Endless (Leica) Summar

Note: the images in this post are best viewed large.  And there are more illustrative images over on my flickr.

So I got a new toy. It arrived in the mail, I’ve had a little time to play with it, and now I’m itching to talk about it. It’s not a kitchen toy — although I suppose it could be used in the kitchen. And I suppose that I make enough non-kitchen posts here, anyway, that one more isn’t going to inexorably drive any of you away.

Leica Summar 50mm f/2

My new toy is a camera lens. It’s a Leica Summar 50mm f/2.0, built — or so the serial number indicates — sometime in 1936. So I guess that when I say new, I mean in the relative sense. It was the first “fast” 50mm lens that Leica ever built.* It’s the direct ancestor of the vaunted Summicron. And it has a terrible — terrible! — reputation.

The critics pan it. The soulless minions of orthodoxy who lurk around camera forums call it soft, call it low-contrast, ugly, flare-prone, sometimes unworthy of the Leica name. Reviewers explain that compared not just to modern lenses, but to the Carl Zeiss Sonnars of the same era, it is decidedly second rate, producing glow, and swirly bokeh, comma, and all kinds of image-destroying aberrations.**

Leica Summar 50mm f/2
All of these images were taken at Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Philadelphia. Because — where better to test a new lens?

And technically they’re right, I guess. Except that they’re totally not.

The lens, as Stephen Gandy has written, is not bad — it’s special. It produces a kind of classic look, soft not in the sense that images are unsharp, but in the sense that they aren’t harsh and clinical like many cutting-edge lenses can be. It produces a kind of dreamy quality that is enhanced by the low contrast and the swirling bokeh — a sense that what you’re seeing in the photograph is the first thing you see when you’ve opened your eyes from a nap. And at the same time, it produces the sense that the world is not flat. In-focus areas have a pleasant sense of three-dimensionality about them.

Leica Summar 50mm f/2

The problems with the lens, and its charms, both stem from the same place. Being a pre-World-War-II design, the the Summar is uncoated. Lens coatings help increase contrast and decrease flare by increasing the amount of light transmitted through the glass, and decreasing the amount that is reflected away. Other uncoated lenses of the same era — like the Sonnars — compensated by decreasing the number of surfaces inside the lens that could cause reflections.

The Summar doesn’t do this. Which means that there’s a lot of light bouncing all over the place inside the lens as you’re taking a picture. Which means that sometimes light gets scattered and you end up with a diffuse look to your photographs. Which means that you’d better get a lens hood to go with the Summar or it will — as the critics accuse — flare like crazy.

But even the lens’ not-so-fine points, I would suggest, have been bent all out of proportion. All this terrible-lens hysteria seems to me to be less about the Summar’s design — it’s capabilities and limitations — than about the fact that even the newest copies are about three quarters of a century old. Lenses get used. They get bumped around and scratched. They develop hazes and collect internal dust. And all of this compromises the quality of the images they produce, and compounds all of the softness, the glowiness, the flaringness that is inherent in the lens, anyway.

Leica Summar 50mm f/2

My copy is shockingly clean. As in: it has a couple of flecks of dust inside, but less, in fact, than most of the newer lenses I own. Somebody must have babied this lens in a previous life, and the images that I’m getting from it now reflect that.

My new toy has all of those qualities that the camera-forum folks like to pan. Except that it isn’t terrible. And it is special. These initial images I’ve gotten from it hit me with an immediate visceral pleasure. And while I don’t think I’d want the Summar to be my only 50mm lens — while I do like the more modern look of its more modern counterparts — I think that I’ve fallen a little bit in love.

Leica Summar 50mm f/2

Leica Summar 50mm f/2

You can find the rest of my Leica Summar pictures here, on flickr.

* Leica, in fact, produced a Hektor 50mm f/2.5 before the Summar. But it seems to have been exceedingly rare.
** I actually really like Sonnar-type lenses. The next time I make a post about photography, it may well be about my favorite Sonnar(ish) lens — the Pentax SMC Takumar.