Some lenses are clearly designed with specialists in mind, while others can shine at any challenge you throw at them. The Leica Macro-Elmarit-R 60mm f/2.8 is (almost) one such lens.
It focuses right up to 30cm from the sensor (15cm from the front lens), which equates to a 1:2 reproduction ratio. A figure that can be doubled to 1:1 with a dedicated extension tube. But it’s just as happy with landscape, where it’s subtle reproduction of tone and colour will find favor with the naturalist and all those looking to presevre data for post-processing rather than push the limits in camera.
Below is photograph that pretty much sums up what you’re getting with this lens.
At f/2.8, a hint of the artistic veil so characteristic of Leica’s Summicron-R 50 (reviewed here) is present in the highlights, though nowhere near as pronounced. See the 100% enlargement below at f/2.8.
So micro-contrast is slightly low compared to more modern alternatives. But detail is abundant (the picture above is unsharpened at full aperture and the entire frame roughly 6-foot wide, at typical screen resolution).
Wide-open, life is not quite a sexy in the corners, but still very acceptable. In the enlargement below (again 100%), focus is on the top row of tiles, so the grass looks worse than it would if it was in focus.
Shut-down, this lens is almost perfect. Micro contrast is down on modern Zeiss glass such as the mighty FE 55/1.8. But the image is very detailed at any distance and very natural looking.
What can I say? Perfectly natural out of the box. The lens is a *perfect* match for the Sony A7r in that any respective casts seem to cancel out and produce very natural and pleasing results without any enhancements being required.
Of course, this combo also packs so much data in a file that you can go berzerk with the sliders without the image breaking up at all. Even on a camera as brilliant as the A7r, this is not true of all lenses.
I’m officially the worst (uninterested) reviewer of macro lenses, so let’s skip over this briefly.
If you’re willing to set up a strong tripod, face the task of finicky focusing and work lighting like a pro, I hear this lens will reward the effort in spades.
If, like me, you just plonk cup-cakes on a table by a window, hand-hold and breathe smoothly, it ain’t bad either. F/2.8 above/ F/11 below. Both are (large) *full-size* files if you wish to inspect at 100%.
Sweet. This Leica R macro lens is not a bokeh king. Nor does it isolate subjects in a 3D-pop sort of way like the specialists do, but what bokeh it does offer is very smooth and pleasant. This was unexpected and a nice surprise.
Here is one righteous lens. Architects and engineers must love it. Even if you do not fall into one of these categories, you will be happy to come home with a card full of photographs that do not require post-processing to look right. This never feels clinical, however. The lens just acts natural, adding no unwanted geometry to the scene. Anyone ever confronted to mustache distortion will hop with glee.
This totally untouched and totally boring shot of a gate shows what I mean.
This lack of distortion may seem unimportant in an age of in-camera correction. And that’s partly true. But remember that even the best digital image manipulation is by nature destructive and I think the very natural look produced by this macro 60 is largely due to the fact that so little has to be corrected after the shot is made.
Time to trip over … This is a 30+ year-old Leica R. It takes flaring to heart …
That said, I actually had to make it flare to show you and this almost never happens in real-life sessions. The deeply recessed front lens, narrow-ish field of view and good (though not excellent by modern standards) coating mean you very rarely get into trouble.
If you do, this is what it looks like. F/2.8 above, F/8 below.
The great news is A+ control of contrast and glare. Sunlight doesn’t spread around the frame to damage shadows. Remarkable.
The lens reviewed is numbered 315XXXX, indicating production in 1981. It shows some signs of use and wear on the ring metal groves. But close your eyes and you’ll swear you are using a brand new toy. Everything about it is taut and buttery smooth. Focusing is pure joy.
It comes with a screw-on cap that is both a blessing and a pain.
On the negative side, it takes ages to remove so you’ll likely leave it off most of the time, which is not a danger since the front lens is so deeply recessed. But when you need to react fast, and the cap is till on, believe you me, you will let a few four letter words run free in frustration.
The happy flip is that if anything damages the lens through this cap, well … you probably won’t be around to lament about it. It is thick, solid and reassuring metal that will take whatever you throw at it.
Ergonomics and build are a clear cut above anything I have ever used form any other stable. Good ’nuff?
Should you buy one? Well, I have 2 things to say about this :
Some will miss the last drops of micro contrast that more modern lenses provide. The Summicron-R 50/2 might offer at tad more sharpness at f/8 (and one extra stop of light gathering and smaller size) but is clearly more of a specialist lens. The FE 55mm is technically superior in almost every way except colour. But build, price, durability and ‘soul’ go to the Leica.
If this was a HiFi amp, it would be a class-T, with almost the accuracy of the best digital amps yet with the natural tones of well-fed monotriodes. If these characteristics work for you, you really cannot go wrong with this soulful engineer.
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