Sometimes technology gets in the way of quality. The convenience of features such as autofocus and optical image stabilization are hard to dispute, but some of the best glass in the world can be found in manual focus lenses that contain no electronics whatsoever. Such is the case with M-mount and M42-mount lenses made by Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander.
The glass used in Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander lenses is of the highest quality, and the lenses are coated to render neutral colors, not overly saturated colors.
With relatively short focal lengths typically ranging from 20mm to 135mm, lacking autofocus motors and other various electronics, M-mount and M42-mount lenses are physically small in addition to being optically pure, making them ideal matches for compact, high-end digital cameras such as the Micro Four Thirds cameras made by Olympus and Panasonic, and the mirrorless Samsung NX cameras, Sony’s NEX cameras, Fujifilm's X series, the Nikon 1, Pentax Q and Ricoh’s unusual GXR cameras. It goes without saying that Leica lenses and Leica cameras have always paired off well.
M-mount and M42-mount lenses have been around longer than most living photographers, so there are millions of them in existence and they never stop working unless, perhaps, you drop them. Their simple mounting schemes make it easy to design adapters for use with other cameras, and their high quality, immense popularity and extreme longevity make it economically feasible for manufacturers to produce such adapters, even for today’s leading edge digital cameras.
The M42 mount made its debut in 1949, when Zeiss used 42mm screw threads with a 1mm pitch to attach lenses to the Contax S camera. Various advancements were made over the years, including automatic control of the aperture.
But the basic mounting scheme never changed, allowing newer lenses to work on older cameras and older lenses to work on newer cameras. The M42 mount has, in fact, been used by so many manufacturers that it has come to be known as the Universal thread mount.
The Leica M mount is a bayonet-type lens mount that was introduced in 1954, on the Leica M3. Bayonet-mount lenses are easier and faster to attach and remove than screw-mount lenses. So trustworthy is the M mount that it’s still in use today on the Leica M7, a 35mm film camera, and on the digital Leica M9. Modern Leica lenses have been treated to more technological advances than older models, but you can still use any new Leica lens on a 1954 M3, and you can slap any vintage M-mount lens on a brand-new M7 or M9. Now that’s impressive.
Before we begin to discuss any specific lenses, it must be made clear that this article is not the place to discuss every lens made by Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander; there are simply too many of them. And we here at B&H know that every one of these lenses is special in one way or another, and what might be one photographer’s favorite lens could be one that’s unappealing to another photographer. Every photographer, especially those who use lenses as special as these, has their own parameters, priorities and particular preferences. So please don’t be offended if we happen to touch upon some lenses you don’t like and not mention your favorite ones.
Leica M-Mount Lenses
Leica lenses are among the best in the world, relatively rare and priced accordingly. But for many photographers there is simply no substitute for good glass. Of course, all Leica lenses feature the Leica M-mount. And some will feature Leica’s 6-bit coding, which manifests itself as six black-and-white dots that form a bar code to communicate its specs to compatible, newer Leica cameras.
The first thing to point out is that these are all prime lenses. There are no zooms. Zoom lenses simply aren’t precise enough for this category. The closest you’ll get to a Leica zoom lens is the Super Wide Angle/Wide Angle Tri-Elmar-M 16-18-21mm f/4 Aspherical Manual Focus Lens with Universal Wide-angle Viewfinder. This lens is ideal for times when you want some flexibility in wide-angle focal length but don’t want to carry more than one lens. If you can do without the higher speeds offered by single focal length lenses, say for daytime architecture photo shoots, this is an ideal lens. It offers three focal lengths (16mm, 18mm and 21mm), selected by twisting a ring on the lens. A shoe-mount Universal Wide-Angle Viewfinder included with this lens allows precise cropping on the M7, MP and digital M cameras.
If you want a more traditional wide-angle lens, Leica offers models ranging from 18mm to 28mm. The 18mm f/3.8 Super-Elmar-M Aspherical lens is ideal for shooting in close quarters, or for squeezing large objects such as buildings into the frame. It’s worth noting that there are two 21mm models, a 21mm f/1.4 Summilux-M and a 21mm f/3.4 Super-Elmar-M. Offering extreme high-speed performance, the f/1.4 Summilux costs more than twice as much as the Super-Elmar-M, but if you can get by with an f/3.4 lens, the Super-Elmar-M weighs only about half as much as the Summilux.
