f/Egor: The Pious Lens (Part 2)

As recounted in Part 1, I recently purchased a 1967 Leica 135 f/4 Tele-Elmar lens and committed to discussing its merits for The Leica Blog. There’s only one problem — I wield a 135 with about as much skill and finesse as a monkey with a scalpel.

Before I dive into the meat of this article, let’s dispense with the potatoes — the lens itself. The Leica 135 f/4 Tele-Elmar is a fantastic lens and it delivers everything that any sensible person could ever want from a tube full o’ optical elements. The tale of woe that surrounds my use of the Leica 135 owes nothing to either the quality or technical merits of the lens. Rather, it has everything to do with my ability to use it properly.

Intellectually, of course, I know full well how to use a 135mm lens. I know its optical attributes and the type of subjects suited to those attributes. But I also know that my personal photography has less to do with intelligence than with emotion and, as such, this focal length’s personality quirks seem at odds with my own.

For example, I realize that 135mm lenses flatten perspective, which can help disparate objects within a photographic frame share significance. It’s a trait that makes 135s particularly adept at certain types of landscape photography.

Squamish, Jigsaw puzzle fodder - Leica M9 w/135 Tele-Elmar

But just because the lens is ideally suited to landscape photography doesn’t mean that I am. Though I was once employed as a landscape photographer and enjoy working in that discipline, it’s rarely a subject I choose to photograph for my own personal projects. I seldom make photographic forays specifically for the purpose of shooting landscapes, so this lens will likely see little actual landscape work.

Another obvious attribute of the 135 is that it lets the photographer shoot distant subjects without getting close to them. Perhaps I could adapt this characteristic to my street photography. I spent two weeks wandering the streets with the 135 affixed to my M9 and, as a consequence, missed dozens of excellent 28/35/50mm photo opportunities. The simple fact is, I tend to look for photographs that are only two meters away from me, not 20. Even if I did manage to spot an enticing photo opportunity 20 meters away, the gap ‘twixt camera and subject would fill with dozens of pedestrians, all of whom would obstruct my shot. The only instances in which this lens worked in a street scenario were when pedestrians tended to avoid my subject and, thus, gave me an unobstructed shot.

It was clear I must seek a different path. Perhaps the lens itself could tell me what to shoot. I twirled it around in my hand and marveled at its impeccable construction. It was built like the proverbial tank. Is that the clue I needed? Maybe the copy of the lens I didn’t purchase — the “Vietnam War” copy — was the one to have fulfilled its intended destiny! Maybe this lens was designed specifically for combat — to withstand the rigors of war while providing enough reach to protect the photographer from bullets whizzing through the air. Maybe I just needed to rethink my street approach.

Here in Vancouver, the air is thankfully rather free of whizzing bullets. So, in order to test my theory, I would need to simulate these conditions. The only thing vaguely heinous to traverse Vancouver’s sky is the annual heavy winter rainfall, so this would have to suffice. Obviously precipitation doesn’t provoke mortal fear, but I do have a certain acute phobia about shooting my digital Leica M9 in the rain. Maybe this would be the lens that lets me shoot more in inclement weather. I could hide in protected doorways or under awnings, which would shield the camera from precipitation, while the lens would provide enough reach to photograph those who are forced to battle it.

As fate would have it, the first heavy precipitation occurred on a very cold day and I had only a half charged battery in the M9. Since I didn’t want to risk having the battery deplete while I was out shooting, I coupled the 135 to my winterized camera — a Leica M6TTL with the meter battery removed — and went out into the snow.

It took me only a single afternoon to discover that, for someone who photographs “humans being,” inclement weather results in a dearth of quality photo opportunities. People tend to stay indoors in such conditions. Not only that, but lurking in the shadows just made me feel kind of creepy. I usually make every effort to photograph from the middle of the action, rather than from the outside. My attempt to simulate battle conditions may have uncovered a potential use for the lens, but it’s not a use I’m likely to explore further.

