LENS REVIEW – LEICA SUMMILUX 50MM 1:1.4 ASPH FLE

Leica Summilux 50mm 1:1.4 ASPH

Leica Summilux 50mm 1:1.4 ASPH

What I am about to write is a testament to one of my dream lenses (yes and I do have lots of dreams… lenses!) – The legendary and cult-loving Leica Summilux 50mm 1:1.4 ASPH FLE.

Well, having read Steve Huff’s posts about his love and admiration about this little gem, I couldn’t resist but to ‘save up’ for this special piece of glass. Yes I am a pro shooter and I do earn money from my shooting but I am not mega-rich and I do have bills to pay and twins to look after these days. So justifying any expensive purchase seems ever so difficult. But being a photographer who loves his tools, how could I resist not to these legends at least once in my life? Unlike a Ferrari, Leica is definitely more ‘approachable’ in the list of luxury items. Also unlike Ferrari, Leica lenses are practical and usable as a day-to-day item, in my case, a working tool too! They aren’t just for display!

Traditional Chinese dry cured meat store.

Traditional Chinese dry cured meat store.

So, to celebrate my 40th birthday, though not until the end of the year, I took the plunge and decided to switch my digital set up from Canon to Leica. Yes and you are reading it right, I ordered my M Type 240 and together with this special 50mm Lux! I will be slowly ditching my Canon stuff as and when I see them unfit for my line of work.

Leica stuff is indeed very expensive but not if I can use it to its maximum, which is what I am intending to do if I am ever going to replace my entire Canon setup. I now have a selection of legacy Leica glass so I can mix and match with some modern and vintage look to my photography. I can definitely make money from this lens so it seems a business investment rather than an impulse buy. Also because I know for a fact that Leica glass tends to retain its value way better than any other brands.

My son with grandpa.

My son with grandpa.

I must admit that I am a sucker when it comes to camera gear. I love to try lenses and cameras whenever possible. Unlike Steve, who is a brilliant reviewer and gets to try all the new stuff on the market, I am just a working photographer who makes money from his photography. I’ve been using my Canon for many years and over the course of my ‘Canon years’, I’ve literally destroyed a few EF lenses simply by over using them (umm… yes Canon lenses do break and I am guessing that any modern day auto-everything lenses do too!). I love 50mm and I started with the famous Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 Mark I and continued using it until the autofocus motor gave up on me. I replaced it with then the very attractive Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM (Sigma is releasing a new ‘ART’ 50mm soon). It’s big and heavy but it does some special images indeed. And now, I am giving up the Canon, so does the Sigma 50mm and I NEED a new 50mm for my M, and it has to be a great one.

So why this lens?

I have been using fast 50mm for a long time, though not Canon 1.2L but Sigma 1.4. This 50mm focal length is very good for mid-distance shooting. While I wouldn’t call it a true reportage lens but it does allow me to compose a story while keeping a generous distant from the subject. A 35mm would have been more true to journalist but for that, I will need to get up close and personal with my subject which sometimes it may be too intimidating for my paying clients (brides). So, 50mm is good. Natural to eyes and what I hear is that this 50mm lux can produce some magics so I really want to try it. Before the lux, I have been shooting the vintage Summicron collapsible on my M6 and the results are spectacular with that 60’s look.

Buildings from different eras.

Buildings from different eras.

There are many M-compatible fast 50mm lenses out there now, the wonderful new re-release of Voigtlander Nokton VM 50mm 1:1.5 ASPH that many adores, the Zeiss Sonnar C T* 50mm 1:1.5 and of course some older but still good Leica legacy 1.5 and 1.4 lenses. Because of my work, I want something rather modern, that’s to please my customers of course. They all prefer the more abrupt sharpness that everybody seems to crave these days. The Lux fits the bill with its insane sharpness at wide open. Then for my own preference, despite my wish to get the Voigtlander Nokon and numerous thinkings and analysis, I chose the Lux over the Nokton not because of just Leica, but its overall performance. Voigtlander may be a bargain for what it is but I do notice the obvious barrel distortion from many samples I’d seen online. Yes, they can be fixed in post but hey if I am to shoot day in and day out, this can be a deal breaker. I simply don’t have much time to ‘adjust’ every shot I made with this lens. Leica gives me perfect results EVERY TIME!! Yes, it costs more than double than the Nokton but the time I save in processing makes the LUX very appealing. I don’t need Summicron or any equivalents, even though they are ‘sharper’ than the LUX but hey, I DO NOT pixel peep nor NEED the perfect sharpness for my customers. Then I don’t need (well, not that I can afford anyway) the super fast Leica Noctilux 0.95… yes I do wish one if I ever need one and that I have the cash for one, unless Leica sends me one :D.

