90mm is not the focal length that everyone grabs as their first lens but if you are building out a kit, 90mm is one that should be considered. I never planned on getting one but after getting stuck in a few situations, now I know better.
Unlike SLR lenses, these lenses can be tiny so I always keep one in my bag as an extra lens for “just in case” times where I need the reach or to compress a scene. I don’t do all that many headshot style portraits but 90mm can also do double duty in that regard. It might be of interest to note that if I were doing a soft background type of portrait these days and it was a planned event rather than something that happens spontaneously while I was out shooting, I would probably opt for a different tool (maybe one with auto eye focus??) for a headshot style portrait.
I can find no justification for a fast telephoto rangefinder lens nor a justification for hauling around anything resembling an SLR size of a lens with my Leica rig. If I am going to shoot a fast telephoto lens (e.g. wider than 2.8) for a closeup subject where a super blurry background is the goal, I am likely going to use a different camera system. In my experience, the 90mm focal length is pushing the boundary for where I feel the rangefinder excels as a useful tool. Focusing on something like an eyeball using the tiny 90mm rangefinder patch at an aperture that only offers a razor-thin zone of focus is an exercise in frustration. It is for these reasons that a fast telephoto rangefinder lens isn’t of much interest to me. All of the 90mm lenses I will be testing are f/2.8 or slower. This is not a financial decision in the 90mm focal range. For whatever reason, the 90mm lenses are remarkably inexpensive. There are legacy Summicron lenses that are remarkably inexpensive, and even less expensive than the slower Elmarit lenses, but they are of no interest to me. Presumably, I am not alone and this is why 90mm Elmarit lenses are more expensive than their Summicron counterparts.
Given that background, narrowing down the list of options was pretty straightforward because there really aren’t that many 90mm options. The main issue when I was doing my research was trying to sort out the nomenclature of all of the different legacy Leica lenses because terms like tele, fat, thin, and macro created a word salad that needed sorting.
There are a few outliers on this list. I included two 85mm lenses. Rangefinders don’t have 85mm frame-lines but with some minor guesswork, is pretty easy to sort out that I will get just a little more in the frame than what 90mm frame-lines offer which makes these lenses useable.
Unlike my previous 35mm and 50mm guides, I am going to organize this by brand name rather than vintage vs modern. I did this primarily so you can see the relationship between the Leica 90mm offerings. They are the most numerous and the most confusing. The Recommended List that will come at the end of testing will be organized in my normal vintage vs. modern format.
Leica 90mm lens options
- Summicron 90mm (f/2): there are a few different versions but I don’t take much interest in any of them. These are rangefinder beefcakes and I don’t see the value of f/2 (vs. f2.8) for a 90mm rangefinder lens.
- Elmarit 90mm (f/2.8): Elmarits occupy the sweet spot for 90mm rangefinder lenses. There are a bunch of different versions and, somewhat confusingly, the nomenclature keeps changing. These are the options from oldest to newest with a few notes on how you can keep them sorted while you are shopping.
- Elmarit 90mm: 1959-1974. Thin is sometimes known as V1 (version 1). It is chrome and has a leather looking band around the base. On eBay they are sold as “Elmarit-M” which can be confusing because the newest version has the same name. Don’t be confused. Look for the the leather band. I didn’t review this one.
- Tele-elmarit: 1964-1974: The Tele was added to the word Elmarit and the lens was made short and squat. It is also called the “fat,” “short,” or “heavy” version. “Tele” means that the lens is shorter than it’s own focal length. Therefore, both of the “tele” versions are shorter than the non “tele” versions. This is also sometimes referred to a V1 (version 1) online. Although they are not referring to the first Elmarit version (e.g. #1 in our list), they are referring to the first Tele-Elmarit version. Do not confuse this with #1 in our list. There is no leather band on the lens barrel of this lens. REVIEW COMING SOON
- Tele Elmarit 1974-1990: This version kept the same name as the predecessor but the nickname changed to “thin” because this one is thinner and has the more modern look than it’s chubby predecessor. REVIEW COMING SOON
- Elmarit-M: 1990-2008: Leica number 11807. This is a modern lens that picked up the modern sized 46mm thread mount and dropped the “tele” prefix. It is larger than the previous “thin” tele-elmarit.
- Summarit 90mm 2.5: 2007-2020: When the Elmarit-M was canceled, the Summarit took over as the lower cost 90mm option. There were two versions of this lens. The first was rated f/2.5 and the second was f/2.4.
- Elmar-C 90mm (f4): this was made for the Leica CL camera from 1973-1976. I didn’t review this lens because it is reported to share optics with the Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm f/4 which I already owned (see below)
- Macro-Elmar 90mm f/4: this lens is a collapsible modern lens. It only works as a macro lens with an additional adapter. Therefore, don’t be misled, it is not a macro lens in the traditional sense of the word macro. Although a collapsible 90mm lens appeals to me and f4 is just fine for me at 90mm, I did not test the macro Elmar it is just too expensive for a focal length that is secondary for me.
- Leica Thambar-M 90 f/2.2: This is a specialty lens for soft focus and dreamy looking images. This is a 100% specialty lens that I see no reason to own. Moreover, it falls way outside of our price range. As such, it will not be tested.
3rd Party Options
- Voigtländer 90mm f/3.5 APO Lanthar LTM
- Voigtlander APO-Skopar 90mm f/2.8: this lens came out after I reviewed my 90mm lenses but there is a discussion of this lens in The Recommended List
- Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm F/4
- Konica 90mm f/2.8 M-Hexanon
- Canon 85mm f1.9 LTM: no review coming for this one.
- Zeiss Tele-Tessar ZM 85mm f/4: no review coming for this one.
- Jupiter-9 85mm f/2 LTM: Although this is an LTM lens, I cannot see anywhere that this lens can be calibrated to a Leica rangefinder without significant headache. It will not be tested.