Extremely good, but the Summicron is better
Aug 23, 2013 (Updated Oct 16, 2013)
Review by Andrew F
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Leica's least expensive lens.
Similar visuals to the 35 Summarit.
Cons:Only $600 less than (slightly) superior Summicron.
Used Summicrons are cheaper than new Summarit.
The Bottom Line: A truly excellent lens that, unlike the 35 Summarit is slightly overshadowed by its Summicron sibbling.
Leica M-series cameras and lenses have a reputation for extremely high quality, with extremely high prices to match. The lenses, in particular, are known to be very small and light for their focal length and speed (maximum aperture), to be built like tanks and to be incredibly sharp from corner-to-corner, even (especially?) wide-open.
Recommend this product?
This review will be divided into two basic sections. The first discussing common characteristics of all four Summarit-M lenses, and the second discussing the Summarit-M 35mm f/2.5 specifically. Just to get it out of the way, I am a huge fan of the Summarit lens family, currently own and use all four, and the 35mm is my current favorite lens for use on the Leica M Monochrom (the Elmarit-M 28 ASPH is my favorite lens for the M8.2). The Summarit family section of the review shall be repeated in each of my Summarit reviews, while the second part of each review concerns the individual optical and mechanical qualities of that individual lens.
Part One: The Leica Summarit-M Lens Family
Leica M lenses are named (and priced) for their speed classes, with the f/2 Summicrons being the mainstream. Faster f/1.4 Summilux and f/0.95 Noctilux (50mm only) up the prices, though in the 50mm class the newest Summicron (APO ASPH) is actually more than double the price of the 1 stop faster Summilux.
Slower than f/2 lenses are the f/4 class Elmar and Telyt (everything from f/3.4 slower), the f/2.8 Elmarit, of which most have now been replaced by the slightly faster f/2.5 Summarit series. The Summarit lenses, the 35mm specifically, are the subject of this review. In Leica fashion, all four Summarit lenses (35, 50, 75 and 90) share a few common characteristics and all are designed to be the lowest cost Leica lenses in their respective focal lengths. The Elmarit-M 28 ASPH is often grouped with the Summarits for its similar (slightly slower) speed, small size and simplified mechanical build.
There is a lot of discussion on various internet photography forums on whether or not the Summarit lenses are “true” Leica lenses, or if they are too cheaply made. Everyone agrees that the optics are outstanding, but there is a lot of back and forth concerning the build quality. What is most interesting to me is that the vast majority of people who complain about a lack of build quality freely admit that they don’t own a Summarit lens. Complaints generally fall into three basic types or variations on them.
First, that the lenses feel light and insubstantial.
Second, that the two telephoto models have rubber focus grips instead of the traditional Leica metal.
Third, that the lens hoods are extra-cost options.
Lets address each of these “complaints” one-by-one. I’ll come right out and say that I own or have owned a number of “traditional” Leica lenses, specifically a number of R series SLR lenses (same build quality, just longer register distance) and both vintage (50 Summicron, 90 Tele-Elmarit) and modern (50 Summicron) lenses for comparison with the Summarits. I have bought and sold many lenses (I always buy used, if possible) in my search for the perfect compact, high-performance outfit and have settled on the four Summarits and the Elmarit-M 28 ASPH as my perfect five lens kit. My perfect kit will not necessarily be the same as yours, as it is tailored to the types of photography I enjoy and my unwillingness to carry heavy or bulky lenses with me. Your ideal kit may focus more on low-light capabilities, for example.
Build quality of the Summarit lenses, in my opinion, is every bit as good as that of the more expensive Summicron and Summilux lenses. Like their faster cousins, Summarit lenses have all metal bodies and mounts, beautiful and clear engraving and hand-filled paint markings. The font used on the engraving is different, a revival of a font Leica used in the 1960s, but this has no effect on the appearance or feel of quality. What does reflect quality in a lens is the feel of the focus and aperture rings, the solidity of the mount and precision of the assembly. In those regards, the four Summarits leave nothing whatsoever to be desired. I had a recent 50mm Summicron in like-new condition and compared it to a borrowed 50mm Summarit. They look and feel different, but neither gives a perception of being better than the other. In fact, the Summarit had cleaner detents in its aperture ring and a smoother turn of its focus ring, while the Summicron had a darker finish on its barrel and the different font.
