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Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH - Would I Get A New One Today?

Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH - Would I Get A New One Today?

For those of you expecting a review for either the Schneider made Leica 21mm f/4 Super Angulon or the the Zeiss made 15mm f/8 Hologon for Leica - both on the Leica M10 - I'm afraid I have a backlog of other content to complete, while they're still fresh in my mind. I've already forsaken a follow-up post on personality in documentation, because of new product releases. In any event, I've decided to share some consumer advice this week - before I completely forget what I worked on already.

It's not often I dole out consumer advice. However, one question I'm regularly asked to field is my opinion on the Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. For full disclosure, I've never bonded with the 50 Lux, from the previous pre-aspherical version (which I no longer have) to the current version (which I still have). In fact, I didn't even consider the current version 50 Lux until two or three years after the introduction Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH.

Of course, there is a reason why I never bonded with the 50 Lux. In a nutshell, it just never suited my needs. It's either not compact enough (when compared to Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M, or not fast enough (when compared to the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH). That said, I never had an issue with the extra girth of the 50 Noct, if it meant I could shoot at low ISO in low light. Nor did I have an issue with the smaller maximum aperture of the 50 Cron, if it meant greater portability. 

This is not a review of the Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. Fortunately it's not, since I've already forgotten the sample images' aperture setting - seeing that the Leica M10 does not record it in the EXIF data.

Warm up shots - the 50 Lux isn't exactly a lens made for close up impromptu documentation.

More botched close up shots. Maybe it's just the photographer....

Lydia having a sip.

My go-to calamari fritti.

And Lydia having a bite.

Mind you, none of this should come as a surprise. It's not as if I've kept my indifference towards the 50 Lux to myself. The fact I've never reviewed it should shed some light on how I view this lens. And on the rare occasions when the 50 Lux was included in a review, it was always part of some comparison. On the first one, I compared it to the Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-R. And on the second one, I compared it to the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-SL ASPH.

In absolute terms, my bias against the 50 Lux is not entirely unfair. By any measurable standards, the 50 Lux isn't the best lens for any specific need. However, that doesn't quite make it a bad lens. Far from it. Where it falls short in speed and compactness, the 50 Lux makes up for it in offering a balanced compromise. I mean, the lens is still reasonably compact and relatively fast for most needs. Because of that, I believe the 50 Lux makes good sense for most.

Normally, the discussion would stop right there. But there is another issue to consider. The current version 50 Lux is based on a fourteen year old design, having first come out in 2004. To put that into context, it was released two years before the Leica M8 came out, and five years before the Leica M9. Given the math, it would seem highly unlikely that the 50 Lux was designed with a full frame digital sensor in mind. In other words, it was likely developed for film photography.

The easiest possible shot for the 50 Lux - the subject's face at the center of the frame, slightly stopped down (I'm guessing) at a considerable focusing distance, without anyone photobombing the image.

The game is afoot, with an increase in documentary difficulty. Lydia climbing up a tree.

Now hanging off tree.

Full length shot.

Closer up.

I know... these captions are rather banal. Still, the 50 Lux renders nicely under some cloud cover.

Developing the 50 Lux for the Leica M8 would make no sense on multiple levels. And to assume that Leica had developed the 50 Lux for a future full frame digital sensor, many years later, would be just as improbable. We forget at the present how Leica as a company was faltering at the time, during the popularization of digital technology. So to think that they had the financial means to be as forward thinking - five years into the future with the 50 Lux - would be inconceivable.

And from the perspective of focal length, the 50 Lux would not fall under the category of an everyday focal length lens on the Leica M8. At the cropped sensor equivalent, the focal length of the 50 Lux is 67mm. That focal length would be significantly tighter than the 28mm to 50mm angle of view typical of conventional rangefinder photography practiced by most Leica photographers and enthusiasts.

Leica understood this, so the first lens they released concurrent to the cropped sensor M8 was the Leica 16-18-21mm f/4 Tri-Elmar-M ASPH. And following that, two years later, Leica released the Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH, the Leica 21mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH, the Leica 24mm f/3.8 Elmar-M ASPH, and the Leica 24mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH - all wide angle lenses made specifically with the M8's cropped digital sensor in mind.

Zone focus horizontal tracking, slightly stopped down. Out of many shots, this was the only one that actually hit focus. Although, it would have helped if I increased the shutter speed.

At the end of an alleyway. Hong Kong is full of them.

Up a platform. The ambient light at this location was surprisingly good.

Climbing a typical home-made Hong Kong ladder.

Now squatting lower for a closer up shot.

And the close up portrait shot. What the 50 Lux is made to do.

Mind you, Leica had every intention to eventually release a M-mount full-frame digital rangefinder. That would make good business sense. But presumably - two to three years before the 2004 release of the 50 Lux - Leica probably wasn't as convinced about the promise of digital sensors, given the available technology at the time. Because of that, it would have been highly unusual for Leica to design a lens intended to be optimized on a full-frame digital sensor.

