Leica Summicron 5cm collapsible – I have no idea why I just love this lens, an 60-year-old German optic that I think is full of character, both physically and in imagery terms. I first came across it when I met a professional Leica M shooter, Brett, at the London Mayfair Leica store in 2011. When I asked Brett which Leica lenses were his favourite, he told me “35 Lux and the 50 Cron collapsible”. I got to hold it with the M9 at his workshop and that was more or less a love-at-first-sight affair.
The lens was very very solidly built and tiny. So tiny in fact that I hadn’t seen a smaller lens before (until I bought my 35mm Lux Classic). Brett also told me that this lens was full of character, the old Leica character that everybody loved. Of course I didn’t know what he meant at the time. But when I bought my first Leica camera set, a used M2 with this special little jewel, I was over the moon. I’ve got to try what Brett told me the “Leica magic”. Without hesitation, I loaded a roll of Fuji Reala and headed straight out to the river bank at Bristol (yes I travelled all the way from London to get them). Within a hour or so, I finished the roll. When I got back home, I packaged the film and sent it off for development.
About a week or so later, I got the negatives back. I quickly scan them and what revealed in front of me was simply amazing. The images were sharp, at least on film because I don’t have a digital Leica to test it on nor an adaptor to use it on my Canon. Fuji Reala was renowned for its fine grain and great dynamic range so it would be idea to test a normal day to day shooting with this film.
So why this lens?
Size and quality. Two things that came straight out of my mouth if anyone asks me. First it’s the tiniest 50mm I’ve every seen, bar the Pentax 110 50mm lens but that’s for a different format altogether. When collapsed, it’s small. It makes the Leica feels like a compact film point and shoot camera. Even when extended, it’s very small. It uses a 39mm filter so you get the idea just how small this lens is. Then the image quality is very good. I have shot many 50mm lenses in my time, Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 Mark I, Mark II, Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L and my latest Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG EX HSM. I love them all and they all have their own characters and ways of rendering images. My current favourite 50mm in my Canon line up is the Sigma (see my review here). It’s magically soft at 1.4 but the bokeh it renders is simply buttery. The Canon 1.2L is good and sharp but I found the Sigma way more cost effective. This Leitz lens still good after 60-year of use and I am telling you, it’s way better and sharper than the Sigma. Despite its slower speed, it still get that 3D look when shot wide open!
Leica never makes rubbish lens, even the latest ‘entry level’ Summarit series. But we are talking about old German built here. This lens is made of solid brass with chrome finish. It’s very heavy for such a tiny thing. It feels great in hand and very easy to operate. The aperture clicks at every stop and the focus is light and precise. In fact, there’s absolutely no plastic parts in this lens, even the red dot was painted. I love old lenses, especially this hand-made German beauty. You just can’t fault these old classic in terms of built quality.
Using it in practice, good and bad
When mounted on any M camera, it just feels great in hand. Collapsing and extending the lens is a simple twist and lock but I would suggest anyone using this lens to remember to extend the lens and keep it extending for the day because there were times I simply forgot to extend it and took picture with it collapsed in the camera. Of course nothing is in focus! Focusing with this lens is easy if you are using the focus nob. In general it’s classic Leica operation that you simply cannot fault. If I am picky, I would say that the focus turn is quite long which means it’s precise but slow.
I have heard people comparing this lens to all other Leica 50 Summicrons. This is collapsible version isn’t the sharpest nor the most contrasty. But it’s a 60-year-old design! I wouldn’t expect anything more in fact. When I tested with film, especially black and white, the result was superb! I am not interested in outright sharpness and I know everyone says just how good the latest Summicron APO is. I love film, especially black and white and this 5cm cron is just perfect. It’s full of the 60’s magic. This cron does have its way of rendering picture, in a very very classic way.
Since you can’t buy new anymore so the only way to get one is from a secondhand dealer. A good sample will have clicky aperture and silky smooth focus, though I have heard that there are many samples out there that hasn’t got a smooth focus and stiff aperture. There’s also a high possibility that they all have some kind of scratch to the front element because the glass is soft like chalk. My copy is scratch free but there’s some little coating marks, god knows where they come from, fortunately they didn’t affect the image quality.
Another negative when you are using the lens is that the closest focusing distance is quite long. If you are used to DSLR or any digital mirrorless cameras, you will find that it’s absurd. I think that is the limitation of a rangefinder system. Even the modern Leica lens focuses at 0.7m when compare to Sigma 50mm f.1,4’s 0.35!
Needless to say, if you are a film shooter or a Leica Monochrom user, then I think this cron will serve you pretty well. Because it gives you all the character you want without the modern clinical sharpness and saturation. It’s less contrasty than more modern designs but it’s perfect for black and white films, especially I think Kodak Tri-X or T-Max really suit its characters. Though I am still experimenting it with different films, I will probably write something about perfect film for each of the classic Leica lens I have.
If you are a pixel peeper, then I don’t think this lens is for you. If you are a lab geeks, then this lens isn’t for you. But if you are an artist or someone who appreciate classic lens looks then this is the perfect companion. I love it and will keep this lens. It’s hard to get a perfect sample these days without forking out serious money. Here we are, I am paying tribute to this 50mm lens and it certainly will go down as one of my favourite 50mm lenses ever!