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Leica 28mm Summilux: The Perfect Vacation Lens?

Leica 28mm Summilux: The Perfect Vacation Lens?

If you have been following my write-ups, you would know that I was very impressed by the Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux, when I first tested it’s bokeh on my first awesome bokeh comparison between fast Leica primes. At the time, I had wondered how it would have performed as a replacement to the 35mm Summilux.

One of my obsession in photography is to find the perfect travel/holiday lens. For the longest time, it was the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux. It was fast and relatively compact. It was also wide enough to accommodate group shots shot from normal distance and close ups too. If need be, it was good at isolating both a single subject or a group, which was something that a fast Leica 50mm lenses couldn’t do. For a fast 50, isolation went as far as a single subject, when shot up close.

What a fast 50mm looks like at the restaurant table. At the table, you're too close to get enough of the background to establish your setting. And besides, the bokeh, albeit amazing, is just too much to allow you to document your visit.

However, one of the biggest gripe I’ve always had with the 35mm Summilux was that it always seem to be just a little too tight, when it came to photographing people at the restaurant table. For me, getting a good image at the restaurant table, especially on vacation, was a must have must do prerequisite momento. The 35mm Summilux just doesn’t seem to get enough of the background to provide environmental context of the setting, which is important if you want to document your visit as proof for being there before.

By comparison, at 28mm, you can get much more of the background, sitting at the same position as the first image taken with a fast 50mm lens. Admittedly, a 35mm lens would also let in more of the background, however, not as much as the 28mm focal length.

A second image from more or less the same position. I can't say that I was trying very hard to get tack focus, but overall, I found the 28mm Summilux to be rather forgiving, even wide open at f/1.4. In addition, sitting at closer distance, the 28mm renders a pleasant bokeh that still provides enough details in the background for context.

Of course, if I wasn’t happy with the 35mm Summilux, I could have opted for the 24mm f/1.4 Summilux. However, I knew that wouldn’t have worked for me, from my experience using both the Nikon 24mm f/1.4G lens and Canon 24mm f/1.4L lenses, while on vacation. The 24mm focal length was just too wide, and resulted in too many cropped images.

I think I’ve always known that 28mm would have been the most ideal focal length. For a while, I used the vintage Nikon 28mm f/1.4D lens. Optically, it was a good lens. But compared to the shooting performance of the current Nikon G lenses, it felt slow in acquiring focus. Plus it doesn’t help that Nikons DSLR bodies are comparatively larger than Leica M bodies. I wanted something compact.

So then, I shot with the Leica 28mm f/2.0 Summicron, for a while. It was a good lens to use outdoors. But when it came to indoor shots, especially in an ambient restaurant with low light, you’d kill for an extra stop of aperture. I mean I could have bumped up the ISO, but that just made the files too noisy to use. So without a faster 28mm Leica lens, I didn’t have much of a choice. Either I continued with the 35mm Summilux or 28mm Summicron.

But then Leica released the 28mm Summilux.

Despite everything I had said so far in this writeup, I had originally decided against getting the 28mm Summilux. At the time, I was largely shooting with my 35mm Summicron with the Leica Monochrome Typ 246. It was a great combination for street photography, given it’s compact pairing. But insofar as indoor restaurant shots, the high ISO capabilities of the Leica Monochrome and the inherent benefit of shooting black and white in low light situation made it unnecessary for me to upgrade to the 28mm Summilux.

But what happens if you want color photos instead?

After I did my first crazy bokeh shootout, I decided to give the 28mm Summilux a second look. Obviously, since it was a fast lens, the first test was to see how well it performed indoor, under poor lighting conditions, shot wide open. It made no sense to test it in broad daylight, because the 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit or even the 28mm f/2.0 Summicron would have performed better at less weight. To properly do this, it only made sense to do with the 28mm Summilux what the Summicron and Elmarit couldn’t do - which is use that one more stop of speed, when you needed it the most, in suboptimal lighting conditions.

