.

Resolving Power  –  the scientific measurement of the actual fineness of detail recordable by a lens, film, or developer, or any combination of these three.

Signature  –  If it does exist then, the “signature” of a lens is the balance chosen by its manufacturer of the above characteristics and how they interact with one another.

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I use Leica lenses.  Leica makes excellent optics, no doubt, capable of stunning visual reproductions. However, the quality of a lens is just the beginning of a larger process by which a photographic image is produced. A small variance in any of the steps in the process – exposure, processing, printing – whether analogue or digital, usually makes a bigger difference in the final image than any lens’ “signature” does.  You’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between a print made from a negative created with a Summicron-M and another with a similar year Nikkor rangefinder lens, notwithstanding the breathless claims of some self-appointed experts about the obvious prowess of this or that lens and its superiority to another.

A good case in point is to compare a $3000 Summicron ASPH to a Jupiter-8  Sonnar you can find used on Ebay for $30. Both lenses will easily resolve more detail than Kodak T-Max or your M240 is capable of recording, so, if your goal is “sharpness”, feel free to save your money. Me, I prefer the Jupiter – if I drop it or scratch it or it gets stolen, no big deal. If I drop or scratch my Leica ASPH, I’m screwed.

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And don’t get me started about the Leica Glow. The “glow” supposedly inherent in a lens is just as much or more a function of many non-optical variables – light, subject, aperture, and exposure. If you’re shooting film factor in the look of the film and whether its developed in D76 or, say, Rodinal.

The point is this: Lens designers do make critical decisions when they choose the characteristics of their lenses, and they try to keep those characteristics similar across a range. And, as such, different lenses can cause different looks, what some people refer to as “signatures.” Some lenses under certain circumstances might exhibit something in its signature we might characterize as a “glow”. But a lens’ signature is an ephemeral thing, as much the product of its own individual idiosyncrasies and other non-optical factors as it is the result of the design’s inherent character.

And yes, certain lenses are “sharper” than other lenses, but, as I’ve noted here and elsewhere, sharpness is a false criterion when judging the merits of an image. As Leica writer and photographer Bill Pierce says “never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade.”

Do They Actually Sprinkle Magic Dust on Leica Lenses?

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This lens sells for $10,995 

Funny how the perception of a brand changes over time.  Leica became an iconic brand by being the first manufacturer to offer a 35mm system camera. Small and discreet, the perfect carry-around in your pocket camera. Zeiss, which was generally considered to make better optics, came onto the scene only shortly after Leica but produced the unreliable Contax I body (whose design had to jump through hoops to circumvent Leitz patents) as the means to use their excellent optics. As such, Leicas remained the camera of choice for professionals through the 50’s. But there’s more to it than just that. After the war, while the Zeiss factory was carted off to the Soviet Union by victorious eastern bloc troops, Leitz, by virtue of their location in the western bloc, remained to produce cameras. Due to such serendipity, Leitz kept the burgeoning post war photojournalist market to itself until the advent of the Nikon F.

As for the idea that Leitz has always produced the best optics, a quick review of the historical facts on the ground prove otherwise. Already in the 50’s, many working photographers sought out Nikkor optics in preference to what was available from Leitz. During Korea, David Douglas Duncan used a pair of Leica IIIc’s, one with a Nikkor 5cm F1.5 and the other with a Nikkor 13.5cm F4. 

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While a whole generation of gearheads now swear, retroactively, by the traditional superiority of Leitz glass, there was nothing intrinsically superior about Leitz optics through the 50’s, although the Summicron 50mm f2, introduced in 1953 with the M3, is a fine lens, but early versions suffered from the same problems as many other post-war Leitz lenses, namely soft coatings and badly formulated lubricant which caused gassing, haze and mold. The best LTM lenses that you can still find these days tend to be Canon or Nikkor optics built in the 50’s, or, of course, the excellent modern LTM Voigtlander optics produced by Cosina since the late 90’s.

By the 60’s Leitz optics prevailed in the rangefinder market because Leitz was the only manufacturer still committed to building and marketing rangefinder cameras, which, by the mid 60’s had been eclipsed as professional tools by the rise of the SLR in the form of the Nikon F. Most other manufacturers, including Nikon and Canon, were now creating SLR optics, leaving Leitz as the only player in rangefinder optics.

