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The 90mm Recommended list

By August 1, 2020September 23rd, 2022No Comments

The 90mm recommended list was in some ways the easiest to develop and in other ways it was the hardest. 

The EASY: all of the lenses I tested were excellent in one way or another. No joke. As I mentioned on Instagram, I once read that it is easy to make a 90mm lens.  It would appear that is correct.  There are no duds in this group. For most people, including myself, I see no good reason for spending a lot of money on a 90mm lens. This recommendation is even more important considering that for most people 90mm is not their primary focal length.  The difference in price between the most expensive and the least expensive lens in this group will buy you an additional lens (or lenses)  in a different focal length and you will lose little in image quality. 

The DIFFICULT: Because every lens was remarkable in one way or another, there was no clear winner in this group. My recommendations are based as much on the size, cost, and what camera you are shooting as it is on image quality. To reiterate, all of these lenses take remarkable images. 

Before we get to my final pick and other recommendations, I feel the need to mention a transgression I made with this list. I am not sure if it is a major or minor transgression but it is a transgression nonetheless. That transgression is that I didn’t test the legacy Leica Tele-Elmarit 90mm f/2.8. This is a transgression because it is likely that normal people (e.g. people who are not blindly going to buy the most expensive lens they can get their hands on just so they can tell their friends they have a full set of Summicron or Summilux lenses) are going to be considering that lens. Rightfully so. In my situation, however, I just couldn’t get myself to spend the money on the Tele-elmarit – even to test it and sell it. These are my reasons: 

  1. Every review I read online states that the legacy 90mm Leica lenses are prone to flaring My Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm f/4 is prone to flaring and as I said in that review, lens flares on a 90mm lens when mounted to a rangefinder are unwelcome. The reason is that because the 90mm frame lines take up such a small part of the viewfinder. In my hands, it is next to impossible to sort out what is going on with the flare and how much of the image will be impacted by the flare. With a digital M you can play around and look at the LCD screen but it is still a pain. With film, I would be too worried about making a flare mess, so much so I wouldn’t even take the shot. I just can’t seem to get flares dialed right with 90mm lenses attached to a rangefinder.
  2. One of the major Leica CLA repair people warned me about purchasing Leica lenses made in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This includes the Canadian lenses from this era such as the more affordable Tele-elmarits.  There is no issue with the optics but because of some cost-cutting measures Leica was doing at the time, that person (I am not telling you their gender to help maintain their anonymity) said they don’t hold up as well (e.g. they cannot be repaired) as other Leica and these lenses are already showing signs of age.  Even the newest of the Tele-elmarit lens was made during this period. 
  3. Cost was also an issue. As I was nearing the end of this round I said to myself, “self, look you are holding several EXCELLENT lenses that are less expensive than the Leica Tele-elmarit and you already own the modern Elmarit successor. If you didn’t have this website you know you would never spend the money on that 40-year-old lens that by all accounts will annoy you with flares and might not be able to be repaired.   What are you doing? Do you really need to test something that you know you won’t keep? My answer was “no” so I decided to skip the Leica Tele-Elmarit.  Please forgive my transgression. Perhaps someday I will go back and revisit. For now, I am pretty confident in my decision. Even looking back, knowing what I know now, and considering the cost, I can’t convince myself that there would be any possibility I would keep the Tele-Elmarit lens after I purchased it. 

The Recommended List

Normally, I just list my picks and pans and get on with it. This doesn’t work for 90mm lenses because your choice will ultimately depend on what type of camera you are using. By now, you are probably tired of hearing me whine about trying to focus on something moving at close distance with a 90mm lens on a rangefinder but it is what it is. My recommendations for a digital rangefinder are different from a film rangefinder which are still different from a mirrorless camera such as a Leica SL, SL2, or Panasonic S1. 

If you are shooting a digital rangefinder (Leica M9, M10, etc). 

