Last year, I switched over from the Sony RX1 to my beloved Leica T. One of the primary reasons for this was the possibility of using Leica’s extensive catalog of M-mount lenses. As someone that also plans on possibly switching over to an M in the future, the investment on lenses could be argued as somewhat rational. Leica was kind enough and offered to send me a M-Adapter T to try out, and also sent along the Super-Elmar-M 21mm. It was when I tried the Summilux-M 35mm when I really fell in love with this setup though.
The M-Adapter T been sent by Leica Camera.
The Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH is arguably the most versatile lens available for the Leica M system. It has the classic journalistic focal length of 35mm and a super fast maximum aperture of f/1.4. Due to this fine balance, this Summilux has been one of the most popular lenses for M system. The lens ran for just north of $5000 new and are now approximately $4000 used in flawless condition. These may seem like nonsensical figures but the world’s best glass doesn’t come cheap.
Because Leica is a company so enriched in history, it’s worth providing some historical context for the Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH. This lens was introduced in 1994, replacing the identically named model from 1990. My Summilux-M 35mm was sold for 16 years, a testament to its brilliant design, and Leica product's timeless nature. There is a newer version of the lens introduced in 2011 that has the addition of a floating element (FLE) designed to increase performance across various shooting distances. Much like Porsche with the 911, Leica takes an already impressive product and improves it over time. The Summilux 35mm has always been, and most likely always will be, the best super fast 35mm lens
Summilux 35mm timeline
Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4
1961 - 1990
Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH
1990 - 1994
Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH
11 874, 11 883
1994 - 2010
Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH (FAG)
2011 - present
For the sake of trivia: if you’re unfamiliar with Leica’s naming convention, the first thing you may wonder is what “Summilux” means. The company has always named its lenses based on their maximum aperture, and in the case of Summilux, it equates lenses that are f/1.4. Here is a chart of the naming convention:
Leica lens trademarks
Because Leica names lenses based purely on their aperture and not on optical design, they don’t always correlate to lens quality. In general though, the Summicron lenses are considered to be the best balance of optical quality, speed and price. On the other hand, the Summilux lenses typically go for a premium, offering a larger maximum aperture while sacrificing a little bit of optical clarity in result. The reduction in sharpness and clarity is often trivial though, a reason for the Summilux-M 35mm’s popularity amongst photographers.
Since the Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH is an M lens, it requires the Leica M-Adapter T to work with the Leica T. It comes at typically Leica $395 but is made exceptionally well.
Shooting with an M lens on T is largely an enjoyable experience although it does have its share of minor flaws. First of all, the right dial on the camera becomes locked to ISO settings. Ideally, I would set one to focus aid zoom and the other to exposure compensation but it’s simply not a possibility. I’m hoping this is something that can be addressed using a firmware update
But the biggest flaw with using M lenses on the T is that white balance accuracy suffers compared to T lenses. Problems arise especially when shooting under artificial lighting and the camera tends to shoot far too warm for some reason. I usually never shoot in RAW but have started to do so due to the occasional unbalanced photo. When I’m indoors, I sometimes even set the white balance to manual and setup a grey card for the sake of consistency. This is admittedly an annoyance but likely something that can be addressed via a software patch
Other than those two quirks. using the Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH with the T is a brilliant experience. The Visoflex for Leica T is also sharp enough for pretty accurate focusing. It’s so sharp that 90% of the time, I don’t even use any focus aids.
I purchased my Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH used from a seller in Japan. It’s in like-new condition and I wasn’t even able to find any signs of use. Here’s a tip: Japan is a great place to buy used products - they’re often times valued lower there and Japanese consumers take very good care of their belongings.
Like most Leica lenses, the Summilux-M 35mm comes included with a hood. Notice the cut-out for M users (so the hood doesn’t block too much of the viewfinder). The hood is made of plastic but the lens is constructed from brass, giving it a nice heft, embracing the Wetzlar’s typical rendition of quality.
As usual, the Leica Summilux 35mm offers great ergonomics and feel. The aperture ring clicks with a typical german sense of tactility and the focus ring is made with the same precision as a fine watch. Holding a classic Leica lens makes you realize how we’ve surrounded ourselves with garbage products. It’s no wonder Leica lenses are used for decades.
To those new to Leica M lenses, yes, these are operated completely manually. This can be a little bit intimidating at first but because the focusing dial is so ergonomically intuitive, it’s easier than it sounds. Like a car with a manual transmission, the interaction is a purely mechanical one, and digital latency is non-existent. I find it to be a refreshing, vital experience.
Shooting at f/1.4 is an awesome experience. Shallow depth of field is of course a big benefit of a large aperture and one of the prime reasons for selecting the Summilux over the Summicron for me. Although a lens is more about what is in focus than not, there are definitely situations where shallow depth of field comes in handy as a visual tool. Other than a little bit of vignetting (which can easily be corrected in post), the images are also technically impressive wide open.
I’m not sure why (or how) this is the case but there seems to be a noticeable difference in the rendition of color between using T and M lenses. The fact that I’ve switched to shooting in RAW is a big influence but regardless of this, I’ve been noticing smoother and calmer color, particularly in environments that test the sensor’s dynamic range capabilities.
The most surprising thing about shooting with the Summilux was how different the images feel compared to my Summicron-T 23mm. People always talk about the “Leica Look” and it's a largely frivolous discussion, especially in the digital age. Regardless of this, I’m starting to feel like the Leica aesthetic surfaces from the rendition of color and shadows via M lenses. The Summicron-T 23mm is a fantastic lens but to make the most out of your Leica T’s sensor, I highly recommend buying an M lens to complement it.
The most practical application of a fast lens is of course, in low-light shooting. f/2 is probably enough for most situations but f/1.4 really lets you push the boundaries of where you can photograph. ISO performance has come a long ways but nothing beats a fast lens.
The Summilux-M 35mm is notorious for its sheer optical clarity and it doesn’t disappoint in practice. Details render razor sharp and light penetrates through the lens as if it's made of diamond; it’s what makes shooting with the lens so entertaining. Especially with a subject like a car, the reflections and waves of light become so crisp and clear that they turn into a fireworks show.
Because the Leica T has a APS-C sized sensor, the Summilux-M 35mm is comparable to a 50mm when cropped. This means that the lens actually ends up being pretty great for portraits. The Summicron-T 23mm is still the best everyday setup though. If you're interested in buying M lenses for the T, I'd highly recommend trying them out at a store to see if the focal distance makes sense for you.
Photography has changed immensely in the past decade. For most people, their phone is the only camera they need and often times the only one they carry. However, the realities of the nature of light is something that won’t ever change. The Leica M mount is something that has been largely unchanged since 1954 and the lenses designed for this platform are still considered as some of the best optics in the world. Shooting with a manual M lens has been a bit of a revelation for me. You become a part of the machine, affecting it mechanically, having direct influence on the light that will eventually hit the sensor. It makes you a more considerate shooter, and helps you understand the magic that happens underneath the brass casing. There is a convenience you get from shooting with the Summicron-T 23mm but if you own a Leica T, I highly recommend investing in an M-Adapter T and a nice M Summicron or Summilux lens. It’s the essence of photography. Intimate, tactile and simple.