Leica Lenses for Normal People is a multi-year project I undertook to find a set of lenses for my digital Leica. Before starting this project, more than anything else, I wanted a friend to either tell me what to buy or at least go through my options in an organized manner. That is the goal of my recommended list.
If you are going to use this list, you need to remember that my opinion is only valid if your situation is similar to mine. For example, if you are an ultra-rich stock broker who only shoots rock concerts in dark venues, who only travels in their limo to concerts while their assistant carries their camera for them, my recommendations would be inappropriate. My Recommended List will only be valid if you are like me and you:
- Want to keep the footprint of your camera to a minimum. Small lenses are more important than fast lenses.
- Won’t spend more than $1500 on a lens
- Like to avoid using LTM/M39 adapters if at all possible.
- Are not seeking perfection in your images. Rather, you want to have at least a little SOUL in your images.
My final choices
After countless of hours of research and spending tens of thousands of dollars:
1 I decided to keep the Leica Summarit-M 50mm f/2.4 for my modern lens.
2. I decided to keep the Canon LTM 50mm f/1.4 for the vintage lens.
3. I also kept the Leica Summicron-m 50mm Version 4
I believe that these are the best choices for my situation and either the best or reasonable choices for most people that see the world the way I do. The rest of this LLFNP:Recommended List will help explain my thought process and offer you some other options if your situation is a bit different. Understanding my thought process should help you with your decision.
Choosing my modern lens:
There aren’t actually that many modern 50mm options to choose from that fit my purchasing criteria. Too many of the 50mm options are either bulky, fast, and/or are LTM lenses. Many of the Leica options fall into this category. Many of the Voigtlander options fall into this category. One lens, the Voigtlander Classic 50mm 3.5 was just too ugly looking for me to consider. Here is a list of the lenses I tested.
For a modern lens, I was looking for a lens I could just leave on my camera and use in all situations. This lens had to be sharp wide open and free of any vintage weirdness. I wanted it to have some soul to give it a signature that I couldn’t get with my existing Sony setup. That last sentence was the deciding factor and it is the reason why I decided not to keep the Zeiss Planar 50mm f/2.
The Zeiss Planar is a phenomenal lens and I would say it is as good or better than any other SLR or mirrorless prime or zoom lens I have used from any manufacturer in the past. To me, however, the images are predictably similar to what I get from some of my (excellent) mirrorless prime lenses or even some of the canon lenses I used to use. The focusing tab on the Zeiss is also smaller than I like but ultimately that wasn’t the deal-breaker.
The Summarit series is a controversial series of Leica lenses. My final choice is, therefore, likely to be controversial so I feel the need to defend it. In my tests versus the Leica Summicron 50mm V5 I didn’t see all that much difference in the bokeh when shot wide open. I also shoot digital so the larger f/2 aperture wasn’t a deciding factor. It was a bit surprising that the Summmicron was softer wide open (and softer than I expected) when compared to the Summarit which isn’t what I was looking for. Conversely, the Summicron had a bit more soul and a bit more of the Leica look which was a positive but for my day to day lens the difference in the images wasn’t enough to overcome the ergonomic issues of the Summicron V5. The lack of a focusing tab and a cheap feeling, retractable, lens hood that kept retracting on it’s own in my camera bag were deal breakers. The fact of the matter is that the decision to sell the Summicron had more to do with the lens hood and focusing tab than anything with regard to image quality. I really could have gone either way.
I also kept the Summicron 50mm V4 and there was a real back and forth in my head between this lens and the Summarit f/2.4. I think it is important for you to understand the back and forth I had with myself because you might swing the other way when faced with these two lenses.
For me, both are considered modern but the Summicron has a little more of a vintage feel particularly when shot wide open and at close focusing distances. It just has more of that “heavy feel” or “Leica look.” The image quality difference, however, is a toss up for me in many cases. If you like a little more vintage go with the Summicron. If you like a little more modern go with the Summarit. Either way, as far as I am concerned, hairs are being split and you will spend more time worrying about the decision than anyone looking at your images will care one way or the other.
These lenses, however, are very different on the outside. The Summicron is longer and that plastic lens hood is unsightly and too beefy. The Summicron also takes a 39mm filter while the Summarit takes a 46mm filter. Given some of my other choices, I am going farther and farther down the 46mm filter road. I also really (REALLY) like the look and size of the Summarit hood. On the camera, it looks and feels much smaller. For these reasons, I kept the Summarit for my main lens.
