I’ve had so much gear since I started taking photographs, most of it obtained for no purpose other than GAS and most of it now sold off to fund other things. One piece of kit that has really stuck with me for the last few years is my tiny 40mm M-Rokkor, which was my entry into the Leica system. Originally purchased to use with my mirrorless cameras, after getting to know the lens it made me want to learn Leica’s rangefinder system to truly utilise it.
Since upgrading from an Epson R-D1s to my now (totally beat to shit) Leica M9 below I’ve really come to love the heck out of the little M-Rokkor.
I have the third generation Minolta branded lens (more on that later) with the tiny font on the lens face, which includes Minolta’s multicoating on the front element. This version of the lens is not different in any way from the Leica 40mm Summicron-C made specifically for the CL and CLE, it just costs half the price and has slightly different markings on the front. It was made by Minolta for Leica as part of the CL range in the early 70s due to an alliance between the two companies, probably because Leica’s sales and profits were up the shit due to the R SLR range that was bleeding money at the time.
It is a true hidden gem, as most Leica owners will flock towards the legit Leica model and shy away from “3rd Party” brands. In this case though, this is quite literally a re-branded Summicron so get yourself a bargain as I’ve seen these go for as little as $300 on eBay – don’t be silly, invest in this true understated legend of a 40mm.
There’s no other way to say it: I fucking love this lens.
The M-Rokkor is tiny, only bested in size by the Leica Summarit 50mm f2.4 (sans hood, obviously) which is a truly tiny lens. It sports an authoritative aperture ring that clicks with ease even though it’s quite small. Additionally, I usually use a 1A Skylite on the front of the lens as protection – seems to work pretty well and actively reduced flare, perhaps more than the multicoat does.
There is a downside and it’s pretty significant: the 40mm focal length is very different for most people. It’s a bit of basket-case. Not quite as tight as 50mm and at the same time not as wide as a 35mm falling somewhere in between. Most people tend to gravitate towards either 35 or 50mm for daily shooting, making the 40 somewhat weird for most people. For some, getting used to this in-between focal length is super difficult, especially if they’re used to “normal” lengths. 40mms can really mess with your “eye” if you’re not ready for it! I found it super easy because this was my only lens for a short period of time, making the transition for me easy. But, if you’ve got a collection of 35s and 50s the 40mm is going to take time to learn and love.
The M-Rokkor handles like any good Leica lens from the Minolta (1970s through mid-80s) era, so long as it’s a good copy. Mine’s in pretty good shape, some faded paint here and there but for the most part it’s pretty good for a lens that’s forty or so years old. Focus is nothing out of the ordinary for a rangefinder lens, but the real winner here is the overall size of the 40mm M-Rokkor even with a filter screwed on it’s absolutely tiny.
While most Leica lenses have the concave focus tab that fits around a finger, the 40mm M-Rokkor has this odd squarey-bolt-looking-tab-thing as a focus tab. At least it’s got one, it does make focusing way easier with rangefinder lenses. The nub thing on the M-Rokkor doesn’t work quite as well as Leica’s usual tab but it’s just as good in daily shooting. It is big enough to use in a similar fashion to Leica’s (the old one one finger against the tab focus method) or the alternative “pinch-it-like-a-nipple” method – either way is pretty solid for focussing. The focus throw is very short, making focusing a dream and quite fast once you get in the zone, even for a rookie. The focus is smooth, as smooth as any Leica or Zeiss lens I’ve used and extremely easy to nail focus. Even though this is a vintage lens it’s very much of the Leica standard quality, it’s not a modern lens by any means but this little lens is very, very well made and stands the test of time.
Attached to the M9 the M-Rokkor is tiny and doesn’t really add to the weight of the camera, even though the M9 is insanely heavy anyways it does gain some utility with a tiny lens like the M-Rokkor strapped to the front of it. I prefer to use my M9 with a wrist strap and leather case, mainly to reduce it’s unwieldy weight and give it some padding.
In use the M-Rokkor or Summicron-C (if you will) brings up the 50mm frame lines by default on all Leica cameras except for the CL and CLE. They were both designed to be used with this lens and will bring up the native 40mm frame on those cameras. When shooting with a modern cameras the 40mm fits somewhere between the 50mm frame it brings up and the 35mm you can switch to if you’re willing to take a file to the lens. Personally, I’m more than happy with the 50mm framelines for the M-Rokkor and love shooting with it. For me, 40mm is just right for street photography. It allows me to be in the moment but not so close to need a 28mm and not too far away to need a 50mm. And anyway, the 50mm frame on the M9 isn’t exactly accurate so it’s useful for me to frame tight at 50mm but get a bit more length out of the resulting image.
Luckily, because the tiny M-Rokkor is a vintage lens, if you can’t stand the 50mm frame just file the lens down to bring up the 35mm and work in reverse: the 40mm is a shade tighter than the 35, so you’ll just have to guesstimate the other way. If you’re one of those legends with a Bessa or an R-D1 you can choose which ever works best for you via the frameline selector, I again used the 50mm on my old R-D1s but YMMV.
This beast has been my go-to lens for street for ages now, even if it’s a bit weird at 40mm. I’ve tried and loved the 35mm focal length and struggled immensely with 50mm. For me, 40mm seems to be the sweet spot. In practice I couple it with a Ricoh GR to give me a 28/40 kit for decent coverage for most street situations.
Being a pretty fast lens, the opportunity for bokeh-whore-ism is pretty hard to ignore. I used to exclusively shoot this at f2 to about f4 because the out of focus elements of the photographs were quite pleasing (and who doesn’t love bokeh). But, as I’ve matured a touch in my style I’ve found it to be very sharp stopped down at f8-11. The results, like files from most Leica developed lenses and cameras, are excellent and require the bare minimum of editing to deliver brilliant final files.
This lens is not hard to find by any means, but be aware of the different versions that are out there:
- Leica Summicron-C
- Minolta M-Rokkor single coated (Minolta branded version of the above)
- Minolta M-Rokkor multicoated
The version in this review is the third and final version, but in reality there is no benefit of either lens other the others. It’s said that the multicoat on the third version reduces flare, but I’ve not noticed any difference between any of the models in day-to-day shooting or file performance. In terms of value for money, by far the most expensive of the three is the Leica branded Summicron. Surprisingly, the last version seems to be the most affordable of them all…
I’d only recommend picking the Summicron model over the others is if you have an affinity for Leica lenses and MUST have a Leica lens on your camera. Otherwise, you’re wasting your money.
The 40mm M-Rokkors are much more affordable and readily available on eBay or at other stores like Adorama or B&H on occasion. I would just keep a few locked in your eBay watch list and wait for a coupon code to pull the trigger. Sidebar: Models listed from Japan are usually in significantly better condition than those listed locally.
The 40mm M-Rokkor lens is a real hidden gem of true Leica pedigree, even if it wears a Minolta badge. It’s sharp, it’s moody and has a tiny focus throw enabling you to focus with a rangefinder very, very quickly. It’s my favourite lens ever and I can’t recommend it enough, find a good copy on eBay ASAP!