Along side – or at least attached to – the Leica M-A I recently borrowed from Leica UK was a 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-m. To be honest I’m not sure if they meant to send me this lens, or if they had intended to send me the new 2.4 version, but either way this is what I received. It is also the lens I shot all but a few of the photos I took with the camera over the period of time I had it. And since this amounted to quite a few photos, I actually came away with quite a good appreciation for how well this lens performs… So I thought I’d do a little review…
For the most part, the “new” lenses in my box of tricks are Voigtlanders, and even the Voigtlanders I own are a few years old. My newest Leica lens is a late model v4 50mm ‘cron, but even that dates back to 1989 – it’s the same age as my wife. Despite being 26 years old and having a few marks on and around its being, it does feel quite smooth to operate (the lens, not my wife…get your mind out the bin!). In fact it does feel quite close to a brand new Leica lens, but as close as it might be, it definitely isn’t as smooth and silk to use as the Summarit was. Of course I’ve played with new Leica lenses before; in shops, at shows, those belonging to friends etc. But a real appreciation grows for these things when you spend a little more time with them, and that’s exactly what happened in the 2 weeks I spent with the Summarit, it made me want a new Leica lens. In fact, taking into account its form alone for the time being, it made me want it. Smoothness of focus is one thing, but actually, size is a big factor too, and the Summarit is a small lens – certainly stubbier than the Summicron. It also has a focus tab, which the current v5 cron doesn’t. In fact, because of these positive attributes, it all started adding up to quite a compelling option!
But of course all that was just for how it felt to use, and a lens that feels great is only half a lens. In terms of the pictures I got with it, I thought it absolutely stunning, but for one quite irritating flaw…
I’m going to start with what I found to be this lenses biggest flaw, and that’s the bloody great big blobs of flare that appeared in just a couple of photos I took. Now I’m going to preface this by saying I’ve read about these lenses being called “the king of flare” and that is to say they are very flare resistant, not prone to it. What I think these folks are referring to is a resistance to veiling flare, the type that makes your photos look washed out when you shoot in the general direction of the sun without a lens hood. And actually, I’d largely agree with that sentiment, despite my pointing the lens in all sorts of directions over the course of the time I had with it, overall contrast of the images remained high. Even the shots taken directly toward the sun didn’t loose too much contrast.
But, I still managed to achieve a few photos that contained very large blobs of blue/green ghost flare. The funny thing is, I can’t find any other reference to this in other peoples comments about it online… Maybe the copy I had was flawed? Or maybe everyone else uses a hood – I wasn’t supplied one with my demo copy. I obviously didn’t take this next photo – as it’s of me – though it does demonstrate the problem quite nicely.
The 50mm f/2.5 Summarit – Optical performance
What is a little frustrating is that outside of this issue of ghosting flare, the 50mm 2.5 Summarit is – optically speaking – actually a very capable lens with little that could really be described as anything more than a minor concern. A good example of this is how well corrected the lens is for distortion.
I thought at one point – after viewing the above photo – that I detected a very slight touch of pincushion distortion. So slight it is that I initially came to the conclusion it might have been in the building itself. To be sure – since I hadn’t seen the effect in any other photos – I did a bit of digging and found this post by Roger Hicks. Apparently the manual talks of “slight pincushion distortion”, so perhaps that is what can be seen in my photo. But as I didn’t notice it in any other photos, I came to the conclusion that certainly wouldn’t concern myself with it day to day. If it does distort, it’s in a very minimal way.
One other thing mentioned in Roger’s post in relation to the content of the 50mm 2.5 Summarit’s manual is the lenses capacity to vignette. Now, who am I to argue with Leica themselves when I say that I’ve not seen anything more than the slightest hint of vignetting in any of my shots… But, once again according to them, it is apparently an issue? If this lens does vignette, like its levels of distortion, the effect is minimal!
The 50mm f/2.5 Summarit – Particularly positive attributes
Two areas where I found this lens to really impress were in the areas that most would consider to be of the greatest importance – Bokeh and sharpness. To start with, its Bokeh has a particularly pleasant nature, especially compared to my Summicron which can display a slightly edgy nature given the right (wrong) circumstances. But whilst it wasn’t distracting, perhaps due to the relative slow speed of the lens, it also wasn’t overly “creamy” or “smokey” or “rubbery” (insert your own adjective). Spectral highlights, at least for the most part, remain solid shapes without being too emphasised or too softened at the edges. I’d almost go as far to say that, at least in terms of what people regard as technically “good bokeh”, this lens is very “good” indeed!
