5 Frames with a 35mm Curtagon Shift Lens – by Christian Schroeder

If you know me, you know that I love shift lenses. This summer, I expanded my repertoire with an old 35mm Curtagon for my Leicaflex SLR camera. I am going to talk a little bit about this little marvel and then show some recent architectural photographs.

The Curtagon is a 35mm (focal length) shift lens produced by Schneider-Kreuznach for the Leicaflex / Leica-R system. Approximately 5,500 pieces left the factory between 1970 and 1996. Compared to regular 35mm lenses, the Curtagon is definitely a niche product – nothing unusual for a shift lens. Interestingly, the Curtagon seems to populate Ebay and the usual dealers in reasonably high numbers, whereas the “ordinary” 35mm Summicron (f/2.0) is rather difficult to find. But, there were roughly 40,000 Summicron lenses built (according to Leica Wiki). Almost eight times as many as of the Curtagon! I suppose, most of the Summicrons have found new homes adapted to mirrorless digital cameras or sit in front of cine gear. If you own one of these, you don’t want to part with it. In contrast, the Curtagon lens appears to be an odd specialty with only a few people having a use case for.

Handling and Image Quality of the Curtagon

You operate the Curtagon’s shift mechanism with a dedicated ring around the lens tube. Compared to the Canon EOS shift lenses with their setting screws, this is a rather different design. For me, the Curtagon’s shift ring appears less fragile than Canon’s screws. That’s a big plus as these specialty lenses – due to their complicated construction principle – tend to be more vulnerable than regular lenses. But, the shift ring has one really annoying habit: I accidentally activate it when attaching or detaching the lens – almost every time! The problem is, the shift ring turns very easily and sits right next to the lens mount.

I would describe the Curtagon’s image quality as okay-ish. The lens exhibits a visible barrel distortion. The more you shift, the more pronounced it gets. As a result, vertical lines of tall buildings do not converge towards the top of the frame – the lines rather bend (slightly). Most people recommend to stop down the lens to f/11 when shift is applied. With overcast skies and low-ISO films this means: bring your tripod with you! Regarding f/11: the Curtagon only allows stop-down metering.

Eventually, I would discuss another handling aspect. In my hometown, Hannover, the focal length of 35mm would often prove too long. The buildings stand too close / are too tall and therefore won’t fit into the frame. Of course, your mileage may vary, depending on how densely your area is populated.

Although my findings read rather underwhelming, I do enjoy this lens. It is cheap (in Leica terms), seems quite robust and produces images with a certain vintage look.

Switching to Ilford

I took the frames on a roll of Ilford FP4 plus that I had discovered in the back of my fridge. Normally, I prefer Fuji Acros for my black-and-white shots of architecture. Acros offers fine grain, lots of tonality and almost doesn’t suffer from reciprocity failure – perfect for documentary type of shots. However, why not trying something different?

I like how the frames turned out. And as FP4 is cheaper and (currently) much easier to get than Acros, I will indeed use FP4 more often.

Railroad bridges in Hannover shot with a Curtagon shift lens on a Leicaflex SL camera.
There are three railroad bridges visible in this shot, plus a fourth one under which I am standing.
Oil tanks located in Hannover shot with a Curtagon shift lens on a Leicaflex SL camera.
Fuel tanks at the Nordhafen inland harbor.
Coal-fired power plant in Hannover shot with a Curtagon shift lens on a Leicaflex SL camera.
Coal-fired power plant located in the Herrenhausen quarter. When I was a kid, this facility was praised as cutting-edge. (“Technology to serve the environment”) With the ongoing discussions about Germany’s fossil fuel phase-out, this seems odd today.
Residential house located in Hannover shot on Ilford FP4plus film.
Residential house located in the Leinhausen quarter.
Ihme-Zentrum housing area shot with a Curtagon shift lens on a Leicaflex SL camera.
Ihme-Zentrum housing area. I assume, I have taken millions of photographs of this place (exaggerating).

Are you interested in more information on the camera? In this case, please check out Jason’s review dealing with its predecessor, the Leicaflex “Standard”.

Thanks for reading!

