Introduction

Leica Summarit 50mm f/1.5 was first introduced in 1949 in Leica Screw Mount. An M bayonet mount version of the lens was added in 1954. Summarit is effectively a coated version Leica's Xenon design (same optical formula), which was first released in 1936. Leica discontinued manufacturing Summarits in 1960. To the best of my knowledge, there are total of two versions of this lens that you might encounter these days - the most common version will have Wetzlar made in Germany engraved on the barrel. A less common, and also typically slightly more expensive version you might see once in a while will have Taylor-Hobson engravings instead of Wetzlar (also made in Germany). There is no difference between these two versions as there was no difference between similarly branded Xenons - the original Xenon/Summarit optical formula was invented by Taylor Hobson and later licensed then sold to Schneider, which in turn licensed it to Leica and even manufactured the actual lens on Leica's behalf. The Taylor-Hobson branding seems to indicate that the lens was exported to the UK/US where Taylor still held some rights on the design. These days the Summarit 50/1.5 could be found on eBay, but finding a good quality copy is next to impossible - the virtual majority of these lenses will have coating marks as well as haze and potentially even fungus, so shop carefully. Decent quality copies go for ~US$500 as of Aug 2011.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 7 elements in 5 groups. The lens barrel is metal in chrome finish, with metal aperture and focusing rings. The aperture ring rotates from f/1.5 to f/16 in one full f-stop clicks. The minimum focusing distance is 1m (3.5ft). Most lenses these days will probably require lubing to improve the focusing ring action. The lens accepts rarely found these days A43 type or more commonly encountered E41 filters. Original lens hood is the barn-door style XIOOM, which you could replace with a modern after market rubber hood mounted on a step up ring. The lens weighs 300g (10.5oz).

Like all LTM lenses, Summarit 50/1.5 can be used on all modern M cameras, including digital M8/M9, using an LTM-M adapter. The lens can also be mounted on Micro Four Thirds and NEX cameras, using readily available 3rd party adapters. Within the scope of this review, the lens was tested on an APS-H type Leica M8, where it gives you an EFOV of 66mm.

Summary
Lens Composition 7 elements in 5 groups
Angular Field 40 degrees
Minimum Focus 1.06m/3.5ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/1.5-f/16,manual
Filter Size A43/E41mm
Lens Hood XIOOM (included)
Weight 300g/10.5oz
Dimensions 49x45mm/1.92x1.77"
Lens Case N/A

Handling

The original Leica Xenon 50/1.5, which was manufactured under the license from Taylor Hobson, was Leica's attempt to introduce a competitor to the well-respected Contax Sonnar 50/1.5 lens manufactured by the arch-rival Carl Zeiss. Original Xenon left the factory uncoated, although after Leica started coating its lenses, it also offered post-manufacturing service to the owners, so some of the Xenons these days might have post manufacturing coating applied. Unlike collapsible Summitars, also manufactured around the same time period, Xenons as well as Summarits were rigid body designs. Leica ultimately dumped the design in favor of the in-home designed Summilux. The Summarit name was retired until 2007, when Leica decided to brand the range of its 'low-end, slow' lenses, introduced to answer the market demand for 'cheaper' Leica glass.

ISO 160, 1/125, f/1.5, 50mm (Leica M8)

As is the case with all Leica LTM lenses of the past, Summarit 50/1.5 can be used on all M series cameras with an LTM to M adapter. I used a Voigtlander branded, Type II 50/75 adapter. Type II adapters have a shallow groove, which allows you to bar-code the adapter to be recognized by the M8/M9 camera firmware. While Cameraquest (an official Voigtlander reseller here in CA) claims that Type II adapters cannot be used with lenses that have infinity locks, i.e. Summitar, Summarit and collapsible Summicron v1, I have never had any problems with these adapters and have managed to mount all of these lenses on my M8 without problems. Voigtlander Type I adapters are said to be designed specifically for lenses with infinity lock, but don't have the groove in the mount and therefore your bar-codes will get erased eventually, after mounting the lens on and off the camera. I have not coded the lens and used Adobe Photoshop to correct various artifacts during post-processing, but online reports claim that coding Summarit as Summilux V1 works quite well and removes a good amount of vignetting. Anyhow, Summarit 50/1.5 is rangefinder coupled and so with a 50/75 adapter will bring the appropriate frame-line, however, aperture setting is not always recorded properly, which can be either due to miscalibrated diaphragm or more commonly due to the LTM-M adapter itself.

