Leica 90mm Summicron Review
Pre-ASPH f 2.0
Traveling has a way of
sharpening the senses.
Surrounded by new sights
and strange sounds, the
world can feel like a
completely different place.
For a close up view, Leica’s
90mm Summicron is the
portrait lens of choice. But
even more than a lens for
faces, it proves to be a
versatile travel tool.
-The Classic Combo
Leica has a handful of lenses that are constantly in the spotlight, soaking up all the praise, envy, and criticism. There is probably more written on the 35mm and 50mm lenses, than on all the other lenses combined. Leica photography is about shooting outside of a studio, often the streets. The discreet Leica M cameras are perfect for taking pictures of people without disrupting a natural scene. The classic pairings of lenses for Leica are 28/35mm, 50mm, and 90mm. Whether we want a wide (28/35mm), normal (50mm), or telephoto (90mm) view, each lens provides a unique way to explore our surroundings.
In the past, most of my shooting focused on buildings, ruins, and cities. I used to work as a builder, here in NYC. I was fascinated by the way things were put together. People, on their own, did not attract my attention. But as I travel and consult on projects over seas, I spend more time observing how people relate to their surroundings. As a result, I find myself drawn into the seductive world of street portraits.
Working with a new lens, is kind of like buying a new pair of shoes. They look great on the shelf, but no matter how perfectly they fit, they need to be broken in. The 90mm Summicron feels like the big brother of the 50mm. But as a telephoto, it has a shallower depth of field, a longer throw on the focusing ring, and it requires that you cradle it to balance the camera. It is widely known as a brilliant portrait lens, but what I did not know how its razor thin depth of field allows you to pick people out of a crowd. Maybe its because the lens is so good up close, that no one shoots it beyond 10 feet, but on a busy city street, the 90mm at f 2.0, plucks people like they were notes on a scale.
-When Close isn’t and Option
Testing the lens at a beach town in India, most of the action was in the waves. Unlike the placid waters of the Ganges River in Varanasi, Kanyakumari sits at the junction of the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean. The three bodies of water collide, producing some heavy surf. The extra reach of the 90mm allowed me to shoot the people bathing, without worrying about getting my camera completely soaked. If I only used the 50mm, I would have struggled with my footing on the rocks and it would have been impossible to keep the camera dry.
The other occasion where the 90mm really comes in handy is when you need to shoot a person without them noticing you. The warning about a voyeuristic picture is people can sense your intentions. It does not matter what country, what language or what situation you are in, intention matters. Peeping Toms are frowned upon in civil societies, harassed in less civil ones, and probably beheaded in the worst of situations. But if you have good intentions of just catching someone in action, then the 90mm is the lens to use. It will allow you to shoot full body shots without disturbing the scene. This can be the deciding factor between getting a great picture or coming home with boring postcard.
-Composing Inside the Box
For those Leica digital shooters, you may have noticed, when you focus on an object close to the lens, the image capture is slightly smaller than the framelines. Conversely, when focusing at infinity, the image capture is slightly larger than the frame lines. On my film M6, I never noticed this phenomenon. From the time between taking the shot and processing the film, I could never remember exactly what was at the edge of the frame. But with digital M’s it is something that I notice all the time. The framelines, are less like defined boundaries and more like approximate guidelines.
The 90mm brings up a frame lines that look like the corners are missing. The lines almost divide the image into perfect thirds. Initially, I found it annoying that the corners of the framelines were missing. I could not tell exactly what the corner would contain, like I can with the 50mm. But once I realized the 90mm framelines divided the border in to thirds, everything fell into place. On the first few days with the lens, I would make the mistake of focusing then firing, with the subject dead center in the image. But reviewing the pictures at night, I became aware of these terrible compositions. Moving forward, I would focus (usually on someones eyes), then re-compose, aligning them with the edge of the top line. This consistently puts the subject in the left or right third of the picture.
-Island To Island
One of the main attractions in Kanyakumari, is a temple in the middle of the ocean. Vivekananda, the Indian sage who brought Hinduism to American in the late 1800′s, is commemorated with a granite temple just off shore. Across the bay is a 133 foot tall statue of the Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar. The roof line of the temple and silhouette of the statue create the skyline of Kanyakumari.
When you visit the temple, the view back towards land is not picturesque. The ferry boats and lines of people on the shore make for a confusing backdrop. With my 28mm or 50mm, the massive statue would have been another blob in the scene, but the unlikely 90mm proved to be the landscape lens of choice. The funny thing about talking pictures on the road, is that, nothing works out the way its planned. Being able to adapt to unusual situations means the difference between making post cards or coming home with a strong body of work.
