Leica Elmarit-R 28mm F/2.8 Lens Review

Leica Elmarit-R 28mm F/2.8 Lens Review

2000 1125 James Tocchio

Somehow I’ve become a user of Leica lenses. This despite my general lack of money and a penchant for embracing imperfect lenses. Leica, lack of money, and optical imperfection? Doesn’t seem to fit, does it? But consider that I prefer SLRs (and not the uber-pricey M system), and that a reaching synonym of the word “imperfect” could be “characterful,” and it starts to make sense. Spending the past few months shooting the latest lens in my collection, the Leitz Wetzlar Elmarit-R 28mm F/2.8, has done nothing to diminish my feeling for these lesser-loved Leica lenses.

But don’t just assume I’m saying this lens is “the best,” and go closing that tab quite yet. Unpack that first paragraph and we get to some finer points. I implied that the lens isn’t expensive. It’s not, but only compared with other Leica lenses. And I called it characterful, but we can just as rightfully reverse the synonym back to imperfect – because it is. In the case of the Leica Elmarit-R 28mm (as in all things, really), the truth of the matter lies somewhere in the details.

Brief History and Variants of the Leica Elmarit-R 28mm F/2.8

The Leica Elmarit-R 28mm F/2.8 debuted at Photokina in 1970, providing Leica R mount landscape, architectural, reporting, and advertising photographers with an ideal lens for their work. It was produced for a respectable twenty-two years, from 1970 to 1992, and was offered in two-cam, three-cam, and R-only configurations throughout the decades. Serial numbers beginning with the number “2” were made during the 1970s, while serials beginning with “3” were made in the 1980s and ’90s.

The earliest version has a Series 7 (48mm) filter thread, as well as an attachable lens hood into which a filter may be inserted (shown in this review). Later versions have built in lens hoods and a more commonplace 55mm diameter filter thread. The latest model added ROM contacts for use with the R8 and R9 (and cost $2,500 when new). Approximately 50,500 total Leica Elmarit-R 28mm F/2.8 lenses were made. Of this number, 44,500 were black paint units while 6,000 were painted Safari green to match the Leica R3 Safari cameras.

Build quality is excellent, typical of classic Leica quality. The made-in-Germany Elmarit has a full metal body, including focus and aperture rings, mount, lens barrel, and filter thread. The focus action is smooth and weighty, and the aperture ring clicks into its half-stop detents with confidence. It’s a dense, weighty lens; the kind of optic which is as fun to hold and look at and actuate as it is to shoot.

Specifications of the Leica Elmarit-R 28mm F/2.8

    • Leica Cat. Numbers – 11204; 11247; 11206 – Safari
    • Designer – Rudolf Ruehl
    • Production Years and Total Produced – 1970 – 1992; 50,500
    • Variants – 2-cam, 3-cam, R-only; Olive Safari edition
    • Elements and Groups – 8 / 8
    • Aperture Range – F/2.8 – F/22, half-stop increments
    • Diaphragm – 8 blades
    • Close-focusing Distance – 30 cm (11.81 inches)
    • Angle of View – 76 degrees {diagonal)
    • Dimensions (Length x Diameter) – 40 x 62mm (1.57 x 2.47 inches)
    • Weight – 275 grams (9.7 oz.)
    • Leica Accessories – Hood (12509), Lens Cap (14172)

Real-world Use and Image Quality

There’s nothing too exotic about the Leica Elmarit-R 28mm F/2.8. Shooters who have used any 28mm lens in the past will know what to expect in terms of framing and composition, and will likely already have an opiniion on the focal length in general terms. For those who may not be sure whether or not the 28mm lens is relevant or useful or necessary, here’s my take.

The 28mm lens is a perfect focal length for those of us interested in capturing context and feeling. In landscape, architectural, and editorial shooting it is superb, and when shooting street photography it is a nearly perfect perspective with limitless versatility. It’s my go-to focal length for traveling (alone or with the family). I used the Leica 28mm just a few months ago to shoot a wedding (as a guest) and it did everything that I wanted it to do. I loved using it, and the images it made were great. The 28mm lens is a real do-everything lens, more-so than even the “standard” 50mm (for me), and every serious camera-liker should own and shoot one (regularly).

This Leica 28mm lens, specifically, has its strengths and weaknesses. In practical use it is a pleasant and engaging lens. The focus action, which rotates approximately 270°, is smooth and precise (though a bit long for fast focusing). The aperture ring is placed far enough from the focus ring to create a nice differentiation between the two controls. There’s a zone focus scale, a big three-dimensional index dot, and the action of mounting the lens and filters feels solid and intentional.

