Leica M cameras are reknowned for their great full-frame performance coupled with the pure luxury feeling using precision tools for advanced manual photography. Prior to the new Sony Alpha A7/A7r the Leica M happened to be the smallest full-frame system camera in the market. Featuring comparatively small sized manual lenses does indeed make a luxury package Leica kit possible that fits into a medium size bag, but small does not necessarily mean compact.
There is one lens however, that can make this dream come true – a vintage collapsible Leica (or rather Leitz) lens that still is readily available on the secondary market. It can can be found for as little as 100-300 $/€ depending on the condition it is in. Very often you can still find almost mint copies that have not been used for ages.
The Leica Elmar f/3.5 50mm (officially it says f = 5cm on the lens but I will refer to it as the more commonly used 50mm) has quite a simple mechanical and optical design, but one that changed the face of 35mm photography when it was introduced in 1930 (screw mount version). Some years earlier its predecessor had already proven outstanding results on the first ever 35mm fixed lens camera (the famous Ur-Leica or Leica I as it was called later). When this non-removable lens was made available for an interchangeable Leica lens system, 35mm photography as we know it today was born. This makes this a very special lens indeed. And it can still be very special in our times – used wisely on a digital Leica M.
All you need is a comparatively cheap adapter that turns the screw mount into an M-mount and you are ready to go. I use a Pixco M39 adapter (you can find more about that accessory here). From 1954 on this lens was also produced with an M mount (which eliminates the need for an adapter).
Disclaimer/warning: Be careful when you put the adapted lens on your prestine Leica M camera. Leica themselves state, the collapsible lens design is incompatible with the current camera models and I have heard some people complain they did damage to their equipment using the Elmar. I did not encounter any problems myself – but I will not take responsibility for any damages. You will have to try adapting this lens to your equipment at your own risk. If you want to make sure there will be no problems with the camera in question, only mount the lens when it is fully extended (i.e. not in its collapsed state). Once mounted there should be enough room for the lens to extend within the camera body – but again, all of this is at your own risk. For my part, I did not have any problems with the adapter used, but of course there may be camera/lens/adapter combinations that do not work as flawlessly. So be careful if you want to try this with your very own digital M.
Having tried this myself, I can say that in my view the Leica Elmar f/3.5 50mm works well with any Leica M camera ever made including the digital Leica M9, Leica M9P, Leica ME, Leica M Typ 240. The results are quite outstanding, especially considering the age, the simple lens setup and of course the incredibly compact size when collapsed. I got my copy via eBay, it was made in the 1940`s and is in a very nice condition.
It is not the fastest of all standard lenses (only f3.5) but you get a whole lot of a lens apart from that. The Leica Elmar f/3.5 50mm is quite sharp, colours are awesome and there is practically no distortion or colour fringing worth mentioning either. The bokeh is quite nice too. Handling is fine by my standards. A small focus knob can easily be turned to enable precise focussing. Best of all, with this lens there is no finder blockage. The only caveats: the aperture is set on a ring on the inside of the front of the lens. This is quite awkward but you can get used to it. Using the new M you will have to rely on the rangefinder. The lens does not allow for live view focussing. Shooting in bright light without a sunshade can cause a little lack of contrast (as can be seen in one of the examples below). But this can easily be compensated for (and if you prefer black and white this is quite negligable).
This lens is so tiny, there is no need to pick up your other compact camera any more. With the lens attached and collapsed, you can easily slip your Leica M in your coat pocket. Why not try one? This combination is almost as compact as my Fujifilm X-E1 with the Fujinon XF 27mm f/2.8 pancake lens mounted but with the added benefit of full-frame. You can`t do that with a Sony full-frame either…not yet anyway 🙂 .
Need some examples? Here are some basic raw shots (no photo editing tools applied except for conversion from dng to jpg) with the M 240 and the Leica Elmar f/3.5 50mm. You can find some more pics shot (not by me) with this lens over at pixel-peeper. Just follow this link.