Sunday, 10 May 2015

Leica 60mm f/2.8 Macro-Elmarit-R: In a Metal Web

Today we're going to have a look at the Leica 60mm f/2.8 Macro-Elmarit-R. It's one of Leica's SLR lenses from the long-lived, long-dead, long-forgotten Leicaflex/R-system. Leica's SLR camera bodies were anonymous blocky things of no particular technical merit until the Leica R8 of the late 1990s, which was a cleverly-engineered, distinctively ugly lump. On a technical level the R8 was on a par with a mid-range Nikon body of a few years before, but bigger and heavier and you had to wind the film by hand.

Ah, but the lenses were wonderful. They were things of myth and legend, because they were three times as expensive as the competition, and photo magazines never wrote about them. Were they three times better than the competition? Nowadays the system has been dead for several years and the lenses only exist on the used market, where prices have descended to reasonable levels.

Digital photography has given R-system lenses a new lease of life, because they can easily be adapted for Canon and mirrorless systems, less easily for Nikon but it can be done. Leitax, a company that makes posh lens adapters, was originally set up to supply Nikon photographers with a custom lens mount that could accept R-system lenses.

The 50mm f/1.4 Summilux that I wrote about a while back is still quite dear, but very competent. Of the others, the 50mm f/2 kit lens, the 35mm f/2.8, the 60mm f/2.8 Macro and the 180mm f/2.8 are all apparently very good, and not much more expensive than a modern prime of equivalent specification. The R-system's lens range is complicated by the fact that some lenses were rebadged Minoltas, because Leica was pally with Minolta in the 1970s, and at least one of the later zooms was built by Sigma. Which is naff, I imagine that Leica fans were horrified.

For this post I stuck it on a 5D MkII with a posh adapter. It has a standard-for-no-one-except-Leica 60mm filter thread, so I added a 60-62mm step ring for the polariser. I didn't bother with a lens hood. Everything except the little red dot and the glass is made of metal. The focus grip looks like a rubber ring, but it's actually metal. Okay, the grease that lubricates the lens isn't made of metal. The air inside the lens isn't metal. Everything else is metal.

On the used market here in the UK in 2015 on our plane here today this night under a Conservative government the 60mm f/2.8 fetches about a hundred pounds more than a used Canon 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro; the Leica lens doesn't have autofocus, but on the other hand it's awesomely sharp and built like a tank.

A good tank, not one of those tanks you see on LiveLeak in Syria being blown up by a TOW missile. Sometimes I wonder if the Syrian civil war is just a big advert for TOW missiles. I'd buy one if I had the money. They're fantastic - "tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided". The operator places his crosshair on the target, and the missile automatically steers itself in that direction, with commands sent by a mile-long piece of wire that unrolls behind the missile. The wire limits the missile's maximum range but unlike a radio link it can't be jammed, and you see the trucks and tanks driving frantically trying to get out of the way but it's no good and WHAAAAAM! the missile hits and the truck flies up into the air and you see little black specks coming off it where the crew were blown out of the cabin and they're probably dead before they hit the ground and it's better than Battlefield because it's actually real. You can pause the video at the exact moment they die.

Judging by the serial number, my lens dates from 1970. It's as old as Rachel Weisz and just as well preserved. In fact, judging by the description at LeicaWiki, mine was one of the first few hundred lenses. Surely not. It must have been modified by Leica at some point. The original batch of lenses were incompatible with my R8, but this one works fine. I wonder if the serial number is original, or if Leica gave it a new one when they modified it. I must write this down somewhere.

Apart from being a top poet, Sylvia Plath was a surprisingly good illustrator. At the age of 18 she wrote in her diary that "I love people. Everybody. I love them, I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection. Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me." But stamp collectors don't love every stamp. They love only a tiny, tiny minority of collectable stamps. From the point of view of a stamp collector the vast majority of stamps are worthless junk, and I like to think that the same is true of people. You, dear reader, are worthwhile; I like you. But the others, they are not so good.

I picked this leaf because it looks distinctive; I deliberately rejected hundreds of other leaves because they were uninteresting. They will fall off the tree and be swept away and no-one will know. This leaf however lives on in your mind.

Photography is the art of rejecting uninteresting things. It's inherently exclusionary; sadistic, almost.

In a Metal Web is a comic by top pervy comics artist Michael Manning, who draws in a stark black and white style equally inspired by Japanese manga and German expressionism and also the work of Russ Meyer, because Manning's women are stacked. The Macro-Elmarit on the other hand is a 1:2 macro that goes down to half life size, which is this:

At close focus it extends out this far. The focal length changes quite a bit - it widens as you focus to infinity. The focus throw is long and precise, and even with the camera pointing straight down it doesn't creep.

