Notes: Unless specifically stated otherwise, all weights listed are actual measured weights of lenses in factory supplied shutters with retaining ring, but no lens caps. All prices were believed to be accurate at the time this article was written (November 15, 1999). However, prices do change over time. So, it is best to shop around for current pricing and availability before making a purchase.
135mm: We've finally reached the point where there are plenty of viable choices in lightweight, modern, multi-coated lenses to choose from in this focal length. In fact, in the 135mm focal length, ALL the current models qualify as lightweight and have image circles of at least 195mm. All, but the 135mm Fujinon CM-W (which, once again, requires unnecessarily large 67mm filters), also qualify as compact. There are so many good choices in modern 135mm lenses that other considerations (price, availability, performance, coverage, etc.) will probably take precedence over absolute minimum weight when choosing a lens in this focal length. Since all these lenses are reasonably light, it probably doesn't make sense to own a dedicated lightweight 135mm lens just for backpacking. Anything you buy in this range should work well for both general purpose shooting and backpacking. Although there are also many older 135mm lenses to choose from, given my bias towards modern, multi-coated lenses for my work, I won't discuss any of the older lenses here. If you are interested in older lenses in this range, see the Budget Lenses section for some specific info. With all the modern lenses in this focal length being lightweight and offering excellent performance, it really is hard to make a bad choice. Still, there are two lenses that separate themselves, just a little, from the rest of the pack. They are the Rodenstock 135mm APO Sironar-N, for it's diminutive size, and the Rodenstock 135mm APO Sironar-S for it's slightly larger coverage (See Figure 1.). Although it makes a very good general purpose lens, since it is the smallest and lightest of the modern 135mm lenses, the 135mm Sironar-N is covered in this section. The slightly larger, heavier 135mm Sironar-S will be covered in General Use section.
Figure 1. 135mm Lenses
135mm f5.6 Rodenstock APO Sironar-N: In a group that is compromised entirely of compact, lightweight lenses, the 135mm APO Sironar-N stands out as being just a little smaller and lighter than the others. This lens is also sold by Calumet at a slightly lower price under the Caltar-IIN designation. The only differences between the Caltar and Rodenstock versions of this lens is the labeling on the lens, and who services the warranty (Calumet, or HP Marketing - the US Rodenstock distributor). Also, for years, it was sold as the "plain" Sironar-N (no APO moniker). There was absolutely no design changes between the plain Sironar-N line and the current APO labeled line. This change was purely marketing hype. So, if you're shopping for this particular lens on the used market, make your decision based on condition, price and availability - not the label.
At 185g with a 40.5mm filter size, the 135mm APO Sironar-N is more compact and an ounce or two lighter than the other current 135mm lenses. It is also an excellent performer at normal working apertures (see Table 1.), and among the most affordably priced (especially the Caltar II-N version that is currently $509.95 from Calumet) of the new lenses in this focal length. With an image circle of 200mm, coverage is ample for moderate movements on 4x5. The combination of excellent performance, decent coverage, and affordable price also makes this lens worthy of consideration in the General Purpose category. The lens we tested was a late "plain" Sironar-N that was purchased new, on close-out, when Rodenstock decided to begin marketing this lens with the APO designation. Performance of the current APO Sironar-N and the Caltar II-N version should be nearly identical (within small sample-to-sample variations due to manufacturing tolerances.)
Table 1. 135mm Sironar-N Test Results
What I carry: When opting for a four lens set (90mm, 135mm, 200mm, 300mm), I carry a 135mm Sironar-S. It is slightly heavier (about an ounce) and bigger (49mm filters) than the APO-Sironar-N (See Figure 1.). It also has slightly greater coverage (208mm image circle) and is ever so slightly sharper at f22. If I was buying new, and specifically for backpacking, I'd probably go with the smaller, lighter, less expensive Caltar II-N labeled version of the APO Sironar-N. However, I think the APO Sironar-S makes a slightly better General Purpose lens in this focal length, and I was fortunate enough to pick up a used one in mint condition for less than the cost a new APO Sironar-N (or Caltar II-N).
