This thing about testing old lenses on modern bodies is a very contrarian pursuit. Having been wowed by two lenses that shouldn’t have performed well, I’m now let down by an old favourite of mine.
Mandler-era Leica lenses have always made my knees tremble. With their nice level of fine detail but generally sift appearance, they could easily tame the brutality of harsh sunlight on my highlight-adverse Sony A7r2 and produce elegant, delicate renderings of landscapes that might have been over-etched with more modern designs.
With a high-dynamic range sensor followed by very conservative in-camera signal management, these laudable characteristics may well have turned a painterly masterpiece of a lens into a lazy slob.
Take this, for example, and weep with me 😉
This may well have you scratching your head wondering how I could possibly have hoped to make something interesting out of it … Take a knife-edge lens with plenty of 3D to that little scene and the bright yellow leaf would pop out of the screen. Here, you wonder whether the wooden terrace is shedding some dead skin.
The photograph lacks readability, pop, colour, excitement … In this soft light, it’s just boring. Turn around though …
Here, the photograph is uninsteresting because the scene is, but it pops a lot more in the sun. It’s immediately readable and full of life. Thedelicate touch and 3D that made this lens a winner for me on the Sony is suddenly back again.
And that’s what kept repeating in my sample shots: not punchy enough (on this X1D camera) in low light, pretty good in strong light. Here are a few more examples of this.
This could have been a nice photograph and you can see how the pink flower is alive and joyful in the sun. But the bottlebrush flower in the shadow is buried and lifeless.
From a distance, and with some evening sun on it, it comes to life again. This is f/4. Rendering proved to be really nice here, but the camera really stuggled with white balance and so did I. The pool water is the right colour, the wood also, but the rest is too dark and green.
The broom flowers in the background should be a sparkling yellow, but turn to faded gold as if they’d given up the ghost, as they will in a couple of weeks, in the blistering summer sun.
I could make that look nicer with simple white balance adjustment, but don’t always want to have to. And the results are never really spot on. The first photograph on the page illustrates this. It is nicer but still feels heavy and slightly dull.
Here’s another example at f/4. In direct morning sunlight, the poker almost glows and the lens’s elegant signature, which appealed to me so much in the past, is evident here. We get the benefits of the vintage looks without the drawbacks.
And there’s no shortage of resolution on this sensor.
But in softer light, the meaning of the photograph is lost in translation, unless PP is applied to liven things up, as below. It can be done. But adequate vitamin D in the form of sunlight seems to be a prerequisite that did not apply on the Sony.
It’s an identical story in black and white. Happy and so elegant in the sunlight:
A bit drowsy and lacklustre in the shadows (this one is acceptable and I could tweak it more in PP, but … ):
Putting words on rendering is no trivial pursuit, so metaphors come in handy as semantic enablers. In the previous post in the series, the Distagon 1.4/35 ZM was compared to light, airy Chantilly cream made with the most fragrant wild vanilla. And the slightly zestier Distagon 2/25 ZF.2 as a similar recipe with perhaps a touch of lemon added.
In this culinary register, the present Leica 90/2.8 is clearly custard. Thicker, stronger and possibly … disgusting in the wrong conditions 😉 😉 😉 😉 😉 Oy, I said “in the wrong conditions”, don’t hate me.
Going back to the previous post, the audiophile metaphor had landed the Zeiss lenses firmly in the modern tube amp register and the Elmarit is clearly more vintage feeling here.
By which, I mean no harm. There’s body and elegance to those roses, in a “The remains of the day” style.
On the X1D, the Elmarit-R 90 certainly can be used to illuminate your screen in a very distinctive and beautiful fashion. The lens’ beautiful 3D and bokeh contribute to an impression of volume and texture. But for those in search of a more modern neutrality, this may not be the go to optical fomula.
Which is a shame because that generation of Leica lens is probably the best built of any lens I have ever owned. Without being as heavy as an old Hassy beast, it feels solid, smooth, chunky but efficient. In many ways, this feels like the exact oopposite to the little Nikkor 501/.8, with its cheap, clunky plastic body housing sprightly optics.
