Introduction

Summitar 50mm f/2 is a classical Leica thread (or screw) mount lens, manufactured by Leitz from 1939 through 1953. It replaced an even earlier Summar 50mm f/2 model and in turn was eventually replaced by Summicron 50mm f/2. The lens did not have coating until after WWII (circa 1945-1946), although many of the uncoated lenses were sent back to Leitz for post-manufacture coating. The lens is more or less readily available on used markets, although finding one in good quality is rather hard, with best copies selling for ~US$300-$400.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 7 elements in 4 groups. The build quality of the lens is superb - all metal parts help the lens withstand decades and while most lenses would have some cosmetic blemishes, unless users really abuse the lens, it can probably last another 50 years. Summitar is a collapsible lens, meaning that the top half of the lens can be collapsed into the mount, reducing the overall size of the lens, but needs to be expanded before you can start shooting with it. The lens measures 50 x 42cm (1.9 x 1.6in) when fully expanded and only 42 x 42cm (1.6 x 1.6in) when collapsed. It weighs 205g (7.2oz). The lens accepts special, L type filters, which screw-in to the front side of the lens, although you can also use Leica SNHOO 39mm to L adapter, which would allow you to use standard 39mm screww-in filters with this lens. The minimum focusing distance is 1m (3.3ft) and the minimum aperture is f/16.

 

Summitar 50mm f/2 lens was designed for traditional film cameras of the days past and therefore is compatible with a number of modern cameras, including Leica M8 and M9 (using an LTM to M adapter) as well as Micro Four Thirds and Sony NEX systems. Within the scope of this review, the lens was tested on an APS-H type Leica M8.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 7 elements in 4 groups
Angular Field 46 degrees
Minimum Focus 1m/3.2ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/2-f/16, manual
Filter Size L-type
Lens Hood SOOPD (optional)
Weight 205g/7.2oz
Dimensions 42x42mm/1.6x1,6"
Lens Case N/A

 

 

Handling

If you are into camera/lens historabilia, Leica Summitar is one heck of a lens to try out and own. In many aspects, Summitar represents a transitioning point in Leica's history - first lens to receive coating, last design with continuous aperture, last dedicated LTM lens (while first generation Summicron was also made in LTM mount, it was also available in M bayonet mount as well). But, Summitar is certainly a lens that would require getting used to - you have to be patient first and foremost  to understand many nuances of this almost century old optical piece. Many users would consider Summitar archaic, particularly when modern benchmarks are used, and opt for newer designs (I don't blame them). But I am jumping ahead...

ISO 160-1/1500, f/2.8, 50mm

Summitar follows a traditional collapsible design, very popular between 30s and 50s - basically you need to expend the lens by pulling the front side of the lens and then twist it to lock in extended position. To collapse it, twist the front in the different direction and then push the barrel in. Be careful though - when pushing the lens in, you risk hitting the camera's sensor with the rear element (assuming you're using M8 or M9). There is no definitive opinion among users on this subject - some claim that the lens collapses without any problems, while others mention that the lens does not clear the mirror. I did try collapsing the lens on my M8 and did not not touch the sensor, but I would still not recommend anyone risk damaging their cameras - the lens is not particularly large even when fully extended.

As mentioned earlier, Summitar is the last model sporting an 'click-less' aperture - you simply rotate the aperture ring freely to the desired position as there are no clicks. There are two problems with this design (I never learned how to avoid either of these issues) - firstly, the aperture ring can accidentally shift while you're using the lens and you might not notice it; secondly, the spacing between the aperture levels is uneve,n with more rotational room between large apertures, which makes it hard to set fractional levels harder at smaller apertures (as well as more prone to erroneous shift).

Like its predecessor Summar, as well as the first and second generation Summicron, Summitar has a focusing lock, which allows you to lock the focusing ring at infinity position. I personally dislike this feature in the lens since it requires pushing the locking pin in to unlock the ring every time you need to move it from the infinity to some other position. But, the locking ping is actually useful in a different way - the focusing ring is very thin, which makes it somewhat hard to grasp well, and so grabbing the lock-pin to use it as a lever to rotate the ring is a welcome option. The ring has distance markings engraved (only in feet on my copy of the lens) and the barrel has a matching DOF scale, which allows you to preset the lens for quick shooting. When preset to f/16, the lens would give you a working focusing range from about 8ft to infinity.

When mounted on the digital M8, Summitar blocks about 2% of the viewfinder, but does not overlap with the 50mm  frame-lines. Blockage is going to be mich higher if you are using original, barn-shaped SOOPD lens hood. You can try using traditional A42 Leica lens hood, but the thread on Summitar is 0.5mm narrower, so you risk of having the lens hood fall off in the midst of shooting. The best option is to use the SNHOO adapter and then use regular 39mm screw-in type third-party hoods readily available on eBay. I have not tried either of the hood options I described and so cannot really comment on how much of the viewfinder will be blocked in either of the cases.