In the 70’s, when I came of age photographically, people were just beginning to perceive Leitz lenses as superior to Zeiss, Nikkor or Canon lenses. But if you compare older examples – the vintage lenses collectors and enthusiasts clammer for today – , for example, 35mm lenses (Biogon versus Elmar) , 50mm (Sonnar versus Summar), or 180/200mm (f2.8 “Olympia” Sonnar versus f4.5 Telyt), it’s hard to understand this, except as an example of the success of subsequent Leitz marketing and retroactive causation. The 50mm Summicron Rigid didn’t hurt either.

 In the 70s Leitz made some fine cameras but also some very bad business decisions; German Leitz would have stopped rangefinder production had it not been for the management at Leica Midland in Canada. Thereafter some of the best Leica M optics (and R) came not from Germany but from Walter Mandler and his team. Mandlar had joined Leitz at Wetzlar in 1946, and, having moved thereafter to Leitz Midland, took advantage of Leitz’s new glass research lab to create some of Leitz’s finest optics.  On Mandler’s retirement the subsequent dismantling of Leitz Canada lens design shifted back to Wetzlar under Wolfgang Vollrath, who crafted improvements to Mandler’s designs. These post Midland lenses are great optics, but they are evolutionary, not revolutionary, dependant upon glass technology advances, well programmed computer optimisation and decreased manufacturing tolerances available to all manufacturers.  

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Of course, current Leica lenses are uniformly excellent, the product of 60 years of developmental know-how since the first Summicron was produced. And, in the last 40 years, Leica has slowly, consciously morphed from a maker of exquisitely hand-crafted mechanical cameras to a producer of exceptional optics, with prices to match. And that’s ultimately the difference between a Leitz optic and a Nikkor or a Canon – the price, and what goes into that price. At the prices they sell their lenses, Leica can afford to make them exceptional. Nikon and Canon and Zeiss and Voigtlander and Ricoh could do the same but choose not to; it’s not as if Leica possesses some esoteric lens making skill that can’t be duplicated elsewhere at the right price point. A case in point is the Nikkor-S 50mm f1.4 offered by Nikon with the Millennium Nikon S3 in 2000. It is the same optical formula as the Olympic Nikkor of 1964, a Double-Gauss 7 elements in 5 groups except now made with modern coatings and the decreased tolerances offered by computerized production. Ultimately assembled by hand, checked and rechecked, it was an element of Nikon’s quixotic statement that it could produce cameras and optics every bit as good as any other manufacturer in the world…and it’s every bit as good as the Leica current Summicron ASPH, regardless of what any hardcore Leicaphile wants to tell you. These days you can buy one on Ebay from Japan, still in the box (with a brand new Millennium S3 attached for good measure), at about a 1/4th of the price of a Leica Summilux ASPH.

New Jupiter-3, the “Jupiter 3+ Art Lens,” by Lomo

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Very interesting new lens offering from LOMO, a re-issue of the “legendary” (!) 50mm f.15 Soviet made Jupiter-3, itself a clone of the older Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar.

Here’s the description on the LOMO website:

Over half a century since the original Jupiter 3 lens was designed, we’re extremely proud to introduce the New Jupiter 3+ Art Lens to our line of exquisitely handcrafted Lomography Art Lenses. Designed by the highly experienced Lomography team and manufactured by the expert technicians at the exact same Zenit factory in Russia as the original lens, the New Jupiter 3+ Art Lens retains the strong character and Soviet spirit of its forbearer — crisp sharpness, smooth, natural colors and lush, dreamy bokeh — while also transcending it in many ways.

First developed in Soviet Russia in the late 1940’s, the original Jupiter lens was crafted by the optical pioneers at the Zenit factory in the suburbs of Moscow and came to be loved for the incredible character it gave to the millions of images captured with it. Now, Lomography is  continuing the legacy of this famed lens and transporting it to modern times with substantial design improvements. Equipped with a versatile 50mm focal length and f/1.5 maximum aperture, the New Jupiter 3+ Art Lens has an outstandingly shallow depth of field at large apertures and yields stunning results in all kinds of settings. Whether you’re shooting in low light or bright sunshine, you’ll end up with an extremely unique image quality that makes this lens incredibly special and gives a character entirely its own!

The New Jupiter 3+ Art Lens is being produced in small batches and thus will be available on a very limited first-come, first-served basis. Head to the Lomography Online Shop right now to get yours! For more info, head to the New Jupiter 3+ Art Lens site.

