Eventually we decide to spend the night. It’s just too far of a drive if we’re to spend any time together. I go out to the car to get our gray canvas bags, filled to the brim for a few weeks on the road. Stepping out the air feels crisp. The rain is really coming down. At least the horses don’t seem to mind.
If there’s one lens that epitomizes the Leica M lens offering it’s the 35mm Summicron. A compact, high performing lens with great ergonomics offering a natural angle of view that plays well with the viewfinder magnification on most M mount bodies – in all it’s the obvious pairing with any M.
Oddly there’s not all that much to be found written about the lenses online, especially the Aspherical version reviewed here. My guess is that it’s because one of two things happen whenever someone buys it – either they find it overpriced and not really offering any significant advantages over anything else; or that it’s just about the perfect lens and that ultimately there’s very little to be said about something so good. Oddly, I’ve found both of theses things to be true. Read on and I’ll do my best to break it down.
The Summicron 35 line of lenses stretches back into the 1950’s with a number of variations. The topic of this review is the first aspherical version produced since 1996, generally seen as the fifth version but usually referred to as simply the “ASPH” for Aspherical. There’s a slightly updated version available, often referred to as the ASPH II, that uses the same optical design but has more aperture blades, a metal hood and a few cosmetic differences.
All versions preceding the 35 ASPH uses variations on the double gauss formula, but with the new design philosophy ushered in by computer aided design tools and more advanced production methods the Aspherical version uses a much more complex layout including an element with aspherical surfaces (hence the name). The resulting lens is slightly larger and heavier than its predecessors, but also higher performing.
The lens is available in black aluminium, chromed brass as well as a number of special editions like black paint, titanium and black chrome. The specifications below are for the aluminium version of the lens. All versions made in Germany.
I suddenly get the urge to stay here forever. In the days of summer life is suddenly simple again. Our little family in the little house, the car parked just outside. Friends just around the bend and all that new land to explore. Just a little longer I think to myself as I head in to pack our bags.
The Summicron 35 ASPH is a compact lens for its specifications. It’s not quite as mindbogglingly small as its predecessors, but still way smaller than anything for an SLR and it’s certainly at the smaller end of the scale for rangefinder and mirrorless lenses too.
It’s really heavy for its size though, even compared to a lot of other M-mount lenses. Beyond the all metal construction the large glass elements probably explains the dense feeling picking up the little lens.
To my eye it might be the prettiest lens in current production. It has an understated utilitarian look that’s at the same time very refined and balanced. Everything from the anodized finish, the lens hood, the shape of the focus tab to the font used on the barrel complement and balances really well and nothing on the lens looks out of place. Some feel that how a lens look is completely irrelevant, but in a visual field such as photography I feel that it’s still a positive trait worth bringing up. I certainly enjoy having and using objects that look nice.
Leica lenses are always manufactured to incredibly high standards. Some argue unnecessarily high. The Summicron 35 ASPH is no exception. The lens is built to last.
The outer barrel on the black version of the lens is made from anodized aluminium. The matte material is durable but can show scuff marks with wear. The chrome version is made from brass and is more hardwearing, but heavier. Limited editions such as the black paint edition is interesting since it will likely wear in a quite appealing way, but the price and weight difference isn’t worth it for my tastes.
The rear mount is chromed brass and recently produced examples of the lens has Leica’s 6-bit coding for proper identification of the lens on digital bodies.
The only plastic parts on the exterior is the focusing tab and the red mounting indicator. The aperture dial is metal, matching the rest of the barrel, and the focusing helicoid is brass.
The aperture in the lens only has eight blades which honestly feels a little bit stingy for a lens this expensive. The implications of this are minor though – mainly sunstars with fewer points and potentially less appealing bokeh, things I’ll get back to in the performance section. If these minor aspects are very disturbing to your tastes the more recent 35 ASPH Version II offers eleven aperture blades which should improve performance on both accounts.
There are only an eight-bladed aperture, but generally the images don't suffer.
Markings are engraved and painted in Leica’s own LG 1050 typeface that’s both appealing and functional.