-Missing The Shot
Woody Allen said the mistake he made with his second wife was he “…took all the lessons I learned from the first marriage and applied them to the second. But, if you’re lucky, your new wife is nothing like the first one, so none of the lessons apply.” My years with the 28mm Summicron and 50mm Summicron, did not prepare me for the depth of field available with a 90mm. In the picture above, I shot at f 3.4, from at least 15 feet away. I expected at 3.4, I could focus 1/3 into the scene and the closed down f stop would pick up the rest. Unfortunately, the composition of the picture swoops nicely from the foreground, along the rocks, and into the horizon, but the only thing in crisp focus is an unimportant wave. The second wife, was nothing like the first wife.
Sharpness. For a lens that was not ASPH, I was shocked at the sharpness of the images. The Apo-Summicron is probably worth every penny of its $3,695 price tag, but for $1,500, this used non-ASPH had me wondering, what was there to improve? This lens is fantastically sharp. It handles the details of the human face with a painterly precisions. You can count the individual hairs of someone’s beard, without rendering their skin like practice green at the local pitch-n-put. I did not use any magnification on the viewfinder, found the focus easy and accurate.
Shutter Speed. The area where the 90mm is unforgiving is shutter speed. Unlike my other lenses that tolerate hand held speeds down to 1/15 of a second, the 90mm shows the tiniest vibrations at anything less than 1/125. Ideally I would shoot it at 1/500 to combat moving subjects and any movement on my part. But even with a little movement, the quality of light produced by this lens made had me drafting a letter to Santa Claus two months early.
Depth Of Field. Excuse my language but “Holy S&^t!” the depth of field is shallow on this lens. Even at f 13 the background is still totally soft. Compared with my 28mm, which gives nearly full depth of field at f 4.0, the 90mm bokeh is intense. There were a few times when I actually wanted the background to be in focus and unless it was completely close down, there was not a chance of the background showing any recognizable forms. On the plus side of this is would be a great lens for blurring out ubiquitous franchises like McDonald or Starbucks.
Weight. The 90mm is not the skinniest lens in the line up. This is not the lens you want sitting next to you on the economy flight from London to Dubai. Weighing in at 1.10 lbs, my tendency was to grab the camera by the lens, instead of the body. But the added weight was not a problem. It comes in handy when I braced for shots below the 1/125th of a second.
Slide Out Hood. The 90mm comes with a built in hood. Even on this lens, which was well used, the hood was still silky smooth. Unlike the new 90mm Summarit and its screw on metal hood, the slide out hood guarantees no time is wasted threading it into place. Have you ever tried to put a screw in filter on in a hurry? Exactly.
Leica Touch. The Summicron lenses are some of my favorite in the Leica line up. The 90mm matches the rest of the f 2.0 family. The Swedish have a word “Lagom,” which loosely translates to average. It is used to express when something is not too much, not too little, it is just right. The 90mm feels as precise as the exotic Summiluxes, without any of the concessions made in Summarit and Elmarit lines. It is well balanced in concept, build, and performance.
Condition. The lens I borrowed from Photo Village was used, but not tortured. Someone had put a few thousand miles on it, but despite the inner ring, with the serial number and lens info falling off, the glass was in great shape. If the glass is good, I prefer the look of a worn lens. As the paint wears off of the barrel, hints of aluminum and brass become visible. This is a personal preference, but perfect, unscratched Leica gear is for collectors, not photographers. Go out there and get it dirty.
After a week exploring the south Indian coastline, the 90mm Summicron earned its place in my bag. Two weeks ago, I could not have imagined the largest, heaviest Summicron being worth the effort, but I can’t imagine taking another trip without it. To my surprise, the 90mm is multi talented, capable of handling the tiniest detail and the furthest seascape. India is a portrait photographers haven. Its no wonder the LFI Gallery of India has a remarkable amount of portraits, far greater than any other location.
I can’t pin down why India invites everyone to gaze in the eyes of its one billion faces. I guess they were as curious to look at a blue eyed man with no hair as I was to see men in orange sarongs brushing their teeth in the ocean. Outside of the hotel, boundaries barely existed. As a westerner, this is amazing to witness. The horror of using a rock as a bathroom or being served food with no forks, is enough to make most people catch the first flight home. But in the messy chaos, with turmeric stained fingers, I was happy to burry myself in the crowd and join the millions of people, barefoot and shuffling along pilgrim’sm’s path.
This lens is available at Photo Village, www.photovillage.com, for $1,495.00, give Will or Rich a call if you are interested. I don’t make any money from the sale of the lens. They just let me test lenses and when I am finished I write reviews. There are so many versions of Leica lenses it can be confusing which ones are worth buying. For a while I will be focusing on the older lenses, hoping to uncover the myths and discover some good deals.