The Fab Four Leica Summarits
You don’t have to spend two grand or (much) more for a bona-fide Leica lens. Does Leica’s new lineup of f/2.5 Summarit-M lenses deliver true Leica performance?
When Leica announced a new lineup of f/2.5 Summarit-M lenses to complement its acclaimed (and breathtakingly expensive) line of f/1.4 Summiluxes and f/2 Summicrons for Leica M digital and 35mm rangefinder cameras, it was clear from that price was an object. While not exactly cheap, these traditional spherical designs of more modest aperture offer a tempting alternative for Leica-M fans who want to get into the system, but can’t afford or don't require higher-speed Leica lenses costing from 2 to 6 grand apiece.
The underlying idea behind the Summarits: Entice more shooters, especially non-pro photo enthusiasts, into the Leica-M fold. Fair enough. But is the imaging performance and mechanical finesse of this optical quartet really up to the Leica standard? To find out, I conducted a comprehensive field test by shooting all four on a luscious new Leica M9.
The first thing you notice when holding the f/2.5 Summarit-M lenses is their diminutive size—the 35mm, 50mm, 75mm and 90mm are all fetchingly slim and compact for their respective focal lengths, and beautifully finished in satin black. Given Leica’s penchant for using brass focusing helicals and robust metal lens mounts, they’re reasonably lightweight as well.
All four lenses focus with silky smoothness and precision, particularly the 35mm and 50mm, which have convenient focusing tabs with comfortably contoured finger notches. All scales are beautifully engraved (not silk-screened), and extremely legible in white-on-black (except for the orange footage scales). Apertures run from f/2.5 to f/16 with nice detents at half- and full-stop intervals. The focusing and depth-of-field scales are very clear and comprehensive. All but the 35mm comes with an engraved metal lens cap—the wide-angle has a polycarbonate cap that slides over the front of the lens hood.
Both the seemingly odd aperture of f/2.5 and the name Summarit go back quite a ways in Leica history. In the early 30s, Leica offered the 50mm f/2.5 Hektor as a one-stop-faster alternative to the legendary 50mm f/3.5 Elmar, but this four-element Tessar-formula lens was not a paragon of sharpness, especially at its maximum aperture, and it was never all that popular. Indeed, its relative scarcity enhances its appeal among collectors.
Many Leica fans of a certain age recall the original Summarit, a decent 50mm f/1.5 initially offered in screw mount that was a predecessor of the more famous (and far better performing) Summiluxes. Why didn’t Leica use the name Hektor (a moniker it also used on some telephoto lenses) for its new line of more affordable non-aspherical f/2.5s? Marketing! Summarit sure sounds a lot nicer than Hektor, and it fits in with the “summa” prefix that connotes optics of the highest quality.
The 35mm f/2.5 Summarit-M
This little wide-angle jewel is a 6-element, 4-group lens reminiscent of the Summaron lenses of old, but offering much improved performance even over the high standard they set. With a maximum diameter of 2 inches and a length of 1.3 inches at infinity (without its square-section lens hood), it’ll nest into any convenient corner of a camera bag and its 7.8-ounce weight is so well distributed it feels lighter than that on camera.
The 64-degree coverage it provides is barely considered wide angle these days, but the 35mm focal length is prized by many street shooters and photojournalists for its natural perspective and low apparent perspective distortion.
As far as performance goes, this lens is simply outstanding—it could hardly be any better. There’s virtually no visible chromatic aberration (color fringing), and it delivers excellent resolution and crisp, high-contrast detail rendition across the field at maximum aperture all the way down to f/16. It focuses down to 2.6 feet and when you shoot it at close distances wide open it exhibits very lovely bokeh in the out-of-focus areas of the image—it’s reminiscent of the “king of bokeh,” the 35mm f/2 Summicron-M.
Flare and ghosting are virtually absent, even when shooting directly into a bright light source and it’s evident that its proprietary multi-coating does a superb job. Nevertheless, I do recommend using the well-designed square section lens hood when shooting in high flare situations.
No, at $1,595 the 35mm f/2.5 Summarit-M is not a cheapskate’s lens, but if you want to mount genuine Leica lens on your Leica, you require a 35mm that’s discreet and compact, and you don't really need super speed,I can recommend it without reservation.
This nifty 50 is almost exactly the same size and weight as its 35mm f/2.5 Summarit sibling. Like the 35mm, it measures 2 inches in diameter and 1.3 inches in length, and weighs in at 8.1 ounces, a mere 0.3 ounces more. It also happens to be a 6-element, four-group design that’s simmilar to that of the classic, much admired 50mm f/2 Summicron.