In the same league as the 21mm f/1.4 lens but with a slightly less extreme wide-angle view is the Leica 24mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical Lens. Originally optimized for use with the digital M8 camera, this high-speed, high-performance lens lets you take in entire landscapes even when the sun has faded from view—and at a hefty weight of 1.1 pounds. Lighter, much less expensive options include the 24mm f/3.8 Elmar-M Aspherical lens and the 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M Aspherical lens. They cost and weigh about a third as much as the f/1.4 model. A faster 28mm lens is the Summicron-M 28mm f/2.0.
A “normal” lens is one that keeps spatial relations roughly the same as they would appear to the naked eye. On 35mm cameras, and digital cameras with full-frame sensors, normal lenses are traditionally considered to be 50mm. But when you have a digital image sensor that’s smaller than a 35mm film frame, a crop factor causes shorter lenses to have a more normal field of view. This is the case with most mirrorless digital cameras.
35mm lenses are ideal normal lenses for all of the Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds cameras that are gaining popularity. There are four 35mm Leica lenses to choose from. These are an ideal compromise between wide angle and 50mm, giving you a normal view with a little more wiggle room than a 50mm lens. There’s the super-fast 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M, the Leica 35mm f/2.0 Summicron-M in Black or Chrome and the 35mm f/2.5 Summarit-M, which weighs less than half a pound and costs about half as much as the f/2.0 models.
If you’re looking for a 50mm Leica lens there are four models to choose from. The lightest and least expensive one is the 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M, weighing only 8.1 ounces. More expensive but faster units include the 50mm f/2.0 Summicron-M, the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M in black or silver and the new 50mm f/2.0 APO-Summicron-M ASPH. But the ultimate 50mm lens is the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M. This is one of the fastest lenses you’ll ever get your hands on. The lens can close down to f/16, but it’s optimized to shoot at apertures of f/1.4 and wider, allowing you to take pictures with minimal available light—and without a flash, of course.
Moving up in focal length is a pair of 75mm lenses that provide a more natural perspective than 90mm lenses do, making them ideal for portraiture. While both 75mm lenses are relatively small in size, the faster of the two is the 75mm f/2.0 APO Summicron-M Aspherical lens. At 15.2 ounces, this telephoto lens weighs less than a pound and is only 2.6 inches long—very easy to keep in your camera bag. But for half the price you might prefer the 75mm f/2.5 Summarit-M lens. It’s lighter and shorter than the 75mm f/2.0 lens, but slower, too. It features the 6-bit dot code that identifies the lens to M cameras with onboard circuitry. Its f/2.5 aperture brings attention to the subject while blurring the background, while the 11-bladed circular diaphragm creates pleasing bokeh.
There are three choices in 90mm Leica lenses. Like the 50mm and 75mm lenses, you have the choice of f/2.0 and f/2.5, depending on your needs and budget. There’s the 90mm f/2.0 APO Summicron-M Aspherical lens and the 90mm f/2.5 Summarit-M lens. Then there’s the 90mm f/4 Macro-Elmar-M Lens Kit, which comes with a Macro-Adapter M and Anglefinder M. The Macro-Adapter M, made specifically for this lens, allows close focusing from 2.5 feet down to 1.6 feet. The Anglefinder M is a rotating 45-degree eyepiece that makes it easy to view subjects without having to hold the camera right in front of your face.
And the longest Leica lens to be mentioned is the 135mm f/3.4 APO Telyt-M. It is 4.1 inches long, weighs 1 pound and features a built-in sliding lens hood.
Zeiss ZM Lenses
All Zeiss lenses meet high standards of performance, reliability and image quality, with advanced flare control and slight geometric distortion. They all feature 1/3-stop interval click stops, allowing exact exposure, precision 10-bladed diaphragms for pleasing bokeh and wear-resistant filter mounts for long-term durability. Available in a variety of prime focal lengths, these Zeiss lenses will mount on Zeiss Ikon and Leica M Mount rangefinder cameras. Let’s start with the shortest lens.
The Zeiss super wide angle 15mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZM lens for Zeiss Ikon and Leica M Mount cameras is useful for shooting wide vistas and dynamic architectural scenes. It’s available in black only.
Nearly as wide is the 18mm f/4 Distagon T* ZM lens, available in silver or black. Also in the super-wide-angle category is the 21mm f/4.5 C Biogon T* ZM lens, available in silver or black. If you need a faster super-wide-angle lens, check out the 21mm f/2.8 Biogon T* ZM, available in silver or black.
