After the "Asymptosis" post last week, a reader asked me if there was any lens I considered "the absolute best."
It's a silly concept, of course. It's like saying "who's the best musician in history?" Proposing one robs us of an apt appraisal of so many others. Bach, or Bob Marley? I'm sure I couldn't pick between those two, much less between them and fifty others. The best lens is the one that does what you need it to do, and almost all excellent lenses, like all great musicians, have their gifts to give.
Then there's the Johnston Lens Axiom, which holds that you can do terrible work with the best lenses and great work with the worst ones.
However, as an only semi-retired lens nut with a great and mystical passion for the magic of optics and a profound appreciation for the lens image, I do have a candidate.
It's a lens I've never owned, never tried, never seen. You might consider that to be odd, but, like the world exploding once the monks finish cataloguing the nine billion names of God, if I ever used this lens, a cap would be put on my lens nuttery; all would conclude. You know, like a landscape photographer going to Iceland.
So, why, you ask? Well, I once asked Harold Merklinger what his favorite lens was. Harold, an e-friend-I've-never-met, was Chief Scientist of the Canadian Defence Research Establishment Atlantic and retired as that agency's Director-General. He wrote "A Technical View of Bokeh" as part of the trio of articles that introduced that concept in this hemisphere. He's an enthusiastic polymath of technical photography and has written several books on optics. His answer was that he liked the older 55mm-filter-thread version of the Leica Summilux-R. When I asked him why, he said, "Oh, I suppose it just does everything I want a lens to do." Which seems a very casual answer until you consider the weight of technical expertise backing the statement up.
Likewise, the 50mm Summilux-M ASPH., designed by Peter Karbe, seems to do everything I want a lens to do. It's small and compact. It's reasonably well built, about 80% as well as Leitz lenses used to be 50 and 60 years ago (it might be better where it counts, namely, in robustness—i.e., its ability to hold all the elements exactly where they're supposed to be despite hard use, handling, temperature variation, and the passage of time). It exhibits very close to exemplary bokeh. It's consistent from center to corners and up and down the aperture scale. It does very well at close-focusing. It resists flare extremely well.
In short, it's pretty ideally well-behaved.
And subjectively: it will make you smile a thousand times if it makes you smile once.
It's extremely expensive*. (Ken Rockwell: "As this is among Leica's less-expensive lenses, one of the ways Leica keeps the cost so low is by making the focus tab out of plastic." Cost so low?!? ROTFLMAO. And how much manufacturing cost did that plastic focus tab really save? Eight dollars? Thirty dollars?)
WARNING! Leicaphiles do not read the following paragraph!
<!>It's not made in Germany. It's made here, with only enough final assembly left undone so it's legal to mark it "Made in Germany" after it's shipped there in pieces. Leica buffs don't believe this, but it's true. Oh, and I believe the molded aspherical element was sourced from Canon. I have the first on better authority than the second, although I know for a fact that Leica did source some molded aspherical elements from Canon, which was the first company to master the process. All on the QT of course.<!>
It only has one flaw—the aperture is the wrong shape, the opposite of rounded. I don't know what its shape is called—like a pincushion with nine points. Somebody wanted specular points of light to have a modest amount of star-rays. But you see that weird aperture shape in pictures—for instance, here—although you won't see it very often. The aperture shape doesn't seem to adversely affect the bokeh at all except in specular out-of-focus highlights. Even then it's mild.
I wouldn't use it on a digital M camera. I'd use it on a Sony A7 series camera. Of course the Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.8 is probably preferable on an A7-series camera. Unless those five extra millimeters and that two-thirds of a stop really matter all that much to you. Or, if my ship ever came in (that damn ship!) and I retired rich, I'd use this lens on an M6 with Tri-X. But only if I could also hire an assistant to develop my film.
I can't recommend it unless cost is no object to you. I'll probably never buy one, and that's okay. But I'll bet people who do buy them are richly rewarded and deeply satisfied.
And if you want a lens with just as good bokeh, try this underappreciated sleeper for your Micro 4/3 camera. Granted it's got a different angle of view, 90mm-e.
We photographers like to use good lenses for the benefit of people who look at our pictures. The reason we use great lenses is for us ourselves to enjoy, shot after shot and year after year. They make us happy. They "nourish our enthusiasm," to use Ansel Adams's phrase. This Leica 50mm would be one prime exemplar of the latter type of lens.
*I would love to see some gear site compare the Sony FE 50mm ƒ/1.8 ($198, announced in March 2016) and this lens. It would be fascinating to see what the difference really is between a cost-no-object lens circa 2004 and a lens made to an economy price this year. I've no doubt the Leica would trounce the Sony—but by how much? The Leica lens costs nineteen times what the Sony lens does. Unless that $3,597 price difference would only pay for a metal focusing tab.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
David Saxe: "I own a 50mm Summilux-M ASPH. and I love it. Its not because of the bokeh and I don't care where it is made. I like it because it is small, focuses smoothly, and the quality is excellent so it will last a long time. It has nothing to do with the quality of the photos that I make. That part of it is up to me—not the lens. I must admit though, that when I hold it in my hand, it feels solid and just right. Its a nice feeling."
Jeff: "This is the only Leica M lens that I own that is not a Summicron (ƒ/2), which I generally find to be the 'sweet spot' for M lenses in size and performance. I've loved it on both film and digital M's.
"There is some fascinating background to this lens, as covered by the designer, Peter Karbe, in this old Shutterbug interview....
"Subsequent to this lens, Leica produced the 50mm APO Summicron-M, which costs more than double the cost of the Summilux ASPH., with more impressive specs, but I'll stick with the Summilux...and get a stop to spare.
"Anyway, I've found more to be gained in print quality improvements over the years from changes in the back end of my workflow (printers, inks, papers, editing software, etc....and my own experience/skill/techniques) than from some modest change in lens (or camera) performance (especially when the existing gear is pretty great already)."
Mike replies: Thanks very much for that link. I had never seen it. Lead designer Karbe highlights something that his lens illustrates richly—which is that really good lens designs still requires good taste and intentionality on the part of its designers, as well as inspired quality control on the production line. I could have emphasized the former in this brief review; the lens shows a superbly well-judged balance of imaging properties, as well as physical and handling properties, which is really why I admire it so. I think it remains an especial success, even 12 years after its introduction.