Leica 90mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M Review – closing the door on modern Leica lenses (in favour of Zeiss)

I’ve gone off Leica glass – the newer stuff at least. I touched on this in a roundabout way in my 28mm Elmarit-M review, but since then it’s become ever more clear to me that it’s just not for me – it’s just too “good” for my tastes. This really couldn’t be truer of the Leica 90mm Elmarit-M, which is exactly why have just replaced it.

I’m not going to write some long protracted review about just how good the 90mm Elmarit-M lens is, there are plenty of reviews out there that extol it’s virtues much more eloquently than I’d be likely to. Instead, writing this post just feels like an opportunity to close a door on the world of modern Leica lenses behind me as I leave. The 90mm Elmarit-M was the last of my Leica lenses (apart from a thread mount 50mm Elmar), and now it’s gone, I can’t see me owning any lenses made by Leica since the 80’s.

This feels like quite a big thing for me as there was a time not all that long ago when I aspired to own a full set of Leica optics for my rangefinders, but now I can’t imagine that desire at all. They just don’t fit what I’m looking for from lenses – and recent experiences with the 90 Elmarit-m, when compared to another 90mm, have really sealed the deal on that opinion.

I’ve owned the 90mm Elmarit-m for a few years – 2 or 3 I think. In that whole time, my opinion of it as a lens has changed very little, if at all. What I want from a 90mm lens – and indeed any other focal length for that matter – has changed; or perhaps more accurately, it’s evolved. Over the last few years, my understanding of both the technical side of lenses and the photographic outcome they are likely to play a part in has grown significantly. Not only this, but my control over processes such as developing and scanning has increased dramatically. This has meant that I’m now able to better discern the impact of using different lenses on my work, especially in areas such as colour – which is something that I’ve previously found hard to grasp.

Finding the ZM Sonnar

Outside of the better control of my processes, I have quite a strong feeling that this all started with me discovering the Zeiss 50mm ZM Sonnar. You can read my extensive thoughts on that lens here, but the précis version for the sake of this post is that discovering that lens and the look it helped me produce in my images was a real turning point in my photography. I still like to play with other 50mm lenses (though these days, most are admittedly sonnars), but for the photography I shoot where I want to take advantage of a look I most like in my images, it’s the ZM Sonnar almost every time!

Leica M-A, 50mm ZM Sonnar, Fuji 400h
Shot with the 50mm ZM Sonnar

Finding Zeiss

After discovering the ZM Sonnar I wondered how much of the look I found it that lens was a Sonnar thing, and how much was a Zeiss thing. I came to some conclusions about this in my 28mm ZM Biogon post. Again, the précis version is that I felt that the primary identifiable traits of strong colour and contrast that combined to give a good sense of three-dimensionality was something that I appreciated in these lenses. I largely attributed these traits to the use of Zeiss coatings and declared myself a Zeiss fan, rather than just a Zeiss ZM Sonnar fan. I just find that the results I get from Zeiss lenses tend to have more of a look that fits with the feel I want to put across in my images – especially when it comes to rendition and vibrancy of colours.

An afternoon with the Zeiss 28mm ZM Biogon
Shot with the 28mm ZM Biogon

Now, I’m the first to admit that there might be some confirmation bias at play here. As with anything subjective, it’s quite easy to convince yourself that your own perceptions prove what you want them to prove. But, a month or so ago I felt I had such strong proof to myself that I was right about this that I set the wheels in motion to replace the 90mm Elmarit-M with a lens that has the word “Zeiss” written on the front.

The 90mm Elmarit-M replacement

This all happened when I shot a roll with a Contax G2 and the 90mm 2.8 Sonnar. I don’t want to get into that story too much now, as I’d rather save it for the time at which I write more about that lens. But, to say the results from the Contax Sonnar blew me away in one roll would be an understatement.

