In this review, we will be reviewing the Leica Summicron 35mm ASPH as one of my most in-depth reviews. I chose this lens because if I had to choose just one lens out of the plethora of lenses in the history of the Leica M mount, it would be the first aspherical version of the 35mm f/2 of the legendary Summicron line of lenses. It’s no surprise that the 35mm focal length is the most versatile lens, but on a Leica rangefinder, it pretty much defines the whole M mount system. It is, in my personal opinion, Leica’s best lens.
We’ll go over why.
You could say the 35mm focal length is one of the most popular focal lengths in any photographer’s bag, typical alongside the “nifty-fifty” 50mm. Doesn’t matter if you shoot Canon, Nikon, Sony or Olympus, these are the two most popular (and most recommended) focal lengths for any manufacturer. However, not all lenses are the same.
The Summicron comes in on its own like the Apple iPhone – Leica’s only comparative competitor is their previous model. This lens is legendary in its own right as it simply defines what Leica lenses are known for. Compact, sharp as hell, lightweight (relatively speaking) and famous ergonomics that is an obvious pairing for any Leica M rangefinder camera. As other phone manufacturers compare their latest flagship to the ubiquitous iPhone, the Summicron is the benchmark where all other lenses are judged by.
Leica’s Summicron is the Porsche 911 of the lens world.
Leica Summicron 35mm ASPH (11879)
When I was originally shopping around for this lens, particularly this aspherical version manufactured during 1990s until the mid 2000s, it was surprisingly difficult to find decent reviews on the second latest lens among the Summicron family. This is shocking because why is such a legendary lens so hard to find any decent reviews?
I think there are a few reasons for this.
- The lens is so good that there is little to be said about it. This happens more often than not for any latest variation of any lens. Look at the Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.4 MC II – you’ll be hard pressed to find more than a handful of reviews on it.
- The lens is overshadowed by its latest version, the ASPH II (11673), but ironically also suffers from the first point above.
I have a lot of love for this lens and since passion make for an interesting review, I will break down how this lens competes in 2020 in a market saturated with other attractive propositions from other manufacturers, but convince you why the Leica Summicron 35mm ASPH is my favorite.
Build and Design
The 35mm of Leica’s Summicron line of lenses have surprisingly have not changed much in terms of their raison d’être: keep it small, make sure that it’s sharp, and the ergonomics must be on point. With these values that date back all the way back when the first M mount was first conceived (almost 75 years ago), this ASPH version continues to carry that legacy as it remained the king of compact 35mm with an f/2 aperture for decades.
The double gauss formula that dates back to the 1950s haven’t changed since the ASPH, but with the adaptation of computers and improvements with new manufacturing processes, the aspherical was born to prepare for the future that would follow after the Leica M6. The made in Germany, hand-made components paired with new production methods were further improved, albeit more complicated due to the addition of an aspherical element among its seven elements and five groups. The body is beautifully machined from a solid block of aluminum, as the brass internal helicoid help maintain its smooth focusing while keeping the overall body durable from normal wear and tear. Nothing feels cheap or flimsy here, but for almost $2,000 in today’s used market, it better not be.
- Weight: 255g
- Minimum Focus Distance (MFD): 0.7m
- Build: Aluminum and Brass
If you’ve never handled this lens before (or any Leica lens for that matter) I highly recommend you hold one in your hands and try to maintain a poker face. I say this because every time I let someone handle one of these lenses for the first time, they would react with have one or more of the following:
- “Holy shit, that’s heavy!”
- “Wow, that’s solid!”
- “I could kill someone with this!”
These lenses are not your typical plastic shells with bits of metal inside that you would typically get from other manufacturer’s top line of lenses. No, that’s not what you’ll find here. Leica lenses are manufactured at such incredibly high standards, that their expensive price tags almost seemed justified due to the amount of labor involved and how well made they are. These hand-made pieces of aluminum, brass and glass were built to outlive you, your car, your kids and your grandchildren. It’s not surprising that these things were built to last and passed down to your future generation or someone’s attic find for their next garage sale.
From the Hood
If I had to find one major gripe about this lens is the lens hood.
My God is the lens hood crap.
I don’t know what the Germans were thinking when they designed the plastic hood back in the ’90s, but it’s a finicky thing. Brand new, they’re great as the two tiny metal prongs that attach to the outer rim by the front element is sturdy, which can only be attached and removed pinching two buttons on the side with your fingers. Seemed like a solid solution at first.
If either the metal prongs on the lens plastic hood or if the metal rim of the lens show any type of wear, and I’m talking minuscule amount of wear like a dull sheen on the attachment points, it’s only a matter of time for that lens hood to pop off and ghost on you like a bad Tinder date. To make matters worst, this over-engineered and under-developed lens hood will cost you over $100 to replace. That’s an expensive Tinder date that just walked out on you.
