Today we have something slightly different on the site – a brief review of a lens that I’ve had a chance to borrow from a colleague for a bit. Generally I aim to have more extensive experience with the lenses I review – I feel it takes time to truly get to know any piece of gear properly – but as there are very few articles on the lens elsewhere online I figured it would still be worth it to do a quick write up, even if it won’t be quite as comprehensive as I tend to aim for.
Ok, with that context, let’s get into it.
Released in 1953 the collapsible Summicron replaced the 1939 Summitar 50/2 (which in turn had replaced the 1932 Summar, Leica’s first 50mm f/2 lens). Back then it sat as a mid-speed option between the Elmar 50/3.5 and Summarit 50/1.5. It was produced until 1960 but already in 1956 the rigid Summicron (aka version 2) was introduced, mostly superseding the collapsible version.
The Summicron 50/2 Collapsible mounted on the Leica M Typ 262.
Today it’s increasingly rare to come across the collapsible Summicron in pristine shape, in particular with regards to the optics. Both the glass and coatings are very soft and easy to damage. Many copies have scratched front elements, often severely so. Lubricants also tend to break up over time, at times leading to internal haze. These are both common issues with lenses from this time, so worth keeping in mind with all options of similar vintages.
As good copies become scarce, prices are driven up. So in extension the question becomes if the collapsible Summicron is a lens best left for the collectors? Or if it has enough going for it to track down a good copy.
Let’s break it down and perhaps it’ll become clear. But first, a summary:
Ok, so before diving into the full breakdown there’s one more callout that I want to make. With any lens as old as this one the condition and life it’s lived is often almost as important as the lens’s initial traits.
The lens I have at hand is very nice and clean, so I’m sure many copies out there don’t perform quite as well for instance. On the other hand there are probably also even more pristine copies that behave even better.
Though that’s not to say a pristine copy necessarily performs better than one that’s been used frequently. Clean copies might still have issues with the optics (fungus for instance, is more common with lenses that sit unused) and if a copy is well used it might be a signal that it’s been performing well and has been well liked.
Either way this is as much a review of the specific copy I have at hand as it is one of the Summicron in general.
There seem to be a few different versions of this lens, though online sources are a bit spotty.
What’s absolutely clear is that the lens was first launched for the Leica Thread Mount (aka LTM) and later came into production with an M-mount. So on the used market it’s available for either. LTM lenses can be mounted onto more cameras, though you need to factor in an adapter if you want to use it on an M-mount camera.
In terms of the optics things are a bit muddier.
Given the softness of the coatings and glass a protective filter is a must on this lens.
Early versions seem to have used lanthanum glass. At the time this type of glass was used to boost performance in high end lenses. Today it’s mostly known for being ever so slightly radioactive (less than the background radiation as far as I understand, though measurable nonetheless). This version is apparently somewhat rare and is probably best left to collectors as this type of glass is prone to turn slightly yellow over time, impacting both transmission and color rendition negatively.
Later copies relies on less exotic glass but on the other hand offers improved lens coating. The formulation of the coatings also seems to have changed over the production run, which is reportedly most evident in the color differences between the coatings. It’s hard to find reliable sources on performance differences across versions though.
The lens was available in silver chrome finish. However a few copies left the factory painted black. These are extremely scarce though and fetch a hefty premium as a result.
A bit of trivia is that Henri Cartier-Bresson reportedly counted the lens among his favorites and used a silver copy with a black lens head. An odd one-off indeed.
In its collapsed state the Summicron looks like a pretty regular, though very small lens. Once extended however, it certainly looks a bit unusual by contemporary standards with the long, slender barrel in between the wider circumference front and rear lens housings. It’s still rather compact at this point, but not hugely different to most other 50/2 lenses for M-mount.
Here the Summicron is placed between the Leica Elmar 50/3.5 LTM on the left and the Zeiss ZM 50/2 Planar on the right. Collapsed the Summicron is quite small, though not quite as tiny as the Elmar (it’s actually very close in size to the nice little Voigtländer 50/2.5 at this point).