Leaving the super-wide-angle category, and entering the moderately wide-angle category, we have the Zeiss 25mm f/2.8 Biogon T* ZM lens. This versatile wide-angle lens has a minimum focusing distance of 1.6 feet, making it ideal for product shots as well as landscapes, cityscapes and architecture. It’s available in black and silver.
With a focal length of 28mm, the 28mm f/2.8 Biogon T* ZM lens exhibits a bit less geometric distortion than shorter lenses, but nonetheless can still take in a pleasingly wide view of landscapes and cityscapes. It’s an affordable lens that’s great for traveling, as it weighs only 8.1 ounces and does equally well at capturing people, places, scenery and architecture. The lens is available in black or silver.
For a wide-angle lens approaching normal length, we have the Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon T* ZM lens. A 35mm lens is an ideal focal length for everyday use, as it will never let you down, no matter what you’re photographing. And with an f/2 aperture, this lens is reasonably fast. Whether you’re a traveler, photojournalist or street photographer, this lens will capture most subjects equally well. This affordable lens is available in black or silver. If you photograph outdoors more often than indoors and can get by with a somewhat slower lens, the 35mm f/2.8 C Biogon T* ZM lens might just be exactly what you need. The 35mm f/2.8 lens is available in black or silver at a lower cost than the f/2 version.
If you want to shoot with the most normal angle of view possible, a 50mm lens is what you need. Zeiss offers two choices in 50mm lenses. The more affordable of the two is the Zeiss 50mm f/2 Planar T* ZM lens. An ideal prime lens for general use, the 50mm f/2 offers high resolving power, even performance across the entire frame and reduced flare and ghosting. The 50mm f/2 lens is available in black or silver. At a higher cost, the Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 C Sonnar T* ZM is faster and brighter than the f/2 model. The C in the name stands for both compact and classic. This lens is only 1.4 ounces heavier than the slower 50mm f/2 lens. The 50mm f/1.5 lens is available in black or silver.
Moving to the telephoto range, Zeiss offers the 85mm f/4 Tele-Tessar T* ZM lens. It is an ideal focal length for portraits and for bringing subjects closer to the camera and is not overly large or hard to handle. The lens is available in black or silver.
Zeiss also makes a few lenses with the Universal M42 screw mount, and adapters are available to mount these lenses on Micro Four Thirds, Samsung NX and Sony NEX cameras. The M42 lenses include the 25mm f/2.8 ZS Distagon lens, the 35mm f/2 ZS Distagon T* lens and the 50mm f/1.4 ZS Planar T* lens.
Voigtlander lenses are of good quality, and they’re a lot more affordable than Leica and Zeiss lenses. They’re typically manual focus prime lenses, and many of them are directly compatible with the Leica M Mount.
The Voigtlander 12mm f/5.6 Ultra Wide Heliar lens offers a 121-degree angle of view. It’s one of the widest-angle lenses you’ll find short of a fisheye, yet it exhibits minimal distortion for such a wide-angle lens. Also consider the 15mm f/4.5 Super Wide Heliar Aspherical lens if you want a super-wide-angle lens that’s somewhat less encompassing.
If you need a compact, lightweight wide-angle lens, you should check out the 21mm f/4.0 Color Skopar P Pancake lens. The lens is just 1 inch long, weighs only 4.8 ounces and its focusing lever goes from minimum distance to infinity in less than ninety degrees of rotation. Also small in size is the wide-angle 25mm f/4 Color-Skopar P Pancake lens, which is just 1.2 inches long and weighs 4.8 ounces. Not a pancake lens, but nonetheless wide angle, is the 28mm f/2.0 Ultron lens. It’s an ideal lens for everyday use in low-light environments.
If you want a lens that really excels in low-light conditions, look no further than the 35mm f/1.2 Nokton lens. This lens has a 35mm equivalent focal length of 52.5mm when paired with an APS-C camera, so it’s great for everyday use. If you want a similar lens at half the price of the f/1.2 lens, the 35mm f/1.4 Nokton Classic lens has your name on it. It’s a multi-coated lens with good contrast and excellent low-light performance, even though it doesn’t open up quite as much as the f/1.2 model.
