THE LEICA-M 90mm ƒ/4 ELMAR C

MONTERREY — I have shot tightly framed portraits of people since I began taking photos at age ten or eleven.  A certain style of naturalistic headshot, the subject fully aware and looking straight into the lens, has been a major element of my work for my entire photographic life.  I still have almost every negative I ever shot and though I hope I have learned a thing or two along the way, I am still rather happy with many of the portraits I took of my classmates, teachers, and family back in Junior High and High School.  

For someone who takes that type of photo a lot, however, I was never much interested in a portrait lens:  those lenses falling roughly between 70mm and 100mm. I did nearly all of these portraits with my all-time-favorite lens, the 50mm. Still today, even though I have many more optics than I did in Junior High, the 50 is my mainstay lens for portraits.  As a Leica shooter I used nothing but a 50mm Summicron for some years. For years after that I only had a rarely used 135mm f/4.5 Hektor and a 15mm f/4.5 Voigtlander Super-Heliar, both at the far ends of Leica usability.

“The 90mm f/4 Elmar C has a somewhat strange history, if you’re into that sort of thing.  It was made between 1973 and 1978 and was one of the lenses designed and marketed for use on Leica’s entry-level rangefinder, the CL, which they made in partnership with Minolta.”

Eventually, though, I decided I was going to acquire the Leica holy trinity of focal lengths (35-50-90) to use on my digital M-P 240.  I bought a new 50mm, the Zeiss f/2 Planar ZM, then a Voigtlander 35mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar, and finally, after much research, a Leica 90mm f/4 Elmar C.  On one level, budget influenced all of these decisions. I suppose if I had had unlimited funds I would have bought all new Leica glass and while it would, no doubt, have been excellent, It would have been a shame not to have experienced the results from the three aforementioned lenses.  In particular, the 50mm Zeiss is so good and so fits my own vision of what I want a photo to look like, that I have no desire to trade it for anything else. The 35mm Color-Skopar failed mechanically and was replaced with a Leica 35mm ASPH Summicron, a better but larger and more expensive optic.  The 90mm Elmar C is something else entirely. This is a lens I chose somewhat half-heartedly. I’ve never used those focal lengths very often (and I still don’t). The business of changing lenses in the field and then having to inevitably change them back to the far more useful 50 or 35mm (a focal length I have fallen in love with) gives me pains.  After all, I still thoroughly enjoy shooting my portraits with a 50mm. So I did my research and chose the Elmar C because people rated it to be “all right”, “okay”, and even “Just fine.” It wasn’t terribly costly, coming in at around $350-$450 in good condition and it isn’t much larger or heavier than a 50mm.

The 90mm f/4 Elmar C has a somewhat strange history, if you’re into that sort of thing.  It was made between 1973 and 1978 and was one of the lenses designed and marketed for use on Leica’s entry-level rangefinder, the CL, which they made in partnership with Minolta.  What is, apparently, the same lens optically was also marketed as the Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm f/4. There are rumors that these lenses don’t work properly on Leica rangefinders other than the CL but this is not true.  The 90mm Elmar C works perfectly on my M6ttl, my M-P 240, and my M9 Monochrome. Jef has the Minolta version and it works just fine on his modern Leicas, both film and digital.

In fact, I very nearly bought the Minolta version and still might pick one up if I can find one I like.  The Leica version has a strange, pop out rubber hood and is supposed to be used with some sort of quasi-mythical “Series 5.5” filters.  The Minolta has regular filter threads and no weird rubber hood. My copy looks practically brand new and even though the rubber hood is at least 40 years old it isn’t rotted or coming apart but who knows for how long it will stay that way.  These things do give me pause. I wish, in particular, that I could find a good filter to protect this lens because this lens is, in short, utterly amazing.

When it arrived I shot a few pictures of my kids around the house.  It isn’t a fast lens and they were mostly blurred. Then I took it out on the streets on the M-P 240 and shot a few frames.  When I looked at them I was stunned by how sharp they appeared. The images themselves were nothing special though, so I reserved final judgement for later.  I was doing some work for a Mumbai based NGO. We visited a home for elderly women, all of whom wanted me to take their photo. It was a low-key environment and people were literally lining up to have their picture taken.  I have learned a trick or two over the years and recognized the perfect location for an instant “studio.”

“The Leica 90mm Elmar C has everything except speed.”

I asked each woman to stand in the doorway to the house.  The doorway was inset, shaded by an overhang, and much darker inside.  The portico and overhang shielded the women from the direct, incredibly bright Indian sun, which bounced off nearby buildings to evenly light their faces.  The exposure thus was so much brighter that the background of the dimly lit room simply faded to a black backdrop. I politely asked each woman to look directly into the lens, snapped a few frames, showed those who asked their image and exchanged “namastes.”  I knew that if I had focus and framing right that I had some good portraits but I was unprepared by the incredible level of detail this 40 year old bargain-ish lens delivered. The images, their level of detail and contrast, their smooth transition between in and out of focus, are stunning.  I might not recommend this lens for commercial portrait work as the detail it delivers might not suit any client less than absolutely confident in their complexion, but if it is sharpness you want then I find it hard to believe that you could do better than this modest piece of 1970s optical technology.

The Leica 90mm Elmar C has everything except speed.  At a maximum aperture of f/4 you need light. It is small, well-made, and light.  It doesn’t take up much room in my bag so I am likely to have this lens in the unlikely event I need a 90mm.  And when those situations arise I have nothing that can produce an image like this one. The 90mm Elmar C won’t deliver the same fast and creamy results as its newest 90mm cousin, the $4,200 f/2 Summicron, let alone a 75mm f/1.25 Noctilux for a cool $16,500.  It will, however, tell the truth. FP

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