Tag Archives: Leica Summilux

A Totally Anecdotal – Essentially Worthless – Lens Comparison

The Summilux 50mm f1.4 in LTM. Perfect for my IIIg

My wife claims I suffer from SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is a type of depression that’s related to the change in the season — symptoms typically start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. It’s why I can’t live in places like Amsterdam where you never see the Sun; I go nuts after a month or two of grey, skuddering skies. To support this she notes that every winter, once the sun gets low, I tend to put on my PJ’s and spend an inordinate amount of time watching dark, depressing Swedish movies with the blinds closed. I’ll occasionally walk the dogs in my bathrobe, which embarrasses her to no end. I’m generally lethargic and slow-witted, and my discretionary bourbon spending tends to increase.

I never really thought about it that way until she mentioned it to me, but I suppose she’s right. I have been feeling uninspired lately, especially in thinking of things to write about here. You can only say the same things so many times before it becomes stale. So, I’ve decided to do a “lens test,” you know, post a bunch of pictures from various lenses under marginally controlled conditions and then make sweeping judgments about them.

What motivated me to do this was this: for some reason, I’ve started feeling an urge to buy a new LTM Summicron for my IIIg, and I thought that maybe this would finally put a stop to my recurring, admittedly irrational desire to own at least one top-flight Leica lens, and a Summicron /lux- either the LTM 35mm ASPH or the LTM 50mm f1.4  Summilux- seemed the natural choice for the IIIg – the ultimate Barnack Leica paired with the ultimate Leica lens.  My sense is it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to my photographs (let me rephrase that – I know it won’t make a bit of difference). My opinion is this: unless you’ve got a really bad copy of a lens – super sloppy tolerances or misaligned elements, uncoated element surfaces, scratched or full of fungus –  most fixed focal length lenses from the 50’s onward give more than acceptable results, and many ostensibly “cheap” lenses can give results comparable to Leica lenses costing 10X- -100X as much. After all is said and done, a $2000 Summicron or Summilux won’t give me anything my Industar or Nikkor or VC can’t.


What I did was this: I found every 35mm and 50mm lens I had that was capable of being mounted on an M-Mount camera, in this instance a Ricoh GXR with A12 M-Mount, and shot the same photo with it, same lighting, same f4 f-stop, same 1600 ISO. I chose f4 as the demonstrable f-stop because it was the first partial aperture each of them shared and it’s an aperture that’s wide enough to still give some sense of the character of the lens. Too lazy to go outside and find appropriate fence posts (why must every lens test involve fence posts?), I chose a bathroom mirror selfie; it offered a good gradation of tones, the tiled wall behind me, with its straight vertical and horizontal lines, might give some sense of any lens distortion and there’s also enough sparkly stuff in the shower door to highlight bokeh.  Perfect. As for post-processing, they were all shot as RAW and converted to jpegs in LR, where I also applied the exact same levels of marginal structure adjustments and sharpening, which is what I’d do with most any photograph I edit. Of course, all of the above decisions are completely arbitrary and  will affect the results in unknown ways, which is why informal internet lens comparison tests like this one are always problematic.

35mm lenses

The lenses tested were, in order of presentation – a 35mm f2.5 LTM VC Color Skopar Classic; 35mm f2.5 LTM VC Color Skopar Pancake; a W-Nikkor 3.5cm f2.5 for Nikon S;  an AF Nikkor 35mm f2 for Nikon F;  a manual focus Nikkor 35mm f2.8 for Nikon F; and a manual focus Nikon E series 35mm f2.5 for Nikon F.

Voigtlander Color Skopar Classic 35mm 2.5

35mm f2.5 LTM VC Color Skopar Pancake

W-Nikkor 3.5cm f2.5

AF Nikkor 35mm f2

Nikkor 35mm f2.8

Nikon E series 35mm f2.5


50mm lenses

Lenses tested were, in order of presentation – a Russian made LTM Industar-22 5c.m f3.5 collapsible; a Russian made LTM Industar-26M 5.2 cm f2.8; a Russian made LTM Jupiter-8 5c.m f2; a manual focus Nikon Series E 50mm f1.8; and finally the current version AF Nikkor 50mm f1.8.