Compare this to the similar photograph (in different light) in the Nikkor review. Here, the air feels denser, the colour scheme leans towards the other end of the spectrum, and the plant takes on more 3D and heft, compared to the less detailed but more lively Nikkor (in duller light).
At this point, let me pop in a plug for the Hassy, drawing again from the arcane universe of audiophilia.
Tubes, triodes, in particular, can sound like nothing else in the audio world. For those who can live with 2 Watts, a univese of tone and delicacy unavailable to the silicon behemoths priced similarly to exotic sports cars. But the supporting circuit has often inflicted upon the listener a host of unwanted auditory parasites. Capacitor coupling with ugly time shifts, transformer coupling with rolled off spectrum edges, microphonic tube drivers, and combinations thereof, casting a veil on the star of the electronic show …
Designs would be brilliant in some conditions, such as Jazz and chamber music. But angry veins would inevitably start throbbing on owner foreheards when you unleashed a large orchestra on a Wagner hissy fit, for example.
It isn’t until recently that various designers have succesfully experimented with circuit topologies that (more or less, depending the recipe) do away with the unwanted guests, letting the triode perform its inimitable magic. As described beneath the Red Hot Poker photograph (above) “the benefits without the drawbacks”
And, beyond the findings about the lens themselves, the camera itself deserves accolades aplenty for paying a similar role in the electromagnetic spectrum. Just like those elite tube amps add or remove nothing from the flavour of the power triode, enabling the sampling (called rolling) of multiple brands to explore their respective sonic delights and pitfalls, so the Hassy highlights the personalities and differences between lenses, allowing users to sample them as the designer intended, with no unwanted signature form the camera. Plug over. Back to the lens.
These two photographs illustrate my point once again. With a little help from PP (added clarity and saturation) the top one displays an elegant depiction of this sunset. Nice colours, nice depth. But the morning shot, below it, clearly demonstrates the benefits of a good night’s sleep for 3D stamina and lifelike pop.
To unlevel the playing field, the second image is a 2 frame stitch (you can tell by the binocular effect created by the central vignetting 😉 😉 ), providing a resolution advantage to the panorama. But, if a bookie were to organise bets on the causes of this added zest, my money would be on lighting conditions rather than pixel count.
A few shots round the garden are all good to test a few aspects of the lens’ drawing, but it deserves more attention than that. So, on the week-end, I braved the hords of people who swarmed around a market, clearly thinking the epidemic is behind us, hugging, bunching up, to give the Elmarit another playing ground.
And there’s good and there’s bad to report. Let’s start with the bad because the good is a lot gooder than expected.
On photographs such as this street scene, where earthy colours dominate and much of the photograph is in the shadows, it all feels a little sleepy to me. And, using clarity to liven up the area turns it angry before it vivifies it.
Here, in spite of some shadow lift and clarity, the dog – who has kindly left the puddle for us all to enjoy – is not as clearly identifiable as I’d like. But, already the marks on the wall are passing from a pleasant state of Wabi Sabi into the downright grubby. Striking a pleasing balance is often beyond delicate. What lovely 3D and what lovely colours, though …
This is a little more satisfying. Anyone who’s visited charming colorful villages in Germany will remember the blues, the pinks and the yellows. Could that cultural influence have oriented Her Mandler towards a pastel flavour rendering ?
I mean … wonderful, organic 3D and a real lust for pastel colours seem to describe this lens’s top priorities.
If pandemic lockdown has brought you down and a colour flush is what you need to bounce back up, do get one of these on your camera. Even photographing someone’s knickers will bring a smile to your face.
The more colour in a scene, the happier the Elmarit. Largely unbothered by the sort of summer light that would send most gear crying to mamma, the Leica rolls off the top end into a world of strawberry cake and mint jelly. I have to say, such images are systematically giggle worthy and bring a silly grin to my face every time. And that 3D, come on …
It really isn’t without it’s foibles, the Elmarit-R 90/2.8. Or, to be more accurate in my criticism, its shooting envelope is more restricted than the current marketing lie of do-it-all gear would have us desire. But what it does well, it really does better than others … I can’t really think of a lens that will out-Mandler it.
