Leitz 5cm f3.5 Elmar: The Meaning of Gestalt

I’ll admit it. As I shuffled around the streets of downtown Frederick, Maryland anticipating the paths of passersby and lifting my little black Leica to my eye, I imagined that this is what it was like for Henry Cartier Bresson before this equipment was legendary, new methods were standard practices and the genre was a genre. Simplicity. Fun. Pure photography.

Kodak Tri-X 400

I’ve spent the better part of the last four years getting to know a little black 1930 Leica that I purchased from my repair guy. It seems par for the course that you get a Summicron for a IIIg, a Summitar for a IIIc or IIIf and an Elmar for anything prior. But The 1930 I/III came to me with a less common Leitz nickel Summar, which is a desirable collectible as well as beautiful character lens. Unfortunately, however, my copy flares more easily than I’d like and falls only slightly short of being the go-to lens for, what has become, my daily carry camera.

Mounting the newer chrome finished Summitar 50/2 or Summarit 50/1.5 lenses that I already owned on The 1930 make for beautiful images but seem to compromise the size and style of the tiny black and nickel camera. While the L39 mount can accept many hundreds of lenses, the original Leitz 5cm Elmar is said to possess a certain gestalt when used on an early Leica body and remains the top choice normal lens for many Leica shooters. With a maximum aperture of just f3.5, however, it’s painfully slow!

The humble four-element 5cm Elmar was designed by Max Berek contemporaneously with the first Leica cameras, which were actually fixed lens bodies. Therefore, this lens was really an inextricable part of the camera. But being more than a stop slower than any 50mm I’ve ever used before, the question of if I could somehow embrace it’s ridiculously slow maximum aperture and find my perfect daily driver, became unshakable.

*taken with Olympus OM-1n + Zuiko 55mm 3.5 Macro on Kodak Tri-X 400 @ 1600

FINDING THE RIGHT ONE

After a few months of tossing and turning over the numerous examples of the lens I found for sale, I reached out to Tamarkin Camera about a nickel finish 5cm Elmar listed on their site. It didn’t have a serial number, which to many would be off-putting given that there are probably more fakes and clones of the legendary 5cm Elmar than there are real examples (which is a feat, considering the lens’ long production span). But this Elmar was being sold by Tamarkin, so it’s got to be legit, right? I found that because the Elmar was originally a fixed lens from the start of production in 1925 to about 1933, early Leitz 5cm Elmars did not feature their own serial number – they were just part of the camera! And of course, they were finished in nickel as were all Leica lenses prior to around 1933 to 1936.

Kodak TMAX 100

Many of these early lenses were converted, by Leica, to the now-famous interchangeable LTM mount. I’m told by Leica historian Augusto Liger that my Elmar was likely made after April 1932. He figures this based on the newer style push-button focus knob that was relocated from the original 11 o’clock position to 7 o’clock. This was to accommodate for the front-mounted slow shutter speed dial on the Leica III when it was introduced in 1933.

This somewhat unusual, well-storied, factory-converted lens is a perfect match for my 1930 Leica which was also upgraded (from a Model Ic to a Model III around 1936). Also, the distance scale is in feet, which is important to my illogical American sensibilities!

Kodak TMAX 100

The 5cm nickel Elmar exhibits some cleaning marks on the uncoated front element and a little bit of normal finish wear all around. But in many ways, I prefer this. Not only is worn Leica gear little cheaper at retail but I don’t feel like I have to baby it in use. And frankly, I think this lens looks quite fetch on my brassed camera!

Before it shipped, Ernie from Tamarkin let me know that the aperture was a little stiff. It does this thing where it sticks slightly approaching f3.5 but then runs smooth to f18 and back. I only notice it when running the aperture back and forth from extreme to extreme, not in normal use. I may see if this can be addressed later. The focus is super smooth and quick without being loose. And the infinity lock is strong and tight. The catch that the focus knob locks into can wear with use, particularly on such an old lens. So it’s nice to handle a crisp example. Everything else about the lens feels tight and precise. This 5cm Elmar really embodies the characteristics for which Leica became known. The common descriptor “jewel-like” applies in spades.

When mounted to The 1930, I found exactly what I was looking for. The lens/body combo is exactly what Oskar Barnack seems to have originally intended. Zero viewfinder blockage, effortless handling and diminutive when collapsed. While Leica maintained the basic fit and intention of the 5cm Elmar with pretty much everything that evolved after it, the Elmar just feels perfectly correct to the camera in a way that no other body/lens combination I’ve tried, has, not even very close the Summar.

