Leica 90mm f/2 Summicron, initial thoughts

Sample image from the Leica 90mm f/2.0 Summicron on the full frame Leica M9

Firstly, I would like to clarify, the lens in this review is the Leica 90mm f/2 Summicron-M. This lens was produced between 1980-1998 until it was replaced with the current Leica 90mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH. While I have had had very little exposure to the latter, the former is what I have and what is the subject of this initial experience review.

And now the review ~

My Grandfather always used to tell me this story when I was younger; Around 1959, at the height of American Automakers, the Lincoln Town Car was released. My Grandfather was one of the first to have this car, and it attracted attention and what not because it was the “new thing”. One day, he drove it into the city and parked it in a garage and went about his business. When he retuned to pick up his car, it had been severely scraped along the side accidentally by the employees of the garage. Being a man of good humor, he berated them saying that “It’s my new car, I should at least be the one who has all the fun destroying it!”. And that is my way of saying I bought a used lens.

Photography forums, and Ebay to an extent are great places to find photo gear. A lot of the times things will be overpriced (Ebay) or their equality will not be easily discernible even when aided by pictures. But when all the stars align, and something is what you are looking for, in the condition you are looking for, you can get some great deals.

Sample image from the Leica 90mm f/2.0 Summicron on the full frame Leica M9

Leica is a strange beast. They make almost unquestionably the best optics in the world, which are very difficult to make and consequently demand a high price. You would think that there really aren’t that many people who would pay the “premium” for Leica products. However this is not true, and many photographers swear by them, and others uses them as style pieces but I digress. The Current state of Leica lens availability is STRONG (oh wait sorry thats the union), the states of Leica lens availability as actually quite weak. In fact there are very few lenses widely available in stock-new in retail stores. The most common to find are the Summarit range (f/2.5 lenses, which are some of the cheapest Leica lenses, but often highly underrated, I own the 35mm and 50mm and love them) and some of those strange slow wide angle lenses. You can find some 35mm/50mm Summicrons or the occasional random piece but the hot ticket items, the Summilux’s and telephoto Summicron’s (75mm and 90mm) are all but impossible to get with customers waiting upwards of two years for their lenses (I have been waiting this long for a 50mm Summilux and know people who have been waiting just as long for 90mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH lenses). Aside from modern Leica cameras ability to use Legacy lenses dating back to the 1950′s, this lack of new stock has lead to a lively used equipment market in Leica lenses. It has even kept prices high on older models of lenses because of their focal lengths and apertures.

Sample image from the Leica 90mm f/2.0 Summicron on the full frame Leica M9

Notice the SLIGHT, chromatic aberration on the silver/chrome part of the tea kettle's handle.

I decided I wanted a 90mm lens, and found this 90mm Summicron on Luminous Landscape and bought it. The experiences I had had with the current 90mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH had confirmed for me first hand that this was a superior lens optically. After some research online, I rightly concluded that, while there are changes int he APO-ASPH version of this lens they were not significant to warrant paying $6,000.00 premium prices for this lens. Apochromatic lenses allow for focusing of multiple wavelengths of the color spectrum, when you use a lens which is not apochromatic you run the chance of getting chromatic aberration. This most often occurs when there are harsh edges with great contrasts in white/black or light/dark. This is truly the only noticeable difference between the non APO-ASPH version and the APO-ASPH version. Other then this, they look identical except for the fact that apparently the numbers and letters on the non APO-ASPH are more rounded then those on the newer version. Through my initial experiences with this lens, it does exhibit some slight chromatic aberration, however this is in very extreme examples, where you are almost asking for there to be CA in the image. In other images however, CA is sometimes present however it is not significant or noticeable without zooming in in photoshop 200-300%.

Leica’s M system has been built on a legacy of many things, one of them has always been compactness. And while any M lens is considerably smaller then other lenses covering the full 35mm format (full frame) some are large then others. Inherently to their design telephoto lenses must be longer then most standard wider lenses. There are some extreme examples of this like my 24mm f/1.4 Summilux or the 21mm f/1.4 Summilux or the Legendary Noctilux f/0.95 however as a general rule the telephoto’s will be larger, or at least longer (think 135mm vs 35mm). I have grown accustomed to having the added weight and size on the front of the camera and the lower right hand corner of the viewfinder being blocked from my experiences with the 24mm Summilux and consequently this wasn’t an issue for me when I started using this lens. When holding the camera in your hand, this lens is nice, since because of its size, it allows you to hold the camera in a different way which I find quite comfortable.

