The Leica 35 Summicron ASPH Lens Review
Are you ready to hear me go GA-GA over yet another Leica lens? Well, I am not sure what has taken me so long to write about the Leica 35 Summicron ASPH, as it is really one of the legendary Leica lenses. I have even owned it twice in the past 6 years! It has been around in one form or another since 1958 and today exists as an Aspherical version that is just about perfect at all apertures in regards to sharpness and lack of distortion.
I have shot this lens over the years on the Leica M7, the Leica M8, and now, the Leica M9. I have to admit, on the M8/M8.2, I was never a big fan of the 35 Summicron. Yea, I liked the lens, but I preferred the larger and faster 35 Summilux on my M8 (see that review here) for its dreamy, creamy, delicious look it gave to my images.
The main issue with a 35mm on the M8/M8.2 is that it becomes a 47mm so you are not getting the true FOV of a 35mm lens. To those who have been shooting a 35 on an M8… I will tell you now that you are in for a treat when and if you switch to an M9 as it is a whole new world.
Now that I own my own M9 (and I LoooOOOVE my M9), this 35 has become a REAL 35, and man, a real 35 is pretty wide when you are used to shooting it as a 50 (on the M8)! On the M9, my prized 35 Summilux did not seem as great as it was on my M8. When Leica dealer Ken Hansen sent me a 35 Summicron to test out with my M9, I knew there would be trouble ahead for my Lux.
Let me be clear, though. I love the 35 Summilux ASPH lens. On my M8.2, it was phenomenal at 1.4 and soft at 2.8-5.6. On the M9, it was soft at 1.4 through 5.6 so I decided to skip the headaches with focus shift and check out the Summicron on full frame.
When I first twisted the 35 Cron on to my beautiful M9 body, I instantly loved the size of the lens. It seemed much smaller than my Lux and the camera with the 35 Summicron just looked like a match made in heaven. After shooting with the 35 Summillux for so long, I forgot just how compact the Summicron is.
But looks are not everything and I was not sure if this lens would have the “magic” of the Summilux. I knew on the M8 it was sharp and contrasty, but I never really saw any of that beautiful glow and bokeh that I got from my Lux. Again, this was on the M8.
When I started shooting it on my M9, I was pleasantly surprised. From F2 on down, this lens was as sharp as any lens I have ever shot with. It reminded me a bit of the 28 Elmarit on the M8, but with a faster F2 aperture, and due to that, a more beautiful and smooth look.
As I shot it more and more (about 2 weeks), I realized that on the M9 I preferred this Summicron! It was pretty much perfection in a 35mm. But as I have said in previous reviews, just because a lens is super sharp does not mean it will make magical photos. Hell, some of my favorite images are not even close to being sharp! I wanted to see if the Summicron had the things I look for in a lens, like character and the way it renders an image. How is the Bokeh? Is it too sharp?
Before I get going into the details, here are a couple of shots of this gorgeous lens. BTW, it’s the lens to the right of the camera. My black paint 50 lux pre-asph looks so good on the camera, I had to leave it on 🙂
As you can see, this lens is pretty small and the lens hood is compact, unlike the one on the 35 Summilux, which is gargantuan. It’s such a nice looking and feeling lens and its aperture ring is solid, but smooth. Its focus is smooth, and one of the smoothest Leica lenses I have owned. The smoothest focusing Leica lens I have ever owned was the 75 Summarit.
So the lens looks good, it feels good, and from my first shots, appears to be a perfect mate for a Leica M9. But while this review will mainly focus on this lens with an M9, I will also include some thoughts and samples from the M7 and M8 as well! As usual, this is a real world use review and not a tech head review filled with charts and graphs.
If you have not read my site before, I like to talk about how a certain camera or lens performs when they are used for what they are made for, which is taking a photograph. What an idea! A lens review without a single graph or chart! Fun ,fun…so let’s get started!
THE 35 SUMMICRON ON FILM WITH A LEICA M7
A few years ago, I bought this lens brand new from B&H Photo after I bought a Leica M7 kit with a 50 Summicron. B&H sells this lens in black or chrome (chrome version is very nice) and I bought the black to go with my then black M7. I remember shooting with it back then and not being 100% happy.
Why? Well, besides being stupid and not realizing how good this lens was, I was shooting with my very first rangefinder camera ever and I was craving that creamy shallow depth of field I saw from lenses like the Noctilux. On film, I found the 35 Summicron to be sharp and crisp with great contrast. I mostly shot this lens with Tri-X B&W film. Now that I look back at some shots with the lens on the M7, I am not sure what I was thinking. It did great and provides that “Leica Look” with great detail, contrast, and bokeh. Here are a couple of images I snapped while taking a train ride.
On the M7, the 35 Cron provided a great general, all-around lens. I liked the FOV but at the time, I just wanted more shallow DOF, so I sold it for a 35 Lux which was gorgeous on the M7.
ON THE M8 AND M8.2
On the Leica M8, the 35 Summicron becomes more like a 47mm due to the 1.3 crop factor of the smaller than full frame sensor. You no longer get the wider view, which after shooting with it on FF, you kind of miss that. I never really bonded with the M8 and 35 Cron combo partly because I seemed to prefer a wider view than 47mm for an everyday lens. But, during my time with the M8 and 35 cron, I really could not complain. It never gave me bad results.
