The Leitz Tele-Elmar 135mm f/4 is a lens which I discovered three times over. My first discovery was that one of the best lenses Leica ever produced is also one of the cheapest (“best” of course is subjective – but more on this later). It’s a true sleeper.
My second discovery is a little-known fact about lens design – a fact which, as far as I can tell, does not appear in any English-language book or on any website. The Tele-Elmar is a Sonnar design; a revolutionary lens formula invented in 1929 by Ludwig Bertele of Zeiss, and which has, since then, acquired a bit of a cult following.
My third discovery is a personal one. I always thought I wasn’t much of a telephoto person. I still don’t think I am, but lately I’ve been using this lens more than I normally do – partly for writing this review, and partly as a way to safely practice street photography in a time of physical distancing. And as I use it more and more I’m learning how to “see” with a medium-tele lens, and discovering more about what it can offer.
A Second Lens for My M3
My Leica M3, which I got at an estate auction, came with two lenses – a Leitz Summicron 50mm f/2 (version 1, 1956) and a Leitz Elmar 90mm f/4 (version 1, 1938). I love the Summicron and I intend never to sell it, but I never quite bonded with the Elmar.
The uncoated pre-war Elmar, though in good optical condition for its age, produced images with less contrast than I like. Besides, the 90mm focal length is a bit too close to 50mm. I dislike carrying gear, so if my second lens doesn’t offer something substantially different or exciting, the temptation is to leave it at home. I ended up selling the Elmar to someone who will hopefully use it more than I did.
For a while I flirted with the idea of a one-camera-one-lens approach with just the M3 and the Summicron 50. When you have what one writer described as “the finest photographic kit available to mankind,” it seems almost greedy to want more. The notion also appealed to my minimalist tastes. But on the other hand, my minimalism is in constant conflict with my interest in vintage cameras and lenses, and in this case the latter won out. Besides, I reasoned, I’m not getting the most out of an interchangeable-lens rangefinder if I don’t have lenses to interchange. Under this pretense, the quest for a new second lens had begun.
I may not have bonded with the Elmar 90, but it helped me figure out what I did want. I had three criteria – a longer focal length offering something more obviously different to the 50mm, a more contrasty rendering, and a reasonable price.
The first criterion helpfully narrowed the search to just one focal length. 135mm is the next step up from 90mm in the Leica M system, and focal lengths longer than 135mm can only be used with a Visoflex. Further research (by which I mean too much time on review websites, forum threads and eBay listings) revealed that the Leitz Tele-Elmar 135mm f/4 also met my other two criteria regarding optical quality and price.
Before I talk about the lens itself, here’s a bit about the man who designed it – Dr Walter Mandler, one of the most revered lens designers of the 20th century. Mandler was born in Germany in 1922, three years before the Leica I was introduced at the Leipzig Spring Fair, revolutionising photography forever. In his mid-twenties, as his friend recounts, Mandler was offered a sales position at Leitz. He turned it down and asked to work in the optical design department instead. His interviewers asked him if he knew anything about optics. “No,” he said, “but I want to learn.”
And learn he did, going on to design such classics as the Summilux 35mm f/1.4 (1961) and the Noctilux 50mm f/1 (1976). It is a mark of how good these lenses were that they both remained optically unchanged and in continuous production for over three decades, eventually being replaced by newer versions with aspherical glass, the use of which was not practical in Mandler’s day.
Likewise, the Tele-Elmar 135mm f/4, introduced in 1965, had a production run of 33 years – an eternity in lens-design terms. Consider what that means; the intervening decades saw unprecedented advances in computer-assisted design, exotic glass, aspherical and floating elements, multi-coating and apochromatic correction. The fact that in all this time, no optical updates were deemed necessary is a testament to the enduring quality of the original design.
