#126 Getting trained by a new lens: Leica Summilux 50

By philberphoto | News

Oct 13

Did you ever try going out with a new prime lens only and finding out just how much one can do when there is no choice but one focal length? I find that a most enlightening and enjoyable choice. Some of my best pictures come just when I think: “ah! I can’t be bothered to change lenses!”. And not many come from sessions when I keep thinking about lens choice and gear rather than what I am doing.

Well, that is exactly where I am at right now, only with a twist, or maybe two. The twist is that this is the legendary Leica Summilux 50mm f:1.4. Reputedly one of the finest lenses in production. Also one of the priciest. Except, some of you will argue, Leica have announced (but not yet started shipping) an even much pricier (6000€!) new Summicron 50mm ASPH APO! So, having fitted this expensive jewel on to my NEX 7, I feel compelled to use it, right? Except that on a crop sensor, it amounts to 75mm, and short teles have never been quite my thing. Over the tens of thousands of shots on my hard disks (with backup, of course!), definitely less than 10% come from lenses longer than 50mm. And I can’t say that I’ve done my delightful Contax G 45mm and 90mm justice in that respect.

So why spend so much on a focal length I don’t use that much? For two reasons. One is that I hopefully will learn to love it and put this love to good use. The other is that I am convinced that there will be an affordable FF mirrorless camera soon that will acept M-mount lenses, and thus the Summilux with be put to its intended use, my darling 50mm focal length.

Now, to business! The Summilux being a f:1.4 lens, one of its most obvious uses is in low light, wide open. I can’t say that my previous ownership of the Zeiss ZE f:1.4 (35, 50, 85) trio, for Canon DSLRs, had made me a wide open fiend. It was clearly not their strong suit, and also not mine. Very thin depth-of-field, aging eyes and shaky hands aren’t a marriage made in heaven. But NEX is a different story. Focusing with the rear LCD, a good electronic magnifier for accuracy, and holding at the waist level for stability make this much easier for yours truly. So this was my first shot, left totally unprocessed (SOOC) for your viewing.

Low light in the church meant I had to stretch to ISO 400 and resort to a lower shutter speed (1/20s) than I would have liked. But the result was serisouly promising, don’t you agree?

Next shot, also wide open, but better shutter speed (1/50s): oops! this ain’t sharp, eh?

So I stopped down to f:2.0, and paid more attention to composition:

Ah! This is sharp! So we have to conclude that even the fabled Summilux isn’t quite that sharp wide open, right? Let’s not forget that the NEX 7, with its 24Mp on an APS-C sensor is very probably the most demanding camera body for a lens, so I queried forum data and Boris, and the answer is: it is sharp…. back to the drawing board, but not before another shot establishing the lens’ performance at f:2.0:

My next opportunity was when I was walking the banks on the Seine river, in a small shipyard specialised in old wooden river boats. I could pull my tripod, and tried two shots. One wide open, and one not. The wide open one, I opted to convert to B&W.

What was already obvious by then is that, not only is DOF wide open very thin, but this lens on NEX 7 is much more sensitive to perfect focus than other combinations that had even less DOF, such as Contax G 90 on the same camera, or ZE 85 f:1.4 on Canon 5D II. It probably has to do with how the Summilux transitions from sharp to out-of-focus. Be properly focused or be ready to pay the price!

What was also obvious was that this lens was giving me glorious images. Drawing style, contrast, colours, detail, sharpness, all that hardly mattered as such, I just loved the result, and I was getting used to that focal length. But all these shots were close range, hardly the only use for primarily a landscape and city photographer…. So, how does it do at infinity, stopped down?

Well, we’re not quite there yet, but the difference in look is strking, and shows that the lens isn’t confined to dark places! OK, it is getting close to undown, with just a few seconds of golden light.  Let’s see how the ‘Lux does!

Now that the lens’ ability is established, as they say, beyond reasonable doubt (I didn’t have much doubt, mind you, or I wouldnt’ have forked out my hard-earned and waited that long), the real test is not: how good is it?, but rather: how good am I with it? Are the results not only technically correct, but also “interesting”, whatever this means to each of us? You be the judges….

As for me, I am happy to say that it lets me do things with my camera that I haven’t done before…

Sorry, gotta go. My Elmar is crying for lack of use. Time to go sing it a lullaby…

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  • Paul Perton says:

    Hi. Couldn’t agree more. I bought a 2nd hand 50 Summilux back in August and have spent the last three months learning how to start using it.

    I’m several thousand frames in – on an NEX-7 – and the results vary from jaw dropping to awful, depending on how much I ask of the lens and myself at the time I trip the shutter.

    Of course, I’m loving the challenge, but damn, this is hard work 😉

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