Leica Lenses for Normal People is a multi-year project conducted primarily between 2017-2022 because I was disillusioned with the current process of rangefinder camera lens research that, for the most part consisted of:
- Wasting time watching hours upon hours of YouTube reviews that are more or less promotional advertisements in one way or another.
- Wasting hours and hours in forums reading recommendations that are 15+ years old
- Reading reviews online from people who might not share my situation, my budget, or my interests.
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 currently have.
What I mean by a normal person?
I don’t know if “normal” people actually shoot rangefinder cameras. I do know that collectors collect them, doctors and anesthesiologists spend too much on them, and Lenny Kravitz has one with alligator skin on it.
After 5 years running this website, I do know that there is a subset of rangefinder users, I call them the skate and hipster crowd, that just like shooting a rangefinder camera. For the most part these people want a small, ofttimes mechanical camera, and they are on a limited budget. You don’t need to be a doctor, lawyer, or work on Wall Street to enjoy a rangefinder camera.
When I say “normal people” I am talking about beginners and people who are rangefinder curious. If you are already into lens diagrams, shipping for cameras is a hobby, and you are looking for something to put on the shelf rather than use, you might find all of this interesting but you are not my intended audience.
For me, when I am looking for recommendations, I look for people that share my exact situation, wants, needs, and budget. My list of rangefinder lens recommendations will apply to you if and only if:
- Part of the allure of vintage lenses is that they are small. 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 don’t really want to deal with the hassles of legacy lenses with their fungus, cleaning marks, sticky oils, etc.
- You are not a lens collector: You can collect lenses but this website is primarily for people who plan on using them outside of the house.
- You want a lens to be fully functional when shot wide open. There is little reason to carry a lens you can’t use wide open.
- 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 minor vignette in 2 seconds in photoshop.
- You believe that sun flares are a bonus and not a flaw, sometimes anyway
- 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 and these recommendations will go a long way to helping you save time and money and make you happy and confident in your purchasing decisions.
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 a plus. 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 difficult and fights in online forums occur trying to sort it out. 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 too often 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 real world 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.” A little bit of character is soulful. Too much is too much.
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”