Thursday, April 30, 2015
One Year with the Leica Summilux 50mm f/1.4 Asph
I’ve read a ton of reviews on lenses – some very technical, some very practical – this review will be neither. I’m not a photography expert and certainly not a lens science expert, but I know what works for me and what doesn’t and I wanted to explain the merits of the astounding Leica 50mm Summilux… before I change it for the 50mm Summicron Apo Asph.
The Leica 50mm Summilux is without a doubt the most perfect lens I have owned in ten odd years of serious photography. I started out in photography with an average SLR and average lenses shooting average landscapes. I did this for years until I discovered street photography and then quickly discovered that SLR’s were not the right tool for this genre. This led me to Leica and their awesome range of lenses. At this point I should explain that although everyone talks about Leica camera bodies (which I believe are the very best in 35mm photography), it’s actually Leica lenses that most people choose Leica for. Leica lenses are amongst the very best glass money can buy, if not the best. I can talk with some authority here as I have owned lenses from various manufacturers including Nikon, Canon, Voigtlander, Fuji, Olympus, Zeiss and of course Leica. The first two mentioned I believe to be the worst and the last two mentioned I believe to be the best.
On the Leica M9 and M Monochrom, I have shot almost solely with Leica’s 50mm Summilux Aspherical f/1.4. I choose 50mm for street photography purely because it feels right for me, not because scientifically it is the closest reproduction of what the human eye sees, just because it feels natural, it’s easy to frame and i’ve never been a wide angle fan.
The 50mm Summilux is a small and extremely robust lens which, when fitted to an M rangefinder, feels solid, perfectly weighted and stealthy. It has a focus tab and riveted focus ring which allows you to choose between traditional rangefinder focusing or SLR lens focussing or a combination of both. Little details like this are very important to me. As a street shooter, focussing needs to be fast and accurate.
The Summilux has a wide open aperture of f/1.4, which is awesomely fast and allows you to shoot at low ISO’s in daylight, but it’s when light is at a premium that this lens comes alive. At night the Summilux is a light vampire.
Shooting wide open with the 50mm Lux gives you lots of possibilities… shorter exposures, sharp, crisp images, and great contrast. However, with a lens this fast it takes a fair amount of practice to achieve pin sharp focussing wide open at f/1.4 as the focal plane in the lux is über thin. On the upside, if you get it right, the lens will render an almost 3D image with the subject popping sharply out of the background.
Selective Focus: M Monochrom – 50mm Summilux
I can’t vouch for the lens when it’s stopped down below f/4.0 as I have never closed it up beyond that. Why would you? Fast lenses are designed to be shot wide open, right? If you are looking for a lens that performs stopped further down, try the standard 50mm Summicron, it’s half the price of the Summilux and it’s outstanding between f/4 and f/8.
Performance on the M9
Colour rendering on the M9 with the 50mm Summilux is nothing short of perfection. I have genuinely never seen a lens that replicates colour as honestly as the Lux. I don’t know if the Lux was specifically designed for the M9 sensor or not, but together they sing. Before switching to Leica glass I used to spend a lot of time desaturating my images but with the 50mm Lux, desaturation is not necessary.
Sharpness on the M9 (with a good focus) is a near perfect. It renders perfectly smooth edges and very tight grain that when viewed at 100% looks incredibly close to fast, quality film.
On the M9, the 50mm Summilux outperformed my expectations.
I should mention that when I first started using an M9, I coupled it with a Zeiss Planar f/2.0, which is an awesome lens for the money – 3 times cheaper than the Summilux. It is sharp, easy to focus and feels good on the camera. However, I found it rendered an over-saturated image and I was never happy with the bokeh it produced. It also plummets in price in the used market – Leica glass holds it’s value very well.
Back on track…
If you are planning mounting a 50mm Summilux on your M9, I can guarantee that after a little time using it, you’ll love it. You will get to know it’s little nuances, like very slight fall off at the edges (which can be boosted in Silver Efex to produce beautiful, natural looking vignettes), it’s almost uncanny selective focussing ability and it’s massive capacity to swallow light at night and produce wonderful high contrast shots.
Sample Image: M9 – 50mm Summilux
Performance on the M Monochrom
Here comes a big claim…
The 50mm Lux couple with the M Monochrom delivers the best black and white digital image I have ever seen, even compared to high end medium format.
The M Monochrom is a little bit different. It shoots just black and white (the clue is in the name) and it has no Bayer filter. This makes the camera better in low light and better at high ISO. These enhanced camera abilities combined with the already stunning capability of the Lux glass, produce stunning black and white photographs, photographs that need very little post work as the detail and the contrast are so close to reality that over processing the image is fruitless. The Raw shot is just class. I simply alter exposure if required, boost the vignette (that’s my thing) and export the image.
It’s interesting stopping the lens down to f/2 or f/4. The contrast just gets better and better and you can even see it in the Monochrom’s digital display (which is pitiful).
If I was over the moon with the Summilux on the M9, I am in heaven with it on the Monochrom. I’ve simply never experienced images like it. Unbelievably sharp, high contrasted images that separate the subject from the background so perfectly.
Sample Image: M Monochrom – 50mm Summilux f/1.4
After writing the above, it seems almost crazy that I am trading in my 50mm Summilux against the new Leica APO-Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 ASPH. Why? Well, because Leica claim it’s better. I have total faith in Leica glass and if the Summilux is close to 50mm perfection, I want to get even closer!
Give me a year and I’ll write a review on the Cron.