On black versions of the lens the aperture, meter and depth of field scales are all painted white. On chrome lenses they’re black instead. The imperial scale and focal length identifier is yellow on the black aluminium lens and red on chrome lenses with very good visibility in low light.
Full aperture stops are marked with numbers, half stops are unmarked and rely on click stops only.
Both the distance and depth of field scales are clearly marked and readable with enough detail to be usable but not so much as to become cluttered.
Serial number and lens information is engraved and painted white on the front ring.
The lens comes with one of the best hoods I’ve used. The hood itself is compact and slots in to place very easily. It’s made of plastic and sits on the lens very solidly. It can be removed quickly with the release buttons on each side of the hood. There’s an aperture setting marker on the hood to mirror the one on the barrel that’s covered when the hood is mounted. The hood is even supplied with a specific cap that fits the hood; a much less fiddly solution than the usual one where you reach down into the hood to put on the lens cap. The hood cap comes on and off very easily which is mostly an advantage as it’s quick to work with, but also the only drawback – the cap can fall off if you don’t pay attention when putting it back. Overall though, it really is an excellent solution overall, much better thought out than most other hoods.
The lens, with hood and the well integrated hood cap.
Note that there’s also a more traditionally shaped vented hood in metal available that gives a more classic look, but to me the usability advantages the rectangular hood brings are definitely worth it.
A normal, round pinch style plastic lens cap is also supplied for using the lens without a hood. It works well, coming on and off easily and staying in place reliably.
We hadn’t seen weather like this in years. All day and continuing into the night the snow eventually enveloped all of the city, bringing it to a standstill. Putting on my heaviest coat I grabbed my camera and tripod and headed out into the neighbourhood, capturing familiar places suddenly rendered surreal by the change in conditions.
The ergonomics of the Summicron 35 ASPH are really close to perfect. There are a few very minor niggles, but overall you’d have to look long and hard to find anything that handles better.
The small size of the lens lets it sit comfortably on any camera and doesn’t intrude noticeably into the viewfinder of most rangefinders. The rectangular shape of the hood also means that even with it mounted the view through viewfinder remains relatively unobstructed.
While the lens is heavy for its size the weight distribution is actually fairly far back towards the mount and thanks to this it feels well balanced when mounted, even more so than some lighter lenses feel.
This shot of the rear mount shows off the convex rear element which is a big chunk of glass, pushing the weight distribution backwards making the lens feel pretty balanced when mounted. Also note the 6-bit coding.
Focusing is done with a comfortable focusing tab. The tab lets you set focus distance by feel, given enough practice. You can quickly start getting in the right ballpark before even putting the camera to your eye.
The focusing feel is excellent – the travel is exceptionally smooth and it moves with a light touch. There’s a little bit more of a resistance than the almost too sensitive Summicron 28 and in use I find it ideal.
The focus throw is pretty long – around 110° – which gives good accuracy but feels a bit excessive considering the focal length and speed of the lens. A shorter throw would feel quicker to work with but still offer adequate accuracy.
Oddly the lens focuses a little bit closer than the stated 0.7m. The focus ring turns a hair further than the 0.7m marking on the barrel and the focus point ends up being a few centimetres closer. This isn’t generally an issue, but I have a bit of a habit that when I want to shoot something closely on a rangefinder I set the focus to the shortest distance and then move the camera until the rangefinder patch shows I’m the correct distance away. With most lenses that simply means moving the focusing ring or tab as close as it can move, but doing it like this with the 35 ASPH I would then be slightly front focused. Instead I need to move the focus to the 0.7m mark on the barrel, or stop just before the rangefinder coupling releases. So in use this is a little more fiddly than shooting a lens with a hard stop at 0.7m. Obviously this is only an issue relying on the rangefinder, and shooting with live view the extra few centimeters can actually be an advantage.
The hood is well designed as to be quick and easy to attach and remove. The focusing tab and ribbed aperture setting ring can be seen clearly here as well.
Aperture is set with a finely ribbed ring at the front of the barrel. The ring is smooth where the aperture scale is marked but is otherwise identical around the circumference. It’s pretty much impossible to tell the set aperture by feel but the advantage is that the ring is easily found and gripped*.
