Longtime readers of the site will know that I’m far from a Leica fanboy. I generally prefer Japanese manufacturers and often champion their products’ value over their pricier, hyper-mythologized German counterparts. Considering my aversion to Leica, it’s only fitting that James would ask me to talk about that company’s most storied lens, the Summicron 50mm f/2. Either the universe has a wonderful sense of irony, or James has a cruel sense of humor. It’s probably both. In any case, I’ve been suckered into the risky business of writing about a Leica product once again, so let’s get on with it.
The Leica Summicron 50mm f/2 is Leica’s most famous lens. Forget the speedy and expensive Summilux and Noctilux; the Summicron is the lens that earned Leica glass its place at the very top. With the Summicron, Leica set the standard for how a 50mm lens should look and behave, a standard that holds to this day. When you hear the name “Summicron”, you immediately know that you’ll be dealing with the don of the 50mm family.
But as with all things Leica-related, it’s not that simple. The Summicron evolved throughout its history, and although some of these differences are incredibly minute, debate rages on about which ‘cron is the best ‘cron. There’s the original collapsible Summicron, the rigid Summicron, the Dual-Range Summicron, the Summicron V3, the Summicron-M, the Summicron V5, and the current absurdly-priced APO-Summicron-M f/2 ASPH, all of which have their own set of fans and critics. While we’re not here to delve into that debate it’s important to know which Summicron we’re talking about, if only to cover our asses.
The Summicron I’m stuck with today is the Summicron V3, famous in Leica fandom for being the black sheep of the ‘cron family and, to some, the lens that let the family down. But to really understand why the V3 comes with such a bad reputation, we should look at the history of Leica itself.
The Summicron V3 was manufactured from 1969-1979, a time Leica would probably like to either redo or forget entirely. The previous decade stripped Leica of the unofficial “Best Camera Manufacturer” title and gave it instead to Nikon. It was simple; rangefinders were out and SLRs were in, which spelled certain doom for rangefinder-centric Leica.
The brand quickly found themselves playing catch-up to more forward-thinking Japanese manufacturers. Though Leica tried to stay relevant by developing their Leicaflex SLR and updating their flagship rangefinder system, both pursuits eventually ended in almost complete disaster. The Leicaflex cameras never offered anything significantly different from other SLRs and the too-radical-for-Leicaphiles M5 flopped hard, leaving the once-legendary manufacturer in dire straits.
In their flailing, the brand made an unthinkable move that still angers some Leica geeks to this day – they changed the optical formula of their most sacred lens, the Summicron. Changed from the original 7/6 formula to a simpler 6/5 formula, the new lens produced greater contrast and featured a shorter focusing distance of 28” (0.7m), improvements by any standard. But in doing this, Leica committed the cardinal sin for many die-hard Leicaphiles – they screwed with tradition. And one doesn’t just screw with tradition when it comes to Leica.
As a result, the Summicron V3 has been treated as the runt of the Summicron litter. But after shooting it for a little over a month, I have to say that most of these criticisms are wildly overblown. Sure, the V3 might not stack up when compared to its siblings, but when compared to every other fifty in the world it proves to be one of the best in the category.
Among other things, Summicrons are renowned for their outstanding sharpness and resolving power. But the V3 is considered inferior to all other Summicrons in this specific department. This noted, I honestly can’t see myself asking for images sharper than what the V3 delivers. 100% crops of images off the full-frame Sony A7 look absolutely stunning, every single detail being rendered clearly and with artistic precision. It’s also worth noting that heavy crops of these images can still stand on their own, a testament to the Summicron’s quality at all areas of the frame.
But where the V3 really starts to show its legendary character is when we notice that it retains resolution and sharpness to the edges of the frame at every aperture (and yes, that deserves italics). The Summicron V3 is every bit as sharp to the corners from f/2 to f/16. One need not stop-down for a sharper image; it’s all there at every aperture if you need it. Unbelievable.
The Summicron V3 continues to excel when it comes to subject isolation and, you guessed it, bokeh. Its maximum aperture of f/2 might not sound terribly fast, but it more than makes up for its lack of speed in the quality of its subject isolation. Backgrounds don’t just fall off a cliff with this lens. In-focus areas fade gracefully into their backgrounds, which are some of the smoothest in 35mm photography. Even more interesting is that the while the Summicron is based on the traditional Double-Gauss lens formula, famous for its distracting and busy bokeh, it somehow sidesteps that issue entirely and instead gives the most beautiful bokeh this side of a Zeiss Sonnar.
Contrast on the Summicron V3 is an interesting thing to consider. The reduction in the V3’s lens elements was meant to lighten the lens and to increase contrast. It accomplished both things, but the slight bump in contrast really isn’t as great as one would expect. Contrast is still of the flatter variety, typical of the Summicron design. But what separates the V3 (and all Summicrons) from the rest is not the amount of contrast the lens has, but the way that it treats contrast. The Summicron V3 offers an uncommonly subtle and smooth grade between light and shadow, resulting in truly lifelike and 3D renderings of scenes and subjects. I suspect that it’s this special characteristic that catapulted the Summicron to the fame and status it currently enjoys.
This understated, finely handled contrast hints at the lens’ overall character. It’s not a lens that bashes you over the head with how good it is. It doesn’t punch you in the face with contrast, slice your eyes open with its sharpness, or leave you hypnotized Cameron Frye-style by its resolution. It instead offers the perfect mixture of all these attributes, resulting in images which have a depth and subtlety most lens manufacturers can only dream of coaxing from their glass.
As great the Summicron V3 is, there are a few problems. While the V3 is a fantastic lens optically, its build quality really lets it down. It’s not a badly built or ugly lens, but when laid next to a couple of older pre-AI Nikon lenses and some older (and newer) Leica lenses, it just doesn’t feel as solid. The aperture ring clicks just a little bit past f/2, the paintwork and engraving of the lettering seems just a bit sloppy, and overall the lens feels just a little too lightweight, a little too hollow. On really close examination, it’s easy to see why the Leica faithful poo-poo this lens and ditch it in favor of the more finely-made rigid and DR Summicrons.
There’s also the room’s resident elephant – that Leica price. Even though the Summicron V3 is the black sheep of the Summicron family, it still fetches over $800 on the used market. This places the V3 far beyond the reach of shooters who simply don’t have the dough, or don’t care to spend $800 on a manual focus lens from the 1970s. The high price creates a sharply defined barrier of entry, fostering a culture of envy and GAS on one side, and a culture of snobbery and supremacy on the other. It’s a sorry situation, but a very real one, and one that factors in when considering buying Leica.
The price begs the question; is the Summicron V3 worth it? Yes and no. On one hand, it’s one of the best 50mm lenses I’ve ever tested. It’s a lens whose whole is somehow greater than the already incredible sum of its parts. I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves in Leica circles, and I’d love to see it get its day in the sun. But do I think it’s worth the rather outrageous $800 price tag? That’s hard to say, but it does make one hell of an argument for itself.