The Tele-Elmar is certainly not as well-known as some of Mandler’s other creations, and has far fewer reviews on the internet. But the reviews that do exist are overwhelmingly positive. In The Leica Compendium, Leica historian and optics expert Erwin Puts wrote that with this lens “Leitz equalled and in some areas surpassed the Zeiss Sonnar 1:4/135mm, which had set the Olympian record for a lens of this specification.” Elsewhere he says that the Tele-Elmar design “reached the theoretical optimum” attainable in those days, and that its performance even by modern-day standards is “outstanding.” Likewise, Jonathan Eastland’s book describes the lens as “unsurpassed in its class for optical performance … still one of the best lenses in the entire Leica system.”
What does such performance look like? Even in my hands, it looks like this.
By the way, the photo above was taken on Ilford HP5+ which is a fast (400 ISO) film, and “scanned” at home with a DSLR. So the limiting factors are film grain and scan quality, rather than the resolution of the lens itself.
Lab tests confirm what the photographs show. The Tele-Elmar’s successor is the APO-Telyt 135mm f/3.4. Introduced in 1998 and still in production, it offers only marginally superior performance. Mandler’s design, even after all these years, is almost impossible to improve upon. A comparison of the MTF charts available on Marco Cavina’s website is telling. (I rendered the MTF charts based on technical literature; they are a close approximation and perfect accuracy is not guaranteed.)
If you’re unfamiliar with MTF charts, Lens Rentals has a good introduction. In short, higher lines are better; the theoretically perfect MTF response is a straight, horizontal line at 100%. In this case, for both lenses, the MTF for 10 lp/mm (red lines) which indicate overall contrast stay above 90% from the centre right up to the corners.
The MTF charts also show that in both lenses, the sagittal and tangential lines (solid and dotted lines) stay close together, indicating that the lenses are well-corrected for astigmatism and have smooth, pleasing bokeh.
It is only in the 40 lp/mm MTF (green lines), which indicates ability to resolve extremely fine detail, that the APO-Telyt has a slight edge in wide-open performance. But at this point we are truly splitting hairs. In fact, I would argue that in real-life scenarios, factors like critical focusing and minute camera shake would be more significant than the marginal gain in resolving power offered by the APO-Telyt. Even so, by f/5.6 the Tele-Elmar has almost caught up. By f/8 I would guess there is no meaningful difference. Crucially, with a price tag of over $4,000 the APO-Telyt is about 20 times more expensive than a used Tele-Elmar.
But we don’t need MTF charts to tell us that the Tele-Elmar has excellent contrast; we can just look at pictures. The example below shows a contact-sheet with two photos taken in quick succession with the Elmar 90 (which I sold) and the Tele-Elmar. The Tele-Elmar 135mm, as you can see, achieves greater contrast without sacrificing detail in the highlights or shadows. That’s my personal preference, though some people like the pre-war Elmar’s gentle rendering.
Which brings me to my third criterion – price. At the time of writing, the most recent Tele-Elmar auctioned on eBay UK (small dent on the lens hood, but otherwise in seemingly good condition) sold for £127. I paid just a bit more for mine when I bought it two years ago. Such amounts may well net you a body and two primes in some other systems, but in the Leica M universe, the Tele-Elmar counts as a tremendous bargain – especially in light of its superb performance, which gives the expensive APO-Telyt a run for its money.
What about other alternatives? The Elmarit 135mm f/2.8 sells for about the same price as the Tele-Elmar, and the older Elmar 135mm f/4 and Hektor 135mm f/4.5 lenses can be even cheaper. I’ve not used these lenses myself, but reviews as well as the test data in Erwin Puts’ Leica Compendium suggest they are optically inferior to the Tele-Elmar (comparisons are also available on the Apotelyt website). Finally there are a couple of non-Leitz options – the Nikkor-Q.C 135mm f/4 and Canon Serenar 135mm f4. These came in Leica thread mount variants and can be used on M bodies with an appropriate adaptor. Unfortunately I’m not in a position to compare; I haven’t used these lenses myself, nor have I seen detailed reviews or technical data.
Size and Weight
Compactness is also important to me, and the Tele-Elmar happens to be smaller than the Elmarit, Elmar or Hektor. Unlike the other three, the Tele-Elmar is a “true” tele lens – that is, the distance from its front element to film plane is shorter than its focal length.
