Lenses

The Leica Summar – A lens with a good deal of character.

I very nearly didn’t keep my Leica Summar, in fact I’d almost decided to sell it before I’d even shot with it. First off, it’s an ugly little thing. Mine is nickel so doesn’t match the chrome iiia it came on, and looks ridiculous on my M bodies. Secondly, it’s not in that great condition. Looking inside the lens you can see the paint on the inside of the barrel has chipped away. And lastly, what with also owning a 50mm Summarit, another lens known for its divisive character, I pretty much convinced myself I didn’t have any need it for. Despite all this, it went off to the repair guy with the iiia, as much as anything else, just to protect the camera. I also figured there was no harm in getting an expert opinion on whether or not it was a good one. The answer that came back – “it’s ok, pretty clean”. He actually cleaned it further for me too, and didn’t charge me either which was nice. So by the time I got it back I felt pretty much obliged to give it a go… And I’m very pleased I did too.

Leica iiia & summar

Earlier reservations aside, I did start to realise some of its potential. Its physical size for example does make it quite appealing, especially for a tiny camera like the iiia. A collapsible lens, it is in fact – at least as far as I can work out – the smallest 50mm f2 lens available for either Leica RF mount. It’s also thread mount, meaning I could mount it on any of my Leica cameras. The aperture control is also around the outside of the barrel of the lens, so compared to its smaller slower sibling, the 5cm/3.5 Elmar, the aperture is quicker and more convenient to set.

But is the Leica Summar actually any good?

The Leica Summar – an uncoated 50mm f/2 lens made in the 1930’s – is a lens that seems to divide opinion. Some say it’s far too prone to flare and imposes for too much of itself on the photo to be a genuinely useful lens. Of course there are an equal amount of people seem to love it for its character. The middle ground seems to be a suggestion to use a hood and stop it down for “best” results. My thoughts are fairly simple, if you are worried about flare or overbearing character, buying an uncoated f2 lens from the 1930’s is probably not the wisest course of action. On the other hand if like me you like a lens with character then, well, read on…

Surprisingly, as least to some I expect, even shot wide open this lens is incredibly capable. Results are impressively sharp, in the larger part of the centre at least. Not the harsh contrasty sharpness that modern lenses have mind, but detail is there. This combination of reasonable levels of resolution with lower levels of lens contrast make for amongst other things, lovely portraits I think. In this picture, taken at f/2, you can see individual hairs blowing in the wind. The detail is also all there in the Keira’s coat (left), but there is a gentleness to the textures rather than the hard high contrast sharpness of a modern lens.

First shots with iiia

One of the things I really love about this lens is the way it renders the glow that you get around higher areas of a contrast subject. This next photo for example, if you take a closer look at the leaves and branches that are back-lit, there is a lovely gentle glow to the light. (Incidentally the bark of that tree Is another superb example of how much detail this lens can resolve.)

Tree

This same glow has a nice effect on artificial light sources too. The light glows, spreads or almost bleeds across the photo, rendering even in focus sources of light gently.

First shots with iiia

I find this glow particularly appealing when shooting in strong sunlight. Images take on a lovely warm summery feel to them rather than a harshness that can occur when shooting in contrasty bright light.

Tunnel

The glow and low contrast also work to give a very gentle rendering of subjects that are lit more diffusely. This is possibly my favourite image I’ve taken with this lens, I just find the combination of lens, the light and Kodak portra has worked very well to capture the mood I was looking for when I took this photo – though I should add this is largely down to luck on my part on this occasion.

Second roll from the iiia

What’s also interesting about results from this lens, to my eye at least, is that whilst they are of a fairly low contrast, can have a glowy look and sometimes even look veiled; areas of shadow are rarely muddy or grey. If you can pardon my missing the focus in this shot, looking at Hannah’s cardigan and the door to the right, there is no muddiness to the blacks. Where some older lenses might render those areas much more grey, the Summar has rendered them quite dark – in fact, I think you could be excused for thinking this particular photo was taken with a much more modern lens.

First shots with iiia

I also like the way it renders the out of focus. Others may disagree as there is a slight edginess (visible in the background of the photo of Greg by the strip lit shot window), and given the right circumstances judging by the shape of the out of focus specular highlights, things could start to swirl (see background of Connie and Keira holding hands). But these things are part of the charm for me.

I find the out of focus to be quite satisfyingly out of focus too… What I mean by this is that, thanks I think to the glowiness, the out of focus areas are generally rendered quite nice and softly, and more often than not gently. This softness of what is out of focus seems to add something to what is in focus too.

