ARLINGTON — Of all the Leica M lenses out in the world, there is one in particular that does not seem to gets its due. That lens is the 35mm f/2.8 Summaron, a lens made from 1958-1974.
Using vintage lenses is increasingly popular. Photographers are discovering that vintage or unusual optics can give their images a unique look, particularly on today’s high-resolution sensors and that older lenses are often (though not always) less expensive than their modern versions. This is true across platforms, and using lenses on systems other than their native mount is also increasingly common. Mirrorless cameras have made this practice easy and rewarding, particularly with the few full-frame mirrorless models like the various Sony cameras and the Leica SL.
All sorts of lenses can be adapted to the Leica M but unless they are rangefinder coupled, they have to be used in hyper focal mode or via an external EVF on the M240/M-P or M10 models. In other words, there are a relatively limited stable of lenses that are native to Leica rangefinders. There are even fewer actually made by Leica.
Despite the fact that the 35mm, along with the 50mm, is one of the two most commonly used rangefinder focal lengths, far fewer used 35mm lenses are available and at far greater cost than the 50mm. Without much effort, one can find a 50mm f/2 Summicron in good shape for somewhat less than $800. A 35mm Summicron of any generation, in good shape, generally can’t be had for much less than $2,000 and usually a bit more. The Summaron, like almost all Leica lenses, is far from free. With digital Leicas more available and affordable after several generations, people are searching for less expensive alternatives and for lenses with a unique visual signature. Consequently, those vintage lenses are becoming more rare and more expensive. The Summaron is still something of a sleeper but what was readily available a few years ago at around $700-800 is typically found at closer to $900-1,000. This is because the f/2.8 Summaron is an all around outstanding lens with a unique draw but one that is capable of modern use.
First of all, you will see this in two versions, the one with goggles and the one without. The goggles actually call up the 50mm frame-lines but, covering the viewfinder, they magnify those frame-lines to cover the 35mm field-of-view. This was particularly important with cameras like the Leica M3, which did not have frame-lines for lenses wider than 50mm. Rest assured, however, that this lens works perfectly on all full-frame Leicas. I have shot it on an M6ttl, an M4, an M-P, and an M Monochrome. The only drawback to the goggles that I have found in practical use is how to store them in my camera bag. They come with an elegantly designed leather hard case into which the lens actually mounts onto a bayonet mount but the case, for my bag anyway, is too large. This is particularly true for what is a very small lens. Without the goggles this lens is tiny. It isn’t all that big with the goggles but it is an awkward shape. If you’re looking for an incredible 35mm lens, and one that isn’t appreciably slower than Leica’s “bargain” Summarit line, then I would not let the goggles dissuade you. Besides, they have a certain mid-century-Cold-War-cool aesthetic to them.
What is most important is how this lens functions. There are some lenses that have unique visual signatures but, unless you base your entire style and aesthetic around that style, are essentially special effects lenses. They are good for a certain look but not for general use. That is emphatically not the case with the f/2.8 Summaron. The first time I saw photos from this lens, my immediate reaction was to marvel at how sharp, clean, and crisp they were. I did not expect that from this vintage lens but every time I use the Summaron it continues to impress me with the sharpness and sheer beauty of the manner in which it draws a photo. Its signature is difficult to define. Stopped down it is simply renders a sharp, transparent picture with lovely colors and excellent contrast. Wide open it has a certain evident beauty, a vintage dreaminess that, even still, is sharp at the plane of focus. In certain photos the bokeh, the character of the out-of-focus areas, has an almost fantastical feel to it, as if the clearly rendered foreground were existing in a realm touched by magic.
F/2.8 is not the fastest lens in the world but it is as fast as DSLR professional zooms and a lot easier to handhold at slow shutter speeds. On a digital camera (and with modern fast film) the difference between f/2.8 and f/2 is much less than it once was and the 35mm, for me anyway, is typically a lens I use on the street or for outdoor documentary work stopped down to f/8. I have used this lens for a documentary project along the U.S./Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, on the streets of Mumbai, and working with public health and anti-human trafficking organizations in India. I love how it paints an image for personal photos of my family and travels while being fully capable of being used in a professional capacity.
As with any vintage lens, make sure it is in good shape mechanically, that it is properly calibrated to focus correctly, and that the glass is free of haze and fungus. Given these, the f/2.8 Summaron will give you a reasonably fast lens, at a reasonable price that will give you a unique look and long, professional service. FP