The construction of the lens is fairly typical of Leica lenses from 40s and 50s - chrome finish with a focus lock tab on the focusing ring and knurled aperture/focusing rings. However, unlike the Summicrons from that era, Summarit's aperture ring rotates in the opposite direction - to reach the minimum aperture, you need to rotate the ring  clockwise for Summarit and counter-clockwise for all Summicrons. I have always complained about the focus lock tab because of the hassle it introduces in focusing the ring close to the infinity - the tab stops the ring at 50ft marking and then rests in a locked position at infinity, but there is also a 100ft marking in between and to rest the focusing ring in this position you need to be holding with your fingers, preventing it from sliding either into the unlocked position at 50ft or locked position at the infinity. Meh, not my favorite process.

Another common to other lenses from this period characteristic is Summarit's MFD of 1m - a limitation in my world because of my preference to shoot as close to the subject as possible. You'd think that the extra 30cm that Summarit gives up when compared to modern 50s like Planar 50/2 or Sonnar 50/1.5 is not that much, but that 30cm of focusing distance translates into ~45cm difference in DOF when shooting the lens wide open. Other than that, the rest of the operation is pretty standard, including ~90 degrees of focusing ring rotation from the infinity to MFD and one full f-stop clicks of the aperture ring.

When mounted on a modern M8, Summarit blocks ~3% of the viewfinder area, but does not protrude into the 50mm frame. If you mount the ridiculously large XIOOM hood, I am sure you will get some interference in the framelines, but an after market rubber hood should be fine - it touches the corner of the 50mm frame, blocking ~5% of the 50mm frame


Resolution

If you expect a lens from 1950s to produce super sharp images from corner to corner at all apertures, you're probably from Mars, or Venus, or whatever other planet you like. Bottom line is that with the old optics, you should adjust your expectations - lens designers of the past did not seem to mind coming up with formulas that did not expose every freckle. Add to that manufacturing limitations and well, you get the picture. Right then... Summarit is certainly no sharpness king but I am hoping this was not your criteria when considering this lens. My personal criteria for Summarit is fairly simple - decent sharpness in the center at close and wide apertures. I don't care that much about infinity and small apertures. Why? Because pretty much any lens should perform well at infinity and stopped down to f/8 - it would be ridiculous spending a small fortune on a fast lens if your typical application does not require using a large aperture.

As you can observe from the simplified MTF50 charts below (captured by Imatest in the 1.5m to 10m focusing distances, with the best overall result plotted onto the chart), Summarit shows a subpar resolution wide open, both in the center as well as around borders. Resolution improves as we stop down the aperture and center reaches decent levels by f/2.8, while borders lag until about f/5.6. If you try to base your decision solely based on this chart, you would probably end up dismissing Summarit 50/1.4. While these resolution numbers might have been considered decent in 1950s, pretty much any modern lens would beat Summarit to pulp in this department. Furthermore, if you're using a film camera, or the full-frame M9, you should expect further degradation around image corners.

Leica M8 (10Mp)

Alas, when we look at the sample crops from the imaging target, we do not get any better impression of the lens - corners at f/1.5 are pretty blurry with basically no definition to them whatsoever. Lack of sense for image quality is exasperated by lower contrast as well, but more on that later. f/8 results, on the other hand, are quite acceptable.

Leica M8 (10Mp)

Image corners @ f/1.5 and f/8

So what should you expect from this lens in the field? Your results will probably be even slightly worse than what you've seen above, most notably at close focusing distances, due to the focus shift, which I mentioned earlier. While compensating for the focus shift is theoretically possible, in practice, it is rather hard to do so consistently because of the shallower depth of field. (An exception to the rule would be if you're using Summarit on an EVF camera like Sony NEX, in which case focus shift issues are not gonna trouble you at all) However, as you step away from the target, your results should improve, again, because of the increasing DOF (yes, DOF increases as the distance to the target increases - at f/1.5 and 1.5m focusing distance, your DOF on M8 would be ~6cm, while at the infinity it would increase to ~112m), which would cover some errors in focusing. Hence the sample crops you can find below, all shot at the infinity, look better than the ones where the the focusing target was located at 6m. I am sort of split here - as mentioned, I was hoping for a decent resolution up close, but the results do leave me wishing something more. Your satisfaction levels will differ - just don't expect a good resolution out of this lens.

Center

L.L.Corner

U.R.Corner

To give you an idea of how much performance boost you'd get when increasing the focusing distance, I plotted MTF50 results averaged at various distances to the target. That is, a point at 1.5m is an average of MTF50 results measured in two areas - image center and image borders, and at all aperture levels. Notice the significant boost in the chart as you move towards 10m. Of course, there's more to the lens than just sharpness, so read on...