When buying this lens, you should exercise caution - these are 60 year old copies we're dealing with and so the quality of samples will vary a lot. Summitars are prone to fogging and haze, and so ideally you should try to secure an inspection period with the seller. Another typical issue with this lens is excessive scratches on front and rear elements, particularly with older copies that do no have coating to protect the glass. It is practically impossible to find a sample that has absolutely no scratching, the question is the amount.

Assuming you're going to be using the lens on any of the M mount cameras, including digital M8 and M9, you will also need to invest in an LTM to M adapter. I chose Voigtlander 50/75 LTM adapter, which costs ~$60 and has a shallow groove in the base, which allows for DIY lens coding with a sharpe. I have not really coded the lens myself and so cannot really recommend which of the codes would work best for Summitar.

 

 


Resolution

It is hard to expect any miracles from older lens designs like Summitar. Keep in mind that the lens was designed in 30s, when the lens designers' philosophy was not centered about absolute resolution. Still, while Leica Summarit 50mm f/2 does not exhibit the highest absolute resolution, it does fair reasonably well, as can be observed from the simplified MTF50 charts below. As a reminder, the Imatest experiments were run in the 1m to 10m focusing range, with the absolute best results graphed into the chart you see below. You can observe that Summitar clocks a reasonable resolution in the center at f/2, which improves slowly with stopped down aperture, peaking somewhere around f/8. Border resolution is where the lens exhibits major weakness, with corners remaining significantly softer all the way through f/5.6. There is a measurable performance boost around f/8, bringing corner resolution to very decent levels according to the MTF50 results. Basically, the lens exhibits very similar to Summicron 50mm f/2 Rigid (also reviewed recently) resolution pattern, but lacking the Summicron around corners where the improvement gains with stopped down aperture is much slower.

 

Leica M8 (10Mp)

 

Looking at the crops from the test target, you can see the fairly significant difference in quality the lens produces with wide open aperture and stopped down to f/8. Corners at f/2 are outright soft, with not that much detail carried through. The overall quality also seems to suffer further because of the lower contrast, which we will discuss in the next section. On the other hand, results at f/8 are quite good - while not as clinically sharp as with some of the modern lenses, quality seems reasonable to a naked eye. But let's take a look at how the lens performs in field test.

 

Leica M8 (10Mp)

 

The series of crops below compare image quality that Summitar offers when focused at infinity. The distance to the target was greater then 20m. I took several series of focus bracketed shots around infinity and then selected the series that produced visually sharpest results. As you can see, the lens is fairly soft wide open - while center might barely pass the Ok threshold, borders are outright soft. But perception of sharpness actually suffers even more here because of the much lower contrast at f/2 (the crops below are straight out of camera with no post-processing applied). Furthermore, Summitar also exhibits mild degree of field curvature, which can also cause some confusion among users - at close to MFD distances and wide open apertures, you will actually see the corners of the images are slightly softer then they ought to be. A little play with the focusing can bring up slightly better corner results at the expense of the center quality. It's a trade-off, but it does not bother me personally. since it is a non-issue given my preference to shoot for shallow DOF at MFDs. Smaller apertures and longer focusing distances mask this problem fairly well.

 

Center

L.L.Corner

U.R.Corner

 

On the final note, here is a simplified chart that tries to capture the resolution dependency of the lens to the focusing distance used. The chart averages MTF50 resolution numbers from Imatest across all aperture positions and measurement points for given focusing distance. For example, a plot at 1m is calculated as an AVERAGE (MTF50 (Center,@1m,f/2), MTF50 (Borders,@1m,f/2), MTF50 (Center,@1m,f/4), MTF50 (Borders,@1m,f/4),...). While not really a scientific measurement, it tries to give you a glimpse into whether the lens performs better up close or at a distance.

 


Color & Rendering

If you are reading this review, you're probably interested in a 'non-mainstream' lens and have certain expectations for Summitar to meet that 'non-mainstream' label. Summitar is one of the very few old lenses I have kept around from my old film days specifically because of that - I don't really have a better explanation for why I have not yet parted with the Summitar. Jumping ahead, I would argue that this is not a lens for everyone - you will quickly discover that the quirks of this lens need getting used to and do not justify the small amount of money you're saving by choosing a second hand Summitar over a more modern lens like Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/2 ZM. But since you've made a conscious decision to evaluate Summitar, all the capabilities of a modern lens probably pale in comparison to the look and feel you are trying to get from this lens. But let's do this in an orderly fashion...