* This is in contrast to lenses where the aperture dial has protruding handles. Those lenses let you tell the set aperture by feel, but it can be a little more fiddly to find the handles. It’s a minor tradeoff either way.
Full and half stops have clear detents and the travel between settings is smooth. The resistance to change aperture feels just about perfect – little effort is needed to change settings but it also isn’t prone to changing inadvertently.
I do have an incredibly small nitpick and that’s with the aperture index marker on the lens barrel. Because of the shape of the barrel and the placement of the marker it can be hard to see when peering at the aperture ring from the back of the camera – you need to look at the camera and lens from a higher angle to properly see the little dot. This isn’t an issue with the hood mounted since then the dot on the hood sits much closer to the aperture dial and never gets obstructed but without the hood it can be an annoyance. Now this is incredibly minor as you can pretty much make out what the aperture setting is even without spotting the dot and should you want to double check it doesn’t even take a second to tilt the camera to see it.
So overall then the handling of the Summicron 35 ASPH holds up exceptionally well and only very small nitpicks hold it back from absolute perfection*.
*The Nokton 40 and Summicron 28 are both a hair better and for my preferences they’re perfect.
Stepping out of our vehicle I almost wonder – is the air here even breathable? Arriving at the field of sea stacks is a surreal experience. It feels like setting foot on another world. Our brightly clothed kids running around and climbing the ancient formations bring us back to reality. Better make sure they don’t fall.
The Summicron 35 ASPH is a wonderful performer by any standards. It’s not quite perfect, but about as close as anyone can ever ask for.
As someone with an interest in lens design, and how different optical aspects are weighed against each other, dissecting the 35 APSH is a little bit like watching someone walk a highwire. You can see the places where the design is under stress, where the performance comes a little out of balance. But in the end it never falls, instead it manages to go from height to height without ever dropping from that tightrope.
It has a balanced and transparent signature – it doesn’t add much of its own character into the images, but depicts subjects as they are, without added flourishes. A reliable, competent output, rather than a characterful one.
The 35 ASPH has exceptional definition already wide open at f/2. Global and mid level contrast is excellent throughout the frame giving images a clear overall presence. There’s clean and impressive separation of fine structures and resolution is very high across the field.
Very close scrutiny reveals a subtle midfield dip in definition due to traces of astigmatism. In a somewhat unfortunate coincidence the dip coincides with where the main subject is if you have a habit of composing according to the rule of thirds. Lenses with a more symmetrical falloff can be a little more forgiving in this sense. However even within the region of the dip the definition the 35 ASPH offers is very high and generally on par or ahead of what most peers can muster.
Edges and corners retain very high definition without distracting changes in clarity or sharpness and is only marginally less distinct than the center.
Stopping down to f/2.8 brings a subtle increase in definition across the frame. The entire frame is now very impressive and you’d have to really dive deep to find any traces of remaining astigmatism. Edges and corners improve and is now on par with the rest of the frame.
Impressively the performance is practically as good as it gets already at f/4. The definition is excellent all the way into the deep corners. Stopping down further brings additional but very subtle improvements and becomes more about increasing depth of field than improving definition.
The lens doesn’t show noticeable changes in performance depending on distance and does well with subjects both near and far.
The impressive performance already at f/2 might be the lenses biggest selling point, offering great resolution and contrast practically without caveats. The image above illustrates one of many situations where this was handy – the light was low so getting enough light for a handheld shot was difficult and stopping down was certainly not an option, but with the 35 ASPH it also wasn’t needed and I could shoot wide open with little reservation.
Colours are highly saturated and very clear while remaining natural. There’s an impressive separation between similar colour tones giving images a wide gamut and the lens is certainly among the best performers in its class in this regard.
Most mid-speed 35mm lenses suffer from poor bokeh and while the 35 ASPH can’t exactly be regarded as good it at least does better than most peers.
Blur discs have reasonably soft edges and double lines are a fairly uncommon sight even at f/2. There’s always a bit of texture in out of focus areas but that’s hard to avoid at this field of view without something even faster.
The bokeh improves very slightly at f/2.8 and f/4 but anything further isn’t really interesting beyond academic interest.