I’ll make a few references and comparisons towards the Elmar throughout this review, as I feel it’s the lens I’ve used that feels the most similar to the Summicron, as well as a relevant option to consider due to these similarities.
Once extended the Summicron is still compact, but the difference to the modern, high performing Zeiss lens isn’t really that big. Plus, the Summicron is actually heavier than the Zeiss Planar.
Another thing worth noting is that the Zeiss Planar is very close in size to the current model Summicron as well as the fifth version, which I have reviewed previously.
Picking it up there are a few striking aspects.
First off the weight. Despite the small size it’s quite heavy, even by rangefinder standards where lenses are mostly made out of metal and glass. A lot of the Summicron’s housing is made out of brass rather than aluminium, explaining the heavier than expected weight.
The superb build quality also stands out. The lens is from what many see as the golden era of craft in manufacturing. In terms of materials and tolerances the Summicron is absolutely fantastic.
All moving parts also feel very nice and smooth. This particular copy feels ever so slightly shy of perfect though. There’s a subtle bit of play in the extension mechanism, a hair of stiction when focusing and the aperture clicks feel ever so slightly sticky. It still feels really nice, but I’d wager that a simple tune up would make it feel even better. But I can’t really hold this against it as it might’ve very well never seen a servicing since being put together over half a century ago.
Markings are engraved and painted black. There are clear and usable scales for aperture, distance and depth of field.
As the lens barrel is quite narrow there’s no place for more than one distance scale. So, depending on the copy, it’ll either have a metric or feet scale.
The ergonomics are something of a mixed bag. Not that it handles poorly – it doesn’t, but it suffers in some regards both because of the collapsible design as well as for being an older lens. There are also a few choices in terms of industrial design that makes it ever so slightly less transparent in use.
If you’re making use of the collapsibility of the Summicron your first step before shooting with it is to extend the lens. This is simple enough – pull the front of the lens forward until it stops and then twist to lock it in place.
If you were to forget this step, needless to say your images wouldn’t turn out. All that you’d see would be a blurred, bright circle.
Above the Summicron’s key ergonomic features can be seen clearly – the aperture ring on the front (though note the closeness to the similarly ribbed front of the lens), the super narrow focus ring with distance and depth of field scales, as well as the focus lever with its spring loaded infinity lock.
In terms of focusing the Summicron is very similar to the older Elmar, that I’ve reviewed earlier. Here it really gives away its age and compared to more recent lenses it’s a bit slow to work with in this regard.
First off there’s an infinity lock. To release the lock you press the spring loaded button on the focus lever and begin focusing closer. Once you move focus back to infinity the lock automatically reengages. I don’t see a whole lot of benefit with the lock* and personally find that it gets in my way in regular use. Not that I couldn’t get used to it, but as it’s easy to disable the locking pin at service, I would probably opt for such a change if I there was a lens I used frequently that had this type of lock.
* The commonly cited reason for the inclusion of an infinity lock is that it makes it easier to get a better grip when mounting or unmounting a lens. I don’t see the grip being that much better though, plus you can just as easily move the lever to the end point of its travel and get that same benefit. Maybe I’m missing something here, but to me it simply doesn’t strike me as a worthwhile trade off.
If we move on to the focus throw, it’s very long – a full 180°. This makes precision focus very easy, but considering the spec of the lens it feels more than excessive.
As a result focusing quickly isn’t as easy as I would like in a day to day lens. The position of the focus lever when closing in on minimum focus distances is also very high up towards the viewfinder, making it easy for your fingers to sneak into view when framing. Plus, it feels a bit awkward.
Overall I would say that half the throw length would feel plenty. This is especially the case when also considering that the minimum focus distance is 1m rather than the 0.7m that a lot of more recent lenses support with a far shorter focus throw.
As for the focus lever itself it’s fine. I don’t find it as pleasant or quick to work with as a concave focus tab. It’s also not as easy to use with gloves. But it’s still pretty comfortable and allows you to set focus distance by feel once you get more familiar with the lens.