The field performance of the 50mm f/2.5 Summarit is on the same level as the 35mm Summarit, rivaling the best 50mm lenses in production. It delivers crisp, high contrast, flare-free images across the field at maximum aperture, improves a tad in the corners starting at about f/4 and maintains this level until f/16, with no visible effects of diffraction. It also focuses closer than Leica’s faster 50s—down to 2.6 feet, just about close enough for a frame-filling head shot. Flare and ghosting are very well controlled throughout.
Verdict: This lens is a real sleeper, a compact gem that provides performance on a par with much more expensive (and faster) Leica glass at a fraction of the cost. If you don't need the speed, and do like the idea of a normal lens with “reverse snob appeal,” it may be ideal for you. In the rarefied domain of Leica optics, it’s a bargain at $1,295.
The 75mm f/2.5 Summarit-M
This distinctive focal length provides noticeably more reach than a standard 50mm lens, delivering a natural, intimate looking perspective without the telephoto compression effect. The 75mm f/2.5 is a 6-element, 4 group design—impressive for this speed and focal length. It also has an 11-bladed diaphragm that yields a nearly circular aperture, providing smooth transitions that retain the form of the subject in out-of-focus areas of the image—in other words, beautiful bokeh.
It’s handy and compact, measuring 2.2 inches in diameter and 2.4 inches in length (without the screw-on lens hood) at infinity. It feels substantial, but isn't really heavy, weighing in at 12.2 ounces.
The 75mm is ideal for street shooting and portraiture—great for head-and-shoulders portraits at its minimum focusing distance of 2.9 feet. With the lens hood in place it obtrudes slightly into the lower right-hand corner of the 75mm viewfinder frame line.
Performance is exceptional, with excellent detail rendition and contrast across the field at all apertures and only a slight hint of softness in the extreme corners at maximum aperture. The optimum aperture is f/4, but there is really very little visible difference in performance at wider or smaller apertures—even at f/16. Flare is very well controlled, but the lens hood does improve contrast slightly when shooting in very high flare situations, e.g. positioning the sun just outside a corner of the field of view.
Verdict: A fine performing all-around lens by any standard, and a great choice for Leica and M-mount rangefinder shooters who demand outstanding quality, want a lens that’s reasonably compact, and don't need super speed. It seems pretty expensive at $1,595—until you check the price of the 75mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH that sells for only 5 bucks less than 6 grand!
The 90mm f/2.5 Summilux-M
Leica has offered 90mm lenses as the medium telephoto alternative in the line for well over half a century, and the list has included many great ones. Fortunately, the 90mm f/2.5 Summarit_M is no exception, and it’s reasonably fast for its focal length as well—only the 90mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH (at $3,495) is faster, and by less than one f/stop.
The f/2.5 is considerably smaller too, measuring 2.2 inches in diameter, 2.6 inches in length. It weighs in at a very reasonable 12.7 ounces, balances superbly on the Leica M9, and focuses down to 3.3 feet, which is adequately close for classic portraiture. Like the 75mm, it has an 11-bladed diaphragm that yields lovely bokeh.
This 5-element, four-group lens delivers crisp image detail across the frame at f/2.5 with a barely perceptible falloff in detail rendition in the extreme corners. Stopping down to about f/3.5 yields uniform sharpness and superb contrast across the entire field, and this performance level is held all the way down to f/16, an outstanding performance. Flare and ghosting are very well controlled even under adverse lighting conditions—all the more impressive since our 90mm test lens was supplied without a lens hood.
Verdict: As with the 75mm Summarit, at an $1,595 this lens is hardly a cheapie, but it’s probably the most sensible choice for the majority of Leica shooters attracted to this classic focal length.
In conclusion, it’s worth noting that the new Leica M9 delivers significantly better performance at ISOs in the 800-1600 range than its digital predecessors. This means that the f/2.5 Summarit-M lenses are eminently suitable for shooting handheld non-flash pictures in the vast majority of real world shooting conditions encountered by photographers.
Lenses like the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH, 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH, and 75mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH are great for shooting in very low light, and achieving amazing pictorial effects by exploiting their razor-thin depth of field at maximum aperture. But if your priorities run more toward practical side— great value and handy size with virtually no sacrifice in imaging performance, take a close look at the four fabulous Summarits.