Some lenses have a cult status, not always based on performance alone. The Leica Summilux 35mm is one of the most revered and hated lens from Leica. I decided to buy one. There are modern sharper lenses available new for a third of the Summilux used price. The Zeiss Biogon lenses and Voightlander Nokton 35mm f/1.4 are prime examples. I almost decided on the Nokton, but didn’t like the distortion. The Nokton is however said to be sharper at f1.4 than the Lux. So, why pay more for an “inferior” older lens?
My experience with the Fuji X100S has produced some very sharp images. In low light, skin tones look like plastic. I need to add grain in post-processing to make photographs look natural. That is the problem with digital cameras. When does perfection become undesirable? Look at runway models… They are all the same height, shape, with perfect features and faces… Boring. I was also looking at the Summicron aspherical photographs and they look like digital images. I have my X100S for that. Why try to make film look more like digital? Though I agree that the Summilux “Leica glow” is indeed a flaw, it does make one’s photographs look like they came right out of the fifties. I see the same look in images taken with my Summitar 50mm f/2. Sometimes I hate it, and sometimes I love it. The good part about the Lux is that it is sort of two different lenses: At f1.4/2 it is soft and dreamy. At f2.8 and above it becomes tack sharp. I like to take pictures in the evening, and f1.4 is important to me. Interesting things tend to happen in semi darkness. Imperfection can be more desirable than perfection.
The Summilux was manufactured for thirty five years! When you buy one, you buy a legend, not just a lens. Yes, there is a small amount of pride in owning one. Not because you paid a lot of money for it, but because you chose it. As much as I like my CV Color Skopar, it seems out of place on a Leica body. A leica camera looks better with a Leica lens. I would imagine that more famous photographs have been taken with a Summilux than most other lenses. There is a history behind it, one fraught with adventure. Although subjective, it does generate a warm feeling to know you have something that has survived the test of time and been the choice of many great photographers.
Speaking about money… The undoubtedly unreasonable price of this lens isn’t necessarily bad. It means people are willing to pay a premium to get one. I could easily sell it in a few years for more money than I paid for it. I think of it as an investment more than an expenditure. I will always have that amount available in case of emergency, and it would take a big one I suspect to make me sell it. If I had the same amount in cash, I would be too tempted to spend it. It will also not devaluate like the dollar… Keep in mind that it can be used on many modern digital cameras, not just Leicas. There will never be a lack of buyers for this highly desirable item. Try to sell an old worn out Nokton, see what happens…
The lens is well known for its flaws, coma, softness wide open and flare. Anything above f2 looks pretty sharp. See the related Flickr group. It does open at 1.4 however, and that can mean the difference between a soft image and nothing. I also like the fact that it has no visible distortion. Bright 35s are notoriously hard to make and I do not know of any model that doesn’t have one or more flaws, being it softness wide open, weight, coma, distortion, flare or size. Pick your poison… The latest aspherical version, aside from costing more than $5K, is noticeably bigger than the Pre-ASPH. My lens is serial number 3394739, built by Leitz Canada in 1986. It is a later pre-aspherical model rumored to have better coating. We’ll see… I will update this page with images later.
I also got the original metal hood #12504 and a series VII UV filter #13009. The hood is a must-have to avoid flare with this lens.
Let’s face it, getting a new lens won’t make your photography any better. If you can’t compose, expose and catch the moment, nothing but practice and study can help you. It will give your photographs, good or bad, a certain look. Call it “retro” if you may. I like to think of it as more natural. Film grain renders skin tones beautifully. The Summilux’s softness wide open can be great for portraits. Stopped down to 2.8 it should be as good as any other lens.
I do not think the Summilux is an unresonable choice. If I don’t like it, I can sell it and make a few dollars in the process. The lack of distortion was a major contributing factor in choosing it. If the Nokton had not distorded, I might have gone for it. The Nokton f1.2 is just too big. The Biogons and Summitar aren’t bright enough. A Leica lens will last a lifetime when well taken care of. I have no doubt I will enjoy it (I hope) for many years, hopefully decades to come. If you are thinking about getting one, you don’t have much to loose. It won’t devaluate, assuming you got a good deal. Sure, it might be a love/hate relationship, but as often is in these, the love parts can be great.
Update, July 18th: The lens arrived todat at noon, only sixty hours after ordering, from Hong-Kong! Unbelievable. I feel compelled to mention the seller, Breguet Camera on Ebay. The lens looks like new, with seemingly pristine glass. I am trying to finish my film with it today so I can develop it tonight and have a first look. I will also post some comparative shots with the CV Color Skopar at different apertures.
Summilux 35mm f/1.4
I was at Indian Beach tonight and took a few shots as the sun went down. I was able to take photographs much longer than I usually did with my f/2.5 Color Skopar. It doesn’t seem like a big difference in theory, but practice proves otherwise. I didn’t even take out my X100S, which is my low-light camera. The 1m minimum focusing distance annoyed me on one occasion trying to photograph a small dog.
Build quality feels better than the CV. You can tell that tolerances are closer, which is amazing for a 1986 lens compared to a much more recent one. The focusing is a bit stiffer, but not enough to be a bother. The aperture ring moves easily with solid clicks. The absense of threads for a filter is rather stupid coming from Leica. What the hell were they thinking? Overall I am very please with the lens though. It does not need a CLA at this time, which is good because I couldn’t afford one now! One advantage I noticed is that with the focusing tab at six-o-clock, the distance is 2m, perfect for street photography, in many cases. The aperture ring, or rather tabs, take a little time to get used to.
Now I need to develop my film and post a couple shots here. The Summilux/Color-Skopar duel might have to wait, we’ll see. I do have a few frames left on the film, so if I think of something interesting to do, I will post the images.
Update, July 19th: The lens appears to ve very sharp at f3.4. Here is my friend Erin at the coffee shop:
Erin, Summilux 35 at f3.4
Film is HP5+ at 400ISO, developed in HC-110 dissolution B, six minutes at 68F. I have not taken any good shots wide open yet. I can tell already from a few other shots that performance at f1.4 or in any contre-jour situation is not going to be good. Oh well, I knew that before I decided to buy it. F1.4 would be an emergency-only aperture. So, maybe think of the Summilux as a Summicron with a last-ditch-resort f1.4 aperture… If you need sharpness full open, you will be better off with a Nokton, and so will your wallet. The Lux though definitely renders images with a certain look. It remains for you to decide if that, and the mystique, justifies the expense. I really like its small size.
Shots wide open coming soon.