A Year with the Leitz Summicron R 50mm F/2 Lens

A Year with the Leitz Summicron R 50mm F/2 Lens

2200 1467 James Tocchio

Made to fit Leica’s R mount SLR cameras, Leitz R series lenses don’t enjoy the fanfare heaped on their M mount brethren. No surprise; Leica shooters skew toward rangefinders, and sticker shock keeps kids looking for cheap legacy lenses from buying an R. Which is a shame, because I’ve been shooting the 50mm Summicron R for the past year and it’s a stunning performer in nearly every way.

Versions and Build

The original Leicaflex saw the first release of a Summicron 50mm in R mount. This lens is differentiated by later lenses by its single cam mount. It remained in production until 1968, at which time a version with two metering cams was made to fit the new Leicaflex SL (and the subsequent SL2). For later R series cameras, these lenses could also be supplied with the required three cam mounts.

All three of these Summicron models were made in Wetzlar, with optical construction consisting of six elements in five groups. Aperture increments actuate in single stops from f/2 to f/16. Close focus distance is just twenty inches.

In 1977, production of the Summicron R was shifted to Leitz Canada. At this time, the optical formula was updated and improved. The six elements in four groups construction provided higher contrast and improved flatness of field compared with the earlier lenses. It also provided a built-in collapsible lens hood. This later lens was produced in various configurations to fit earlier Leicaflex and later SL and SL2 cameras, as well as the more modern R cam cameras. There’s also a Safari version (painted green) to match the Safari R3.

It should be noted that none of this matters if you’re shooting with an adapter fitted to a mirror-less camera.

The version that I shoot is the earlier optical formula sporting the two cam mount, made contemporaneously with the Leicaflex SL2. This lens performs better than the earlier single cam version due to improved optical coatings, but lacks the increased contrast and flatness found in the later Leitz Canada version.

Any and all versions of the Summicron R 50mm feel utterly fantastic in practical use. Fit and finish is what we’d expect from a lens bearing the Leitz name. Aperture rings click with mechanical precision, focus throw is smooth and perfectly weighted. The barrels are made entirely of metal, as are the filter retaining rings and lens hoods (whether detachable or built-in).

None of this is of any great surprise. Let’s move on.

Image Quality and Performance

Shots made with the Summicron R 50mm are sharp in the center at all apertures, a bit spongy in the corners wide open. Close the aperture down and (predictably) things tighten up. By f/4 we’re seeing acceptably sharp rendition from corner to corner, and at f/8 it’s a world-class lens. Nail your focus at any aperture setting and unless you’re a serious pixel-peeper, you’ll be pleased.

But this whole sharpness paragraph doesn’t really matter much. The Summicron R 50mm has a personality that eschews quantifiable metrics. If you can’t make a great photo with this lens it’s certainly not because the lens isn’t sharp enough.

Low light performance is excellent, contrary to what some fans of the Summilux have to say. The Summicron, though only sporting a maximum aperture of f/2, will work perfectly in any light conditions. If you’re shooting film in the dark, get some high sensitivity stuff and go to work. Modern film’s impressive exposure latitude will help nudge you to where you need to be. If you’re shooting on a digital camera then you’ve likely outgrown your fear of the dark long ago. In 2018, even the most basic mirror-less cameras have truly mind-blowing high ISO performance.

Bokeh rendition, though always a subjective trait, is undeniably schizophrenic. More so than with most other lenses I’ve used, the quality of the blurred areas of shots made with the Summicron R 50mm will vary greatly depending on factors such as distance to subject, distance to background, positioning of light sources, and possibly the current moon phase. At times, blur is smooth as silk, while at other times it’s busy as a bee. Mixed metaphors not withstanding, the quality of bokeh made with this lens makes it a difficult lens to comfortably squeeze into the simple boxes with which gear reviewers are so preoccupied. 

The gallery below aptly illustrates the point. In the shot of my eldest daughter on the beach we’re seeing characterful bokeh that surprisingly mimics the swirl effect most often associated with Soviet era lenses, like the Helios 44 M. In the shot of the bee perched before a green background, we see none of this swirling effect, but this shot (made at minimum focus distance) is incredibly busy. With its hard edges, the bokeh here can be called nothing if not distracting. The very next shot, showing a bee this time before a golden background, is far less busy. Bokeh in this shot is softer, and though not perfectly blended, it’s at least more pleasing than the previous frame. Chalk this up to the greater distance between subject and background. 

But what the lens does incredibly well when speaking of focus, is found in the transition from in-focus to out-of-focus elements of a frame. There’s a smoothing effect that imbues these two-dimensional photographs with an uncanny suggestion of depth. This is a hard quality to quantify (I just use my eyeballs), but it’s a quality that I truly love and something that I rarely find in a standard lens.

Where the lens stumbles mightily, and this is shown in the gallery above in all its horror, is in truly abysmal mitigation of flares and ghosts when shooting directly toward a light source. Actually, it may be more accurate to say that it stumbles when shooting even remotely near a light source. If there’s a bright light, get it behind your back before firing that shutter. 