My keeper pick: The Voigtlander APO-Skopar 90mm f/2.8 is my keeper pick but, as you already know, there is no review of that lens on this site. I never shot it. Never used it. I can, however, say that the latest round of Voigtlander lenses that came out in 2021 are all pretty much excellent. Nobody shoots a 90mm lens as their primary lens on an M camera so as a secondary lens, I am confident in recommending something I have never shot. Get the new 90mm APO from Voigtlander. Don’t jack around with the older LTM lens and unless you need need need a red dot, don’t get the Leica. It is just so heavy and big for a secondary lens. NOTE: I haven’t used this lens myself but 2 trusted sources recommend it without reservation.

I dont have that new 90 but I did keep the old Voigtlander 90mm f/3.5 LTM APO-Lanthar: I hated the racing stripes on the outside barrel but that is cosmetic. For the price and size, this lens cannot be beaten. My long term concern is the dust inside the lens. I don’t know how that will shake out in 20 years but for the cost, it is a risk I am going to take. If you are considering this lens, also consider factoring in the cost of a CLA. You are going to need it. Since the writing of that article, I was talking with the folks at Kurtz camera repair here in San Diego. The service person said he was familiar with that lens and it is invariably riddled with dust. His recommendation was to not do anything until the dust got so bad that it had an effect on the images. He didn’t see the need. “It’s just dust and no haze” was the final comment. He wouldn’t take my money to get rid of the dust. He recommended coming back in a few years if it got worse. Fixing it at this point was a vanity move.

My second place pick and maybe your first place pick: The Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm f/4. I also love this lens. I ultimately chose the older Voigtlander because it is sharper, it comes with an integrated lens hood, and I am less interested in a vintage look for my 90mm lens. If you are looking for more of a vintage feel (but still pretty modern)  this lens is a phenomenal bargain and should be your first choice. It is also more widely available than the old Voigtlander. It might be of interest to note that if someone stole my Voigtlander I would be 99.07% as happy with the Minolta 90. It might also be of even more interest to note that if someone stole my Voigtlander, my life wouldn’t skip a beat. That is because the Minolta 90 is staying on my shelf in addition to the Voigtlander. It is so inexpensive, I decided to keep both. #hordingbehavior Additionally, I would just get the new Voigtlander APO that was released in 2021.

Some of these picks are slow lenses (f/3.5 and f/4 respectively). In the 90mm focal length that is acceptable for me given that this is a secondary focal length and I like to just jam one in my bag just in case. I cant do that with my Leica Elmarit 90mm f/2.8 so I never use it. I recommend the new Voigtlander f/2.8 because it is readily available, it is smaller than the Leica Elmarit or Summicron, and I am told it is great.

However, be careful before you go and run out and buy a big(er) 90mm lens. The size reduction (when compared to an f2.8) for the slow aperture is a worthwhile trade off compared to the speed or bokeh improvements offered at f/2.8 if you don’t need a 2.8. This type of recommendation, however, opens the door to the valid criticisms that 1) a film shooter might need 2.8 and 2) an f/2.8 lens shot stopped down a bit should be sharper and better than my choices wide open 3) the bokeh at f/2.8 should be better than f/3.5 or f/4. My reply is that all of those concerns are valid but only one is convincing. I discussed this in the individual reviews but briefly: 

  1. The bokeh at f/2.8 should be better than f/3.5 or f/4: This is 100% accurate and if you are a bokeh aficionado go for the f/2.8. In my hands, however, at close focusing distance, the bokeh from f/3.5 or f/4 is perfectly fine for normal people. I actually showed normal people (e.g non-photographers)  different images at near focus at 90mm and they didn’t care about any bokeh differences between the lens. At far focus, there is no real difference anyway. I let normal people influence my purchasing decisions. Not other photographers in forums.
  2. An f/2.8 lens shot stopped down should be sharper than an f/3.5 or f/4 lens wide open: this is true but the Voigtlander lens at f/3.5 is perfectly sharp for me. The Rokkor is “vintage sharp” meaning it is a touch soft wide open. You won’t notice this on film but if you are a digital pixel peeper it is real. Stated another way, I don’t care about this at all. These lenses are acceptably sharp wide open. 

