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5 Frames with a First-Gen Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4 Wide Open and a Leica M240 – by Steven Bleistein

About two years back I was perusing Leica lens offerings on eBay and came across this gem, a first generation Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4. It was the black chrome version and appeared in excellent condition with just the right amount of brassing on its made-for-the-M3 optics. The seller was the owner a small used shop in a city in Germany I had never heard of, which I believe he runs together with his wife. The listing was all in German, which I can read just well enough to understand this lens was a great buy. And so I bought it.

The serial number on this Summilux dates it to 1966, and the markings indicate it was made in Canada. All of the Summilux 35mm lenses of the era are Canadian-made, and none were manufactured in Germany.

These Summilux lenses had several versions, black and chrome, with optics for the M3, and without optics for the M2 and later the M4. The most reasonably priced version with optics—if you can consider any Leica product “reasonably priced”—has no thread for a screw-in lens filter. To use a lens filter you have to buy the Leica 12504 hood, in which you enclose a Series VII filter. Leica still sells these hoods new. Another version of the lens has a thread for a 41mm filter. However, for that convenience you can expect to shell out upward of US$20,000 for a piece in good condition! I have the version that takes the hood.

I prefer using Leica 35mm lenses with optics for the M3 for two reasons. First, I can use them on my two Leica M3 bodies, which is my favorite among all the Leica M cameras. The M3 finder has nothing wider than a 50mm frame, so the optics are needed to make the finder usable for a 35mm lens. Second, I prefer the optics even when using Leica M bodies that have a 35mm frame, because wearing glasses, as I do, I cannot view the entire 35mm frame in the finder all at once. The 35mm lenses with optics choose the 50mm frame, which is always viewable for me.

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When I bough the Summilux, I already owned a first-generation Leica Summicron f/2 with optics, which is a superb lens even by today’s standards. What makes the Summilux interesting is its f/1.4, aperture and not just for low-light. Shooting the Summilux 35mm at its widest renders a kind of dreamy look to photos. The bokeh is not as creamily perfect as you might get with Leica’s contemporary version. Nor is it as sharp in the corners.  Lights don’t become like even bubbles, but rather have a bit of a bright outline. You also get some vignetting.

But who cares? There is nothing interesting about a photo when your only subject is the bokeh. Good composition trumps good bokeh every time! And personally, I like the esthetics of this lens at f/1.4. I am not the only one. The Summilux 35mm in this configuration reigned supreme as the fast 35mm lens from 1961 until 1994, when Leica introduced the heavier and larger aspherical version. The two version were sold concurrently through about 1999.

So what kind of photos does the lens take at f/1.4? Judge for yourself. The five frames for this piece were all shot wide open at f/1.4 in Tsukiji’s outer market in Tokyo, Japan.

I am a street photographer who lives in Japan. If you would like to see more of my work, have a look at my website bleisteinphoto.com, or my Instagram @sbleistein

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15 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Terry B
    June 30, 2019 at 12:01 pm

    Steven, I like the brassing on the goggles and which compliments the all-black of the camera nicely.

    Although there are times when I feel that the clinical sharpness of modern lenses with a digital sensor are necessary for some subject matter, the old-world charm of older film-era lenses is often preferable. I’m not a bokeh person, but I am intrigued by the effect in your third image. Is this a lens/sensor result, or does the Summilux render this way on film, too?

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Mike Hinkleman
    June 30, 2019 at 2:46 pm

    Steven I have the same vintage summilux which are sometimes called pre asph. Mine axs lsooo from 66 is a black goggled M3 version. Mine came from a seller in Delft who cautioned me that the lens was an acquired taste and people generally loved it or hated it. I actually bought the lens for my brother in law in China but after using it for a while, I couldn’t part with it. The lens has a special character.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      June 30, 2019 at 8:31 pm

      Leica in general is an acquired taste, but one gets used to it right away. Hate is a pretty strong word. With most things Leica, it is usually love or love not quite as much, and I think this same applies to this lens.

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    Reply
    Abram
    June 30, 2019 at 7:25 pm

    I’ve had one of these classics before and it is indeed a special lens. There were some made in Germany though, some of the very late production ones before it was discontinued, they’re typically easy to identify as they have the more current Geometric typography seen on the more modern lenses.

    I only wound up selling mine because I frequently found the .9m minimum focus distance to be frustrating, if it was able to reach the more typical .7m distance it would have been perfect.

    Either way it’s a wonderful lens full of charm and character and it should be no surprise as to why it has such a large fan-base!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      June 30, 2019 at 8:24 pm

      I think it is only a few of the late production models in the 1990s that focus to only 0.9m. My version focuses to 0.65m.

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Abram
        July 1, 2019 at 6:07 pm

        All of the ones that didn’t have goggles were a .9m MFD, the goggles does allow for closer focusing, though ironically the M3 stops at 1m so it’s sort of a funny compromise!

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    Reply
    Sroyon
    June 30, 2019 at 10:04 pm

    Hi Steven, great photos! Slight correction: the “35mm Summilux ASPH” was indeed introduced in 1994, but from 1989-94 Leica made the highly collectible (and therefore eye-wateringly expensive) “35mm Summilux aspherical” with two aspherical surfaces. Grinding the double-aspherical proved too expensive (even for Leica!) to be sustainable, which is why it was replaced by the ASPH (which has only one aspherical surface).

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    Reply
    Chris Wolffensperger
    July 1, 2019 at 10:56 am

    Hi Steven, great photos and post, thank you! How do you think it compares to the summicron 35 v1? And do you see differences in colour rendering as well?

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      July 1, 2019 at 11:11 am

      Thanks! I prefer the ergonomics of the Summicron, but this is minor. The color rendering of the Summilux is beautiful, but definitely has a character akin to lenses of the era. The colors rendered by my Elmarit 28mm f/2.8 ASPH. are definitely more vibrant, particularly when photographing landscape. However, I think the old Summilux really excels with people and street scenes in color, but is not as good with landscape. The Summicron also renders color akin to lenses of the era, but slightly differently from the Summilux. Colors are beautiful to be sure, but there seems to be an ever-so-slight warm cast. Hard to be sure, and it might just be me. My Summicron dates from 1959, and I suspect it was optimized for monochrome. Shooting monochrome Film with that old Summicron somehow produces photos that tonally are unmatched by the contemporary lenses–at least in my opinion. It’s great with monochrome digital too. I would be curious to try it with the Monochrom M if I ever got the chance. Both are excellent lenses, but if you had to make a choice, I would go for the Summicron first, and then consider the Summilux for later–if at all!

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    Reply
    crispin
    July 1, 2019 at 12:22 pm

    Not liking the bokeh here. Could you publish some shots at f/2?
    The last shot has good contrast on the subject, but the background, is not to my liking.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      July 1, 2019 at 1:21 pm

      To each his own. You can find plenty of f/2 shots with this lens online if you take the time to look, and probably some in-depth reviews too. They are everywhere. If you think the reviews are missing something important, you can always purchase the lens for yourself, take some photos and publish your own review. This lens is widely available used. I’m sure you can always resell the lens for at least what you paid for it if you are a smart buyer, and don’t want to keep it. A lot of great reviews are written by people who do exactly that.

  • Reply
    Voigtländer FE 35/1.4 – I expected a funky dream lens but got a really serious one! – TOM'S PHOTO AND CAMERA STUFF
    September 6, 2019 at 11:56 pm

    […] See here for yourself:Five frames with a first-generation Leica Summilux 35/1.4 at 35mm.com (Steven Bleistein) […]

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