Leica 35mm f/2.0 Summicron M (version 3) Review: Surprisingly good.

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The Leica 35mm Summicron M v3

I should warn you, I have something of a long history with my 35mm Summicron v3 (I’ll just say v3 from now on). I have tried to sell it - four times - but luckily failed all four times. It has withstood the test of time, and now it’s one of my favourite lenses.


Why did I buy it?


The copy of the lens I own came as a set with my M6. It’s not the 35mm I wanted, but I thought it would do for now. There was also a 90mm and 28mm (M-Rokkor) but I immediately sold those, as at the time I was big fan of the ’one camera, one lens’ idea. This is actually a pretty misleading idea but I’ll get into that in a future post. Also, after reading some 35mm lens reviews and online fan-pages I was convinced 35mm was the focal length to have.

Torres del Paine, Chile
South Patagonian Ice-Field

Highlands, Scotland
Highlands, Scotland


My first impression


Immediately, I didn’t like the look of the lens. It just looked less cool than the old retro 50’s version 1 (v1), and not a slick as the version 4 (v4). Only the version 2 (v2) looses from the v3 in the looks-category, as it has a weird looking aperture-tab-thing. This might be superficial, but part of the Leica-charm is how beautiful, solid and slick everything is, which just makes you want to pick up the camera and shoot! So it’s actually pretty important.


Also, the focus throw of the lens is weird, as it is much longer than that of other lenses with a focus tab (about 160 degrees in total); meaning you need to push the focus tab pretty high up (toward the top of the camera) if you want to close-focus, which felt awkward.


What I actually wanted was the v4 as this is the smallest and lightest Leica 35mm. Also it has a pretty irresistible name (which is actually pretty unfounded): “The King of Bokeh”. So I put the v3 up for sale, but I wanted a good deal. This was mostly because the v4 costs nearly twice as much so I needed the money.

Delft

Amsterdam

Amsterdam


It’s actually pretty good!


In the mean time I used my v3 every day, and I was genuinely surprised. In a good way! Online this lens is generally considered to be sub-par and soft wide-open, at least in comparison to the ASPH versions. Because of the way people wrote about this lens I wasn’t expecting much, but the images actually looked great! They were sharp and contrasty, and I loved the way that the 35mm focal length could get more into a frame, which really helped me tell a "story" with my pictures.


I started to think that my v3 wasn’t so bad after all. It’s looks and ‘ugly duckling’ reputation started to grow on me, and also I got used to the long focus throw. It’s still more awkward-feeling than other lenses I have owned, but one advantage is that it lets you close-focus more accurately, because its longer.


It’s actually good


So I started to wonder why I was actually selling it. Did I really need the v4 at nearly double the price? I went to a store to check out the v4 and although I was impressed… it was small (or short), and did look better (much more slick) than my v3… I decided that these small improvements couldn’t justify the extra cost. It also felt less solid than my v3, so at least the v3 has that going for it. After leaving the store I deleted the online advertisement.


But then something else happened. Just like with my 50mm, I eventually started to wonder if I should go even wider. So I bought the Voigtlander 28mm 2.0, but ended up thinking it was too big and bulky. I used to carry my camera in my coat pocket, and with the Voigtlander it just didn’t fit. Next I got the Leica Elmarit 28mm 2.8, which is exactly the same length as the v3, and I loved it! Not right away, but as I took more and more pictures with the 28mm, the focal length grew on me until I started to use it almost every day. However, as I was a ‘one camera, one lens’ photographer this meant my v3 had to go. So it went back online.

London, Underground

Tate, London
London

It’s actually very good!


Six months later, I obtained the Leica Elmarit 24mm ASPH 2.8 as part of a set. It was the lens I was least excited to try, I even almost even didn't bother. And even when I eventually did it was just to prove to myself that 24mm was a silly focal length for the Leica M. I’ll write about this in some more depth in it’s own upcoming review, but long story short… it ended up replacing my 28mm 2.8. Six months after that, I was completely frustrated and finished with the 24mm focal length (or so I thought).


