Leica Lens Compendium
A Review - Not Just for Leicaphiles
The Leica Lens Compendium by Irwin Puts, published by Hove Books, is one of the most valuable photographic books that I have added to my library in recent years. It is a book that every photographer interested in lenses and optical theory should immediately add to his or her collection, whether they are a Leica owner or not.
The book's author is a prolific writer concerning Leica optics and has contributed numerous articles to the magazine Leica Fotographie International. He is also a regular contributor to online discussion forums on matters relating to Leica cameras and lenses.
Published in the Spring of 2001, this hardcover book is 240 pages in length. It is divided into three major sections. The first 54 pages are a fascinating history of Leica camera and lens manufacture, from the invention of the 35mm camera in the early years of the 20th century to Leica's 21st century state-of-the-art optics. A fascinating read for anyone interested in the development and history of this famous marquee.
The middle 52 pages contain what is without a doubt the most comprehensive explanation of optical theory for the layman that I have ever seen in one place. This is vital information for every photographer interested in why lenses perform the way they do.
The last 133 pages are a lens-by lens evaluation of every optic ever manufactured by Leica. Irwin has actually tested every one of these lenses himself and he provides a clear evaluation of their optical and mechanical properties.
As the originator of 35mm photography the history of Leica pretty much parallels the development of the format, at least until the late-1950's. Beginning as a microscope manufacturer Ernst Leitz took a brave step in introducing the Leica, an innovative design by Oskar Bannack. Of course producing the quality enlargements needed from this new miniature format required lenses optimized for the format, and Leitz's Max Berek designed these first lenses, and eventually a large percentage of the lenses that made Leica optics famous.
The history of Leica lens design after WW2 tracks the Cold War era with the move of a significant portion of Leitz's lens design facilities to Midland, Ontario, Canada. Of course the development of Leica lenses was in concert with the evolution of both the M series and later R series cameras and the story of this path is fascinating to read about as political, social, industry and technological forces molded the company's history and products.
For the non-Leica owner this is the section that makes this book worthwhile. In some 52 pages Erwin provides a comprehensive mini-course in the theory and practice of lens design. As photographers we are always curious as to which lens is the sharpest, which has the best contrast and which ones show the lowest distortion. But, what do we mean by sharpness? How is lens contrast measured? What distortions are more important than others, and why?
In a series of well written chapters this book examines all of these questions providing a practical as well as theoretical basis for its explanations. Using straightforward illustrations and with the intent of informing rather than impressing or obfuscating, we are lead through a logical progression of concepts that if read carefully over a couple of hours is sufficient to make any photographer conversant with the basic issues surrounding lens design.
Of course the words Aspherical and Apochromatic are two of the buzzwords that manufacturers throw around all to freely, so that when photographers encounter them we are conditioned to believe that they confer some almost magical status on a particular lens. In this section you'll learn what they actually mean, how the concepts are applied to contemporary lens design and why one company's Apo or Aspheric appellation is not necessarily the same as another's.
Taken with a Leica M3 and 50mm f/2 Summicron lens
Photographers are constantly debating the relative merits of various lenses of all brands. Experienced photographers are rarely reluctant to voice their opinions and a great deal of mythology has grown up around certain lenses. Because Leica lenses have played such a high-profile role in the history of photography, and because especially during the past several decades the price of Leica lenses have been at such a premium to those of other brands, a mystique has grown up surrounding them. For some, certain lenses have been imbued with almost magical qualities.
The advent of the Internet and its online discussion forums and mail-lists like the Leica User Group (LUG) have compounded this phenomenon. Certain individuals have stepped onto the electronic soapbox with a vengeance, and pontificate on the most esoteric aspects of Leica lore. Some few know whereof they speak. Others less so.
The great value of this section of the Compendium is that Irwin has actually tested each of these lenses. Consequently he is in a position to dispel many of the urban myths surrounding certain lenses. Of course this does not make his opinions gospel. Like anyone he has his biases. But, like a movie reviewer who's opinions and biases one becomes familiar with over time, once one has read a dozen or more of his opinions and can compare them with ones own experience and observations it is possible to benefit from his comments on lenses that one is not familiar with.
I own three Leica M series lenses of current manufacture; the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH, the f/4 28-35-50 Tri-Elmar and the APO-Summicron-M 90mm f/2 ASPH. Each of these lenses is state-of-the-art and most highly regarded by Erwin. I had chosen them long before this book became available but it was reassuring to read his comments. I also have had a long relationship with M Leicas over a 30+ year period and have used quite a number of lenses from the 1950's through the 80's. I found it most enjoyable to read his evaluations and compare this with my own memory of how these lenses performed.
As a photographer, not a tester, I have only subjective and empirical evidence to base my own opinions on. But they coincide enough with Erwin's that I am able to put a great deal of faith in what he writes. This makes the book an almost indispensable resource for anyone considering the purchase of either new or vintage Leica lenses.
Conclusion & Concerns
Clearly, I appreciate this book a great deal. It covers some familiar ground in its first section. But the second and third sections are unique. As stated earlier, even a non-Leica aficionado will find the chapters on optical theory an invaluable resource.
My only real complaint is the grammatical style in which it is written. I have no way of knowing if it was written in English to begin with or translated. But the grammatical style is that of a native German or Dutch speaker, not someone for whom English is a mother tongue. This in no way detracts from the value of the content, but it does make the book "sound" somewhat stilted. I wish that Hove had bothered to hire a copy editor who could have smoothed the text somewhat into a more idiomatic style of contemporary English.
While they were at it a second round of proofreading would have been in order. There are far too many minor typos.
These minor issues aside Irwin Puts is to be congratulated for the Leica Lens Compendium. It is a major accomplishment and a book which I know many serious photographers will add to their collections and use as a frequent reference and resource.
The Leica Lens Compendium should be in major book stores as the summer progresses. The ISBN number is 1-897802-17-X and most quality book sellers can order it for you. I'm aware of the following places currently (August, 2001) offering the book for sale online:
Related Pages on This Site
Understanding Lens Contrast - an in-depth tutorial by Mike Johnston.