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Lens Review: Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH

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 Glenn Miller Tribute, Leica M-P and Apo-Summicron at f/2 and 3200 ISO (Image ©Brian Bower FRPS)
Glenn Miller Tribute, Leica M-P and Apo-Summicron at f/2 and 3200 ISO (Image ©Brian Bower FRPS)

When the first 50mm f/2 Summicron was introduced in 1953 it was in screw mount for the then current Leica IIIf RD DA (red dial, delayed action). This was a full year ahead of the first M, the M3. Since then both the M cameras and the Summicrons have of course become photographic icons.

  • Click on images to enlarge

 Clematis, 50-APO-Summicron and Leica M9 at f/8 (approximate 60% crop) (©Brian Bower FRPS). Click on image to enlarge
Clematis, 50-APO-Summicron and Leica M9 at f/8 (approximate 60% crop) (©Brian Bower FRPS). Click on image to enlarge

The first Summicron quickly established itself as the benchmark for 50mm lenses for the 36X24mm format and with regular redesigns over the years it maintained its preeminent position. That was until 2004 when the 50mm Summilux ASPH was introduced. This new state of the art lens, which exploited the latest glass types, an aspherical element and a ‘floating’ lens group, soon established itself as the new benchmark.

Not long after the Summilux ASPH was announced I was at Solms and asked Stefan Daniel whether we could now expect an improved Summicron perhaps using an aspherical element and floating group. The answer was simple: Such a project had been investigated but the current Summicron was already such an excellent lens that the cost of any significant improvements would raise its selling price to at least the same level as the Summilux ASPH.

At that time this was not acceptable by the marketing department, and in any case there were other R&D priorities. The project was deferred. Since then the M market has changed radically. Thanks to the digital developments, the M system has again become a best seller for Leica. At this point it was considered that there would be enough demand to justify the cost of developing a very special Summicron, the absolute best-possible 50mm lens, a demonstration of Leica’s state of the art capability in optical and mechanical design and production.

50mm APO-Summicron arrives

The result is the 50mm APO-Summicron–M ASPH. Unlike the spectacular 50mm 0.95 Noctilux that practically shouts for attention, the new Summicron is a very modest looking lens. There is no outward indication of its exceptional qualities. However, as with all truly outstanding lenses, one look at the images it produces and the achievement is apparent. There is an unmistakeable quality and clarity.

During a brief visit to Wetzlar, before lenses became available to the public, I was lucky enough to be allowed to borrow a pre-production version for a few hours. Although I was unable to shoot any serious tests or comparisons, the images that it produced were enough to convince me that this lens was truly special and one that I just had to have.

I had a long wait. As we all know it was in fact some nine months after its first announcement before the first production examples of the new lens trickled onto the market. There is no doubt that, in regular production, consistently achieving the exceptional levels of precision that this design demands was not easy. Some early examples had flare problems and, because these were random, production was stopped for a while until Leica were confident that the exact cause had been identified and corrected.

General

 The regular 50mm Summicron-M in silver alongside the new 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH (©Brian Bower FRPS)
The regular 50mm Summicron-M in silver alongside the new 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH (©Brian Bower FRPS)

As the picture shows the APO-Summicron is compact, little different in size from the regular Summicron. It is however very slightly heavier. Handling is easy and comfortable. One difference is that Leica have fitted a focusing lever. Some people like this but on the whole, whilst I appreciate the handling convenience with shorter focal lengths, with lenses of 50mm and longer I prefer to use just the focusing ring. I would also have preferred a greater rotation from the closest focus (0.7m) to infinity. I believe that this can sometimes help greater focusing accuracy.

 Peter Karbe, designer of the 50mm APO-Summicron-M (Picture ©Thorsten von Overgaard, reproduced with permission)
Peter Karbe, designer of the 50mm APO-Summicron-M (Picture ©Thorsten von Overgaard, reproduced with permission)

At infinity there is minimal cut-off in the finder from lens intrusion. At close distances, as the viewfinder frame moves downwards and to the right to compensate for parallax, the intrusion increases but is still not significant. The lens is beautifully built, focusing is smooth and all the clickstop detents are positive. Interestingly the lens hood operation is new; a simple twist extends it, quick and positive.