My last two picks, the Leica Elmarit f/2.8 and Summarit f/2.5 are sitting at the bottom of the list because they are both chubby and heavier than I want for my rangefinder rig. Given the recent rise in prices since Covid hit, they are also more expensive than I want for my 90mm. Third, focusing on a rangefinder at near focus at f/2.8 is an act of frustration. I am recommending the Voigtlander f/2.8 APO because it is new and available. You are essentially getting the f/2.8 for free with the Voigtlander. I don’t recommend it because it is a 2.8. Again, I nearly never shoot a 90mm lens at f/2.8.

Whenever I recommend a Summarit, I feel like I need to justify my recommendation given all of the hate thrown at these lenses online. I am making this recommendation knowing full well that I am actively choosing to ignore The Internet’s worries about some nebulous Summarit build quality issues because 1) I can find exactly zero reports of actual real-world issues with this (or other) modern Summarit lenses and 2) none of the people I talk with who actually fix lenses can muster up a single complaint about the Summarit line. As I mentioned in the review, in 20-30 years I may regret this decision (and so might you if you follow my recommendation) but by that time I will be blind or dead anyway. Sorry offspring of mine. Maybe you don’t get to make a killing when I die and you sell my stuff on eBay. You lose.

As you can expect, I follow my own recommendations. Now that I am shooting film again, I am going to hang on to the Elmarit for a while longer. If I had it to do over again, I would have purchased the Summarit or waited for the Voigtlander to come out. To give you an idea of exactly where my head is at, now that I own the Elmarit I don’t think it is worth the headache to sell the Elmarit and buy the Summarit or Voigtlander. I don’t use the 90mm lenses enough to warrant that buying and selling rigmarole.  

Not recommended: 

Last and very much least is the purple people eater – the Konica M-Hexanon 90mm f/2.8. This lens can make solid images. If it was the only lens I had access to in the world, I would be happy. Fortunately, it isn’t the only lens in the world, so I see no reason to own this lens unless you have a Konica rangefinder. I almost said that this would be OK if you were shooting a film Leica because it is possible you won’t be able to see that it doesn’t actually focus properly on a Leica but then I remembered the purple fringe of death. I am no pixel peeper but the purple fringe is not worth the headache given that there are other options that 1) do focus properly at f/2.8 on a Leica  2) don’t go all purple haze on the world and are 3) less expensive. Given those considerations, I can’t even justify the usefulness of this lens as an adapted lens on a mirrorless camera. There are too many other lenses that you can adapt that are less expensive and won’t purple fringe you into postproduction madness. 

If you shoot film on a rangefinder

There is really no change here. The Voigtlander APO-Skopar 90mm f/2.8 is still my pick. The Voigtlander 90mm f/3.5 LTM APO-Lanthar is also a great choice if you want a smaller package. As a general rule I go for a sharper lens with film but that is personal preference. For my slow lens pick, I pick this one over the Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm f/4 but just barely.

With film, however, we need to revisit my recommendation not to get an f/2.8 lens. Personally, I still don’t see myself ever trying to use (er…waste film) trying to focus an f2.8 lens on a rangefinder at close focus distance but film is more forgiving than digital so my recommendations regarding 90mm lenses on a rangefinder need to be tempered.

There is also a very real need for the extra stop when shooting film. That extra stop could make or break an image. Therefore, the f/2.8 aperture could be a lifesaver if you are shooting film for all of those times you are not focusing it at close focusing distance.

Therefore, with film, you need to weigh the size of the lens, how often you will use it in low light and your budget. If I was buying one lens I would opt for either of the f/2.8 options as described above over the slow lenses if you can afford it.

If you are shooting adapted M lenses on a mirrorless camera (Leica SL, SL2, Panasonic S1)

Stop wasting your time with the slow lenses. You are already carrying around a beast of a camera if you are shooting an SL, SL2, or S1. Worrying about size went out the window when you bought your camera. The Voigtlander APO-Skopar 90mm f/2.8 is the top choice. The f/2.8 Elmarit and Summarit options are also perfectly sized for your (beastly) camera. Get the f/2.8. It is stupidly easy to focus a 90mm lens at f/2.8 on a mirrorless camera so you can ignore everything I said about focusing a 90mm on a rangefinder at f/2.8. Go big. Get your bokeh on.