You might not realise it, but the Leica 50mm f/2.5 Summarit (or just the 50mm 2.5 from now on) is the best 50mm lens Leica makes. OK, I admit what is ‘the best’ is pretty subjective, but let me explain why I think this is ‘the best’ 50mm to own.
First let’s start with what I don’t like about this lens, because it isn’t very much, and then I can rant on about how good it is for the rest of the review. First off is the build quality. When talking about the Leica Summarit line-up people generally don’t expect high quality as it’s Leica’s ‘cheapest’ line of lenses. Don’t get me wrong the quality is still definitely Leica, and for the price I would hope so! But when you’re used to using Leica’s more premium lenses… there is a noticeable quality difference. It’s mainly the aperture ring, which has a bit of play. Mine actually loosened so much that it stopped ‘clicking’, and I had to send it to a local Leica repair shop, which I was not happy about as it cost me money.
In the end the Leica repair specialist let me know that it was not a design flaw of the lens, but rather a relatively common manufacturing flaw for this particular lens. Without getting too technical: enough force needs to be applied on the screws holding the aperture ring in place so that the screw thread of the screws actually bends a little, which makes it nearly impossible for the screws to come loose by themselves. At this particular factory line, they sometimes didn't apply enough force. He assured me he would tighten the screws correctly and the problem should never occur again. So far the lens is holding up perfectly, I guess I got unlucky.
Next is it’s f/2.5 maximum aperture. Actually, I love the maximum aperture of this lens, I’ll explain that later, but I do admit that sometimes in very low light it’s slightly less convenient than having a f/1.4 aperture. Also, I should note that I live in the Netherlands and that low light is my reality for 6 months a year. As a result I might need to hold still when shooting with low ISO at dusk and taking a picture with a 1/30th or 1/15th shutter speed, and sometimes I may get a blurred photo. But really with modern sensors that can go up to ISO 6400 and still produce amazing images, this is kind of a non-issue these days. On my M10 I go up to ISO 8000 if I really need too, no problem.
Let’s start with the obvious, it’s size! Let me explain:
When I bought my first Leica lens it was a 50mm Summicron v4 and it just didn’t work for me. I told myself it was because 50mm was too tight, but this turned out to only be half-true. It was probably the form-factor which bugged me the most. The v4 is just not small enough to be really small, not small enough to fit in a jacket pocket when mounted to a camera, or hang around your shoulder all day without you really noticing it. It felt like the v4 protrudes just enough that you need to watch out when walking through tight spaces, so that it doesn’t bang into things. I later ended up falling in love with my 35mm Summicron v3, in part because it gives me no stress whatsoever, when walking through tight spaces (because of it’s pancake-like nature). You must be thinking ‘what a strange criteria’, but when you have a camera with you all the time it’s these kinds of things that really count.
When it comes to size, the 50mm 2.5 scores big points. When its focus is set to infinity the lens is barely bigger than my 35mm Summicron v3, meaning I can carry this lens around stress free. It also means that this is an extremely lightweight lens. At just 230g I can carry this lens on my M10 all day no problem. That is why when I first discovered this lens (a few years after I started shooting with Leica) I felt like I had been struck by lightning: A small Leica 50mm!? It was perfect, and I needed it in my life as fast as possible. Unfortunately, I had to wait a few months because it was pretty hard to find one (I specifically wanted the older f/2.5 version), but when it arrived it was worth the wait.
However, as I said earlier 50mm is often too tight for me, so why was I so excited? Well, when I first got the 50mm 2.5, I used my 35mm as my primary lens and took the 50mm as back-up, either in my bag or inner-coat pocket. With a lens this size you can just forget you have it with you, right up until you need it, which is amazing. Eventually though, I came to love this lens as a standalone lens, and now I regularly use it as a primary lens. This was actually a pretty big step for me, because it was the first time I was ok with having more than one lens. I was moving away from my one camera one lens philosophy, and that was a good thing for me.
I have owned the 50mm Summilux and probably every version of the 50mm Summicron (although some only briefly) but none of these worked for me. The 50mm 2.5 on the other hand, is such a joy to have that it made me realise that I Love the 50mm focal length… but not enough that I’m willing to carry a Summicron or Summilux around. Actually, I think that this statement probably says enough for anyone reading this review. If you want or have a 50mm Summicron or Summilux and are happy to carry it around all day, then you’re good, no need to get this Summarit. However, if you feel that the design of the Summilux or Summarit is maybe a tiny bit too big or too heavy, then sell them and get this, no need to read any further. Probably I could end this review here… but I won’t, as I wouldn’t be doing this lens justice.
Surprisingly, (to me) size isn’t the best feature of this lens. That is because the image quality is absolutely mind-blowing. The images have warmth and a certain soft dreamy feel, whilst also remaining extremely crisp. I don’t really know how it’s possible, usually there is a trade off between sharpness and a soft dreamy look, but here both seem possible at the same time. It’s like the Summarit is able to combine the Summicron’s unbelievable sharpness and contrast with the Summilux’s iconic dreamy look. In all fairness, it’s not quite as sharp and contrasty as the Summicron, or quite as dreamy as the Summilux, but to me it’s the best of both worlds. In my opinion the Summicron and Summilux can over-do it: the 50mm Summicron can look too sharp and contrasty making the images look gritty; and the 50mm Summilux can look too dreamy making the images un-relatable - almost unrealistic with it’s extreme swirly bokeh - and absolutely impossible to focus.
