People know me as a portrait guy who loves to photograph faces. I admit it and I am always drawn by people’s eyes, expressions and lines on their faces. This is the reason why I love my 85mm primes in 135 format. I have used a few different 85’s before and my favourite is still the monstrous Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM and see my review of this legend HERE. The pictures it produces when shot wide open is simply unparalleled and most importantly it has a very unique signature to its rendering. But enough of my Canon stuff. This is a Leica lens review so I now should start.
One reason I drool around short tele lens is because it’s capability to capture portrait, and the occasional landscape and street crops. Between 75 -135mm is my perfect focal length for the best balance on portraiture. The subject’s face, especially, is at its most natural proportion. So when I got my Leica M6, I just can’t help myself but to start looking for a capable ‘portrait’ lens.
Leica M system isn’t famous for its portrait capability. Its discrete design is more suitable for documentary, street and event rather than a full-on fashion shoot. But if I switch from Canon to Leica, I will need something that will do what my Canon can with portraits. So my hunt for a good Leica portrait lens started. I first looked at the legendary Leica 75mm Summilux which was discontinued years ago and it is now a collector’s item. This is sad, it means I couldn’t buy it new and people are selling them at ridiculous used prices. Today, the closest thing, from Leica at least, is the latest 75 Summicron or Summarit (f/2.0 or f/2.5 respectively). Both are super sharp and are available new. But I want something that’s closer to my 85mm focal length that I am accustomed to.
So why this lens?
So I came across Leica’s famous 90mm range and I’d tried a couple. First I tried the Leica 90mm Tele-Elmarit. I used it for a few months and I even took it to Paris but I didn’t like it. I will surely write another review about it separately because the result was so disappointing. I was never a pixel peeper but even when shot with different films, I could tell this lens was not sharp. I wasn’t sure if it was the calibration but at 2.8, the depth of field wasn’t shallow enough to make huge differences anyway. I even tried it on infinity and the end result was equally rubbish! So I sold it. Then I opted for an older and bigger lens, it’s brother the Leica Summicron 1:2/90 version 2. I’ve heard great things about this lens so I had expectations. Because it’s an old lens so I wasn’t expecting modern performance either. But it shocked me. It’s a pretty decent lens and it’s sharp! Yes, much much sharper than many modern lenses and definitely miles better than the later Tele-Elmarit.
I know the latest APO design is probably THE BEST 90mm lens ever but at nearly five times the cost, I wouldn’t want to spend it unless I get to use it professionally. There’s the entry level Summarit 90 but again, at double the price, it makes this old beauty is quite a bargain for what it is. Yes price is key buy for a professional and businessman like me, every penny counts!
Again, German tank design. Enough said. Even though the Summicron is made in Canada but the full metal construction is ever so solid to hold and definitely feels quality. This lens is designed for Leica’s Visoflex system too, an accessory that turns your M into a SLR (why???). You simply unscrew the head and put in on the Visoflex system. I think Leica did that to save itself from the more popular SLR form factor in the 60’s and to give more accuracy and flexibility for some longer lenses. Since the M cameras are more suitable for 50mm or wider lenses.
But overall, this Leica lens is optically perfect with a weight that can easily kill someone. As a fully mechanical and metal lens, it will survive World War III, so long the front element is not scratched or cracked by bullets.
Using it in practice, good and bad
The Leica 90mm Summicron is a heavy beast, so all the Leica men said. But coming from SLR background means that this lens is light! Yes, I would say it’s heavy for its size because it’s all metal (sorry I keep saying metal because you don’t have many lenses that are made entirely from metal these days!). So this sort of weight doesn’t bother me at all! My 85mm 1.2 weights nearly 1 kg!
So the good things are that this lens is super sharp, at least on film. I don’t have a digital M to test yet but I have tried it on my OM-D, which makes it a 180mm long tele lens! The result was lovely too! I wouldn’t go as far as it’s the best 90mm lens I’ve tried and it definitely can’t beat my Canon 85mm but it’s nearly there. I tried it on subjects afar and up close with pleasing results. The lens can produce very good separation to isolate subjects and the bokeh is very natural and soft too, which I like.
People also crave about 35mm and 50mm being the ‘street’ range but I disagreed. There are cases when I shoot exclusively with longer lenses on the street. The result is slightly different. The ability to isolate subject is the key to highlight the focus of your image but of course it depends o what you are shooting. It certainly different to the up close and personal 35mm.
So it’s pretty good in general but it does have down sides. My first nag and the most important one is accuracy. Rangefinder cameras are often hindered by its mechanical focusing accuracy because each lens is manufacturered slightly differently by hand (from Leica) or in factory assembly lines (from Voigtlander or Zeiss). Therefore, there are always a little chance of off focus. Though everything is adjustable and you can always send your lens and camera to a quality Leica service guy to have them calibrated but it’s a hassle. I know my 90 is very sharp but only when I hit the target. If I shoot wide open and close up, the chance of missing focus is much greater when the depth of field is much shallower. It didn’t help, and another problem with rangefinder cameras, when the focusing framing line is tiny. I found that focusing anything longer 50mm is a challenge. The frame line and focus patch are too small for long lens and shallow depth of field, even with a 1.25x magnifier.
It’s coating may not be as good as any modern lenses so flare can be an issue. Having said that, flare can be a good thing these days and some people actually use Photoshop to add flare to a picture to create that modern vintage look. This is a vintage lens so you don’t have to do that digitally because all images that come out of it will have that vintage look!
Finally, it’s not a deal breaker either for me but it’s very slow to focus. It has a very long drive which allows for very precise focusing. It’s fine for portrait, which is its sole purpose. But for the occasional street or candid shots, I find it way too slow to react. But I suppose my Canon 85 is quite slow too so I am used to the slowish performance. I can always forgive its turtle-like behaviour in favour of superior image quality.
So all in all, I am very satisfied with this 50 year old lens! It has that old rendering style that I like and with sharpness that can compare with more modern offerings. I guess this lens has become popular again as more people are buying this lens for their mirroless system. Many may not be able to afford a digital M these days but with the rising popularity of mirrorless systems, people now willing to try vintage gems like Leica lenses at ‘still’ reasonable prices.
So whether you are a Leica film or digital shooters, mirrorless photographers or even DSLR users, with a proper mount adapter this lens will not disappoint, in terms of image quality. This also reflect on recent hike in used vintage Leica lens prices too! So grab yourself one before it’s too late!