Leica has announced two new Classic releases: The 35mm Summilux version I (often known as the ‘steel rim’), first released in 1961, and the Leica M6 classic, first released in 1984.
This article will concentrate mostly on the new lens, which I have been testing on and off for a little over a year. However, I held the M6 in my hands for the first time at the Leica Society International meeting in Dublin last week and fell immediately in love!
The new Leica M6
First of all, I haven’t tested this camera. There isn’t so much need to test a film camera, so I’ve not had one sent my way. I thought it was a great idea, but I didn’t know the full details until visiting Dublin last weekend, where Stefan Daniel was carrying the new camera with the 35 Summilux V1.
Superficially the camera is a replica of the 1984 version of the M6, complete with the Leitz red spot and the engraving on the top plate. The shutter speed dial is also exactly as the original camera and the MP (smaller and in the other direction).
The original camera had a die-cast zinc top and brass bottom plate, but the new camera is machined out of solid brass. In addition, it has the latest version of the 0.72 rangefinder. The viewfinder itself now has a red dot between the two arrows (as did the M7 and the M6TTL).
The paint is the same as the M11 (which is incredibly durable) but with a slightly smoother finish. This camera will brass, but it’s going to take a long time. Better get rubbing!
Most of the rumours about the new camera suggested that it would be a limited edition, but this is not the case. Leica have completely revamped the supply chain for components so that they should be able to produce the cameras quickly and be able to repair them for the foreseeable future.
This is Leica reaffirming their allegiance to film photography whilst every other manufacturer has abandoned it.
Leica Classic Lens remakes
Many photographers are discovering the charms of older lenses (and, coincidentally, their vices). Collectors have long understood which lenses are interesting or scarce, so prices for vintage lenses can be extremely high.
For instance, a quick check on eBay finds copies of the Leica 35 Summilux (Steel Rim) in good condition on sale for as much as €30,000. The hood was an accessory, and the OLLUX (12522) is now trading for around €2,500 (and considering how easily it falls off, you would have to be very brave to use it). I note, however, that you can buy a spare of the revamped OLLUX for just £195.
If you are a collector, that’s all well and good, but if you’re a photographer and you would like to use these classic lenses, then it’s pretty hard to justify the cost. More than that, these lenses were at the cutting edge of technology in the fifties, sixties and seventies and were extremely difficult to manufacture. So there was quite a large sample variation between different examples, adding to which many have suffered misfortunes over the years.
Leica had the bright idea of remaking some of these iconic lenses. In most cases, the original glass is no longer available, so they have carefully used equivalent modern glass and coatings with similar characteristics. Lens technology has come a long way in 60 years, so manufacturing is now much more straightforward, and the sample variation which plagued the lenses of the 60s should not be an issue.
So far, they have produced the 28 f/5.6 Summaron from the mid-fifties, then came the 90mm f/2.2 Thambar soft focus lens from the 30s, and then, last year saw the introduction of the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux (which I wrote about here).
This brings us to the newest lens in the series…
The Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M version 1 (Steel Rim)
The 35mm f1.4 Summilux 1 was produced from 1961 to 1966 and came either with or without goggles. The lens was produced in a silver-chrome finish and black anodised aluminium (Leica didn’t use black chrome plating until 1971). The insides of the lens were brass in both cases. There were around 8,000 lenses made in total.
Lenses for the M3 cameras came with goggles (and focused down to 0.65m) those for the M2 came without goggles and focused only down to a metre.
The Leitz shipping records for the lenses did not indicate either their finish (black or silver) or their mount version (goggles or not). Lars Netopil has estimated the quantities of the different versions by interpolating from the number of M3 and M2 cameras sold during the period and come up with the following:
• 4,400 chrome lenses with goggles
• 3,360 chrome lenses without goggles
• 160 black lenses with goggles
• 80 black lenses without goggles
Because the M2 was the accepted camera for wide-angle lenses, Lars suspects that there might actually be around 200 black lenses without goggles.
Above left to right: Misty Walk and Facing the Sea, both taken with Leica M11 with 35 Summilux Steel Rim
The classic remake
The remake of the 35 Summilux is a lovely thing. The lens itself is made from brass and silver chrome, like the original. It weighs only 200g and is not a great deal larger than the 28 Summaron. It handles so nicely on an M11, a great camera and lens combination you can hold in your hand all day.
It comes with two different lens hoods. The original Ollux remade and a round screw-in hood. Leica have retained the ‘fall off’ characteristics of the original Ollux, so the screw-in shade is very welcome! Unlike the original lens, the remake has a 46mm screw thread for attaching filters; the round shade screws into this and retains a thread inside so that you can attach filters with either shade (or with no shade).