Performance

Overall this is exceptional. I shot comparisons with the regular Summicron and a Summilux ASPH on a variety of infinity and close-up subjects. At full aperture the APO is already outstanding. Stopped down to f/2.8 it performs as well or better than any of its sibling lenses do at f/5.6 and when itself stopped down to f/5.6 it remains ahead with exceptional edge-to-edge rendition of the finest detail. For reference I have reproduced here the official MTF curves for the 50mm Apo Summicron and the Summilux ASPH at full aperture and at f/5.6. Curves for f/2.8 and also those for the other 50mm lenses are all shown on the Leica website and are well worth a look.

 Contre-jour at Poynton: 50mm APO-Summicron and Leica M9 (Image ©Brian Bower FRPS). Click on image to enlarge
Contre-jour at Poynton: 50mm APO-Summicron and Leica M9 (Image ©Brian Bower FRPS). Click on image to enlarge

A very high level of performance is maintained right into the close-up zone even at the nearest focused distance of 0.7m. The regular Summicron is a very good lens in the near range as is the Summilux ASPH but the APO-Summicron is superior to either of them, most noticeably at wider apertures and in terms of edge performance.

Overall the gains achieved by the apochromatic corrections are notably evident in the pure rendering of colours and the ability to distinguish subtle nuances of tone.

By f/5.6 vignetting is at the theoretical minimum for a 50mm lens. In any case it is well controlled by the camera firmware of digital M models. Distortion at 0.4% is minimal and of no consequence in practical use.

I shoot a lot against the light and have had no problems with flare or internal reflections in more than two years of regular use. A practical example can be seen in the canal picture to the left. This was taken in an extreme contre-jour situation with not only a very bright low sun just outside the picture area but also an exceptionally bright reflection coming off the water.

Conclusion

This is a stunning lens. Image quality is superb, true leading edge performance and likely to be the benchmark for some time yet. Over the past two years I’ve been using it first with an M9 and more recently with an M-P model 240. I am consistently wowed by the quality of the images that it produces. Nevertheless this is a very expensive lens indeed, second only to the f/0.95 Noctilux in the M line-up and it does take some real effort to justify its purchase.

However, as mentioned above, as soon as I looked at my images from that brief experience with the pre-production lens in Wetzlar there were no doubts. This was an exceptional lens and I convinced myself that I really must have one. Regretfully this meant selling several other lenses including an excellent 50mm Summilux ASPH to fund the purchase. Suffice to say that I have absolutely no regrets.

 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH ©Leica Camera AG
50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH ©Leica Camera AG
 50mm Summilux-M ASPH ©Leica Camera AG
50mm Summilux-M ASPH ©Leica Camera AG