One only needs to compare the 50 Lux to the contemporary rendering of the Leica APO 50mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH, which is a wonder of optical design. At high resolution (adapted on the Sony A7R), the APO 50 clearly resolves details with more definition than the 50 Lux (or the ten year old design of the 50 Noct, or the almost forty year old design of the 50 Cron). Knowing that, doesn't it makes the 50 Lux seem somewhat lacking by comparison?

Besides, at fourteen years into its production run, the 50 Lux is a prime candidate for an update. Leica has already refreshed the Leica 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M ASPH, the Leica 28mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH, and the Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH. And if you look at the APO 50 in the same way, it's essentially an update of the 50 Cron. So from that perspective, wouldn't it make sense to wait for Leica to announce an update for the 50 Lux, just around the corner?

A quick turn around shot. I'm guessing this shot was taken at higher aperture. As you can see, the 50 Lux isn't exactly nimble in catching sponteneity.

Zone focus tracking up some steps.

Lydia stopping for a pose. Not zone focused.

Resting on the railing, with the ambient light beginning to dim.

Climbing and stretching on the railing - probably at maximum aperture.

Now hanging off the railing.

Having said that, the 50 Lux is still a very good lens. Personally, I find it renders beautifully on film (which unfortunately, I don't have any example on this post). But then again, so is the rendering of the previous pre-aspherical version of the 50 Lux. But from the perspective of getting the proverbial "bang for the buck" on the Leica M10 or on any compatible digital sensor, the current version 50 Lux will likely fall short of reaching that objective.

Because of that, I find the prospect of buying a new 50 Lux much too risky, given the probability of an update in the foreseeable future. Essentially, getting a new current version 50 Lux means paying a premium for a less contemporary lens design - that cannot resolve details with as much definition as any expected hypothetical redesign. Because of that, my opinion towards getting the 50 Lux is usually somewhat restrained - at least for a new one.

However, getting a second hand current version 50 Lux is another story. From what I can see on the secondary market, a good condition pre-owned 50 Lux appears to be selling at a 35-40% discount from a new example. Of course, that discount would likely increase after any rumored update is confirmed. But, the spread in discount won't cut as much as getting a new one. That said, it would only make sense to go down that route if one needs a good all-around 50mm compromise.

Trying on some trinket at the street fair.

Opening up a fan.

With the light dimming and Lydia at considerable distance from the focal plane, getting focus was somewhat challenging.

Zone focus tracking (I'm guessing wider open) with me walking backwards.

Now tracking stopped down with some fill flash.

Noticeable flare under a street lamp.

Last, you may have noticed that this is not a review of the 50 Lux. In my opinion, another review of the 50 Lux would not make sense. Over the last fourteen years, I'm sure there must have been many good reviews conducted for this lens. What more is there for me to add, except for this piece of consumer advice. The 50 Lux is a lens with a fourteen year old lens design priced like a lens with a contemporary lens design.

That being said, it should be noted I'm not advocating if one should or shouldn't get the 50 Lux. In the end, I don't know enough about any one person's actual need or circumstance. So, it would be unrealistic for me to insist I know enough to firmly endorse or reject this lens. Frankly, all I can offer anyone in the discussion of getting the 50 Lux is an expanded view of what to consider, in order to make a more informed decision.

Still, the 50 Lux isn't for me. But, what's right for me might not be right for everyone else. Even so, I believe most aspiring Leica enthusiasts will probably have similar expectations for their initial lens purchase, and will likely be concerned by what I've pointed out. It's just bad luck the sweet spot occupied by the 50 Lux, in offering a good compromise in size and speed for the popular 50mm focal length, just happens to be a fourteen year old design that’s not intended for a full-frame digital sensor.

Night has come. Time to appreciate bokeh under the bright lights of the big city.

Background isolation begins to gain some definition when focusing distance begins to increase.

Lydia at the fruit stall.

Lydia hamming around with a vine of cherry tomatoes.

Now with just a cherry. I don't know if you noticed, but the vender in the background found her very amusing.

Last shot. Gratuitous nighttime bokeh.

Just remember, you've been warned if you want bang for the buck. Still, in no way does the concerns I’ve mentioned invalidate the 50 Lux. It just means a better lens might be just around the corner, and that it might be worthwhile just to wait a little longer. That said, there’s no guarantee my predictions are correct. For all I know, Leica might not update the 50 Lux for many more years. But from a business perspective, I wouldn't bet on that.

FYI - Next post will be on the 21mm f/4 Super Angulon. And weather permitting, the following post after that will be on the 15mm f/8 Hologon.

Exposure and color balance of some photos have been tweaked slightly in Lightroom, for the sake of consistency in presentation. Only the title image have been cropped and optimized in Lightroom - albeit with great restraint

Please note that Lydia has joined us as a contributor to this blog. 

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