Voigtlander also offers the Single-Coated 35mm f/1.4 Nokton Classic lens, which exhibits good edge-to-edge sharpness with less contrast and more shadow detail than a multi-coated lens. Many photographers prefer single-coated lenses for black-and-white photography, and some even prefer them when shooting digitally. The most affordable 35mm lens offered by Voigtlander is the 35mm f/2.5 Color Skopar PII lens. It features an all-metal lens barrel and a 10-bladed diaphragm for pleasing out-of-focus highlights.
Voigtlander also offers 40mm lenses in multi- and single-coated versions. The multi-coated 40mm f/1.4 Nokton lens is fast, compact and lightweight, and ideal for use in everyday low-light settings. The single-coated 40mm f/1.4 Nokton lens produces lower-contrast photos in black-and-white and color.
If you’re looking for a very fast 50mm lens, Voigtlander’s 50mm f/1.1 Nokton lens is the way to go. It features an all-metal lens barrel and 10-blade diaphragm and weighs less than 1 pound. Last, but not least, we have the Voigtlander 75mm f/1.8 Heliar lens. It offers good low-light performance and is ideal for portraiture.
Because they’re small in size and lightweight, all of these manual-focus M-Mount and M42-Mount lenses make great companions for today’s compact mirrorless digital cameras such as the Micro Four Thirds cameras made by Olympus and Panasonic, the Samsung NX cameras, Sony NEX cameras and the Ricoh GXR. After all, attaching a 5-pound lens to a 1-pound camera defeats the purpose of having such a lightweight camera in the first place.
All you need to attach an M-Mount or M42-Mount lens to a mirrorless camera is the right adapter. Because the lenses are fully manual, including focus, you will have to shoot in manual mode, regardless of any modern features the cameras might offer. The exception, of course, is that you can expect full functionality when you use a modern Leica lens on a Leica Digital M camera. And remember that you can use any M-Mount or M42-Mount lens with these adapters, regardless of whether they were made in the 1950s or this year.
B&H carries hundreds of lens adapters, but here we’re concerned only with adapters that will allow M-Mount and M42-mount lenses to work with mirrorless cameras. If you want to adapt an M-Mount lens to a Micro Four Thirds camera you have four choices of adapters: there’s the Vello Lens Mount Adapter - Leica M Lens to Micro Four Thirds Camera, the Novoflex Leica M Lens to Micro Four-Thirds Camera Body Adapter, the Voigtlander Micro Four Thirds to M Lens Mount Adapter and the Dot Line Micro 4/3 Mount for Leica M Bayonet Lens. If you want to mount an M42 lens on a Micro Four Thirds camera, the Novoflex M42 to Micro Four Thirds Lens Adapter will do the trick.
If you want to put an M-Mount lens on a Sony NEX camera, you’ll need the Novoflex Adapter for Leica M Lens to Sony NEX Camera. And if you want to mount an M42 lens on a Sony NEX camera you’ll need the Novoflex Adapter for M 42 Lens to Sony NEX Camera. If you have a Samsung NX camera and would like to mount M42 lenses on it, you can use the Novoflex M42-to-NX Lens Adapter to make it happen.
Fujifilm makes its own M Mount Adapter for the X-Pro1 digital camera. While not all M-mount lenses are fully compatible, this adapter does pass electronic information to the camera. Novoflex also makes an M-mount adapter for the X-Pro1 and for M42 mount lenses they offer the Novoflex Adapter for M42 Mount Lenses to Fujifilm X-Pro1 Digital Camera. For the Nikon 1 line of mirrorless cameras there is the Novoflex Adapter for Leica M Lenses to Nikon 1 Cameras and the Novoflex Adapter for M42 Lenses to Nikon 1 Cameras. To mount an M42 lens to the Pentax Q cameras, Dot Line makes the manual Dot Line Adapter for M42/Universal Lenses to Pentax Q Cameras and for M-mount lenses there is the Novoflex Adapter for Leica M Lenses to Pentax Q Cameras.
If you happen to have a Ricoh GXR, there’s a neat accessory that will allow you to use M-mount lenses on it. The Ricoh GXR is an unusual interchangeable-lens camera in that the different lenses available for it come in module form with built-in image sensors. The Ricoh GXR Mount A12 for Leica M Mount Lens is a module that contains an APS-C size CMOS image sensor and a mount for Leica M lenses. Of course, you also need the Ricoh GXR camera body in order to use the lens module. But all combined, it’s a relatively inexpensive solution for a digital camera that accepts Leica M lenses.
If you have any questions about these lenses or adapters, please feel free to post them in the Comments section below.