  • 50mm f/1.5 Jupiter 3+ Sonnar
  • Rangefinder coupled 39mm Leica Screw Mount
  • M-Mount Adapter included, Triggering: 50mm Frame Line
  • Aperture: f/1.5 – f/22
  • Clickless F/stops
  • Perfect round aperture for maximum bokeh
  • Weight 7 5/8th oz
  • Size: length extending from the body at infinity 36mm, width 48mm
  • Lens Barrel Chromed Brass
  • Closest Focusing Distance: 0.7m
  • Focusing Scale in meters
  • Filter Threads 40.5mm
  • Classic Zeiss Sonnar Lens Design: 7 Elements in 3 Groups
  • Easily adaptable to any Mirrorless Camera via a M mount adapter – Sony, FujiX, Panasonic, Olympus etc
  • New version of the Soviet Jupiter 3, which was a war prize of a 1930’s Zeiss Sonnar design

The Leitz Elmarit-C 40mm 2.8. A Leica Lens Not Good Enough For Minolta

imageThe Leitz Elmarit-C 40mm f2.8 is a peculiar lens in the history of Leica optics.  Leitz intended the Elmarit-C to be paired with the Leica CL, itself a joint venture with Minolta that was to produce the compact “Baby M” Leica CL and Leitz Minolta CL, the same camera offered by both companies with differing engravings, between 1973 and 1976. The bodies themselves, be they labelled Leica or Minolta, were to be designed by Leitz and built by Minolta in Japan. Leitz, pulling rank with their reputation as the premium optical manufacturer, were tasked with designing the optics for both the German and Japanese iterations of the camera.

Designed by Leitz, the lenses themselves were to be built by each company to identical spec, either in Germany for the Leica or in Japan for the Leitz Minolta. Leitz designed and proposed the Elmarit-C 40mm 2.8 as the standard lens. Minolta, upon receiving the prototype, came to the awkward conclusion that the lens was a dog, not up to Minolta standards, and requested Leitz to submit a redesign. Leitz reconsidered, recalibrated, and submitted the Summicron-C 40mm f2, a wonderful lens that holds its own to this day.

The barrel design of the Elmarit-C is similar to the Summicron-C 40mm f2 but is shorter in length, making focus and aperture setting even more difficult than it is on the Summicron. To fix this the Elmarit-C 40mm f2.8 featured a tab for both the focusing and aperture ring. The lens also stopped down to f22, unusual for a Leitz designed lens. Aside from that it was pretty much the same lens as the Summicron-C except for its optical quality. The lens is soft close up at any aperture but becomes less noticeable at further distances when stopped down to f5.6 or slower. Contrast is also very low wide open.

The change from the Elmarit to the Summicron happened so late in production that about 400 examples of the slower Elmarit-C f2.8 lens had already been manufactured by Leitz; stuck with them,  Leitz gave them to their employees. Infrequently one will appear on the collectors’ market, a rare and unusual piece of Leica history. That doesn’t mean you should buy one. It is, by all accounts, a terrible lens optically. If you are looking for a compact 40mm M mount lens to use, the standard CL Summicron-C 40mm f2 lens is just fine, as is the faster Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f1.4 for about the same price. The only reason to get the Elmarit-C 40mm f2.8 lens is if you are a collector. It was never offered commercially, making it catnip for Leica collectors as it is obscure, hard to find and no one knows precisely how many exist. Other than wanting it to sit nicely on your display case there is no reason to put it on a camera. Even Minolta agrees.

The Ricoh GXR: The Digital Leica CL

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Let’s get this straight at the outset. Digital Leica M’s – the M8, M9, MM and M240 –  are not traditional Leica M cameras. They are computerized simulacrums of traditional film M’s, sharing only a certain corporate continuity, a rangefinder mechanism and aesthetic likeness of form, albeit fatter, heavier and less pleasant in hand. Most importantly,  their useful life is measured in years as opposed to decades.

Many of us who grew up shooting Leica film cameras learned these lessons the hard way, at great frustration and expense, and for many of us, those experiences have caused us to re-evaluate our relationship to Leica in the digital age.

I remain firmly grounded in the film world, both for technical and philosophical reasons, for 90% of my work. But the practical requirements of capturing quotidian experiences- snapshots as it were-  sometime require the quickness and immediacy of a digital process. So, I need at least one digital camera to keep myself (and others) happy. But I’ve bought them reluctantly.

