Leica 85mm f/1.5 Summarex - Vintage Lens
Having been completely won over by the 75mm f/1.4 Summilux, I suddenly remembered that Leica had made another fast longer-than-normal-focal-length lens that is also no longer in production. The lens in question is the Leica 8.5cm f/1.5 Summarex, (which I will henceforth anoint in millimeters as the 85 Rex). It is a much older lens residing in the depth of Leica's archive of vintage glass.
Produced from 1942 to 1954, this lens only came in screw mount version. It is a heavy brass lens with a noticeably large lens hood. Immediately, the first thing you would notice about the lens is it's heft. It's heavy. But, it feels solid, and very well made - which can be a surprise. Contrary to popular belief, some of Leica's older lenses - especially from that era - can sometimes have workmanship that isn't as consistent as today's stereotype of German precision.
The version I have had already been converted to M mount, which by the way, is no longer necessary in today's world of many lens type adapters. Still, it is convenient that it's ready to be mounted on any M mount camera. But in my case, I had no intention of doing that, for I had my sights set on adapting the 85 Rex onto the Leica SL, being my goto camera.
The objective of my review is to see how this lens renders wide open. I mean, honestly, does anyone really want to see how this old lens renders stopped down? I think it's pretty obvious. It's not going to be sharper than successive generations of Leica lenses, especially when compared to the APO 90mm f/2.0 Summicron ASPH.
Why it's interesting to see how this lens renders wide open owes much to an appreciation of imprecision. The fact is, the design of the 85 Rex isn't perfect. But how wonderful it is that it isn't perfect by modern standards, because of what it might be able to do. What automotive enthusiasts gush as handling characteristics of vintage performance vehicles, vintage lenses have their own characteristics too, in how it renders an image. What one hopes to see from vintage glass is a unique look different from the uniformity of modern lenses.
Admittedly, I was more than anxious to give it a proper test. The only question was how? Having shot with the 75mm f/1.4 in Hong Kong, I knew that I was going to have a bit of an issue photographing at the 85mm focal length. The focusing ring felt snug. This will make feathering for tack focus wide open all the more difficult, given how crowded central Hong Kong is. You just know you're going to be photobombed by some hapless passersby the moment you click on the shutter. It's a certainty.
The solution was to go somewhere where there's less people, and where the light was likely to be suboptimal. It was then I decided to go over to Stanley. It is a remote part of Hong Kong, that for some reason, has become a tourist and weekend attraction.
Unfortunately, my efforts to avoid the crowd was in vain. Even though it was a weekday afternoon, there was a bus load of tourists streaming through the covered market. It meant that I had to shoot outside, to avoid getting photobombed. Normally this would have been a problem. But since it was relatively cloudy outside, I was still able to shoot wide open. Plus it wasn't that crowded outside.
The only problem with shooting outside would be the background suffering from a lack of clutter. In other words, the background will likely be less interesting. To find something in the background that I can mesh into an abstraction of shapes will then be more difficult. I started with a banyan tree, but even it's arrangement of strangler figs weren't enough to render the bokeh I wanted. I found some interesting shadows. But there's only so much I can do with that. Then I decided to shoot more background greenery, which again wasn't very interesting.
To complicate matters, I also decided to bring along the 75mm f/1.4 Summilux on the M240, just for the sake of comparison. It wouldn't be me if I didn't complicate things. But like most of my reviews, I goofed on that too. And yes, it wouldn't be me if I didn't goof to some extent. Halfway through the shooting, I switched the 75 Lux with the 28 Lux. Given how off the beaten path Stanley was from central Hong Kong, I was determined to get in a couple of environmental shots with Anna at the 28mm focal length.
But how can anyone blame me? My attempt to get environmental shots with the 85 Rex, wide open, of a subject standing at a distance beyond a body's length was horrible. The lens was just ridiculously soft at the edges and corners, wide open. On the Leica SL, it was impossible to determine tack focus on the lead eye, given how soft the image was optically through the EVF magnified near the edge of the frame. As a result, anything at the edges, including Anna's face, will suffer from both a lack of sharpness and tack focus.
But this lens isn't made for that kind of environmental documentation. It's a portrait lens. And as a portrait lens, it's amazing. When shot wide open, it captures images in a truly unique way. Immediately notable is the way the lens renders skin. From my perspective, there is a brush like texture to it. Admittedly, I don't believe that Leica designed the lens purposely to do that. But in comparing the image samples between the 85 Rex with the 75 Lux, I can't help but notice the illusion of brush strokes.
It's almost as if parts of the image were applied with colors from a palette knife. I see that happening - albeit subtly - on Anna's face. To examine it more closely, I think that the lens doesn't render gradation in colors as smoothly when compared to subsequent lens designs of fast lenses from Leica. I think this happens because the 85 Rex is less precise when compared to more modern lenses. In other words, it's because the 85 Rex is less perfect that it can render more uniquely wide open than newer lens designs - definitely the benefit of imprecision.
That is the beauty of good vintage lenses. It's because it's not quite perfect, as already stated. But because it's not perfect, you can only use it appropriately in certain types of photo situations. In the case of this lens, it's only good in giving a portrait a more unique look.
However, much of uniqueness depends on the photographer's evaluation of background potential. When the background is more even, like shoreline of a beach with some tree cover, the bokeh of the 85 Rex isn't that interesting. Like all Leica lenses, the background just seems to melt away into a gradation of colors.
What the 85 Rex needs in order to render a truly unique bokeh is a cluttered background, with lots of odd shapes, and with no one shape dominating. Furthermore, the background cannot be too far away from the subject. If it is too far away, like a shore line, the background will just melt away into the background.
It is for this reason that I choose to test this lens in a covered market. As luck would have it, the tour group finally dissipated. Finally, I was able to get in a couple of shots before I had to make it back to the office. And believe me, it was worth it. I only wished that I was able to get tack focus on the first of the three images below. Then again, I am certain that there will be those who would like the look of that soft focus of that environmental portrait. Even here with Anna, it does seem to give an uncanny angelic quality to her face. In fact, her face looks downright dreamy.
In the final analysis, I was completely smitten by the Leica 85mm f/1.5 Summarex. The unique way in how it renders an image, especially the background blur, is simply breathtaking. I do love it. I really do. But at 85mm, it is a special purpose portrait lens. It's rather horrible to use as an everyday lens. The focal length is much too long for most tight indoor spaces. And it's much too soft wide open at the edges and corners.
But then again, why would anyone use the 85mm Summarex as an everyday lens? That would be ill-advised. It's a one trick pony - portraiture in suboptimal light, when the background is cluttered with shapes. In that one respect, it is truly unique. But for everything else, you'd be better of with something more contemporary, and thus more ordinary.
All images in this writeup have been optimize in Lightroom, given how low contrast the 85mm Summarex is. Only images from the 75mm Summilux have been cropped for the purpose of scaling them to the 85mm focal length.
Special thanks to Anna!