You couldn’t decently equip a war photographer with it. Back home, newspaper readers would inevitable think “well, it doesn’t look that bad, look how lovely those flame colours are, they seem to be having a jolly good time”. Send the same guy to the front lines with a 55 Sony Zeiss and the population would start donating organs on the spot.
I remember my first visit to Euro Disney. We cheaped out and bought an evening visit, from 6pm to closing time. Smaller queues, the shameful pleasure of going in when most were leaving and … the lighting up of the fake buildings.
I distinctly remember that time of day when natural lighting and artificial lighting blend perfectly and everything seems to glow with wonderful colours. Walking, 30 minutes away from Paris, in a Mexican village full of adobe walled cafes, heading out towards some equally mesmerising tropical island with a pirate ship, those few minutes of perfect lighting made real life go away. In case you’re wondering, I was almost 40, not 4 😉 😉
The photograph above recreates that feeling. It’s far prettier than the original scene. The walls almost look like they were made to look a little grubby so as not to look too new and fake.
I’ve deliberately moved away from prettifying gear. It adds a flavour that cannot be taken away and locks me into a certain genre that doesn’t suit my tastes.
But boy is it fun to rediscover it, almost by accident. There, on demand, thanks to (once again) a cheap lens from the past. One that had given me much pleasure years ago but may be even more delightful today. Either because the Hassy wrings even more joie de vivre out of it, or by sheer contrast with my very stern and serious XCD lenses. Whatever the reason, I want to put shorts on and go buy candy.
It works, it can work, in black and white.
Your reception of b&w files made using the Elmarit-R 90 depend on what appeals to you in monocrhome photography in the first place.
Maybe I would get used to the lens but, up to now, it has taken me more effort to turn colour files into acceptable b&w images that with my other lenses. Photographs somehow lack the zest and edge that other lenses give me. This however brings a sort of glow to the table that makes shadows come alive a bit more (see the stone wall on the right, above, for instance).
But overall, this wouldn’t be my goto lens for monochrome work. I cannot make it delineated without being over contrasty, somehow. Maybe with a different PP workflow ?
Speaking of monocrhome, what feels more interesting is to seek monochromatic scenes and photograph them in colour. What the lens lacks in micro-contrast it makes up for in colour separation, bringing back a sense of aliveness along a different axis from usual.
You can even do natural duotones (silly grin)
But, really, this is what this lens is for : colourful colour 🙂
And let me end this – kind of – review, with another neat trick this lens can pull. One that I absolutely didn’t find out purely by accident by fluffling a photograph 😉 😉 😉
It, and many other older lenses tolerate squeezing of the diaphragm quite elegantly. I was going for a vertical pano at full aperture for a bit of 3D pop and was surprised to see the Hassy climb to ISO 3200 in full light … ahem. So, instead of f/2.8, this was f/22. I did the f/2.8 immediately afterwards and … really prefer the closed down version.
Will this lens add to the weight of the shelf I had promised myself to keep spartan and frugal? (“Always two there are, one camera and one lens”. In my dreams and in Sith lore, but not in my office … ).
Without the trip to Aubagne, I had written “No. This one must go.
It is no fault of the lens, which was a favourite on my previous photon converter from the East, but what this Mandler tour-de-force does best on my current camera, organic 3D and elegant rendering, is actually done even better by a native lens, the superb XCD 90, without getting stuck in the quicksands of shadows. So, there really is no point in keeping both. Which is ironic, as of all the adapted lenses tested so far, this is the one that spatters light over the sensor with the greatest ease. Ah well … “
But if you shoot in strong light, own a camera with strong contrast (lower dynamic range than the Hassy) and prize build quality, look no further than this gem of the 80s. Just go back to the photograph above and tell me you’re not impressed 😉
VERDICT : The best sub 500€ feel good lens ?
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