Small, Simple, & Pre-ASPH
Standing on a balcony outside of the
Magnum Office’s in New York, Tina
Ruisinger photographed Inge Morath
and her Leica M6. The beat up hood
of the 35mm Summicron, made me
wonder, why the most famous pictures
were taken with equipment that
looks like it went through a war? I
wanted to see how one of those
weather beaten lenses would work
on an M9.
- An Old Beater
The day I arrived in Venice, the tide was dangerously high. The Mercato (food market), on the Grand Canal, was flooded. Eight days of rain had Venice treading water. Half of the articles you read on Venice talk about a sinking city, near the brink of apocalypse. Death may be imminent, but the Venetians don’t seem to mind. The foundations that rose from the swamps are not showing any signs of giving up.
Venice is filled with photographic cliches. Gondolieri in stripped shirts, narrow canals, and kissing couples are on every bridge. The atmosphere is so seductive its hard to look for new angles. For this trip I wanted to work with an unfamiliar focal length and see if a thirty year old lens could uncover a new perspective.
If Venice is a weather beaten maiden, then its lens equivalent would be the 35mm Summicron f 2.0 Pre-ASPH (made from 1979-1988). The one I used was made in Canada at the Leitz factory, which is eBay code for “Often Cheaper, but as good as German.” This lens was manufactured before Leica was using plastic hoods or making cost effective adjustments to lenses. After 30 years of use, the focusing was smooth, the aperture ring clicked properly, and the glass was in great shape. The 3rd version Summicrons were made with a detachable metal lens hood. These aluminum hood are light years better than the plastic hoods on the later Summicrons. I think Leica agrees, because the special edition 35mm Summicrons ASPH come with a metal hoods, while the regular Summicrons come with the plastic hoods. I am happy to see all of the new lenses from Summarit to Summilux come with metal hoods.
- The Gold Standard
If I had to take one lens on a trip it would be a 35mm. It is the most versatile straight lens and it forces, absolutely forces, the photographer to move around. My normal kit is a 28mm Elmarit f 2.8 and 50mm Summicron f 2.0. The reason I don’t often shoot a 35mm is simple. 28mm is the widest lens I could use on an M6 (x 0.58) without a finder. This reason alone is why I have never spent much time with a 35mm.
During my time in Italy, I only used my 50mm once. I wanted to see how the 35mm lens would inform the way I saw my environment. The 54° horizontal angle of view allows for a broad range of image options. The closest you can stand to a person is 0.7 meters (27-1/2″), which means a portrait will be from the middle of someone’s chest to the top of their head. At infinity ( ∞ ), the 35mm is wide enough to make you feel inside the action. In short, you can shoot people, buildings, and groups of people in action. For this reason the 35mm was a favorite among photojournalists in from the 40′s onward. Note: The 35mm format was so popular that Leica introduced the 35mm frame lines on the M2 in 1954. The M3, for better or worse, starts has frame lines for 50, 90, & 135mm lenses and the 35mm required external viewfinders.
- Focus First, Ask Questions Later
I can study MTF charts and line resolution tests for ten minutes maximum. They are tools for lens designers to analyze performance, but they are difficult to translate into real world conditions. When I work with a new lens, the question I ask is “What can I shoot with this lens?” For obvious reasons an 18mm is not a portrait lens and the 135mm is not good for architecture. But the closer we move to the middle of the lens line up, the strengths of certain lenses begin to overlap. Within the 35mm line up there are a few choices, the f 1.4 Summilux, the f 2.0 ASPH Summicron, the f 2.0 Pre-ASPH Summicron, the f 2.5 Summarit, and the f 3.5 Summaron. This leads to questions that every photographer must answer for themselves:
- How often do I shoot at f 1.4?
- Is an ASPH lens really my style?
- Do I like the features of a faster lens enough to justify the cost?
The 35mm Summicron Pre-ASPH is probably the best performance to cost ratio lens out of the five with the Summarit a close second. In practice the 35mm Summicron is sandwiched between the 28mm and the 50mm I normally use. Since its closer to the 28mm, its a depth of field that allows for pre-focused shooting.
Tangent On Pre-Focusing
Every city has their own definition of “personal space.” This is the space you can walk near a stranger without causing any concern. Northern Italy can be quite close, but in order to catch a few people in action, I would pre-focus at about 4 feet. I could walk past people in conversation, snap a picture, and continue on. This can be useful for catching an authentic moment without disrupting the flow of activity.
Pre-focusing can be intimidating. Many photographers love for everything to be perfectly in focus. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy when pictures are in focus, but the more I study images from the last fifty years, it is clear that a perfectly focused picture isn’t necessarily a good picture. There can be a trade off between a sharp image and a good action. And if you end up six inches closer than expected and slightly out of focus, the light on this lens is still rendered beautifully. So feel free to run some tests on your own.
When I first experimented with pre-focusing I used the panels of the sidewalks to determine the distance. In New York a single panel is four feet wide. I would pre-focus on a garbage can or fire hydrant and fire away. With a some dedicated practice it will open up a new realm of shooting options.
- In The Scene
When I picked up this lens, I asked Will, at Photo Village, “What should I expect?” He said, “Its a little soft wide open, but above 5.6 its spectacular.” Shooting above f 5.6 meant the there would be a great depth of field on most shots. The exchange between foreground and background is where this lens came alive. In a way it refuses isolation. The lens could be considered the “Buddhist Abbot” of Leica’s wide angle line.
Buddhists believe everything in the universe is connected. In english it translates to interconnectedness or interdependence. Nothing exists in isolation. Wide angle lenses, with their increased depth of field, tap us on the shoulder and say “Remember the background.” In fact, background is probably the wrong word to use, because its no less important than the foreground. And just as Will suggested the top performing images were found at higher f stops. It worked like an ambassador to the idea that we must never forget the context in which a picture was taken. I enjoyed the challenge of working with a lens that would remember everything in front of me.