So despite the conservative number of aperture blades it does well. The newer version of the lens might improve somewhat here, but without side by side tests comparing with the new version of the lens it’s only hypothetical. Compared to some of my other 35/40mm lenses with more aperture blades I would also still rate the 35 ASPH at least on par and generally a little ahead in terms of quality of the bokeh between f/2.8 and f/4.
Foreground blur is also appealing without distracting issues.
Transitions are fairly quick and there are distinct planes of focus even at a distance. The angle of view means that stopping down rapidly increases depth of field and beyond f/4 planes start to blend together at anything else than close quarters.
Bokeh is generally better than its peers with reasonably smooth blur discs even in challenging situations such as above. Also note the pleasant foreground blur in the first example.
There’s a very slight amount of field curvature connected to the mid field astigmatism. Slight focus shift can also be observed with close scrutiny – the focal point being pushed away from the camera stopping down. Neither issue is anywhere near severe enough to matter in practical use though.
There’s a very subtle pincushion distortion introduced at the far edges of the frame. It certainly isn’t enough to be visible in general use and only very specific situations even reveal it.
There’s visible focus breathing which isn’t an issue shooting stills but can look distracting when making focus pulls shooting video.
Color fringes are well controlled, as is coma. Only subtle traces of either being visible even in very challenging situations. Highlights turn into sunstars with eight points stopping down.
The slightly curved blades makes for somewhat indistinct points at moderate apertures but by f/8 they are distinct, offering a look that's popular among many landscape and architecture photographers. If lots of points in sunstars are important to you the newer ASPH II with eleven aperture blades offers sunstars with 22 points (though to my eye eight honestly looks better).
Flare is also well controlled and the lens performs among the best in class*. With oblique and high intensity light strong ghosting affecting a significant part of the frame can be seen. Other situations can provoke subtler and smaller aberrations, but contrast and definition remains high throughout the frame. Having the well integrated hood helps since it’s less annoying to keep mounted most of the time, but even when I’ve shot without it I’ve not seen any major difference in behaviour.
*Quantifying flare is a little tricky since the intensity and severity can vary greatly but looking at some numbers and comparing them to another lens at least gives an indication on the behaviour. Comparing my collection of shots with the 35 ASPH to shots I’ve made with the ZM 35 Biogon the 35 ASPH comes out ahead in terms of number of frames at all affected by flare (1.4% vs 2.3%) but in terms of significant flare they are comparable (under 0.8% of all frames).
Vignetting is present at close to two stops wide open, reduced to a stop by f/4, again on par with most of its peers.
Flare is well controlled even if it can show up occasionally. Usually it's limited to a subtle decrease in contrast as in the top left of the first example. At times a significant part of the frame is affected as in the second example. I really like that second shot though, despite the flare, or actually maybe even because of it. At times flaws can actually work in your favor.
Leica M9 – f/2
While I occasionally do controlled tests before reviewing a lens I rarely publish the resulting images on this site. They are quite valuable for quickly figuring out things like field curvature, focus shift and of course contrast characteristics. However they also put emphasis on very specific and sometimes even somewhat irrelevant things in many instances and contexts. So I’m generally reluctant to publish the actual tests on this site. Still in this case I felt it could valuable to illustrate some of the subtler points in my findings.
Below are crops at f/2, f/2.8 and f/8 from the center (where contrast is at its best) and the midfield (where contrast is weakest). The wider aperture settings illustrate that performance is very good already wide open as well as increases quickly stopping down. You can also observe the subtle focus shift away from the camera stopping down. The f/8 shots are there as reference – being practically as good as it gets. Showing intermediate aperture settings felt a little superfluous in this context. Also note the subtle color rendition with for instance the subtle shifts in greens and yellows in the leaves as well as blue and purple in the hosta flower rendered accurately.
The bokeh crops are also somewhat informative, mainly to observe the subtle improvements between f/2 and f/2.8.
The evaluation above is valid regardless of capture medium, but nuances exist and since digital is more revealing in many cases that’s the primary medium for analysis. The rendering of course carries over regardless of medium but the subtleties can be perceived slightly different.
The 35 ASPH does very well for digital with a clean and transparent look. The strong colour palette and high definition gives the sensors lots of input to work with, but the high contrast can be a challenge for older cameras (e.g. the M9) in harsh light.