150 mm: Of all the focal lengths, 150mm offers the most options in lightweight lenses for 4x5 field photographers. Like the 135mm lenses mentioned above, most modern 150mm lenses are reasonably lightweight and compact. Since I have standardized around the 52mm filter size for my lightweight lenses, I would personally avoid the 150mm APO Symmar (58mm filters) and the 150mm Fujinon CM-W (67mm filters) when considering lenses specifically for backpacking (both make wonderful general purpose lenses, where the filter size becomes a non-issue). Also, like the 135mm lenses above, it might not make sense to have a dedicated lightweight lens in this focal length. Many of the current models are small enough and light enough to serve double duty for both backpacking and General Purpose use. The 150mm Rodenstock APO Sironar-S, for example is light enough (230g) and small enough (49mm filters) for backpacking, but has the very generous coverage (231mm image circle) and excellent performance desirable in a general purpose 150mm lens. If, however, you are seeking the lightest possible 150mm lens for backpacking, there are some choices that are even lighter (See Figure 2.). Here are some 150mm lenses I recommend when lightweight and compact size are the highest priorities:
Figure 2. Lightweight 150mm Lenses
150mm f6.3 Fujinon W: Back in the 1970s, Fuji made two distinctly different 150mm lenses in their standard Fujinon W line. The f5.6 version was a standard plasmat (six elements in four groups) with a published image circle of 224mm. I don't know the exact weight, but would estimate it to be in the 250g range with a 52mm filter size. Pretty typical numbers for a general purpose 150mm lens. The second 150mm Fujinon W was the f6.3 version consisting of four elements in three groups. I haven't seen a cross-section diagram of this lens, but I'm assuming it to be a standard tessar type design. At the time of production, Fuji stated the coverage as 67 degrees with an image circle of 198mm (these figures seem a bit optimistic, if it is indeed a standard tessar design). The best thing about this lens is the small size (40.5mm filters) and ultralight weight of 140g. Even though the actual coverage may not be as generous as the published spec, I have found this lens to cover 4x5 with enough left over for modest movements. The samples I've used have very good sharpness (see Table 2.), good contrast (even though only single coated) and a nice neutral to slightly warm color balance. This lens was discontinued about 20 years ago, but is not too scarce on the used market. With typical selling prices in the $200 - $300 range, it also qualifies as a nice 150mm for the Budget Lenses category.
Table 2. 150mm Fujinon W Test Results
150mm f5.6 Schneider Xenar: Xenar is the trade name Schneider uses for their four element, three group lenses of the classic tessar type design. The Xenars have been produced for over 70 years. During that time, a wide variety of focal lengths (75mm - 480mm) and maximum apertures (f3.5 - f6.1 depending on focal length) have been offered. What a lot of people don't know is that Xenars are still available new in the 150mm and 210mm focal lengths. In order to keep the cost down, even current production Xenars are only single coated. They are supplied in modern Copal shutters. Being tessar types, the coverage is smaller than the plasmats, but it also allows them to be quite small, light and affordable. Specifically, the current 150mm f5.6 Xenar has a published image circle of 173mm, a weight of 170g, and takes 34mm screw in filters with a new price of $359.00 (as of November 15, 1999 from Badger Graphic Sales). Very compact and lightweight. My friend Chris Perez owns one, and it has excellent sharpness at f22 (see Table 3.). Coverage is tight on 4x5, but if you're willing to sacrifice a little coverage, the current production Xenar is very small and light and inexpensive for a reasonably fast (f5.6), current production lens. In addition to the limited coverage, the other drawback with the 150mm Xenar is the odd filter size. I have been unable to locate an off-the-shelf source for a 34mm - 52mm step-up ring. However, B&H does list a 34mm - 46mm step-up ring in their catalog, so you can make it in two steps. Also, B+W makes a 34mm - 58mm step-up ring, if you have standardized around 58mm filters. If all else fails, for $50.00 (as of November 15, 1999), Steve Grimes can custom fabricate a 34mm - 52mm (or other size) adapter.
