Introduction

Leica Summilux-R 59mm f/1.4, which was originally designed in 1959 and since then has gone through three revisions, is one of Leica's most recognized and sought after lens. The lens tested in this review is first generation, Series 7 Summilux manufactured circa 1971 (SN: 2492217). Summilux has been manufactured in two mount systems - Leica M mount and Leica R mount. Only R Leica lenses can be adopted to Canon's and Nikon's mounts, hence the review is for Summilux-R lens.

Summilux is a classical manual focus Leica lens with 7 elements in 5 groups. The build quality of the lens is superb - fully metal barrel and lens hood ensured that the lens survived 30+ years of use (and abuse). The lens is compact, measuring about 5.6x5cm (2.2x2in) and weighing 490g (1.08lb). Both focus and aperture rings are also metal and despite the age operate very smoothly The metal lens hood (included) can be attached to the lens to protect the front glass element and to reduce amount of stray light. The lens has a minimum focusing distance of 50cm (1.64ft), maximum aperture of f/16 and accepts E43 filters.

To attach the lens to a Canon or Nikon body you can use one of the readily available adapter rings. I used a plain Fotodiox Leica-R to EOS adapter, but some of the newer models include a PCB strip which allows your camera to confirm focusing. Once attached to the camera, the lens will have to be operated in a manual mode, meaning you will have to switch your camera either into an aperture priority or fully manual mode. You will also loose all but center weighted metering modes.

The first generation of Summilux-R 50mm f/1.4 seems to be quickly becoming a collector's item - I could not find that many being sold on the Internet, so not surprisingly that the ones that are listed fetch pretty high prices - expect to pay anywhere between $400 and $500 for a copy in a decent condition.

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Field Tests

It took me some time to get used to handling fully manual lens on an EOS body. Gives you an idea of my dependency on an AF system.  But even after getting used to (or should I say re-acquiring the skill of) stopped down metering, I discovered that the probability of taking a good shot with the lens was lower when compared to one with an AF system - especially when taking pictures with moving targets. The shots that actually did 'come through' were fantastic - Summilux produced results that rivaled that of Canon's newest L-class lenses, with color balance and contrast probably being the most distinct differentiators of this lens.

Summilux was top-notch from f/4, producing very sharp and balanced results in the center and around borders. At f/1.4 the lens seemed to struggle around borders (more on that in the lab tests section). Those of you looking for a lens capable of producing nice bookeh would not consider this as a disadvantage obviously. The lens did not produce any visible distortions throughout supported aperture range - flare, distortion and vignetting seemed to be well under control, which is not very surprising for a 50mm prime lens. However, bear in mind that I was testing this lens on a 1.6x crop camera - once you move to a full-frame body, your results might be different (especially when it comes to vignetting). Chromatic aberration was very minor with wide open aperture and non-existent once stopped down to f/2.8.

 

 

Lab Tests

Canon APS-C: The lens produced very solid results in the lab. The weakest point was f/1.4, where the lens was very soft around borders and only slightly better in the center. Here, even 118in prints would be average at best around borders, unless you're shooting for nice bookeh. But once stopped down to f/4, quality improves significantly and you will be able to get great 19in prints - an achievement very few lenses can claim. Conclusion? Results are quite impressive considering the age of this lens - some of the newest lenses from some modern lens manufacturers don't even get anywhere close to the Summilux's quality.

 

MTF50 (Line Width / Inch on the Print) @ 50mm
MTF50 (Line Width / Inch on the Print) @ 50mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm

Chromatic aberration is barely noticeable at wide apertures, never exceeding 0.5px and is not present from f/2.8 and beyond.

 

Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

Canon FF: Coming soon...

 

Alternatives

If you're reading this section, I'm going to assume that you're primarily interested in non-native lenses that could fit your favorite dSLR. If that is not the case, you should check out reviews of native mount lenses to find alternatives. Firstly, you might want to consider a newer variation of the 50mm Summilux, since the one I tested here is pretty much the first generation lens, so it is would be safe to say that Leica managed to improve the quality formula over 30+ years since the first release of Series 7 Summilux. Additionally, you might want to consider Leica Summicron-R 50mm f/2, which is slightly slower then Summilux but is also considered to be a high-quality portrait lens. You might also want to consider a range of Carl Zeiss lenses either in C/Y mount (Contax or ZS for newer lenses) or ZF mount for Nikon Ai-S. Two lenses come to mind: Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.4 and a slightly slower Carl Zeiss PLanar 50mm f/1.7 (review). Obviously, this list can go on forever, but I'm going to leave exploring to you.

 

Recommendation

Leica Summilux-R 50mm f/1.4 is clearly not a lens for the masses. If you already have the lens, then by all means use it on your favorite digital SLR - results will be more then satisfactory. But I'm not so sure that a mainstream amateur photographer should bother with the lens - there are excellent native mount lenses available on the market (most of which would likely to be priced below even the most ancient Leica lens). But for those few seeking that extra punch, that perfect color rendition, that 3D look and feel, Leica Summilux could become a great tool.