I believe that much of the perception of lower build quality is directly related to weight. The Summarit lenses are specifically designed to be as small and light as possible, which the slower f/2.5 aperture makes possible. Smaller and lighter glass elements don’t require the same level of support in the focusing helicals as heavier elements do. Furthermore, the Summarits are all traditional spherical lens designs and lack floating elements, which in addition to being less expensive (and unnecessary for f/2.5 lenses, can get by with simpler (and lighter) focusing helicals. Finally those focusing helicals are simpler and lighter due to the design decision (both for cost and size reasons) to have slightly longer minimum focus distances. In short, Summarit lenses are cheaper to make, but not because of quality reduction, but rather because of lessened mechanical requirements based on their simpler optical designs and slower lens speeds.
The second complaint about the rubber grip on the focusing rings on the two telephoto lenses is valid, but not too important. It is cheaper to glue a textured sleeve around a focusing collar than to machine a knurled edge. It looks and feels cheaper than a traditional Leica lens, but does not in any way affect operation of the lens. Even with the rubber, the Summarit telephoto lenses are still beautifully made, with extremely smooth focus and aperture rings that fully match my benchmark 90 Tele-Elmarit or R series telephoto lenses. Do I wish they had a knurled metal surface instead of a rubber sleeve? Of course. Is it a big enough deal to affect my purchase consideration of theses lenses? Obviously not as I bought both the 75 and the 90 Summarits.
The third complaint is that the lens hood is not included. Leica clearly states this is a cost-cutting move and justifies it by explaining that most photographers don’t bother with lens hoods (I do) and that not including it allows photographers to only spend the money if they want or need the hood. Even for me, a photographer who ALWAYS uses a lens hood outdoors, it makes economic sense for the hood to not be included. Here’s why.
The 35mm and 50mm Summarits use the same screw-on squate lens hood, while the 75mm and 90mm Summarits use the same screw-on round lens hood. I own all four lenses, but only had to buy two hood, or as many prefer, you could use cheap collapsible rubber hoods as well. The Leica hoods are extremely well-made and well-designed, with a protective and decorative ring that covers the outer threads for the lens hood when not in use, while each lens has inner threads for the fitment of filters inside the hood without pushing the hood forward and possibly causing vignetting. The exterior threads for the square hoods also have a hard stop cut into the metal of the both the lens and the hood to assure perfect registration, again to avoid vignetting. These metal hoods are, in my opinion, worth the money.
So now you know the complaints about the Summarit lenses, here are the things that people generally agree on and love about them.
The Summarits as mentioned before all lack exotic aspherical and floating elements and are not optimized for close focusing. This, combined with their slow (for Leica) f/2.5 maximum apertures makes for some very small and light lenses. As my photography focuses mainly on travel, small size and light weight are two of the most important considerations I have when buying a lens. Sure the 75mm f/2 APO Summicron-M ASPH has more ultimate sharpness and resolution than the 75mm f/2.5 Summarit-M and it lets in 2/3 of a stop more light, both of which are totally valid reasons to spend more than double the price and get the more expensive lens. For me, however, it was not the cheaper price that led me to choose the Summarit (I rented both), but the much lighter weight. In fact, for the same weight as the 75mm Summicron, I can carry the 75mm Summarit, the 50mm Summarit and an assortment of color filters (required for the M Monochrom) and still have less weight than the 75 Summicron alone.
