Thoughts on the Leica Tele-Elmarit 90mm

Monday, 11 April 2022 10:43

This Tele-Elmarit 90mm f/2.8 was in production from the early 60’s to the early 70’s. Being not particularly girthy but wider than its successor, it was nicknamed “Fat.” An attribute I can’t quite agree with. I would rather call its successor skinny, since the Elmarti-M that followed it was again heavier, larger and fatter. The odd one out was the “skinny”  Tele-Elmarit from the 1970’s.

The lens feels like most Leica lenses from this time. Heavy, well built, relatively compact and their designs still look good today. I’ve shot with many Nikon old 85mm to 100mm lenses over the years, so I had an idea how these focal lengths could perform. My expectations were unfortunately too high!

What I didn’t expect from a Leica lens was a rather below average performance. Like most Leica lenses, it's sharp at the centre. Unless you're shooting through a coke bottle, this isn’t very exciting. What this lens doesn’t do well is carry this sharpness to the edges… forget the corners. The out of focus rendering isn’t very smooth wide open, but gets a little better when stopped down to f/4 and f/5.6. The focus transition can be a little harsh especially in the image mid-zone and edges where astigmatism renders a jarring point of focus and background blur. It has some secondary chromatic aberration that doesn’t disappear until f/5.6 and also some lateral chromatic aberration that is easily corrected in post. Occasionally I find the foreground blur quite distracting and harsher than the background blur, but this is rarely an issue.

On the M11, the performance is lacking greatly. It was almost bearable as a character lens on the M10 Monochrom, but it just didn’t bring anything interesting to the table. If anything, this lens will be OK on an M10, M240 and M9 series cameras. Even adapted to the Nikon Z6ii it was just ok, but not great. At 24MP one would still have to shoot at f/8 more often than not to achieve decent enough sharpness at the frame edges. Together with its slight field curvature and focus shift, I find this lens brings nothing appreciable that would make me choose it over something like the Voigtlander 90mm APO-Skopar.

If anything, the optical performance of this lens is geared more towards medium distances than far distances. It’s certainly not a good landscape lens, and so far it seems a little better at medium and shorter focusing distances, with just a little bit of “glow” at close distances. It's not impossible to create some really good looking images with this lens, but I don’t find it excels at anything nor provide an attractive performance to value ratio. For what this lens costs on used on the market, I suggest looking elsewhere.

I inherited this lens, so I’ve got it for better or worse. Had I purchased it, it would've been returned fairly quickly. I've tried a different copy of this lens, so it's comforting that my sample performs similarly. My lens is in good condition with little signs of use, so I don’t suspect that I have a bad copy. After all, I’ve had more disappointment with Leica lenses than with Zeiss or Voigtlander. I would go as far and say that this Tele-Elmarit 90mm underperforms even by comparison to the ultra cheap Nikon 100mm f/2.8 Series E lens, which in fairness is a hidden gem of a lens. 

Personally, the lens looks better on a shelf than in my bag. It's a pity, as I enjoy the haptics and size of this lens very much, but I doubt I will shoot much if anything with it. I’m more likely to try the Voigtlander APO-Skopar 90mm f/2.8 however there's no hurry to buy yet another lens, let alone a 90mm.