Couple in night market.

Couple in night market.

There you go. I now have THE BEST 50mm on the market for my M bodies.

Construction

There isn’t anything else to say here when I write about Leica products. It’s always top class. The 50mm Lux is definitely very ‘dense’ and much denser than any other Leica lenses that I have tried. For its size, it feels like a solid piece of gold (well it certainly costs like one that’s made from gold)! The focusing ring is smooth but a little tight at first but after a couple of month of use, it has loosen up quite nicely and now feels silky. Aperture ring is very precise with half stop clicks.

Crossing.

Crossing.

As with the focusing tap, it’s a marmite affair. You either love it or hate it. I love it because I can use it as a memory for zone focus without looking down. A technique I learnt from a famous Leica shooter that I met a few years back. But I must admit that while the entire lens is made from metals, the tap is plastic, something that I was hoping to be metal. Also, perhaps I am a vintage Leica fan, I love old brass lens caps than modern polycarbonate ones (posh plastic) and hey, we are paying top money for these lenses and we should be awarded one at least. My newly acquired Lomography Petzval brass lens comes with a brass lens cap for only little money in comparison (ok, not in the same optical quality but material costs is quite hefty in the Lomo lens indeed, a heavy piece of solid metal and glass!).

Using it in practice, good and bad

Right, this is the big thing isn’t it. While many people loves to judge lenses by their optical quality, I also rate the handling when it comes to lens purchase. If I don’t ‘FEEL’ the lens while I am shooting, then I won’t buy that lens. Yes, it’s that simple. The camera and lens are the extension of a photographer’s eyes. So one must feels CONNECTED. There are only a handful of cameras and lenses that I’ve used would be considered as connected. Pro Canon EOS cameras, Nikon FM series, Leica M bodies, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, Leica Summilux-M 35mm 1:1.4 Classic and this, Leica Summilux 50mm 1:1.4 ASPH FLE.

Night crowd.

Night crowd.

Feeling connected also means that I can operate this lens like I would move my finger, it’s a second nature thing. So the 50mm LUX is truly special indeed. Because its manual and mechanical, it doesn’t require battery to operate, unlike my Canon EF lenses (though certain models do allow you to manual focus and zoom but you lose control over aperture however). This also aids reliability unless you accidentally drop it to a hard concrete floor.

So it is reliable and will probably outlast me and my kids in the long run, providing that I don’t let it sit around gathering dusts and molds. To prove it is that many, and I do mean many, are still using legacy lenses that are over 70-years-old! That’s the beauty of manual lenses. And also to the credit of Leica, many old lenses still outperform modern day glass too! Beat that!

Crazy details from the LUX.

Crazy details from the LUX.

So, my LUX should be a good life-long companion and a lens to grow old indeed.

Did I mention sharpness? Yes, this lens is sharp as the late Michael Jackson’s nose! Sorry for the narrative and I am a MJ fan. But this lens IS SHARP. Though Leica experts say that the Summicron is sharper and of course the latest APO is THE new standard of sharpness. I have tried both at my local Leica dealer and seriously, I couldn’t tell the difference from the back of my screen when enlarged. But perhaps when you pixel peep. But for me, this LUX is already crazy sharp at whatever aperture setting. Yes, it’s billions times better than any other lenses that I’ve tried to date, period.

Familiar sight in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.

Familiar sight in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.

In addition, many people do not understand micro contrast and this lens truly shows just why Leica glass is special. Though sharpness isn’t my thing for my work but I was curious to find out what the all the fuzz is about when people talk about this lens. I took this photo when I was in Hong Kong last month. You can count individual leaves in this picture!! That’s crazy.

