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Choosing Lens Focal Length

2010-07-06 - Send Feedback
Related: Leica, Leica M
Guide to Leica

The most comfortable lens on the M9 is a 35mm focal length, because the built-in frame lines in the viewfinder are “just right”: not too wide, and not a porthole-view. A 50mm is also a great choice, but do use the 1.25X magnifying eyepiece for increased focus accuracy.

Most Leica M users should start with a 35mm focal length. If you don’t like the camera with that lens, you’re unlikely to like it with other focal lengths.

View near real-time pricing and availability for Zeiss ZM an Leica M lenses on the Leica M gear page.

More is not better

Too many lenses defeats the wonderful compactness of the system, and it’s unlikely that you’ll actually use more than even two focal lengths regularly.

For most users, a 2 or 3 lens system is ideal, so try to keep the system to no more than 4 lenses (this might be self-enforcing because of price!). Four lenses can be carried in a small hip pack and/or pockets (with one lens on the camera).

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Wide angle and Teles are more demanding

A 28mm is the widest lens that uses the built-in frame lines (doesn’t require a separate viewfinder). A 28mm is wide enough to require some extra effort for framing (the eye has to deliberately examine edges and corners), and it can be a problem for those who wear eyeglasses.

With focal lengths wider than 28mm, a separate hot-shot mounted viewfinder is necessary, and it’s a considerable extra expense. Operationally, it means that you’ll have to compose with the hot-shoe viewfinder, then focus with the camera’s viewfinder, then compose again and shoot through the hot shoe viewfinder— a multi-step dance which can be mastered, but is far less convenient than doing both through the camera’s built-in viewfinder.

The 90mm and 135mm lenses offer a “porthole” view, and focus precision is very demanding, so sticking to 70mm as your longest lens is a good idea. And you can forget about accurate focusing at 135mm, with 90mm a challenge.

Magnifying eyepiece

Use of the 1.25X magnifying eyepiece is strongly advised for focus accuracy with the 50mm and longer lenses, even if you have 20/20 vision free of astigmatism, as I do. For 70mm and 90mm, use the 1.4X eyepiece.

Either magnifying eyepiece is useful for critical work, but it is also useful for lenses wider than 28mm, since framing/composing is done with the separate viewfinder anyway— leave the eyepiece in place.

Of course, this presumes that your camera and lens are focusing accurately— do not assume this is true— check it, and get the system calibrated if not.


Watch filter sizes, because there is a lot of variation; this might factor into your lens choices. But remember that a polarizer is not easy to use on a rangefinder; there is no way to see the degree of polarization. I simply do not use one on a rangefinder for that reason, but it can be done.

Recommended focal length choices

Here are the lenses that make good sense for the Leica M9, based on my own experience as a new Leica M user. Focal lengths are listed in the best order for building a system and for enjoyment with the fewest issues. See my handy wish list of Leica M Lenses.

Review of these and other lenses can be found in my Guide to Leica.

  1. 35mm — the 2010 Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. For budget, zero distortion and flat field: Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon.
  2. 70mm — the Leica 75mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH. Be sure to get the 1.4X magnifier (or 1.25X).
  3. 50mm — Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH or the 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH, or for near-zero distortion and compactness, the 50mm f/2 Summicron-M. Get the 1.25X viewfinder magnifier also.
  4. 28mm — Leica 28mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH.
  5. 21mm — Leica 21mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. Don’t forget the M-21 viewfinder, and the 1.25X or 1.4X magnifier is also helpful for pinpoint focus.

Always test your lenses and camera for focus accuracy wide open. You can see all these lenses in my handy wish list of Leica M lenses.

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