There’s ribbing on the focus ring, so it’s also possible to use that for focusing. It’s very narrow however and consequently it doesn’t give the best grip. For most people I’d wager that the focus lever is still preferable.
So to sum up, the focus experience with the Summicron feels quite old school and slower in use than many more recent lenses. That’s not to say it’s too problematic though, it’s still pleasant and easy to use. I just personally prefer other approaches and choices here.
Whilst the focus experience is decidedly old school, setting the aperture feels pretty close to what you’d have with a more modern lens.
The aperture ring has a fine ribbing that’s comfortably gripable.
A reservation here is that the ribbing only covers two small patches along the circumference, so you often have to adjust your grip to find the ribbing.
Another thing I’ve also had a hard time getting used to so far is that there’s very similar ribbing slightly further ahead on the lens barrel (to aid in twisting the lens head for extending/collapsing). Due to this I personally find it difficult to identify the aperture ring by touch alone. With the camera to my eye I sometimes end up grabbing the front of the lens instead.
Having click stops for the aperture settings was a new feature in this Summicron. Prior to this lens aperture settings had been stepless, relying only on visual markings.
In this regard the Summicron feels like a contemporary lens, with the main difference being that there are clicks at full rather than half stops. The distance between stops also becomes shorter as you stop down, making it slightly harder to work up a muscle memory for changing settings.
So setting the aperture is an ever so slightly less refined experience than with more contemporary lenses. Compared to the Elmar’s little front-face lever the Summicron represents a nice step forward though.
I think how the ergonomics of the Summicron will be perceived depends a lot on what you’re looking for and what points of reference you’re using.
Contemporary lenses generally have slightly different features compared to the Summicron, making them easier to use quickly in many instances.
But if I instead use the Elmar as a reference point the Summicron is more practical, mainly due to the much easier to use aperture control.
So even if it perhaps wouldn’t be my first choice for day to day use, it’s still very livable.
In terms of performance there are some compromises compared to contemporary options. However they’re perhaps smaller than you might expect.
Aside from pure performance the overall signature is also quite appealing in many cases.
In terms of definition the Summicron shows slightly uneven results. There’s a difference depending on the aperture setting of course, but the distance of focus will also have an impact on the output.
Let’s start with getting some bad news out of the way.
At mid to long distances the Summicron is at times so-so.
Wide open the central parts of the frame offers a fair bit of resolution already, though with somewhat low contrast at high frequencies in particular. The midfield looks a bit indistinct however with both compromised resolution and mid to high frequency contrast.
Global contrast is certainly not high but also not quite as low as is common with older glass – let’s call it moderate. So not exceptional by modern standards, but still very respectable for the vintage of the lens. I was surprised by how punchy images often look.
Stopping down definition picks up, though perhaps not quite as quickly as you’d expect seeing with a more modern lens.
By f/4 things are looking solid in the central areas, but the mid-frame and peripheries are still somewhat indistinct.
Once you hit f/8 most of the frame looks clear and well defined though close scrutiny reveals that the periphery and corners are still not perfect. F/11 is a bit better but the Summicron will trail modern benchmarks even at this setting.
Still, it’s quite respectable and a definite step up compared to for instance the Elmar 50/3.5.
When shot at closer distances the Summicron behaves visibly better.
It’s really quite impressively sharp in the center frame already wide open. Resolution is high and global contrast is solid. Micro-contrast is decent though a bit of spherical aberration can sneak in and reduce the sense of bite in the rendition of detail at times.
Moving away from the center definition drops. The mid-field still looks ok, but towards the peripheries things start to look a bit muddy.
F/2.8 sees a slight bump in contrast and clarity overall, but stopping down to f/4 is needed to really see a noticeable difference. By now the mid-field offers very good definition and the peripheries look noticeably clearer (though still not perfect). Definition in the corners is now decent as well.
