Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux SL - First Impressions
I forgot to stop down. I've been so excited counting the days to receiving the long announced and much awaited 50mm Summilux-SL, that I lost all objectivity the minute I ripped the package from the hands of the UPS delivery guy. I was euphoric going on an autofocus bokeh binge - intoxicated by the blur - and clearly uninterested in corner to corner sharpness. But in defense, why would anyone bother to stop down for the sake of increasing depth of field with this lens? Anyone else in my position would have done the exact same thing. Besides, if one wanted to stop down, one might as well just go for the 24-90mm Vario Elmarit-SL instead.
Indeed, I admit my logic is faulty. But seriously, it's a Leica that can autofocus wide open at f/1.4. I mean, how cool is that! Autofocusing wide open on a Leica is literally an oxymoron... a contradiction in terms. Never has getting focus wide open been this easy on a Leica. So it begs the question. Who needs a fiddly Techart autofocus adapter if autofocusing at f/1.4 can be done natively on a Leica system - albeit at a greater financial commitment.
To autofocus wide open at f/1.4 on a Leica is such a weird and satisfying sensation. It doesn't feel right - but in a good way. In fact, it simply feels liberating to be unchained from having to feather focus manually.
However, autofocusing wide open isn't the reason why I'm so excited to test the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-SL. Rather, I'm excited, because I wanted to see how a fast native SL lens rendered on the Leica SL - especially wide open. Up till now, we've been adapting M and R mount lenses on the SL, and it is clear that lenses with different lens mounts are not optimized on it. So it would be interesting to see if a lens designed specifically for the Leica SL would render optimally.
On first impression, I am of the opinion that the 50 Lux-SL appears to render more Leica-like than non SL-mount lenses on the Leica SL. Admittedly, I cannot say for sure why this is the case. It could be the micro contrast, it could be the saturation, or it could just be the way it balances the overall color palette of the image. But whatever it is, the 50 Lux-SL seems to render that Leica look better than non-SL lenses on the Leica SL.
As for the bokeh, it is exceptionally pleasing, especially at closer focusing distances. The 50 Lux-SL has that telltale spiral pattern characteristic of fast Leica lenses, when the background is consistent. It's no wonder why I still haven't stopped down with this lens. I just cannot get enough of the bokeh. And it's so easy to get it with the autofocus!
Having said that, the autofocus of the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-SL was noticeably quick and relatively accurate. It makes adapting autofocus lenses from third party manufacturers completely unnecessary. It makes one never want to adapt a fast Canon lens on an SL ever again.
It was the focus tracking that sold me on the relevance of a fast native lens for the Leica SL. Never before on a Leica have I been able to track focus at f/1.4. On face detection mode, the SL just tracked Anna, as she approached the camera. This would have been impossible on a Leica M-mount rangefinder, without stopping down. In fact, I couldn't even do that on an adapted Canon lens at f/1.4 too.
In truth, I've been able to do that with a Canon or a Nikon. But never have I been able to do that with a Leica to get that Leica look - especially with a subject in motion.
Also worth noting is how sharp the 50 Lux-SL is. Admittedly, I wasn't testing on sharpness specifically. But in looking at the image files under magnification, the details are characteristic of rendering intended for a higher resolution sensors - like the Leica APO 50mm f/2 Summicron ASPH on the Sony A7r MKII and the current version Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM II on Canon 5DRs.
Unfortunately, this is something I cannot demonstrate, given that Leica doesn't have a high resolution sensor for the Leica SL. But then the question remains. Why resolve sharpness to this extent if Leica doesn't have a camera to take advantage of it? It makes you wonder what Leica has in store for us, looking forward into the future.
Of course, it's not all smiles and sunshine with the 50 Lux-SL. It is a gargantuan lens. The combination of the SL and the 50 Lux-SL is significantly bigger and heavier than the Leica SL adapted with either a 50mm Summilux-M or Summilux-R. In fact, it's even bigger and heavier than any comparable full frame DSLR with a 50mm f/1.4 lens. But then again, none of those options can autofocus wide open and give one that fabled Leica look.
In addition, there was also a noticeable amount of focus hunting under lower light. This also meant that focus tracking was less accurate when the light conditions worsened. But to be fair, this is more of a camera issue than a lens issue.
Other than that, I really can't think of anything else factual or relevant to fault the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-SL. Maybe something would crop up later on. But on first impressions, this is all I can say with regards to usage and performance.
By the way, something did crop up. Please refer to the third last paragraph of this article.
Overall, I don't know how to feel about the Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-SL. It is a wonderful tool to use. It does what it's suppose to do. And it does it with that characteristic Leica look, better than any adapted Leica lens could on the Leica SL. But it is big and heavy. Honestly, I can't see myself lugging this lens around. Certainly, I wouldn't travel with it. However, I can definitely see it parked inside the studio of a professional portrait photographer.
Clearly, the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-SL is not for the faint of heart. Having shot it for the last two days, it's really for those who want to increase the speed of their workflow, while still getting that Leica look wide open. It is truly a remarkable lens. But unfortunately, it's not for everyone.
One thing is for sure. Only SL lenses are designed to render optimally on a Leica SL.
*** April 6th *** Speaking of something cropping up later on - many online have made the claim that the autofocus on the 50 Lux-SL is slow. For my type of photography, I haven't noticed it, except in poor light where the autofocus was hunting more. Since my preliminary review didn't demand much from the autofocus, I will take a closer look at it on my next review. I admit. I was too distracted by the bokeh to see anything else. From the perspective of someone normally shooting manual focus, just getting autofocus on a Leica wide open is amazing!
Special thanks to Christopher for pointing that out.
All images shot wide open. All images have been optimized in Lightroom. I'm testing out more yellows and greens in color balance. Images have not been cropped unless otherwise stated.