Last Updated on May 13, 2023 by Photography PX
Leica’s Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH, first introduced in 2004, replaces the long-standing PRE-ASPH Summilux f/1.4 released in the late 1950s. And the iterations available today are based on the original design from the early 2000s.
On paper, it brings enormous technological improvements in optical design and lens construction. And it stands among the pinnacle of Leica engineering capabilities, bested only by Leica’s Summicron-M APO and Noctilux-M.
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However, the Summilux is technically a lens designed for Leica’s film cameras, namely the M8 and M9. So, how does it stand up in today’s ultra-high-resolution world? And is it a worthwhile investment, considering the current price and slew of competitors? Let’s find out.
What are the designations that Leica uses?
- Summicron: Leica’s Summicron lineup is their high-end lens collection. These lenses all feature a maximum aperture of f/2 and boast Leica’s best manufacturing abilities for uncompromised quality. And Leica uses this designation across many camera formats, including the M, S, T, and PL lineups.
- Leica M: Leica M lenses are those designed for their rangefinder cameras, dating back to the original M3 released in 1954. These lenses deliver a classic rangefinder experience, meaning they’re compact, manual focus only, and use a bayonet-style mount. And they also capture the 35mm full-frame image circle.
- ASPH: This describes a lens that offers an Aspherical lens element, which corrects optical aberrations such as coma using a high refractive index. Doing so improves the lenses image quality. And while it’s generally more expensive to manufacture than a traditional spherical element, it does perform noticeably better.
What mounts does this lens support?
The Summilux-M 50mm supports Leica’s M-Mount of rangefinder film and digital cameras. However, you can use this lens by purchasing the M-Adapter L, which lets you use it on Leica’s SL and T/TL cameras.
Build Quality, Construction, and Design
Some general specifications, this lens opens to f/1.4 and closes at f/16. And it uses a 46mm (E46) filter thread. There are two main color variants, Silver Chrome and Black Anodized, each using a different construction.
And that, in turn, changes the final weight. In this case, the Silver Chrome uses brass, weighing 460g, while the Black Anodized uses aluminum, weighing 335g. There’s also a limited edition Black Chrome variant, which changes the design entirely to match its predecessor from 1959. And it too uses a brass construction.
It’s important to note this difference in weight is noticeable in hand. And it actually makes the Silver Chrome or Black Chrome variants heavier than some competing DSLR lenses, like Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.4 USM. Still, at 52.5 mm (2.1 in) long, the lens is compact, and its weight is manageable. And it’s also considerably smaller and less awkward than the 50mm Noctilux. So together, it balances pretty well on the Leica M11.
Either way, all variants offer a working distance or Minimum Focusing Distance (MFOD) of 0.7m (2.3 ft) with a reproduction ratio of 1:11. And their Angle of View is also 47º if you’re curious.
Internally, the Summilux obtains a general optical design closely following the 35mm Summilux-M 1.4 ASPH. With that, it features 8 Elements in 5 Groups, including an aspherical lens element, reducing distortion and spherical aberration.
It also incorporates a Floating Lens Element (FLE) design, reducing focus shift and improving sharpness. And it uses a 9-blade diaphragm.
Externally, it has an aperture ring with half-stop increments and clicky feedback. It also has a 1/4-inch ribbed focusing ring with a bottom-mounted focusing tab (note: not available on Black Chrome). But each variant offers a built-in metal lens hood that extends about a half-inch or collapses via a simple twist mechanism.
Overall, the design of this lens is excellent and leaves little room for complaints. Despite its age, it still feels exceptionally high-end, premium, and durable in the hand. And the general package remains reasonably light but balances well when mated to the Leica M11.
In some ways, the Summilux is relatively soft when shot wide open at f/1.4, as it’s a lens primarily designed for Leica’s film rangefinders. Still, compared to rivals from Canon, Nikon, and Sony in its generation, it does produce superior results in central sharpness at this aperture. And stopping the lens down only improves overall sharpness, which peaks around f/5.6. There the corners sharpen nicely.
The lens is also entirely free of chromatic aberration or color fringing. And it also produces negligible barrel distortion with minimal ghosting or flare when shooting backlit.
