Jul 272012

Leica 90mm/f 2.5 Summarit

Lens Alignment


Most of us look forward to buying

new equipment.  Whether its a long

awaited treat or a functional upgrade,

a good lens is a welcome addition

to any bag.  But what if the lens

isn’t right?

90mm f 2.5 Summarit. Adam Marelli

Perfection is a Myth

A new product, fresh out of the box should be perfect, right?  It came directly from the factory, has a signature from the final inspecting technician, and should be in optimal condition.  So why is it that things do not always work out this way?  When my M9 arrived, two years ago, the first thing I noticed was that the red dot on the front was crooked.  I thought, thats odd.  Why would the iconic red dot be crooked.  It is a bit like printing your business card at a slight angle.  But it did not affect the camera, so who cares?

Leica’s 90mm f-2.5 Summarit and metal lens cap. The newest addition to my camera bag. Adam Marelli via Instagram.

Lenses are Different

Anyone who familiar with my style of shooting, sees that I do not carry a lot of equipment, a hardly change lenses ( 50mm is on my camera most of the time), and I do not own a bags of gear.  When I need a lens beyond my bag, I usually rent it.  After renting a 90mm Summarit, I was surprised by a few things and I decided to pick up:

  • Light Weight.  The Summarit is/feels much lighter than its Summicron cousin.  It does not pull the camera down like the Summicron.  This is a huge plus because heavy equipment is a buzz kill.  If weight were not an issue I would use a Phase One or an 8”x10” view camera.
  • Small.  I have a love hate relationship with camera bags.  While I own a few dedicated bags, I use a Filson Shoulder bag to travel with my Leicas.  The 90mm cron, is a lovely lens, but its just too big for me to want to carry.  The 90mm Summarit travels in a soft pouch and fits in the bag with no real fuss.
  • Not Expensive.  Like many people, I am guilty of thinking the Summarit line was a Wal-Mart version of a Leica lens.  At 90mm the native depth of field on the lens is so shallow that the difference between f2.0 and f2.5 is insignificant.  My primary purpose for a 90mm is portraits so I normally use it at f4.0.  Paying the premium for f2.0 does not make any sense (to my needs.)  Remember, what works for one person might not work for someone else.

Bust of Homer. Leica M9 & 90mm f 2.5 Summarit. Adam Marelli

Houston, We have a problem

In order to test my new 90mm, I set up a plaster cast of Homer at the studio.  Now before all the techies jump in and ask why I did not use a more sophisticated focusing tool, my answers is simple.  I prefer to test a lens in a situation that mimics its practical application.  If it fails the practical test, its going back for repair anyway.  You can test a lens on a chart or tape, but its not a bad idea to test it in a controlled, semi realistic setting.

Bust of Homer. Leica M9 & 90mm f 2.5 Summarit. Adam Marelli

From f 4.0-f 16 the lens was perfect.  There were no complaints. Mechanically the aperture ring was smooth, the focus throw is nice and short and there did not seem to be any focusing issues UNTIL…f 2.5.

The focus was placed on Homer’s eye. Leica M9 & 90mm f 2.5 Summarit. Adam Marelli

At f 2.5 I noticed that while I was focused on Homer’s eye, the tip of his nose was in focus.  The lens was “front focusing.”  For those of you who understand the concept, please bare with me as I explain to the new comers.  When a lens front focuses it means that the focal plane is landing in front of the area where the focus is set.  In this case I would:

  • Set up the shot with the camera on a tripod.
  • Raise the center column to focus on Homer’s left eye.
  • Drop the center column to recompose.  I did this without tipping the camera forward or backward, which is important.  I will explain why in a second.
  • Then take the shot and the nose, which is in front of the eye, would be in focus.

At f 2.5 the focus slips a little to the front, rendering his nose as the sharpest point. Leica M9 & 90mm f 2.5 Summarit. Adam Marelli

NOTE: If you are new to manual focus, it is critical to understand that if you tip the camera up at a subject to focus on the eyes and then recompose the shot, by tipping the camera back to plumb, the picture will typically have your subjects eyes out of focus and have their ear in focus.  This is because the line formed between the camera and the eyes is longer than the line from the camera to the eyes in a plumb position.  

And just for full disclosure, I could not tell the lens was front focusing until I got back to the computer.  The screen on the back of the M9 is closer to an etch-a-sketch board than an LCD.  The resolution is as good as the front page of the NY Times.  But back at my Mac it was obvious that the focus was off.

