Leica’s Worst Summicron 50mm F/2 is one of the Best (and Priciest) Legacy Fifties Around – Summicron V3 Lens Review

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.

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20 Comments

  • Reply
    jon campo
    November 15, 2017 at 9:18 am

    Another really enjoyable review here. Nice pictures Josh.

  • Reply
    Sean
    November 15, 2017 at 10:17 am

    Granted that I don’t have a point of reference to compare as this is the only Leica lens I’ve ever used, I love this lens and among the multitude of 50s I own, it’s by far my favourite lens.

    • Reply
      Josh Solomon
      November 15, 2017 at 1:15 pm

      It’s a good lens to have as your one-and-only. Enjoy it!

  • Reply
    mmarquar
    November 15, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Great article and photos.

  • Reply
    William Kazak
    November 15, 2017 at 11:25 am

    For not being a Leica guy you sure were gushing with love and appreciation for this lens. You just drove up the price with this review.

    • Reply
      Josh Solomon
      November 15, 2017 at 1:15 pm

      What can I say, a good lens is a good lens!

  • Reply
    Jarek
    November 15, 2017 at 11:34 am

    German have devised everything when it comes to cameras, lenses and etc. The rest of the World produce good or bad copies.

  • Reply
    mpve
    November 15, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    Great write up, Josh.
    From my own experience this lens is indeed (visibly) great! It is better (except for the bokeh) than my Sonnar ZM. But a cheaper way to get to this IQ level is buying a brand new ZM Planar. MTF suggests the Planar is slighty better at a lower price and you have warranty.

    There is a cheaper way to get this lens however: just buy the R version. It is the same lens for less than half price. You can buy the R version with an SL-2 for less than the M version alone! A no-brainer if you ask me…

    • Reply
      Josh Solomon
      November 15, 2017 at 1:17 pm

      I’ve been wanting to try the Planar for a long time! James is a big fan of the Summicron-R and I believe he uses it on his Leicaflex SL2. An equally fantastic lens.

      • Reply
        Joey
        November 16, 2017 at 7:51 pm

        I’ve owned and used plenty of lenses (nice ones too) but the Planar is the first one that made me say “WHOA” and seriously shocked me when looking at images in LR for the first time.

  • Reply
    Narudh Areesorn
    November 15, 2017 at 10:03 pm

    yeah build quality suck. it’s also the first leica lens i own for my recently acquired m4. i find the focusing ring way too stiff and the throw is too long. going to get rid of it and find a nice used v4 instead.

    • Reply
      Scott
      November 19, 2017 at 11:24 pm

      If the focusing ring is too stiff, either it’s dried out, or, more likely, someone re-lubed it with too much, too thick grease.
      Just having it lubed properly (assuming the glass doen’t need cleaned) won’t be terribly expensive.
      And if the lubrication is correct, the throw won’t seem so long.

  • Reply
    Randle P. McMurphy
    November 16, 2017 at 6:19 am

    As I started getting interrested in photography I asked my grandfather why he didnt buy a Nikon or Leica ?
    I know he was using a Contax instead and took pictures since he was a young guy in the war.
    “Lenses” he said – its´s all about the lenses and Carl Zeiss has the sharpest of all !
    Before he died he gave me his last camera a Contax 137 and two lenses a Planar 1,4/50 and Distangon 2,8/35.

    Took me some years till I finally touched it and took some pictures because I was just to focused on Nikon and later Leica M.
    Funny enough that I was shocked when I did and compared the 50 Cron with the Planar – both on high resolution Agfa APX25.
    Carl Zeiss seems to be the better choice !
    Mechanically it is not close to Leica or Nikkor lenses and it is manufactored in Japan but the optic itself is just amazing !

  • Reply
    Ned Bunnell
    November 16, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    Great review, Josh. It brought back fond memories of my V3 which I bought in ‘70. I was working at a camera store in Boston at the time and the owner let me pay for it via paycheck deductions. Don’t think I saw a check for two months. It was a wonderful lens especially in how it handled contrast and transitions from mid tones to highlights. It was definitely sharp but not extreme. Where the V3 shined for me is how the silver prints just popped. Not sure if links work, but here are three random images which I think are typical of how the lens performed.

    Boys on rock, Wilton NH 1979
    https://flic.kr/p/Dt93Wf

    Man holding nose, Boston 1972
    https://flic.kr/p/fL9tGQ

    Scowling lady, Boston 1972
    https://flic.kr/p/fKSpWi

    Cheers,
    Ned

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      November 16, 2017 at 6:44 pm

      Great photos there.

      • Reply
        Ned Bunnell
        November 16, 2017 at 9:16 pm

        Guess even a “black sheep” V3 can produce a fairly nice image once in awhile. Of course mine was made in Midland vs Wetzlar, which I recall was the topic of much discussion when I worked at the camera shop in the ‘70s.

  • Reply
    Jason Ganz
    November 17, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    I have a Leicaflex Standard and 2 Leicaflex SLs. I loved the writeup of this “black sheep” lens because for many Leicaphiles, the Leicaflexes – and to an extent their R-successors – are viewed as the black sheep of Leicas. It’s partially why one can get a very nice Leicaflex (Standard or SL) and a very nice 50mm Summicron-R mark 1 from 1963 – 1976 for under $500. At the same time, the Leicaflexes are a big part of why Leica went from a world photographic power to “almost killed”; every Leicaflex SL2 (and possibly the SL and Standard) was sold at a loss on the assumption the money would be made up by lenses. (Leica decided to put the Loss-Leader model to use in the photographic equivalent of a Mercedes S-Class…). That being said, I love my Leicaflexes and my R lenses, black sheep or not, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. (And that includes a non-metered Nikon F, an M3 with a 1950s ‘Lux, etc.,)

  • Reply
    Jose
    November 20, 2017 at 11:20 am

    Where does the second version of the r mount summicron fit into this? Would it be like the m mount v3 or another one?

    • Reply
      mpve
      November 20, 2017 at 2:02 pm

      AFAIK the R and M versions for the fifties have always been identical

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