When this happened, I still had my v3. In reality I had a hard time letting go of it. I was pretty slow putting it online and although I did get a few offers, I didn’t think any were good enough. Anyway, I picked up my v3 on a whim and put it on my camera... the result was amazing. I don’t necessarily mean my pictures, I was very happy with those as well (I then went on a day-trip to London, so see my London pictures), but what I really mean is just how fun and natural feeling shooting with my v3 felt!  

Amsterdam Zuid

Amsterdam

Amsterdam


For the last few months I had told myself that I made better, more interesting and unique pictures with the 24mm focal length. And maybe in terms of ‘interesting’ this might actually be true… to some extent. One reason (but not the only one) is that the more you can get into a picture the more ‘complex’ you can make that picture, making it ‘interesting’. But especially with 24mm or wider, it’s also much harder to get enough interesting elements into your frame to make the image ‘good’ (28mm actually feels closer to a 35mm than a 24mm). This is true for the two lenses that I used at the time, the 24mm 2.8 and 24mm 3.8, as with these lenses basically everything is always in focus. Although I took many pictures with these two lenses that I am still very proud of, it took so much effort and time to get a good picture with these two lenses that it almost wasn’t worth it (it’s a different story for the Leica 24mm Summilux).


So when I picked up my old v3, taking pictures just felt so much easier and fun! And even though my pictures weren’t as complex, I was still very happy with the result. This is how I learned that a ‘simple’ picture can be just as good as a ‘complex’ one; actually depending much more on other fine nuances like the quality of the light, the emotion, the contrast, etc.


I also just loved the the way my old v3 handled (long focus-throw and everything) and even how it looked! I guess I was hit by a wave of former-lens-nostalgia. But it’s a wave that has never really passed.

Amsterdam

Amsterdam

Amsterdam Zuid


The 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE


Eventually, I decided I wanted to try a faster lens, so I bought the 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE. I thought this lens would be my dream lens, so when I got it, I put up my v3 for sale again. But I actually ended up not liking the Summilux that much - it was kind of big and heavy, the focus was pretty stiff because of the floating lens element, and I barely shot it at 1.4 - so a few weeks later I stopped trying to sell my v3, and sold the Summilux instead.


It’s actually amazing


I eventually graduated from being a ‘one lens, one camera’ photographer. I still try to minimise the amount of gear that I have, as I want to properly use everything that I own, so I still limit myself to ‘one lens per focal length’. Maybe one day I will graduate from that too.


Anyway, one thing I almost never actually did with my v3 was shoot it wide open, except at night. This was because of the reviews and online posts I had read, which said the v3 was soft wide-open. It was also in part because I zone-focus a lot and decided f/8 would be better for that.

Edinburgh

Amsterdam Zuid

Amsterdam

Amsterdam Zuid


However, at one point I realised that all Leica glass is optimised to be shot wide-open (which should have been pretty obvious). This is where you get that iconic ‘Leica-glow’. This is also basically what is so special about Leica glass, as all other brands are also sharp and contrasty so no points for Leica there.


So I decided I also wanted a 35mm I could shoot at f/2, without getting soft images. At the same time, I came upon another Leica set which included the much newer 2016 Summicron ASPH II model. And so, even though I loved my v3, I decided it was finally time to let go; and it went online again. But this was just to see if there was any interest and what kind of offers I would get. Before actually accepting any offers I needed to properly test the v3 against the ASPH II.

The final test


You can probably guess where this is going… I’m not trying to convince anyone that the v3 is sharper than the ASPH II, not by any measure. But it’s pretty damn good. I was shocked! After more than a year I had never actually properly tested this lens wide-open… I was just baffled. I’ll show you some examples from my wide-open tests:

Amsterdam (from wide-open test)

Amsterdam (from wide-open test)

Amsterdam (from wide-open test)
Amsterdam (from wide-open test)

Only in the last image from the wide-open test, I can tell that the v3 looses any sharpness near its corners/edges, especially if you look at tiles on the ground. But that was it, all of the other images are super-sharp (I should note that there are more images in this review shot wide-open). Shot side-to-side against the ASPH II, I actually couldn’t tell the difference at the centre of the image. If you slightly adjust the contrast in light room, both lenses gave me practically the same result, unless if you really zoom in and count pixels. Can you tell the difference in these next tests?