Bust of Homer.  Leica M9 & 90mm f 2.5 Summarit. Adam Marelli

At f 2.5 you can see how the eye lids are soft and the nose is crisp. Leica M9 & 90mm f 2.5 Summarit. Adam Marelli

The Fix

In my life, I have built millions of dollars worth of architecture and all of my own sculpture.  Detail work is actually fun, but when it comes to fine work like jewelry, watches, and cameras, I leave it to the technicians.  My M9 was due for a cleaning anyway, so the M9 and the 90mm f 2.5 went to Leica New Jersey for a tune up.

Bust of Homer.  Leica M9 & 90mm f 2.5 Summarit. Adam Marelli

At f 6.7 you can see how the eye comes back into focus as the depth of field is increased. Leica M9 & 90mm f 2.5 Summarit. Adam Marelli

Leave the nervous breakdowns to Woody Allen

Over the years, I have read horror stories of camera repairs.  Lenses and cameras going in and out of NJ and Germany can cause an aneurism.  Repair with any camera can be a nightmare regardless of the company.  Instead of melting down at the realization that a seemingly brand new lens was out of alignment, the box was packed calmly and sent off for service.  We would love for Leica’s to be perfect.  I know better.  Reading forums of cameras and watches will tell you that objects in the tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands leave the factory with defects.  Is it frustrating? Sure.  But it happens.

After a few days the camera arrived back in NYC with a laundry list of checks, updates and notes.  Out in the field, the focus was back on and I could not be happier with the lens.  While I still prefer the Summicron line for the wider lenses like the 75mm, 50mm, and 35mm, this 90mm-f 2.5 has earned its spot in the bag.

Last note, the lighting for this image was provided by a 100 watt incandescent bulb and a white reflector.  Nothing fancy.

The lens was purchased from Photo Village here in NYC.


Adam Marelli 

  7 Responses to “Leica 90mm/f 2.5 Summarit”

  1. This might answer a nagging question. I’ve been contemplating sending my M9 and 50 mm in for service these past few months, because I cant seem to get my subjects eyes in focus. My hunch was user error, but then I began to have doubts when I had the problem even at f4. But your note on tipping the camera just shined the light on the problem. So tomorrow, I will perform my own test, though I will have to make due with a wooden angel with pronounced eyes, for I have no Homer.


  2. Well the results are in and I feel a lot better knowing that my lens and rangefinder mechanism are spot on and it’s me who needs to work on my technique. The eyes were sharp on my little Mexican angel from f1.4 to f8.. Does this mean I need to focus on ears instead of eyes when I tip the camera up and recompose?

    Thanks Adam for saving me the anxiety of shipping and waiting.


    • Hey Andrew,

      Whew, glad we were able to save you from the shipping costs and waiting time.

      When it comes to the focus, its better not to tip the camera but if you do the goal is to focus on something closer, like the tip of the nose. Then when you level the camera it will draw the focus back in space to the eyes.

      If you focus on the ears and then level the camera its going to draw the focus further towards the back of the head. Then the whole picture will seem out of focus. We can work on this a bit when you are in NYC.

      Try this on your mexican angel and see how it comes out.

      Let me know if you get hung up.


  3. Adam, my first Leica lens was a 50 mm Summarit. I never understood why people say it is a cheep lens, – in Leica terms yes, but it is still not a 50 cents lens.(maybe I am just to poor :) ) Now I am using the 50 mm Lux most of the time and the bokeh is quite difference between the two,- BUT I still have the Summarit and still loves it. If you look at the results I got from it in pouring rain, you can’t beat it!
    Anyway, after reading your post I am thinking of getting this 90 mm!?
    Thanks for the insight.

    • Hey Danni,

      I remember the first time I picked up the 35mm Summarit I was not particularly struck one way or the other. In truth I never even looked at the 50mm. Then I tried the 75mm and was surprised. Aside from the lack of engraving depth in the numbers (surely a superficial problem, if there ever was one) the lens was entirely adequate. Then I tried the 90mm and was sold.
      The extra weight is something I am happy to shed with the 90mm F2. And I spend most of my 90mm time at F4 or higher anyway because the depth of field is shallow enough.
      But thanks for point out that the “starter lenses” are not bad at all. I feel like so many photographers feel like they need 1.4, but its not so.
      Will have a look at the links now.


  4. Hi Adam,

    Nice article. I had the highly underrated Summarit-m 90 myself, but ended up using the Macro-Elmar 90 instead. It’s about the same price (without macro-googles), collapsible and pocketable.

    If f/4 is your mainstay, it might be worth a look, for fun….

    • Hey M-Dude,

      If I come across one, I will give it a closer look. My hasselblad handles most of my marco work, but I would give the 90mm macro a go.

      Thanks for the recommendation.


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