Life has been exceptionally busy these past several months and I’ve been unable and unwilling to commit time to the upkeep of OutFor30. I’ve never wanted this website to turn into a labor or something I feel I have to do. Things have finally eased up a little and I had some time this morning to sit down and share a new post with you.
Wayyyyy back in August, I bought a number of Leica M39(LTM) and M-mount lenses for use on my mirrorless camera. This isn’t the first time I’ve been down this road and I’ve previously written about those past adventures here and here. What’s different this time around is the camera I’m using. Formerly, I had the 1st generation of the Sony A7R. Since that first tepid entry into these rangefinder lenses, Sony has introduced to us in their second generation cameras the backside-illuminated (BSI) sensor. This new sensor design happens to improve the way these rangefinder lenses work with the modern digital sensor.
A short explanation of why (skip this part if you’re not interested in the camera stuff): When I adapt, for example, a 35mm SLR lens to my Sony, the distance from the back of the lens to the sensor (the flange focal distance or FFD) is relatively far and the rear element of the lens is quite large. The SLR lens, being designed for this FFD, has plenty of space between it and the sensor for covering the 35mm frame without the need to have light exit the rear element at an extreme angle. Conversely, a typical rangefinder lens has a smaller diameter rear element and very shallow FFD. This requires the light exiting the rear of the lens to spread out at a much wider angle than a typical SLR lens in order to cover the same full-frame size sensor. On film this is no problem but for conventional digital sensors, their design really becomes a liability in how well low-angle light is recorded out toward the edges of the sensor. A standard sensor with thick filters covering deeply nested photodetectors will not yield pleasing results. Sony’s new backside-illuminated sensor has thinner filters over it and the sensors themselves are now less buried in electrical conductor. While not exactly perfect, this new design does significantly reduce the smearing and color cast one usually finds at the edges of a picture that has been shot using a rangefinder lens.
Ok. Back on track now. Below is a photo of one of the lenses I bought. Say hello to my little friend, a Leica 3.5cm (35mm) f/3.5 Summaron. This particular lens comes from 1954 and was in desperate need of restoration when I got it. I picked it up for next to nothing due to its former condition. I did a complete tear down of it to remove haze and fungus from the glass, oil on the aperture blades, and decades of filth caught up in the grease of the focusing helicoid and aperture blades. Now, it looks like a gleaming gem and operates like new and is worth quite a lot more than what I paid for it. Not pictured here, I also managed to find the matching metal hood for it on eBay. I love the way this lens looks and operates!
An artsy-fartsy image I made during the teardown of this lens. Not shown is the glass and aperture blades.
I spent several hours and 7 attempts before finally getting all ten of the tiny little aperture blades woven back together. For size reference, this whole assembly seen below is about the same diameter as a dime. The individual blades are so small and light that the only tool I could find to maneuver them with (without infuriatingly flicking them out of mounting) was a single fiber of bamboo that I peeled off of a chopstick. That reassembly was a real trial of patience but worth it to get this old lens back in good shape.
To get a better idea of just how tiny the entire lens is, here it is all shined up sitting next to a pair of AirPods. You can probably guess from this my reason for the attraction to using rangefinder lenses. They are, quite simply, the smallest practical lenses you can find to shoot with on your mirrorless camera; they’re perfect for traveling light.
Image quality can be outstanding with some of these older rangefinder lenses but they will show their limitations and weaknesses when compared to a modern lens with all their fancy optical coatings. Regardless, I find them an absolute joy to use and they are fully capable of delivering really nice images with beautiful, manageable character. Let’s see what this little lens can do now that it’s been restored to its former glory:
For these last two images, I used a special adapter between the lens and camera that provides an additional focusing helicoid to extend the lens further away from the sensor (basically a variable extension tube) which allows the lens to focus even closer than its design allows. This is great for taking close-ups with these old rangefinders that typically have a minimum focus distance of about 3 feet. With this adapter, I can reduce that to about 11 inches.
In addition to this Leica 3.5cm Summaron, I also bought two copies of the Leica 9cm (90mm) f/4 M39-mount telephoto (black, circa 1938 and silver, circa 1949), a Nippon Kogaku Nikkor H.C. 5cm (50mm) f/2 M39-mount, a Canon Serenar 50mm f/1.8 M39-mount, a Steinheil München 85mm f/2.8 Culminar M39-mount. Additionally, I bought two modern lenses: a Voigtländer Nokton 40mm f/1.4 M-mount and a Voigtländer Heliar 40mm f/2.8 M-mount.
I haven’t had a chance yet to put together a complete series of photos from each of these lenses but for starters, here are a few I’ve gotten so far with the Nikkor 50mm (post-restoration):
Soon, I plan to post some images made with the incredible Voigtländer Heliar 40mm f/2.8. I took it with me on a trip to the Grand Canary Islands, off the west coast of Africa. For you mirrorless users out there, this is definitely a lens you’re going to want to get for your camera!
I hope you enjoyed today’s post and I hope to keep more coming over the next few weeks while I’m home on days off.