Focusing is pretty fast with the LUX but mind you that this is a manual lens so you need to understand the speed of focusing is different to that of using auto motor. If you are experienced enough, pre-zone focus is critical when it comes to using a Leica. Hence I love the focusing tap. I would move the tap to an approximate focusing distance while I was approaching my subject and only to fine tune it using the focusing patch in the rangefinder before I press the shutter button. This takes practice but once master, you can be as efficient as any auto focusing system.

While this may sound like I am making this lens like a god, it isn’t. It does have flaws or rather weaknesses.

Mosque in Kuala Lumpur.

Hindu Temple in Kuala Lumpur.

As reliable as it is, you need to USE your lens. I know that many Leica ‘keepers’ and ‘collectors’ have moldy lenses. These are new lenses that are only a few years old!! Unless they are stored in a climate controlled cabinet, any equipment, especially photographic ones, will deteriorate. The more you use your lens, the better. But like anything else, it also requires service to ‘clean’ up those dusts and craps that are accumulated over the years. Not that you need to do this very often unless you are in a war zone. Every few years perhaps.

Despite the new M Type 240 is weather sealed, this LUX isn’t. So dust and rubbish can still get inside the lens and your body, even if you do not change lens! A couple of months of usage already sees me cleaning the sensor once! I have only cleaned my 5D’s sensor twice in six years! From a maintenance point of view, it’s not good.

Street portrait in central Kuala Lumpur.

Street portrait in central Kuala Lumpur.

Also, despite its 0.7m close focusing distance, it still trails behind ALL modern offerings. But that’s because of rangefinder’s design limit. But like the latest Voigtlander Nokton 35mm 1:1.2 ASPH II, it can focus down to 0.5m. It does, however, need to use EVF or Live View to focus properly.

But that’s me being picky and in terms of performance, it’s as good as a lens can get.

Conclusion

I am getting this lens for two reasons: 1) to have tried at least once with a legendary Leica Summilux; 2) to make a sound business investment. I already explained in many of my blogs before, from a practical stand point, a photographer has to get the ‘best’ lens he/she can afford. Why? it will save you money in long run. Good lens will have better built, reliability and superb performance, like Canon or Nikon Pro lenses. Then there are great lenses like Leica or Zeiss (don’t get me wrong again, there are a few great Canon and Nikon lenses but most of them are good). Sharpness doesn’t count everything for me but overall reliability and performance is the top priority. This Summilux is that lens. It has special drawing characters that pleases my eyes, sharpness that’s way more than enough for ME and, being a manual lens, reliability that can’t be fault. But that’s my business mind talking. Then of course, my heart will always lie on that RED DOT!

My photographer friend, Sean Eng in KL.

My photographer friend, Sean Eng in KL.

You can check out my flickr posts for more pictures taken with this lens, though with my short ownership, I only have a few to show but the gallery will grow. My tests with my M 240 and other lenses will also come later so watch this space and subscribe if you are interested to see my reviews and more tests with my M!

Rock and roll.

Rock and roll.

Thank you for reading my blog and please support my work and this site by buying stuff from Amazon via the link at the bottom (only if you need to buy stuff of course). 
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8 responses to “LENS REVIEW – LEICA SUMMILUX 50MM 1:1.4 ASPH FLE

  1. Hi, Nice write up and some great images, I have owned this lens since August 2013 and love it, although I keep looking at images from the pre-ASPH v2 and really like the way that draws too. You can never have too many 50s or lenses for that matter :D. I would love an insight into how you processed these images for the web, I know the lens is sharp, but when you upload to the net they become compressed. Just a polite note though, the photo of the “mosque” in KL is in actual fact a Hindu Temple 🙂

    Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks Tal for your nice words. I do love this lux but I also love the original lux when I tried it. I would have bought it if it wasn’t for work. The old 50 lux was such a ‘painter’s’ lens with that unique draw in the out of focus area. To answer your question about uploading to web, you have to use much stronger and deeper sharpening but it’s rather hard to explain. It does depends on the host though. Facebook is worst when it comes to compression. A sharp pictures will become blur so to speak. But Flickr isn’t bad. My blog, WordPress.com, is good with no compression but it means I have to be careful with the resolution and jpg compression myself to ‘save’ space. 😀

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