Table 3. 150mm Xenar Test Results
150mm f9 Schneider G Claron: Although the G Clarons are considered process lenses, typically used for close-up work, due to their small size and light weight, they are also highly prized by many large format photographers for field use. This is most common in the longer focal lengths and the larger formats, where the faster plasmats tend to get really big, heavy and expensive. Still, the little 150mm f9 G Claron should not be overlooked as a possible ultralight 4x5 field lens. When stopped down to f22, it is an excellent performer for landscape use (see Table 4. below). Officially, Schneider lists the coverage for the G Clarons as 64 degrees at f22. This yields an image circle of 189mm for the 150mm focal length. Other experienced photographers, whose opinions I trust, claim Schneider is much too conservative in their coverage specs for the G Claron series. Still, even with the published image circle of 189mm, the 150mm G Claron offers modest to moderate movements on 4x5. Not bad for such a tiny, lightweight lens. With a 35.5mm filter size (B+W makes a 35.5mm - 52mm set-up ring that can be purchased for about $28 from B&H), it really is a tiny lens. The 130g weight of this sample was in a current style, factory installed Compur #0 shutter. That helps explain the exceptionally light weight of this particular lens. At 80g, the Compur #0 weighs about 30g less than a Copal #0. To keep costs down, even current production G Clarons are only single coated, so with eight air:glass interfaces (six elements in four groups) contrast may be a tad lower than a comparable multi-coated design. Although not as bad as the shorter focal lengths, the maximum aperture of f9 can make the ground glass appear a little dim in low light situations. Still, with excellent sharpness, miniscule size, ultralight weight, and decent coverage, and an affordable price, the 150mm G Claron is still worth considering if you're in the market for a backpacking lens in this focal length.
Table 4. 150mm G Claron Test Results
What I carry: If light weight is REALLY a priority, I carry a 150mm f6.3 Fujinon W. At 140g, it is a close second to the G Claron for lightweight - but it is a full stop brighter to make focusing and composing easier in low light situations. Coverage is a bit tight, but within the limits of the coverage, it is an excellent performer. I also have a 150mm APO Sironar-S that is my general purpose lens in the 150mm focal length. It is a wonderful lens with a very generous 231mm image circle and outstanding performance. At 230g with a 49mm, it is still a very compact, lightweight lens, So, unless absolute minimum weight is required (long multi-day backpacking trips), the Fuji stays home and I take the 150mm APO Sironar-S.
180 mm: With the standard f5.6 plasmats (APO Symmar, APO Sironar-N, APO Sironar-S, Nikkor W, Fujinon CM-W, etc.) starting to get fairly large in this focal length, there is really only one 180mm lens I can think of that meets my standards of compact and lightweight. That lens is the:
180mm f9 Fujinon A: Like the 150mm G Claron, the Fuji A is an f9 process lens. Also, like the 150mm G Claron, it is a very light (190g) and compact (46mm filters) lens that is favored for field use (See Figure 3. below). Fuji lists the coverage as 70 degrees for a 252mm image circle, plenty for 4x5 landscape photography. This lens was produced throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Early samples, were single coated. Later production models were manufactured with Fuji's excellent EBC multi-coating process. The one sample we tested (an early multi-coated sample from the late 1970s or early 1980s) had outstanding sharpness in the center of the field, but tailed off near the corners (See Table 5.). Still at f16 and f22, it's a decent performer. Newer samples may perform a little better. Unfortunately, Fuji discontinued the last remaining members of the A series (the 180mm and 240mm) during mid-1998, so they are no longer available new. They do show up on the used market, and if you're looking for one, I'd recommend one of the latter production EBC multi-coated samples in the modern all black Copal shutters.
Table 5. 180mm Fujinon A Test Results
What I carry: I don't carry anything in this focal length, either for backpacking or general purpose shooting. Depending on how many lenses I'm carrying, I either have the combination of 135mm and 200mm, or 150mm and 240mm. In either case, the 180mm is too close in focal length to the other lenses in my kit. On the other hand, if you really want to keep the weight down, and cover a wide range of focal lengths, the 180mm Fujinon A may be just the ticket. It could be used as a single focal length alternative, replacing the two other mid-range lenses. A three lens combo of 90mm Congo, 180mm Fujinon A and 300mm Nikkor M (or Fujinon C) provides a wide focal length range with minimal weight and bulk.