That said, the lens is not particularly compact by rangefinder standards. It’s 112mm long and weighs in at 510g, which is not surprising as it’s all metal and glass. The APO-Telyt is slightly smaller and lighter, but as I said, far more expensive. Still, size is relative. The Tele-Elmar is diminutive compared to a 135mm full-frame DSLR lens. And it doesn’t feel particularly nose-heavy on my M3, perhaps because the body weighs slightly more than the lens.
The Leitz Tele-Elmar 135mm f/4 with an optical design of 5 elements in 3 groups was introduced in 1965, replacing the Elmar 135mm f/4 (4 elements in 4 groups). For the next 33 years the Tele-Elmar went through some external changes, but it remained optically unchanged until it was replaced by the APO-Telyt 135mm f/3.4 in 1998.
Collectors distinguish between two versions of the Tele-Elmar, helpfully but unimaginatively called version 1 and version 2. My copy is a version 1 from 1965, the very first year of production. It is the rarer “red scale” version of which about 3,000 were made out of a total of over 28,000 Tele-Elmar lenses (versions 1 and 2 combined).
“Red scale” denotes a distance scale with feet marked in red; by the end of 1965 this was replaced by yellow markings. I have no special fascination for the red scale – in fact, I think the yellow scale is slightly easier to read – but red scale versions seem to fetch higher prices in auctions. I didn’t know this when I bought the lens, but luckily it was still quite cheap.
My copy has a knurled and scalloped focusing ring. This was replaced in 1970 by a ring which is knurled but not scalloped (fortunately, I am not yet at the stage where I care deeply about such things).
Version 2 introduced in 1992 saw more significant changes, though the optical formula, as I said, stayed the same. Among other things, it gained a built-in telescopic hood, a 46mm (instead of the earlier 39mm) filter size, and about 40g in additional weight. Version 2 is rarer and also commands significantly higher prices. I prefer version 1 because it is smaller and lighter, and the filter size matches that of my Summicron 50.
Version 1 has a removable lens head. To remove it, grip the aperture ring, turn it to f/4 and then continue turning firmly until the head unscrews (to reattach, repeat in reverse). The head was designed for use with the Visoflex, a mirror-and-pentaprism housing which can be inserted between a Leica lens and rangefinder body to convert it to an SLR. I have never used a Visoflex and nor do I intend to, but if you’re interested in going down this route, the Leica Wiki has more information on the Visoflex and other accessories.
In addition, the head has a 39mm Leica thread mount which can be mounted with adapters on a DSLR – an option that is not available with most other rangefinder lenses due to their short flange focal distance. Since many enlargers (including mine) have a 39mm thread mount, the head can also be used for darkroom printing.
Build Quality and Ergonomics
The Leitz Tele-Elmar 135mm f/4 is a lens from the tail-end of the rangefinder’s golden age. In 1965, SLRs were growing in popularity, but their dominance was not yet complete. Leica’s premier lens designer Walter Mandler was churning out timeless classics seemingly at his leisure. The Tele-Elmar’s construction reflects the precision, pride and obsessive attention to detail that we associate with Leica lenses from this period.
My version 1 lens is all metal and glass. It has a milled aperture ring with half-stop clicks from f/4 to f/22. There are 10 aperture blades for well-rounded out-of-focus highlights, and a beautifully finished friction-fit lens cap – metal with an inner lining of felt. The focus ring goes from 1.5 metres to infinity with a relatively long 180° throw, and there is an unusual depth-of-field scale in an inverted triangle. All markings are finely engraved and painted. I am not very good with adjectives, but liberally sprinkle words like smooth, precise and well-damped over the foregoing description and you will have the general idea.
In short, the Tele-Elmar is an optical and mechanical tour de force, at a price which is almost incredible by Leica standards.
The Sonnar Cult
My second discovery around the Tele-Elmar came after I had owned the lens for over a year. In October last year, my friend and I went to an Extinction Rebellion action in London. She took several good photos with her grandfather’s Praktica SLR, but one stood out – a Red Rebel in full protest regalia (she kindly allowed me to reproduce it here). We all know that a good photo needs much more than a good lens, but the rendering of that image caught my eye. The lens she used was a Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 135mm f/3.5.
