Leica 135mm f/4.5

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Circle of Confusion (Pt. 3)

This is part 3 of 4. If you haven’t read the pre­vi­ous parts, you should prob­a­bly .


I spent the next cou­ple of months obses­sively research­ing Leica cam­eras and lenses. I began by down­load­ing the owner’s man­ual for the M3 rangefinder. Then I prac­ticed com­pos­ing and focus­ing with no film in the camera.

I quickly real­ized that the lens that Joe had given me was imprac­ti­cal: the frame lines were too restric­tive, and, even with the M3 viewfinder’s high mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, [Sidenote: The M3 viewfinder’s mag­ni­fi­ca­tion is .91×. Compare that to today’s M9, with its .58× viewfinder.]  it was sim­ply too hard to focus accu­rately. It was also big (5.019″) and heavy (just shy of 1 lb.​/​0.45 kg.)

Later research revealed that the lens, a Hektor 135mm ƒ/4.5 M man­u­fac­tured ca. 1955, is the least loved lens Leica ever produced.

Leica has an almost 100-year his­tory of mak­ing many of the world’s very finest pho­to­graphic lenses. [The Hektor 135mm ƒ/4.5] isn’t one of them.

Ken Rockwell

Leica 135mm ƒ/4.5
Leica Hektor 13.5cm ƒ/4.5 lens, mfr. date ca. 1955

After a lit­tle pok­ing about the dusty cor­ners of the inter­net, I found Ken Rockwell’s blog. Of par­tic­u­lar inter­est is the sec­tion on Leica lenses. These are thor­ough, detailed, occa­sion­ally-biased-but-always-backed-by-mea­sur­able-evi­dence reviews, and required read­ing for any­one con­sid­er­ing shoot­ing with a Leica (or any other rangefinder, for that mat­ter). Also use­ful were Steve Huff’s reviews and this page at CameraQuest.

My first instinct was to go cheap and buy Voigtländer (some­times called Cosina, after the brand’s owner, or abbre­vi­ated as CV). Ken quickly changed my mind. But I couldn’t afford the Leica glass, either, espe­cially since the price of used Leica lenses began to inflate after the intro­duc­tion of the M8 (Leica’s first dig­i­tal rangefinder) in . Fortunately, Cosina man­u­fac­tures lenses under the Zeiss brand name that are com­pa­ra­ble in qual­ity to Leica but at prices sim­i­lar to Voigtländer. More on that later.

Joe, Erik & Angelique
Joe, Erik & Angelique at Red Brick Pizza, Roswell, NM

I spent a lot of time adding Leica and Zeiss lenses to my eBay watch list after that, think­ing I’d buy a cou­ple of lenses, and that would be that. But it was not to be. Remember the Dutchman and his crazy dig­i­tal Leica? I still lusted for the M9, but the price was pretty scary. Then I stum­bled on Thorsten Overgaard’s blog.

Thorsten is a Danish writer and pho­to­jour­nal­ist who wrote exten­sively on his expe­ri­ence with the Leica M9 when it was released in 2009. He was one of the first pro­fes­sion­als to use it, obtain­ing his cam­era a mere two days after its offi­cial release.

I’ve always been one of those peo­ple who have to have the very best, and, as you’d expect, I’m rarely happy very long with my per­sonal pos­ses­sions — some­thing about green grass and fences. So I would be tak­ing an expen­sive risk if I bought the cam­era and became dis­en­chanted with it. Thorsten’s review con­vinced me to take that risk.

I read his entire, multi-page essay [Sidenote: The essay con­tin­ues to grow as Overgaard adds to it when­ever Leica releases a new model of their flag­ship dig­i­tal rangefinder. the essay com­prises a whop­ping forty-four pages.] on the cam­era, with par­tic­u­lar inter­est in:

  • The camera’s menu & rec­om­mended settings
  • Deployment (set white bal­ance, set lens wide-open, set aper­ture pri­or­ity, shoot only ISO 160 or ISO 800 most of the time)
  • Adobe Lightroom workflow

These par­tic­u­lar sec­tions of the essay con­vinced me that the M9 is actu­ally a pretty sim­ple cam­era to use, unlike most DSLRs and even many point-and-shoots on the mar­ket, and that made it eas­ier for me to ratio­nal­ize the pur­chase. The over­all essay is insight­ful & per­sua­sive, so if you’re on the fence, go read it now.

About Chris J. Zähller

International Man of Mystery. Cocktail Nerd. Occasionally designs websites. Sometimes snaps a picture or two.

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