In fact, in terms of in and out of focus rendering I found it quite a neutral lens really, pleasant without it imposing too much character. Perhaps again due to the maximum aperture not being as big as I might be used to – or indeed sometimes inclined to use where it might not be necessarily be required – I found the transition to out of focus to feel quite natural. The subject still has good separation from the background without looking like it is too superimposed, if that makes sense…?
Sharpness is a subject that I find quite interesting, but like most “reviewers” don’t really fully understand. I also think that in this day and age, most lenses, especially those manufactured by the likes of Leica, are going to be much more than adequately “sharp”, especially for my purposes. That said, I usually do notice drops in sharpness when they are evident either in the corners of a frame, or as a result of larger or smaller apertures. I didn’t really notice any change in sharpness in any of my photos regardless of aperture anywhere in the frame. That’s not to say that under strict testing conditions this lens wouldn’t show improvements from f/2.5 to f/5.6 or whatever, I just didn’t notice anything in real life within my photos. In short, whilst I don’t have the kit, the skill, the knowhow or the inclination to back this statement up in any technical way, I will say this: this lens performs very well in terms of “sharpness”.
And so to the sort-of caveats
By many people standards a lens with a maximum aperture of f2.5 would be considered quite slow, certainly by the standards of a prime lenses it’s quite slow. By the standard of 50mm prime lenses it could be argued as very slow. But, if like me you are largely used to dealing with compact cameras, the 2.5 is actually quite fast. And if like me, you rarely find yourself shooting in particularly lower light, it’s pretty much an irrelevance anyway. That said, if it were to be my only 50mm, I think I would worry it wasn’t going to cover me for all shooting eventualities.
The odd thing is, despite me not having any troubles with the maximum aperture in the time I used it, and the fact that I rarely shoot in particularly low light, and despite finding myself quite capable of shooting in lower light with even slower lenses than this… I still find myself wanting for a faster lens than f/2.5 for my day to day shooting. Maybe I’ve just had it drummed into me so much that faster is better that I can’t shake the idea… I’m not sure, but one way or another, the relatively slower maximum aperture just bothers me a little bit.
One other thing that separates this lens from its more highly regarded sibling, the 50mm f/2 Summicron, is its close focus distance. Where the ‘cron focuses down to 0.7m, the 50mm 2.5 Summarit close focus distance is 0.8m. I must admit, in practice I found this to make absolutely no difference to me what so ever. Oddly, I do find 1m close focus lenses noticeable in their shortcoming, but with 0.8m, I can’t think of a single time it crossed my mind as a limitation whilst I used the lens.
My final thoughts about the Leica 50mm f/2.5 Summarit
The Leica 50mm f/2.5 Summarit imposes very little if any character on the photos and is almost entirely neutral in the way it renders. As such, to my mind at least, it almost removes itself from the part of the creative process that might be applied through the use of a more characterful lens. This may or may not be a bad thing depending on your perspective, and of course goals. For me, at this particular part of my journey I enjoyed using it a great deal.
The problem this lens faces in my eyes though – outside its apparent propensity to add big blue/green blobs – is its specification, especially verses its price. With only a few hundred pounds between it and the Summicron new, there isn’t a lot of a reason not just to go for the ‘cron. But moreover – and this is the big clincher for me – the Summicron hasn’t changed for years – the v4 and v5 are apparently identical in terms of optics. And since a v4 cron can be had for few hundred pound less than even a second hand 50mm 2.5 Summarit, it seems almost a no-brainer to go for the ‘cron. Especially if you are shooting film where things like 6-bit coding are irrelevant.
In many ways, I think this is a bit of a shame, as there is so much to like about the Summarit. In fact, with the well over 100 photos you can browse on my Flickr, all in fairly high resolution if you feel the urge to inspect them closely, I’d be very interested to hear from you if you can find anything particularly negative to say about it. But for me, it’s just too normal, too safe, a plain Jane; it’s good, but it lacks any real reason to go for it above anything else. Safe is what some people want, and of course buying a lens new can bring even safety with it’s guarantee… But for me, now is not the time to buy this lens. I’d love to own one, but actually I think they will be a much better bey in a few more years, maybe when the used price has dropped a little bit? I could see this lens quite easily becoming a bit of a sleeper in a few years (at least as much as any Leica gear can sleep) – as people continue to buy Summicrons and these get older, they might slip under people’s radar a little bit… If that happens, I shall likely get myself one as there are definitely occasions when I want the lens I am using to disappear from my photos. But for now, I’m sticking to the Summicron.
Cheers for reading