ISO 320, 1/90, f/2, 50mm

In my recent review of Leica Summicron M 50mm f/2 Rigid, I claimed that Rigid has a fairly low contrast at wide apertures. Compared to the Rigid Summicron, Summitar has an even lower contrast, and not only at wide apertures, but pretty much throughout the entire aperture range. Contrast obviously varies slightly depending on the shooting conditions - lowest in strong direct light and slightly better in neutrally lit environments. Of course, better is a relative term here - Summitar is nowhere close in its contrast capabilities to lenses like Planar 50mm f/2 ZM or Biogon 35mm f/2 ZM.  Images straight out of camera actually do look fairly bleak, as if you applied a neutral grey mask to the entire frame, and need modest amount of post-processing work to make the image colors look richer. Unfortunately, this is not always possible - I had the worst luck trying to recover contrast in images taken with Summitar in daylight, where the lens continuously overexposed images by ~1EV. Dialing down exposure compensation obviously helps reduce probability of blowing out highlights, but at a cost of clipping off some detail in shadows. But if you do manage to capture your images without clipping off too much data, you will find Summitar files fairly easy to manipulate - my most favorite use of this lens is actually for indoor photography where the lens seems to produce more even luminocity distribution, which in turn gives me more flexibility in adjusting contrast and saturation without the need to deal with more complicated recovery methords .

Interestingly, you will notice that while Summitar produces overall low contrast, it does have a fairly decent tonal reproduction, particularly in mid-tones. I was surprised by that, but it kind of makes sense, since with the pretty constant overexposure and lower contrast, the lens shifts color gamut towards white, hence also shifting a good portion of shadows into mid-tone range.

One other interesting side effect of the low contrast is absence of lateral chromatic aberration. 'Absence' is probably too strong word here - Imatest does capture some levels of CA, but from practical perspective, unless you're eyeballing your images at 100% magnification, you would not notice any color fringing. The chart below summarizes Imatest results, which show that CA levels average ~0.35px in the center across all tested aperture levels, while border CA reached ~0.4px at f/2 and declines to ~0.25px by f/8. Summitar does show mild levels of spherical aberration though, particularly at wider apertures. Many users like this characteristic in portrait lenses since it often helps create smoother facial tones, sometimes even make portraits look celestial because of the spherical crown phasing out of the in-focuse areas.

 

Leica M8 (10Mp)

 

DOF & Bokeh

As I mentioned earlier, I find Summitar somewhat of a handful to deal with. This also comes to the look and feel of bokeh that the lens produces. While I tend not to label bokeh of any particular lens as 'good' or 'bad', I must admit that Summitar's bokeh capabilities are consistently unusual to say the least. This 'unusualness', in my opinion, comes from two characteristics of the lens - longitudinal aberration that the lens shows at wider apertures and the general low contrast it carries through all aperture settings. The longitudinal aberration often produces fairly sharp outlines in out of focus highlights, as if somebody took a sharp white pencil and outlined OOF highlights with it. This can be observed in a number of sample shots, which when combined with low overall contrast tends to be rather 'hard' on the eyes. On top of that, I have noticed that Summitar tends to produce somewhat ovalish highlights, which can add a little bit to the strange feel of bokeh.

ISO 640, 1/45, f/4, 50mm

If you search the web for Summitar reviews, you will find many references to the so called 'swirly' bokeh that this lens produces.This is an interesting characteristic of the lens that majority of users seem to agree on. Naturally, there is a difference in opinion what is 'swirly' and from my personal tests of this lens, I can't seem to put a finger on when the lens actually gives the so called 'swirl' to the OOF highlights. You can see a little bit of that in the shot displayed in the previous section, but not in the one on the right hand side. Without doing a little bit more testing, I am hesitant to make a definitive conclusion here, but it seems to me that the swirly happens more often brightly lit environment, with the OOF objects that are located at farther distances. The longitudinal aberration that the lens produces seems to exacerbate and adds to the feeling of 'business'. In darker environments, where the OOF background is noticeably darker then the foreground, this does not seem to be much of a problem. On  a personal note, I don't really find Summitar's bokeh in such cases particularly attractive and almost never keep the final image.

As is customary with this section, we're going to start with a shot of a ruler to simulate the shallowness of DOF at the minimum focusing distance. The shot was taken at ~45 degrees to the surface. Using online DOF calculator, I'm getting ~3.5cm, with the near limit at 98cm and far limit at 1.02cm. This is pretty much identical to Simmicron Rigid and like with the Rigid you see that the DOF area reasonably shallow, but the out of focus transitions are more gradual then with the lenses that offer combination of shorter MFD and faster max aperture. You can notice how flat the colors really are here - even with 2 500W lights bounced off the ceiling, lower contrast and overexposure pushed luminosity too much, clipping the details and bleaching out colors.