As an object and a package, the whole thing is irresistible; I would recommend you don’t look at one if you aren’t going to buy.
Erwin Puts, in his book “Leica M-lenses Their Soul and Secrets (2002), wrote:
This lens has low overall contrast at full aperture with a modest definition of fine details and subject outlines. Stopping down, the improvement is commendable, becoming excellent around f/8. The overall performance characteristic should be put in the context of its age and small volume.
This is a perfect description but perhaps doesn’t cover the ‘soul’ angle enough.
Wide open, the lens is dreamy and never quite sharp. Depending on the subject, it can produce really interesting effects.
Stopping down, even to f/2.8, makes the lens sharper; by f/5.6 in the centre, it’s really very sharp indeed. The edges of the frame are sharp by f/4, but the furthest corners never quite make it.
The lens is also rather subject to flare – often in the form of a rainbow — which again can be fun to experiment with.
Clearly, the point of buying this lens is for its ‘look’, not because it compares well with the latest 35 APO Summicron, and the ‘look’ it delivers in spades.
Above left to right: Fern and Rainbow, Last Light: Leica M11 with 35 Summilux Steel Rim
The Bokeh (as with all lenses) depends very much on the subject. With very detailed backgrounds, it can seem busy and ‘nervous’ but never nasty; more often, it’s sumptuous and creamy.
Focusing is with a focusing tab, and it’s really delightfully smooth and tactile, with an infinity lock. I’m not personally a fan of the infinity lock.
Still, Leica have made it easy to escape, and the release button is natural to use.
Like the original lens, you change the aperture by holding the tabs for the lens hood; this is a bit fiddly, but the aperture ring feels lovely, and it soon becomes second nature.
The small size is a bit of a revelation after using a modern 35mm Summilux; it’s wonderfully tiny.
Perhaps this is the point at which I should confess that I have mostly been an advocate for Leica’s modern lenses, especially the APO lenses, which I see as having a real character of their own — detailed, gentle and with a lovely bokeh.
However, I own (and love) the little 28 Summaron, and when I tested the f/1.2 Noctilux, I was definitely impressed. I didn’t buy one at the time – mostly because I like to shoot wide open in bright light, and I had an M10 with a top speed of 1/4000th (I’m much too lazy to use Neutral Density filters).
Having tested this 35mm lens over an extended period, it’s been a long time since I’ve known I had to buy one.
A few months ago, I got an email with some questions about the Noctilux f/1.2 and couldn’t remember the answers. I was referred back to my own article when googling it, and I promptly placed an order on reading it!
With the M11’s hybrid/electronic shutter, there is no need to use ND filters, and the new EVF makes critical focusing much easier. Of course, these advantages are also relevant for the new 35 Summilux classic.
So, although I still love modern lenses, I now have a firm base in classic lenses with the 28 Summaron, the 35 Summilux and the 50 Noctilux (keep them coming).
Leica has gradually grown its commitment to classic remakes, and today’s announcement of the M6 and the 35 Summilux Steel Rim really brings it into clear focus. Leica are celebrating their heritage by producing exciting new tools for both analogue and digital photographers, made to modern manufacturing standards but with designs from their illustrious past. One can imagine remakes of other classic lenses, such as the Mandler 75mm Summilux or the 21mm Super Angulon.
The reissue series is a wonderful opportunity for photographers who want to use classic lenses. The 35 Summilux is not much more than a tenth of the cost of a 60-year-old version and has none of the problems of variance or deterioration. In addition, it has the advantage of being properly 6-bit coded and corrected.
But the real point is that this lens is a delight to use, producing lovely images on modern digital cameras and classic film Leicas.
First of all, my lovely wife Emma, who puts up with all the stress of my writing these articles.
Then to my gorgeous grand-daughter Scarlett, who kindly provided the lead picture for this article
Murat Akkas at Leica Camera – thank you for proofreading this so carefully and stopping me from making any dreadful mistakes!
Lars Netopil, who kindly gave up time getting me up to scratch on the history of the lens
Also, to Stefan Daniel, Jesko von Oeynhausen and Christoph Mueller at Leica, who are always so great to work with.
Evris Papanikolas at Rock & Roll straps for being such fun and making such great straps (get well soon!)
Milan Swolfs for many interesting discussions about classic lenses and for his inspiring photography.
Amitava Chatterjee, Marke Gilbert, Hari Subramanyam, and Paulo Silveira – partners in crime!
Special thanks to Kirsten Vignes from Leica Store Miami, who makes these articles look even better in the Viewfinder Magazine of the LSI.
Finally, Bill Rosauer, the editor of Viewfinder, and all my new friends on the Board of LSI.
If you didn’t know about the LSI (previously known as the LHSA), then you should definitely join!