Kodak Tri-X 400

Now, for those who take pride in sneaking eBay packages past your spouse, I want to point out that it was my wife, not me, who decided to purchase the 5cm Elmar. You see, Tamarkin kindly offered to let me “test drive” the lens prior to purchase. If I liked it, I could simply call them and pay over the phone. If I didn’t like it, no harm done, mail it back and that would be that. I’d been running around with the Elmar on The 1930 for almost a week; wearing it around my neck while doing dishes, brushing my teeth and getting the mail. I definitely fell asleep with it on a few times. I would work and inspect the lens while watching TV or hanging out with my family. And yes, I was taking photos all along as well!

Kodak Tri-X 400

One evening, my wife and I were out drinking with friends. The next thing that I knew, she had dialed Tamarkin Camera in Chicago. “My husband, Johnny Martyr, is borrowing a lens from you that I’d like to buy for him.” She looked at me in excitement and said “they knew exactly who you are and what I was talking about!” My wife is amazing. And so is this lens! That’s twice that I found the right one.

Kodak Tri-X 400

WHAT IT’S LIKE

A year has passed and I seldom mount any other lens on my 1930 anymore. The size and performance of the 1932 nickel Elmar are easy to love. I used to be of the mindset that my daily carry lens needs to be as fast as reasonably possible so as to handle anything that life throws at it. But I’ve found that f3.5 is totally fine for most situations with Tri-X. Unlike faster LTM Leitz lenses, the Elmar is very flare resistant and, of course is sharp at most distances and apertures, corner to corner, making it easy to work with in many types of lighting. The lens does exhibit that classic “Leica glow” in highlights and diffraction sets in pretty quickly past f8. Focus is hard to miss even at full aperture and close distance. The 10-blade aperture assembly performs as sublimely as it is to behold. Bokeh is natural punctuated with perfectly round, controlled out of focus points of light. Transitions and separation is smooth and unnoticeable. Out of focus points of light can sometimes get busy with a touch of fringing and swirl at wider apertures and closer distances with far off backgrounds. But in my experience, one almost has to force these behaviors, or at least shoot slower film with larger scenes frequently. Unlike competitor brand LTM lenses, the Elmar is diminutive, while matching the camera cosmetically and dare I say, spiritually.

Kodak Tri-X 400

Some photographers place little emphasis on haptics but I’ve always felt that while a well-crafted body and lens might not intrinsically improve ones work, they can inspire one to shoot their best. I have come to think that inspiring haptics are sometimes more important than measurable performance to an extent. When it comes to creating emotionally compelling images, anyone counting lines of resolution has already missed the point. So yes, I could mount a show-stopping performer like a gigantic modern Voigtlander 50mm 1.5 Nokton onto this little old Leica, and produce tack sharp subjects and bokeh of unparalleled smoothness. But if the combination of camera and lens feels and looks ridiculous, my inclination to pick it up to begin with will be diminished.

While I have to get creative to shoot in very low light with the 3.5 Elmar, the consistency of my results is greater and I also feel moved by my success rate, to hazard a shot more often. With increased size and cost, other lenses command more of my attention in common, everyday situations where you don’t want to or simply cannot worry about your camera and lens. The 1930 and Elmar can be flung over my shoulder or dropped in a jacket pocket fairly carelessly, still poised for their next opportunity. If I’m shooting a wedding or planned event, a faster lens is just more practical and yields more interesting bokeh even if haptics and history aren’t perfectly aligned. But for stream-of-consciousness shooting, the little Elmar and its gestalt with The 1930 has won over my heart.

Kodak Tri-X 400 @ 1600

ACCESSORIES

I use the black paint FISON lens hood that I purchased a while back for use with my 5cm nickel Summar. In black paint, this is a somewhat costly hood but it’s considerably less clunky than the more cost-effective FIKUS. And I honestly just enjoy the aesthetics of a black hood with a black body. The aperture control isn’t difficult to adjust through the FISON hood. And 36mm slip-on caps that fit directly on the Elmar can also fit onto this hood, making it easy to keep the lens/shutter protected with a cap with the hood always in place. When I collapse the Elmar, the FISON only sticks out about as much as the Elmar does from the body when extended. The rig fits neatly into the large pockets of my duffle jacket and a bit large and heavy for, but manageable in the pocket of a hoodie. I position the FISON so that its thumbscrew is next to the focus knob of the Elmar. This provides a little additional “grab” when focusing and makes it feel as if there aren’t any unnecessary protrusions. I also use the position of the thumbscrew as a “fully locked” indicator when retracting the lens.