To help fellow readers and sad Leica owners whom used Google to search for a replacement hood, let me help you out:
- Leica Lens Hood for the 11879 Summicron (12526): Link
- Leica Hood Cap for the Lens Hood: Good Luck
- Leica E39 Front Lens Cap (14038): Link
I’ve gone through two copies of this lens within a year and both lens hoods were promptly taken off and stored away in their leatherette lens cases for storage into forever world. Future investments I can sell one day and buy myself an island or something. Fortunately, the lens does an effective job of suppressing flares without the lens hood on.
It’s not out of the ordinary to say that the image quality you get from Leica lenses in general, especially their Summicron models, are nothing short of extraordinary and the Leica Summicron 35mm ASPH is no exception. If you’ve ever used any of the older variations of this lens, you can tell that Leica was clearly learning from the past to get to where they are now.
Micro-Contrast is Real
The details are sharp with high contrast, with crisp details at the edges around your subject with dramatic fall-off wide open at f/2.0. The lens get even sharper stopped down at f/4.0, but f/5.6 is just the sweet spot to hit that perfect balance. It’s very easy to see very high levels of micro-contrast at the edges of your subject, exhibiting the “Leica look” due to high levels of fidelity and tonality that you can only get with these lenses paired with Leica’s proprietary sensor.
This is what it means to be an exceptional lens.
Note about Adapting Lenses: I can tell you first hand that you will not get the same rendering adapting M mount lenses to other sensors like the Sony A7 series. The addition of the filter stack (which Leica sensors lack) and without its processing, you won’t get the same look. Been there. Seen that.
Another thing that I find interesting is how flat the field looks at wide open aperture. The images look sharp and while the corners still show a hint of vignetting and softness, it’s very impressive how the lens renders so well in such a small body.
However, the lens is not perfect as the lens can suffer a bit of coma on the corners, but this is immaterial and you won’t notice it in practical situations. Not a big deal, but just shows that the Summicron is still a piece of machinery made by mortals.
In my opinion, this is the most important aspect of the lens as it’s primarily one of the main reasons why anyone shoots with a Leica: the overall user experience.
If you ever want to shoot an “ideal” Leica setup, pair any Leica rangefinder and this Summicron 35mm ASPH (or any 35mm Summicron for that matter). The solid weight in your hands with this compact lens, allow the focus tab to sit close to the body of the camera.
This is really close to perfect.
I can’t explain what it is, but when you curl left index finger and adjust the focus tab between your first and second knuckle.
The palm of your left hand rests under the base of the body while your right hand holds the right side of the body.
You can feel the smooth throws as you move the focus lever as you line up your rangefinder patch.
Everything just feels right.
It feels welcoming – inspiring even. It’s as if you’re holding a piece of art from the company that was responsible for famous black and white photos that you saw in your history books. You’ll know once you hold one in your hands.
The hefty weight of the lens sits comfortably, far back towards the body, therefore not throwing off the weight distribution of the body. The short overall length of the lens doesn’t invade your view inside the optical viewfinder, even with the hood on, as you can clearly see the 35mm framelines.
The focus feels buttery smooth. Like a freshly oiled gear moving freely, but enough resistance like stirring a bucket of water. The Leica Summilux 35mm FLE (11663) with its floating lens element can’t touch the focus throws on the Summicron as it feels inconsistent and heavy in comparison.
The aperture clicks into place with positive detents as your turn them between your left thumb and index finger, feeling the finely machined ribbed pattern at the front of the barrel. The resistance between each aperture click feels perfect, just enough so that you won’t accidentally bump your aperture. It doesn’t feel as tight as your typical M-Mount Zeiss lenses, but it’s good enough.
With this combination between the lens and a compact body like the Leica M10 (or film M6 and M7), you have a one lens, one body solution. A lot of people call their Leica Summicron 35mm as their “body cap”, meaning it’s pretty much stuck on their camera most of the time and you can clearly see why. If you’ve mastered focusing quickly at f/2.0, the short throws from this lens will make you feel like a master as there is very little overrun (meaning you won’t slip past your focus from overdriving the focus throw) thanks to its perfect resistance.
The Leica Summicron 35mm ASPH is a superlative lens that does everything well, but not the best at any one category. In 2020, there are a plethora of lenses you can choose from within this focal length that are sharper, cheaper, lighter and a better lens hood. However, as someone who had been around the block a few times, I can assure you that the Summicron just hits all the right notes. There really isn’t any other lens out there that offers the balance and performance you get from this lens. Besides, how often do you hear people say, “one day I’ll get a Summicron”? Trust me, it’s worth getting and I recommend you save up for one because this is the one lens where all lenses, regardless of manufacturer, are still striving to match.
If you’ve enjoyed this review and plan on making a purchase, please help out the site by using the affiliate links below as that helps the site to maintain its good relationship with its WordPress overlords and buy the writer a cup of coffee.