Here is a shot where the 35 seemed to give me quite a bit of blur in the background. This was at F2 while my Mother was driving. M8 at F and ISO 160.
My thoughts when I shot this lens on the M8 is that it was crisp, sharp, had great color (though the samples here are all B&W, the color is terrific) and had no flaws. If you are someone who likes shooting around 50mm, the 35 Summicron on an M8 is actually a fantastic combo. With the M8, I ended up with the Summilux, but looking back I can say I had great results with the 35 Summicron. It will give you more detail, contrast, and sharpness and it has ZERO focus shift, which is an issue with the 35 Summilux. But you will lose that 1.4 magic that you get with the Lux.
There have been rumors that Leica is working on a new version of the 35 Summilux ASPH, which would solve the focus shift issue. If this is true, I expect it to come in at around $5k or almost double the cost of the cron, so no way I will be able to afford one if this indeed turns out to be true.
I must say that once I started shooting the 35 Summicron on the M9, I was floored by the quality. This lens on the M9 is a match made in heaven IF you like your images to POP, have amazing detail for large prints, and like a little bit more contrast punch. This lens, even at F2, is so sharp you will have no issues shooting wide open for any application. I have images from some Nikon lenses and a D700 that are no where near this kind of quality at F2. Leica lenses are the real deal and the 35 Summicron is in fact one of their Legendary lenses. But, you need to ask yourself what do you prefer, as some will prefer the creamier Summilux, even with the focus shifts.
One thing I like to shoot is rural landscape scenes. Old barns, abandoned houses, rusty trucks, and good old nostalgic Americana. With the M8, the 28 Elmarit or 28 Summicron did the trick. On the M9, my somewhat trusty 35 Summilux did NOT do the trick. With its focus shift at F2-F5.6, I could not get the look I needed. The images were soft and it kind of killed it for what I was shooting. For people, the summilux is perfect, but for landscape a summicron can take your breath away and mine would have been if I was able to shoot at Yosemite during the past two weeks 🙂 Instead, I got to shoot more rural scenes.
This page will feature 3 FULL SIZE out of camera samples for you to download. These are large files and straight from Adobe Camera Raw 5 conversion. I just upgraded to CS4 today and I am finding a nice quality increase with ACR5 over the version I was using with CS3.
Here are the samples. Just click any image to download the full-size, out-of-camera shot so you can see how the lens does on the full frame M9.
I took this shot handheld at F2 at ISO 160 to test detail and bokeh. The barn was in the background and the focus point is hyper-sharp, and this is F2! This is right out of an Adobe Camera Raw 5 conversion. Click image for the full size image and check out the detail and bokeh up close at 100%.
This one was shot handheld at F8, ISO 160 as I have found you can coax every ounce of detail from the 35 at F8. It’s really not much better than F2, but it does seem to be the magic aperture with this lens if sharpness if your thing. Check out the full size image. Again, direct from ACR5. The M9 chose a very warm White Balance here, but it was a very warm, golden light so its pretty close to how it looked.
This next shot may look like I processed it in Photoshop, but I wanted to show you how easy it is to get a great looking file from the M9 right out of the camera just during the RAW conversion. All I did was hit “AUTO” on the white balance and exposure in the ACR slider. That’s it! When the DNG was processed, it came out exactly as you see it below. Just click on the image for the full size image. BTW, this one was shot handheld at F2. You can see my processed version on the next page.
So again, the first two images are the straight from camera color, white balance and it may be a tad warm. In the third image, I used the Adobe Camera Raw 5 “auto” buttons just to see what would happen.
I have been out almost daily with the 35 Summicron and M9, so I have plenty of samples with this combo. Keep in mind that these samples have been processed in photoshop with some color enhancements on some, filters on others, black-and-white conversions on one or two, and they have been resized to 1100 pixels wide. I have 20-30 more I could post here, but I have limited bandwidth, so I decided to just show a few of my recent faves. I wish I had more shots of people, but for the past few weeks I have been shooting more landscape than people.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS AND OPINIONS. SHOULD YOU BUY THIS LENS?
After shooting with this lens and the M9 for a few weeks (every day), I am shocked that I did not enjoy this lens that much with the M8. I am getting gorgeous results with it now and it seriously has no flaws that I have found. In the F8 full-size barn shot on page 2, you will see what appears to be soft corners, BUT THIS IS NOT SOFT CORNERS. It is due to the depth of field, even at F8, with those weeds being so close to the lens they are out of focus.
The only other lens I have tested that equaled or surpassed the 35 Summicron in sharpness and detail is the Leica 24 Elmarit. I am only interested in detail for landscape shots, so it is great to know that the 35 Summicron can deliver when I need it to in this area.
You can read more about this lens or order it at the B&H Photo page. They have it in Black orChrome. I have been buying from these guys forever and they are my #1 choice for anything photo or video related. I even bought a macbook pro from them a couple years ago and last year, we bought my son a very cool telescope. B&H is world class and the cool thing is that this is the way I keep this site going. So if you buy from B&H and use my links to get to their site, you are supporting this site and letting me continue with it!
I can also recommend Leica Dealer Ken Hansen. He is probably the best Leica dealer around if you want old-school service (this is a good thing) and sometimes he has some rarities in stock. He also sells used so feel free to e-mail him if you are looking for this lens or something else Leica related.