Sunday, January 24, 2010

Learning to Love Leitzes

Recently I acquired my first two Leitz lenses for shooting on my Soviet-made, Leica-compatible rangefinders. An avowed bottom feeder, I never thought I would see this day. But falling prices on the global online bazaar have placed some of the uncoated prewar Leitz lenses well into budget territory, and those are what I acquired: the 135mm Hektor and 90mm Elmar, dated by serials to 1937 and 1938, respectively.

The Hektor cost me around $60 and was optically and mechanically fine, although the barrel shows plenty of use. The Elmar was represented as having "some specks between the elements as well as some fungus …" Whenever "some fungus" is mentioned in an item listing, especially as if it is an afterthought, it is safe to assume that the lens looks like a biology experiment, which explains how I got it for $35. By the time it arrived, I had downloaded many resources and prepared myself for a teardown and cleaning, but it turned out that the fungus was just a tiny bloom along the edge, not nearly enough to warrant the risk of a repair job.

There seem to be two schools of thought on lens fungus, what I call the contagion and environmental theories. The contagion theory holds that although conditions play a role, lens fungus is a special disease that is transmitted from lens to lens, like the flu. Believers in this theory are likely to immediately clean any fungus from a lens and then still keep it quarantined from their other lenses or, better yet, hurl it with all available strength into a quarry or large body of water and try to forget they ever touched it. The environmental theory posits that lens fungi are common, pervasive strains and their spores are already on every surface of every lens you own, just waiting for the right conditions to germinate and spread. Under that theory, there is no harm in keeping the infected lens around other lenses, no need to clean it unless there is so much fungus that it interferes noticeably with lens performance (which requires rather a lot of fungus), and a good chance that further growth can be arrested through proper lens storage. I subscribe to the environmental theory, which made my quite happy with my purchase.

I selected a Fed 3, my favorite of my Soviet rangefinders, to try out the lenses. The first issue was mounting. The Elmar was no problem; it has a collar-type focusing cam like any of the Industars. The Hektor, however, has a tongue-type focusing cam, designed to work with the roller-type followers used on Leica cameras, and as several sources on the web will explain to you, it tends to catch and snag on the shoe-type follower used on the Zorkis and Feds. Web sources differ on whether the Hektor can easily be made to work with a Fed or Zorki, but I decided to give it a try. Given the market price for Fed 3s, there is not much downside to experimenting with modifying the camera.

The basic problem with fitting a Hektor to a Fed/Zorki is not necessarily inherent to the tongue cam and shoe follower combination; it arises from the fact that the Leitz tongue cam is made out of very soft brass, and the Fed/Zorki follower shoes are made out of very hard metal, with an unnecessarily sharp point at the toe, that sticks out way farther than it needs to when no lens is mounted, with the result that the sharp hard point digs into the lens tongue and snags, rather than riding up on it as it should. It was immediately clear that this was happening with my lens and camera, and even a couple of gentle tests put a tiny nick in the soft brass. Rick Oleson has some tech notes that describe adding a spacer behind the mount backplate of a Zorki to prevent the follower from coming so far forward, but while a variant of this mod is possible on a Fed 3, it is not as easy because the Fed has no mount backplate in that position. I decided instead just to modify the shape of the Fed follower by grinding down the point at the toe. Using a small grinding bit in my Dremel tool, I was able to round and smooth the toe of the shoe until it rode easily over the brass tongue in the lens. None of this will affect the focus calibration as long as you don't touch the front edge of the follower, which contacts with the lens screw when the lens is mounted. For anyone trying this, I have three pieces of advice, (1) take your time and don't force the spinning tool against the shoe, just touch it lightly because the metal is really hard and you don't want it slipping off and hitting something else, (2) the grinding is most easily done with the shoe forced fully back, away from the mount, so that you don't nick the mount threads, and (3) it's a good idea to stuff a tissue or something inside the camera body to catch the tiny metal shavings that are going to end up in there. The whole process takes about half an hour.

I took the Fed with the Elmar, the Hektor, and an Industar I-16 L/D on a recent trip to Florida. These photos were taken at two locations, the Fantasy of Flight airplane collection at Polk City and the boardwalk along the ocean at Miami Beach. Film was the new Ektar, which I was trying for the first time. I used an Imarect as my viewfinder.

With these uncoated lenses a lens hood is a must, but the Leica slip-on hoods cost as much as the lenses did. I solved this problem through the camera collector's compulsion to try every cylindrical object he encounters on his old lenses to see if they're the right size to make a cap or shade. It turns out that the toilet tissue rolls in service in my household fit very nicely over the Elmar and Hektor lenses. When one of these had served its intended purpose I cut the cardboard tube to the appropriate length, padded the interior slightly for a snug fit over the lenses, and wrapped the works in electrical tape to give it that classy, not-a-toilet-paper-roll look. While using the hoods in sunny Florida I had no flare problems with either lens. Additional benefits of these hoods is that being flexible, they stand up to a good deal of abuse and they're also expendable, since everyone with a butt needs to buy the main component and the rest of the investment is just five minutes and a little tape.

As for the lenses, well, they do their thing. They focus properly and they're sharp. Leica glow? I don't know. Maybe I'll have some when the fungus grows a little more. They get attention, too. There are a lot of retired folks in Miami, including at least one retired photographer who accosted and interrogated me about my equipment and shared his memories of his old Leica gear which, of course, he had unloaded for next to nothing on ebay.

The Miami Beach boardwalk is fascinating, especially the older hotels that were once luxurious, but have fallen into disrepair and are now awaiting renovation or rebuilding. The architecture was brought out most starkly in the abandoned buildings, for some reason. This used to be the Seville Hotel. It still functioned as a hotel, albeit a bad one, as late as a few years ago. The Miami climate is not kind to buildings that are not occupied and maintained.

As for the Ektar, I liked that too. I did not have the exposure, color, or scanning problems with it that others have reported. In the shot below, taken with the I-61 lens, it pulled a great deal more detail out of both the highlights and the shadows than the same shot taken with a digital camera for insurance. Also, because the exposure on this shot was tricky, I bracketed in three 1-stop increments and all were usable; in fact, they were hard to tell apart. Preliminarily, my feeling is that Ektar and old uncoated Leica lenses might be a good combination. Ektar seems to give you the almost grainless sharpness of slide film, but without the unforgiving latitude that can be a problem with these imprecise old shutters. I will be using this combination more, I think.

In the dawn cloudscape below, the Ektar rendered the colors exactly as I remembered them when taking the shot, without any tweaking of the scanner settings that I've developed for generic negative film (Dimage 5400 scanner; Vuescan software).

Next time, though, I will remember to put the lens cap on before rewinding. Several frames were spoiled by light leaks from the edge of the film that were most likely caused by my forgetting this rule. It's one of those hazards of having a lot of old cameras that I don't use often. I've taken to making up placard stickers for my cameras when I get caught like this, and my Fed now bears one to remind me on this point.

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