#136. Finding the perfect lens for the Nikon D800e. (1) Leica Summicron-R 35:2

As mentioned in my introduction to the Nikon D800e, my long term review of this fa-bu-lous camera will involve quite a bit of lens testing. Among the lenses under scrutiny : Leica-R 19:2.8, 35:2, 50:2, 90:2.8 (possibly 60:2.8 and 180:3.4), Nikon’s 50:1.8, 18-200 (yes, the DX lens) and 55:3.5 Micro-Nikkor, Zeiss’s Distagon 2/25 ZF.2 and anything else I manage to lay my hands on 🙂

Morrocan Pot - Nikon D800e and Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2

Morrocan Pot – Nikon D800e and Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2

Usually, any good story builds up tension until a climatic release which, in this reviewing process, could and should be “and the winner is …”. But let me spoil the fun and start with one of the contenders for the crown : Leica’s Summicron-R 35mm f/2. My particular sample was acquired a few weeks ago on evilbay and it a battered old trooper of a lens.

My Summicron-R 35:2, with a Leitax bayonet, on a Nikon D800e camera

My Summicron-R 35:2, with a Leitax bayonet

If you can’t be bothered reading the rest of the review, here’s a bit more spoiling for you : I could – easily – live with only one lens on my D800e, if this was the lens !

Size and Ergonomics

Before falling for this model, I read countless reviews and forum posts (those on Fred Miranda are particularly great) where the debate between the Summicron-R 35:2 and the Summilux-R 35:1.4 go on and on, with advocates in both camps each making very valid points. I thought I’d try to give a more detailed description here.

Viewing Collioure - Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2

Viewing Collioure – Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2

To me the decision boiled down to two dimensions : price and size.

As regular readers know, my dislike of the recent marketing-fueled high-ISO craze is intense, but the D800’s great performance at 400 means one very important thing : smaller lenses! The Summicron-R 35:2 is just about the perfect size.

After using M-mount lenses for the past 18 months, it does feel large at first but, at the end of the day, it is a much nicer lens to use than the Zeiss Biogon 25/2.8, for instance. Perfect size, perfect focusing, perfect ergonomics. For me, they don’t get any better than this. A Zeiss Distagon 2/25mm ZF.2 just arrived in my home today and it is one boat anchor of a lens conpared to this.

A castle overlooking Collioure - Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2

A castle overlooking Collioure – Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2

So – for me – this is the Goldillocks of lenses and the ergonomics, damping accuracy and weight of the focusing, 55mm filters (shared with 2 other of my R-stable lenses) and retractable sunshade (Oh GLORY of GLORIES) are just perfectly spot on. It also perfectly balances on the D800 body and the combo does not hurt the neck after a day’s walk.

I could not wish for a more pleasant lens to use.

OK, so now, let’s get a bit more factual. Here are a few strong points and weaknesses of the lens. After this, you can decide whether it also is the perfect lens for you.

Sharpness

Oh my, I’m doing it all wrong today. Sharpness is all people want to know, nobody will read the rest 😉

Can’t blame them, either. Of all the lenses I acquired for the D800e, this is the one that worried me most. Needlessly! It is plenty sharp. Here are center and corner sharpness samples at f/2 f/4 and f/5.6. These are real life sample, not lab tests under intense lighting and focus bracketing. All shot in lovely Collioure (definetely worth a visit if you’re in Southern France :)).

Sharpness at f/2 (Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2)

The test scene is a general view of Collioure at dusk. A lady is viewing the port and church through one of the 12 frames indicating the view chosen by several of the famous painters that made the city famous.

A painter's view of Collioure - Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35:2

A painter’s view of Collioure – Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35:2

Here is the center at 100% (@f/2)

Center sharpness at f/2 - Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2

Center sharpness at f/2 – Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2

And here is the righmost edge, behind the lady’s back

Right edge sharpness at f/2 - Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35:2

Right edge sharpness at f/2 – Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35:2

To me, the center looks perfect. Not only *very* sharp but also beautifully coloured and contrasty. Absolutely no purple fringing to be seen. Edge performance is not quite as good but is definitely better than what MTF curves led me to worry about. Contrast is maintained here and colour separation is great. Remember that, at 100% (click to enlarge) you are looking at a 4 to 7 foot pictures, depending on your screen resolution.

Although not shown here, the outermost pixels in the corners are much worse than what you see here. At 100%, the final 3-4 cm are quite blurry (see below)

Sharpness at f/4 (Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2)

For f/4, I have moved forward to the main beach, lined with its stone restaurants and plane trees (you really must go and visit ;))

Collioure's main beach and church - Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2

Collioure’s main beach and church – Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2

Center @100% (note the detail on the moon)

Center sharpness @f/4 - Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2

Center sharpness @f/4 – Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2

Bottom-right corner@100%

Corner sharpness @f/4 - Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2

Corner sharpness @f/4 – Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2

My take : perfect at center. Pretty close to perfect in the corner. As mentioned above, the outer corner remain blurred. It doesn’t bother me, but could be an issue for some applications such as architecture.