There are a number of different lens hoods that fit the Leitz 5cm 3.5 Elmar. FISON was the first but there are several versions of it such as a cheaper/more common chrome version of the black paint one that I have with the thumbscrew. There are also push-on FISONs that eliminate the slightly clunky thumbscrew. For less conspicuous consumption, a Chinese manufacturer sells a good-looking chrome clamp-on FISON knock-off. I think they’re only a LITTLE cheaper than a lower end original chrome copy but new and cheap are cool. As I mentioned, there’s also the FIKIS which is a smart retracting lens hood that fits not only the 5cm Elmar but also the early Hektor, 9cm and 13.5cm Elmar. This is a smart hood to run if you have a couple of these lenses but it requires two thumbscrews to telescope, making for a bit too much going on for a hood in my opinion. The VALOO is a neat hood that facilitates easier aperture adjustment of the Elmar, but again, for me, it’s a bit too large/complicated for my taste.

Kodak Tri-X 400

I don’t use filters on any of my lenses but feel particularly uninterested in doing so with the Elmar. Despite lacking any anti-flare coating at all, it is actually rather flare-resistant and contrasty for its vintage. It takes very tiny 19mm screw-in filters which allow adjustment of the aperture control. This is the same thread size as the Cintar lens on a common Argus C3, whose accessories tend to be cheaper and more common. But a yellow #1 Leica FIRHE would protect the glass, sure up images nicely and look quite darn cute!

For any 50mm/5cm lens, I’ve become quite a fan of the SBOOI accessory brightline viewfinder. Being a later model accessory, they only come in chrome finish so it doesn’t look perfect on my black and nickel camera, but this is offset by the steampunk panche it adds to the little rig. People often complain about the size of early Leica view/rangefinder windows and I think the SBOOI is a great solution, for the viewfinder window anyway. While I’m perfectly content with the built-in finder, if I’m going to move my eye from the RF to a VF anyway, I like moving to the big, bright SBOOI. Framelines are marked for parallax and it’s just very enjoyable to have set up your shot and then watch your subject through this beautiful hunk of glass, which is actually a multi-element lens, not just a simple window. Voigtlander, Canon and others used to make similar little finders too, that I’m sure are just as enjoyable.

Kodak Tri-X 400 @ 1600

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’ve never used the 5cm nickel Elmar on my other LTM or M mount camera bodies. I know this sort of defeats the economy of the mount but it almost just doesn’t seem “right” to use it on any other type of rangefinder and I have other LTM 50’s that seem better suited elsewhere. I sought the 5cm 3.5 Elmar specifically for daily use on this particular camera.

Certainly I would say that any version 5cm 3.5 Elmar is the lens to run with any daily carry pre-IIIg Barnack Leica. This setup has the gestalt I was after. The Elmar is a great budget-friendly, yet authentic Leica lens to use with a Leica copy body also. A Canon P or Voigtlander Bessa with their low effective baselength would play nicely with the slow maximum aperture, compactness and cheapness of the 5cm 3.5 Elmar. And every once in a while, I even see M bodies sporting this comparatively ancient lens. I ought to throw it on my black M6 TTL just to have a chuckle. And maybe that’s the point. Some lenses are perfect for some bodies and some photographers while the same lens on a different body or with a different photographer is just totally wrong. Part of the excitement and challenge of shooting with vintage cameras and lenses is developing ones own personal and unique sensibility for what to pair with what and how to use without letting the allure of collecting and experimenting impair ones photography, but rather, to enhance it.

Thanks for reading, happy shooting and happy holidays, too!

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10 thoughts on “Leitz 5cm f3.5 Elmar: The Meaning of Gestalt

    1. They are such a departure from newer cameras that I think it’s easy to write them off as collectors’ curiosities, but I find mine to be very practical and fun. For exposure, I do different things based on what I’m shooting. If shooting a wedding or family shots, I get help from the meter on my other camera. If I am just shooting casually I guess or use my phone. I also sometimes use a Voigtlander VCII instead of the SBOOI finder. And I have a handheld also. Just depends on what I’m shooting and how seriously. Let me know if you pick up another Leica!

      Like

  1. Great write-up! I, too, have a 1930 I-c that was factory converted, although mine to a II-d. No slow speeds. But, interestingly, the rangefinder top is from the III.
    I also have an uncoated 1932 nickel Elmar. Nothing else draws like it.
    This little combo is my hands down favorite film camera for casual shooting. It even does nicely with color film.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Damn it! I just about talked myself out of buying a Leica LTM when your article popped up. I’m looking to go a more ‘modern route’ w/a 3F or 3G. I’ve got a 50mm Canon LTM, so I’m halfway there.
    Good article, great pics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Look for a IIIc. They are plentiful and reasonably priced. They are the gateway drug…
      The IIIf are too sought after and the prices are inflated. The IIIg were made in limited quantities, and it’s harder to find one in good shape.

      Liked by 1 person

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