All of which is nice. But lenses are made to make images. How does this one perform?

In real-world use, the Leica Elmarit-R 28mm F/2.8 is all the 28mm lens that most people will ever need. A quick maximum aperture of F/2.8 allows for excellent low-light performance. Leica’s optical formula does its job well, creating punchy and dynamic photos in both color and black-and-white. The close-focusing distance allows versatility. It’s a solid lens, and if you’re one who doesn’t get hung up on details that will likely be all the info you need. For those who want to know a bit more, we can get a bit more granular in our examination. Let’s spend a few paragraphs on sharpness, bokeh, distortion and other optical characteristics.

This lens makes sharp images, but exactly how sharp will depend on certain factors. Center sharpness at all apertures is excellent – easily comparable to the best 28mm lenses made in the manual focus era. Stopping down the lens just one stop, to F/4, creates about as much across-the-frame sharpness as anyone will ever reasonably demand, especially on film. Stopping down further to F/8 turns the lens into the essential “F/8 and be there” tool of the photojournalist. Sharp from edge to edge. Are there sharper 28mm lenses out there? Maybe. The Ricoh 28mm in the GR series cameras may give this one a run for its money. But we’re really picking some nits. This lens is as sharp as any old lens that I’ve shot.

Vignetting can be an issue, especially on a full-frame digital sensor like the one in my Sony a7II (which was used to shoot the digital sample photos in this article). It’s possible to correct this in Lightroom after the fact, or by stopping the lens down before we take the photo, but both of these represent a compromise (one in time, the other in light-gathering ability). While the vignetting is a bit of a nuisance, in fairness there are almost no 28mm lenses which do not vignette on a full-frame digital sensor when shot wide open. Compared to some Olympus, Minolta, and Nikon 28mm lenses that I’ve used in this same way, the Elmarit-R is actually a good performer.

Chromatic aberration is impressively controlled. Even shooting high-contrast scenes wide open, and even when examining areas of the frame which are far off center, color-fringing is held to an almost invisibly small margin. We’re talking less than a pixel here. Stop the aperture down just one stop and it disappears entirely. On film, you won’t see chromatic aberration at any aperture, in any shot.

Bokeh is fine for a 28mm lens. Out of focus elements are rendered nicely enough, but there’s very little drama at normal focusing distances. Highlight bokeh when stopped down is fine (obviously geometric, but there’s no harshness to it). We’ll get enough separation to make subjects pop, if that’s what we’re going for. But the only time the background is truly blurred to an unrecognizable smudge is when we’re at the minimum focus distance of 30 cm, and at that distance we’re going to be too close to most subjects. Bokeh is not what a 28mm lens is made for, after all. It’s a context lens. Use it to tell a story.

I’ve noticed no distortion, except at minimum focus distance. Just don’t shoot people’s faces from twelve inches away and you’ll do just fine.

If there’s any one area where the lens shows a clear flaw (or “character” – remember?) is in its flare control. Shooting into the sun or even with the sun glancing from a bias, we get images with incredible lens flare. Even with the lens hood attached and even when we stop down the aperture, this flare is unavoidable. Ghosting from point light sources is common.

There’s been some talk in places (from people more knowledgeable than I) that the flaring and ghosting commonly seen when using vintage lenses to expose digital sensors (specifically Sony’s full-frame camera sensors) is in fact a product of the sensor’s rather deep filter stack and not a “flaw” in the design of the lens. I’ll only mention this theory here and move on, as I’m not qualified to make a proclamation on this particular score. All I can say is that the Sony A7II that I bought from B&H Photo, mounted a lens to, and shot during sunset, created some pretty wild flares. (I should also add that I actually love the lens flares that this lens and camera combination produce – but your appreciation of the aesthetic may differ.)

Should You Buy One?

The big question – should you buy the Leica Elmarit-R 28mm F/2.8? It’s a multi-variate question. Let’s try to fill in the variables. Do you own a Leica R mount camera? Do you want a wide-angle lens? Do you like the images I made with this lens? If the answer to at least two of those three questions is in the affirmative, you should buy your own Elmarit-R 28mm. It’s a great lens. And it costs a lot less today than when it was new!

