Summilux 50mm or Voigtländer Nokton 50mm?
50mm Summilux-M Overview
The pre-ASPH (#11114) 50mm ƒ1.4 Summilux-M has an optical design which dates from the late 1960s. Can a lens that old be any good, especially when compared to more recent optics?
In Sep 2001, John Collier stepped up to the plate and made the following observations:
Due to the recent redesign of the Summilux-R, many people have speculated that a new M version is on the way. However, Leica has stated that they are not going to be redesigning the Summilux-M anytime soon.
While optically identical to the sixties version, the latest [pre ASPH] version benefits from improved manufacturing, coating and assembly techniques. The problem with redesigning the Summilux-M is that the limiting factor is the size of the front element. Larger front elements result in more viewfinder obstruction (note the many complaints against the Noctilux on this account). The latest version has a mount that focuses to 0.7m and a built-in hood. That is as good as it gets for now (which is pretty darn good indeed).
2004 Summilux ASPH re-design
Despite a general belief that a lens update was a pipe-dream, in March 2004 rumours started to circulate that a new ASPH Summilux-M design was in the wings. Four months later the rumours were confirmed:
50mm ƒ1.4 Summilux-M ASPH features:
- Product number - #11 891
- Glass design using APO elements, one ASPH surface and a floating rear element array, providing - it is claimed - the "ultimate" image quality from a 50mm lens
- E46 filter size
- Aperture range - ƒ1.4 — ƒ16
- Minimum focus 0.7m
- Built-in cylindrical hood which locks into place
- Standard knurled focus ring with additional focus tab
- Weight - 340g
In June 2004 Emanuel Lowi sent me an Adobe Acrobat PDF copy of the official Leica brochure for the new ASPH lens, containing lens performance charts and photographs of what it looks like:
1. 50mm Summilux-M ASPH brochure (PDF - 120 kbytes)
2. 50mm Summilux-M ASPH brochure (Zip Archive - 80 kbytes)
Having trouble viewing the PDF (typically with Windows MSIE)? Download the "zip" version instead. BTW you also need a recent version of the Adobe Acrobat Reader. Download it from <adobe.com/products/acrobat/>
Is the modern optical re-design too sharp & harsh? What is the flare behaviour and bokeh like? Is it worth the ~ $US 3K price?… Until these things start circulating in public in reasonable numbers, opinions are too few and subjective to be relied upon.
No matter what the ASPH lens is like, as Feli di Giorgio pointed out in July 2004, there's no satisfying every Leica user all of the time!:
In the past it's been a borderline international pastime […] to slam Leica and the old Lux, with people screaming bloody murder about the lack of a ASPH Lux and Leica's incompetence. Now you got exactly what you want, a ASPH Lux, which may be the best 50 (at any speed) ever made, and everyone is complaining that it is too expensive, has bad bokeh, is irrelevant in the face of digital and that Leica is run by a bunch of misdirected fools :?)
- Leica 50mm Lux ASPH web page
- Which is "better"? The new ASPH, or the older pre-ASPH? - March 2008
- Tom Abrahamsson rave LUG review - November 2004
- Erwin Puts (surprisingly critical) review - June 2004
Summilux-M and the critics
Truth be told, the previous (ie. pre ASPH) Summilux wasn't exactly the most popular of Leica's 50mm lenses.
Available light shooters prefered the ƒ1.0 Noctilux; bokeh lovers prefered the 75mm Summilux-M or Noctilux; MTF and sharpness junkies always plumbed for the 50mm Summicron-M; whilst the budget-conscious tended to go for the cheaper Voigtländer Nokton.
These issues deserve a little analysis:
1. More light with the ƒ1.0 Noctilux?
Although superficially true, "Noctiloonies" should remember their beloved lens only delivers ƒ1.0 in the exact centre of the image, with the frame edges rapidly darkening 2-3 stops due to vignetting. Although the Summilux also vignettes when wide open, it is nowhere near as extreme, resulting in more even exposures across most of the frame and not "ƒ1.0 in the exact middle and ƒ2.8 everywhere else". Also keep in mind the Noct' is twice the size and weight of the 'Lux and is very difficult to use with filters (even more vignetting).
2. Better bokeh elsewhere?
A matter of personal taste. The 'Lux has a 12-blade diaphragm giving it a truly circular lens opening at all apertures. See this sample image (JPEG 52k bytes) I took the day I bought my 'Lux - looks fine by me. Yes I know the 75mm 'Lux gives a more washed out and abstract background, but you get it at the expense of a much larger and heavier lens with a narrower angle of view.