Long story short, I was very impressed with its performance. It was noticeably wider than the 35mm Summilux, and because it was a wider angle lens, it’s depth of field wide open also seemed a little more forgiving. This I am not sure, but it seemed that way. And also, because it is a wider angle lens, relative to the 35mm Summilux, it is also a little more forgiving with shutter speed. That is to say, if your shooting technique is solid, you could probably shoot at 1/15th of a second hand held. 

Shooting wide open at f/1.4 opens up new possibilities in cropping that isn’t available even a stop slower. Gaining one stop in ISO makes the world a difference. The files of my images all shot at ISO 1600 versus ISO 3200 is night and day. In fact, I can go as far as a 300xs magnification crop, and the image file is still useable. This makes shooting food pictures better - although to be perfectly clear, you’d be better off shooting your food porn with an iPhone, given how uniformly unimpressive the close focusing distance of Leica lenses are.

Obviously, with this being a Leica Summilux, there's no way that you can focus this closely. But since I have an extra stop of ISO, the image file is so much cleaner that even an extreme crop like this looks pretty good.

What I like most about this lens is that you can shoot optically closer than the 35mm Summilux, by getting more into the frame, in tighter indoor situation. It’s great at the restaurant table. You just need to keep in mind while shooting wider than 28mm is that the image begins to distort as you approach the edge and corner of the frame, especially for subjects shot closer to the camera.

And when you are shooting up close, you need to be wary about distortion of the subjects face. The nose tends to become more pronounced, especially when the combination of poor indoor light and shadows highlight it more. The easiest trick is to tilt the head down so that the nose shortens in length. The other benefit of tilting the head, is that it gives the face a sweetheart shape, which many find more endearing.

Because I was shooting relatively closer on this shot, and because the lighting was creating a combination of unpleasant highlights and shadow on the subjects face, made worse by some distortion, I asked her to tilt her head down, for a more pleasing look.

Outside the restaurant table, and onto documenting the surrounding area as proof of being there, the 28mm Summilux appears easier to use wide open than the 35mm Summilux, with the depth of field noticeably more generous. However the real benefit of a wider 28mm focal length is that you can get more of the background in. This just makes it much easier to document your trip.

At 28mm, it's easier to get closer for a wider shot of the subject. You're less likely to get photobombed in the foreground by unintentional passersby.

A second image shot a little further away from the camera, with the subject standing. Shot wide open, the focus appears to be very forgiving.

As for the background bokeh when shot wide open with the subject further away from the camera, I can't say that it's as nice compared to the bokeh when the subject is closer. However, the out of focus blur is enough to create a bit of image softening to isolate the image in front. But then again, if you are shooting a full length body shot, why would you want to blur out the background, especially when on vacation documenting where you've visited. You want to have enough background detail to capture where you've been.

To be honest, I really can't say that the background bokeh and isolation of the subject with the 28mm Summilux looks all that different from the 28mm Elmarit or even the 28mm Summicron. Where the 28mm Summilux differs is that it can shoot faster at f/1.4, giving you an additional 1 to 2 stops, thus making an indoor shot like this possible.

Here is another image demonstrating how well the 28mm Summilux documents the background while shot wide open in suboptimal lighting conditions.

I don't have anything more to comment with regards to this image. It was getting late, and we're just fooling around at this point. Overall, I really liked the Leica 28mm Summilux. I like it much more than the 35mm Summilux. I didn't think I was going to like it, because of it's size and 49mm filter thread. But I was wrong. It's probably the best all around documentarian lens, which really makes it the best holiday/vacation lens.

Overall, I did like the 28mm Summilux very much. I think I will leave it in my bag for now. From here, I think the next thing to do is to do a lens to lens comparison with the 35mm Summilux. But first, I should try it out in bright daylight, and see how it compares to shooting the 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit ASPH II. 

Again, special thanks to Oxana for being a wonderful subject.

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