Picking a Leica lens for your camera isn’t the same as choosing autofocus lenses; let’s dive in!
A Leica lens (specifically an M mount lens) is a special gem that any photographer will treasure. They’re small and render a unique look that can’t be easily duplicated. The tactile experience that they deliver is also pretty powerful, and unlike anything that other camera manufacturers offer. When you pick up your Leica, you’ll never really want to put it down. The Leica Lens is a fantastic tool for documenting scenes as they happen. Through zone focusing, they can be quicker to snap a photograph than the fastest autofocus algorithms of today. So here’s what you need to know when buying a Leica lens.
Know the Monikers
Different Leica lenses have different call names. And they’re usually based around the apertures. Here’s a rough guide to this.
Noctilux: Faster than f1.4
Summilux: f1.4 or f1.5
Summicron: f2 typically
Summarit: f2.4 and f2.5 typically
Elmarit: Around f2.8
Elmar: Around f3.4 to f4
Telyt: Long telephoto focal length
Thambar: I’ve only ever seen this used for a 90mm soft focus lens
The Bigger Lenses with Faster Apertures Aren’t Always the Best.
With autofocus lenses, most photographers aspire for the most expensive lenses with the fastest apertures. Many of those lenses are big and bulky. With a Leica camera, that weight and price and multiplied by a lot. Leica cameras are lightweight and don’t need big, heavy lenses on them. They’re best paired with small primes. That’s why when you look at what lots of Leica shooters own, they’re not going for the fast f1.2 and f0.95 lenses all the time. Those are too pricey. They’re also very unbalanced. And most importantly, these lenses will block the viewfinder. Stay away from those!
Fast apertures aren’t as big a concern with a Leica lens or a camera. There’s no shutter slap the way there is with DSLRs. But the mechanical shutter can let you shoot to a slower shutter speed without camera shake. To that end, you can instead reach for an f2 (Summicron) or an f3.5 (Elmarit) lens. When paired to a Leica camera, these lenses are nice and small. It makes carrying your Leica M more of a joy. I can say this from experience. When I put a big, heavy lens on there, I seldom want to carry around my Leica. But with a smaller lens, it’s perfect!
What Are You Actually Going to Shoot With it?
The question of what you’re actually going to shoot with your Leica lens is a big one! This is a question you’d ask yourself if you got an autofocus lens too. But with a Leica lens, you’re picking a prime or a trio of primes in a single lens. It’s complicated, trust us. Consider this question carefully because you’re probably going to end up buying a few small primes at best. Are you interested in shooting events with your Leica lens? Do you need the unconventional 75mm lens? What about a 21mm lens? Or how about a 90mm lens? Does a 35mm lens suit your needs? Think about that carefully. Pairing it to the camera you’re using is a significant consideration. If you’re shooting film, list off your most used emulsions and figure out if the aperture is wide enough for your needs. If you’re shooting digital, know that Leica sensors are pretty darned good.
Used or New
Most photographers almost always buy their Leica lenses used. Some folks want to get a brand new Leica lens. Personally, I like the idea that Leica lenses are expensive. How often do you buy a camera that holds it value years afterward or goes up in value? As is the way of things, you’re eventually going to sell it. So how nice is it to know that the value will go up? This is something special if you’re a film shooter. Some lenses, like their glass under $5,000, are worth it to buy brand new.