The Leica Elcan 66mm
Rare lenses come and go, and I have been through a few of them. But sometimes something really rare comes along. This is one of those lenses. The legendary Leica Elcan 66mm.
During the early 1950’s Ernst Leitz Canada (Elcan) was established at the Midland plant as a military and industrial subsidiary of Leica Canada. During the late 60’s and early 70’s Elcan was asked by the US Navy to produce a number of small format, ultra high resolution lenses for military applications.
A number of different lenses were produced by the Elcan factory, in very limited numbers. All designed by Walter Mandler, the legendary lens designer behind many of the great Leica optical formulas.
It is said that these lenses were used by Nato during the cold war. Lots of rumours abound, but the 66mm Elcan F2 really is a ‘spy lens’ in the truest sense. The lenses were not available to the public, so basically all the ones that come on to the market come from either ex-military types, or people who have ‘acquired’ them from the military.
Many of the Elcan lenses were to be found attached to the special KE-7A variant of the M4 (sadly this one was not). One of the really cool things about these cameras and lenses is that the original sets came with an instruction manual like no other. It contains detailed instructions on how to destroy the camera and lens completely in the event of capture by the enemy.
This lens is the reason why I took a trip to the Philippines last month. I was offered the chance to see this lens and when I saw it I had to have it. It was owned by a long serving US military officer and was passed on when he got older. I picked this lens up for a private client who had to have it, no matter what. The lengths I go to for a lens….
This particular model was the very earliest of the production. Number 003 to be precise! The barrel of the lens has red markings as opposed to the yellow that are seen on later versions. There are no figures for how many of these lenses were produced, but estimates run at less than 200. Of which many were destroyed during numerous conflicts. So it is pretty safe to say there are very very few of these lenses anywhere.
This lens is known as a Red Scale because of the red markings on the barrel. The serial number shows that this is the rarest of the rare, as the 183 serial numbers were only made as prototype lenses for samples and demonstrations.
The main point about this lens, aside from the unusual focal length is the ultra high resolution that this lens presented. The lens is very sharp and has excellent colour rendition. I was only able to test it very briefly, but I was extremely impressed with the quality of the lens.
It has great centre sharpness and low fall off, the bokeh is very very smooth and easily manageable. The colour is extremely well balanced, as you would expect from something that has been produced with the military in mind.
Leica M9 1/30th f/2.8
Leica M9 1/45th F/2
I would love to have been able to test the lens more, but sadly this was not to be. People what their things and this lens was no exception, I had to get it off as soon as possible. Added to that, this damned thing is so valuable that I didn’t want to take it outside in case something happened to it. It is a shame really as for the brief few shots I got with it I was impressed. There was only one real drawback for me, the minimum focal distance is 1 meter, which is a bit far for me.
The Elcan 66mm f2 comes as a pinnacle for me in terms of what I do. This is in the realms of the ultra rare, the sort of items you only see once of twice in a lifetime. I feel very lucky to have been able to find something like this. This is why I started doing JapanCameraHunter in the first place. Moments like this really make it worthwhile for me.
You are truly a camera hunter. It’s nice to know more about a special lens.
Love these articles, a real insight into your work and the collector world.
Wow, so interesting, thanks for sharing the history about the lens. My only lens selling adventure so far has been when I posted my Canon 55 FL 1.2 lens on ebay, with a little research I was discovering there weren’t so many around. And it ended up selling for $265, which caught be by surprise especially since I was originally going to post it with a buy it now price of $100.
Congrats on acquiring such a rare lens! If the KE-7A (M4 camera) was with it, would there have been special frame-lines for the 66mm focal length?
Pity that you don`t have widow in your room otherwise you could just open it and shoot on tripod whatever was there . 2-2.8-4-5.6-8 and everybody interested would be even more happy. As you said, it`s a spy lens. They didn`t use them at meter. Te Minoxes were for that. By the way, are you sure Westlicht wouldn`t top you clients offering?
Quick! Someone grab the philippinescamerahunter, asiancamerahunter and globalcamerahunter domains!
Good job hunting this down. I bet the original owner didn’t have such qualms about getting it out and using it.
Did this lens hunt you down and then you hunted for the buyer, or did someone task you with finding an impossible lens?
This lens actually hunted me down. But I had to do a lot to get it. Finding a buyer for something like this is not really an issue.
My God… Not literally, mind you … actually, yes Literally, YES! literally YES – you are my God and I make my life available that you may use me as seen fit to express thy will. Command me oh Great Hunter!
Man, sorry. Never had that happen before.
Never seen a ultra-rare NATO spec. Leitz glass made in Canada, used on the sticky side of the Iron Curtain before either though! This really, really is, for me, the ultimate, weak in the knees bit of camera kit I’ve ever seen.
Your Mr. Moneybags is a Cold War collector? Perhaps may entertain trade for ultra-rare piece of Berlin Wall, marked by bullets in famous German Olympic Swimmer’s failed defection attempt, 1973? Has Certificate and everything!
You have to wonder, why did the military want a 66mm lens? On an M body its not that much different than a 50. Is it that much sharper than a same-era Summicron?
Mike, this lens is APOCHROMATIC even if it`s not written on the barrel. Military wanted the highest possible resolution on the widest field. Imagine the results on Technical Pan or Kodachrome 25!
Yes, it is THAT sharp. My friend has one. Saw the negatives from a shot of an ivy-covered wall, with an electric meter, and you could read even the smallest numbers. Limited only by the grain of the film.
These beasties are born out of military spec. They don’t buy off the shelf, even for runs of 200 when lives are on the line. Some team in procurement comes up with a spec, the relevant branches sign off and it goes to tender.
Evidently, they needed to photograph installations with a compact packag. Probably someone said a nothing wider than a 66mm angle of view was needed and anticipated a lot of cropping, so decided on a balance of focal length and f/2 to allow for fine grain films. This is old school thinking.
If I had a lens like this, I’d shoot it. I’m currently using a mint black paint Nikon SP with an original metal bucked strap as daily carry. I know it’s going to get marked up and brassed; that’s all good with me.
I procured one of these lenses in 1976 along with an M4. I was have problems with it focusing and the camera back scratching the film. I asked a few leica dealers and they couldn’t help me. I wrote a letter to Leitz about the camera and FBI was at my door two days later. The camera, I was told, happened to be a Naval intelligence camera and from what I can tell the M4 body was set up for infrared. There were no military markings whatsoever on the camera or body. Well the FBI took the camera in 1976 and I just this past week after 35 years I ponied up the money and procured a more mainstream M6. I finally look forward to have a Leica that I can keep.
So he sold eh? Oh well at least I got to test it out teehee!
I had one of these that I acquired at a local camera shop for $160 about 40 years ago. It’s been sold, but I think I still have the military manual for it. I showed it to Jim Lager and I believe it is pictured in one of his books. Before selling it I tried it on an M4–it worked perfectly.