Lens Reviews

Leica APO-Summicron-SL 35 f/2 ASPH

My interest in 35mm lenses has remained unfettered since I first got into ‘serious’ photography more than four decades ago. I have written elsewhere of my fondness for this focal length and it’s ability to capture slightly wider angles with little in the way of distortion. It was a long time before I purchased my first 35mm, as before this I have used zooms and often composed images on or around this angle. Seeking a lighter alternative, I soon latched onto the fact that I could have a fast prime - much faster than a zoom - minus the heft. When I first discovered Leica Camera’s it was via the X1, as it had a 35mm equivalent lens built in, albeit not particularly fast. Not many years after this I was lured into purchasing the X Typ 113, thanks to its much faster 35mm prime. I still use that camera today and the results I can get from it are sublime.

leica summicron 35mm 1In more recent years I have watched from the sidelines as Leica’s SL system was released and added to, noting with much interest the announcement of a new 35mm Summicron lens early in 2019. So, I do not have an SL body but it is compatible with the APSC format cameras… the CL and TL, which I do own. Downside is that it would not give me the same angle of view and behave more like a 50mm. But my interest remained strong as I began drawing up a roadmap of purchases that would ease me fully into the world of the SL.

As I use super wide and longer telephoto lenses only occasionally, my future SL System will comprise of only focal lengths I consider useful. After all, none of the SL primes are inexpensive so justification of one that didn’t see much use is difficult. My lenses will consist of 35 and 75mm Summicrons and the 50mm Summilux, the latter providing additional speed when required. I have owned the 75mm for a couple of years now and love the short telephoto results, even though it behaves more like a 100mm on my APSC cameras.

So the 35mm Summicron became the second SL lens in my system and taking delivery of it was an exciting moment. Everything I had read about the lens suggests it on one of the best, if not THE best performing lens that Leica has produced, irrespective of system. Even chief designer, Peter Karbe, stands behind it as such. Unpacking it and standing it next the the 75, they are identical in size and visually differ only in the size of the end element and the focal length etched onto the barrel. Lens hood differ though. As the 35mm is a wide angle lens, it comes with a very high quality rectangular hood (the 75 has a more usual cylindrical style). There is a slight weight difference - the 75 weighs in at 720 grams, the 35 is 750 grams. Other that these differences they are peas in a pod.

Mounted onto the CL, it is a bit ungainly and I think the additional hand grip would be of benefit. But on my TL2 the balance is much better and with the Visoflex, becomes a superb outfit. Like the 75, I will use the 35 on the TL2 and the CL will be the natural home for my 35mm TL Summilux lens.

Lens hood or no lens hood? This is a question that is raised at regular intervals on forums. Yes, they make the lens much larger and the benefit of using them is questionable when it comes to flare reduction, as the optics do a very good job of handling internal reflections without a hood. But I have taken a departure from using protective filters on any lens in recent years, so I use hoods simply to protect the end element. The fact that they reduce the amount of stray light hitting the lens is something of a bonus. I also tend to use the hood as a natural hand rest when steadying a lens, so the larger generation hoods that come with the Leica primes allows me to do this comfortably. The fact that the hoods can be reversed when the lens is not in use is useful as it means they constantly accompany the lens and do not get left at home.

I love the sense of excitement that accompanies the first use of a lens. It has never changed for me over the decades even when revisiting well-used focal lengths such as 35mm. It is no longer the angle of view that excites, but an amalgam of handling, responsiveness and of course, the way the lens draws. The first camera I attached the 35 to was my TL2 and immediately felt the need to attach the Visoflex finder. Without it, composure via the rear screen was cumbersome and uncomfortable for any longer than a couple of minutes. It was too much weight to hold out in front of me to guarantee good hand held results. The combination requires extra steadying that naturally comes with adding the finder and hugging the camera in a more traditional way. Used like this, my left hand naturally supports the lens hood which, given its rectangular shape, is very comfortable. Mounted on the CL, handling is excellent although not quite as good as the the TL2 due to lack of a handgrip. The more I use and expand my lens collection into the SL’s territory, the more I am considering picking up a handgrip for the CL.

Autofocus is swift, silent and accurate on both TL2 and CL, although feels marginally faster on the CL. Only in low contrast, low light situations does the autofocus become challenged. But it is nothing that concerns me, and I am happy to switch to manual focus when these conditions present themselves. Something that has always impressed be with Leica’s autofocus systems is the accuracy once focus is locked. It is consistent across both the TL and L lenses I own. Any mis-focussed results are usually the result of my own making when composing, or the result of the CL’s ‘wandering focus point’ habit that went unnoticed by me.

leica summicron 35mm 2All L lenses are designed to be used at their maximum aperture which is one of the deciding factors when buying into the Leica ecosystem. Systems I have used in the past have been blighted by chromatic aberration wide open, even those that have touted tele-centric designs have required this to be removed in post processing. Not a huge job but a problem that has crawled up my pipe since the onset of the digital era. The Summicron L primes are all apochromatic designs, meaning that CA is reduced to very small amounts when shooting wide open. On first use, I stress tested the 35 in situations that would force CA in lesser designs, but this 35’s output was close to perfect.

Many people have commented on the ‘sterile’ results produced by Summicron L lenses which, to me, is a very odd statement. Sure, the output is very very sharp and aberrations are reduced to a minimum. But does this not, therefore, contribute to its natural character? Optical perfection should not be translated into vacuous adjective’s that are picked up and recycled across the internet to wash up on the shores of countless forums as ‘truths’. Is it not better to start with a perfect image and add whatever characteristics are required in post? I once owned a Zuiko 50mm f1.2 lens that was very soft wide open but superb once stopped down to f4. I used to use it wide open to create a dreamy look. But I forget how many times I took that lens out at night only to wish I could achieve an image that was sharp across the frame at f1.2. No amount of post processing could recover from this and while I loved the lens, it soon became very much a niche component of my system.

During the Christmas and New Year break, I spent more time with the lens attached to my TL2. Each time I used it the handling and results really impressed me. Even though the L-35 shares a place with my TL-35 regarding angle of view, it draws differently. Of course the TL-35 is faster and I find myself using it for environmental portraits, or when more speed is required. But as a general walk-around lens the L-35 is simply wonderful. The overall image quality when used wide open is astonishing and is a world away from some of the 35’s I have used in the past. I am not going to waffle on about MTF curves and technical data here as it has been covered many times on other websites. Suffice to say that from my own experience, L lenses are built to last and there is a distinct possibility that this is last 35 I am likely to purchase. They give the user a level of confidence that many other brands lack. Owning this particular one feels like the conclusion to a very long and personal lens journey. When I finally get my act together and purchase a SL series camera, I have no doubt that the combination will fulfil my expectations. And as a beacon flashing somewhere in the not to distant future, the prospect of owning a SL2/SL2-S provides an antidote to grey winter days and living in the shadow of a pandemic.

Does this lens provide value for money? This is a question that can only be answered from a personal perspective. In my case it certainly does. Had this lens been available forty years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford it. But if I add up the money I have spent on other 35mm lenses throughout the decades, the cost becomes justifiable. Leica lenses are and always will be expensive. But if they meet all of a photographers expectations, their value is more than simply the sum of their parts.