LEICA SUMMILUX-M 35 MM F/1.4 ASPH
Published on 2 February 2014 (rev. on 4 February 2017)
The Most Versatile Leica M Lens?
Interestingly, even Leica’s marketing department seems unsure of this, suggesting that this lens is “perhaps the most versatile M lens“.
For many a photographer, 35mm is the ideal focal length, the one that simply must form part of one’s lens line-up. There are photographers who go a lifetime without any other lens in their camera bag. Some swear by this focal length for any type of photography, from street and reportage photography, where 35mm could be considered a classic focal length, to landscape photography and environmental portraiture. It’s wider-than-normal field of view lets the daring street photographer get up-close and personal with his or her subjects, while the fact that it is not an ultra-wide lets the photographer be more selective in choosing what to photograph, in a way that 28mm and wider would not.
Like all wider-than-normal focal lengths, 35mm requires conscious decision-making in terms of framing to avoid the photograph becoming a confusing or unappealing mess of small details. In terms of the quality of an image (as opposed to image quality), there is a correlation between the focal length and the skills of the photographer. It is probably possible to write a mathematic formula showing that the wider the focal length, the more likely that an image will turn out to be uninteresting. It is definitely the case that a 35mm lens in the hands of a skilled photographer will produce striking images. 35mm, like its wider siblings, is a focal length that requires a well developed ability to imagine the shot before pressing the shutter.
Leica offers three 35mm options in the current M lens line-up: the sadly under-praised but very competent and great-value-for-money 35mm Summarit-M f/2.4 Asph, the street photographer’s favourite, the 35mm Summicron-M f/2 Asph, and the 35mm Summilux-M f/1.4 Asph (no. 11663) which is the subject of this article.
My own feelings vis-à-vis 35mm have always been luke warm. For my way of photographing, I find that 35mm neither brings me close enough to the subject, nor lets me fill the frame with all I would want when shooting at longer distances. Most of my photos are shot with 50mm lenses (and I hereby confess to owning more than seven) and the rest are shot at focal lengths further away from 50mm than 35mm is. In my EOS kit, 35mm is only represented by being a number in the zoom range of the EF 17-40L, which I mainly shoot at either end of the range.
That said, I do own one 35mm lens, the – simply put – rather incredible M lens that is the subject of this article. For me, as a film-only photographer, there were two main reasons for buying this lens.
First, 35mm is wide enough to shoot at close range and still fit quite a lot in the frame. There are plenty of situations where a 50mm lens would be inadequate. Indoors in cramped surroundings, for instance. Anyone who’s ever tried to fit a dinner party into the frame with anything longer than a 35mm lens will likely have rubbed against the walls to find the shot while asking everyone to lean in.
As much as I prefer 50mm in the street, the 35mm Summilux is useful for close(r) quarter shooting or in order to contrast city features against other things, such as people, cars etc. It all depends on the layout of the particular city, but the selectiveness I mentioned earlier can also be employed in street photography, for instance to place people in bigger, but not vast, surroundings.
The second reason I bought the lens is the Summilux part of its name, and by that I don’t mean that I bought it so I could wave around an expensive lens as a show-off item. Summilux in Leica’s terminology means a widest aperture of f/1.4. For many photographic applications, such a wide aperture is an overkill. For instance, the difference in depth-of-field between f/1.4 and f/2 is all but negligible in practice to all but the most ardent bokeh fanatic (something which I am not). I would even go as far as saying that for digital M users, given the ISO capabilities of the current cameras, a Summilux is unnecessary. But to me, having f/1.4 in darker surroundings, such as indoors or in the evenings and at night, means the difference between a sharp shot and an unsharp one. I considered one of the 28mm offerings. The extra degrees of field of view would have been useful in some settings, but the fastest lens is the Summicron-M 28mm f/2 Asph and that’s not fast enough if I am to have only one wide-angle lens.