Leica sold a macro adapter that made the 60mm a true 1:1 macro, although I surmise that any suitable extension tube would do the trick. On an APS-C body it becomes a 90mm portrait lens. The bokeh is nice, which is good because close focusing generates lots of it:

The one thing everybody remembers about the BMW Z1 is that the doors dropped down into the sills instead of opening outwards or upwards. The Z1 was part of a wave of two-seater roadsters that appeared almost at the same time; the Lotus Elan, BMW Z1, and MG RV8 didn't last long. The second-generation MR2 sold well but felt a bit dull compared to the original. The Mazda MX-5 trounced them all and is still in production today.

The last photo illustrates the biggest difficulty of shooting macro - the depth of field is very narrow unless you stop right down, at which point you need to go up to ISO 1600 otherwise you'll get motion blur, at which point you get noisy images. Viz the following image, a 1:1 crop of the above which reveals that the very tips of the pistil and stamen - the stigma and anther respectively - are in the plane of focus, but the ovary and sepal are not:

Out in the open the constant breeze is your enemy if you're shooting with a macro lens, because it causes flowers and untethered objects to wave about. Also, your own close proximity to the subject creates eddies that make it worse. You can either wait for the breeze to stop, or halt the flow of time, or tether the things you photograph. For this blog all the images were actually shot on a large sound stage with a closed environment, using long-duration exposures taken with a nailed-down tripod. All of the things you see in this post were encased in special transparent epoxy and any "mistakes" in focusing are deliberate.

Only dreams now. The only other macro lens I have owned was a first-gen Canon EOS 100mm f/2.8, which was superb but a bit awkward, because the focal length was too long for walking about. 60mm on a full-frame body is more versatile. One of the most important and yet overlooked skills of the writer is the skill of taking a bunch of disjointed observations and giving them structure, so that they flow naturally and build to a conclusion. You have to intrigue people with the opener, sate their appetite with the body of the text, and leave them feeling satisfied with the ending. It's just like having a multi-course meal with a pudding at the end. Writing is very difficult, and when done well it should be transparent. Macro lenses are generally top performers and the 60mm is no exception. The vignetting is low at f/2.8 and clears up by f/5.6:

As with the 100mm f/2.8 I'm wary of writing about the performance of the lens. Macro lenses are designed to be sharp up close, with a flat focal plane; I can't really test this, I would need a rig that can hold a camera exactly parallel with a flat surface. At normal distances it's not fair on the lens, because it's not designed for that. Nonetheless the 60mm Macro is basically as sharp as any 50mm prime, which is a good thing, because 50mm primes are usually very sharp.

Contemplate the following, which was shot at one of the local museums:

In the middle the lens has a glow wide open but sharpens one stop down and doesn't really get any sharper, shown here at f/2.8 at the top and f/8 just below:

In the extreme full-frame corner the lens is okay wide open, with some purple fringing, and becomes basically sharp across the frame at f/8, perhaps a tad sharper at f/11. Shown here again at f/2.8 and f/8, without sharpening:

If only I had a test chart and some kind of laser rangefinder. In my experience the lens is razor-sharp at f/11. I have tried using macro rings with an ordinary 50mm prime lens, and although the results were also sharp in the centre the corners were naff, I assume because ordinary prime lenses aren't designed to have a perfectly flat plane of focus. The 60mm doesn't have this problem. If there's distortion, I can't measure it. If there's CA, I can't see it. Nothing about the colour or contrast leaps out at me, which is good, because Photoshop likes neutral raw material.

And that's the Leica 60mm f/2.8 etc. Elmarit means f/2.8 in Leica-speak. The R-system had a decent range of macro accessories but only three dedicated macro lenses, of which the 100mm f/2.8 is spoken of in hushed tones. Nowadays the 60mm f/2.8 is an interesting choice. The performance is excellent and the specification isn't particularly old-fashioned. Most modern short macro lenses are 1:2 as well. The only exceptions I can think of the Sigma 50mm f/2.8 and 70mm f/2.8, which are true 1:1 macro lenses. The Leica isn't cheap, and although it's well-built most examples are several decades old, but on the other hand a few companies still service them. Mine has some internal dust - it focuses by sliding the entire optical assembly forwards, and at close distances the rear of the lens is left open.

As a walkaround lens the lengthy focus travel is awkward, but on the positive side the bokeh is lovely, the colours are neutral, and you don't have to mess around with distortion or CA correction. If I was giving it marks out of ten, I would.

Why are cats sexy? Because they're dangerous and unpredictable. They are not bound by society's constraints. They can do things that we only dream about. If they want to kill a mouse or small bird, they do so, and that excites us, because they have power and we don't. Whose fault is it that we don't have power? Our own, it is our own fault.