Color & Rendering

Over the last few months that I have been using Summarit 50/1.5 on my M8, the lens has become an endless topic of my grumbling. I swear that the lens was designed by some mad genius who wanted only the most patient to succeed. The lens is 80% frustration and 20% magic, meaning that 80% of results I'd get are throw-away, but the remainder are absolutely fantastic. While I am still actively evaluating this lens (jumping ahead, I think I'd like to keep it), a few patterns seems to be shared with its slower Summarit version, which I owned for some time now. Firstly, the lens is a low contrast lens - from its widest aperture to about f/4, the lens renders images that are rich in grey tone gradations, but low on overall contrast throughout the frame. But, what is interesting about Summarit, is its 'gentlness' in subduing contrast - while the dynamic range of the raw data is not as good as with more capable modern lenses, Summarit's emphasis on mid-tones and shadows, gives you a good chance of recovering contrast without destroying much of the overall image detail. The resulting images might not look super-contrasty even after the recovery (unless of course you decide to disregard data loss and crank up contrasts to the max), but have enough contrast so not to look washed out. This is particularly true for portraits, where lower contrast lenses tend to go easier on skin tones and help create lighter feel to portraits.

ISO 160, 1/90, f/1.5, 50mm (Leica M8)

Because of the lower global contrast, Summarit also mutes its color palette quite noticeably. Granted, the richness of the color really depends on a gazillion number of other factors, but what I noticed is that in environments with even or low levels of illumination, Summarit performs quite well, giving a balanced, albeit subdued palette, often rich in light blues, yellows and other pastel/warmer hues. Boosting contrast by either re-leveling the histogram or adjusting curves typically gives very good results.

Much has been discussed about the so-called 'Leica glow' of the old Leica lenses. Community seems to be split about this - some people love it others don't and once thing is certain - nobody seems to be able to describe what exactly it is and why is it present in photos. I am no expert on this subject and can only speculate that by 'Leica glow' many refer to the spherical aberration which adds some 'haziness' to the picture at wider apertures. Add some light bleeding due to halation and you get images that that have this feel of glow to them. Of course some Leica users might argue that this Leica glow is quite unique and cannot be simply explained by halation or spherical aberration. But, I think many older lenses, including non-Leica designs, exibit this characteristic - Xenon for one has it and it was not designed by Leica. Original Contax Sonnar 50/1.5 has it as well. Carl Zeiss even tried to recreate this feel in its modern Sonnar 50/1.5 version, although I think they could have achieved better results by single coating the lens to make the lens a bit more prone to light flare, which also hazes pictures. Anyhow, the resulting images are certainly unique and whether you like this after-effect will ultimately dictate your preference towards lenses Summarit. Personally, I am not a huge fan of such look, but do think that having a lens capable of giving you this 'gloawing' for those especially-creative moments is probably warranted. But my preference would be to use such a lens in B&W photography, where spherical aberration is actually more pleasing to my eye.

But given that the lens produces lower overall contrast in images, Summarit 50/1.5 also manages to handle lateral chromatic aberration fairly well. The chart below summarizes Imatest results that the lens delivered. You can observe that CA never exceeds  0.6px, even in extreme corners, which by all means is not very high. Of course, the visual aspects of lateral chromatic aberration can vary quite significantly from the results measured in controlled environment, but throughout my tests, I have not seen any serious sign of CA that would have required me to do some post-processing to reduce its impact.

Leica M8 (10Mp)

DOF & Bokeh

Many users of the older Leica lenses, including Summarit 50/1.5, claim that these lenses exibit the so called 'swirly' bokeh. It is hard for me to generalize Summarit's bokeh though - while the lens certainly showcases bokeh that has some double-edging as well as some longitudinal CA, which contribute to the 'swirliness' feel of Summarit's bokeh, the extent really depends on three main factors - focusing distance, background and aperture used. I have had great success with this lens shooting against not-too-busy backgrounds when the bokeh did not even showcase any swirly elements, while other shots with random and excessive background elements and lightning would turn the background into a 'Picasso-esque' mask. This is a prime example of 'one size does not fit all' when the same lens can behave quite differently under varying conditions. But if you wanted consistency, you would not have picked up Summarit, right?

Despite its age, Summarit does not really provide much tradeoffs when compared to the bulk of fast 50mm lenses, modern or old alike. Low contrast at wide apertures really means that you need to play with the resulting images in Photoshop to make the subjects stand out. It's doable, but if the so called 3D-iness of the subject is your primary criteria (which is typically possible with lenses that generate high local contrast and low global contrast along with reasonably high center resolution, none of which Summarit provides), than you should look elsewhere. Summarit excels in situations where you need to soften the scene, create lighter feel or even a 'paint-over' effect where the subject almost blends into the background. Summarit does not master harsher lighting well and so if your background has some strong highlights, you are likely to end up with some not particularly pretty 'smudges'. The relationship between the external factors and the quality of bokeh you end up with is fairly complex and I don't feel I have experienced everything that Summarit can or cannot do at the moment of this writing, so my advice to you is to experiment - if you have some doubts about whether you might or might not like the outcome, you should probably skip Summarit and go for a 'no brainer' lens.