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13 thoughts on “5 Frames with a 35mm Curtagon Shift Lens – by Christian Schroeder”

  1. Hi, Christian. Shift images are not common, so it was interesting to see some excellent ones posted here and using my go to medium speed film, FP4, developed in Aculux, and sadly no longer available. I can see the FP4 imprint in your images. The lens does an excellent job, but I believe I can understand why you would consider the 35mm focal length somewhat too long. You do refer to Canon and I wonder if I’ve already seen some of your work using their 24 and 17 lenses?

    Incidentally, desiring a much easier life now, I use a piece of software from a countryman of yours, Marcus Hebel, who has released freeware to digitally correct for converging verticals, “ShiftN”. Whilst not equalling a bespoke shift lens, I find it does a pretty fine emulation.

    1. Christian Schroeder

      Hi Terry. You are right, my benchmark lenses are the 17 and 24mm Canon ones (I reported on them here). They are great for the city, whereas the 35mm Curtagon seems more suitable for smaller buildings located at the countryside. Unfortunately, I got no “all in one” system…

      Ilford FP4 has great tones. But I often encounter heavy dust contamination with this very type of film (I am sending them to a lab for scanning and development). Wonder, if this happens just by chance. Or bad luck?

      1. Hello, Christian. Thanks for the link. I remember these, now, but I also recall a number of b/w images, especially of city office buildings. Could these have been yours, too?
        During about four decades of using Ilford’s FP3/FP4, I never experienced any adverse dust problems with them. I never had recourse to anti-static or wetting agents in the final wash so I’m at a loss to understand why you’re having heavy dust contamination with FP4, although the natural finger of suspicion seems to point at the manner in which the processing lab is handling your film.

  2. Good day, Christian – thank you for some fine images. Have you ever shot any of the PC Nikkor lenses? And if so, how would rate them vis-a-vis this Curtagon? Thanks!

    1. Christian Schroeder

      Hi Roger. No, I haven’t used the Nikkors yet. But I own the two modern Canon TSE wide-angle lenses (17+24): they are free of distortion, very very sharp and offer a lot of flexibility (e. g., the Canons allow you to tilt whereas the Curtagon is just a shift lens). Of course, this comes at a price: their price. I suppose, the modern Nikon equivalents behave the same way as the Canons. Should be a different league compared to the Curtagon.

  3. Fascinating, thank you! Some lovely photographs and definitely a case to have this as my home town has quite low rise.

    1. I also have a Nikon 28mm f4 shift. I tend not to pixel-peep, so I’ve found the Curtagon and the Nikon to both be of excellent quality. The main differences, as far as I’m concerned, relate to amount of shift, focal length, and the type of shift mechanism. On the last item, I’ve found the worst to be the detent type on a heavy lens. An example of the latter is the Olympus 24mm shift. Truly a stunning lens, but the detents are often not up to the task of holding the amount of shift to the desired extent. I just returned from Spain and Portugal with this lens, but the flimsy detents means that my next holiday will need some help from a bit of galvanized wire (even Gorilla tape didn’t hold the horizontal detent), and a custom carved chunk of teflon to keep the vertical shift zeroed out when needed.

      1. Christian Schroeder

        28mm sounds quite interesting to me. I considered 24mm as my sweet spot, but 28mm could come close. By the way, there is also a Schneider-made Leica option for this focal length. Thank you Evan for joining this discussion!

  4. Pentax also made a 28mm shift lens, which works with a ‘twist-to-shift’ mechanism similar to that of the Curtagon. It’s not too bad, though the degree of vignetting is enough to need correction in post, and the sharpness suffers at extreme shifts.

  5. Pingback: Hunting Dinosaurs or: Photographing Abandoned Factories – by Christian Schroeder - 35mmc

  6. Christian: thank you for using Ilford film, made in Great Britain, my country. It’s one of my favourite films, along with XP2. The Curtagon was the first lens I purchased after acquiring a Leicaflex SL body, some years ago. Having used a pair of M3 and lenses, I was curious about the SLR Leica. My SL meter was not working so the cams issue was not relevant. I’ve now obtained a second SL and 35/50/90/135/180/250 lenses for my SL outfit. Not long ago I got an original Leicaflex out of curiosity. Non working meter. So I’ve popped the Curtagon on that. I use this with a handheld meter for street photography. I like this lens. I use it wide open at f4 and adjust the shutter speeds accordingly. Aperture Priority? Sort of. I find the focus using just the central area interesting but not awkward. Just a question of remembering.

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