This short video that I directed has gone live today on Funny Or Die. This was my first collaboration with Matt Berninger, Tom Berninger, and Carin Besser. Phenomenally funny people. If you haven’t seen their documentary, Mistaken For Strangers, I highly recommend it.
Shot on my Epic with my new Leicas, mostly the 24mm.
If you’ve watched the video above, you’ve seen through my new lenses, but if you have the stomach for it I will tell you in painstaking detail ABOUT my new lenses.
I’ve recently begun building my own set of vintage Leica lenses and modifying them for cinematography. I didn’t come up with the idea. It’s a trend actually and it’s popular because there are plenty of these old gems on the used market and they are a fraction of what true cinema quality lenses cost. I kind of hate that I’m such a follower on this one, but the more it was put in my face on the internet, the more I had to try for myself. This is myThird Eye Blind. My one disclaimer here is that what makes a lens, or a movie, or an idea cinematic in the first place is something that no two humans will agree on, but nevertheless there are cinema lenses out there which cost as much as half a house (in a crappy school district). But if you’re adventurous and not super wealthy you can own a set of these. If my experience is a yardstick, however, there is no quick or clear cut path to get you there. Reading my account will be a good way for you to see if this sounds fun or annoying. What I won’t get into are the performance characteristics of the lenses, or even my subjective opinions on how they look except to say that they look awesome to me. Every time I mount them on the camera I have a visceral response, not only to the images I’m seeing on my monitor, but to the way they change the aesthetic of the camera itself. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m really into curating the look of my equipment even though it has no direct impact on what you see on screen. I get more excited about using my tools when the tools themselves have been considered carefully, and are a pleasure to look at. Despite how handsome they are as collectible antiques, you must like the pictures they take, so I will posit, for the rest of this article that you already do, or that you’ve consumed enough reviews, photo blogs, and discussion threads on this topic to decide that you’re ready to wade into the marketplace. Most people buy cinema lenses in matched sets for visual consistency. While people are out there on the internet selling full sets of Leicas, in all likelihood the individual lenses are still coming from different owners and possibly even different decades, and the sets are often cobbled together by someone like me who has taken the time to buy them and bundle them. So it’s a tossup when it comes to the quality of a “set” versus the quality of buying them separately. I found that it would be a little cheaper to buy them all at once because traditional volume pricing rules seem to apply, albeit in small amounts. I just felt like it would be less of an education to get a ready made set. Later on I stopped thinking that, but then even later I changed my mind back. This is where I stand now. Buy them one at a time and make a connection with each lens. I Since I am methodical I began with the widest angle I would want. I found a 19mm Leica for sale on Reduser for $1100. The post read
“I have Leica/Leitz R 19mm 2.8 Version 1 for sale, beautiful vintage lens sn#2869697. The lens has been converted and de-clicked to Nikon F mount via Leitax bayonet. Optically and mechanically I would rate it 9+ perfectly smooth focus throw, the glass is flawless, no dust, scratch marks or haze. I’m selling it because I has the Version 2 and want to get rid of this to make room for some other gear.”
Let’s call this guy Seller A. Seller A’s post is very densely packed with information, especially for someone who is new to Leicas. First of all, the fact he specifies that this is a “Type 1” means that there is more than one type. In the case of the 2.8 19mm, there are two types, and you can read an in depth comparison between here. The serial number tells you when it was made, and there are lots of resources you can use to look it up. I used this one to find out that the lens was made in 1977.
What is de-clicking? These lenses were all built with a tiny ball and spring mechanism in the iris ring so that the iris would make a very satisfying click as you rotated through the different stops. But if you are using this lens for cinematography, you don’t want your lens clicking in the event that you have to open up or stop down while the camera is rolling. So you need someone to take the back of the lens off, remove the clicking ball, and add some very thick grease. Thus, de-clicking the lens.