As for rendering and bokeh, the Summilux succeeds the older Pre-ASPH variant. And while some may prefer the softer, more classic rendering of that lens, this newer model does boast superior edge-to-edge sharpness. Granted, that could likely be a downside, depending on your medium.
For example, in portraits, the softer and more nostalgic rendering could help create more flattering images straight out of the camera, rather than highlighting every skin flaw.
Still, the Summilux produces modern-looking images with excellent detail, plenty of contrast, punch, and pleasing colors. It also produces excellent bokeh, which is both creamy and smooth. And photos display plenty of character and an organic 3D-like rendering that mimics medium format.
So, overall, the Summilux continues to be a strong option for those wanting a 50mm lens for Leica’s M-mount.
As a rangefinder lens, the Summilux offers only manual focusing. However, the Silver Chrome and Black Anodized variants include a large focusing collar that’s about 1/4-inch thick and ribbed for a more tactile experience. These models also offer a contoured focus tab underneath to fit your finger.
The focus tab is quite a handy feature that provides greater control and increases precision. And it continues to be a welcomed touch.
Now, as far as the focus thrown on this lens, it’s modest. You have about 90º, and the collar provides good resistance throughout. However, some photographers feel the collar is a bit stiff since the lens has floating elements. But, I didn’t personally find it to be problematic during use.
The Summilux also has a focus distance scale, marked in both feet and meters. Plus, there’s a depth of field scale, with apertures from F/2 to F/16. The lens also doesn’t exhibit any focus shifting, so you can rely on the focus point to always be correct. And you can confidently zone focus for most distances with reasonable accuracy.
Overall, achieving precise focus on this lens is fairly straightforward. But, it’s quite tactile and very satisfying. So I’d say the general manual focusing experience is excellent and sure to be a hit with rangefinder shooters.
While the central sharpness on the Summilux is outstanding wide-open, the peripheral corner sharpness is lacking. And you’ll notice the lacking clarity when analyzing off-centered objects. This isn’t a deal-breaker but something to consider.
The lens also experiences a heavy vignette around the edges of the frame when shot wide open. And this difference is as much as 2EV stops. The vignette doesn’t become negligible until around F/5.6. And while this downside does yield it a signature look, it can become problematic when shooting subjects framed off-center.
Lastly, the Summilux has a traditional 9-blade diaphragm, which isn’t rounded, unlike most modern lenses. And if you shoot bright background lights between F/2.8 to F/5.6, you’ll see the blades’ octagonal shape in the bokeh. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it does become somewhat of a distraction.
At its current price, the Summilux-M 50mm isn’t necessarily the most economical choice for this focal length. And given that it’s a rather old lens, it’s hard to ignore its current price. Zeiss offers both a Sonnar and Planar series lens for Leica’s M-Mount. There are also Voigtlander’s Nokton lenses to consider. And all of these alternatives undercut the Summilux price by thousands of dollars.
Yet they offer broadly similar image quality wide-open, especially the Zeiss Planar T* comparing edge-to-edge detail. So they’d be better options if you’re looking for the best bang for your buck.
The key problem is each of them falls dramatically short in its build, design, and resale value. So considering the results the Summilux offers are magical, unique, and 3D-like images, it seems there’s something to that steep price gap. And this lens is easily the best 50mm Leica offers for the M-Mount, considering its price, size, and performance, outdoing both the Noctilux and Summicron APO.
In the end, the Summilux-M 50mm is an extraordinary lens, considering its age. And it’s undoubtedly aged quite gracefully. But, acquiring this lens comes at hefty cost and it faces stiff competition that undercuts it heavily. As such, it’s not the absolute top choice for every photographer, especially those on a budget.
That said, if we put the price aside, the performance here is fantastic. This lens captures extraordinary detail with minimal distortion and aberrations. And for Leica M purists, it remains a worthy investment and a solid performer that’ll continue to be the go-to lens for some time.
Below are a few examples to gauge what to expect from this lens. Also, click here if you wish to download the RAW files. Or click here if you want to see a more extensive image gallery than what is displayed on our site.