Shot with the 90mm Sonnar

This never happened with the Leica 90mm Elmarit-m. In fact, through the experience of shooting the 90mm Sonnar I’ve had a bit of a realisation about how I respond to lenses and how good a match I feel they are to me. I remember getting the first results back from the Elmarit-m. I thought they were impressive, very impressive, but rather than discerning this from an initial reaction based on the whole image, I remember quite vividly zooming in on the image in Lightroom to inspect how sharp the photo was. Very sharp was the answer, but beyond that, all I saw was a nice clean sharp image, nice bokeh, not much in the way of aberrations, distortion etc, just a nice high quality, quite neutral image.

Leica M3 & 90mm elmarit-m
From my first roll with the 90mm Elmarit-M

A day on holiday - Shot with the Leica M60
Shot with the 90mm Elmarit-M & Leica M60

Nothing really blew me away.

This is something that I found regularly throughout the time I owned the 90mm Elmarit-M. I never saw anything I didn’t like, but equally I never found myself enthralled by the photographic outcome either – at least without having to apply a heavier touch in Lightroom. As an example, there are a whole bunch of photos I took last time I went on holiday with the 90mm Elmarit-m.

Devon with the M9
Shot with the 90mm Elmarit-m and the M9

This shot of a butterfly is a good example of one image I took whilst away. When I got home from holiday and put the images onto the computer I found a need to boost the colours, contrast and clarity. I’m happy with the end result, but the path to achieving wasn’t near as satisfying as scanning images from the Zeiss 90mm Sonnar and getting results like this with barely the slightest need for post-process.

It’s not just the 90mm’s fault

Looking back, I can see this opinion growing in me. Not so long ago there was the aforementioned 28mm Elmarit-M which I decided was probably the “best” lens I’d ever sold. And before that still, there was the first modern Leica lens I found myself nonplussed by the 50mm f2.5 Summarit-m. This was a lens Leica loaned me a few years ago along with the Leica M-A. Very nice lens too, but my conclusion was that actually, a used older Summicron gave results I preferred.

What’s interesting about my preference for the 50mm cron I was talking about then, and the 35mm I reviewed here and the 40mm ‘cron I reviewed here, is that they all come from a time when Leica were making lenses whose character was more heavily distinguishable in the results. Leica lenses from the 70’s and 80’s – which I believe to be the best of the lot – had a stronger reliance on higher lens contrast to give a sense of “sharpness”, they also had a slightly higher tendency towards flare. They were imperfect, and for that, I like them more.

Leica M5 and Summicron 35mm v3

Maybe I take boring photos?

Of course, all this might mean that I take boring photos that without some sort of lens based trickery to impart strong colours, vignettes or pretty flare don’t add up to much…? But, if that is the case, I’m not sure I care. To my mind, the lens – just as the film, the scanner, the printing technique, the software, etc – is a very important piece of the image-making puzzle. It just happens to be one of the most important pieces in my personal process.

Skip to the end

The point of all this waffle is this: the process of discovering the wonders of the 90mm Sonnar has confirmed to me (once again) that my desires for lenses sit outside of seeking optical “perfection”. The Elmarit-M is just too “perfect” a lens for my tastes – it doesn’t excite me like the Zeiss 90mm Sonnar does with its propensity for high contrast and overly strong colours and contrast.

But, whilst this does mean it’s not the lens for me, it’s more than possible that it doesn’t mean it’s not the ideal lens for you. If you’re looking for neutral, “sharp” images with good Bokeh; if you don’t like your lenses imposing themselves onto your final images, and if the words “character” and “lens” when combined give you a shiver like someone walked over your grave, then you should probably be reading this review by Mr. Rockwell instead. He thinks it’s a great lens – and as you’ve probably gathered I think he’s right too! But my name isn’t Ken… which in a roundabout way, is probably why I just sold my Leica 90mm Elmarit-M and had a 90mm Zeiss Sonnar converted to M-mount to replace it.