I think many other people would have chosen the Summicron and I support that decision 100%. If you want only one 50mm lens and you don’t want to deal with any vintage lens nonsense get the Summicron. If you have other lenses that are 39mm threaded, get the Summicron. If the lens hood doesn’t bug you, get the Summicron. if you think you might want to sell the lens and you want to sell it faster, get the Summicron.
I told a little lie at the begging of this chapter. I actually kept kept the Voigtlander Classic Heliar 50mm f/2. Even though I don’t like fiddling with the collapsible lenses and fiddly little small focus ring, I couldn’t get myself to sell it. I tried but I couldn’t do it. I am not sure exactly when I will use it but I will. There is something special about this lens. I dont consider myself a collector but it seems that by keeping the Heliar, I guess I cant legitimately say I am not a collector.
Choosing my vintage lens
For the vintage lens, this was an extremely easy decision. For the price, quality, usability, and availability, the Canon 50mm LTM 1.4 was the only decision. It was a blowout. It is relatively good even wide open, it drools soul, and at around $300 it is a slam dunk. It is everything I am looking for in a vintage lens because it is inexpensive, it isn’t a collector’s item, and it has soul. You can stop reading right now. Just get one.
Conversely, the expensive Leica Summarit 50mm f/1.5 was an objectionable glamor glow of a mess anywhere near wide open. The bokeh wasn’t great and I dont get too worked up about bokeh. There is just no possible way for me to justify the Leica cost premium (e.g. the Leica tax) on a vintage lens with this type of performance. I am not a lens collector. This is also why I didn’t even test some of the older Leica Elmar and Summitar vintage lenses. They just seem too expensive for ultra-vintage lenses that, at least for me, only get used on special occasions.
The Jupiter 8 50mm f/2 was fine but it doesn’t warrant all the hype some people throw on it. Lens faults cannot be overcome just because they are cheap. If you want to get one be my guest. They are inexpensive and fun to play with but that is where it ends. The ergonomics of the V4 are phenomenally annoying. Additionally, if you use a rangefinder, because you have to order them from either Roman at Retro Photo House or someone else who can guarantee that they will focus on a rangefinder they are a little bit of a pain to buy. This isn’t an issue if you have a mirrorless camera. Overall, this lens isn’t either good enough to use routinely or bad enough (see below) to use as a toy lens so I don’t know why anyone would really want to buy it.
The Industar 26-m didn’t work for me because it didn’t focus on my rangefinder. I was emailing with Roman in Ukraine and he said he doesn’t even calibrate them because they are “a piece of junk.” I agree but now that I have it, I am not going to just throw it in the trash. I can foresee a day where I have a project that would require a toy lens like a Lens Baby or Holga and maybe this one will help fill that void.
The big loser in my research was the Konica M-hexanon f/2.5. Yuk. It didn’t focus properly and even when it did, the images were just boring, soul-less, and akin to a dead armadillo on the side of the road in the Ozarks.
If your situation is a little different than mine
- If you cannot afford a Leica Summarit or Summicron: get the Zeiss Planar 50mm f/2. It is a very close runner up. If it had a full-size focusing tab and not a nubbin, the decision would have been even tougher.
- If you can only afford a single lens that bridges the gap between vintage and modern get the Summicron Version 4. Alternatively, if you can deal with a collapsible lens and maybe you are interested in getting your hipster card: get the Voigtlander Classic Heliar 50mm f/2.
- If you want an essentially perfect lens and you aren’t interested in all of this soul or vintage nonsense, get the Zeiss Planar 50mm f/2. It is phenomenal.
- If you don’t find LTM lenses as annoying as I do, you should take my advice but continue doing your research. There are a few more Voigtlander LTM lenses that are worth your time. I didn’t test them because LTM lenses are an unnecessary pain point for me.
- If you have a budget of around $100. Get the Jupiter 8. For $100 it is what it is and you should be able to take some solid images with it. Consider getting the older version without the integrated aperture and focusing block. Then again, if your budget is $100.00 and you just spent $10.00 on this guide, you need a financial advisor and not a camera lens. You probably shouldn’t spend 10% on the research of a purchase. You also probably shouldn’t be buying vintage Russian lenses. There has to be something better for you to be spending your money on.
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