- A Painter’s Brush
There is a temptation to buy a Summilux f 1.4 and shoot every picture wide open. The background fades into a painted blur. The releases of three new Summilux lenses ( 21, 24, & 35) have been hogging the spot light for the past year. Lost in the shuffle are the older Summicron’s are beautiful performers with their full, rich images. The newer ASPH lenses are sharper, but they have a more clinical look. This happens for a few reasons. The short version is related to the type of glass, ASPH shape, and coatings on the newer elements. These advancements in lens design, work to suppress stray light and define light and shadow more clearly then the older lenses. But the down side to added precision is a more “clinical” image. The atmospheric feeling of old pictures where the sun bleeds over the subject is lost in new lenses.
The painterly quality of uncoated lenses are also more prone to flare ( Flare are those ghost like hexagons that appear on an image). Newer ASPH lenses will keep light sources and shadows separate. Shooting into the sun at a tree, an APSH lens will retain the fine branches, which is great. But, on the flip side of this optical feat comes a different looking background. The personal preference between ASPH and non-ASPH lenses is something that will never be resolved. They each have their merits and a unique look. The overall fingerprint is something a photographer should consider when building a body of work. Sometimes less is more. Microscopic accuracy is second to overall impression. American painter James Rosenquist is a more technical painter than Van Gogh, but the golden fields of the french landscape continue to melt the hearts around the world and rack up higher auction prices.
- Night Vision
After shooting half a dozen postcards you want to see something new. How do you find a scene that doesn’t look like it belongs on a coffee cup or in a travel brochure? Step one, shoot at night. Night photography with the 35mm Summicron was a dream. By having a slightly lower overall contrast than its ASPH brethren, the lens rendered scenes more evenly. There are times where you want to flatten the contrast and preserve lighter sections and other times where you want to up the contrast of a dimly lit scene.
The point is, there are lenses that do one or the other, not both. Depending on your shooting style, you will probably shoot ASPH or Pre-ASPH. For Venice the lower contrast Pre-ASPH proved successful. It fit the character of the city where every corner is rounded with age.
- Technical Features
Sharpness. The lens is not optimized for a digital sensor. This issue requires a longer explanation and I need to write a separate article on the subject. For the time being, from f 4.5 – f 16 this lens is crisp. The details throughout much of the frame are supremely clear, even on the M9.
Wide open the contrast of light and dark holds up, but the details start to soften overall. This is not the lens to use for selective depth of field, like the Summilux lenses. It works better when the entire scene is engaging. If you do not want the token fast food chain in the background, this is not the lens for you. I would take this to cities with beautiful depth and architectural continuity, both 1st and 3rd world.
Shutter Speed. Go WILD! Unlike the 90mm I used in India, I consistently shot this lens at ultra slow shutter speeds. Bracing against a bench or a building you can shoot multiple second exposures and any trace vibrations are barely noticeable. The tabletop tripod & head I travel with never left the hotel.
Depth Of Field. There is no escaping the background with this lens. For the super bokeh, you will have to look at the 35mm Luxes. But looking through the works of Marc Riboud, David Duncan Douglas, and Robert Capa you will see that most of the important pictures of the 20th century were not taken at f 1.4. Learning how to shoot meaningful pictures is something every photographer should practice.
Weight. What weight? This lens is about the same size as the Voigtlander 15mm. Its tiny. With a hood it still weighs next to nothing. On the M9 it barely felt like there was a lens on the camera.
Lens Shade. The hood, aside from being infinitely cooler looking than the plastic hoods, was very useful. The vented slots meant there was minimal viewfinder blockage. And because it was a fixed hood, I never dealt with a lens cap and the hood is far enough from the front element that when it was strapped over my shoulder, I never worried about my sleeve touching the glass. I wish Leica was start remaking these hoods, so we could toss the plastic hoods from the late 80′s onwards.
Leica Touch. This lens was almost thirty years old and both the aperture ring and focus ring (with tab) were firm and smooth. There was a little play in the aperture ring, but it did not bother me. I would say this lens felt more solid than my 28mm ASPH.
Condition. This lens is in great buying shape. When I look for a used lens, I like a lens that is cosmetically worn with good glass. This way the price is not too punishing and all of the people who want newish looking lenses are not interested. The other nice thing about older lenses are they don’t attract too much attention. They don’t have the purple glare from the multi coating on the glass and the lens hood on this particular model was not perfectly round. It has seen some use, but I was totally smitten with it by the end of the week.
On our last day they were setting up an American style carnival for the Venetian kids. There were bumper cars, a merry-go-round, and the Italian version of a Gravitron except this one had a girl in micro shorts painted on the side (Com’e si dice “cameltoe?”) This would have been the perfect place to use the lens. The contrast of Constantine Manos styled colors and the back drop of Andrea Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore would have been quite a sight. But we were three hours too early. Next time I suppose.
At the end of the week, after a little adjusting, I really enjoyed the 35mm Summicron. I can see why half of the photographers at Magnum own this lens. The needs of a traveling photographer are specific. If you can’t run back home to swap out some gear, everything needs to be worth its weight in gold. The 35mm Summicron version III balances performance, weight, and versatility in a tiny package. It allows you to reach out and grab everything in front of you. Thirty years of wear has barely made a dent in this lens. I would expect another 30 before it shows signs of aging.
This 35mm Summicron is available at Photo Village for $1,595. If you found the review useful, let Will know when you pick up the lens. And congratulations to the new owner, its a beauty!