30 December 2012

Digital rebirth for my vintage Leica lenses -- via Fujifilm X-E1 (Part 1): 50mm Noctilux 1.0, 75mm Summilux and 135mm Tele-Elmar

It is a long story. But I'll cut it short.

Before the advent of digital photography, i.e. when I shot film, I used Leica M lenses and cameras, M3, M6, M6TTL and M7, because Leica lenses were, and still are, top-quality lenses and Leica M cameras were engineering masterpieces, particularly the M3, and at that time their prices were never as outrageous as current ones. When the world changed over to digital, unfortunately a dichotomy between Leica lenses and Leica digital cameras became evident, the latter being unworthy partners of the former. At that time, I thought it was foolish to pay such sums of money for an M8 or M9 whose specifications were simply below par.

So my Leica lenses became seldom used.

Then alternatives in terms of mirrorless cameras appeared: the Panasonic and Olympus micro-4/3 systems, Sony NEX system and the interesting Ricoh GXR with A12 M-mount system. I then tried the Panasonic G3 with a M-mount adapter. But I'm not impressed with the focusing system and the result. Then came the Fujifilm X-Pro1, but it was overpriced. I was quite sure that some cheaper and more cost-effective bodies would appear later. Now such a body comes, the X-E1. One caveat: the X-E1 has only an APS-C sensor.

I won't go into details of what the X-E1 can and can't do, and how it does this and that. A simple Google search can tell you all that. The only thing I'd like to say is that the Leica rangefinder system is intrinsically compromised for focal lengths of more than 90mm. In fact one is at pains with focusing even the 90mm Summicron with the 0.72x or even the 0.85x viewfinder magnification in the M6 or M7. The M3, with a 0.91x magnification, is of course better, especially when compared with the dismaying 0.68x in the M8 and M9, but for very precise focusing for the 135mm, it has often been a hit-and-miss affair. Of course you can add an external 1.25x or 1.4x magnifier but that is quite cumbersome -- I have been using one. And the M3 has no frame lines for 75mm. The problem goes on in the other end of the focal length spectrum, for wide-angle lenses external finders mounted on the hot-shoe need to be used. These viewfinder problems can be circumvented largely by high-end through-the-lens EVFs, and this is exactly what the X-E1 can offer. Yes, EVFs have their intrinsic deficiencies, but they are much improved than early generation ones.

It then becomes reasonable that I take out my vintage 75mm Summilux-M and 135mm Tele-Elmar to test them on the new X-E1 body with the Fujifilm M-mount adapter. I add in the 50mm Noctilux-M, as the depth of field (DOF) is so small at f/1 that precise focusing is not easy on an M body, especially if there is some mechanical mismatch in the focusing system. The production of these 3 lenses has ceased.

The gear in question: Fujifilm X-E1 with Leica 50mm/F1.0 Noctilux-M, 75mm/F1.4 Summilux-M and 135mm/F4 Tele-Elmar (taken with Panasonic G3 with Leica DG Summilux 25mm/F1.4 ASPH at f/8, 1/60s, ISO 160, with flash)

Here are some picture taken with these lenses on Fujifilm X-E1. All pictures were taken using the largest aperture in each lens. The pictures were resized to 1600 pixels. No tuning was performed on them except some cropping in 2 of them. The bokeh of the 75mm Summilux is very pleasing.

Leica 75mm Summilux-M at f/1.4, 1/400s, -1/3EV, ISO 200

Leica 75mm Summilux-M at f/1.4, 1/450s, ISO 200

Leica 75mm Summilux-M at f/1.4, 1/350s, ISO 200
(The blurred background is a tram stop with people in clothes of different colours.)

Leica 75mm Summilux-M at f/1.4, 1/40s, ISO 200

Leica 135mm Tele-Elmar at f/4, 1/70s, ISO 1600

Leica 135mm Tele-Elmar at f/4, 1/120s, ISO 1600

Leica 50mm Noctilux-M at f/1, 1/60s. ISO 400

Leica 50mm Noctilux-M at f/1, 1/60s. ISO 400

Leica 75mm Summilux-M at f/1.4, 1/30s, ISO 1600 
(This is Andrew's Canon)

The bokeh in the picture above is so creamy and lovely.

In a sense, my vintage Leica lenses are offered a rebirth in the digital world, at a fraction of the cost of the Leica M8 or M9, with no significant loss of the magic of these lenses.

It is one of the best Christmas presents for me in years.


  1. Hi Horace,I love the above Fujifilm X-E1, the "shape" and the retro design. I'm not that ok with rounded shape designs, such as Canon. =p

    Fujifilm is also the brand of my first camera, but it is already many years ago. If possible, I hope I can have one like yours later.

    My knowledge of aperture, ISO, Shutter speed etc is very limited, I can say I don't understand at all. I just like photography simply as an interesting activity in leisure time.

    I also like that blurred background style, I may need a f/1.4 lens which is costly. See if I can hit a jackpot later.

    BTW, the young man in your photos is adorable XD. Looks like a copy of his father.

    Erika Summer

    1. Hi Erika,

      Thank you for your kind words.

      If you're thinking of an f/1.4 lens, you can consider trying the X-E1 with the Fujinon 35mm f/1.4 lens. This lens has good reviews.