My Backup Lenses - Leica 90mm Macro-Elmar-M f/4 and Voigtländer 21mm f/4 Color Skopar-M
So I’ve been busy all week, battening down the hatches, despite the calm before the storm. With Super Typhoon Mangkhut barreling down towards Hong Kong, leaving a trail of wreckage in its wake, my double life as an anonymous blogger had to play second fiddle. Couldn’t exactly play hooky from work, when work had to be done before nature’s fury was upon us. But thankfully, I did have the forethought to prepare for this week’s post.
Being an obsessive compulsive has its moment. In my case, it means I try to be well prepared for most eventualities. So when it comes to deciding what lens to bring, I usually include a couple of different focal lengths… in addition to a backup camera body… or two. Admittedly, carrying two or three camera bodies plus three lenses does seem excessive - which I can’t deny. However, that all depends on the size of the cameras and lenses.
It’s not as if I’m carrying multiple DSLR bodies with as many lenses wherever I go. If I did, I would most certainly break my back. Unsurprisingly, what I typically bring along with me are two Leica M-mount rangefinder bodies, in addition to a handful of lenses. That way, I can generally capture most photo opportunities with the optimal focal length. Having said that, my daily complement of gear still sounds like an unreasonable burden to lug around.
In a manner of speaking, that can be true. For example, if I were the kind of Leica enthusiast who insists on loading up my bag with an assortment of premium ultra-fast M-mount lenses, just for the sake of chasing bokeh across the focal length in all my photo opportunities, my back will definitely break from the extra burden. Fortunately for me, I know better than to weigh myself down anymore, given the benefit of experience.
With age comes wisdom. And believe me, bokeh is not always needed on each and every image capture. Sometimes - believe it or not - the background is worth capturing. I mean, would it make sense to shoot wide open under the midday sun with a neutral density filter when visiting points unknown? All your travel documentation will be absent of any environmental context, which from my perspective defeats the purpose of capturing the experience.
This is not to say I never bring a fast lens along with me, for those low light situations when I need an extra stop or two. For those situations, I generally fall back on the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M (version I to IV, depending on my mood). But lately, the Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron Version IV has become the lens I’m favoring as my go-to lens for most my needs. That said, I know I’m losing a stop for the sake of size and the 39mm filter thread.
The 39mm filter thread is the starting point for me to decide on what to bring with me as backup. Having established that, the next decision is to figure out which focal lengths to include. Typically, I prefer the 21mm focal length at the wide end of the spectrum. But since the only native 21mm lens with a 39mm filter thread is the Leica 21mm f/4 Super Angulon-M, which experiences color shift in documentation, I’ve decided against it.
Currently, the “compact” 21mm lens offered by the folks at Wetzlar is the Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar-M ASPH, which sports a 46mm filter thread. To be frank, the 21 SEM is a remarkable lens. If only it were more compact. That said, a compact alternative does exist: the Voigtländer 21mm f/4 Color Skopar-M. For me, it was a difficult choice to pick between the two lenses. But in the end, I picked size and the 39mm filter thread over optical performance.
Admittedly, I know the consequence of sacrificing optical performance, in picking the Voigtländer over the Leica. Barrel distortion is considerably more evident in documentation than either the 21 SAM and the 21 SEM (based on anecdotal evidence from experience). Nonetheless, the benefit of technical convenience and added compactness compared to the 21 SAM and 21 SEM respectively makes the Voigtländer the clear choice for me.
With the 21mm focal length sorted out, I also wanted a tighter lens, for those situations when the background deserved to be captured closer in frame. To meet that need, the tightest 39mm filter thread lens offered by the folks at Wetzlar is the Leica 90mm Macro-Elmar-M f/4. Strangely, this lens is often passed over for the more popular Leica APO 90mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH, which is much larger and can never be considered as a backup lens to be left inside my bag.
It should be noted that the 90 Macro Elmar is a retractable lens that comes with an optional close focusing lens adapter and goggles. In practice, the macro shooting accessory is truly unnecessary for normal use, and is really best left passed over for most Leica enthusiasts. I mean, what’s the point of shooting up close at the 90mm focal length? Just to take a normal picture, you’re going to have to step back to fit your subject in frame.
Overall, the 90 ME is a wonderfully compact lens in its retracted position separated from its close focusing adapter. Compared to the 90 APO, it’s also significantly more forgiving in hitting focus. Still, the 90 ME is no APO 90. In terms of performance, the 90 ME is reputed to suffer from some minor pincushioning in documentation. And I suppose if I start hunting for faults, I will probably find more. That said, I can live with minor issues if it spares me from breaking my back.
In addition to the Voigtländer and the 90 ME, I also brought along the Leica 50mm f/2.8 Elmar-M. Like the 90 ME, it is also a retractable lens. To some, this might seem like a puzzling choice, given the existence of the Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M Version I. However, the 50 Elmar is still slightly more compact and more contemporary in rendering than the first version 50 Summicron. Besides, I happen to have one, and was curious to see how it would perform.
Having said that, I wanted to include the 50mm focal length to provide a basis of comparison, in evaluating the Voigtländer 21mm Color Skopar and the Leica Macro Elmar 90mm in conventional use. Having done that, it is clear how both lenses offer observable differences in documentation, which makes them worth proper consideration. That is to say, both lenses can overlap what the 50mm focal length is intended to do, albeit with differences in how the background is captured.
Of course, this overlap isn’t without some give-and-take. At the 90mm focal length, one must shoot from considerable distance, thus becoming more exposed to photobombing. And at the 21mm focal length, one must shoot much closer up, thus encountering much more distortion. Still, those hurdles are well worth the trouble, given the benefit it provides. A 21mm lens makes wide shots in tight situations possible, while a 90mm lens bring the background closer.
But for most Leica enthusiasts, who favor premium fast lenses, the prospect of optimizing focal length for each photo opportunity generally isn’t an option. Because of that, most have to make due for less in documentation with a bulkier lens. That is to say, the background is never inclusive or close enough because the lens is never sufficiently wide or tight, respectively. In the end, that’s just too bad. If only a less bulky alternative were offered 🤔
It’s important to note that I’m not advocating against those premium lenses that Leica enthusiasts all covet. It’s fine to favor one in normal everyday use. However, there are times when a fast lens is not necessary. And honestly, having a couple of compact lenses at different extremes in focal length could come in handy for photo opportunities when the subject in small enclosed areas can benefit from a wider lens or when the background can benefit from a tighter angle of view.
Images have been tweaked in Adobe Lightroom. None of the images have been cropped.
PS - From a practical point of view, carrying multiple rangefinder bodies, in addition to a handful of lenses doesn’t seem to make much sense. One could argue that a single DSLR or mirrorless camera with a mid-range zoom lens can essentially do what a complement of lenses can offer in focal length. But with a single DSLR body, one no longer has the flexibility of having a backup camera body for emergencies and unplanned eventualities.