Keep an eye out for my forthcoming early impressions of my recently m-mount converted Zeiss 90mm f2.8 Sonnar…

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23 thoughts on “Leica 90mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M Review – closing the door on modern Leica lenses (in favour of Zeiss)”

  1. “The Elmarit-M is just too “perfect” a lens for my tastes – it doesn’t excite me like the Zeiss 90mm Sonnar does with its propensity for high contrast and overly strong colours”

    Hamish, an interesting little essay. I’ve highlighted the above sentence as it seems to encapsulate what you like about the Sonnar without considering visual sharpness, The overly strong colours comment seems to indicate that the Sonnar is far from neutral in its colour rendition. I’m a little nonplussed by this as you have indicated that you prefer the earlier Leica designs and which would not exhibit such a strong colour palette. Or do they, in your experience?

    It seems as though you have conducted comparisons on your film and digital M’s. Are these lenses behaving consistently i.e differently, over both platforms, in that you always prefer the Sonnar? I was wondering how much of the differences you were noting was down to this?

    1. Sorry, I’ve not been very clear there.
      I prefer the earlier Leica designs over the later ones for their contrast/”structural sharpness”. This preference isn’t to do with colour – in fact I think the 70s/80s Leica lenses are better at black and white photography.

      All of the Zeiss lenses – in my opinion – are very high in contrast and provide high colour contrast and saturation too. This suits me for both black and white and colour.

      I haven’t done strict comparisons – but over an extended period of time and many thousand photos taken both with digital and film with the 50mm sonnar, and subsequently the Biogon and now the 90 Sonnar, I find myself familiar with a Zeiss colour palette and contrast signature that I prefer. Actually, the 90 Sonnar is the strongest in terms of its contrast and colour saturation (I think), but to me it still feels like it’s from the same family.

      As I say, I do caveat this with a certain amount of suspicion at myself that I am suffering confirmation bias… but I am more certain with each Zeiss lens I shoot with that I am right

  2. Owning as I do the Elmarit M 90mm lens, I do agree with you that it is neutral, and virtually flawless optically.
    I also agree that having some degree of aberration, as seen in the older lenses often gives them character and an interest to the image.
    You could start your search all the way back to the beginning of Leica – the 90mm f/4 Elmar in screw mount, with uncoated optics.
    It has tons of character, and the ladies will thank you for the flattering portrait rendition.

    Nikon 85mm f/2 is one of the classic Sonnar designs that David Douglas Duncan discovered and made Nikon famous in the Korean War era.

    Cosina Voigtlander’s 90mm f/3.5 Apo Lanthar gives you a lot of vibrant colour without getting clinically sharp. It is tiny and light, also. Again, it comes in screw mount. Cosina builds most of the Zeiss branded lenses of today. I think this is one of Cosina’s own designs.

    Finally, I decided to try Leica’s Macro Elmar M f/4. The idea of making a near focus lens (with near focusing adapter) with only 4 lens elements was too tempting to pass up. I’m doing a lot of hiking and nature photography lately. The Elmarit M feels like a brick to carry. The little Macro Elmar is much lighter. I’ve just acquired this lens, so I don’t have any images with it yet.

    My purpose was to mention that there are alternatives to modifying a Zeiss lens to fit the M mount. There are certainly many vintage and modern lenses that will give you a non-clinical rendition.

    1. Hi Robert, of course, and the Nikon is very much on my list of lenses to try alongside one of the 50mm f/2 HC lenses.
      I suppose I am saying that I am motivated by seeking out a Zeiss derived look than anything else at the moment though. Have a read of my response to Terry too…
      thanks for sharing though – I used to have the 90mm Voigtlander, as it goes…

      1. Hamish, yes, it did.

        It is very difficult to express in words the totality of a lens’imaging characteristics, i.e. its total rendering. What we see isn’t always capable of being measured. It’s our personal response to this that makes us prefer one lens (or type) over another, and as you mentioned this can depend upon whether the subject is being shot in b&w or colour.