The result of this foible is not just flaring, but more egregiously, the diminishing of contrast across the entire frame. And when I say “diminishing” I mean “nuked from orbit.” When that front element is struck by stray light or even pointed toward a strong light source, expect any and all contrast in your shot to dissolve faster than an Alka-Seltzer. 

I’ve shot lenses that suffer from flares and ghost and diminished contrast when shot facing bright light, but I’ve never shot any that are as bad as this. On most lenses it’s also possible to choke down the aperture and eliminate some of the aberration, or fit a big honking lens hood and shield the front element. Not so with the Summicron. The sample shots above were made with progressively tighter apertures, and no amount of stopping down made any appreciable difference (though by f/16 I did manage to make multiple flares out of one light source). The Leitz lens hood, while delectably metallic, did nothing to solve the problem. 

But aside from this troubling result, shooting the Summicron R is a joy. Sample shots in the included galleries show that in normal shooting conditions micro contrast is strong, creating deep images with punch. Color rendition is accurate. Chromatic aberration is handled well enough (though not perfectly). Distortion is non-existent.

Takeaway

What’s most exciting about the Summicron R is that it has its own distinct and interesting personality. It’s a wonderfully characterful lens whether it’s mounted to one of Leica’s R mount film cameras or one of today’s masterful digital mirrorless cameras (Leica even makes an adapter to use R lenses on their newest mirrorless, the Leica CL).

But whether or not it’s the right lens for you will depend on the answers to certain questions. Got an R mount camera? Then owning this fifty is a no-brainer. If you don’t have an R mount machine, however, the conversation gets a little more complicated.

For mirror-less shooters on a rigid budget, there are plenty of nifty fifties that will satisfy your needs at a fraction of the cost. Do you want your lens to say Leica on it? If so, an R mount lens might be the most cost-effective fix. The M mount Summicron will certainly cost double the price.

I think the Summicron R is worth the extra scratch. Some of my favorite shots of the past year have been made with this lens. It imbues photos with a depth and an unquantifiable character that’s hard to argue against. Portraits look alive, landscapes stretch realistically to the horizon, the aperture’s fast enough for low light, and the lens feels incredible in the hands. What more do you want from a standard lens?

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
28 comments
  • I really appreciate a well-written “warts and all” review so thank you for that.
    Two questions, if I may.
    The “abysmal mitigation of flares” (nice turn of phrase by the way) — do you think it would be as bad with the later 3-cam lens?
    Any idea how this 50 stacks up against the 60 Elmarit macro? As I have the 60 I’ve never given much thought to getting a 50 but this review is putting a bee in my bonnet.

    Colin

    • Hey Colin. I don’t think the later version suffers from this flare issue. I’ve not used the three cam version, but I’m fairly certain that the lens was essentially unchanged until the Canada versions were released. As for the 60, I’ve not used that either so I can’t really speak to it. Apologies! Will get more R mount glass coming through the shop and get some shooting done.

  • I am surprised by your comments about flare. I never owned a copy of this version (I owned the Canadian version for a while). I own both the original 50mm Summilux (1968 version) and the revamped one (1998 version), and I have not noticed a problem with any of them in regard to flare. Did you have a filter on this lens when you made those shots??

    • I was surprised too! No filter mounted with these shots. I’ve used the Leitz UV filter at other times and it didn’t seem to negatively impact images.

  • There seems to be a lot of fondness for the first version of this lens (this is the one you are reviewing):
    https://www.flickr.com/groups/89028906@N00/discuss/72157623058696147/

  • I think these are the nicest pics that you’ve posted so far. The one of your daughter’s toes and the sand is too cute! Kinda bummed that you didn’t show some film examples, but I’m sure those are in the Leicaflex review.

    re. flaring, I’ve found that Leica glass is disappointing in that aspect. My Lux Asph 50 1.4 is terrible compared to my Zeiss ZM stuff, same with my Cron 35 Asph 2.0. The only one that handles flare well is the 28mm 2.8 Asph. But if you want the ultimate flare monster, you need to try the Helios 40-2 85 1.5! I bought a new one (they have reintroduced it a couple o years ago) and if you are anywhere near to pointing it at a light source the whole thing flares/hazes up. It’s as if the inside body of the lens is polished!

    • I’ve found that the Zeiss T* lenses (the newer the better) are incredible with flare resistance. Really amazing. And Pentax SMC glass isn’t far behind. I was surprised by just how pronounced the flare was with this lens. With some lenses I can use flares and other aberrations to my benefit, turn a weakness into something interesting anyway. But with this one it was just impossible.

  • Granted it’s a great lens, it’s Leica and nobody expects anything bad from it, but what is it that this lens can offer, that OM system Zuiko 50 mm f/1.8 can’t at a fraction of its price? Please don’t tell me it’s a “Leica” badge alone, let’s look at it from pragmatic point of view. Less chance of catching fungus over the years?

    P.S. I really wonder, not trying to be a buzzkill or anything.