The 35 ASPH does exceptionally well on colour film and it’s actually the way I’ve shot it most in the time I’ve had it and where I most like its output. The high definition and contrast together with the strong colour palette makes for very pleasant rendering.
As for the rendering in black & white the 35 ASPH also does well. I do feel it comes across as slightly more harsh a little more often in B&W than in colour, especially stopped down. Still the balanced contrast and good definition in the midtones can make for some particularly appealing monochromes.
While I particularly enjoy the 35 ASPH for colour film it´s one of those lenses that does well regardless of medium. Here on the digital Leica M9 as well as B&W shot using Ilford HP5+.
The way images from this lens look is firmly modern and transparent. It captures scenes naturally and faithfully without exaggerations or distortions. A transparent signature can be taken too far with an output that comes across as clinical and cold, but to my eye the 35 ASPH avoids that trap, if by a narrow margin at times. There’s still a balanced quality to its output and images tend to look very appealing. Now some might still prefer lenses with even more characterful output, but even if that’s the case you can’t at least complain about the performance.
From a technical standpoint the 35 ASPH is exceptional – it’s magnificent in practically any aspect you care to examine.
The output wide open is especially notable with the high contrast and excellent level of correction of all aberrations. This is well ahead of most peers and can even begin to appear like output coming from a larger capture format at times. In terms of image quality the performance at f/2 might be the lenses biggest selling point.
Regardless of aperture the output is very transparent and true and continues to impress, though the difference to its peers becomes more subtle stopping down.
The strongest critique I can level at the output of the 35 ASPH is that the output can come across as a little harsh under some conditions – it isn’t quite as perfectly balanced as for instance the Summicron 28 or as gentle as the 50. Stopped down in strong light, especially in B&W, the global and mid level contrast can become a bit much. Though these traits also lets the output avoid looking clinical in a lot of other situations, so it’s a tradeoff that to my eye ends up being worth it.
Overall then the Summicron 35 ASPH renders with utmost quality and a lot of finesse. It might not have the type of output that gets noticed for its signature, but it certainly lets the images shine for their content rather than the look of them. And generally, this is the way I prefer it.
Heading out of town afternoon is turning into evening. At least traffic had a chance to calm down a little. We head east on the narrowing roads. By the time we make it to the ferry the last light is fading.
As I write this I’ve had the 35 ASPH for almost exactly a year. I had been really keen on trying this lens out for ages and after I finally got my hands on it there have only really been a handful occasions where it’s come off my camera.
In the time I’ve had it I’ve put it through pretty much any and all circumstances imaginable. As I’ve used it so much over the time I’ve had it I feel like I’ve gotten to know it better than almost anything I’ve shot in the past.
Generally I like to switch things up a little, shooting a roll with one lens, then switching to something else for the next one, usually going back and forth between two or three lenses at any given time. But shooting the 35 ASPH has never left me needing or wanting to shoot anything else.
Wherever I’ve been shooting in this past year, this has been the combination I’ve used all but a small fraction of the time.
Breaking it down there are a few different factors at play, but the bottom line also explains the clearest reason of being for the 35 ASPH, the reason that despite its much higher price than most of the competition it’s actually worthy of consideration – it does almost everything well enough and gets completely out of your way while doing it. It offers nigh on the perfect balance in every single aspect of its design, function and performance.
With almost any other alternative you’re compromising in one area or another – size, ergonomics, light gathering or performance. But the 35 ASPH offers everything in a singular, appealing little package.
The angle of view is easy to get along with, works well with most rangefinder cameras and is at least to my tastes the most versatile single focal length*.
*As an aside I feel like 35 is the perfect single lens kit, even if the focal length can feel a little middle of the road at times. For a two lens kit I prefer a 25 or 28 paired with a 50, with three or more lenses I start to feel encumbered and confused.
The reasonably high speed aperture means that you can shoot in almost any light even with cameras offering average high ISO performance or on moderate speed film. At the same time you don’t need to pay the penalty of larger size, higher price or lesser performance of an even faster lens. As its so well behaved at f/2 you can also shoot wide open with less care than with a lot of its peers.