LTM Industar-22 5c.m f3.5 collapsible

LTM Industar-26M 5.2 cm f2.8

LTM Jupiter-8 5c.m f2

Nikon Series E 50mm f1.8


AF Nikkor 50mm f1.8


Conclusions? With the exception of the AF Nikkor, all of the 35’s look pretty much alike. For some reason, the DOF is different on the AF Nikkor than the other lenses, why I have no idea. I see some marginal differences in contrast and how the lens deals with light fall-off behind its plane of focus, but that’s about it. You can easily tweak contrast in LR. Interesting because, while there’s not a Summicron in there for comparison, the VC Color Skopars, which will cost you +/- $350 used,  are considered to be excellent optics, not far removed from  the traditional 35mm Summicron, as is the W-Nikkor 2.5, at about the same price used, made for the Nikon S cameras. The other Nikkors are super cheap (+/- $200) while the E Series Nikon can be found for $30 used. I’ve always thought the Nikon E Series lenses, derided by purists when they first appeared in the 70’s because they contained some plastic parts, are incredible bargains, the entire line being excellent.

As for the 50’s, they all look pretty much alike again, with the exception of the Jupiter-8, which is markedly softer than the others. With all of the FED LTM lenses, sample variation is the norm. Both Industars look great at f4, indistinguishable from the excellent AF Nikkor 1.8 which Nikon enthusiasts rave about. I paid about $20 each for the FED lenses and the Series E and $80 used for the AF Nikkor.

Would a $3500 Summilux be much better? I doubt it. It may have better MTF charts, feel smoother in operation, make you feel special etc etc, but whatever marginal increases in optical performance it might possess mean little or nothing in practice. It sure is a beauty though; no doubt about it. Is the enhanced pleasure you’ll presumably get by toting it around on your IIIg instead of a 20$ Jupiter worth the extra $3475? Only you can answer that, although I don’t begrudge your decision. It’s your money.

The larger conclusion is that “comparison tests” of lenses are gimics, interesting to read, fun as an intellectual exercise, but of no real value if what you’re looking for is an objective evaluation of the critical optical merits of a given lens and its practical implications for use.

Suffice it to say I won’t be buying that Summilux.

  • I’ve posted slightly larger jpegs that you can click on and open for further examination if you’re that sort of person.

Leitz, Zeiss, Nikon and The Genesis of High-Speed 35mm Photography

8476219959_7d57c359e5_bWhen Oskar Barnack built the first 35mm film camera, the “Ur-Leica” in 1923, he fitted it with a 5cm f/3.5 Elmax Anastigmat. When the Leica I went into full production a two years later, Leitz fitted it with the same lens but modified it with two as opposed to three cemented elements, and renamed it the “Elmar.”  The f/3.5 Elmar is a very sharp lens, even opened up, and helped establish Leica’s reputation for fine optics. There are claims that Leitz had the capabilities to produce an f/2 50mm at this time, but chose not to to insure they offered the finest quality optics for their fledgling 35mm camera system.

For years Leica trailed Zeiss, the acknowledged leader in optical design, in producing high-speed lenses. Already in 1928,  Zeiss had released the 50/1.5 Sonnar, a 7-element modified triple with only 6 air-glass surfaces (in an era of uncoated lenses, each uncoated surface reduced light transmission by about 15%, which was why fast lenses were so difficult to produce before the advent of lens coating). In the late 30’s Zeiss introduced vacuum fluoro-coating to the Sonnar, creating the Sonnar T. Starting in 1930, Leitz offered as an alternative to the Elmar it’s first “high-speed” 50, a 5cm f/2.5 Hektor. Shortly thereafter, in 1933, Leitz introduced a 5cm f/2 Summar, a modified Zeiss Planar design which they subsequently improved upon and reintroduced in 1939 as the Summitar. Max Berek, who designed most of the lenses for Leica in the 1930’s, explained that the reason Leitz had not used their own design for their original high-speed 50 was they had wanted to be certain their original offerings met a high standard so as to insure the success of the Leica 35mm camera, and they did not then have the optical expertise to design a clean sheet high speed lens and so chose to borrow Zeiss’s proven Planar design.

Leica produced their first high-speed 50mm in 1936 with the introduction of the Leitz Xenon, an uncoated seven element double Gauss type with ten surfaces  (the rear element was split in two). While there is some evidence to support Leica’s claim that the Xenon was a Leitz creation, for patent reasons Leitz sublicensed the design from Schneider, who had themselves licensed the patent design from Taylor, Taylor Hobson (TTH) in Great Britain, agreeing to use Zeiss’s “Xenon” designation for the lens. In the 1949, Leitz began fluoro-coating the Xenon and renamed it the Summarit (however the US Patent still had a few years to run, so you’ll find some early Summarits still carrying the US Patent number). Lens coating, developed in Germany during the war, made a tremendous improvement on the uncoated Xenon, increasing contrast and reducing flare.  After the war, Leitz also offered a service to coat existing pre-war lenses, but would not coat the front element because their coating was not sufficiently robust to resist damage with normal cleaning.