Once at f/8 the output is just about at its best. The entire frame looks good with a boost in clarity in the peripheries. Corners are also better and just about as good as they’ll get here, though still not quite perfectly clear.
These samples and corresponding crops illustrate the Summicron’s behavior across the focal range. The example above examplifies the slight muddiness that can be seen when shooting the lens wide open at a distance. The example below on the other hand is an example of the crisper definition at closer range, particularly in the center of the frame.
The color rendition out of the Summicron is surprisingly neutral and accurate.
It doesn’t separate similar hues as cleanly as more recent benchmarks and the saturation is a bit more subdued.
I’ve also seen the color response balance off slightly, visible as a subtle color cast in the shadows under some tricky situations. It’s similar to what I saw with the Elmar 50/3.5 though to a much lesser degree.
Overall it’s a solid, if not quite excellent in this regard.
In objective terms I’d have to rate the bokeh out of the Summicron as somewhat poor.
Out of focus highlights take on the soap bubble like shape typical of lenses designed with a strong desire to maximize correction of spherical aberration in the focal plane.
As a result out of focus areas tend to have quite a bit of texture. Bokeh can still look quite smooth, if the background is forgiving. Oftentimes though the appearance of doubled lines and an overall messy impression can be the result.
A connected trait is that the transition zone can look rather nervous. Sometimes there are hints of a double image here, due to the small but pronounced out of focus circles that occupy this zone.
As for the transitions themselves, they’re fairly gentle. The focal plane tends to fall away smoothly rather than to drop off abruptly.
Out of focus rendering becomes a bit smoother as the aperture is stopped down, cutting off part of that strong edge in the bokeh circles with a nicely round shape remaining thanks to the 10 aperture blades. Though of course, the more you stop down the less bokeh there will be.
Optical vignetting is fairly well controlled without pronounced cats eye effects, though a subtle bokeh swirl can still be seen at times.
If I were to sum up then, the Summicron is a bit below average in terms of bokeh. At least in objective terms. But, I’d be remiss to not mention that I’ve found the out of focus areas compelling in terms of character at many occasions. I like that there’s a bit of texture and most of the time it’s not ended up too crazy.
Here the strongly outlined out of focus areas can be clearly seen. The nervous transition zone can also be observed in this sample. In objective terms then, the Summicron does somewhat poorly in terms of bokeh. Though from a more subjective perspective I must say that I frequently like the character.
A common compromise with older lenses is that the lens coatings aren’t particularly refined. This often results in poor performance with regards to ghosting and flare.
That’s certainly the case with the Summicron. In even moderately challenging situations you’re bound to see pronounced artifacts and loss of contrast.
It’s definitely possible to leverage these issues creatively, but it can be problematic for someone looking for more transparent results.
Aside from flare there aren’t too many problematic issues with aberrations.
There’s a bit of vignetting at wider apertures, but it disappears quickly stopping down.
I’ve not done extensive testing to pin down the level of correction for chromatic aberrations and coma, but nothing has been particularly visible or problematic in my brief time with the lens.
There doesn’t seem to be any focus shift to speak of.
So, aside from the poor suppression of flare I’d actually pin the Summicron as quite well behaved.
Susceptibility to flare is one of the more significant drawbacks with many older lenses, the Summicron included. In challenging conditions you’re bound to see issues with flare, often severe ones like in this example.
It’s safe to say that the collapsible Summicron renders in a fairly old school fashion a lot of the time. The comparably subdued contrast characteristics, muted color rendition and limited flare resistance all contribute to a signature that’s clearly vintage.
However under the right conditions it’s also possible to get a surprisingly transparent rendering, as quite a few performance criteria are still on a high level.
At close range or stopped down sufficiently the collapsible Summicron offers a very clear and natural looking image, though still with a few vintage traits that can often lend images of a pleasant roundness. The impression still won’t be that exceptional clarity that some modern glass offers, but as that type of look can sometimes feel overbearing I don’t see this as too much of a detriment.