3. Less sharpness and contrast than the 50mm Summicron-M?
Correct. Guilty as charged. Compare the MTF graphs and the 'Lux will come a distant second every time. Ditto the new 'Lux ASPH. However, will you actually ever see these differences in your photographs? Unlikely. Not unless you like photographing lens test charts using tripod mounted cameras, Tech-Pan film, the shutter set on "B" and a remotely triggered off-camera strobe. ;?)
The Summicron is justly famous for its spectacular sharpness and contrast. If all your 50mm photography is in the range of ƒ4-ƒ16 then it remains the best lens for the job.
But if you occasionally shoot at ƒ1.4 and/or can live with the (slight) diminution of sharpness and contrast, then the 'Lux is good enough. At medium apertures it will deliver indistinguishable results from the 'Cron when used for hand-held, real-word photography. Add to that (much) better flare resistance and that sometimes in bright sun the softer contrast is actually perferable. Furthermore in my particular case, nearly all my candid people photography is done hand-held at 1/30th or slower, using 800 ISO film - conditions which completely negate the Summicron's optical superiority.
When new, yes. Especially when compared to similar (although noticeably inferior) "CanNikon" AF ƒ1.4 50mm competitors. When bought used however, the price is a bit more reasonable, especially if you get the older "#11114" 1m minimum focus E43 version.
Because of this, many on a tight budget turn to the ƒ1.5 Voigtländer Nokton instead. Nice modern lens design and arguably better sharpness specs, although the trade-off is a lower quality build and mechanical durability. (See the Nokton heading below…)
5. An old (out-dated) optical design?
Old - yes. Out-dated - not really. I know a lot of people are excited about the new ASPH redesign, but what does it matter if the optical design of the previous 'Lux dates from the 1960s? The much-hyped Noctilux is stuck in the 1970s, as is the brilliant 16mm R Fisheye-Elmarit I use for 360° VR photography. The Hassleblad SWC optical design dates from even earlier and is still one of - if not the - best 90° angle-of-view ultra-wides… Y'know, lenses aren't like pop stars, you don't have to be born yesterday to be the "best".
Leica have, of course, recently updated the optical design of the 50mm R Summilux, but on the R they weren't constrained by having to keep the lens barrel narrow to prevent it from intruding into the viewfinder. Yes the new ASPH redesign for the M is great, but so too is the price(!)
General Summilux Links
Reviews & Sample photos
- B&W examples of Summilux-M photography by Oliver Steiner: <photos.oliversteiner.com>
- Belgian Pascal Heyman also has an informative page on the 50mm M Summilux at: <leicapages.com/summilux50M.html>
- Dick Gilcreast has also written a detailed monograph on the 50mm M Summilux for the LHSA Viewfinder magazine. See <lhsa.org/legleica313.html>.
- Robert Monaghan's take on ƒ1.4 lenses, including the Summilux-M (half way down…): <people.smu.edu/…/rangefinder.html>
Online Forum Discussions
- Mar 2008 - which is "better", the new ASPH or the older pre-ASPH?: <L-camera-forum.com: #48886>
- Oct 2002 - speculation about the likelihood of a Summilux re-design: <Photo.net: #003vg7>
- June 2002 - Summilux performance and how very good it is (features a sample image with cropped close-up detail from a shirt sleeve): <Photo.net: #003QRi>
- May 2002 - Summilux performance, including the test results by "Modern Photography" in 1970: <Photo.net: #002pr9>
- Mar 2002 - 50mm Summilux vs. the 75mm Summilux: <Photo.net: #002h2I>
- Mar 2002 - which Summilux to get? latest model with 0.7m minimum focusing and built-in hood or older style with detatchable hood?: <Photo.net: #002oyZ>
- Jan 2002 - why the Summilux is the "poor cousin" of 50mm lenses: <Photo.net: #002f4r>
- Apr 2001 - Summilux vs the Noctilux: <Photo.net: #002cKx>
Enter the Nokton…
The new LTM mount Voigtländer (Cosina) Nokton 50mm ƒ1.5 lenses are surely tempting for harassed M owners who are tired of forking out $US 2000 every time they want a new lens.
Sure the mechanical build-quality isn't up to Leica standards, but it isn't far behind. Closest focusing distance is slightly longer than the Summilux as well, although most can live with this. What does appear to upset some people however is that even if the Nokton is sharper and suffers from less vignetting when wide open, the image bokeh appears to be much "harsher" than that of the Summilux.
Also keep in mind that to use the Nokton on a M rangefinder you will also need to buy a set of LTM-M lens mount adapters.
Sample Nokton shots
- Wayne Chiu's Nokton vs. Noctilux page (in Chinese)
- Hans Palen's B+W & colour portraits
- Alexander Grekhov's photos of a night-time fire