Identifying Leica Lenses: The Complete Pocket Guide to Buying and Selling Leica Lenses Like an Expert
If you read EVERY Leica book, you soon learn that experts often disagree. Some say a particular lens was redesigned, another maintains it was not. The strangest thing is that anyone cares. Welcome to the wonderful, wacky, strange world of Leica nuts.
Introduced in 1953, Leitz M lenses slowly underwent changes which generally represent improved optical performance combined with less expensive lens mounting and barrel finishing. Lookout for small gains in optical performance that come with big price increases.
Uncoated Leitz Screw Mount lenses were produced in the 1930's. They can still work on your latest M body, with a screw mount to M bayonet adapter. Sometimes you will encounter these early lenses WITH lens coating, most likely the result of being sent back to the Leitz factory for coating in the 1950's. If cleaned of lens fogging and in good mechanical condition, these old lenses can still give beautiful "vintage" style images for today's photographer in both B/W and color. Lens sharpness is not all that it is cracked up to be. The important thing is that seemingly indefinable "image quality," NOT image sharpness.
Chrome M lenses were the first series of M lenses starting in 1953, lasting to the middle 70's. The 21 to 50 lenses of this period had focusing levers combined with an infinity lock, just like the earlier Leica screw mount lenses of the same focal lengths. Later lenses sometimes kept the convenient focusing lever but usually deleted the infinity lock. No focal length markings were on the lens barrel. The later chrome lenses have a red "dot" index mark for mounting the lens. Unfortunately the dots have a tendency to fall off and get lost. In this period a few "black paint" lenses were made on special order to match special order black M3 and M2 bodies. By the end of M4 production in 1975, over half of the chrome lenses had been replaced by black lenses.
Black anodized aluminum lenses began to replace the heavier chrome lenses in the early and middle 70's. All lenses were black by the M4-2 in 1977. These black lenses DID NOT have their focal length marked on the lens barrel.
Lens barrel focal length markings began showing up in the late 70's. The focal length, such as "50," was marked in rather larger numbers at the base of the lens barrel for faster identification. Of course if you really need such help, you probably need a sign on your Leica saying "camera." About half the lenses had barrel focal length markings by the M4-P in 1980. By the introduction of the M6 in 1984, all lenses were so marked except the 21, 28, 50/1.4, and the 135's.
Titanium 35/1.4 non ASPH and ASPH, 50/1.4, and 90/2.8 lenses were introduced in 1992 with the standard production classic Titanium M6. These lenses have a feel of quality about them much higher than standard black lenses, approximating but not equaling the barrel fit and finish of the original chrome lenses of the 1950's. All were limited production and comparatively rare, making them future collectibles. The 90/2.8 Titanium is reputed to have a production of only 500. Late 2001 saw the introduction of the limited production titanium M6 TTL, and with it a new titanium lens series of 500 each of the 35/2 ASPH, 50/2, and 90/2 ASPH lenses.
A new series of various chrome lenses were introduced in the 90's, and can be easily be differentiated from their older counterparts because they have their focal length markings on the lens barrel. They have a much higher feeling of a quality finish than the standard black version, but a much lower standard than the original chrome finished lenses of the 50's. Keep in mind that ANY chrome M lens of this vintage is much rarer than its black counterpart, and is likely a future collectible.
A new series of ASPH or Aspherical wide angle lenses began to appear in the 1990's. These are considered to be the best performing M lenses of their focal lengths (21/24/35) at a great increase in price (Surprise!).
In the early 90's Leica began adding built in hoods to their 50 mm lenses. This is one of Leica's mis-steps IMHO. The lenses became bigger, while a smaller hood means less lens flare protection. In the case of the Noctilux, the new built in hood obscures more of the viewfinder. In the case of the Summicron, the convenient and much liked focusing lever was also needlessly eliminated.