Of course all is not a bed of roses when using a lens like this. In this photo the light seems to have caught the lens at just the right angle to wash out half the photo.

First shots with iiia

And even I and my fairly relaxed attitude to flare cropped this photo for a result I was happy with.

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Uncropped
Photo19_18

Cropped
Second roll from the iiia

And I suppose that is where the middle ground view of for best results use a good comes from; use a hood and you probably will see an increase in consistency of the results. A hood would have probably solved the issues in both the above photos, and it probably would have reduced the veiling in the next photo. But I don’t think any amount of hood would make this lens completely consistent.

Pylon

So what’s the verdict on the Leica Summar?

Well personally, I like lenses that have a bit of character and the Summar definitely fits in that category. Shooting with lenses like this, especially when they contain imperfections, introduces an element of serendipity. You can learn their traits, but unlike modern glass, these old lenses are much more prone to random acts of unexpectedness. Yes a hood would probably help, but as I say it’s not going to fix it. And anyway, to my mind, if I want more consistent results I can use a more modern lens. Shooting with a lens like this is about accepting, embracing and harnessing its “shortcomings”, it’s about using them for creative gain and not confusing them as fundamental flaws.

Ultimately, If you want modern, high-contrast-sharp images, then buy a modern lens. But if you are looking for something with a bit of charm, something to bring a touch of warmth and a gentle glowing rendering but want still retain a good amount of resolved detail, the Leica Summar – possibly the least expensive (to buy now) and least desirable leitz 50mm lens out there – might actually be the lens for you! I know I will be keeping mine!

A few more shots can be found here

Otherwise, Cheers for reading

Hamish


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24 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Rob
    November 2, 2014 at 8:05 am

    Good post, Hamish. I’m particularly impressed with the effect of the glow on the oof shot – very beautiful.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      November 2, 2014 at 11:07 am

      Cheers Rob!
      I’d love to see what you would do with a lens like this!

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Rob
        November 2, 2014 at 2:31 pm

        I’d like to see that too!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Hashim
    November 24, 2014 at 2:52 am

    Nice shots! couldn’t help but notice we almost have the same name! haha 🙂

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      November 24, 2014 at 11:02 pm

      haha, yes, you’re not wrong! 🙂

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Gábor
    May 2, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    Fantastic site and I like this particular article also very much.
    I would like to ask you about the sample photo which you cropped because of the flare. I have quite often 3-4 times of each roll the same effect with my M2.
    However it is not limited to a single lens. I was told that it could be because of the broken light gates (not sure if this is the correct term to the little furry stripes of fabric at the top and bottom of the shutter). I have got the stripes replaced, but the problem remained even though it is less visible now.
    What is your experience with this issue? Could it be that it really relates to the lens in some cases?

    I was trying to find situations when the effect is more apparent, but it seems that for me it is always on a certain part of each roll.

    Congrats again for the site and keep up with the good stuff. Gábor

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      May 2, 2015 at 6:50 pm

      Hi Gábor. Thanks for getting in touch.
      If you have had them replaced, that would say to me it is less likely to be related to those particular light seals. Though I’m not really an expert when it comes to that sort of thing, so I wouldn’t rule it out.

      Are all of your lenses more elderly lenses?

      A ask, as I get the same effect when I used 1950’s Summarit. This shot Was taken with it mounted on my M7, and I’ve never had it happen with any other lens on that camera.

      Also, thinking about the direction of light in the shots where it has happened to you, is there any correlation to the position of the light source?

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Gábor
        May 2, 2015 at 9:30 pm

        I have a Zeiss Sonnar 50mm f/1.5 and a Nippon kogaku 85mm f/1.8. Both has the same issue.
        This is shoot with the Zeiss before the replaced seals: https://www.dropbox.com/s/r6e0byysluuu8sn/10.jpg?dl=0
        While this is with the Nippon after the “fix”: https://www.dropbox.com/s/eixpruq6tp7pdy0/img015.jpg?dl=0

        I think in my case this is still somehow related to the seals. Maybe some old lenses really could have a similar effect under certain conditions.

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Hamish Gill
          May 2, 2015 at 9:59 pm

          Hmm … This sort of thing baffles me!
          Is the sonnar a new one or one of the old ones?

          • Avatar
            Gábor
            May 2, 2015 at 10:15 pm

            Current production Sonnar. I got it used but close to mint condition.
            Would love to have a classic sonnar though.

