When I bought a digital Leica I wanted a new lens to go with it. There was no question that this lens would be 50mm. I use other focal lengths (and have nothing against buying used optics) but, in this case, I wanted a new lens for the new camera. When I bought a Leica M6ttl in 2001, I briefly used an antique 50mm f/2 Summar, but was soon able to acquire well-used 50mm f/2 Summicron from the 1970s. I bought the Summar for $150 from an acquaintance and the second hand Summicron for $500 at the now sadly deceased F-Stop Camera in Akron, Ohio. That lens has served me well but, when I decided to buy the digital M-P 240, the Summicron was in for repairs. Anyway, I wanted a new lens for my new Leica and the M6 would be lonely and jealous if I confiscated its friend Summicron. I like to maintain harmony in my stable of cameras after all.
And so the research began. For new Leica M mount lenses there are essentially three options: Leica, Voigtlander, and Zeiss. I had used Leica and Voigtlander before but had never used the Zeiss ZM line, modern lenses designed specifically for Leica cameras. In the end I chose the 50mm f/2 Zeiss Planar ZM and I am glad I did.
I chose the Planar for a number of reasons. First, although the actual lens is made in Japan, it is of German design. There is, as well, a long tradition of photographers using Zeiss lenses on Leica bodies. Second, the general consensus was that the lens was built to a higher standard than the Voigtlanders and had exceptional optical qualities. And third, among other subsidiary reasons, the Zeiss was priced at slightly less than $900 as opposed to around $2,300 for a new 50mm Summicron. To be fair, one could have had a nice f/1.4 Voigtlander Nokton for $600 or an f/1.1 Nokton for about the same price as the Planar, but I had decided, for a number of reasons, that I didn’t want a Voigtlander for my 50mm lens.
With my Summicron in the shop I had been using a vintage 50mm f/2 Nikkor LTM lens (a terrific optic, by the way) and a 35mm f/2.8 Summaron (also a terrific lens) but my new Leica M-P needed a new lens to call its own.
Reviews of the Zeiss often damn it with faint praise. They always seem to include lines such as, “it is built well though not to Leica standards,” and that it is some rather arbitrary percent of, “almost as good as the Leica.” Here, however, is the truth. The build is lighter though very solid, more machined aluminum than solid brass forged by maiden Valkyries in the fires of Mount Wetzlar, but I have put this lens through heavy use over the last three years and neither the focus nor the aperture have loosened whatsoever. That focus is smooth, confident, and exact. The aperture ring is solid and precise, clicking back and forth in 1/3 stop increments. The lens has a nice, clean, black paint finish that, incidentally, shows far less wear than the black paint of the Leica M-P’s body after essentially the same usage. It is, simply, a very well built lens.
Before talking about the optics I will state my only problems with the lens. The hood is not included and a genuine clip-on Zeiss hood costs about $85. This is annoying. I bought an aftermarket screw-on hood for about $6 that lives permanently on the lens. My second quibble is that the filter size is 46mm instead of the common Leica 39mm. It would be nice if these were compatible but, frankly, I think other reviews have made more of an issue of this than it is worth. The Summicron, after all, costs about $1,500 more than the Planar. That’ll buy a lot of filters if filters are your thing, and, frankly, I normally only use clear UV filters to protect my lenses anyway. My third, final, and most serious critique of the Planar is the lack of a proper focusing tab as is found on most Leica lenses. There is a little metallic bump on the focus ring but I augmented that with a rubber TAAB lens tab for faster focusing. I cannot see that any of these issues should be a deal breaker.
The bottom line, however, is that this lens is optically brilliant. It is everything a 50mm lens should be and then some. I honestly don’t think this lens receives the complete, fulsome, and wholehearted praise that it deserves. I will go so far as to say that you should very seriously consider this lens over the Leica Summicron whether or not price is a consideration. The Summicron, and pretty much all Leica optics, are absolutely first rate. Of this there is no doubt. I think, however, that the Zeiss lenses do not receive their due.
Here are the facts. The Planar is incredibly sharp, delivering an incredible level of detail, at all apertures, across the entire frame. The lens makes images with fine details, excellent contrast, excellent micro-contrast, deeply saturated colors, and almost zero distortion. This could result in a clinical image, but the Zeiss Planar ZM endows images with that extra, indefinable magic possessed only by great lens designs. In fact, I think the Planar also does not get its fair recognition for optical magic when compared against its faster, more eccentric brother, the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Sonnar ZM. The point being, that the 50mm f/2 Zeiss Planar ZM should never be thought of as a runner up or a second tier choice. It is a phenomenal optic, one of the finest 50mm M Mount lenses on the market today.
And, on to, you know… the Japanese word for the aesthetic qualities of the out-of-focus elements of the photo for which the English language has not a proper term. Whew… I enjoy a nice piece of bokeh as much as the next guy but I am not a bokeh freak. I deeply disagree with the notion that Leica lenses, or any lenses for that matter, are intended to be used at their widest aperture. This is ridiculous, but I hear this patent falsehood repeated over and over. Good lenses are designed to deliver great images at full aperture, and your personal style might be to shoot at full apertures, but lenses are designed to be used at all apertures depending on the lighting conditions and the photographer’s aesthetic intent. And, while images with resplendent bokeh are lovely, very few truly great images (none that I can think of) were taken at super wide apertures in order to use this effect. Most great images are taken at smaller apertures in order to put objects at different planes in context with each other. That being said, good bokeh is not to be scoffed at, and I do enjoy a nice bit of it every now and then. The 50mm Planar has it. The bokeh, to my eye, is smooth and painterly, but in a particular, rare evening light, takes on near mystical qualities. Yes. It does. Mystical qualities. I wrote that.
This lens might not have been made in Asgard-Wetzler by the hand of Odin Barnackson himself but it is imbued with magic nonetheless. If you are searching for a 50mm for your Leica M then the Zeiss f/2 Planar ZM should be one of your top choices. FP