I came by my chrome Summar when I purchased it with a Leica IIIb last year (2014). As far as I know the lens and body have been wedded together since leaving the factory, as their production dates are both the same: 1938. They make an elegant couple.
In its seven-year production run from 1933 to 1940 about 123,000 Summars were made, the majority in chrome. There is a nickel version, which is rarer, and quality examples are quite sought after by collectors. Designed by Professor Max Berek (designer of the Elmar f3.5 50mm 1926-1962), the Summar was superseded in 1939 by the Summitar f2 50mm (1939-1953), which is acknowledged to have better control of aberrations and less vignetting wide open.
The first thing that struck me about the collapsible version of Summar f2 50mm lens is how diminutive and handsome it is, fashioned as it is from brass, steel, chrome and glass. My copy weighs 180g (6.3oz) and has an A36 filter size. The delicate engravings are rather in keeping with a fine clock, and the lens is made with all of the care and exquisite attention to detail one expects from Ernst Leitz.
An example is the quite unusually designed diaphragm blades. Unscrew the lens from the body and look at the back of the lens: six blades can be seen, but from the front, twelve, interweaving each other like an intricate Busby Berkeley dance routine: quite beautiful, though probably a nightmare for any technician who has to work on them.
My example has a focussing scale marked in feet only (3.5ft to infinity), and its apertures are the European scale of f2, f2.2, f3.2, f4.5, f6.3, f9, f12.5, which are placed closer together on the aperture ring as the f-stops get smaller – there are no clicks stops. In operation the focus and aperture rings are fully up to the smoothness of any modern Leica lenses I have used: effortless and without any free-play or looseness: once set there is no drift.
This beautiful lens has been well used over its 77-year life. The lens barrel has had its chrome coating smoothly worn to brass by extending and collapsing it every time it is removed and returned to its ever-ready case, the focus ring shows brass where countless fingers have worn away the chrome coating. This lens has seen life, but has been loved and cherished.
Uncoated, the lens looks like it has been made from a cheap wine glass, the front element having a slight blue bloom. There are one or two bubbles in one of its six elements, and I’ve read that the front element is soft and prone to degradation by atmospheric pollution, and that it scratches easily when cleaned. If so, my Summar has led a charmed life: apart from what looks like a separation marks of the lens cement breaking down, it is unscratched and perfectly clear when held to a up to a bright light.
Optically, Is It Any Good?
Depends who you ask! Soft, flare-prone or a little gem, full of character.
Quite honestly I didn’t have a high expectation of a fast (f2) uncoated lens designed and manufactured in the 1930s, but I have to admit I have been very pleasantly surprised. In its day the Summar was cutting-edge technology, and holds up very well considering its age and limitations compared to modern equivalents.
Even wide open the Summar is capable of rendering the central portion sharp but just not as contrasty as a modern lens. In this respect it makes a great portrait lens, where the edges of the negative degrade to a lovely softness, isolating the face in the centre. Yes, flare does make itself felt if the lens is pointed into the sun or cuts across obliquely. A decent hood cures this (the Leitz hood made for the Summar is coded SOOMP).
At f6.3-f9 the Summar performs at its peak for resolving power, displaying commendable fine detail, but still with the outer zones falling behind the central area. Perhaps some of the criticism of this lens’s lack of contrast is due to the examples having slightly cloudy or hazy elements. However, my copy has very clear glass, and although my Summar doesn’t match the standards for modern lenses, it is quite contrasty, especially with black and white.
The Summar imparts a gentle softness or glow to images, particularly when areas of brightness come up against a darker area. There is a warmth to its rendering that is easy on the eye but full of detail that one just doesn’t get with modern lenses. My 1938 Summar has a charm that at times beguiles and captivates; in my book its unique abilities out-way its imperfections, and for this reason it’s a keeper.