 

ISO 320, 1/90, f/2, 50mm

 

Like with the Rigid Summicron, Summitar's bokeh capabilities are affected by its minimum focusing distance more then by its aperture. The two sets below demonstrate what DOF will look like at MFD of 1m and stepped away to ~3m with wide open and stopped to f/8 apertures. At MFD distances, Summitar produces reasonably well-blurred background - it is not as smooth as with faster lenses like Voigtlander Nokton 50/1.1 though, and you can see enough detail around larger background objects. There is a hint of double edging in the background, but it is fairly mild and does not seem to add too much 'disturbance'.The feel for isolation disappears quite rapidly though, as you move away from the focused target - at 3m, Summitar produces background blur that carries much more detail for my taste - it has almost as much detail as a shot done at MFD but stopped down to f/8.

 

DOF @ 1m

'

ISO 160, 1/2000, f/2, 50mm

ISO 160, 1/250, f/8, 50mm

DOF @ 3m

ISO 160, 1/4000, f/2, 50mm

ISO 160, 1360, f/8, 50mm

 

Given the low contrast that the lens produces streight out of camera, the feel of 3Dimensionality is rather lacklaster. While I personally don't mind low constrast, washed out background in images, I do want to see higher contrast in the center, so that there is a fairly pronounced separation between the foreground and background. With Summitar, as I mentioned earlier, the feel is much more subtle, and you'd end up tweaking the images in postprocessing to bring additional detail that the lens hides.

 

ISO 320, 1/180, f/2, 50mm

 

 


Flare

Flare could be a major plague with this lens for a couple of reasons. Firstly, some of the older samples do not have coating, which means significantly lower resistance against flare. But even the ones that did receive post-manufacturing coating are single-coated and hence are not as effective in blocking strey light as the modern multi-coating. Secondly, even with coated samples, scratches and coating blemishes from the age or abuse would amplify flare as well. If you're not careful and shoot the lens with a light source near or within the picture frame, you're risking of getting a lot of nasty artifacts which could ruin your images, like ones below - notice color shifts, glare, drastically reduced contrast (can it be any lower?), basically the whole bunch of issues that would be rather hard to fix in postprocessing.

 

 

ISO 160, 1/8000, f/2, 50mm

ISO 160, 1/1000, f/8, 50mm

 


Vignetting

Summitar shows moderate amount of vignetting on the APS-H type Leica M8. The lens clocks ~1.5EV at f/2, dropping to ~0.8EV at f/2.8. Light falloff is minimal beyond f/4.

 

 

From practical point of view, light falloff will cause some darkening of corners at f/2 and to a much lesser degree by f/2.8, but should not be noticeable in all but light colored scenery. Either way, if it bothers you, fix it in post-processing (or try coding the lens to let M8/M9 firmware take a stab at it) - if you're using Photoshop, set Vignetting Amount in the Lens Correction menu option to +20 to compensate.

 

Vignetting @ f/2 (Leica M8)

 

Distortion

Summarit showed fairly minimal pincusion distortion - at ~0.7%, distortion is unlikely to be visible in most real life results.

 

 


Alternatives

With 50mm lenses being the staple of camera world, you have one of the widest selections when it comes down to finding an alternative to Summitar. If you're after the old look and feel, then Leica Summar 50mm f/2, original Carl Zeiss Sonnar 50mm f/1.5 and its Russian copy Jupiter-3 50mm f/1.5, all in LTM mounts, would be the lenses to consider. The modern Carl Zeiss Sonnar 50mm f/1.5 in M mount, designed to replicate the old, 'classic', feel but with a much more robust coating is also a very interesting choice. Then there's obviously the numerous versions of Leica's ubiquitous Summicron 50mm f/2 and Summilux 50mm f/1.4. Somebody with a lot of cash to spend might want to even consider Leica's Noctilux 50mm f/0.95. Voigtlander's 50mm primes, such as Nokton 50mm f/1.1, Nokton 50mm f/1.5 LTM and Nikel Heliar 50mm f/2, are a much more cost-conscious options and have a fairly strong following among rangefinder users.

 

Recommendation

Leica's Summitar 50mm f/2 is, in my opinion, quite an interesting lens that deserves a consideration from someone looking to produce photographic look and feel of days past. It is a very unique lens in this regard that would probably frustrate many users looking for something generic. It is by no means a sharp lens - it reaches its best performance around f/5.6-f/8, but is a sub-par performer with wider apertures, specifically those of you looking for stellar corner performance should simply stay away from this lens. Lower contrast might also displease some users, although I found lower contrast fairly easily fixable with this lens in most situations. Tendency to blow out highlights and flare is a different story, and here you just need to be careful in choosing your composition angles and environments. Bottom line, with a price of ~$300, it is certainly worth trying out and if you don't like the rendering style of this lens, selling it back would not pose much problem and would not cause you any major financial loss since prices for this lens are fairly stable.

 

Sample Images


User Reviews