100% crop, both shot at ISO 100

100% crop, both shot at ISO 1600

100% crop, both shot at ISO 3200
Order: set 1 (v3, ASPH II); set 2 (ASPH II, v3); set 3 (ASPH II, v3)

There are also some other things I noticed just from my general, every-day use tests. Both lenses held up the shadows pretty badly when shot against the sun, no surprises there. The ASPH II is just as sharp in the corners as it is in the centre, which is impressive. They both have the beautiful Leica characteristic glow, and are super-sharp and high in contrast. The one thing I did notice is that the v3 would sometimes make very bright sun-lit objects kind of ‘glow’ a little more. I’m not sure it’s something the lens is supposed to do, but I actually really like this effect. It kind of looks like it could be softness, but if you zoom in you see that all details are retained. You can also remove the effect in light-room by reducing the highlights, and then you just get a sharp non-glowing image. But I like it, so I try to emphasise it a little in my post-production process. You can see it with the man's face and hands in the next picture.

Amsterdam

It’s amazing that this lens can deliver these results. I am genuinely impressed that such an old design can hold up so well on digital sensors. From these tests I decided that I was actually very happy with my v3, because it was less contrasty (the ASPH II is too contrasty for me), smaller, lighter, and felt more solid than the ASPH II. So I decided to sell the ASPH II instead. Also since these tests I almost always shoot my v3 wide open with some pretty magnificent results (If I may say so myself), even when I zone-focus (you need to pick one distance and then just practice... 35mm at f/2 is pretty forgiving, so you eventually nail all of your shots!).


Pros


One more thing: remember how I actually wanted the v4 because it was smaller? Well I actually got my hands on two v4’s (on two separate occasions) and I was pretty disappointed. The v4 is just not built as solidly as the v3 (or any other 35mm Summicron), and both copies I briefly owned had wobbly aperture rings despite them being in good shape. Even though the v4 looks better and is smaller, I quickly decided I wouldn’t keep it because it just didn’t feel as solid. In comparison, the v3 just feels like a solid block of metal. Not that its heavy, but theres just no play in any of the parts. On my v3, nothing wobbles or feels even remotely loose even though it’s about 50 years old and has seen a lot of use (from both me and it’s previous owner). Only the 50’s Leica lenses have a more solid feel (like the v1).


So just to sum up about the v3:

1. Cheap (cheapest of the 35mm Summicron’s together with the v2)

2. Super sharp

3. Super small

4. Built like a solid block of aluminium

Schiphol

Eindhoven

Amsterdam Zuid Station


Cons


As such an old lens, usually the focus ring is a little stiff. It’s still very smooth, but just not as smooth as the ASPH models. I’m pretty sure this can be fixed with a CLA, but those are pretty expensive.


To sum up:

1. Not as ‘pretty’ or slick looking as the older and newer models

2. Looses a little sharpness in the corners at f/2, unlike ASPH models

3. Not the smallest and lightest 35mm Summicron

4. Has a slightly awkward focus-throw


It’s actually perfect


I apologise for the endless details about whether or not I would sell the lens and why I chose not too every time. I guess the point i’m trying to make is that this lens is surprisingly good, and deserves much more credit than anyone ever gives it. If you get it i’m sure it will keep surprising you, like it keeps surprising me. This is actually my oldest Leica lens and also the second one I have ever owned, and although it wasn’t my first choice at the time, it probably was my best choice.


Putting price aside, the v3 holds its own as a nice middle-ground lens. It has the solid feel of a classic Leica lens, it’s small-ish, and it also has modern-ish optics. If you want the sharpest lens get the ASPH I or II. If you want the smallest and lightest lens get the v4. If you want a retro look and the very best build quality, then get the v1. But if a mix of all of these things sounds like something for you, then get the v3 (or v2 as they are basically the same). For me, against all of my expectations, this middle-ground - in terms of optics, size and build quality - turned out to be perfect. I can keep trying to sell it, but in reality, theres no point. No one will ever offer me enough.


As I still regularly use this lens, I will post more pictures at the bottom of this review over time.

Copenhagen

Edinburgh

Amsterdam Zuid



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*most images were never intended for use on a blog but to sell the items online, so I apologise for the quality
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