As traditional spherical lenses, the Summarits also render, or draw differently than the modern APO aspherical lenses do. The Leica aspherical lenses mostly lack any and all visible aberations. This level of perfection is great for commercial photography, but many photographers prefer the “character” that some spherical abertions can give to a lens. Its difficult to describe, but there is a “Leica Glow” to many of the old classic Leica lenses, and the Summarits share that look thanks to their traditional spherical designs. In fact, Leica claims that they cut costs and increased image quality by basing the optical designs on older, classic Leica lenses.
While the Summarits have a very classic rendering that I like, unlike classic lenses they benefit from the latest multicoatings and are thus extremely resistant to flare. When I want to travel extremely light I will often grab just a camera body and the 35mm Summarit without the lens hood, and even unprotected flare is rarely a problem. In fact, the 35mm Summarit is my most flare-resistant lens. Those modern coatings also give modern levels of contrast, for a look that has that traditional Leica glow, but has the bite of modern Leica lenses that makes digital images really pop.
Finally and for most the primary reason to look at the Summarit range is that they ARE in fact very reasonably priced by Leica standards. Each of these lenses costs less than $2000 new, and often at or just above $1000 used in perfect condition. My 35 and 75mm Summarits were purchased used on internet forums for $1100 and $1200, respectively, while my 90mm Summarit was purchased in like-new used condition from a dealer for $1400. I bought my 50mm Summarit new for $1700 as I just couldn’t find a used one. The Summarit lenses are still about double the price of Voigtlander or Zeiss and a stop or more slower, but you are getting higher build-quality, equal or better optical quality and a six-bit coded lens that will trigger (optionally) lens profiles in all digital Leica cameras.
PART TWO: The Leica Summarit-M 50mm f/2.5
If you read my review of the 35mm Summarit, much here will be similar. In fact, the rendering is so similar (other than the field of view) that it would be hard for most people to tell the difference between an image taken with the 50mm Summarit and the same image taken with the 35mm Summarit from a few steps closer to the subject. Yes, with prime, or fixed focal length lenses the photographer must zoom with his or her feet.
The lens is a tiny fraction of an inch longer physically than the 35mm, but not enough to make any difference in carrying the two. It uses the same filters, the same hood and generally is only different in its narrower angle of view and narrower depth of field. Oh, the bokeh isn’t quite as nice, but its very, very close.
Leica says that this is a “classic double gauss” design, meaning it is essentially of the same optical type as the $600 more expensive and 2/3 stop faster 50mm Summicron. There are similarities in the way the two lenses draw, but where the Summicron tends to have harsh bokeh in some situations (gorgeous in others, the problem is knowing what you will get), the Summarit is smooth all over. I honestly have no idea why this would be, but I’ve owned and used the Summicron and borrowed a Summarit, and after I got back to the store and looked at my images, I immediately bought the Summarit and sold my Summicron on eBay (for almost enough to cover the new lens).
Off the four Summarit lenses, the 50mm is the most difficult to justify and the one I’m most likely to sell on in the near future. The reason is that 50mm is generally the cheapest focal length to get extreme speed and quality, in a reasonable size. Leica’s 50mm Summilux ASPH tends to sell for about $3500 used, which is a sizeable amount, but it also is almost two stops faster, is small and light enough for travel (the only Summilux that can claim that) and is also known for its exceptionally smooth bokeh wide-open and incredible detail stopped down. Of course, a used one is well over double the cost of a new Summarit, and more than double the weight.
While 35mm is my favorite focal length, like many I enjoy a good 50mm lens. This is the focal length that comes closest to matching the natural perspective of our human eyes, and 50mm lenses tend to record images in a very realistic way. 35 is close, but there is a quality to 50mm photos that is unique. While I would likely choose a 35mm lens if I could only have one, it would be a very tough choice over the 50mm.
So while I would prefer to own the Summilux, the Summarit is not in any way a low-budget or compromise lens. It is, in fact, good enough and different enough from the Summilux that I am very likely to just keep it even after buying the faster (and heavier) 50 Lux. The reasons are the same as why I so love the 35mm Summarit and is the reason why I bought the 50. Excellent image quality with extremely light weight. On a short day trip I would definitely take the 50 Lux, but for a week in Tokyo I’d probably leave the faster lens at home and take the very light 50 Summarit.