While some claim that it was the introduction of fluoro-coating that revolutionized Leitz optics, in reality it was Leitz’s post-war decision to open their own glass research facility in order to reduce their dependence on third parties. But Zeiss remained the leader in high-speed lens design and production into the 60s. While Leitz was busy playing catch-up to Zeiss’s recognized high-speed technical dominance, Japanese camera makers – Nikon and Canon – each started offering versions of the 50/1.5 Sonnar, the 50/1.5 Nikkor, and the 50/1.5 Canon. In 1951 Nikon recomputed the 50/1.5 into the 50/1.4 and set in motion the beginnings of a tectonic shift in public perception and professional acceptance of Japanese optics, a design and manufacturing contest between the German and Japanese producers that continues to this day.


David Douglas Duncan introduced the world to high quality Japanese lenses. Duncan used a Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 and Nikkor-QC 13.5cm F4 on his Leica IIIc for most of his photographs taken in Korea. Other photographers took note of the quality of Duncan’s images and word spread about the quality of the Nikkor lenses.

In their December 10, 1950 edition, the New York Times noted the emergence of Nikkor optics amongst professional photographers: “The first postwar camera to attract serious attention in America has caused a sensation among magazine and press photographers following the report by Life magazine photographers in Korea that a Japanese 35mm camera and its lenses had proven superior to the German cameras they had been using. The lenses, which include a full range of focal lengths, give a higher accuracy rating than lenses available for German miniatures.” The article quoted “camera expert” Mitch Bogdanovitch  that the Nikkor lenses “are of excellent color correction and perform better at full apertures than do Zeiss lenses.” The President of Carl Zeiss, Inc. USA, subsequently threatened to stop advertising in The Times. The Times ultimately allowed Zeiss to run a statement that the “Zeiss lenses being tested were not true Zeiss lenses.”  This was most likely accurate. After World War II, much of the Zeiss machinery that was used to produce precision optics was shipped back to Russia as war reparations. Wholesale lots of optics, optical glass, lens parts, and fixtures were shipped to Russia where they were completed at the KMZ factory. ZK used Zeiss parts for their 5cm F1.5 Sonnars and 5cm F1.5 Jupiter-3’s through the early 1950s.

The iconic Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 remains one of the most obscure of the vintage Nikkors. Nikon originally developed the 5cm F1.5 for use on the Hansa Canon. Two batches of lenses were produced, the “905” batch in May 1949 and the “907” batch in July 1949. After the war, when Nikon needed a super-speed lens to compete with Zeiss and Leitz, Nikon used the 5cm F1.5 as the basis for their now venerable 50mm f1,4. Fewer than 800 1.5 Nikkors were made, about 300 in Leica mount and 500 in S-Mount, before Nikon replaced the F1.5 with the Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.4 the following year.

5cm 1.5

The Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 is a Sonnar with seven elements in three groups, although a unique formulation. The Nikkor is made to the Leica 51.6mm focal length standard, and is constructed using different optical glass than the Zeiss optic. The focus mount is an all-brass rigid mount, finished in chrome, and has a close-focus of 18”. It is the first Nikkor lens to feature the close-focus capability, followed by the 5cm F1.4 and rigid-mount 5cm F2. The optical surfaces are all hard-coated. The aperture mechanism does not employ click-stops, while the subsequent F1.4  and rigid F2 lenses of 1950 feature click-stops.

“True” Zeiss lenses in Leica mount were manufactured during the war in small numbers. The 5cm F1.5 Sonnar “T” made during the war used a “recomputed” optical formula that improved performance compared with the pre-war lenses. The wartime Leica mount Zeiss lenses are not as well made as the Nikkor lenses used by Duncan in Korea. The choice of available materials for the fixtures and focus mount was poor, with lighter, less robust metal alloys used. The design of the Zeiss focus mount for the Leica camera was not well thought out; as an example a set screw through the focus ring serves as the focus stop. Zeiss lenses of the period that saw heavy use often fell out of RF calibration, with the sleeves and helical loosening-up,  making the lens unusable.