Sample image from the Leica 90mm f/2.0 Summicron on the full frame Leica M9

This shot demonstrates the shallow depth of field provided by this lens wide-open.

The aperture ring is of course, very nice and firm in typical Leica style. It has buttery smooth long focus throw which allows for very precise focusing. This is of course something you will want with a lens like this. When using a wide or even normal angle lens, because of the relative size of things you are given some allowances for focusing inaccuracies as regards focusing and DOF’s at various apertures. However the longer side, telephotos are much less forgiving interns of focusing at small apertures (and making pictures at slower shutter speeds but thats kind of a given right?). This is why it is very important to have a long focus throw which means you have to turn the lens barrel multiple times to go from minimum focus to infinity, there by allowing you to make minor adjustments because of its rigidity.

Wide Open, this lens is sharp, Painfully sharp. The main issues I have experienced with this lens have been chromatic aberrations (mentioned above in depth, but again they are very minimal and even a real issue) and focusing inaccuracies because of user error. There are sometimes when a Lens and Digital cameras are not properly aligned, and you must send it back to Leica to have it re-calibrated so everything works perfectly in this system. However I have not had this issue yet. Rather most of the times my focusing issues come from lack of experience with the lens. I.e understanding how shallow the DOF really is with a 90mm lens wide open at f/2, that is to say really shallow. Of course this is part of what you pay for, being able to blow the out of focus elements to oblivion, but it simply creates a challenge which must be mastered when using this lens.

I’m sure I will have more thoughts when I have used this lens for a longer period of time (again, I only got it today), but this is all I have for right now. I am leaving tomorrow morning for a trip to London, where I will be taking my Leica’s and using them with this lens as well as some others and will report back on them later.

If you would like to see a few more or bigger versions of theses images or the EXIF data or whatever, head over to my flickr page for details: http://www.brianhirschfeldphotography.com

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All of the images in this review, were processed through JPEGmini, which is a free online service which allows you to convert your JPEG’s into a JPEGmini, which functions exactly like the JPEG you put into it, but is magically significantly smaller. I find this is great for web-imaging because it allows for faster load times and helps when there are file size limits. While I wouldn’t suggest printing any files you process through JPEGmini right now (although they maintain the original dimensions and resolution) they are sufficient for web purposes and there is virtually no difference between the files except their file size (i.e Kb and Mb). The 10 files in this review were RAW files from my Leica M9 at native size and resolution, combined they were 175.5 Mb (Averaging ~18 Mb a piece) and once uploaded and converted, they are now 41.4 Mb in total (Averaging ~4 Mb a piece) overall they shaved off roughly 75% of their file size with no loss in detail, file dimensions or resolution; pretty damn impressive.  I am not affiliated with or frankly even in contact with anyone who works at JPEGmini, I just think it is something great which is not widely known about.

5 Responses to Leica 90mm f/2 Summicron, initial thoughts

  • wsmortas says:

    GGL 1 IIK dBLT
    B T

  • Frank Effes says:

    Just purchased a summicron,and now for me it is almost impossible to wait for the moment of delivery.
    I will keep you posted.
    One of the reasons I specifically wanted the 2.0 90 mm is because of your publication above.

    • I’m really glad to hear that my review helped you, its nice to know that it helped make your decision, its a great lens, wait until I post a review of the 135mm f/2.8 Elmarit (the one with googles) its a shockingly good and undervalued lens, you’ll be wanting one of those next too! but for now check out my latest guest post on the Leica M240 :)

  • Jim White says:

    I found a used version of this lens in near mint condition for less than half the cost of the newer APO version and boy am I glad I did. This is one of the sharpest lenses I have ever used and I have used most every make of lens available so I am not easily impressed. Even on my M Monochrom this lens is sharp at f/2 and tack sharp at f/2.8. As a portrait lens, this is a photographer’s dream as the soft background it renders (call it bokeh if you must) is almost dreamlike. The weight and size is just perfect enough to make handholding the camera feel natural. It amazes me that I can put a 20 year-old lens on a new high resolution digital camera and get this kind of performance. Hats off the Leica and Walter Mandler.

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