The ergonomics get out of your way, as does the well integrated hood and cap. The lens isn’t quite the smallest or lightest out there, but still compact enough to not really be noticeable when carrying it around.
Now the counterargument almost writes itself – it’s an expensive lens and there’s not a single area where it does significantly better than what one of its peers can offer. Compromising just a little bit in any area you pick saves you a whole lot of change.
So then the 35 ASPH might represent the utmost in pickiness – it’s very refined in every way, but looking at any specific metric it’s not really so far ahead of anything else. So the only real reason then to pick it is that you’re stubbornly unwilling to compromise, wanting something that checks every box and scratches every itch.
So then you’d have to have the mind of a mule to recommend it? And the same to actually choose it? Well the last remaining piece of the argument is that of deprecation, or rather lack there of – in the last few decades M-mount lenses have been deprecating very slowly and there are few signs that this is changing soon. In my experience buying a lens used, having it for a few years and shooting the heck out of it is practically free regardless of brand. So if that’s the case does the initial price really matter all that much? I can absolutely understand why you wouldn’t want to have so much money tied up in gear, but at least the economics of M-mount lenses isn’t as bad as it first seems and then the choice to go with a lens like the 35 ASPH might be a little less mulish than it appears.
There’s certainly no right or wrong side to fall in this argument, personally I still go back and forth. I could use almost any of the alternatives and be quite happy with it. But on the other hand the 35 ASPH is a better lens, at least to my tastes, and going back to one of the alternatives doesn’t feel all too appealing now that I’ve gotten used to the uncompromising 35 ASPH – possibly the best lens I’ve ever shot.
The only thing really pushing me towards other lenses at this point is my own restlessness and the thought that I might be a little happier with a some variety. From experience I never really seem to reach an end state, but shooting a two lens kit is possibly the ideal for my preferences. Otherwise I'd probably stick with the 35 ASPH indefinitely.
The performance wide open frequently comes in handy. In this extremely dim parking garage I would've had a hard time pulling off a shot with a slower aperture.
Below are some observations from my experiences with the lens across a few different cameras.
Very nice. Since the CL has frame lines for 40mm lenses rather than 35 there’s some need for compensation. Using the outer edges of the framelines gives good enough accuracy in practice. The package balances well and is ergonomically sound, though a small niggle is that the long focus throw of the lens combined with the narrow grip of the camera makes focusing feel a little cramped at longer distances. The output on film looks fantastic and with 400 ISO film the combination remains usable in all but the lowest light.
A brilliant pairing and one of my absolute favorites. The Summicron 35 ASPH balances well on the M4-P, the 35mm framelines are comfortable to view even with glasses and the lens doesn’t intrude into the framing area by any noticeable amount. The output on film looks fantastic and with 400 ISO film the combination remains usable in all but the lowest light.
An excellent setup. The lens balances well on the M9 and the built in profile corrects color shifts effectively. With 6-bit encoding the process is even simpler. The 35mm framelines are easy to see, even with glasses and there’s no finder intrusion to speak about. Image quality is excellent and the color signature of the lens goes well with the sensor characteristics. At f/2 the combination remains usable even in low light.
Fantastic. A very similar experience to shooting it on the M9, with just as good handling. The higher resolution sensor doesn’t reveal any optical shortcomings and the end result is even more impressive. The improved high ISO performance offered by the newer camera leaves the combination usable even in exceptionally low light.
Leica M9 – f/8
I've not actually shot the lens on the M9 all that much, but it's more due to gravitating towards film lately rather than any issues with the combination – it really makes for an excellent pairing.
Samples from the Sony A7
Even though there are some ray angle issues when shooting the lens on the Sony A7 series cameras it's still possible to work around the issues a lot of the time and make pleasant looking images with the combination. Especially in close quarters and low light the issues don't show up and with the good high ISO performance of the Sony cameras the combination becomes usable even in exceptionally low light.