Sonnar is a name steeped in legend. Invented in 1929 by the optical genius Ludwig Bertele of Zeiss, the original Sonnar was a fast 50mm lens for 35mm cameras. Since then, many other Zeiss lenses in various focal lengths have been based on the Sonnar formula, which has also been associated with Hasselblad, Rollei, Linhof and other giants of 20th century photography. Companies such as Nikon, Canon and Jupiter, have also made “Sonnar type” lenses, though they could not use the trademark.
The “normal Sonnar” eventually lost out in popularity to the Double-Gauss design, like that found in my Summicron 50 and in the vast majority of fast 50mm lenses. Nevertheless, the Sonnar still inspires a small but passionate following among rangefinder users; after all, the rangefinder itself is a bit of a cult compared to the more “mainstream” SLR. The Sonnar, you might say, is the Dvorak to the Double-Gauss’ Qwerty.
On the other hand, the Sonnar design quietly persisted in longer focal lengths, both for rangefinders (like the Nikkor PC 85mm f/2 made famous by David Duncan) and for SLRs (like my friend’s CZJ Sonnar 135mm, manufactured until the late 1980s).
Leica’s Secret Sonnar
Anyhow, after seeing the Red Rebel photo, I looked up the lens diagram for the CZJ Sonnar and immediately noticed that it was similar to my own 135mm, the Tele-Elmar. (I rendered the lens diagrams based on technical literature; they are a close approximation, but accuracy is not guaranteed.)
Looking at the two lens diagrams, the main difference is that the first (leftmost) element of the CZJ Sonnar becomes in the Tele-Elmar a two-element group. Beyond that, both lenses have a second group made up of a positive (converging) and an unusually thick negative (diverging) element. Next you have the aperture stop, and finally a positive meniscus element. In other words, the CZJ Sonnar is a 4/3 construction (that is, 4 elements in 3 groups) while the Tele-Elmar is a 5/3, but the similarities are stronger than the differences. This was intriguing. Was my Tele-Elmar in fact a Sonnar in disguise? Or was it disqualified from the Sonnar club by its two-element group, or some other subtle difference which had escaped my untrained eye?
In search of answers, I turned to Erwin Puts and Jonathan Eastland’s books on the Leica system. Unfortunately, comprehensive as they are, neither of them made any mention of a Leitz–Sonnar crossover lens. Next, I turned to the internet.
Deep into Google search results, I found a 2006 forum thread where one user noted that the Tele-Elmar is “very close” to the Hasselblad Sonnar 250mm f/5.6 (a lens which incidentally was used on Apollo 11 and other lunar missions). But the latter, like the CZJ Sonnar 135mm, is a 4/3 construction. But we all know how reliable forum threads are. I continued to dig deeper.
Finally, with much help from Google Translate, I found the confirmation I was seeking in a treatise by Italian optics expert Marco Cavina (and later also on a German website). Not only does Cavina confirm my suspicion that the Tele-Elmar is a tipo Sonnar, he also notes its close resemblance to the taking lens of the 1959 Tele Rolleiflex – a Zeiss Sonnar 135mm f/4 with 5 elements in 3 groups. In other words, just like the Tele-Elmar. (As before, I rendered the lens diagrams based on technical literature; they are a close approximation, but accuracy is not guaranteed.)
Incidentally, I have found very little information on the Tele Rollei taking lens; who designed it, how it performs, and whether it directly inspired Mandler’s Tele-Elmar. If you know anything about it, please let me know.
Cavina’s insight also offers a clue to the Tele-Elmar’s startling performance which I talked about earlier. What we have is essentially a medium-format lens designed for a 6×6 image circle, being used to make 35mm images. It is quite literally over-qualified. No wonder there is virtually no vignetting or distortion, not even wide open.