The 35mm Summilux renders colours accurately, if slightly cooly, something which can easily be adjusted in post. It is sharp, and I mean cut glass sharp, all the way into the corners even wide open, which is an outstanding feat of Peter Karbe and his fellow lens designers. Leica is right when they write in the brochure that “It is hardly possible to improve this excellent optical performance by stopping down.” The graphs in Leica’s material indicate that there’s visible vignetting at f/1.4 which improves considerably by f/2. In actual use, I have not found that any vignetting would be disturbing. As for distortion, I have not found that that the lens would have any at all (something which, again, Leica’s material indicates), but then again I don’t shoot brickwalls, at least not to test distortion.
Ergonomics and handling
This lens, as opposed to its similiarly-named predecessor, features a floating lens group, which means that the lenses behind the aperture blades move during focusing relative to the front lens elements in order to improve close focus performance. The predecessor lacked the floating lens group and as a result could suffer from focus shift at closer distances, something which became particularly apparent as digital M cameras appeared during the 15-year production period (1994-2009) of that lens (in fairness it should be said that not all users of the predecessor notice any focus shift).
The inclusion of a floating lens group means that the focus action is tighter than on lenses without this feature. Oddly enough, the 50 Summilux-M Asph, which also features a floating lens group, not only focuses more easily but was in my experience easier to “break in” to a more pleasant resistance. Even though the 35mm Summilux is not my most used lens, I have used it a fair bit over the course of two years and its focusing movement is still as tight as when I first received it. It is not difficult to focus, nor have I missed shots as a result of the focusing requiring slightly more force, but there is definitely a difference in ease-of-use as a result.
As 35mm M lenses go, the lens is large. Granted, if one is used to SLR lenses with their built-in motors and image stabilisers, it is a small lens. The largest diameter is 56mm and it is 58mm long with the lens hood mounted (46mm without). Nevertheless, it is wider than the M mount itself; the lens actually widens directly at the mount, see image above. Together with the weight, 320gr, the impression conveyed is that of a very solid lump of a lens. Even though this is not a very long lens, I do find that it feels somewhat unbalanced on an M film body. There’s an even distribution of lens elements along the lens, so it is not front-heavy, however I notice a difference balance-wise when compared to the 50 Summilux-M, which is actually a little bit heavier. Clearly, there is no logic to my impression in this respect.
Leica redesigned the lens hood for this Summilux. It is no longer clip-on, but a screw-mounted rigid all-metal hood with a little edge that ensures that the hood always mounts perfectly horizontally. The hood also has a cut-out to reduce viewfinder blockage. If you imagine the viewfinder split into 3×3 segments, then in a 0.72x viewfinder the lower-right segment is blocked by the hood. It is possible to use the lens without the hood, of course, in which case one screws on the supplied metal ring to protect the screw-mount grooves. Two lens caps are included, one ordinary round one and one rectangular that slides over the hood.
Would I agree that this is “perhaps the most versatile M lens”? That is a highly personal question that depends on one’s photographic preferences and needs, but, no, for me it is not the most versatile lens. I prefer 50mm and consider that to be the most versatile focal length with respect to how I wish to depict the world. But a lens’s versatility also concerns how well it performs under varying, preferably taxing, circumstances. In that sense, yes, this is most certainly a very versatile lens. It is an amazing achievement of optical engineering. I have difficulties imagining that anyone would ever be disappointed by its simply staggering performance right out of the blocks at f/1.4 and across the entire image field. It is a matter of taste, naturally. Some M photographers prefer the softer images of older lens generations and I would agree that they render certain subjects beautifully. But I generally prefer modern, crisp, contrasty and sharp images, so in that respect this Summilux is a winner. Out-of-focus performance is another area where emotions often run high. One sometimes reads criticism against the fast or abrupt manner in which modern aspherical M lenses supposedly transition from in-focus to out-of-focus areas by writers who prefer the supposedly ‘softer’ or ‘longer’ transitions of older lenses. In my experience, this 35mm Summilux does not go from pin sharp focus to blur in any dramatic or unnatural fashion, rather it exhibits the same smooth transitions I see in my older M and screwmount lenses. But, as I said, it is a matter of taste and as is well known there is no accounting for that.
All things considered, this lens is a stellar performer that is highly recommended to every photographer who is considering investing in a fast lens, especially those who shoot film.