Lastly, the lenses were built to mount with Leica cameras, and if you are a cinematographer you are going to want to use a different mount. At this point, the options can get a little overwhelming, because there is no right and wrong way to go. If you have a 5D then you need to convert the Leica lens to a Canon mount. But what if you have Red? You can buy a Leica mount for your Red Epic or Scarlet, or you could buy a Canon mount for your Red and convert the lenses. Or in the case of this particular 19mm Type 1, if you were a Nikon owner, you could keep the Leica 19mm with the Nikon mount and buy a compatible Nikon mount for your Red. There’s also the question of PL. Most professional cinema cameras use the arri standard PL mount, so for a few weeks I did a lot of handwringing about whether I should just go with PL since that would be more “professional.” But then I stumbled upon this excellent post by Matt Duclos who explained why PL isn’t an option for vintage still lenses. So I decided that I would buy this 1977, 19mm Type 1 from Seller A and convert the Nikon mount to Canon.I emailed Seller A to make sure this was possible and he assured me that this just a matter of a simple mount swap. I sent $1100.00 through Paypal and a few days later my beautiful 19mm Leica showed up in the mail.
The fact that I could not actually use this lens due to it having a Nikon mount did not stop me from falling in love with it. The optics were pristine, and the 19mm has a particularly large and inviting front element. It’s like a big glass bosom, and you kind of want to rub your face on it. But I had to do the mount conversion, which I had already planned to do at Duclos Lenses, so I put in a new box, along with the original Leica mount, and sent it to Duclos for their full cine-mod treatment. This service includes de-clicking the aperture, converting the camera to the mount of your choice, adding a focus gear to the outside of the lens, and adding an 80mm front ring for matte box applications and 80mm screw-on filters. Even though this lens had been de-clicked by Seller A, I asked Duclos to investigate and make sure it was done right.
This quest for “rightness” is a part of my personality, and is more intensely manifest where machinery or electronics are concerned. If there is anything amiss with a gadget in my house, then I feel a creeping uneasiness throughout the day and I cannot concentrate. People who benefit from this neurosis are those who buy my used gear, because everything from packaging to paperwork is pristine. Every item that I send back out into the world has an identity and a history. Every bump and scrape is assiduously accounted for. I see myself as a custodian of mechanized objects, and a rehabilitator of broken things. As if I have taken some sort of hippocratic oath to these gadgets, I cannot in good conscience allow them to stay broken. But this trait actively works against me in the collection of vintage lenses, for their flaws are why you buy them in the first place. Their flaws are the perfect antidote to the alien crispness of Ultra HD. You will be working at cross purposes if you seek perfection from your second hand, 50 year old lenses of unknown provenance. But I had not quite learned all of that yet, and I’m getting ahead of myself.
A week after sending the 19mm to Duclos I get a call from them saying that they need the Leica mount to install my Canon mount. It works like this: to convert a Leica lens to a Nikon mount, you can buy a Nikon adapter. The most popular are made by a Spanish company called Leitax. Duclos uses the Leitax mounts, and Leitax’s Leica to Nikon adapter replaces the original Leica mount. But Leitax’s Leica to Canon adapter bolts on top of the original Leica mount. So while that was a new piece of information to me, it should have been no problem since I had received the original Leica mount with my 19mm, and had packed it into the box when I sent the box to Duclos. But Duclos said it wasn’t in the box. The case of the missing Leica adapter was never solved, and the mystery is exacerbated by a few factors.
I have no idea what an original Leica mount looks like. Yes there were a few tiny screws and some other metal odds and ends in a small envelope which came in the box from Seller A, but to be honest, nothing looked like what, in my head, a “mount” should look like. And I didn’t take a cell phone picture of it, which was a mistake. When Matt Duclos told me that the Leica mount wasn’t in the box, all I could say was that I remember putting something in the box with the lens, but I can’t say for sure what it was. And I wish it were sufficient that Seller A had told me that those odd bits were in fact the original mount, but as it turns out he was a little foggy on how the Canon and Nikon Leitax adapters worked, and had inadvertently misinformed me about this during our transaction. Seller A was a super nice dude, and this is not a complaint or an indictment of him. I’m merely pointing out that there was a small gap in his knowledge, a gap which had to do with the mounting system. So on this particular issue, namely what kind of mount was in my shipment, I felt like I could not use his word as a forceful proof that I had sent Duclos what they needed to do my conversion. And I tell you this story not to lose you in a hailstorm of details, but to illustrate how small gaps in the knowledge chain can lead to uncertainty, delays and confusion.
Packing is a wildcard. Whatever those odd bits of metal were, they definitely got lost somewhere along the way, and when you have tiny pieces of metal in tiny plastic sleeves packed into a cubic yard of packing peanuts, shit gets lost. And that is something you will deal with again and again.