The Sonnar DNA is also surely responsible for the Tele-Elmar’s optical quality. I mentioned that the Double-Gauss design eventually became the industry standard for fast normal lenses. This was in part due to some of the inherent “flaws” in the Sonnar design (though fans would say the flaws are precisely what give Sonnars their unique character). However, in a medium-telephoto like the Tele-Elmar, many of these flaws fall away. For example, as Kats Ikeda explains, the Sonnar’s higher field aberrations have less of an effect at longer focal lengths. What’s more, the Sonnar’s advantages now come to the fore – compactness, pleasing bokeh and excellent correction of higher-order spherical aberration and coma (recall the Tele-Elmar’s sweet MTF graphs).
So this was my second discovery: the Leitz Tele-Elmar 135mm f/4 is based on an optical formula by one of the greatest designers at Zeiss, modified by one of the greatest designers at Leica. And now fallen into my hands – what a comedown! But now that I have it, I fully intend to make the most of it. The lens renders beautifully in both black-and-white, as well as colour.
Distortion, Vignetting and Bokeh
The Apotelyt website reports that distortion (pincushion) is less than 1%, and vignetting, even wide open, is less than half a stop. In other words, these aberrations for all practical purposes are non-existent. In the gasholder photo below, straight lines look dead straight (I added a yellow guideline as a reference), and in the photo of the horse, or indeed the Dante statue above, the sky looks evenly illuminated. This is also borne out by Gerd Waloszek’s vignette tests with a digital Leica body (which often behave differently from film).
Sonnar lenses are famous for the quality of their bokeh – both the smoothness of the bokeh itself and the harmonious transition from the in-focus to out-of-focus areas – and the Tele-Elmar is no exception. This is in evidenced in several of my other photos too, but here are two which nicely illustrate both foreground and background bokeh.
In the first photo, both the near and the far wall of the cage are smoothly defocused and the bokeh is not “wiry” at all (even though it is literally wires, ha). The magnified detail from the second photo, taken at a climate change protest in Copenhagen, contains some clues as to why the bokeh looks so pleasant. The out-of-focus highlights look evenly illuminated, with no hint of the “soap-bubble effect” caused by over-corrected spherical aberration.
There’s also no hint of the elliptical “cat’s eye” effect caused by optical vignetting, and thanks to the 10 aperture blades the “bokeh balls” look circular (not polygonal) even though the photo was taken stopped down to f/5.6. (By the way, none of this is to suggest that some types of bokeh are objectively better. The Tele-Elmar satisfies the classical requirements for good bokeh, but lenses with “bad bokeh” – swirliness, soap bubble effects, and so on – can also be used to great effect.)
The Many Uses of a Medium-Tele
The quality of its bokeh makes the Leitz Tele-Elmar 135mm f/4 a great choice for a portrait lens. Some photographers prefer portrait lenses in the 75-105mm range, but for me the Tele-Elmar 135 is the ideal complement to my Summicron 50, which I use when I want to include more of the subject environment.
A medium-tele is good for photos of animals, enabling me to shoot from further away (one of the cat photos got badly scratched when I was loading film into the developing tank, but I like it enough that I decided to share it anyway). For the same reason, the lens is also good for shooting sports and performances from the sidelines.
The one thing I didn’t use it much for is street photography, where I tend to rely mainly on a 28mm and a 50mm; I’ve never felt comfortable photographing people from afar. But I am in India during the lockdown, and when I go for my daily physically-distanced walk, I often carry the Tele-Elmar. The 135mm focal length, I’ve discovered, is perfect for head-and-shoulders portraits from 2 metres away, like the first photo of a car mechanic sitting outside his shop.
By using it more I’m also learning to “see” like a medium-tele lens – noticing small, everyday details which I might have otherwise missed. (“A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera,” as Dorothea Lange famously said.) I’ve never been much of a still-life photographer, but now with the lockdown and limited opportunities for human interaction, I’m exploring a form of “found photography”.
So far, this review has been unrelentingly positive, but it’s only fair to note that the Tele-Elmar is not without some downsides.
