Classic Look: Closing the door on modern Leica glass
Hamish Gill, a friend who is both a knowledgeable film fan and Leica stalwart, has reached a surprising decision. He has sold all his modern Leica lenses and decided to switch entirely to Zeiss ZM-mount.
For a couple of years, to my knowledge, Hamish has been extolling the traditional virtues of the Zeiss-ZM Sonnar-C 50mm f/1.5, a modern version of a pre-war design. It has a modern coating but even Zeiss admit that this isn’t a lens for technical perfection (unlike, for instance, the 50mm f/2 Apo-Summicron-M ASPH from Leica). They tell us the Sonnar’s forte is portraiture and when atmosphere, including shallow-depth-of-field techniques and bokeh are desired. The Sonnar-C also has something of a reputation for focus shift on rangefinder cameras.
But I join Hamish in his liking for this fast, extremely compact 50mm lens. Although I don’t own an example of this lens, I did put a press-fleet version through its paces last year and used it extensively with two cameras — the Leica SL and Leica M-D. I actually love the chrome-and-black finish and ergonomics of this lens, which is a much cheaper alternative to Leica's 50mm f/1.4 equivalent. The silver version of he Sonnar as arguably even prettier.
It is, however, the only Zeiss-ZM optic I have used for any length of time, and I bow to Hamish’s greater knowledge on the subject of Zeiss lenses in general.
Hamish has now gone one step further. He has sold his modern Leica lenses because they are just “too good for his tastes”. I can understand his point. Softer, older lens designs do have a certain allure, particularly for special-occasion use. And there is no doubt that modern Leica lenses have majored on sharpness and technical perfection. I like that perfection and sharpness, I have to say, but I can understand the views of photographers such as Hamish Gill who prefer a softer, more dreamy approach.
Our contributor William Fagan has a large collection of vintage Leica lenses, many of which exhibit similar characteristics to the Zeiss Sonnar. He praises them for their rendering which is typical of the period. They all lack modern coatings but there has been a recent move to update and reintroduce some of the more classic Leica designs. The first of these is the 28mm f/5.6 Summaron, introduced earlier this year. But I believe other classic designs in a modern guise will appear in due course.
I am sure few Leica enthusiasts will be rushing to emulate Hamish’s clear out and switching wholesale to Zeiss or to vintage optics. Most, I believe, appreciate the technical excellence that Leica continues to offer with its lenses. But on occasion, a softer classic rendering can be fun, particularly for portraiture. Hamish, however, believes his Zeiss lenses are the best all rounders for his purpose and it's a view I respect even though it wouldn't be my choice.