Sharpness at f/5.6 (Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2)

The thrid test scene is less romantic, but I was trying to test plane of focus flatness. So here are leaves through curtains …

Weedy curtains - Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2

Weedy curtains – Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2

center @100%

Center sharpness - Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2

Center sharpness – Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2

bottom edge @100%

Edge sharpness - Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2

Edge sharpness – Nikon D800e + Leica Summicron-R 35:2

My take : not much difference from f/4. Perfect at center, very good at the edge. In my outdoors tests, edges are even better than this but outer corners still do not match the rest of the field.

So this takes care of sharpness, which is easily good enough for my needs. I’ll just add that focusing accurately is very easy with this lens (unlike others in my bag … stay tuned ;))
What else is there to say ?

Bokeh

Some have called this lens the King of Bokeh while others hate it for the way it renders unsharp areas. As is often the case, there’s good and bad to report.

This lens was designed in 1976 and it shows in one area : only 6 blades in the diaphragm. So at some apertures and focus distances, here’s what you’ll get :

Christmas Hexagons - Summicron-R 35 bokeh

Christmas Hexagons – Summicron-R 35 bokeh

This sort of rendition makes some people sick, others dig it. To each his own. More trouble some is the coma that produces bird-like out-of focus images, as below :

Christmas Plane - Summicron-R 35:2

Christmas Plane – Summicron-R 35:2

See at 100%. The effect is also visible on the moon. This picture also illustrates the most extreme case of purple fringing I was able to produce with this lens.

Seagul bokeh on Summicron-R 35:2

Seagul bokeh on Summicron-R 35:2

Third “weakness”, out of focus highlights display a visible outer ring of light that can draw attention, but only visible in extreme cases.

Outlined bokeh - Summicron-R 35:2

Outlined bokeh – Summicron-R 35:2

That being said, in most cases, bokeh is very pleasing. See the first picture in this post for a more typical look or the picture below. Nothing wrong with that in my book 🙂 !

Flowery bike & smooth bokeh. Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2

Flowery bike & smooth bokeh. Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2

Colour

I alter the colour in pretty much all my shots, so this doesn’t mean much to me. However, some lenses add a distinct cast to a scene or subdue colours slightly (such as the otherwise great Micro-Nikkor 55/3.5). Some testing I’m not able or willing to conduct would tell you more about this, but in first impressions, the Summicron-R 35:2 doesn’t do either of these.

Colour pipe - Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2

Colour pipe – Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2

Colourful bike in Collioure - Nikon D800e & Summicron-R 35:2

Colourful bike in Collioure – Nikon D800e & Summicron-R 35:2

Yummy scallops - Nikon D800e & Leica-R Summicron 35:2

Yummy scallops – Nikon D800e & Leica-R Summicron 35:2

Flare

One final area to assess is resistance to flare and glare which is very good.

A sunstar trident - Leica Summicron-5 35mm f/2

A sunstar trident – Leica Summicron-5 35mm f/2

Shooting with the sun outside the frame can produce a lowering in contrast, but the hood is always there and can be erected in a second. With the sun in the frame, some flare is present, but it doesn’t intrude and has a cinematic look to it.

High contrast highlights - Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35 mm f/2

High contrast highlights – Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35 mm f/2

As you can see, the area immediately next to the sun retains plenty of contrast and definition. Some more recent Zeiss glass can do even better, but performance is very commendable.

Focus shift & other considerations

Using a high-quality vintage manual lens with an ultra-modern ultra-high-tech camera is my idea of photographic nirvana. But focusing the lens accurately and reliably is of paramount importance.

I have found that lenses such as the Elmarit-R 90:2.8 – while absolutely lovely in most respects – can be very difficult to pin down. This is not the case of the Summicron-R 35:2. The shorter focal length no doubt helps, but three other aspects of focusing are equally important here :

  • Infinity stop : It is perfectly calibrated on my sample.
  • Focus snap : at f/2, focus is snappy, even in average light. What seems sharp in the viewfinder turns out to be sharp in the file (most of the time ;)). So, as recommended by friend and co-author Philippe, focus at f/2 then close down to whatever aperture you chose. Obviously, this can only work if the lens keeps it focus point constant at all apertures. Which leads us to …
  • Focus shift : I haven’t tested this formally yet but, in use, it has not been an issue. So far so good!

Concluding thouhts

There are probably many other features and characteristics of this lens a pro reviewer would want to analyse. This is as far as my knowledge and interest goes.

Flowery portrait - Nikon D800e & Leica R Summicron 35mm f/2

Flowery portrait – Nikon D800e & Leica R Summicron 35mm f/2

This lens cost me 750€ plus another 90 for the Leitax conversion to Nikon mount. That’s not cheap but it’s a real bargain for a lens built this wonderfully and capable of feeding a data hungry sensor with beautiful information.

Next up : a loverly Elmarit-R 90/2.8 and my old Summicron-R 50/2.

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