A Classic Since 1996
Rarely in life does one encounter tools so admirable and well suited to one’s needs that despite their flaws, further improvement is superfluous. To name but three, my first car, an Austin Mini bought secondhand in 1971, is one example, as is my fountain pen, a Parker 51, and my Brompton folding bicycle. Three totally different tools in form and function, but classic designs of their period and beyond, and the standard by which comparison is made.
For me photographically, another such tool is Leica’s Summicron-M 1:2/35mm ASPH lens – to give it its proper name.
Introduced in 1996, the 35mm f2 Asph has stood the test of time, and since 1996 is in production still, being the fifth generation of a Leica 35mm f2 lens. The first (I, 1958 – 1969), second and third (II, III, 1969 – 1979), and the fourth (IV, 1979 – 1996).
A 35mm lens on a full frame (24x36mm) go so well together, giving a slightly wider view than a normal (50mm) and not so wide as a 28mm lens. It is no coincidence that point-and-shoot cameras almost universally use this focal length, and for years it has been the conbination of choice for many ‘street’ photographers and photojournalists etc. A true classic.
It is a seven element design (in five groups, with one aspheric element – hence its name). What is not readily apparent is the oddness of its front and rear lens surfaces, both of which are concave (curve inwards) rather than following the accepted traditional lens design norm of being convex (curve outwards). Quite how Leica’s optical technicians and designers pulled off this trick that goes against the grain of lens design, I have no idea… but it works. Boy, does it work!
There is nothing this lens does not do well, from the perfection of its mechanics, ergonomics, quality of manufacture, optical resolving power and supreme imaging, it is right up there: a pinnacle of the lens maker’s art.
Okay, it is not perfect (is anything, ever?). It can and does flare (check out my photo above – probably caused by light catching the edge of the filter mount) if caught in strong oblique rays without a lens hood. Leica supply a lens hood for a reason: on this sunny day with the sun low I should have used it. Some say it has a focus shift but I have never found this. Compared to its older brother, the model IV – the so-called ‘The Bokeh King’ – some dislike the Asph’s out-of-focus rendering, commonly referring to it being too ‘clinical’, but this may be because even wide open, its depth-of-field seems to go on for ever.
Wide open at f2 vignetting – edge light falloff – is quoted at 1.8 stops by Leica. Actually, I prefer darker edges and corners, which are good for keeping keeping a viewer’s attention from wandering out of the photograph. At all distances contrast is high and imaging crisp, even in the corners, and distortion virtually nil. Stop down to f2.8 or f4 and fine detail definition, contrast and image clarity are improved across the negative. Frequently and without hesitation, I use f2.8 and f4: further stopping down just increases depth-of-field. Quite frankly, even at f4 the 35mm f2 Asph out-resolves any black and white film I have ever used with it. This is one spectacular medium wide-angle lens.
The 35mm f2 Apsh is a small lens, but everything is placed right where it is needed. Though there is not a focussing ring as such, there is a focus tab which, with a little practice, one can focus with one finger or by feel alone preset to any distance once becoming familiar with the position of the tab at different distances (viewed from the front, at infinity the tab rests on the lens barrel at 8 o’clock, 0.7m at 4 o’clock – focus throw is short). The aperture ring is easy to adjust, again by feel, the half stops click into place reassuringly. The only thing cluttered on this small gem is the depth-of-field scale, which would be vastly improved if Leica adopted Nikon’s coloured depth-of-field scale and apertures from their AI lenses.
Bits & Pieces
Filters: filter size is 39mm, the thread pitch being 0.5mm – a Leica standard since about the 1950s. B+W, Heliopan and Hoya filters are fine, but be very cautious of unknown brand filters, many pitch their threads at 0.75mm. It just does not pay to buy rubbish filters, ever. Why take a chance?
Weight: my black paint ‘Millennium’ version hits the scale naked at 337g (11.9oz), with a Heliopan SH-PMC yellow filter 351g (12.4oz), with its supplied circular metal lens hood 352g (12.5oz). Solid, it is.
Diaphram: eight-bladed, half stops to f16. The aperture ring can be turned a little past the f2 indent. Set properly at f2 the diaphram blades intrude slightly into the edge of the front element when viewed from the front. Some users seem to be freaked out by this – the lens stopping down slightly when set wide open at f2. This is normal for this lens. Don’t worry about it.
Framing: on my M6 TTL framing is pretty much spot on. Just about what I see in the viewfinder I get on film, with a little extra on a negative horizontally. Top to bottom it is uncannily accurate. Of course, this accuracy may vary with other Ms, and there are no 35mm framelines with the M3.
Trying to criticise and find real, deal-breaker faults with a lens this good, this well made, this optically great is no joy. In use it just delivers: every time. Spectacularly. Supremely. Sure, it is expensive, but then there is an awful lot of dross out there, and genuine quality very rarely comes cheap.
Look at this way. Buy once, buy the best you can. Save, beg, steal or borrow to put this lens in your photographic armoury, if it suits your purpose and needs. It will be the one lens you will most probably keep for life. Once purchased you then can concentrate on enjoying your photography to the full. Job done.
It is my favourite ever lens. Full stop. It’s gonna have to be prised outta my cold, dead hands.