In the end I had to rely on Matt Duclos to scrounge all the missing pieces, which he did for free, and I am grateful. He saved my new lens. But it meant that my 19mm lens conversion took about almost a month instead of 1 week. So from the moment I paid for that lens, till the moment I could actually take pictures with it, was almost 2 full months. This process takes patience. But before I sent my 19mm off to Duclos, I got to hold it briefly in my hands like a mother holding her baby before giving it up for adoption. That was the moment I pledged to accelerate my plan. I wanted a whole family! While the 19mm was still en route to Duclos, I got on the internet and started shopping for a full set of vintage Liecas. Because you know….fuck “methodical”. Pretty soon, through postings on Reduser, I got an email from Seller B. Like Seller A, he was responsive andand easy to deal with. His email pitch to me was brief.
“Here are the pictures of the lenses28/35/50/90/135/180
all in beautiful shape
price is $4300 includes de-clicking and dampening the iris with heavy grease.”
He also sent some tantalizing photos like this one…. By this point I’d begun to have a rudimentary understanding of the various strata of Leica lenses. I knew that my 19mm Type 1 was cheaper than a Type 2, and that certain Lecias made during specific decades were highly coveted. For all focal lengths, Leicas belong to various classes or families. The family names generally group a certain speed as seen below:
Summilux’s in good condition can easily run $6000.00 on Ebay per lens, and that’s before any mount adapters or cine-modding is done. Summicrons can be anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500.00 depending on the focal length, and the Elmarit lenses are usually $350.00 to $700.00. Bear in mind that from what I’ve read, all of these prices are a good 20 to 50 percent higher than what they were a few years ago. After a rigorous googling, I figured that a family of 6 Leicas (3 of which where Summicron, the other 3 Elmarit) going for $4300.00 was a good deal. So I bought the lot of them thinking that I could always sell individually the ones I didn’t want to keep so really there was NO POSSIBLE WAY I could lose money on the deal.
A few keystrokes on Paypal and six days later a large box arrived at my mailbox. I ran up the stairs, hefted it onto the dining room table and tore into the packing. Slowly my ebullience began to fade as one by one I pulled the lenses from the box. They looked like they had been packed in a big hurry, some had been thrown unsecured into bubble sleeves, without any tape. Additionally, Seller B had declicked the irises of these lenses by himself, which involves removing an inner shroud which rests just under the Leica mount in back, and then removing the microscopically small ball bearing and spring mechanism. The shrouds, all of them different, as well as the ball bearings and springs, had been dropped into open or torn plastic bags. Those plastic bags were then swimming loose in the packing material. As expected, many of these small pieces had shaken loose in transit and were resting on the very bottom of the box. I fished two nano sized ball bearings out from under the bottom cardboard flap with my thumbnail. I was positively aghast that someone could be so sloppy with details. I tried to organize everything as best as possible, and made this glum video when the dust had settled.
Note that these tiny shrouds and ball bearings were utterly and completely worthless to me. I just didn’t know that at the time is all.
The next and most obvious step would be to test the lenses to make sure they worked. All of them, however, had Leica mounts, so even though I have a Red and a Canon 6D in the apartment, I had no way to use the lenses without adapters. Getting the Canon adapters from Duclos is a reasonably priced affair, but getting them directly from Leitax and installing them yourself is cheaper, especially when you need 6 of them.
My Leicas arrived on January 20th, 2014. The next day, January 21st, I ordered 6 Leitax Canon adapters from Spain. It took a couple weeks for them to arrive, but on Thursday Feb 6th the adapters showed up and that night I learned how to mount them on all the lenses. Turns out, it’s totally easy! Let me back up just a little bit and say that the lenses varied quite a bit in condition. Having absolutely zero experience with vintage lenses, I looked for help in what criteria I should use to evaluate them. This article on Ken Rockwell’s website proved invaluable, and if it weren’t for him I would have had a major panic attack over some dust particles I could see on the inner elements. According to Ken’s standards, all of the lenses were clean enough to keep, except for the 50mm, which had two rather large smudges on the front, which would not wipe away with lens cleaner and a microfiber cloth. I had found one lens which was not in “beautiful” shape. But the real test was taking pictures. I had to choose a good walk-around lens and go outside. I settled for something right in the middle, the 35mm Summicron. The first chance I had to walk around the block and snap some photos was the following Sunday, Feb 9th. Here’s a flower pic. Obviously a photo that I had to take, and guess what, I love this photo! Now that I was finally able to test my new set of lenses, I did the briefest inspection of them all and took maybe two photos with each one. Then, as an exercise, I went onto Ebay and found similar lenses in similar condition to see what they were worth. The cheapest was the135mm f/2.8 Elmarit-R Type 2 (S7), serial number 2612496, made in 1973. This is a heavy lens, and you can find one like it on Ebay for $420.00. The most valuable lens was the 90mm f/2.0 Summicron-R Type 3 (E49), serial number 3030566, made in 1980. Similar lenses were going for almost $1300.00. Conservatively speaking, Seller B had saved me about $200.00 by selling them as a set. He had also saved me a shitload of time. Still psyched about my totally tubular flower photo, I was feeling pretty good. That Sunday evening I really took some time with each lens, sitting quietly at my desk, shooting multiple subjects at various distances and different aperture values. About 20 minutes into playing with the 28mm it stopped focusing on anything closer than 4 feet.
