Amid the current crisis, it’s not surprising if you didn’t hear the news that Leica has dropped the venerable Summarit line of lenses. As usual, the faithful customers were not informed, but dealers confirmed the rumours on March 10.
Perhaps it is time for an obituary of this underrated line of M lenses. And, certainly, time to buy one as long as you have the chance to get it. You might even get a discount these days.
In a way, it was a bold move back in 2007 when Leica first announced an entire line of new lenses. They were called Summarit, echoing the successful f/1.5 Summarit launched in 1949 — then Leica’s fastest lens. The new lenses all featured a maximum aperture of f/2.5, half a stop below the long-established and prestigious Summicron line.
The quartet of 35, 50, 75 and 90 mm designs covered the most important focal lengths for M users, given the fact that a not-so-expensive 28mm (the excellent Elmarit) had been launched not so long before.
Stigma of being the poor man’s gear
From the first day, the Summarits carried the stigma of being the poor mans’ lenses, probably also triggered by the fact that they were initially delivered without the tailor-made leather pouch and, certainly more annoyingly, without lens hoods. If I remember well, the hoods were sold for an extra €100. Still, these optics were, at prices between €1,000 and €1,250, quite affordable, by Leica standards at any rate.
Perhaps because of this, the Summarits were never a real success. Dealers tell me that they sold relatively few, and many were traded-in for more prestigious lenses once the buyers acquired the taste for rangefinder photography. Of course, this was no help for sales figures. But Leica did not give up on the idea of affordable lenses especially for newcomers who might be more inclined to buy new gear instead of taking the risk of investing in second-hand lenses.
f/2.4 and a more beautiful design didn’t help either
Seven years after the first introduction, the Summarit line saw a major relaunch. The initial f/2.5 aperture was widened fractionally to f/2.4, but there is much evidence that the optical formula remained the same. However, lens hoods were now included, and especially the ones for the 35 and the 50 had a beautiful design that we have since seen on the Q. And there were silver versions now, albeit not in the solid brass-chrome finish of the earlier days but in anodised aluminium which is much cheaper.
I have heard rumours that Leica has taken the Summarits out of the program because they were allegedly too cheap or cannibalised the more expensive Summicrons. From my point of view, that’s nonsense. The second edition of the Summarits did not sell well either. Although they were significantly cheaper than the Summicons, which are only slightly brighter. And even though they were often optically equivalent and even though they did mechanically meet Leica standards.
Fair pricing until the suspension
Also, the pricing remained fair. The Summarits underwent only comparatively moderate price increases over the years. If you count in the lens hood, the 35mm rose from €1,350 to €1,850 over 13 years. Other lenses saw a much heftier rise. No, the Summarits were just not successful. I recently bought a beautiful silver 75mm (after the silver versions were discounted because of discontinuation) in a flourishing Leica Store. It was manufactured in 2017 according to the factory label. Any questions?
Probably it is part of a certain Leica tragedy with the company’s constant shift to becoming a luxury brand. Down-to-earth products that meet the needs of many amateur users and that are a reasonable investment for pros tend to get squeezed out of the shiny cabinets of lifestyle products. A maximum aperture of f/2.4 is an excellent starting point for available-light photography in times when ISO 6400 is not a problem anymore. If you want a great amount of background blur, use the 75mm. At f/2.4, it has a depth of field of 40mm at the familiar portrait distance of 1.2 metres. Difficult enough to focus, I suppose.
A secret tip that tragically remained a secret
I don’t know why, but the Summarits never got the justified praise for their optical qualities. They remained a virtual secret right up to the very end. This could also be because many dealers never promoted the Summarits because of the lower profit margin on entry-level products. The 35mm (if labelled f/2.4 and ASPH, or plain f/2.5) is excellent, and I prefer it to the Summicron. Mainly, but not only, because of the sturdy hood. The 75mm is excellent, too, and certainly enough of a challenge to photographers when used wide open. Sure, it lacks some of the qualities the Summicron-M shows, but I would argue that it represents much better value for money. Both the Summarits are in the top league of Leica M lenses as far as I can tell.
I also own the 90mm, but to be honest, I don’t use it that much. It seems to be on par with the last edition of the f/2.8 Elmar-M. I have a well-used copy of this latter one, and I prefer it for the built-in hood and simply because it never, never, never had let me down. The 50mm Summarit is beautifully built as is the 35mm, and I like it, too. Many users say, however, that they prefer the rendering of the recent M lenses line, the Summicon-M with its 1979 design.
Used Summicrons? At today’s prices no real alternative
With exploding prices for used M lenses, a second-hand Summicron is no real alternative to a new Summarit anymore. Not for the 35mm, where the pre-ASPH have crazy price tags by now, and not for the 75mm. With some luck, you will get a good 50mm Summicron (by the way, almost a bargain brand-new so far) at a decent price but most likely it will be without 6-bit coding and certainly without Leica warranty. Only in the 90mm sector can Summicrons, especially the excellent recent APO version, offer real seduction.
It just remains to say farewell to the Summarits. Their talent was never really appreciated. These are small, very good and very likeable lenses for the Leica M. There is still a chance to get hold of one new. I can especially recommend 35mm and the 75mm versions. It is fun to take pictures with them and they are good enough for almost any task. Which is something you can’t always say of us Leica owners.
Support your dealer right now
And one last appeal: Support your Leica dealers like my favourite Leica Store Konstanz in this time of crisis. The staff there are real experts, English speaking and familiar with customs procedures. All over Europe dealers have had to close down their shops, because we all have to fight against the spread of the coronavirus.
If you don’t want to be left in a world after the crisis where a few big multinationals alone can make the rules, you should support the small, independent retailers (photoshops, bookstores and all the others). Many take orders by phone or e-mail, even if they don’t have an online shop. Just ask and have the goods delivered.
Many of us are currently worried about money. Others can take it more easily. For them, at least, it might be the best time to invest in a Leica product. And a Summarit is by far not the worst idea.