Average. On the A7 the lens doesn’t balance quite as well as on the M-mount cameras – the required adapter pushes the weight distribution forward by enough to feel somewhat front heavy. It’s still a very pleasant combination in terms of handling though. Unfortunately image quality suffers because of ray angle issues – there’s not any significant color shift but at wider apertures the contrast suffers everywhere but in the image center due to increased field curvature away from the camera (which also can lead to an odd look at times). Stopping down to f/8 gives excellent contrast throughout the frame and it becomes viable to shoot e.g. landscapes with the combination. At closer distances image quality is improved and very pleasant results can be achieved already wide open. Colors look very pleasant on this sensor. The high contrast and defined transitions makes it doable to focus without zooming in but it’s still required for critical work meaning that the combination feels a bit slow to work with compared to shooting a rangefinder. Overall it’s certainly possible to get excellent results from the combination but since there are some hoops that need jumping through I wouldn’t really suggest getting the lens explicitly for the A7, but would instead opt for a native alternative. However if you already have the lens there’s absolutely a few upsides to the combination making it worth shooting at least in certain situations.
She’s spent a few weeks here every summer she’s been with us. As have we, ever since we met years ago. My wife’s history with the place stretches back decades. This year it looks to be coming to a melancholy end. Our last trip here is marred by awful weather, but on our last evening the sun is out and we take one last walk around these familiar rocks in the middle of Skagerak.
If there’s a single strong argument against recommending the Summicron 35 ASPH it’s that there are so many very good alternatives to it. Still the mid-speed 35mm M-mount lens is a tricky field – there are a lot of options but few of them come without caveats.
Overall these are the most compelling alternatives to the 35 ASPH for my preferences.
The most obvious alternative to the 35 ASPH is to opt for one of its predecessors. There are four preceding versions, all with slightly differing characteristics, as well as strengths and weaknesses. I’ve not shot any of them for any length of time but from everything I’ve seen they don’t perform on the same level as the more recent ASPH version at wider apertures. They’re all a little smaller and lighter as well as a little cheaper. I personally got close to buying the version 4 instead of the ASPH one, but the price difference on the local market is pretty insignificant and the performance and build quality gains of the ASPH seemed worth it to me.
A faster 35mm Leica lens is another obvious alternative. There are a few versions available but there are tradeoffs with each. The earlier versions are impressively compact but have some significant image quality compromises. Later versions look to perform incredibly well but are a lot bigger, heavier and more expensive and to me that makes them a lot less appealing than the slightly slower Summicron.
Another appealing option is this little gem. Overall it’s a bargain – a true Leica lens in every way but price. It’s far smaller and lighter than the 35 ASPH, though the ergonomics are slightly less refined. From everything I’ve seen it performs about on par with the earlier Summicron 35’s (especially v.III) but isn’t nearly as well corrected or high performing as the ASPH version wide open and the bokeh is quite messy. Stopped down though, the difference is incredibly small. It’s very susceptible to flare and among the worst M-mount lenses I’ve shot in this regard. On paper there are some tradeoffs in terms of compatibility with most M-mount cameras, but in practice they aren’t really as apparent. I go over the practical aspects as well as give a detailed breakdown of the performance in my full review.
Modeled closely after the earlier 35 Summilux this Voigtländer design is certainly another appealing option. Available in two different focal lengths the Nokton siblings offer plenty of advantages to the 35 ASPH. Chiefly perhaps the significant price difference – you really can’t argue with the value these Voigtländer lenses offer. While I’ve not shot the 35mm flavor of this lens, the 40/1.4 is one of my all-time favorite lenses. From what I’ve seen the 40 performs a little better but the 35 offers correct framelines on more cameras. Both manages to be smaller and lighter than the 35 ASPH despite being a full stop faster. They have perfect ergonomics, a hair better than the 35 ASPH to my tastes. There are some compromises in image quality though. Even the higher performing 40 isn’t on par with the 35 ASPH at f/2, with more uneven performance, less refined contrast, messier bokeh and less resolution. Still it’s mostly a matter of splitting hairs and the Nokton’s can definitely punch way above what their modest price point suggest. Add to that the extra stop on the aperture and it becomes even harder to argue for the Summicron. Having shot the Leica lens though, I find it a little hard to go back to the slightly unpredictable and uneven nature of the Nokton. Still, it’s an easy lens to recommend. I go over it in a lot greater detail in my full review.