First, I personally haven’t used it on any camera other than my Leica M3, but I understand that framing and composing with a 135mm lens on other Leica M cameras is inconvenient if not downright unfeasible (though one way around this is to use viewfinder magnifiers). Unlike an SLR, a rangefinder’s viewfinder typically does not “zoom in” when you mount a longer lens. The M3 has the highest finder magnification (0.91x) of all Leica M cameras, and even then, the 135mm framelines are quite small. In the photo below, taken through my M3 finder, the large rectangle is for 50mm, and the smaller rectangle in the middle is for 135mm. You can see that there is a bit of viewfinder blockage from the lens, but it does not impinge on the 135mm frame.
In other models, the 135mm framelines are even smaller; in fact, the M6 TTL 0.58 doesn’t have them at all. To be fair, this drawback, as well as the next, is a limitation of the rangefinder design itself and not this particular lens.
Second downside, focusing a longer lens is also difficult with a rangefinder. For example, at a distance of 15 metres with a 50mm lens at f/4 the total depth of field is over 44 metres. With a 135mm lens at f/4, depth of field is less than 3 metres – very little margin for error! And as we know, the rangefinder does not “zoom in”, so the subject appears small, which makes it even harder to focus.
In addition to having the highest magnification, the M3 also has the longest effective base length (62.33) of all Leica M cameras, which translates to higher focusing accuracy. Even so, and perhaps because I often shoot moving subjects, I miss focus more often than I do with my Summicron 50. But I’ve learned to adjust: if it’s a critical photo and I have the opportunity, I refocus and take a second shot. For the same reason, rangefinder calibration is also more critical – wider lenses are more forgiving of slight misadjustments.
Third downside, a maximum aperture of f/4 is relatively slow. Then again, the fastest 135mm rangefinder lens ever made, as far as I’m aware, is the Elmarit f/2.8, which is only one stop faster and significantly bulkier than the Tele-Elmar. If you’re interested in a faster lens primarily for bokeh, one stop for a tele lens is not that significant. For example, at a typical “portrait distance” of 2 metres, depth of field at f/2.8 and f/4 is not that different – 80 cm and 110 cm respectively. In any case, for me “quantity” of bokeh is less important than quality, and on that count the Tele-Elmar delivers in spades.
Of course, the traditional raison d’être for faster lenses is light-gathering ability. The rule of thumb is that lenses can be safely handheld at speeds faster than the reciprocal of their focal length (e.g. faster than 1/135 sec for the Tele-Elmar), though this depends on the camera, how much coffee you’ve drunk and various other factors. I don’t drink much coffee and the Leica M3 has a soft shutter and no mirror slap. The sandal photo I posted above was shot at 1/30 sec, handheld. One time I tried to photograph an artist restoring a painting at 1/8 sec, and it didn’t work out (see below). Then again, shooting Velvia 50 handheld in a dark church is just asking for trouble.
My last and perhaps least important criticism is that the Tele-Elmar is not, to my eyes, a particularly pretty lens – certainly not by Leica standards. My first-generation Summicron 50 is a jewel-like delight in chrome and glass which makes the Tele-Elmar look industrial by comparison. But when the Tele-Elmar makes such beautiful photos, do we really care? I actually do, just a little bit – but I’m shallow like that.
The Leitz Tele-Elmar 135mm f/4 is an outstanding lens by one of the greatest designers at Leica, based on an optical formula by one of the greatest designers at Zeiss – a bit like Hendrix covering Dylan. Optically and mechanically the lens is near perfect. A Leica brochure from 1973 claims that “the maximum aperture is also the optimum aperture for resolving power, contrast transfer and colour correction.” If true, the Tele-Elmar represents that holy grail of optical design: a lens which cannot be improved by stopping down.
That said, the lens is not without drawbacks – mainly the relatively slow speed, and the general difficulty of framing and focusing tele lenses with a rangefinder. If you want a 135mm M-mount lens, and can adapt to or accept these limitations, the price makes it a no-brainer. The Tele-Elmar remains, as one reviewer put it, “one of the last true bargains of Leica optics”. It also makes me look like a better photographer than I am.
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