So while there have been occasions where I’ve found the Summicron getting in my way with some of its performance characteristics, there have also been plenty of times where I’ve felt the rendering has contributed to a compelling end result. At times I’ve even found it preferable to the output of more modern glass. I like that it can give a vintage look without becoming too overbearing in its classical traits, instead remaining true to life.
The Summicron does fairly well in the field.
As mentioned earlier there are some ergonomic trade offs, so it’s not as fast to work with as something more contemporary.
Another aspect that becomes evident in use is that transmission is comparably poor, a common drawback of older lenses. The T-stop seems to fall close to a stop behind the respective f-stop, meaning almost half of the light goes missing due to transmission inefficiencies.
As a result of the low transmission it’s a bit less easy to use in lower light than I expected given the spec. Add to this that I’ve often been keen to stop down a bit more than with modern lenses to achieve optimal performance and the result is that I’ve felt limited by light gathering at a surprising frequency. Especially considering that I’ve been using the Summicron on the Leica M Typ 262, a camera with pretty good high iso performance.
So in use then it’s certainly very usable and surprisingly practical, though slightly compromised in certain areas. I do feel it’s warranted to mention that it’s a fun lens to use though. It’s very tactile and pleasant to use. And while the involved ergonomics slows me down slightly, they’ve also proven to feel quite engaging from a process point of view.
Before moving on I think there’s also something to be said about working around limitations. Perhaps a less practical, more philosophical observation. Because while it’s always pleasant to use competent gear that gets out of your way, equipment that requires you to take a bit of extra care can actually feel more rewarding at times. It requires you to stay on your toes and not become complacent, to focus, strive for creativity and to leverage shortcomings as strengths.
To me the Summicron falls in such a category and I do feel like it’s pushing me towards trying my best. When things come together there’s an extra bit of satisfaction stemming from the fact that it’s taken some care to achieve (a similar rationale is sometimes given as a reason to shoot rangefinders in general, a sentiment I tend to agree with).
So overall then it’s both a fun and satisfying lens to use, though slightly less practical than some other options.
I’ve only really properly used the Summicron on the Leica M 262, though here are some initial thoughts on handling across a few cameras I have at hand.
As they are contemporaries the lens and camera feel like they go together really well. The M3 is swell for shooting 50mm lenses and the handling is really pleasant. Depending on ones shooting habits the lower light gathering offered by the Summicron can potentially feel somewhat limiting on film. Personally I also tend to prefer the output of higher contrast lenses on film.
This is a really nice combination. The balance and handling is very pleasant. There isn’t any viewfinder blockage to speak of. The respectable high iso performance offered by the 262 means it’s possible to shoot with ease even in somewhat low light. Leica themselves recommend against collapsing the Summicron on their digital cameras, they claim this risks damage to the shutter. There are plenty of accounts stating that this isn’t a problem and that the lens can be collapsed without issue, though I’d still recommend a bit of caution in this regard.
As 50mm is such a common focal length there will be tons of options to consider. I won’t even attempt to offer a comprehensive list, but below are a few top of mind options I think a worth mentioning.
The Elmar is lighter, cheaper and easier to come by than the Summicron. It also collapses down to an even smaller size than the Summicron. Ergonomics are similar between the lenses with an almost identical focus control. On the Elmar the aperture is set using a small lever on the front face of the lens, a much more fiddly arrangement than the proper ring on the Summicron. In terms of performance it will hinge a lot on the condition of the copy, but from the samples I’ve had at hand the Summicron easily bests the Elmar. It’s quite a bit sharper, improves more stopping down and has higher contrast. Color rendition is also better and contrast higher. There are probably better performing copies of the Elmar than my scratched and slightly hazy 1920’s lens though. Still the Summicron renders in a nicer way and is quite a bit more practical thanks to the added speed. So as a day to day choice the Summicron is the preferable (though more expensive) option. As a compact, classic complement to another lens it’s a less clear cut choice. The small size of the Elmar is really compelling and if you get a good copy it’ll still be a capable and competent option.
