The Japanese Summilux visits Las Vegas and snaps Carlos Santana
Everyone knows the motto of the Boy Scouts of America – Be Prepared. For a photographer, being prepared means having the tools on hand to do the job: what camera and lens combination will you need to get an anticipated job done. When travelling, you need to consider the camera and lenses you might need for whatever photographic situations you might encounter, but still keep the load small enough and light enough to not get in your way.
If you are a gear head like me, this is part of the fun (or headache) when preparing to travel – assembling the kit of essential cameras and lenses, anticipating what photographic situations you will find yourself in and what you need to take with you to deal with them. This game of “what’s in my bag” is played out constantly on numerous photographic enthusiasts’ websites. This is where the M system comes into its own. You can travel with a minimum of bulk, but still keep all of your bases covered.
Bill is a past President of the Leica Historical Society of America and current editor of Viewfinder, the quarterly journal of the LHSA since 2000. He has been active in photography as a retailer and professional photographer over the past 30 years, a Leica user over the past 40 years and a Leica collector for over 30 years. Bill has also served as a consultant to Leica Camera AG on various special projects.
Last November, we had planned a trip to Las Vegas to celebrate my older son’s bachelor party. I know, what goes in Vegas, stays in Vegas! We’ll leave that to the kids. Me, I am happy just being out there shooting in the target rich environment that Las Vegas presents.
In my kit, I had my M9-P and Mk.I Monochrom, a 21/2.8 ASPH, 35/1.4 ASPH, a 90 and couple of 50mm lenses that I would be testing. This is a fairly typical travel kit for me, and with it I could handle anything from landscapes to portraits. I had recently acquired a Zeiss Sonnar C 50/1.5 and a Canon 50/1.4 LTM lens, and I also had a Leica Q along which Leica USA had graciously lent me for the trip. Of course, everything fit into my trusty FOGG Forté bag. With testing and writing for Viewfinder always in mind, I thought I had more than enough gear to work with.
As luck would have it, my brother-in-law, who was along for the festivities, managed to obtain some choice last minute tickets to the Carlos Santana show at the House of Blues Theater in our hotel. Of course, we jumped at the chance to see the legend in concert. The last time I saw Santana live was almost forty years ago in my college days! The show was in a few hours and I had no time to go back up to the room, but luckily I had the two fifties in my bag, along with the 90 and the Q. It would have to do!
I also worried about being branded as a professional and being denied admission to the venue with my camera, but security let me pass through without any issues. Are you a professional? Of course not, I said! As usual, the M cameras’ unobtrusive, non-threatening, “that looks like it’s just an old camera” appearance saved the day.
Once we took our seats, I realized we were much closer to the stage than I had ever anticipated, being at the first high-top table to the right of the stage, literally ten feet away from some of the band members! From past experience, I had anticipated the 90mm being barely adequate in reach for a concert venue, but a 50 would work just fine here. But which 50 to choose? As this was only the second day of the trip, I was not yet fully familiar with either lens’s traits, but being mindful of the Sonnar’s reputation for focus shift, I went with what I knew would be the safe choice - the Canon.
I know, one should be fully versed on the equipment you plan to use, but that was the point of having the two 50mm with me for testing. Fortunately, the Canon 50/1.4 worked out quite well for this potentially difficult assignment. A few initial test shots, using the rear display to zoom in to check on areas of critical focus and the histogram for exposure, indicated I was good to go.
If you are not familiar with it, the 50/1.4 Canon LTM lens was made by Canon for their rangefinder cameras which were competing with Nikon, Zeiss and of course Leica in the late fifties and sixties. Back then, before the coming of the SLR age, competition was fierce among these brands and having a high-speed standard lens was essential to add prestige to your brand’s image and standing in the photographic world.
Having a high-speed normal lens in your line-up was also a necessity and not a luxury with the slow film emulsions available in those days. When the Canon lens was designed, Kodachrome slide films typically had an ASA of 10, and Kodak Super XX B&W emulsions were barely hitting ASA 200! Zeiss had the legendary Sonnar, Nikon the fine Nikkor and Leica of course had the Summarit 1.5 which was soon succeeded by the Summilux.