The series of shots below demonstrate what bokeh can look like when shooting at MFD and medium focusing distances, while the bulk of the background is located at infinity (about 15m to the tents seen in the pic and over 50m to the building in the background). The main limiting factor of the Summarit, like with pretty much any other lens of this period, is its MFD - at ~1m, it is not the shortest in the class and hence imposes some limitations on the shallowness of DOF. The character of bokeh here is fairly standard - I don't see any swirliness that we discussed earlier. The background is blurred quite nicely at wider apertures and short focusing distances. I boosted the color palette a little bit by readjusting histogram levels to increase contrast a bit and adding a little bit saturation.

DOF @ 1m

DOF @ 3m

I will close this section with the now traditional shot of the porcelain cat, done at the MFD. The picture has not gone through any post-processing and exemplifies what you'd right out of camera. Nothing really stands out in this shot, and you don't get a good sense of isolation. The feel is very representative of other lenses from the same era - Summitar and collapsible Summicron - if you liked the bokeh rendering style of these lenses that you would also like the rendering of Summarit.

ISO 320, 1/350, f/1.5, 50mm (Leica M8)


Flare

As briefly eluded to in the earlier section, Summarit 50/1.5 does not deal with flare particularly well. While Summarit did receive coating from the get-go, it does not seem particularly effective in reducing flare. A single coated lens is still better than uncoated lens, but seems only marginally (plus we need to take into consideration the 50+ years of abuse that the coating might have endured during the regular use of the lens) - the lens would flare no matter what when shot directly into the sun, as can be seen in the shots below. Both at wide as well as small apertures, the lens shows color casting, glare and minor ghosting, all of which should convince you to invest in an after-market hood. Alternatively, just don't shoot into the sun and you should be fine.

Vignetting

Summarit showed some noticeable vignetting at f/1.5, reaching ~1.6EV on an APS-H camera. Light falloff at these levels will be visible around corners, but unless you're photographing lighter colored scenery, should not be a big issue IMO. Vignetting drops even further as you stop down the aperture - at f/2 it is ~0.9EV and at f/2.8 it is ~0.5EV and which point it becomes completely harmless.

Leica M8 (10Mp)

If you find yourself in situation when you need to correct for vignetting, you can try doing so either by coding your lens, or if you own M9, selecting the option in the camera's menu (Summilux Pre-ASPH 50/1.4 should work, although I personally have not tried this option), or simply using an app like Photoshop to fix falloff in your post-processing work-flow. Setting Photoshop's Vignetting correction to +25 seems to remove all traces of vignetting at f/1.5

Distortion

Summarit 50/1.5 showed negligible amount of barrel distortion - at ~0.1%, this can be considered to be a noise.


Alternatives

If you are looking for lenses from roughly the same time period, then your option is limited to Leica's collapsible Summitar, Summicron and possibly Summar lenses. Summilux, which was first released in 1961, might be another option, but it has a more modern, at least compared to Summitar/Xenon, design and has a destinctively different character. Surprisingly, the Carl Zeiss Sonnar 50/1.5 and its slower version 50/2 are actually available in LTM as well, although finding a good quality copy of this lens is close to impossible these days. Among old LTM lenses, both Nikon as well as Canon offered a number of 50mm fast primes - Nikkor 50/1.4 and Canon 50/1.4 are  more or less readily available these days, while Canon 50/1.2 and Nikkor 50/1.1 are much harder to come by. Another option might be old Russian copies of Contax lenses, namely Jupiter 3 50mm f/1.5 and Jupiter 8 50mm f/2, both of which are available in LTM and Contax bayonet mounts. Quality of those lenses are quite spotty, plus their flange distance is slightly longer and so they would need minor adjustment. However, unless you're really into 'memorabilia', consider getting one of the modern lenses - Carl Zeiss Planar 50/2 or even Sonnar 50/1.5 would be my choice, but if money is of no concern, then Leica's own Summilux 50/1.4 ASPH and Summicron 50/2 would satisfy even the most demanding users.

Recommendation

In the modern day, Leica's Summarit 50/1.5 feels pretty archaic and not up to snuff when compared to the slew of outstanding lenses from Zeiss, Voigtlander and obviously Leica itself. It is hard to recommend this lens for generic use - there are quite a few shortcomings that the user should be willing to accept - lower resolution, low contrast, flare, etc... Summarit can be a lens of choice for someone who is trying to reproduce an old 50s look in their photos and prefers to rely on appropriate optics, rather than extensive post-processing. If you belong to that group - go ahead and get Summarit, but also get another 50mm lens for everyday use - something like Summicron 50/2 or Planar 50/2.

Sample Images


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