Leica 75mm f/1.4 Summilux - Wide Open in Sub Optimal Light
After acquainting myself with the Leica SL for the better part of two months, I have come to the conclusion that it is a phenomenally good camera. It makes you never want to shoot with a Leica M mount body ever again. And why would you want to anyway? The rangefinder experience cannot compete with the SL's EVF, in focusing and composition. With the SL, I can frame and focus non-normal focal length M glass with greater accuracy, wide open.
The SL is so good, it also makes me never want to shoot with a Canon - except for the 1Dx Mark II in lower light fast action situation - which I unfortunately found out on my 24mm f/1.4 challenge. With that said, it also makes me never want to shoot with a Nikon too, unless if I needed to shoot portraits with the new 105mm f/1.4E (being the first reason coming to mind).
Admittedly, there is nothing that the Leica SL can do to compete with the Canon 1Dx Mark II in that respect. The Canon is an entirely different beast made to outperform, for as long as you can handle it's girth. But what about competing with a Nikon fitted with the new 105mm f/1.4? Can the Leica SL be fitted with a lens similar to that?
The thing is this, Leica doesn't have a fast portrait lens in it's current lens lineup that combines both large aperture and longer than normal focal length. In terms of fast lens, the 50mm f/0.95 is the benchmark. But since it's a normal lens, it won't be able to render as tightly as a traditional portrait lens with a longer focal length.
Of course, there is the 75mm f/1.4 Summilux.
The 75mm f/1.4 is one of those interesting lenses that Leica produced. It is no longer being made, but at the time of introduction, it wasn't a popular lens, given the peculiar focal length. On a Leica M mount body, there are no framelines in the viewfinder for the 75mm focal length. Therefore, framing is the photographer's best guess between the 50mm and 90mm framelines. As for getting accurate focus wide open, doing that on the 75 Lux requires some skill, given the inherent difficulty rangefinders have in focusing longer focal lengths, when the subject is more than a body length's away.
And to be honest, it's the reason why I never entertained the idea of shooting with the 75 Lux. It would've been too much of a chore to use. But then Leica came out with the SL, and it completely made sense for me to give the 75mm Summilux another look with a fresh pair of eyes.
The version I tested was the third version, better known as the version that was made in Germany, and not in Canada. It has a retractable lens hood, and has the aesthetics of the current Leica lens line up.
So what do I think about the 75 Lux?
It has amazing bokeh! I mean truly epically amazing bokeh. It is the kind of bokeh that is comparable to that of the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux. The rendering of the bokeh on the 75 Lux looks very similar to the 50 Noct, at a fraction of the cost - albeit still not the bargain of the century. However, you do lose two stops of speed with the 75 Lux, and you cannot shoot as close to get more environmental framing of the background. Then again, at the 75mm focal length, you can get a tighter portrait shot, which is something the 50 Noct cannot do.
With regards to the Nikon 105mm f/1.4E, the 75 Lux renders very differently. When shot wide open at closer focusing distance, the Nikon seems to completely melt away the background. By comparison the 75 Lux leaves a little more shapes in the rendering of the out-of-focus background, creating a much more interesting bokeh experience. Additionally, the Nikon 105mm f/1.4E is noticeably sharper than the 75 Lux. However, this also makes the Nikon much less forgiving to flaws, but it does make it the better choice for higher resolution capture.
It is true. The 75 Lux is not as sharp as modern aspherical lenses. This I can determine when looking at high magnification of the image files on Lightroom. Even so, being less sharp isn't completely a bad thing. Like the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux I reviewed earlier, there are advantages to being less sharp in portrait photography. It means that the lens can be more forgiving to flaws in the subject.
Mind you, this is not to say that the 75mm Lux isn't sharp. It is. But it wasn't designed to render sharpness at the higher resolution of our present day digital photography.
Anyway, enough about the Noct and Nikon lens. This review isn't a comparison.
Besides the bokeh, what do I think of the 75 Lux? To be honest, the longer than normal focal length makes the 75 Lux difficult to shoot, in everyday tighter spaces. But as a portrait lens, it is very good. The construction of the lens is characteristic of all high quality Leica glass. The focusing feel of the focusing ring is tight yet smooth for a more precise shooting experience. The 60mm filter threads makes it a good companion to the 50mm f/0.95 Noct, which makes swapping ND filters convenient when shooting wide open in direct sunlight.
In addition, there doesn't appear to be any signs of spectro chromaticism wide open, when shooting against a bright background. As for vignetting, it appears to be minimal, when shooting wide open. Sharpness does appear to extend to the corners and the edge of the frame, albeit difficult to demonstrate, given the extremely shallow depth of field.
It should be noted that I didn't test the lens stopped down, since the light conditions weren't exactly optimal, days before Typhoon Haima made landfall in Hong Kong. It was very overcast, late that afternoon. With that said, I didn't see the point of stopping down? This lens wasn't designed for reach to shoot subjects further away. The only reason to use a lens like this is to shoot wide open, in poor light condition, in order to get the most amazing bokeh possible for portraitures.
In that respect, the 75mm f/1.4 Summilux is an exceptional portrait lens. It checks off all the boxes in what a good portrait lens should be. Still, being a fast longer than normal lens doesn't make the 75 Lux the unique lens that it is. In addition to that, it is that Leica look that sets the 75 Lux apart from most other similar lenses. There is just something about this lens that renders skin tones in the most pleasing way - or at least, pleasing in the case of photographing Anna.
Unfortunately, Leica has stopped making this lens, instead opting for the APO 75mm f/2.0 Summicron ASPH, which I am sure is significantly sharper than the 75 Lux. Still, in my opinion, that is a shame. However, what it does do is make the 75 Lux more rare, and thus its image capture all the more uncommon, in a world of increasingly generic lenses.
All images in this writeup have been optimize in Lightroom. And none of the images have been cropped.
Special thanks to Anna!