So I continued to look at the lens’ attributes for guidance. I’m aware that long lenses possess a narrow depth of field, which makes them extremely effective at isolating subjects from their background. Current trends in portraiture suggest that the 135 might make a very nice portrait lens, since the general public now equates “portrait” with “person seen against a sea of background blur.” Call me contrary, but I tend to favor environmental portraits, in which the subject is actually juxtaposed with their background. So, once again, another ideal 135mm usage scenario failed to meet my own personal needs.

Trendy portraits are, of course, not the only subject that benefits from shallow depth of field. Flower photographers, for example, would likely enjoy this lens immensely. Alas, I am decidedly disinterested in flower photography, and winter isn’t exactly “flower season” here in Vancouver.

After this, I took the lens on a brief journey into abstract territory — hoping to capitalize on its beautiful out-of-focus renderings. The result of this photographic voyage is a disk full of soft, pillowy images — all purposely taken out-of-focus yet, to the untrained eye, indistinguishable from crappy accidentally out-of-focus images.

Weary, disgruntled and humbled, I removed the lens from my daily carry bag and put it on a shelf with my other specialty gear. Freed of my obsession to make proper use of the lens, I turned my attention toward figuring out what I had learned from the experience. The facile answer is, “Thou shalt not purchase gear for which thou hast no specific application.” But this is something I already learned long ago. And it is, after all, one of my own commandments — so it can’t really be a moral.

Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning. Only twice in recent history have I violated this commandment, and both times it was with a 135mm lens. Is there a connection? Maybe it’s an indication of a mental synapse with an underdeveloped neurotransmitter; a mystical connection between myself and those 135 measly millimeters that ceaselessly seduce me without cause.

Alas, I fear nothing so extraordinary is at work here. Rather, I suspect the moral is simply this: “On occasion, we all make silly choices and take lousy photographs — but only someone two-stops shy of a full exposure would document it on the internet.”

-grEGORy simpson

grEGORy simpson is a professional “pounder.” You may find him pounding on his computer keyboard, churning out articles for both the Leica Blog and his own blog at photography.ultrasomething.com. Or you may hear him pounding on a musical keyboard, composing music and designing new sounds. Frequently, he’s out pounding city pavement and photographing humans simply being. This third act of pummeling has yielded a new photography book, Instinct, which has given Mr. Simpson a fourth vocation — pounding on doors in an attempt to market the darn thing.

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12 comments

  • Thanks for your insights and your skillful exploration of the 135 focal length. I highly recommend the Elmarit-M 135/2.8, the one with the goggles. The magnification of the goggles increases the effective rangefinder base distance, giving you more accurate focusing AND, if you use it on an M8 or M8.2 it becomes a 180/f2.8, but retains the depth of field of a 135mm lens. Higher shutter speeds or tripod a must!

  • Robert: Thanks for the comment. I’m always flattered when someone takes the time to write a response.

    If I may, I’d like to comment on your comment regarding the 15mm lens: Unlike yours, mine actually sees significant action — in spite of the fact I haven’t yet found a satisfying way to correct the corner color aberrations when it’s used on an M9 (even Corner Fix won’t eradicate it). I seem to have a habit of “rebranding” my lenses, so I refer to the 15mm (and other super wides) as “contextual” lenses. If you’re interested, here’s the reason: http://www.ultrasomething.com/photography/2010/03/the-contextual-lens/

  • I actually like the 135mm f/2.8 Elmarit. My only complaint is the goggles require removing the grip to mount and unmount the lens. (Not sure if that happens with the Leica grips though.) As a big fan of the Canon 135mm f/2L, I’d love to see a world class, ultrafast, 135mm from Leica for the M. (E.g. comparable to the Canon or Sony/Zeiss 135mm f/1.8.) I expect that is at the hairy edge of optical and mechanical possibility however. The intended use is concert photography.

