Elmar 9cm vs Macro Elmar-M 90mm

By kokoshawnuff - Last updated August 24, 2012

Introduction

A fast and dirty lens comparison - the Leitz Elmar 9cm f/4 vs. Leica Macro-Elmar-M 90mm f/4.

I decided to do this comparison because I was continually surprised by the real world results I was getting from my Leitz 1947 Elmar LTM 9cm f/4. Of course I was not so surprised by the near perfect results I get from my Leica Macro-Elmar-M 90mm f/4 - a lens widely considered to be one of Leica’s best. Just as a note to the reader; I do not have the equipment or knowledge to make a technically based objective review (like those from Sean Reid, Erwin Putts or the proprietor of this site, Michael Holve), but I will do my best to show what these lenses are capable of in every day use. Also, I don’t have a digital camera on which to use these lenses so all photos where taken with an analogue M camera of one kind or another, but I think even on an M9 or MM one will find they get similarly wonderful results as I do with 35mm film.

The Lenses

The Leitz Elmar 9cm was a design that Leica kept in production from 1931 until the introduction of (the now quite expensive and collectable) 3 Element Elmar 90mm in 1964. Four body types were designed in the 33 year existence of the first Elmar 9cm—the “Fat” in black paint with an A36 filter size from 1931-1932, the standard A36 filter in black with LTM threads from 1933-1948 (version used in this comparison), then the chrome (with a head available separately for Visoflex use) from 1949-1963 with A36 filter and LTM mount until 1951, E39 filters from 1951 and M-Mount from 1954, lastly there was the M-Mount Collapsible version from 1954-1963 with E39 filter threads. All of the Elmar 90mm lenses produced from 1931-1964 had the same four element in three group construction, with those copies produced from around 1946 containing coated lens surfaces. The hood for the Elmars has a Leica code of FIKUS.

The lens used in this comparison was purchased for $99 from Tamarkin Camera. From the photos you can see that it was well used by perhaps a few different owners, but there are no scratches, cleaning marks, haze, mold, or even internal dust particles. It is quite interesting compared to my other lenses (modern or old), with bizarre f-stops (f/4, f/4,5, f/6,3, f/9, f/12.5, f/18, f/25, f/36), some strange distance markers (there’s a 1.25m, a 1.75m, a 6m, 7m, a 12m), at least four different types of metals on the exterior, and the old-standard A36 filters (if you can find them, E34mm screw in filters work just fine with these lenses). My version is also Screw Mount, so a Voigtlander LTM to M adapter was used during the tests.

Dimensions:
Weight: 250-300 Grams, 340 Grams for the collapsible
Length of V1 black at infinity (without a hood): 3 1/16 inches

The Leica Macro Elmar-M 90mm is a design that was introduced in 2003. It is an innovative lens in the rangefinder world, in that without the close-up adapter it’s nearest focusing distance of .77 meters produces a reproduction ratio of 1:6.4; better than any M lens. With the close up adapter a reproduction ratio of 1:3 can be achieved. Many (including Erwin Puts and Sean Reid) consider this lens to be among the very best performers ever made by Leica.

Now that the Macro Elmar-M (MEM) is now longer sold separately from it’s adapter, the $4000 price tag isn’t much of a steal, but this lens can be found used in the $2200-$2600 range without an adapter. The lens was made in both silver chrome-plated brass and black anodized aluminum. The hood that comes with the MEM is Leica 12575.

Dimensions:
Weight: 240 grams (black), 320 grams (silver)
Length at infinity: 2 5/8 inches (extended), 1 7/8 inches (collapsed)

Image Quality

Here is a side-by-side comparison between the lenses - with the Elmar LTM on the left and the Macro-Elmar-M on the right. The photos were taken with a tripod-mounted M3 using a shutter release cable, on Kodak Portra 160 film. Lenses were focused on a pipe 1m (3.3') away, with no hoods and no filters.


Elmar LTM vs. Macro-Elmar-M @ f/4
 

Elmar LTM vs. Macro-Elmar-M @ f/5.6
 

Elmar LTM vs. Macro-Elmar-M @ f/8
 

Elmar LTM vs. Macro-Elmar-M @ f/11
 

Elmar LTM vs. Macro-Elmar-M @ f/16
 

Elmar LTM vs. Macro-Elmar-M @ f/22
 

Depth of Field

Shallow Depth of Field and Bokeh are important aspects of modern photography, so to go with some sample photos I’ll compare these ‘slow’ lenses with those ‘fast’ lenses of different focal lengths. Using depth of field calculators online like DOF Master or this one which includes a lens magnification calculator, one can determine how shallow/narrow d.o.f. will be with a specific focal length and aperture from any given distance.