Also as in the 35mm Summarit, the 50mm has a very nice classic rendering, but with modern levels of contrast and flare resistance. The lens is as sharp as can be in the center, even wide-open, and acceptably sharp in the corners. Stopped down just slightly to f/2.8 the corners really sharpen nicely, and by f/4 they match the center. On the crop-sensor M8.2 corners are perfect right from f/2.5 with no need to stop down at all unless you want wider depth of field.
Depth of field is the main reason why I often select a 50mm instead of a 35mm lens. With a particularly busy background, the 50mm lens at the same aperture, despite the longer distance-to-subject required for the same field of view, will have significantly narrower depth of field than the 35mm lens. There is also much less perspective exaggeration when taking close-up portraits, though for head-and-shoulder or tighter even a 50mm lens will distort perspective (bigger noses). For head-and-shoulder or seated portraits I usually reach for a 75mm lens, while for tight face-only portraits my preference is 90mm, which can further blur a distracting background.
For most photographers starting out with a system camera, 50mm or equivalent is the ideal first lens. If your first Leica is an M8 or M8.2 with its 1.33 crop factor, the 35mm lens would be more useful as it would be an equivalent to 46mm on full frame. Since all current Leica M cameras are full-frame, the Summarit 50mm is your ideal entry-level lens.
Leica actually offers five different 50mm lenses, ranging in price from the $1700 Summarit to the $10,000 Noctilux. Next up from the Summarit is the Summicron, an f/2 lens at $2300. Prices get crazy from there with the f/1.4 Summilux at $4000, the new APO ASPH (aspherical) Summicron f/2 at over $7000 and the ultra-fast f/0.95 Noctilux at $10,000 plus. The $2300 f/2 Summicron is the most popular, but I honestly prefer the look from the 50mm Summarit. If you aren’t a bokeh fanatic then the Summicron is probably a better lens, with slightly better sharpness at all apertures and a classic way of rendering that has even more character than the Summarit. The Summicron is a legendary lens that has been in continuous production with unchanged optics since 1979.
All things considered, the Summicron 50mm is probably the best choice in a 50mm lens for most Leica photographers. Where the Summarit is a better choice is for those who really want smooth and creamy bokeh, or those who want a common look across multiple lenses and have settled on one or more of the other Summarits. As I said before, I had the Summicron and it is a better lens except for its slightly unpredictable (either fantastic or harsh) bokeh, but the Summarit is a better match visually for my other lenses. As the 35mm Summarit is my favorite Leica lens, I chose the matching Summarit 50mm to maintain similar image characteristics. I also liked the idea of buying at least one of my lenses new, and the Summarit didn’t put too bad of a dent in my bank account.
So, is this lens for you? If you are looking for your first Leica lens and want to buy a new 50mm, you are giving up very little in choosing the 50mm Summarit over its $600 more expensive Summicron sibling. Likewise if you own or plan to own the outstanding 35mm Summarit, the 50mm Summarit makes an outstanding visual match. If you have no plan to own the 35 Summarit or if money isn’t quite so tight, the Summicron is the better lens, and can actually be had used for less money than the Summarit fetches new (a used Summarit will be cheaper still).
With that all in mind, I recommend the Leica 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M. It is an outstanding lens in its own right, and only misses my highest recommendation because of the slightly better 50mm f/2 Summicron, one of Leica’s truly great designs being available at only slightly higher prices.
As much as I like the 50mm Summarit-M, I returned mine on the last day before the restocking fee would hit and upgraded to the 50mm Summicron-M. The Summarit produced outstanding image quality to be sure, but the price difference was minimal enough that I wanted to faster speed and the convenience of the built-in hood. That, and this is the last Leica lens from the Walter Mandler era, and I really wanted to own a new one before it is discontinued, which I expect should be fairly soon.
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