50mm F/2.0 Summicron
L E I C A L E N S R E V I E W
Venice is the perfect backdrop
for testing Leica’s classic lens.
Often under rated, the
Summicron is more than a
stepping stone in the Leica
line up. Like its Italian
counter part, this lens has
resisted the test of time,
earning its place in the canon
of great glass.
The Venetians have been mastering glass for hundreds of years. Since the days of the Doge, they have recognized how molten glass can breathe life into the dimly lit interiors of crumbling palaces. To explore this puzzling city, I chose a different type of glass, the 50mm Summicron f 2.0. It is a great lens for travel work. Its stealthy size hardly attracts attention and allows for intimate street portraits. Venetians dodge millions of tourists every year. They are an obvious nuisance to those going about everyday life, so capturing street portraits of these trigger-shy inhabitants can be difficult. But properly equipped, the 50mm Summicron can handle everything from baby sharks at the Mercato to young couples looking for a quiet corner.
Here is a fun exercise that will allow you to know what subjects will be captured well by a 50mm lens. Extend your arm, spread your fingers, and look at the back of your hand. The area covered by your hand, out to the tips of your fingers, is approximately the field of view in a 50mm lens. This is truly a human scaled lens. Now try it. Look at a fruit bowl on a tabletop, extend your hand and Voila! or should I say Ecco Qua! Notice how your hand will almost cover the fruit and bowl in front of you? It’s a perfect match.
Next try doing this on someone in a room. See how close you need to be to cover their head and chest, or how much closer you need to be in order to cover their face. This is how to take a portrait with a 50mm lens.
Finally, go outside, look down the street or across the yard. Extend your arm one more time and see how much is actually covered this time. In an open field, 50mm will be lost, but walking down a narrow side street in Venice the walls are close enough that the 50mm will make the viewer feel like they are right there with you, weaving in and out of the thousands of alley ways, following obscure signs to either Ferrovia (the train station) or San Marco (tourist-land).
This focal length is too good to be true. By using an optical equation that has barely changed over the last 100 years (Double Gauss Design), the 50mm lets you take detail shots, portraits, and cityscapes by simply moving your feet.
Markets are one of my favorite places to visit when traveling. Boxes packed with creatures freshly yanked from the sea or produce straight from the dirt reveals something about the mindset of Venetians. Their markets are galleries, no different than the Accademia. Housing culinary treasures bound for tables all across the city, everything sold there fits in one hand. This was my first time to this Mercato, and the owner of our hotel advised we go early. “Just go, go early,” is what he said.
First thing in the morning the food is arranged to display its natural beauty. The signs are hand written, there is no fancy packaging, and the fresh ingredients here made my grocery store at home look like a freeze-dried camping depot. The Italians seem to have an innate ability to make things look good. There were dog sharks fanned out over ice, the inky black cuttlefish, and vegetables in every color of the Adobe color spectrum.
Food can be a great subject to use as a warm up shot. It won’t move, it’s not shy, and it never blinks. You can take advantage of the Summicron’s 0.7 meter close focus and get right on top of your subject. The color saturation of the output from this lens is sometimes better than real life. Without having to use post production saturation settings, this lens is true to life, if not better. It can handle the fleshy folds of octopus tentacles and in the next shot capture the prickly shellfish just one stall over.
Some people swear by the 50mm Summilux ($3,695) because of its sharpness. I wish I could say that I needed a Summilux, but the Summicron ($1,995) has never left me wanting more. It is super sharp at f 2.0. The point of focus has a crisp, punchy feel and the rest of the picture smooths out to a soft color field. While only a techhead will tell you they love your bokeh, most people will say that the image looks very 3D and wonder why they can’t get those results in their images. The only change when stopping the f stop down is the sharpness travels deeper into the image. At f 8.0 this lens has enough resolving power to make an entire scene jump right off of the paper.
Just as day starts to fade and the crowds are hitting the showers before dinner, there are twilight photos being missed. Andy Warhol once said “Great art is happening all the time, we are just missing it.” He was right. After the sun sets there are thirty magical minutes that should not be passed up.
When I took this photo of Santa Maria Della Salute, the sky looked black to my eye. Set on f 2.0, this was a 1 second hand held exposure, braced on a wooden pole. I had no idea if there would be anything redeemable about the picture, but when the film came back I was excited. The sun had set, leaving the lights on the church visible. But the Summicron has an amazing ability to see in the dark. Every time the scene looks too dark to shoot, this lens comes through. Somehow it finds subtle shades of color that Photoshop wishes it could produce. The results are natural looking pictures with incredible saturation.
Yes, mine flares. This does not happen often, but the lens can flare, even with the hood extended. Does it matter? Not really. I don’t shoot editorial campaigns, so the flare is not a deal breaker. Sometimes I even like the odd spots that appear over the subject. In the picture of the older men chatting, the flare is like the 4th person who should have been in the picture. Surely it could not have been planned better,though in all of the late afternoon shooting, this was the only image that showed any flare. Generally the multi-coated lens does a fantastic job of suppressing flare or ghosting.
Coding, Film, or Digital
On this trip to Venice I used an M6 TTL, but now with an M9 this lens is just as good. The version I have is uncoded, but makes the switch between film and digital without a problem. Unlike the 28mm Elmarit, which is sharper and has better color saturation on the M9, the 50mm Summicron acts like it can’t tell what camera body it’s on. This little work horse will give you incredible images in either format.
- Renders warm colors, great for people.
- Super sharp at all f stops
- Small, lightweight
- Can be found used for $1,000 (cheap by Leica standards)
- Zero distortion, will take great pics of buildings
- Takes 39mm threaded filters that are 1/2 the price of a Leica filter
- Size and weight are perfectly balanced, wish all lenses were the same size
- Slide out hood works great
- 1% of the time f1.4 would be helpful
- Plastic lens cap falls off very easily, I nearly got run over trying to save it from being run over back in NYC
- It sets a very high bar for all other lenses
- Not an ASPH design, which makes me think there is room for improvement, crystal ball says…
The Summicron is not a superlative in the 50mm world. The Noctilux f 0.95 is the fastest, the Summilux f 1.4 has the longest waiting list, the Elmarit f 2.8 is the smallest, but the Summicron has an edge. Somehow it averages all the good qualities of speed, size, and feel to be my favorite 50mm. If money were no object, there would be a Noctilux in my life, but it would be a chore to lug around. It can weigh down a small M body and make the bank account a little too light.
Aside from the options from Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander make some viable choices that anyone would be happy to own. They each have a different fingerprint to their glass. Zeiss, as is typical with their medium format lenses, produce the most flattering portrait lenses. The glass renders rich details, without harsh shadows. If I need to take a flattering picture of my girlfriend Zeiss is the way to go, but if there is a Brahmin priest with years of wrinkles on his face, lit by an open fire, then Leica is the obvious choice.
Voigtlander f 1.5 ($499) is the most cost effective choice in the rangefinder world. Their lenses are typically 1/4 the price of Leica and they produce surprisingly good quality images. They are small, fast, and punchy lenses that have a newsreel look to my eye. They can be a little harsh and not quite as sharp as Leica, but they have an urgency to their images. If you like the dated black and white look they are a great choice. And because they are usually less than $1,000, you don’t have to lose any sleep over the purchase. (I am working on a review of the 15mm f 4.5 Heliar which will have lots of pictures to show what I mean)