I called Seller B, who was pretty surprised to be hearing from me a 20 days after I received the lenses, and a full 26 days after he had shipped them. I explained the delay in waiting for adapters from Leitax, apologized for not having been able to test them sooner, then finally got around to letting him know that the 28mm wasn’t working right. He was considerate and understanding, however, and told me that if I wanted to have the lens serviced that he’d refund me up to a couple hundred dollars, depending on the cost of service. Very nice of him.
After we got off the phone, the 28mm started focusing correctly again, then it wouldn’t, then it would. I kept trying to figure out exactly what was making it behave so strangely when it seized up altogether and the focus barrel jammed completely. I didn’t bother Seller B again because he had already authorized the service. Instead I posted this question on Reduser asking for a Leica service referral. I got a recommendation for Steve’s Camera Service Center in Culver City. Monday afternoon I went to Steve’s with the 28mm, and also the 50mm to see about those two persistent smudges on the outer element….oh and also the 35mm because it was my favorite and I thought maybe Steve of Steve’s Camera Service Center would look at me with respect and camaraderie when he saw it.
Steve said that all three lenses were in need of a total overhaul.
Seller B and I had a testy exchange while I was standing on the sidewalk outside of Steve’s. Seller B’s point was actually what I said at the beginning of this post, in fact it’s his wisdom which I was paraphrasing – You can’t buy lenses this old and expect them to be mechanically perfect. You buy them because of their imperfections. If you can take a photo and you like that photo, then be satisfied with your vintage lens and accept the fact that lens technicians anywhere will still be able to find flaws with it. On this point I had to agree with Seller B, but remember what I said earlier about being a sworn caretaker of used equipment, and how everyone who buys from me knows exactly where an item came from and everything that has happened to it? Once Steve of Steve’s Camera told me that the lenses were in need of an overhaul, I was then morally bound to repeat that information, so three of my lenses instantly lost their resale value.
It may or may not be true that all of these lenses need some amount or repair, but I’m not nearly expert enough to separate fact from fiction in this regard. I’d be only dummy who would put “needs overhaul” for one of these lenses in an Ebay listing, but that’s what I’d been told by a professional and I believed it. There is also the fact that the 180mm was one lens that hadn’t been declicked. I never brought it up because it’s not a big deal. But Seller B left that information out, and then there was that shitty job of packing, so I decided that I didn’t trust his lenses and asked him to take them back. He claimed that the 28mm was working perfectly when he shipped it, and given how much time had elapsed, how could he be sure that I hadn’t rented the lenses out for the three weeks they were in my posession. It was kind of a mess, but despite it all Seller B agreed to take the lenses back and return my $4300.00. I was grateful because he didn’t have to do that.
After the lenses were returned, and after my full refund was issued, I got a very polite, somewhat longish email from Seller B, who I guess had been stewing over the whole business. He recapitulated all the points he had made on the phone and then asked for a $300.00 restocking fee. I responded with my own polite, even longer email re-understanding his points while re-restating mine, and acceding to his request for a restocking fee, which I thought was reasonable. This email exchange went on and on, with us politely arguing over why we agreed with one another. And in some sense, these emails herald the true completion of the start of my education because now I had an opinion of my own. The $300.00 restocking fee was my tuition.
My 19mm Type 1 returned to me that very week…cinevised. At this point I had a sense of what I was looking for: a set of Leicas from the Elmarit family. They are the least expensive, and I don’t shoot nearly enough to justify the leap in cost for faster lenses.