However, what strikes me most about the images of the 50mm 2.5, is how natural feeling they look. Yes, this lens is sharp, and yes this lens has beautiful bokeh but that’s not what I’m talking about. When looking at the images, they give you a feeling of familiarity, a warm and cozy feeling like coming home after a long trip. People often say that 50mm is the focal length that resembles most what you actually see with your eyes, and with this lens, it actually feels like it’s doing this. It feels like the lens is reproducing what I actually saw at that moment with my eyes. Generally people seem to agree, and they absolutely love the images this lens produces. The effect is flattering, and when I make portraits with it people love the results. I’m no wedding photographer, but I have done a few weddings and I will basically only use this lens, it’s perfect.
That's why, when I first saw the pictures coming from this lens, I just didn’t understand. I was expecting the 50mm 2.5 to be a nice little addition to my photography toolbox, a small 50mm I can always carry around if I want too. I was not expecting the images to blow my mind like they did, and I was especially not expecting that I would like the images more than those of the Summicron or the Summilux, but I did. At the time I thought it must be a one-off thing, just good lighting and some luck, but no. Time and time again I take this lens with me, and under all lighting conditions this lens continues to perform.
Now let’s talk about the best-worst feature of this lens: it’s f/2.5 aperture. I admit that a f/2.5 maximum can be a little slow, but I have never felt that it has stopped me from taking great pictures, even in low light. Especially if you are lucky enough to have one of the newer high ISO Leica bodies, you have nothing to worry about. But even then, I rarely ever shoot above ISO 200 as usually I shoot in the daytime with lots of light. And I Iove being able to shoot this lens wide-open in mid-day, which is not always possible with my 24mm Summilux f/1.4 (unless I can be bothered to put on an ND filter every time the sun shines). In fact I (almost) never stop the aperture down of my 50mm 2.5. Leica lenses are optimised to be shot wide open, and this is when pictures will look their best. However, usually when shooting wide-open with a 50mm f/2 or f/1.4, its pretty hard to get things in focus quickly and consistently. This is especially true if you’re in the city where things can get hectic. The 50mm 2.5's depth-of-field (DOF) wide-open is much more forgiving, which means that I actually hit my focus and make better pictures with a Summarit.
There is a certain minimum amount of DOF that I need in order to feel confident that I can snap a quick picture, and actually get it in focus (almost) every time. But the DOF also has to be shallow enough that I can separate my subject from his/her background if I want to. I call this the ‘golden’ amount of DOF, and I get this with the Summilux 24mm f/1.4, the Summicron 35mm f/2, and the Summarit 50mm f/2.5. Any more and too much is in focus. Any less and it’s no fun because you miss lot’s of great shots!
The lens also feels great. Without exaggerating, this is actually the smoothest and lightest focus throw I have ever felt on a Leica lens. I didn’t like it at first because it was so easy to move the focus ring, but after getting the hang of it I’ve come to appreciate how fast you can focus with this lens, especially with it's focus tab. The aperture ring, on the other hand, is probably my least favourite feature. Theres a little bit of play in the aperture ring which makes it feel a little ‘cheap’ by Leica standards, and it has pretty unsatisfying clicks. The build of the lens feels good, but is only OK by Leica standards. Like I mentioned, I had an issue with mine. It was the first time I ever had to send any of my Leica equipment for repairs, and I was not very happy. But I was able to forgive my lens, because everything else about it is so damn amazing.
Personally I love the design of the 50mm 2.5. The lens tapers off as it extends outwards, which reminds me of my 35mm Summicron v3. I much prefer this to the larger design of the newer 50mm Summarit f/2.4. If you ask me, Leica compromised the design of this lens just so that it conforms to the rest of the Leica line-up, which is a real shame. On the newer design I think the idea is that the lens hood always stays on. It looks better with the hood on but then the whole point of getting a small 50mm is totally lost. Don’t get the newer one.
The 50mm 2.5 is so good I am not surprised that it gets almost no attention. I think that Leica don’t want it to get attention. The 50mm Summilux is one of Leica’s most profitable lenses, and they wouldn’t want that to change. I feel like it may also be part of the reason why Leica changed the design, but honestly I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t want this lens to cannibalise all of Leica’s profits either… It’s bad for all Leica users if Leica can't or won't innovate fantastic new products because of their bottom-line.
1. Tiny 50mm lens, tapered off & less space consuming design
2. Mind-blowing image quality (both tack-sharp and dreamy images)
3. Smoothest focus I have ever experienced
4. ‘Perfect’ amount of DOF wide-open (for me)
5. ‘Beginner’ prices
1. Manufacturing & build quality sub-par by Leica standards (but still very good)
2. Slower aperture than Summilux & Summicron
So there you have it, I hope I make a pretty compelling argument as to why this is the best 50mm Lens Leica makes (or made), and the 50mm you should own. That is, unless you plan on shooting some very dark scenes with almost no sources of light. It may seem crazy, but if Leica offered me any 50mm (and I can’t sell it for profit), the Noctilux, the APO Summicron, Summilux… I would take the 50mm Summarit, no hesitation.