© Brian Bower FRPS 2015

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50mm APO-Summicron Gallery

 Angel at the churchyard of St. Dunstan-in-the-East, City of London.  M-P, f/8 at 1/90s, ISO 650 ©Mike Evans
Angel at the churchyard of St. Dunstan-in-the-East, City of London.  M-P, f/8 at 1/90s, ISO 650 ©Mike Evans
 Disdain at the churchyard of St.Dunstan-in-the East, M-P, f/5.6 at 1/1000s, ISO 200 ©Mike Evans
Disdain at the churchyard of St.Dunstan-in-the East, M-P, f/5.6 at 1/1000s, ISO 200 ©Mike Evans
 Iron Jelloids sign at Oakworth, M9, f/4 at ISO 160.  Close-up performance is excellent, with a flat field at wide apertures.  ©Brian Bower FRPS
Iron Jelloids sign at Oakworth, M9, f/4 at ISO 160. Close-up performance is excellent, with a flat field at wide apertures.  ©Brian Bower FRPS
 1905 locomotive at Oakworth, M9 at ISO 160 ©Brian Bower FRPS
1905 locomotive at Oakworth, M9 at ISO 160 ©Brian Bower FRPS
 Jewel of the Seas at Barbados, extreme detail. M-P, f.8 at 1/200s ©Brian Bower FRPS
Jewel of the Seas at Barbados, extreme detail. M-P, f.8 at 1/200s ©Brian Bower FRPS
 Lock No.72 at Ince, near Wigan Pier. M-P, f/5.6 at 1/250s, ISO 200 ©Mike Evans
Lock No.72 at Ince, near Wigan Pier. M-P, f/5.6 at 1/250s, ISO 200 ©Mike Evans
 Trafalgar Square. M-P, f/2.4 at 1/2000s, ISO 200. ©Mike Evans
Trafalgar Square. M-P, f/2.4 at 1/2000s, ISO 200. ©Mike Evans
 Civil War Society parade, The Mall. M-P, f/4.8 at 1/250s, ISO 200 ©Mike Evans
Civil War Society parade, The Mall. M-P, f/4.8 at 1/250s, ISO 200 ©Mike Evans
 Tower Bridge at night, Sony A7II, f/4 at 1/60s, ISO 1600. Stabilisation on the Sony aids low-light, hand-held shots such as this ©Mike Evans
Tower Bridge at night, Sony A7II, f/4 at 1/60s, ISO 1600. Stabilisation on the Sony aids low-light, hand-held shots such as this ©Mike Evans
 Tale of Two Cities: Above, Leica M-P and 50mm APO-Summicron. Below, Sony A7II and the same lens. MP at f/6.8, 1/350s, ISO 200; Sony at f/5.6. 1/200s, ISO 100, M-P. Taken hand-held on different days, similar lighting conditions. In both cases, impressive detail. The Sony A7II benefits from five-axis in-body stabilisation which permits longer exposure at wider aperture and lower ISO in similar conditions. (Both pictures ©Mike Evans)
Tale of Two Cities: Above, Leica M-P and 50mm APO-Summicron. Below, Sony A7II and the same lens. MP at f/6.8, 1/350s, ISO 200; Sony at f/5.6. 1/200s, ISO 100, M-P. Taken hand-held on different days, similar lighting conditions. In both cases, impressive detail. The Sony A7II benefits from five-axis in-body stabilisation which permits longer exposure at wider aperture and lower ISO in similar conditions. (Both pictures ©Mike Evans)
 Below: Crops from the above photographs, M-P on the left, Sony on the right
Below: Crops from the above photographs, M-P on the left, Sony on the right

2 COMMENTS

  1. In the last two pictures there seems to be a significant difference in range of the colour palette that cannot be entirely accounted for by the difference in light and time of day. It seems that the Leica image has more variation in colour tones in the clouds and the water. I’ve seen this in other articles, particularly with this lens used on a Leica and a Sony. The Sony tends towards a predominant teal/beige palette while the Leica seems to capture more colour variation. Is it possible that the lens profile used by the Leica is getting more out of this lens than the Sony?

    • Richard,

      You could well be right on this. We know that the lens is identified by the Leica and assume that corrections are made. With the Sony it is also clear that there is no special treatment for individual manual lenses. Only focal length can be adjusted on the Sony and I am not sure what effect this has–especially since the option is buried in a sub-menu of Steady Shot Settings. Although these two pictures were mind and not Brian Bower’s, Brian had a look at them and felt that, apart from the aspects you raise, the Leica did seem to have the edge on sharpness in the crops.

      I have been using the Apo-Summicron extensively on the A7II, Fuji X-T1 and, of course, the M-P. In general I am happier with the results from the M and also prefer the way in which the M can identify movement in the focus ring and bring up the magnification automatically. On the other hand, the Sony remains stonking value for a full-frame camera.

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