Figure 3. Lightweight 180 - 240mm Lenses
200 - 210 mm: As with the 180mm focal length, the standard f5.6 plasmats start to get pretty big and heavy in the 210mm focal length range. Most weigh over a pound and take 67mm or 72mm filters. Luckily, there are number of lighter alternatives. In older lenses, there is the excellent, and tiny 203mm f7.7 Kodak Ektar (covered in the Budget Lenses section). In newer lenses, there are several that are reasonably lightweight and compact (i.e. 210mm f9 G Claron, 210mm f6.1 Xenar, 210mm f6.3 Caltar II Compact, etc.), but these are all in Copal #1 shutters and weigh in the 250g - 375g range. There is one, however, that is even lighter. It is the:
200mm f8 Nikkor M: Although lesser appreciated than it's slightly bigger brother (the 300mm f9 Nikkor M), the little 200mm f8 Nikkor M is a gem in its own right. It is the only modern, multi-coated lens available in this focal length range that comes in a Copal #0 shutter (See Figure 3.). The smaller shutter helps keep the weight down to an impressive 180g. The filter size is 52mm. Like the 150mm Xenar, the 200mm Nikkor M is based on the classic tessar design (four elements in three groups). However, due to the longer focal length, the image circle is proportionately larger (210mm). This allows moderate movements on 4x5 (enough for most landscape needs). At f22, performance is as good as anything we've tested. It is a stop slower than the much heavier f5.6 plasmats, but it's also nearly 300g lighter. As the focal lengths get longer, I find focusing less difficult with slow lenses. Focusing and composing in dim light with my 90mm f8 Nikkor SW (or even my 75mm f4.5 Nikkor SW) is always a challenge. I find no such difficulty with f8 maximum aperture of the 200mm Nikkor M. In this case, I'm more than willing to give up a stop of maximum aperture to get a substantially lighter, more compact lens.
Table 6. 200mm Nikkor M Test Results
What I carry: Although I have a 210mm APO Symmar (that is fabulous) for General Purpose photography, when weight is an issue, I don't hesitate to leave it home in favor of the much smaller, lighter 200mm f8 Nikkor M. Although the coverage is smaller and the maximum aperture one stop slower, in both cases, I find it quite adequate for field use. It is a modern multi-coated lens in a reliable Copal #0 shutter. It fits in nicely with lightweight lenses in the 90mm, 135mm and 300mm focal lengths to form a great four lens assortment for backpacking.
240 mm: At this point, forget the standard f5.6 plasmats. They are all in massive Copal #3 shutters, and weigh at least 780g. In this focal length, the Rodenstock 240mm f9 APO Ronar and Schneider 240mm f9 G Claron both come in Copal #1 shutters and are reasonably small and light. However, the smallest, lightest lens in the 240mm focal length is the:
240mm f9 Fujinon A: Like the 200mm f8 Nikkor M, the 240mm Fujinon A is the only lens in it's class that comes in a Copal #0 shutter (See Figure 3. above). In fact, it is the longest non-telephoto focal length to ever be offered in a #0 shutter. That keeps the weight down to a very respectable 245g. The 240mm f9 Fujinon A is a so-called process lens (like the 150mm G Claron and 180mm Fujinon A above). So, performance at close distances is outstanding, but I have also found this lens to be remarkably sharp for more distant subjects (see Table 7.). The filter size is 52mm and the image circle, a very generous 336mm (enough to cover 8x10, and way more than necessary for 4x5 field use). I don't find the f9 maximum aperture to be a detriment in this focal length. The image on the ground glass just seems to snap right into focus. Like the 180mm Fujinon A above, this lens was made from the 1970s until it was discontinued in 1998. Early samples may be single coated. The one we tested was a late EBC multi-coated version from 1998.
Table 7. 240mm Fujinon A Test Results
What I carry: The 240mm f9 Fujinon A, of course. The more I use this lens, the more I love it (soon to be added to Future Classics). It offers an amazing combination of tiny size, huge coverage and outstanding sharpness. I've been carrying it a lot lately as my "long" lens in an ultralight three lens backpacking set (90mm, 150mm and 240mm). The excellent performance at close range is an added bonus. I carried it on a recent six day backpacking trip to Grand Gulch, and it was the perfect lens for photographing the rock art. It was easily my most used lens on that trip, and the results were fantastic. Now that Fuji has discontinued them, I'd recommend snapping up one of the late, EBC multi-coated samples while you still can.
© Kerry L. Thalmann, 1999