My only criterion when buying a digital camera is never to be an early adopter. I won’t buy a digital camera that isn’t at least 2 to 3 years old. Let the early adopters work through the bugs and take the digital depreciation hit. In return, they can obsess about their newest toy and its revolutionary IQ standards while warily eyeing the new, improved version inevitably around the corner.

What I want: a manual focus camera that uses my extensive collection of M mount rangefinder optics, and I want a decent size sensor that doesn’t turn my Rokkor-M 40 f2 into a telephoto. 12 mp or thereabouts  is the sweet spot – I don’t need 36 mpx files because I print, at most, 19 inches on the long side, and if I want bigger I can always “res up” with the appropriate software. My alternatives: an M8, M9, M240, Sony NEX or A7, Fuji X…. or the Ricoh GXR. The Sonys are designed by computer guys, not photographers, and it shows. Too computerized, with their nested menus and touch screen technologies. And, like the Fuji, their sensors aren’t maximized for the limited flange distance of M lenses.  So this leaves the Leica models…and the Ricoh. The M’s are simply too expensive for what you get. And there’s the issue of dodgy sensors that continue to plague the CCD M’s. Spending $6k on a camera body, only to have to replace the sensor at scheduled intervals, is insane. The fact that digital Leica owners accept this is, if nothing else, a testament to the irrational in many’s purchasing decisions.

This leaves me with the GXR. Ricoh has a tradition of funky, quirky cameras that appeal to serious photographers. The GXR follows in that tradition. Unlike conventional digital cameras which either have a fixed lens and sensor or interchangeable lenses and a fixed sensor, the GXR takes interchangeable units, each housing a lens, sensor and imaging processing unit. This allows each unit to have features optimized to one another and a specific task, whereas with conventional interchangeable lens cameras, each different lens must use the same sensor and engine. The sealed units also prevent dust from reaching the sensor, which can be a problem with interchangable lens bodies used in the elements. Having previously owned an M8, I know it to be a definite issue with digital M’s.

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In addition to a 24-85 zoom and superb 28 and 50 mm auto focus units, Ricoh offers a 12 mpx unit to mount and use Leica optics, the A12 M Module. The Ricoh’s M mount is strictly designed with the technical specifications of the M bayonet in mind. It contains shifted micro-lenses on its periphery to deal with the angled light produced on the sensor plane by M lenses with short sensor plane distances. You get a Leica M sensor with all the advantages for wide angle lenses, without a AA filter to boot. And the Ricoh is as modular as a Phase One or Hassy. You can change out the sensor in a second to use the excellent Ricoh lens modules if you need auto-focus or are lazy and want to use a zoom.

The Ricoh with A12 M Mount is a much less expensive alternative to digital M’s that does an incredible job with M-mount lenses. I recently picked up two GXR bodies, an A12 M module and the 28 and 50 modules, all for just a tad over $1000, which is pretty remarkable for what you get. I’m not an IQ guy, but I can’t help but be amazed at the sharpness and depth of the files the GXR M mount produces with Leica lenses, a function of a sensor without an AA filter tailored to M mount lenses and the native quality of the lenses themselves. And both the 28 and 50 2.5 AF units are exceptional as well, the equal optically of any Summarit or Summicron I’ve used with the M Module.

xxxx--93Ricoh GXR, A12 M Module, 21 VC f4

The  relationship between the GXR and current digital M’s is similar to the 1970s Leica CL and its relation to the M5. While both shared the same format, meter, etc, the CL was lighter, smaller, and much less expensive, although it felt built to a price point, while the M5 retained the traditional robust Leitz build. The CL used the same Leitz lenses, which, of course, was more determinative of the final output than all the other considerations, and, in practice, produced negatives indistinguishable from the M. Ironically, in a transposition of the relationship between the CL and M5, the Ricoh feels better made, more solid and durable than the often fragile digital M’s. It’s an exceptionally well made camera with the heft associated with durability. It feels great in the hand, and it’s compact and unobtrusive in a way the fattened digital M’s no longer are.

Ricoh discontinued them in 2014, probably because the interchangible lens/sensor unit design never caught with most folks, which is a shame. The upside to this is that new units are still available and you can find them cheap.
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My B&W workflow with the GXR: set the display for B&W RAW. set EV at -.07 to avoid blown highlights, ISO at 1600 or, when needed, at 2500. Process in SEP2 using either the HP5 or the Tri-X simulations, or if you want something really gritty, the Neopan 1600 emulation, very minor sharpening on output. Voila! Only a trained eye will notice any difference between this and a roll of Tri-X shot with your CL.