My full review of the Leica Elmar 50/3.5
I’ve not had a chance to try this lens, but it looks like a nice midpoint between the 50/3.5 above and the collapsible 50/2. It seems a bit easier to find in good condition than the Summicron. It’s also smaller, so if I was set on a collapsible lens this one would probably be high up on my list. Not sure that the rendering is quite as nice as the Summicron’s though.
The line of Summicron 50’s stretches all the way from the collapsible version reviewed here up until current day. At this point Leica are up to the sixth version with different strengths and weaknesses for each.
I have used the fifth version extensively and count it among my favorite lenses. Its performance is in a different league to the collapsible version with much crisper definition across the board – both contrast and resolution are much higher and more uniform throughout the field. The color rendition is far more refined and saturated compared to the collapsible version. Flare resistance is better (but not outstanding). Bokeh is rendered in a surprisingly similar way, though it’s a little bit smoother with the newer lens. Transmission is also improved. Ergonomics are more refined and the newer lens is faster to work with.
So what are the reasons you’d want to opt for the earlier iteration?
Well the compact size when collapsed is certainly compelling. I could also certainly see some people preferring the more classical and slightly characterful rendering compared to the rather transparent signature out of the more recent version.
Overall I would say there’s not a bad choice among the Summicrons.
My full review of the Leica Summicron 50/2 V
If you’re keen on a compact 50 this lens is an option well worth considering. It’s just about the same size as the Summicron in its collapsed state. To my tastes the Skopar handles absolutely perfectly – it’s very compact but with excellent control points. In terms of performance the Skopar isn’t outstanding by contemporary standards, but it’s still ahead of the Summicron by a comfortable margin. It offers much higher contrast and more even definition across the field. While you lose a bit on speed on paper, the Skopar’s better transmission properties means that the difference in actual light gathering is small. You also gain the ability to focus down to 0.75m. Personally then I find the Skopar the more compelling option, though you do lose out on that pleasingly vintage rendering signature.
My full review of the Voigtländer 50/2.5
Among 50mm M-mount lenses this is one of the easiest recommendations around. Excellent performance, build quality and handling at a very reasonable price. It’s a far more modern lens than the collapsible Summicron and the rendering of course reflects that. So the reasons to go with the Summicron would be the more classical imaging characteristics and the ability to collapse the lens.
My full review of the Zeiss ZM 50/2
To be honest I was pretty ready to write off the Summicron collapsible already at a first glance. It looks and feels quite similar to the Elmar 50/3.5. A lens I’ve found interesting and fun to use, but ultimately not too compelling for day to day use.
With the Summicron though, the proposition changes significantly. The faster speed, surprisingly solid image quality and often compelling signature in combination with some ergonomic improvements mean that it feels much more feasible for my general use.
There’s also something about making the most out of gear that’s in some ways more limited and less forgiving in use that I find enjoyable.
So overall I’ve really enjoyed using the Summicron a lot.
Despite that I’m not convinced it would be a good fit for me long-term. At least as a day to day lens. There are some compromises in areas I value highly.
I prefer lenses that are faster to focus (useful in particular when I’m trying to keep up with my kids). I also found myself missing a closer focus ability frequently. Plus, I prefer slightly better low light performance (better transmission, a faster aperture or even both).
However, if these aspects are less important in your photography (or if you’re keen on a complement to another lens) I can certainly recommend the Summicron as a fun to use piece of kit with many compelling traits. Especially taking into account that pleasant, slightly vintage rendering.
The remaining caveat would be the relative scarcity and rising price of copies in good shape. The price still isn’t completely out of bounds, but at its going rate there certainly are a number of compelling options. Some of those options area also far easier to get a hold of, making for easier recommendations for most people. So unless you’re smitten by some specific aspect of the Summicron, it might be a lens that’s at its most appealing for collectors.
Photos in this review were taken using the Leica M Typ 262. Photos of the lens were made using the Sony A7 with the Leica Elmar-C 90/4. Exif-data is intact. Open any image in a new window for a closer look.