For instance if one where to take a photo with the 50mm Summilux wide open (f/1.4) at it’s minimum focus distance (.7m) the near focus limit would be .694 meters and the far focus limit would be .706 meters. Meaning that the area in focus has a depth of only .012 meters…as we all know the Summilux 50 has a very shallow depth of field wide open, and .012 meters is very shallow.

Now if we were to take a photo of the same object with the 90mm Macro Elmar-M wide open (f/4) at it’s minimum focus distance (.77m) the near focus limit would be .761 meters and the far focus limit would be .779 meters. Meaning that the area in focus has a depth of only .018 meters.

What might be surprising to many is how close these final numbers are. Granted the numbers are a little deceptive when one considers how the frame will be filled when using a 90mm vs. a 50mm, but playing these calculators may change how you think about lenses and what about them produces a shallow depth of field.

Day-to-Day Use of These Lenses

I’ve always considered size an important aspect of the Leica M system, and that’s where these Elmar lenses really shine. They are compact and yes that usually equates to slow with medium and long lenses, but the trade-offs are personal decisions that must be made when building your kit (assuming you don’t have sufficient funds to buy every lens).

The following photos were taken with a tripod-mounted M3 with a shutter release cable, using Kodak Portra 160. Both lenses were focused at their minimum - the Elmar LTM at 1 meter and the Macro Elmar-M at .77 meters (I have altered my M3 to focus below the standard 1 meter), neither image is cropped. Both were shot at 1/2s @ f/4:

Leitz Elmar 9cm f/4 Leica Macro-Elmar-M 90mm f/4

The Macro Elmar was purchased as a lens to compliment my Summicron 35, and together they make an extremely light, small, and versatile pair. In the several hundred shots taken with the MEM, I’ve not noticed distortion or vignetting, but without the hood the lens is susceptible to flare. Under more stringent testing standards the MEM shows “pincushion” distortion of about 1.2%, and vignetting at f/4 of around one stop. Contrast and definition are both extremely high across the field at f/4, and stopping down doesn’t change the performance (except the obvious increased DoF). At about f/5.6 I get the best all around results, but the differences aren’t too noticeable.

The Leitz Elmar, was purchased initially out of curiosity and as a 90mm for my IIIc. Likewise I have not noticed any visible distortion or vignetting, and again, without a hood the lens is susceptible to flare. Under technical testing, there is very little distortion and vignetting is about a half stop. At f/4 the contrast is a level below modern glass, but not as low as some other wartime lenses. Stopping down to f/8 or f/11 improves results dramatically, but as is typical of older Elmar lenses, definition and detail around the edges is significantly less than that of the central area, which makes it a favorite of mine for portraits.

The following photos were taken on a tripod-mounted M3 with a shutter release cable, using Kodak Portra 160. Bright sun was at about a 20° angle to the right. Lenses had no hoods and no filters:

Leitz Elmar 9cm f/4 Leica Macro-Elmar-M 90mm f/4

Conclusion

The 90mm is a somewhat disregarded focal length in the modern rangefinder world, even though it (along with the 50mm) has been available in some model or another from Leica since the beginning. For those just starting out, or those who want to try their hand at street photography but have always been a bit timid, the 90mm can become the perfect compliment to your set.

Both of the 90mm lenses in this ‘review’ are wonderful depending on their intended use, and I wouldn’t hesitate buying either one again if I needed to. The Elmar 9cm is an 80+-year-old design, and the world of optics has come a long way, but one of the wonderful things about the rangefinder system is that even the earliest lenses can still be used on the newest cameras. At under $150 the Elmar LTM is truly a wonderful performer when stopped down, and for the casual 90mm shooter or someone who wants to experiment with the focal length this is really a can’t miss lens. For someone that loves the 90mm focal length (as I do), this lens is a worthy partner to your favorite 90mm. As for the Macro Elmar-M there isn’t much that can be said in it’s praises that you wont find elsewhere online or in books, but for me this is a pretty close to perfect lens; it’s small, it’s ‘sharp’, and it really increases the versatility of your M set up with the close-up abilities. In the end, with a little post processing, you can get these lenses to produce very similar results…not bad for an 80 year and $3800 difference.

Flickr Pool Images



Further Research

Sample images (Macro-Elmar-M) thread in forum
Macro-Elmar-M 90mm f/4  on Leica website
Leica Macro-Elmar-M 90mm group on Flickr
Elmar f=9cm 1:4 group on Flickr
Leitz Elmar 90mm 1:4/90 (Triplet) group on Flickr