However, if you’re someone who doesn’t own a Leica R mount camera, perhaps you’re someone who only shoots their vintage lenses mounted to a digital camera, the question is complicated by the existence of many other 28mm lenses which offer similar performance to the Elmarit at a lower price. There’s Nikon’s incredible Nikkor AI 28mm F/2.8 (a personal recommendation and a lens which Nikon still produces and sells brand new today), and Canon’s nFD 28mm F/2.8 (which is a real sleeper, at the moment). Either of these rather humble 28mm lenses offers excellent performance at a lower price compared with the Elmarit (sometimes half the cost). So if you’re shooting a camera that can easily adapt any or all of the above, why not choose the least pricey?

For me, someone who regularly shoots a Leica R5 and occasionally enjoys a big-honkin’ Leica R8, a Leica R-mount 28mm lens is a must-own lens. This is the best one I’ve found. The fact that it can be easily adapted to digital is just a bonus. What I love most about the Leica Elmarit-R 28mm F/2.8 is that anytime I have it mounted to any of my cameras, I know that I have an opportunity to make a photo that I’ll want to print, and frame, and look at for years. It helps me make some keepers, even with the imperfections and slightly elevated price.

Find your own Leica Elmarit-R 28mm F/2.8 on eBay here

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
12 comments
  • Nice!

  • The B&W pics are just excellent! My fave may be the portrait of the gentleman with your daughters (?). That is a great composition.

    This is my Leica R 28 lens too, and I pack that either by itself or with the 35-70f4 ROM and 50 Cron or Lux if I am going to be out from morning until night. But 90% of the time it is just camera and 28.

    • Thanks Huss. Those are my girls with their grandfather, who is quite a character. You can see the oldest looking, waiting to see what nonsense he gets up to next.

  • James, excellent write-up on the Elmarit 28mm lens. All of the images you have made accompanying this write-up are superb.

    A couple of months ago, I purchased this same lens and sent it to DAG for a CLA of the focus helicals. The lubricants were dry and focus was extremely stiff. Anyway, I can’t wait to get it back and start shooting with it on my Leicaflex Standard. Other than the stiff focus action, easily corrected, it is a beautiful lens waiting to be used.

    • Thanks Jeff. I was pretty happy with these shots, which isn’t always the case! When your 28 comes back from DAG it’s going to be perfect! Good for you! Enjoy it.

  • I am a 28mm fov fan , it just seems right . It started with 18mm on apsc and live music photography. Actually before that but when I started shooting the live music I could get in a performers face and still capture the “back story” as I call it . The action of performers in the band and the lead singer or vice versa . This told the story of the stage action without being too wide . About the same time I got the infamous Nikon AIS 28mm f/2.8 for my fe 35mm film camera and that just worked perfectly. Such a useful focal length and fantastic lens . Well then I had to have the Nikkor 28mm f/2 non ai . Wow what character.
    I’d love to own this Leica R28 I need some bodies to shoot it on .

  • wonderful one more time. Quality of articles is better than quantity.
    This review is very great, we can enter into the Leica touch.
    Very well made review.
    An other point I really appreciate the way you manage the comment/reply : you respect comments, …
    I know you have a very great store also, this is very good to be someone who loves photography and also knows the gear very weel to have them every days on hands and taking time to test them.
    So : congratulations and thank you so much.
    When this is like that I return in the website like your, for other I do not return.
    Thank you so much

    • Thanks very much Eric. I’m just lucky that people like what we’re doing enough to comment. And hey, we just brought on some more writers, so quantity should be increasing as well!

      • Thank you so much James.
        ah Elmarit, Summarit, Summicron, Planar, Sonnar 😉 I like Sonnar
        old cameras, film, people who adapt lens, people who make pinhole, …
        Thank you so much for your efforts.
        By the way I have visited your store : bravo !

  • I acquired a 28mm f2.8 R, 3 cam lens to use on a Leica R-E body and have pressed them into service for street photography. I thought at first that Ektar 100 might be a little slow, however, due to the great depth of field in this lens, by setting aperture at f4, ensures a shutter speed of at least 250-500. So far, results have been excellent. I don’t tend to lift this combination up to my eye very much. I often set focus at 10-20 feet.
    Absolute discretion ensures no confrontation and I can capture Johnny Chav and his brood without them noticing. I look slightly away when taking the shot. Pity the R-E doesn’t have mirror lockup. An original Leicaflex would be ideal for this. Then the camera would be quieter, more like an M with its little ‘snick’.
    I was fortunate when purchasing my 28 in that it came with the correct hood. The series VII don’t bother me as I use colour with this outfit.

  • Another vote for grandpa with granddaughters. Wow!

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio