The Leitz Summar: A lens which has an undeserved bad reputation among Leica collectors. I’m not entirely sure why so I am taking a look at some aspects of the Summar that may have been overlooked. As I now have eight Summars in my collection, I feel that I must say something on behalf of this wonderful lens.
The top photograph is of the Just Joey Rose in my back garden. It is one of my wife’s favourites as our grandson’s name is Joe. Apologies to rose lovers everywhere for taking a photo of a rose in its dying hours, but the object was to demonstrate the bokeh from my newly acquired Leica Rigid Summar (used on an M240 camera). Apologies also to all lovers of Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies for appropriating the title of one one of his most famous works, which has been borrowed by many others ranging from Ludwig van Beethoven to Kanye West
Like Moore’s composition, the Summar is not new. It was introduced in a rigid version in 1933 but this was rapidly replaced by the much more common collapsible design. Indeed, people who had the rigid version could get their lens “upgraded” to the collapsible version. Since around 2,000 of the rigid version were produced and, with the upgrade programme as well, they are now quite rare and fetch many times the price of the collapsible lens in the collector market. By comparison over 120,000 examples of the collapsible version were produced.
The Summar was Leica’s first f/2 lens. It has six elements but the front one has quite soft glass which was prone to scratching when cleaned (with the photographer’s tie, perhaps). Hence there are quite a few examples around which are not in such good condition and the lens has got an unjustifiable ‘bad rap’. I mentioned in an article on this site about auctions and collecting some time ago that I had an ‘accidental collection’ of Summars which included at least five out of the ten variants listed by Paul-Henry van Hasbroeck in his book Leica: A History illustrating every Model and Accessory.
The photo above shows the first six on my Summars and it featured in my earlier article about on-line camera auctions.
The variants here include not only feet and meter scale but also a nickel version, a black-rim variant and also other oddities including an indent and an f/2.9 stop for the then new (and short-lived) Agfa colour process with tri-colour filters; and also infrared markings on some but not on others. The sixth Summar in the ‘naughty corner’ at the back and wearing the SOOMP hood as a dunce’s cap is, in fact, a hybrid with the mount of one variation and the lens head of another one. These were an accidental collection, since, apart from the one with the black rim, the rest all came attached to various LTM cameras that I had purchased and it was only afterwards that I noticed the variations.
The first one came on a II Model D and the picture below is from the first roll of film that I took with the camera.
Not only did the lens capture wonderful detail on the wall, something about the slightly out-of-focus branch behind told me that this lens might have some interesting bokeh possibilities. I mounted the Summar on an M8 and took it to our National Botanic Gardens in Dublin to see how it would work as a recorder of flower specimens.
I might add that I believe that bokeh is somewhat over-lauded nowadays but it can add atmosphere to a shot. Tastes in bokeh vary. Some like smooth, some like busy and others like something in between. The great thing about the Summar is that you never know what it will throw up until you take a shot. And it also varies according to the aperture used. The first example below was taken in the Palm House at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin in Dublin. It was shot fairly wide open and the plants in the background form a wonderful (to me anyway) swirly haze.
The next photo was taken outdoors at the same venue and the lens was stopped down to f/8 or even f/11.
Two for the price of one
The hexagonal iris shape can be clearly seen here. Also to be noted are the out-of-focus areas behind. They are, in fact, part of a lily pond. The stopped-down Summar has rendered the lily pond as if it were a flowing stream in this picture. Two different bokehs for the price of one, as it were.
My next purchase was the following lens which is coated and has a strange red dot (no, not that Red Dot!) and is shown here on a Leica IIIa with a SCNOO (I got a nice ESOOR case for the SCNOO recently to match the one I have for the Leicavit; perhaps another article lies there).
The coating gives the output from this lens more of a modern look. This would probably please most users but I find there is something in the look of the older uncoated lenses which is also really attractive. I must admit that I often iron out this look in Lightroom by adding saturation and sharpening to taste, but it is nice to be able to use the traditional look when my humour leans in that direction.
The most recent addition to my Summar collection is, in fact, the oldest one I possess. It is a Rigid Summar from 1933 which I purchased last week from Ivor Cooper at Red Dot Cameras In London. It looks really well here on a late 1932 Model IID. I think the black-enamel-with-nickel-furniture cameras from that period are the nicest ones ever made by Leica.
Ivor had two examples and I chose this one because it had that ‘old look’. The rigid model has a narrow base and using an adaptor without an indent meant that infinity focus would not work well as the infinity lock area is quite wide. I have an adaptor with an indent at home which I thought would not work with the M240 but, in fact, it does. I do not get a ‘no lens attached’ message using this. Perhaps I made some menu adjustment, but, if I did, I have now forgotten what it is. Indeed, I find that using the indented adaptor and the EVF gives much better focus accuracy at distance with this lens. It is even better on the Fujifilm X-Pro 2 where it is well away from the body due to the additional distance provided by the Fuji to Leica M adaptor. I have yet to try the lens on its true home, an LTM model.
I bought this mainly as a collector’s item, of course, but I could not resist taking a photo of the esteemed editor of Macfilos at the Leica Society event in Mayfair last week.
You will see that the bokeh behind Mike’s head is quite smooth. The early rigid Summars had a round iris as against the hexagonal one in later variations. This can give some very smooth bokeh except where the background is quite varied with different patches of light coming through as in the ‘Last Rose’ photo at the top of this article. There the bokeh is quite busy, but it has enough of the characteristic ‘Summar Swirls’ to satisfy my taste.
I am both a collector and user of Leica cameras and lenses. Would I recommend buying one of these lenses to use instead of the usual Summicron or Summilux? I’m afraid that my answer would be, no. However, if you have one of these lenses in your collection and the requisite adaptor, I would certainly recommend taking it out on your latest digital wonder and shooting at a range of apertures. I can guarantee what you will get is something that no modern lens can provide. Remember the lens is sitting in your bag or press or on a shelf just waiting to show what an ‘old guy’ can do.