        My favourite 50 for b&w is my post-war coated f1.5 Zeiss Sonnar, but for colour I switch allegiance to my Leica Summicron R 50, the very first one from the 1960’s. Some may be surprised at my latter choice, but as with your predilection for Zeiss Sonnars, the lens appeals to me.

  3. Mike Hinkleman

    You worry too much. Pick a camera/lens/film or sensor you like and focus on content. You’ll be fine. 40 years from now you won’t believe the concern.

    1. I’m sure you’re right about 40 years for now, but don’t mistake this for “worry”. “Worry” implies something negative, this is the product of enthusiasm…
      Also, I am picking the lenses I like, that’s exactly what this is about – I just happen to be documenting the process

  4. My exact experience with lenses. I am just selling a 28mm Summicron ASPH for the same reason. I exclusively shoot with an old Summicron 35 Type IV and I got the test shots back from the 28mm the other day and everything was so bland. Of course it was very sharp but it had no character at all.

    I am not sure exactly what I like about the Type IV Cron but I just seem to love its colour and flaws out of everything I have tried. The ZM lenses are great but a little too much pop in the colour for my taste and far too stiff to focus but that’s all very subjective and it’s great we have the choices.

  5. As someone who has travelled from Fuji to Sony to shoot old Contax CY mount Zeiss (having each refurbished along the way), it was only the discovery of ZM glass that ultimately brought me to Leica M and (yes) “back to film”. Sadly the Zeiss 85mm was a hole filled instead with a Elmarit-m 90mm f3.5, so I am curious about your Sonnar90mm conversion. I am also suffering with a Leica 135mm, but thankful for ZM’s filling in at 21mm, 35mm (f2) that occupies the lens mount98% of the time, and 50mm. Ultimately, I bought a Contax S2 for the CY glass when it ain’t sitting on my Sony (A7R2). So glass rules, the rest drool. Completely empathize with the transition. Leica glass ain’t bad, it’s very good. There is just something to the Zeiss pop, color, contrast and handling I prefer. And let’s face it, pricing and three blips per stop instead of two fits better with my light meter 😉

    1. I think there are a few of us about! More early impressions of the 90mm conversion were very nice indeed – but for now it has returned to Japan for a tweak. When it gets back (and focuses properly to infinity) I will share more thoughts!

  6. Interesting post. I recently got the 35 summilux ASPH FLE for my MP-240, and I think it’s possibly the best 35 mm I have ever used on digital, both technically and in terms of (modern) rendering. I also own the 35 Biogon, which is excellent. Naturally, all of this is subjective. I prefer the 35 cron version IV on my film Leicas, especially on B/W, as its rendering is classic and it is sharp where it needs to be. Also, I suffer from GAS, but those lenses are so darn nice 😉

  7. Great post and looking forward to the one on the 90mm conversion. I love the Sonnar on my G1 and am considering getting another and sending it to JCH to do the conversion for my M5 but it’s a lot of cash for something I could just shoot happily with on the G1.

  8. I have the 90mm Zeiss Sonnar on my Contax G1. It’s a bloody lethal weapon. A “weapon of mass destruction.” I have all kinds of great vintage lenses and cameras. The 90mm Contax Sonnar is one of the best lenses I have ever had the pleasure of shooting. I would put it in my top 3 lenses. Mind blowing would be an understatement.

  9. stephen edmunds

    To me a lot of the lenses you review are quite modern lenses imitating much older lenses.
    Why not use the original lenses and enjoy their genuine character instead of artificially induced “character” lenses made by cosina who are a very modern company?

    1. I really disagree with this sentiment – they aren’t artificially inducing character, they are combining the character of old lens formula with modern coatings. The result of this is often a lens character that I favour above the old designs with older-type coatings. That’s why I pick them more over the older lenses: because I like them more

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