    In its digital resurgence, the M-series has every opportunity to once again be the epitome of 35mm format digital photography not only in delivered image quality but in flexibility as well. This will require a number of steps along an evolutionary path, but I have high hopes that the ecosystem is now strong enough to support Leica carrying the line forward many more decades. 135mm lenses are now considered at the edge of the use case for an M, but with innovation, the M’s scope of use will expand.

    -Z-

  • Hey Gregory,

    Very funny article. Equipment does have a way of forcing us to work differently. A cobbler once told me.” In the war between the shoe and the foot, the shoe always wins.”

    Lenses (1) photographers (0).

    Best-Adam

  • i use the 35mm or 28mm as my “contextual” lens so the 15mm doesn’t get much action….but i will doff my cap off to you and only shoot 15mm/135 images this weekend…and post both ends of the spectrum

    another great article…btw

  • I purchased a 90mm summicron, and had a 135mm f4 elmar thrown in. Like you, my normal use for a 135 is concert photography – relegating this lens to use at outdoors or large concert theatre’s – otherwise it is way too slow. I’ve done a bit of landscape with it, some action. But like you it doesn’t see much use. It does help though that my M bodies are a .85 M6 TTL, and an M3. The 135 lines aren’t that small. Nice article.

  • Gregory, I read both parts of your article and, inspired, even went out to buy one of those Tele-Elmars. Much to my dismay, I found only Elmars and Hectors in our local used Leica shops. Plenty of them. But not a single Tele-Elmar.

    I have two specific needs where I could use such lens very nicely: classical portrait and landscape. If you think you don’t have much use for your lens, I will gladly buy it from you. I live in Russia but that’s no big deal. I can pay you in advance and all you will have to do is pack it nicely and call UPS for a pick up. What do you say?

    Cheers,
    Greg

  • Reply to Greg Shanta: I’m glad you enjoyed the articles, and thanks for your offer to relieve me of my 135mm “burden.” But here’s the thing: Yes, it was a bit silly to purchase a lens for which I had no immediate need. But I’m old enough to know that, the instant I sell the 135, a need will suddenly materialize. So I’ll be hanging onto it.

    I have, by the way, found another nice function for this lens — micro four thirds. Specifically, when mounted on my Panasonic DMC-GH2, the lens is a fairly close replacement for my old Canon 300mm f/4 — a lens that saw a lot of use. Granted, there’s no image stabilization. But if locked to a tripod (or used on a very sunny day) I find the combination quite effective.

    Good luck in your search. It’s a very nice lens and a real “bargain” if one actually has need of a 135. I assume you’ve tried eBay? The prices I’ve seen there are much higher than I paid. Frankly, my article was so tongue-in-cheek, I’m not sure whether it will have had the effect of raising market prices or lowering them. 😉

  • Gregory, thank you for your reply. I am glad that you want to keep your lens: that way I will probably see more great images from it on your blog which I visit regularly (I wish, though, you’d post more often — I like your photography).

    I’ll find me a Tele-Elmar some day. Don’t like eBay prices, will keep looking.

    I intend to use it on my M9 and my future compact camera that I still haven’t got. I am not in favour of micro four thirds standard but I’m thinking about either Sone NEX or Ricoh GXR when they will have that M-module which they recently announced.

    As for 300mm, I have an excellent 50-year-old Kilfitt with Viso I and I just love it. I even manage to shoot it handheld sometimes (in those few sunny days that we get here in Russia, if lucky). Perfect tele, in my view. I even use it for close ups (with some marco rings attached I can focus it at 1.5 metres instead of its usual 3 metres); and for face-portraits, too.

    Good luck! And please post more pictures on your blog…

    Cheers,
    Greg

    P.S. Always feels nice to meet a namesake!

  • I have a tele elmar f4 135mm and can’t get a decent sharp image with this lens on my M9. I’m tempted to buy the latest, current version (f3.4 Apo) to see if I can get sharp shots.

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