Another lens from Voigtländer that’s a fantastic lens at any price and for the price it’s sold – a total steal. It performs just about on par with the 35 ASPH on all shared apertures, offers great ergonomics and is very resilient to flare, all in a diminutively sized body. There are so few drawbacks of this lens that it’s hard to justify even owning anything else, let alone a five times more expensive lens doing almost exactly the same things. There is one issue though – the modest f/2.5 aperture can be limiting. How often it’s an issue depends on the camera (and film) you shoot as well as what types of images you want to make. In my use I found it limiting often enough to feel a little frustrated by it, but beyond that I simply can’t fault this little gem of a lens. I go over its strengths in way more detail in my full review.
It’s no surprise that Zeiss offers a few incredibly solid performers in the 35mm focal length. The one closest in spec to the Summicron 35 ASPH is this Biogon. It’s an excellent lens by pretty much any metric. I’ve shot it a lot and only a bit of stubborn pickiness finally pushed me towards the 35 ASPH ahead of the Biogon – I like the size, build quality and ergonomics better on the 35 ASPH and it has a more pleasant rendering at f/2. That’s pretty much it, in every other way the Biogon is on par or ahead of the 35 ASPH. It’s hard to say for sure that it’s worth it, but I’ve definitely not felt keen on returning to the Biogon after getting the 35 APSH. I go into a lot of detail on the lens in my full review.
For about the price of the Summicron 35 ASPH you can also get this lens by Zeiss – a full stop faster and offering very appealing output this lens looks brilliant. However it’s also an absolute beast in terms of size and weight which makes it less appealing to my tastes. However if you’re fine with carrying and using a larger lens I’d wager you’d be really happy with what this Distagon has to offer.
There are plenty of appealing alternatives available. In my current set up there´s an almost silly amount of similarly specced lenses. Here they are shown together, going from small to large – Leica Summicron-C 40/2, Voigtländer 35/2.5, Voigtländer 40/1.4, Leica Summicron 35 ASPH and Zeiss ZM 35/2. There´s not a bad lens among them but some tradeoffs with each. It's probably pretty clear by now which one is my favorite.
So then, for you keeping tabs, or maybe rather those of you who don’t – let's sum up. It’s probably pretty clear by now that while there are a lot of really excellent options that can meet or surpass the Summicron 35 ASPH in one or several ways, there isn’t really any lens that offers quite as appealing a balance with regards to all the different factors that make or break a lens and that makes the 35 ASPH the one lens that’s to me truly exceptional in this crowded field.
Visiting places old and new my camera tags along. I rarely think about it anymore – the little rangefinder has simply become the camera I use, and the mounted 35 is now the lens I use. I hardly pay any mind to it, instead putting my focus where it belongs – in the moment.
The Summicron 35 ASPH has hardly come off my camera since getting the lens a year ago. And there are plenty of reasons and qualities to point to. But focusing on single, specific strengths is missing the point a little bit, and as it turns out I had my analysis pretty much spot on already in my first impressions post, where I wrote – The reason for me to get the Summicron ASPH is less about one specific strength and more about what it offers as a whole. It has all the advantages of most of its peers and very few of their downsides. This sums up the appeal of the 35 ASPH quite well I think.
To me it’s one of just a few lenses that transcend being just another piece of gear, instead becoming a completely transparent tool for whatever I seek to do. Whether I’ve been out to document the simple day to day of family life, special occasions or some of the most amazing places I’ve seen the 35 ASPH has proven a simple but competent and reliable tool. It’s rarely striking or awe-inspiring, instead its strengths are more subtle, mostly being about getting out of the way to the greatest extent possible.
Sometimes first impressions last. And when they’re so positive as with the Summicron 35 ASPH I’m happy to be proven right.
All photos in this review were taken by me, using Leica M4-P & M9 or Sony A7. All film was scanned on the Plustek 8200i. Exif-data is intact. Open any image in a new window for a closer look.
January 2019 – I had mistakenly written that the lens suffers from slight barrel distortion when it’s actually pincushion. This mixup has been rectified. I also added a section on how the lens works on the Leica M Typ 262.