The Canon lens, introduced in 1957 (Type I), was followed by the Type II lens (1959) of identical specification to the Type I and it continued in production until 1972, when Canon discontinued it along with the entire interchangeable lens rangefinder line in favor of their SLR line. Serial numbers range from 1000 to 29390 for the Type I and 29681 to 120705 for the Type II lens. Jason Howe, in his excellent on-line article on this lens, has dubbed it the “Japanese Summilux”, which seems to be an apt description.
Canon also offered a 50/1.2 in LTM and a 50/.095 lens in Canon RF bayonet mount (the so called “Dream Lens”) during this period. These lenses have their own unique character and following, but the 50/1.4 is a superior all-around performer in comparison.
Specifications of the lens are as follows:
- Planar Type Design – 6 Elements in 4 Groups
- Leica Thread Mount (M39)
- Black and Chrome mount with infinity catch, scale in feet and meters
- Aperture range from 1.4 to 22 in full stop clicks
- Closest focus to 1 M
- 48mm Filter Thread
- Weight 246g (In comparison, the Zeiss C Sonnar is 273g
- and the Leica Summilux 50/1.4 ASPH FLE is 352g)
The lens handles and balances well on the M camera, with size and weight well-matched to the M. The only niggles are the odd 48mm filter size, the infinity catch and close-focus limit of one meter. The wide scalloped focus ring is intuitive and easily differentiated from the aperture ring. The click stops on the aperture ring are nice and crisp.
Current lens designers could learn a thing or two studying the haptics of these “old” lens designs! Some are put off by the infinity catch, but in practice, this is not much of an annoyance. The same can be said of the one-meter limit on close focus, with the longer throw of the focus ring being slower than a modern lens mount, but it does allow for more accurate focus.
As noted, finding filters can be a bit of a pain, but finding an appropriate lens hood is even more of a problem. Of course, Canon made a perfectly good clamp-on style hood back when the lens was current, but these are now much sought after by collectors. I obtained my generic hood off eBay from a seller in Japan that offered both a vented on non-vented versions in 48mm for less than $15. In my opinion, the vented version looks very appropriate and Leica-like on the lens.
Prices range from under $200 to over $700 for a really mint collector’s example. I paid just over $250 for mine. Make sure the lens is clean and free of fungus, excess dust inside or surface scratches on the front and rear lens elements. These lenses are over fifty years old at this point, after all. As these were the premium lenses of their day, most examples do seem to be well cared for, especially in comparison to their slower “normal” kin. These lenses are easily serviceable, and any competent service person can make one of these fine lenses good as new. Pick up an LTM to M adapter, and you are good to go.
How does the “Japanese Summilux” perform? While it is no match for the current 50 Summilux-M ASPH, it does quite well when compared to the original Leitz Summilux pre-ASPH and the Nikkor 50/1.4 in RF mount. It is superior to the Summarit, being more contrasty and sharper. Contrast and sharpness are better than the coated 50/1.5 Sonnar of the same period, while not quite as sharp and contrasty as the current Sonnar C lens from Zeiss. Wide open, it focusses where intended, unlike the Sonnars with their sometimes quirky focus shift issues. Stopping down only improves this lens’ performance in terms of sharpness across the field, improved contrast and saturation.
I shot the Santana concert pictures with the Monochrom in DNG at 3200 ISO, 1/250 of a second with the lens set at f/4. I applied my standard Monochrom presets to the images in Lightroom and did some further post-processing in Silver Efex Pro. It was fairly easy to get the best out of these image files. As you can see from the images presented here, the lens performed quite well.
The images are incredibly sharp and have well saturated blacks without blown highlights, which can be a problem with stage lighting. I did not notice any vignetting with these images, although at f/4 and stage lighting it would not be noticed anyway. Subsequent experience with the lens shows no problem with vignetting, even when shot wide open. In over 200 images during this shoot, I only had two which exhibited any flare.