In post WW2 Germany, Zeiss produced their lenses with what remained behind. Post-war Leica mount “Carl Zeiss Jena” Sonnars can be found that are not in the “official records”, and often have a “one-off” quality about them. These lenses were probably machined using mostly hand-made tools, sometimes were missing parts, and had sub-standard finish on the optics and mechanical fixtures. These lenses were used with many post-war Leica cameras, many bought by serviceman in Occupied Germany. A post-war era Zeiss lens in perfect condition would probably not have withstood the combat conditions faced by Korean era war photographers.

Nikon optimized their post-war rangefinder optics for wide-open use, and the 5cm F1.5 is no exception. Zeiss optimized their lenses for stopped down use and perform best at F2.8. Leitz optimized their lenses for mid-aperture usage, as does Leica even today. Zeiss did not start optimizing their Sonnars for wide-open use until recently.




The 50 f1.4 Nikkor S is the lens most responsible for making Nikon’s reputation in the early 1950s. It was a leap ahead of Zeiss, and certainly, Leitz, in high-speed lens quality. Nikon introduced the Nikkor S-C 5cm f/1.4 in 1951 at a List price of approximately  $1,700 in today’s money. First versions were marked “NIKKOR-S C” to denote that the lens was coated. The “C” was dropped in 1957.  In 1962, Nikon introduced a longer version with different optics, engraved “50mm” instead of “5cm”, referred to as the Olympic version. Nikon again re-made the larger 50mm lens in 2000 as part of the S3 Millennial set.

Ive always been impressed by the old Nikkor LTM lenses. The 50 f2 and the 35 f1.8 are particularly good vintage users. The 50 has a beautiful classic look, sharp and contrary even wide open. They are plentiful today because so many of them were made for use with amateur cameras (Tower, Nicca). And they are inexpensive – excellent examples can be found for between 200-300$. The 35mm 1.8 LTM is another story, carrying prices of 1700-2500$ depending on the condition. Both of these vintage Nikkors have aged better than similar offerings from Leitz given their harder front coatings.


There also exist a number of Nikkors in Nikon S mount, that heretofore were limited in use to the Nikon S rangefinder series. A beautiful camera, no doubt, but it has its limitations – specifically a rangefinder patch that’s very hard to read except with high contrast edges. The Nikkor S lenses themselves are uniformly excellent.

In 2000, Nikon made the decision to reproduce the S3 with an updated version of the Nikkor 50 1.4 (the “Millennial”).  In 2005, they reproduced the SP coupled with an updated Nikkor 35 1.8. Almost all were snapped up by collectors assuming that the prices would appreciate with time. For whatever reason, prices of new, unused kits have currently depreciated by 75%, with early speculators selling S3 kits they bought for $6000 for less than $2000. I recently bought a brand new chrome S3 kit from Japan for $1550.

Throw into the mix the 50 Millennial and the 35 SP remakes with modern multi-coating and the rangefinder Nikkors make an excellent alternative to the uber-expensive Leica offerings.

The irony of the S3 Millenial is that its starting to become popular again because of the lens, not the camera. You can chalk that up to the Amedeo Adaptor. Now, thanks to an enterprising gentleman in Argentina who produces a Nikon S to Leica M adaptor as a labor of love, you can use your S mount lenses on your Leica M, rangefinder coupled, with his Amedeo adaptor. And the adaptor is nothing like the plethora of cheap Chinese adaptors recently appeared on the market allowing use of various lens mounts on mirrorless cameras. The first thing you notice about the Amedeo adaptor is how well-made and tightly toleranced it is. It looks and feels like something that should have the Leica name attached to it. Its focus throw is smooth and firm, and it locks into the M mount with a pronounced click. Extremely nice.

amedeo adaptor 2

Which leaves us Leicaphiles with wonderful new options for the use of Nikkor S lenses on our M’s. For less than 2k you can buy an unused S3 body with 50 1.4 attached, buy an Amedeo adaptor for $275 and have a 50 1.4 prime lens for your M every bit as sharp and well built as the $5000 Summilux Aspherical. You’ll also have a new Nikon S3 body you can slap a new VC 50 2.5 S on (approx $250-300) and use as a second rig. The S3, itself a worthy competitor to the M3, is, in my opinion, worth the $2000 price alone, as you’re getting the functional equivalent of a brand new M3 throw in “free of charge” when you buy the set for the Millennial Nikkor 50 1.4. And, having not had to spread for the $5000 Summilux, you’ll have almost $3000 in change left over.

amedeoAmedeo Adaptor