This is my first ever Leica review. I have been an admirer of this legendary camera company every since I started my 35mm photography. Why? Because Leica practically invented and popularise this format. I am not digging into its history like so many, you could easily find lots of readings on the net these days so I will rather concentrate on whatever I am reviewing.
To begin with, I have been a dedicated Canon user for over ten years, since I was a university student in fact. In 2005, not only I made the switch from film to digital, I also turned professional by shooting my first paid wedding that fall. Having said that, my knowledge on Leica or rangefinder camera is rather limited. I now have a small Leica M system and everything I review in the future on Leica will be based on my experience and direct comparison between the two systems.
Wedding photography has changed dramatically since the analogue days and probably because of Canon’s first ‘affordable’ full frame DSLR. Most professional wedding photographers shot with medium format film cameras back in the days owing its sheer image quality. In the analogue days, image quality was some what limited by grain appearance. Even with enhanced film technologies in the late 90’s, ISO 400 is probably the limit for 135 grainless photography. Customers may not notice much but from a professional stand point, it’s not so good for those canvas-size prints or large wedding albums. So medium format was the only way. Because when using ISO 800 negatives, it would look a lot better on 120 than on 135mm when enlarged.
Canon changed the game by introducing the Canon EOS 5D where photographers could easily make A4 or even A3-size enlargements without compromising on quality and its virtually grain-free upto ISO 1600. So most professionals simply dumped their medium format cameras and jumped on the Canon boat. Well it’s all history now but I made this point because this review could be the start of my switching journey from Canon to Leica, from a long established DSLR workflow to rangefinder.
As wedding photography evolved in the past few years, reportage style has virtually taken over traditional rigid posing wedding photography. Brides and grooms want their days to be remembered in their most natural state. There will still be elements of official portrait session during the day but it’s now more limited than before. My typical wedding shoot now only comprises of 10~15% formal portrait. The rest is simply ‘recording’ the day like a journalist. My Canon DSLR system has become too big for my need. It does the job brilliantly and those huge but brilliant lenses are simply too much for carrying all day.
So why this lens?
Like my previous reviews on the Canon EF 35mm f/2 and Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM, I’ve raved about how brilliant these little lenses on capturing ‘the moment’ and how discrete they are. They really have a perfect blend on angle of view and depth of field for reportage use.
So my first two Leica lenses were the Leica Summilux 1:1.4/35 Classic, the one I am reviewing here, and the Leitz 5cm Summicron.
Leica M is a born street/journalist camera. Its small, light and discrete, just perfect for non-obtrusive weddings. The M works so brilliantly because it never intimidates anyone in the wedding even when I point the camera directly on him/her. That’s a very different story when I use my DSLR with a giant lens.
As I am still experimenting the viability of rangefinder system in weddings, I will focus on the positives and negatives. I bought my first Leica body, the M2 together with the 5cm Summicron. I later traded the M2 for an M6 because it has the convenience of a built in meter. But for now, I am still using film and a whole bunch of classic Leica lenses.
Because I am not earning money to fund this part of the system so I restrict myself in only getting some older optics. Having talked to a few Leica enthusiasts and professionals, I gather that all red-dot lenses are good so it doesn’t matter if I buy a 1950 glass or a modern up-to-date design because either will produce brilliant results, well, that depends on what effects you want to achieve in the end. So I bought this classic 35mm Lux to try. Well, Leica has made these for almost 40 years means that it’s achieved the greatest cult status, umm that’s in my opinion.
A lot of people suggested me to get the slightly slower Summicron because of its superior sharpness. However, I wanted speed rather than sharpness because my experience told me that I would rather use slower film in low light rather than coarser grains from faster film. Also, when shooting in day light, the lens would stop down and the performance between the two was not noticeable in anyway.
So 1.4 always win in my book.
Also, this classic 1.4 costs only a third of the new 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE though I know the wide open performance is much much better in the newer design but since I am still at the experimenting stage, there’s no need to folk out all my hard earn cash on this ‘magic’ lens until I see the need for it. And all these old Leica supporters always crave about the famous Leica glow, it seems that this classic old lens has plenty when shooting at 1.4. I’ve gotta try right?
We are talking about Leica lenses here. No Leica glass is made cheaply. They are all brilliantly made, hand crafted jewels. They are like diamonds for ladies. This small 35mm Lux is half the size of my Canon EF 35mm f/2 but weights almost twice as heavy! The lens has an anodised aluminium barrel with brass helicoids and mount .
This tiny thing feels like a brick that can kill someone on the street! No wonder journalists love them because it seems it could never break!
As with other Leica lenses, there’s no electronics inside so there should not be any reliability issue. Though none of the Leica lenses is weather sealed, so they do need a service every now and then to keep everything functioning ‘smoothly’. Other than that, this lens should survive long after all my Canon gears have perished and turned to dust.
Using it in practice, good and bad
The 35mm Lux Classic, when combines with any M camera, is a joy to use. Its tiny size with that silky and buttery focus is just any men’s touching dream… (what am I talking about??) I am losing words here. Although I haven’t used any newer Leica’s newer lenses, I could only make comparison to the Canon and Nikon lenses that I’ve used before. Damn, it’s like Audrey Tautou, petit, pretty yet smooth. Just delicious! (Ok, I need some napkins here).
Enough trash talk but I genuinely love using this lens. Its small dimension means it’s discrete. It’s also very sharp during the day, when stops down to f/5.6 or smaller. I’ve used 1.4 to 2.8 and at 1.4, the lens does produce some form of halo effect or glow with low contrast. It may look weird in colour but actually ok in black and white. There are plenty of details and still very sharp at the centre. At 2.8, it’s perfectly acceptable in most eyes and very very sharp in the centre. Corners is the only weakness for this lens. Between 1.4 to even 4.0, the corners are slightly soft but at 1.4 it’s at its worst state, coma was apparent and smearing all bright details.
However, if you know when and how to use the lens by correctly choosing the light angle and composition, you can still achieve stunning photos when shooting at 1.4. This is more like understanding the limits of your lens and work around its weaknesses. No lens is perfect in the end.
So far I’ve been shooting this lens with my film M6 and I’ve tried various films, Fuji Reala 100, 160NC, Kodak Portra 160, Ekar 100, Velvia, Profia, Sensia, Ilford, Agfa and Rollei. I do find that this lens is great with black and white films. I am unsure whether it is because of the design dates back to 1960 when monochrome was still the norm. My copy of the Lux is the late 1990’s just before the first ASPH design arrived. So I am pretty sure that the coating would have adapted to colour photography already. However, the look and feel was just more pleasing on black and white. More importantly, the glow just looks lovely in mono too!
Lastly, this Lux will render the classic Leica look that no modern lenses could.
The Leica Summilux-M 1:1.4/35 classic may be an old lens but it’s perfect for modern days use. This review is based upon my experience on an M film camera but I’d used it with my OM-D via an adaptor and the result was stunning. Reason is that on the OM-D, the cropped factor means that it takes the best bit from this lens, the centre of the frame. So the outcome was full of details and super sharp.
For the price, you can’t argue too much about this fast 35mm lens. It may produce some annoying (to some) glowing effect but if you love shooting low contrast portrait, this lens can render some of the classic Leica look with the famous glow that soften the subject’s skin.
I love this lens and will probably keep it forever even when I eventually move to digital Leica. I don’t think there are any other lenses that can produce such lovable character.
eBay is currently the largest market in used Leica lenses so if you want to try a sample of this lens, feel free to click on to the following links