Again, flare can be a issue with any lens with extreme lighting, but the older lens designs can be especially problematic in this regard with their older glass formulas and coatings. Even without a hood (which I had not yet acquired at this point), the lens did remarkably well, especially considering the difficult stage lighting used during the performance.
I have also included some images here taken with the modern Sonnar C 50/1.5 and with the Q. The Sonnar C is an incredible lens, “dreamy” wide-open with great bokeh and brutally sharp and contrasty when stopped down. But of course, there is that pesky issue of focus shift with the Sonnar. This can be overcome with some practice and familiarity with the lens. It’s almost two lenses for the price of one.
The Canon, on the other hand is a docile performer under virtually all conditions, and is one of the best bargains out there for around $250. The Q represents the cutting edge performance possible with a dedicated camera/sensor/lens design from Peter Karbe at Leica. However, you are limited by the 28mm focal length and may have to resort to heavy cropping to achieve tight framing of the subject.
The use and appreciation of these so-called legacy lenses has become a sub-hobby of sorts for me. They can be compared to vintage fine wines. They need to be sampled, savored and appreciated. They are less perfect, less clinical in their rendering than the modern designs. One could say they are less boring as well, with their lack of “perfection”, full of character. They can also be a challenge to master. Both old and new versions of the Zeiss Sonnar 50/1.5 and the Thambar are lenses that come to mind.
Considering that any Leica lens from the 1920s on can be used on the most modern Leica digital camera with the appropriate adapter and the available numbers of other extraordinary lenses from the Leica’s rivals, opens up a vast universe of “alternative lenses” to use today. One can sample many different lenses at quite reasonable price, seeing how these little gems “draw” compared to each other and their modern counterparts.
On the Monochrom, these legacy lenses draw in an almost magical way. Sure you give up some micro-contrast, sharpness across the field, field flatness, freedom from vignetting, etc, but you gain in the ability to get a very unique look for your images. Some would call them “dreamy” exhibiting the so-called “Leica Glow”, recalling an earlier era when photography was not all about ultimate sharpness, but more about a mood or impression being conveyed by the photograph.
The bokeh is usually quite pleasant as well with these legacy lenses. On a color sensor camera, you will notice a more pastel palette in comparison with modern lenses. Upon stopping down, many of these legacy lenses do improve their performance dramatically. They also appeal to the budget as well, with literally limitless choice on a cheap-as-chips budget. This allows you to try out these classics to your heart’s content, and when you get tired of a lens, you can usually sell them on for more than your initial investment.
Leica themselves have entered the game with the recent introduction of the 28/5.6 Summaron. Following in the foot- steps of Zeiss with the Sonnar C 50/1.5 lens, the Summaron offers a brand new lens with current glass formulas and coatings using the classic lens design from the fifties. Our good friend Stefan Immes has been an innovator here with the rebirth of Meyer-Optik-Görlitz and the classic Primoplan and Troplan lens designs. I predict that this is a trend that will continue to gain momentum in the future.
I plan on making these type of classic lens field tests and comparisons a regular feature in future issues of Viewfinder. I invite you to submit your own user reports of your own classic lenses. Next up, I envisage a comparison of the classic fast 50s – Zeiss Sonnar old and new, the Jupiter 3 Sonnar copy, the Xenon, Summarit and Summilux by Leica, the Nikkor 1.4 in LTM and RF mounts, and the Canon 1.4. Stay tuned!
- This article will appear this month in the LHSA’s magazine, Viewfinder.
- You may also enjoy Jason Howe’s review of “The Japanese Summilux”
- Bill’s excellent magazine, Viewfinder, is available to all LHSA members. See the website here if you would like to join (as have Mike Evans, Jonathan Slack and many other UK residents).
- Subscribe to Macfilos for free updates on articles as they are published. Read more here
- Want to make a comment on this article but having problems? Please read this