    • Hey Michael. Trust me, we are very pragmatic here, my friend. The Leica badge doesn’t do much for me, personally. That said, there’s no denying that this lens shows a much higher build quality over the Olympus Zuiko you mention. Even the expensive Zuiko 55mm 1.2, which I was shooting yesterday, is a far cry from the quality of the Summicron. But build quality isn’t everything.

      I’ll reiterate here that you’re right; a lesser-priced lens, like the Nikon NIkkor 50mm 1.4 or Minolta’s MD 50mm 1.4, etc., will provide much the same performance as this Leitz lens. The major factor for me is that the Leitz lens is the only one that will fit onto a Leica SLR. Since I love the SL2, I do need to have a Leica R mount lens. And this one’s a good one.

      For mirrorless-only shooters, the question is – do you think the images that this lens makes look inherently different from images made with lesser-priced lenses. I happen to think they do. There’s a certain indefinable uniqueness to the rendering. Some people will say that that’s poppycock (and I can’t really blame them), but others will look at the sample shots and say, “Yeah. The Leitz lens is better.”

    • The Zuiko, though a nice lens, is not on the same plane. It’s hard to describe. You just have to see it.

      • Yes, it is true. The Zuiko is a lesser lens from the Leica 50/R – but not by much. However, the Zuiko – specially the last two versions are ultra high contrast lenses. The last one is fine even wide open, but can display chromatic aberrations that the Leica will not. Also, the higher contrast can make images look surprising “flat” in some situations. I think that the Mandler lenses had finer control of tonality, same with the Zeiss of that era. I have Leica glass and Olympus – I’ve got the Zuiko 50/1.8 (Made in Japan) and still have it. It’s got nice even colour, it’s a nice contrasty lens; but not as fine as the Leica. That is not everything though, you can make wonder images with any lens.

        • It all depends on what you mean by ‘contrast’. Leica lenses designed in the 60s and 70s have just have a wonderful look to them. The image just seems more ‘life-like’.

          • Ok, I’m not quite sure how to better describe it to you, but I will try… The Mandler designs for example. Leica R in particular. 1970-1990 before the aspherical era. These lenses have everything to like, tonality, resolution, micro details (resolving power). Zeiss lenses on the Contact G series. A nice balance towards resolving power and tonality. The new aspherical lenses – truly awesome from corner to corner of the frame. Punchy colour, but I dare say too much contrast that kills off that “wonderful look to them”.

          • Jose: I know quite well what the Leitz optics do. I was saying it’s hard to describe. It’s not ‘sharpness’.

          • The myth of the “Leica Glow” ?

  • Nice review! Reading through it I couldn’t help but feel you are describing a different glass though. For me the classic MOG Primoplan 58/1.9 has similar properties; the bokeh as you described is very variable; the transition from focus and out focus is wondrous; flare is not so well handled; but all in all it takes wonderful pictures. I’d be curious what you have to say about that lens. Have you had the opportunity to try one?

    • Thanks Gabriel. I haven’t used that lens, but it sounds intriguing. Will add it to the list. Thanks again.

  • Nice review James. My copy arrived on an SL and it seems hard to get it to take a bad picture. I have not noticed the flare issue. I should use it more, but these cameras are so heavy they don’t get out much.

  • Just wondering. Did you shoot the Summicron R 50/2 (Type 1) – the one you are currently reviewing with film or digital? If you used a digital camera – like the Sony a7 – then you will most definitely get flare, not from the lens; but from the sensor layer stack. I’ve never come across a problem like you have mentioned from this lens. I have both the Type 1 and 2.

  • Sorry, I just noticed on the descriptions on your photos, you used the Sony a7 for this review. The sensor filter stack is the problem of your flares. This is not an issue on film. I also use this lens on a Sony. A good review nevertheless.

    • Can you explain why it doesn’t happen with other lenses?

      • Well, that’s an interesting question that I cannot give you an official answer for. What is most logical is that flare problems like this one don’t happen on film with the Summicron in this way. I’ve had the same problems in day light with my Leica R, Olympus, Carl Zeiss QBM and other lenses too on the Sony a7. I have also read on other forums and websites that even the NATIVE Sony lenses can show ghosting and unusual flares on the a7 sensors! My answer would be that the a7 sensor filter stack has a problem with flare depending on where it’s coming from and the lens design.

        Also, the Summicron 50/2 R (Type 1) and the M contemporaries do flare also on film – but not like the double ghosting from point light sources like you have shown.

        The Sony a7 is a great camera that is fun to stick non-native lenses on. However the sensor filter stack is a weakness with possibly any lens. I believe it is not a fault with the lens, or the Summicron in particular. To avoid these sort of annoying ghosting and flare artefacts, it’s probably best to avoid exciting them in the first place; by not pointing the lens directly to extremely bright point light sources using the Sony a7. Or just take advantage of this effect and make it part of the a7 style! Perhaps others here can comment on this point better that I can.

        • Thanks for the input. I love the way the lens renders, so a bit of flare isn’t a deal-breaker for me. As you say, I just don’t point it at the sun!

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio