A few words in advance
When I switched from my full-frame DSLR to the M9 in the first decade of the new millennium, the experience hit me with the force of a 150-ton steam engine. This was because I hadn’t held such a compact system in my hands, paired with a high optical performance and craftsmanship, since the old analogue days. This feeling was echoed when I first beheld the remarkable Leica APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH.
Since the turn of the century, it had seemed inevitable to me that digital devices would become more and more bloated, more and more complicated and more and more disposable. I learned terms like digital rot and planned obsolescence and increasingly despised the insidious tactics of the industry behind them.
This is perhaps an exaggeration, and to this day, it is essential for professional photographers that their workhorses have features that an M-System camera cannot offer. The size of the device plays only a subordinate role. As a purely recreational photographer and amateur with no client or agency breathing down my neck but who still values high-quality images, I take a different view. The “discovery” of rangefinder photography was like the Renaissance realisation that the earth is a round. And for some, that revelation is just as blasphemous to this day.
My German website, Messsucherwelt, has a menu item asking, “Why the Leica M-System?” From time to time, I look over the text I wrote in 2010 and still make the odd update. Yet the question still applies: Why the M-System? The core is that there is no comparable (full-frame) system of this size (compactness) and quality (image+craftsmanship). When it comes to optics, I expressly include non-Leica products such as those from Zeiss and Voigtländer.
It might be a different kettle of fish if some other manufacturer felt compelled to produce a digital rangefinder camera. Jörg-Peter Rau and I have been fantasising about what it would be like if Contax hadn’t left the market. But you can twist and turn and dress it up as you wish: no non-Leica (full-frame) body is an optimal platform for M-Mount lenses, especially when the focal length falls below 50mm.
The increasingly oblique incident rays do not find their way into the deep pixel wells, and the off-axis image areas become increasingly blurred as the focal length decreases. As I wrote in an earlier article, have you ever tried standing ten yards from the edge of a well with a bow and arrow to hit a target at the bottom of the well?
And even if we did equip a fictitious non-Leica body with an adapter, cleave to slightly longer focal lengths and thus preserve the optical quality, the question of manual focus still exists. I’ve been repeating this mantra-like for ages, but an electronic viewfinder can’t match the speed and precision of focusing that a rangefinder-coupled lens can. And if people want to tell me otherwise, I have to say it very bluntly. Sorry, you can’t handle a rangefinder, but that’s not my problem. (Note that this comment is not aimed at photo enthusiasts who have poor eyesight preventing them from using a rangefinder properly)
I guess that overly long introductions are becoming my trademark, but the subject of this article is the fact that I bought the Leica APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH. And the only argument for purchasing this expensive (€7,700) optic is simply the opportunity to enjoy the stunning performance in an ultra-compact body of exceptional manufacturing quality. In short, it is everything that Leica stands for. And no, Leica marketing didn’t kidnap me and replace me with a Wetzlar-programmed bot.
I have to admit that my decision was influenced by my obsession with compactness. Call it OCD, Obsessive Compactness Disorder. Basically, I must always analyse how I put my equipment together to achieve compactness and light weight. Subconsciously, therefore, I invariably go for the smaller lenses when I have a choice. In addition, the 35mm focal length is the most important of all for me. When I consult Lightroom, it becomes clear that I use 35mm lenses two-thirds of the time. Other considerations do come into play for certain purposes; other focal lengths become more necessary, but a 35mm lens is always there.
Then there’s the fact that, in recent years, I’ve become a “one-lens, one-camera” guy. At least, that applies whenever I shoot without a specific agenda — for instance, on hikes, in cities, or at family celebrations. And what is then attached to the front of the camera? Usually a 35, but it can also be a 28. I didn’t change the 35mm Voigtländer Ultron once during the summer vacation. Admittedly, the sensors of the M11 or the M10-M (or M10-R) leave plenty of scope if you find yourself wishing for a longer focal length. And on this point, I have certainly contradicted earlier views. I’m trying not to fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Early in 2021, I acquired the 35mm Ultron from Voigtländer and, on a whim, the 35mm APO-Lanthar. The Ultron has been my favourite ever since, not only because it is smaller, but it is better than the “normal” 35 Summicron ASPH (sorry, Leica) and at least almost as good as the 35 Summilux. These differences can be objectified. Sean Reid did it, and I (albeit less meticulously) came to the same conclusion.
Now I also had the 35 Apo-Lanthar, which is in a completely different league, even for someone spoiled by high-performance optics. I have written about it, and so has Jörg-Peter Rau, both of us concluding that it shows exceptional imaging performance.
It’s a great lens, but the elephant in the room cannot be ignored. This is a big lump of an optic when you see it beside other 35mm contemporaries. And for someone who enjoys using the rangefinder as I do, the 25% viewfinder blockage is hellish. I had to force myself to put it on the camera, and most of the time, it was permanently parked in the cupboard. Finally, I had to admit to myself that the statement I had made in the report, namely that the optical performance was not worth seven times the price to me, was rational but did not correspond to my emotional world. My subconscious voted very differently from the cerebral cortex.
I wanted such a high-quality optic, but it had to be small. Should I say price doesn’t matter? Nice for someone who can claim that. Although the decision to buy the Leica APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH was made in the spring, I imposed the penance of selling some of my equipment in order to finance the expensive object of my desire.
After disciplining myself this way, I parted with some film cameras (no Ms, heaven forfend) and the Leica Q-P (with the option of maybe buying one again someday). The APO-Lanthar landed in the ‘Bay, as did the 35mm Summilux ASPH, one of my favourite lenses and the creator of countless keepers. The full Hasselblad 501c kit is still available, incidentally. All this to make it clear that I was deadly serious.
I ordered the Leica APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH in July, which was delivered in early November. Since then, I have used almost no other lens on the M11 and the M10 Monochrom.
The photo locations
At the beginning of November, the autumn weather was still up to scratch, and I found some beautiful landscape motifs on my bike tours. There was midnight shopping in Vlotho (my home town), where the Feuershow (fire show) show was a part of the programme. Shortly afterwards, there was the annual concert of the St. Stephan choir (sometimes I sing bass, sometimes besser) with Mozart’s Requiem. Then came a long weekend when my wife and I visited Bremerhaven (to see the estuary of our home river, the Weser).
There, of course, the Auswanderermuseum (emigrant museum) and the Klimahaus science centre were on the programme. On the way back, we visited relatives in Leer. There are various photos from the Christmas markets in Bremerhaven and Leer, but those from Bad Salzuflen and Bückeburg (and the Vlotho Advent market) made it into the article.
All these images from the Leica APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH have gone through Lightroom. I see no benefit in showing flat DNGs. The potential of the optics comes into its own only when you adjust the RAW file. And I do that sparingly in any case. Actually, only the tonal values are corrected, namely exposure, highlights, shadows, white and black. I leave the contrast at zero and prefer to put a slight “S” in the gradation curve.
In particular, the low-light photos of Christmas markets require a downward exposure correction due to the many bright light sources in dark surroundings, which is later compensated for in Lightroom to get the highlights under control. In low light (without a tripod), I often set the exposure time to 1/125s (both with the M11 and the M10-M) and select Auto-ISO because I’m on the safe side with this speed in terms of camera shake. Up to 1/60s handheld is quite doable at this focal length with a little concentration.
The Leica APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH
This is not a review with a thousand comparisons of imaging at all apertures, phases of the moon or the photographer’s blood alcohol level. If you need something more in-depth, it’s best to drop by Sean Reid and refer to Jono Slack’s article (in which Jono has included very compelling example images), and you’ll be pretty much in the picture.
Nonetheless, here are a few facts about the lens, albeit watered down from my (possibly contestable) views. First, I’ll quote myself from a previous article on the disambiguation of “apochromatic,” the origin of the prefix APO in the name.
In a nutshell: What’s all the fuss about apochromatic optics? It’s the simple fact (lens designers will stone me for using the word “simple” in that context) that an apochromatic design causes light rays of different wavelengths (colours) to be refracted all to the same spot. This minimises disruptive colour fringes (chromatic aberration) and increases the resolving power of the respective lens.
Leica has already released an impressive range of apochromatic optics. I have owned the 75mm APO-Summicron for many years. It’s one of those lenses I would never part with until I’d eaten my last crust. As for 35mm, Peter Karbe says the 35mm APO-Summicron-SL is probably one of the world’s best, and the task of bringing the same optical performance into a mega-compact M lens was a huge challenge.
Well, you could say “mission accomplished”. In this context, once again referring back to my comments on the Voigtländer 35mm APO-Lanthar: Compared with the Leica 35mm APO-Summicron, it has almost the same performance (small differences are neglected), but at least part of the significantly lower price is derived from the old principle of lens construction, which Sean Reid also quotes in his review of the two APOs: Bright, compact, high imaging performance, low manufacturing costs. You can choose three of these properties, but all four together cannot be realised.
Okay, even at the risk of turning my passion for compactness into a running joke: when I held the Leica APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH in my hands for the first time, I was surprised that it really is so small. It sounds strange, but it is actually true. Everything I had read about it before made it sort of bigger in the imagination.
This lens is noticeably smaller than the 35mm Summilux and barely larger than the 35mm Summicron. The cleverly designed lens hood also makes a huge difference. None of my other lenses has anything to compare with this minimalistic yet functional gem. Hood design has improved incredibly over the last few years. I always stare in horror at the ugly plastic box masquerading as a compact hood on my 28mm previous-generation Summicron ASPH. It is more Fisher-Price than Leica, I have to say.
A 39mm filter, of which I have plenty, fits nicely underneath the hood. The lens cap, lined with fine felt on the inside, fits securely, but I don’t use it. The filter to protect the front lens is enough for me because I tend to swallow loose covers “in the field”.
It goes without saying that the lens body is of the highest manufacturing quality and (which may be unfair) I have the feeling — subjectively, I admit — that it surpasses the competition. The ribbed focus ring with tab has the usual pleasant damping; the aperture ring has a relatively light action in half-stop increments but without involuntarily shifting. The focus distance is engraved in meters and feet; the depth-of-field markings are of the usual precision for those who work with zone focus.
Another special feature is the opportunity to focus down to 30cm. The focus ring rotates from infinity to 70mm (the working range of the rangefinder) through 90 degrees, after which you overcome a very slight but noticeable resistance, allowing a further 200-degree rotation to the maximum close-up limit. This enables precise focusing (particularly useful in the macro area). However, to take advantage of this feature, you must use Live View or the Visoflex 2.
Unbelievably, there are ten lenses in five groups in this tiny body. Only one (the rear element) is made of “regular” glass. It has two aspherical surfaces, and there are three lenses with aspheres in total. All others consist of special glasses with particularly low dispersion or a high refractive index. The two rear groups are combined into a floating element.
Eleven aperture blades ensure corresponding sun stars and a wonderfully calm bokeh with (thanks to apochromatics) highlights lacking chromatic aberration. In this, the lens is in no way inferior to a Summilux with a wide-open aperture. You can really save yourself the occasional subdivision into “good” and “bad” bokeh. If vintage lenses such as a Summitar, Biotar or the Contax G45 are very individual, they don’t need to be judged. But so far, I have not been offended by any bokeh. And I can only agree with Jono on the character of the Leica APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH when he again complained in his review that some classify the modern Leica optics as too “clinical”. Like Jono, I think that’s complete nonsense.
On the camera, the Leica APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH harmonises with the proportions of the housing; it is not top-heavy like the APO-Lanthar or some lenses with longer focal lengths (which can severely affect the handling comfort). With the hood mounted, the lens blocks the viewfinder by no more than five to seven per cent, depending on the set focal distance.
Peter Karbe appeals to you to leave this lens as wide open as possible and to stop down only when you really need depth of field. I’ve tried to heed that sage advice. The image quality is exceptionally high even with an aperture of f/2 (as with the APO-Lanthar). In contrast to my previous go-to favourite, the Voigtländer 35mm Ultron (which is also quite usable at f/2), the Leica APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH is pin sharp over the entire image area right into the corners and shows no chromatic aberration whatsoever.
Flare is produced only with great effort, and if I find traces of it, I’m not even sure if it is actually caused by reflection on the filter. The lens has a slightly lower contrast than the APO-Lanthar, but I see that as an advantage. Finer gradations of dynamics come to light, and more contrast is always possible in post-processing, while the opposite may not be the case.
…As I have mentioned, the optical performance is mega (see Sean Reid). Colour drift is there (weaker on the M10-R than on the M11; on the M10-M, it doesn’t matter), but is negligible in real life. If necessary, the firmware of the M11 can be tweaked (which is necessary anyway, but that’s a topic in itself). There is zero focus shift, from which, for example, the 35 Summilux and Summicron both suffer. Very small pincushion distortion can be compensated for. There is no chromatic aberration, and it is extremely backlight resistant. Slight vignetting (camera-dependent) at f/2 is hardly worth mentioning. This lens would be top-of-the-line even without any firmware correction.
Because of the absolutely precise refraction of all light colours to one specific point, the motifs released with an open aperture often appear 3D-like and “deep”. The effect is comparable to that of a Summilux at f/1.4, if not even more accentuated. I have a few images that look to me (subjectively again) as if I were wearing 3D glasses. But maybe that’s just me.
The Leica APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH soaks up the 60MP resolution of the M11 with aplomb. It is probably capable of handling much higher resolutions when they come. Incidentally, the highest (true) resolution is currently shown on the M10 monochrome, the 40 megapixels of which are not diluted by a Bayer filter and the necessary interpolation.
Conclusion: No regrets
Because the dimensions of the Leica APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH played such an essential role for me, I did not mention two small plus points: First, the lens is six-bit coded. It’s handy to know how the picture was taken, and the application of the firmware can’t hurt. Second: No matter how expensive this lens is, such works of art from Wetzlar retain their value amazingly well. In fact, keep them long enough, and you’ll make a profit.
Non, je ne regrette rien. When I ordered the Leica APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH in July, I still had doubts about the wisdom of the decision. After a good two months of use, I am convinced I have a lens for life here (Ah… that sounds quite emotional, but I’m sticking by it). And it echoes something from the beginning of this article: Longevity versus digital rot.
I reckon that manual M lenses of this kind will long outlast me, will still be usable in 50, 70 or 90 years, and bring rays of light onto the image plane, whatever medium might be there. There is customer care in the event of mishaps (hopefully for a long time to come). I can’t say anything about how sustainable the production is, but the balance sheet doesn’t look bad in relation to the expected service life.
Translated from the German by Mike Evans
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