          • Avatar
            Hamish Gill
            May 3, 2015 at 2:39 pm

            I’ve got a very tatty delaminated 50’s Sonnar on my Contax iia … most people would bin it, I think its lovely! – Photos Here if you are interested
            Anyway …

            I’m not sure we are going to come to a conclusive answer unfortunately, though I will report back here if I ever find an answer … I’d be interested to hear from you too!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Gábor
    May 3, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    Sure thing, I have some other theories of possible location of a light leak. I will let you know if I can find it.
    Your shoots with the Contax mount Sonnar are indeed lovely.
    I only have a Russian copy of the Contax the Kiev 4 which has an 50mm f/2 Sonnar copy (Jupiter 8) on it. This combination also gives very nice results.
    In case you were interested here is a little write up of mine about the Jupiter: https://camerajunky.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/jupiter-8/

    Cheers

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      May 3, 2015 at 3:07 pm

      An interesting post! And another photo with that effect!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Joshua
    May 10, 2015 at 9:36 pm

    The issue with the light leak is solely due to the light seals. Although, using a longer lens that has a larger image circle could make it easier to jump the light seals. On older Leicas they are much more prone to having a light leak when the lens is at a wider aperture and direct sunlight comes in. This can happen when the camera is just around your neck or on your side, you have to be very careful or use a cap to not allow the sun to go straight down the lens for this reason as well as pinholes. Later leicas have better light seals, but can still suffer the same problem with enough light intensity. Your lenses are all fine.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      May 10, 2015 at 9:49 pm

      Why have I never had this with any of my modern lenses? I never use a lens cap, and especially recently have been shooting in a lot of sunshine…?

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Alvaro
        June 26, 2018 at 9:15 pm

        Sounds to me like a combo between light seals and the lens’ uncoating letting more light scatter around?

  • Avatar
    Reply
    John Robert Young
    September 18, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Delightful photographs, the mono’s are especially pleasurable. What a pity you decided to change careers from photographer to whatever. Delight the world further with your visual jottings from the Leica 3A with the Summar.

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    Reply
    eastwestphoto
    March 3, 2018 at 5:30 pm

    The leitz Summicron 40mm F:2 CL is the smallest Leica rangefinder lens. Also it is the BEST lens for M series or any digital leica. On any adapter it is small in stature and amazing sharpness; a treasured lens by those that truly understand optics. The Summar 5cm a early 1930’s f:2 m39 thread; has real character. Not super sharp, yet sharp, NOT high contrast yet appealing, when used with a Sunshade, it has a trade secret! When serviced & coated, it’s a great lens most photographers knew about in the 1950’s, but now have left us. Your grand-fathers lens is a keeper! leitz offered coating service to this lens in the early 1950’s and if you find one, get ready for a bidding war!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      March 4, 2018 at 9:08 am

      How do you define best here?

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Frank
    March 17, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    I have the same flare as yours. Is it because of the camera or lens? I tried a canon ltm 35mm f2 and there’s no such issue. It’s puzzling.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Flavio Colker
    January 6, 2019 at 8:58 pm

    No. It does not ridiculous on an M camera. It looks wonderfull.
    The mechanics in this lens are extraordinary. It´s small. Very small. It´s a brilliant piece of engineering. Optics are outdated but everything else is superb.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Johnny Martyr
    March 28, 2019 at 4:46 am

    Hamish, like you, I already owned the 5cm 1.5 Summarit when the 5cm f2 Summar found its way into my life and I was not inclined to keep an seemingly lesser, redundant lens. My Summar is also nickel and yes, it looks terrible on anything but the black and nickel 1930 Leica that I bought with it. However, on this body, I’ve grown to feel that that I can use no other lens now that I’ve seen what the Summar is capable of. Your descriptions of the Summar are spot-on, I especially like the idea of gentle sharpness in respect to this lens. I have been running a FISON hood with it which cuts flare without burdening the tiny lens with the obnoxiously massive hood that was designed for it. At any rate, thanks again for giving the Summar a boost; unsung but classic Leitz lenses like these could use some more attention!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      April 6, 2019 at 9:01 pm

      Hi Johnny,
      Sorry for the slow reply, it got buried in a bunch of comments that I needed to spend a little while replying to.
      I was talking to Alan Starkie about the Summar ages ago now – I think it was him, maybe Brian Sweeney… – whoever it was, they really rated the Summar but were of the view that it consistently goes underrated due to how hard they are to find with anything other than completely stuffed front elements. I’m sure they were right, but for me, sometimes part of the charm is in how stuffed the lens is. Looking back I suspect mine could have given me better results if mine had been in better condition, I’m not sure I would have appriciated it as much though… that said, a hood is probably a wise choice!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    eastwestphoto
    April 20, 2019 at 7:52 pm

    The lens needs a sunshade always

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