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The Leonon 5 cm F2 from the Leotax Camera Company, Limited!

May 11, 2014

My apologies to readers of this blog as I’ve been away for a while enduring a career change and other life changes, which have kept me from photo hobbies for the most part. That and the decline of easy and inexpensive to access film processing facilities where I live has slowed down my blogging here. The good news is that I’ve now starting processing my own C41 and black and white film (the last time was in the 1970’s for me) and this will allow me to review more interesting cameras and lenses. Soon I hope to start processing E6  as well, for what is probably the best color experience obtainable on film in our era of declining film use.

Not too long ago I had a chance to obtain the somewhat rare Leonon 5 cm F2. I purchased this from one of the many excellent small sellers on eBay in Japan who deal in this genre of collectible vintage Japanese cameras. These sellers often have quite refined taste in such items, reasonable prices, and excellent customer service (as is typical in Japan). Look for them — there are several and I recommend them!

leonon-2

I’m sure the Leonon 5 cm F2 is more common in Japan than here in the US, but I am sure it is hard to find anywhere, probably even in the era when it was made. It is a good example of the outstanding Japanese photo optical engineering that took place, starting on a relatively small scale, in the 1950’s. A camera lens of this caliber is a non-trivial endeavor, particularly for a small firm, and particularly in the 1950’s. Remember that F2 was considered fast for a prime lens in the 1950’s, and it was expensive. The performance bar had been set by the Europeans, most particularly Zeiss and Leica, so a successful product had to at least approach that level of performance to justify the high price.

From HPR’s great reference book (“Leica Copies”), as best as I can tell the Leonon was sold with the Leotax FV and Elite (T 2L) which were bottom loading rapid wind camera bodies made from about 1958-1961. No more than about 6000 of these cameras were made and they were also sold with the Topcon Topcor 5 cm F2 (reviewed earlier here). Thus no more than a few thousand Leonon’s were made, and I’m sure much fewer exist today. It may not be rare, but it is certainly an uncommon lens! Note that HPR incorrectly calls the Leonon the “Lenon”.

Here are some specs on the Leonon:

Weight: 8 ounces ( 227 grams)
Filter Thread: 40.5 mm
Extension from camera body at infinity focus:  1.6″ (41 mm)
Elements: (5-6 probably)
Minimum Aperture: F22, detented stops

This is a elegantly well engineered lens. It is rather compact requiring only 40.5 mm filters, similar to many Nikon and Contax rangefinder lenses. The mill and lathe work is excellent, particularly the milled focus ring, which is also a different dark brown metallic tint than the rest of the lens which is black and chrome in finish. The engravings are all finely made and fill-painted white, with large, easy to see reference lines for the f-stop settings. This is especially useful when deploying the lens on an unmetered camera body. The lens has a nicely finished chrome plated focus lever without an infinity lock.

The first group of photos are of my particular Leonon, serial number 230733, taken with my point-and-shoot digital camera. The photos that follow were taken on Easter afternoon of 2014 mostly in the old-town center of the town I live in, Upland, California. The place was almost uninhabited that day (the city planners here are trying to revive the town center with limited success). No art is intended here, just a lens test. The film was Fuji Reala X-Tra 400, which is a commonly available and low-priced C41 process color print film from Japan. I developed and scanned the film myself, with mixed results as I needed to color balance out a faint purplish tint, which as I understand it can be due to temperature error in the developer (quite likely as I am not using real sophisticated equipment for this). My color processing skills will hopefully improved with time and allow me to start testing interesting lenses again.

 

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3 Comments
  1. Gary Hill permalink

    David,
    I have occasionally checked your blog as our tastes seem to be quite similar in collectible cameras and lenses. I know how it is making a career change as I was in photographic field of processing and retail for thirty years which pretty much has gone away and have been working again for about a year and a half. I also have a Topcor 5cm/F2 Black for my Leotax FV and have always been interested in the Leonon lens. After having both, how would you compare? I have always thought it wouldn’t make much sense having both as I assume they would be quite similar and I have No issues with the Topcor lenses I own. Do you know who actually made the Leonon as it says Leotax Camera Co, but that seemed to happen towards the end of the company. As an aside, I also purchased about six months ago a Topcor 3.5cm/F2.8 from Japan. It was by no means inexpensive but it is a lens I have always wanted and fit nicely with the 35/50 Topcor finder I was lucky enough to get. I wish you luck in the job market.

  2. Gary at the risk of inflating its price, the Topcor 5 cm F2 is in a class by itself optically. It is one of the best primes I’ve ever used. The Leonon I’d rate as serious effort, and very usable. Of course both are quite collectible, the Leonon probably more so. The Leonon performance is marginal at best wide open, but quite adequate at the mid apertures. I have some more Leonon color photos on the way and we can examine it a little further.

  3. Gary Hill permalink

    Hi David,
    Hope all is well in your career change as I know firsthand how difficult that is going through it myself about 3 years ago. I have followed you again as I have just purchased a Leonon 5CM/F2 from Japan, although mine seems to be a somewhat later version, as the second series has serial #’s in the 34xxxx, and has a silver nose instead of all black. I’m sure the optical formula remained the same, and these were packaged with the later Elite model. I also look forward to testing it against the Topcon, but as you have pointed out, it’s getting more difficult finding affordable processing, in my case, in Florida. To think for many years, I could go shoot a roll of film and process it in about 30 minutes, for minimal costs being in the business. Kinda makes me wonder sometimes why I’m fooling around with these classics, but there again, I still get more pleasure handing these style cameras than any digital I have encountered. Maybe one day I’ll be able to afford a M9 or it’s future equivalent, but you know, I’ll probably still never really get the same satisfaction of my Nikon, Canon, Contax, and Leotax cameras and lenses.

    Best of luck,
    Gary

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