I am a big Leica fan myself and I do believe that Leica IS the best in optic engineering and design. However, the more mass-market friendly Japanese products are also proven to be as effective if not technically superior than the German products. So here I am, reviewing a lens that’s made in Japan, works with any M cameras, film or digital and more importantly, VERY pocket friendly.
Konica M-Hexanon 90mm 1:2.8 is actually quite a popular lens in the rangefinder crazed Japan. Believe me, a large chunk of Leica’s MP film rangefinders are being exported to Japan every single year (YES it still IS)! These people are not collectors but shooters indeed. Japanese have designed almost all the popular camera equipment we used today but for some strange reasons, they just love the old-fashion and mechanical German rangefinders. This was also evident even in the early 70’s when Leica and Minolta teamed up to produce the CL. Not long after the Leica lost the patent right of the M mount, Konica produced their own M compatible rangefinders with a bunch of high quality lenses (though not in German standards) too. I am not digging too much into history here and lets get back to the lens.
Those who read and follow my blogs and reviews know that I love photographing people and to me, for a 35mm format, the perfect focal length for portraits is between 80-200mm. I now have a couple of 85mm for my Canon and a couple of 90mm for my Leica. I’ve also tried a few in the past but sold them because I didn’t like them. One of which was the Leica Tele-Elmarit M 90mm (which I reviewed HERE).
This is my third M portrait lens.
So why this lens?
While I haven’t had a chance to extensively use my 60’s 90mm Summicron on my digital M, I always look for a good small travel friendly 90mm M lens (some say the Elmarit 90mm is the best ever!). I wouldn’t disagree after trying one at my local Leica store. But it’s a lens that’s already discontinued and superseded by the new Summarit 90mm 1:2.5 which I hadn’t tried. Both the used Elmarit and new Summarit cost about same in the store but then I saw the Hexanon on the ‘Used’ shelf. I asked the LEICA man if I could try it so I did a very quick comparison between all three with their demo Leica M 240.
My oh my… The Hexanon just blew my mind with sharp pictures, from the back screen. Well, while I wouldn’t say it’s better than either Leica’s offerings and I couldn’t compare the images on big screen, but the images already impressed me just from the back screen. What the back screen didn’t quite tell was the micro contrast of the lens, which could affect the image details that could be recorded by the camera sensor. After a good half and hour play, I left the store without buying it. But the Hexanon had always been in my mind ever since.
About a few weeks later, I was browsing the web looking for used Leica lenses and then I saw a Hexanon selling for £349 from a Scottish Leica dealer. It was listed as MINT with all the rare accessories such as the original carrying pouch, original metal front cap and plastic rear caps, all instruction manuals (not that you need it for a manual lens) and original box. I didn’t hesitate and clicked ‘buy’. I know that this price is a bargain for what it is and judging from my first impression of its picture quality, I know it’s worth the price. Hence I took the plunge and bought the Hexanon to ‘try’ to see if it’s a keeper or a tosser.
Well, it’s not Leica so don’t expect one. But the Hexanon is still a gem in its own right. Full metal construction and it certainly looks the part (because it’s a copy of the famous Leica Elmarit M). While it’s not as dense as the Elamrit, it still feels tank-like solid. The aperture is clicky and the focus is very very smooth indeed. I am fortunately enough to have bought a mint condition copy with a beater price. It’s almost like new so I can seriously say that this lens is as good as today’s Voigtlander or Zeiss M lenses if not better. I love the metal lens cap which kind of adds a little bit of that old Leica magic since even Leica doesn’t give you a metal one anymore.
Using it in practice, good and bad
Right, this lens, while it loses the micro-contrast battle to the Leica 90mm, is still sharp enough for ‘my’ 39-year-old eyes. I would use this lens mainly for portrait and the lack of micro contrast is actually an advantage and skin appears to be a little smoother. But when you use this lens as a landscape tool, then yes, it trails behind the Leica but you can still push your RAW files in post to get ‘more’ out.
One reason I like this lens over Leica, is not price because I will pay whatever my wallet allows me to buy the RED DOT anytime. It’s its super short focusing throw. It’s so short and fast that I could focus my subject dawn fast when compare to the Elmarit. I tried it at the Leica store and knew that the Hexanon could be a good working lens. In terms of focusing speed, it’s like rabbit and turtle when compare to my old Summicron. I actually ‘felt’ more with the Hexanon than Elmarit too. So I think it’s better for me
I already mentioned sharpness earlier and this lens is sharp, even when shot wide open. But it’s no Leica sharp. That’s due to many factors such as micro contrast that I mentioned earlier. The resolving power simply isn’t a match either so the Leica is definitely a BETTER lens if you are talking about optical perfectness. But a photographer chooses his/her lenses base on its characters, how they ‘draw’ the pictures. Hence one photographer can have a few 50mm and a few 90mm just for the sake of their characters. One can employ and maximize its characters for specific needs and look for that photograph.
On the downside, I noticed a couple of negatives during my last few weeks of shooting. Despite its relative superior sharpness, when compare to my other equivalent lenses, its has focus accuracy and chromatic aberration problems. First, because of of the slightly different flange distance, the Hexanon always focuses slightly backward (just behind of the intended subject). Though I can adjust slightly by focusing slightly forward to ‘balance’ it but I can only do it by guess the distance. It’s not a big deal when shooting at 5.6 or smaller. But it’s a problem when shooting at wide open at 2.8 at distant (because of the relative depth of field, it doesn’t seem to bother my close range shooting as much though. This, however, can be adjusted by a good lens service man.
Then the chromatic aberration. I do get purple fringing when shooting wide open and if the scene/subject is mixing in a high contrast environment (not good with bride and groom shots…). So despite its good short throw focusing, it is only suitable for some types of work but not wedding sadly.
Many loves Hexanon lenses. I truly think that the Hexanon is underrated. It’s a very good M lens if not a great one. But it’s a great lens if you are to compare with any modern lenses out there today. I am keeping the lens as I bought it cheap. It should work with my M6 as film’s tolerance is much higher than digital sensor. But for my wedding work, I may have to find another ‘good’ quality lens. I love the Hexanon but I think the CA is the main throw out for me, despite all other positive points that I truly like.