Leica Lenses for Normal People is a multi-year project I started because I was disillusioned with the current process of camera lens research that, largely, consists of wasting time watching hours upon hours of YouTube reviews by people who have been given product to review then trying to make decisions based on reading conflicting recommendations in camera forums. When I was getting my kit together, all I really I wanted a friend to tell me what to buy so I didnt have to waste time or worry about buyers remorse. I also wanted a friend who could tell me how little I could spend on camera lenses and still be happy.
My goal with Leica Lenses for Normal People is to be the reasonable and practical friend you don’t have.
Table of Contents
The real issue with buying rangefinder lenses
The real issue LLFNP is trying to solve is that it can be difficult to trust the recommendations you find in some review websites and in the camera forums. It isn’t because other people are being malicious or trying to dupe you. The problem is that their situation might not be similar to yours. Their budget might be different. Their tastes might be different. They might have been given product to review so there is a conflict of interest. It is also possible that they are talking about lens performance on film and you are shooting digital. The real issue is that you need to find someone with a situation similar to yours before you can trust their recommendations and everyone else is making recommendations without giving you any background on their situation.
If you are a collector, this website is not for you. If you find the Classic Lenses podcast oddly entertaining and you wasted (and continue to waste) a good chunk of your life listening to it (like I did and continue to do) then this website is probably not for you. If you ever even think about uttering the words “post war” when you discuss camera lenses, this website is not for you. This website is meant for normal people, with normal lives, and normal families, with normal jobs, and who might have hobbies and interests outside of photography, who want to get a set of reliable lenses that wont break the bank, without too much weirdness, without doing too much research or learning too much about history, and even without knowing about lens diagrams. There is a time and place in the world for lens history, and rare, weird, eclectic, expensive, and otherwise interesting camera lenses but if you are just getting started with a rangefinder camera maybe that time is not right now.
You don’t have to be a historian, archivist, or billionaire to get a set of lenses for your Leica camera and you dont need to devote hours and hours to researching lenses. Leica Lenses for Normal People is a set of rangefinder lens recommendations suited to a specific situation. My situation. Let’s see if it we are a match.
Are you a normal person?
My Recommended List will only be useful to you if your situation, wants, needs, and goals is similar to mine. If you are like me you also understand that….
- Part of the allure of vintage lenses is that they are small. Small cameras with behemoth lenses are missing the point. For me, there is no good reason to own an f/0.95 manual focus lens because it is unwieldy and unless you are taking pictures of garden gnomes you won’t focus at f/0.95 accurately except by chance anyway.
- Your budget is under $1500/lens (hopefully a lot less than that) and you want to spend as little as reasonable but you value quality: You want quality and are willing to pay for it but you have a normal job and a normal house and a normal dog and you prefer not to starve or steal toilet paper from McDonald’s to save up for your lenses. My budget was $1500 or less per lens and I try to routinely stay well below $1500 but this is a Leica website so there is that.
- You are OK buying used lenses but you dont want to deal with the hassles of legacy lenses with their fungus, cleaning marks, sticky oils, etc.
- You are not a lens collector: You are going to actually use the lens for street, commercial, take pictures of your family, or whatever. You aren’t going to be taking pictures of fences or parked cars and look at the bokeh and then go on some forum and talk about micro-contrast and bokeh balls.
- You are not buying an investment. This lens will leave the house and maybe even go on vacation once in a while. Since you will be using your lenses you know you might scratch and smash and ding them which is the opposite of what you want in an investment.
- You want a lens to be fully functional when shot wide open. There is little reason to carry a lens you cant use wide open.
- You value the opinion of real people who look at your pictures including people who don’t know what a Leica is and who are not impressed with your little silver hipster camera.
- You value real-life images more than MTF tests and pictures of fences. You put the in-focus stuff somewhere near the center of the picture so you don’t get worked up much about what goes on at the edges of the frame unless it is a mess. You know how to get rid of a vignette in 2 seconds in photoshop.
- You believe that sun flares are a bonus and not a flaw…to some degree
- You believe that bokeh is an accent flavor and not the main dish.
If any or most of that describes you – you are my people. If not, this website is not for you. You won’t be happy here. I promise you that if you stay you will become outraged. I fully expect that the Leica fanboys will be angry with me. I expect that the Sony/Fuji/YouTube folks will tell me I could have just gotten some screw mount lens from Russia for $50.00 and this exercise is a complete waste of my time. Finally, I also expect that the real historians, camera collectors, and other forum dwellers will tell me I am a know-nothing nitwit.
This website is for the normal people. We know better.
A guide to the reviews
The reviews on this website have two main sections that require a bit of explanation:
On garden gnomes and parked cars: This section is an assessment of lens usability in the real world.
One of the frustrations I have with many reviews of vintage and rangefinder camera lenses is that it seems that people reviewing lenses and making recommendations must just take pictures of garden gnomes and parked cars. I don’t understand how they actually use some of these lenses in real life outside of their backyard. Garden gnomes don’t move. Neither do parked cars. They also don’t get mad at you while they are waiting for you and your little hipster rangefinder trying to find focus thinking to themselves “we would be done already if he just used the iPhone but we still are going to have to tell him how impressed we are by his stupid hobby even though he is still jacking around with that silly thing.”
Making vintage lenses work for me means they need to be useable. What was acceptable 50 years ago might not be acceptable today. Short focusing throws are important. Sticky helicoids are deal-breakers. Focusing tabs are (probably) critical but that will be determined. The way the aperture clicks, sounds, or feels is irrelevant. There will be no mention of “build quality” because I probably couldn’t get a lens back together again after I took it apart to assess the “build quality” anyway.
Does it have SOUL?
This section is an assessment of image quality.
Describing why people like images from one lens or another is (apparently) difficult and prone to starting fights in online forums and in the comments on YouTube. One the one hand, there are MTF charts and other tools that seek to offer an objective performance of a given lens. On the other hand, there is a morass of terms like 3D-pop, Leica look, micro-contrast, character, rendering, and all the rest that seem to do more to trigger the internet trolls rather than actually help anyone make decisions about lens performance over in real-world situations.
There are lenses that are often described as “character” lenses. The Helios 44-2 is one of these lenses. For me “character” is a euphemism for “this lens is pretty junky, you know it, I know it, the images look like someone slapped an Instagram filter on them, they flare uncontrollably, and there is no possible way that if you were doing a web project you would ever use this stupid thing because if you did, you would look back in 5 years and say to yourself “self, what were you thinking? Those images look so stupid, gimmicky, and dated.”
There are lenses that are billed as “the best [enter stupid clickbait title].” For example, “the best 50mm vintage lens for your Fuji” or “the best manual focus lens for under $200.” You might also hear these lenses described as “modern” lenses. “Best” or “modern” in this case seems to be a euphemism for “holy cow, I just found a “technically excellent” lens for $200 that does the same thing as this other lens I just spent $1200 on at the camera store. I am a genius. All I need to do is turn this barrel and I can save $1155? Let me tell the world!!!”
What I am searching for is the sweet spot between “character” and “modern.” My bet is that if you are still reading this, you are doing the same thing. If you want a perfect image you can use your iPhone, your Sony, or an X100 but you are looking for something different with…wait for it…a little Soul”
When I am referring to SOUL it is an homage to Steve Huff of stevehuffphoto.com. In his reviews and posts, he is always chasing the “heart and soul” of an image. As he states….” for some reason or another, my Leica files seem to breathe. They seem to have captured the moment with more reality and tend to be a bit more powerful. I really can not put my finger on it but it’s true…..It’s in the color, the rendering and the way certain lenses work with certain bodies.”
That right there is what this website is all about.