Leica 50mm Noctilux, Summilux, Summicron - All Versions plus Summarit f/1.5
A quick post before departing New York. A couple of weeks ago - just for fun - I thought it would be a welcomed change to see how different version 50mm Leica M-mount lenses stack up to one another. Obviously, the prevailing wisdom would be that newer and faster lenses are better than older and slower lenses - because well - they just are. So on the basis of that argument, the Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH is the best. End of discussion.
Is it though? Accepting a position on face value without further scrutiny would seem rather hasty - if not a tad too trusting - not that I'm not a trusting person. But to definitively know for sure, common sense would suggest a more comprehensive approach in assessing what's true instead of accepting here-say without observable verification. Having said that, how is one to approach this pickle with common sense?
In my book, seeing is believing... and if that is true, the only way to settle this discussion once and for all is with blunt force effort. Invariably, that meant gathering up as many lenses as possible - thirteen to be precise - so that a good old fashion shootout could be conducted. Only then with evidentiary proof would certainty prevail in knowing if the Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M is the best M-mount lens, or if another 50mm Leica lens is better.
1. Leica Noctilux and Summilux - Wide Open from f/0.95 to f/1.5
For the sake of being comprehensive and absolutely ridiculous, the following 50mm Leica lenses have been included in this shootout.
Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH (2008 - current)
Leica 50mm f/1.0 Noctilux-M (1975 - 2008) *
Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux-M ASPH (1966 - 1975)
Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Version I (1959 -1961)
Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Version II (1962 - 2004)
Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH (2004 - current)
Leica 50mm f/1.5 Summarit-M (1949 - 1960)
Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M Version I (1953 - 1956)
Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M Version II (1956 - 1968) **
Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M Version III (1969 - 1979)
Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M Version IV (1979 - current) ***
Leica APO 50mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH (2016 - current)
Leica 50mm f/2 ELCAN-M (1972 - 1974)
In devising what to do for this shootout, I settled on the following shooting situations to evaluate.
Close shooting distance at f/0.95 to f/1.5 to render bokeh
Close shooting distance at f/2 to render bokeh
Typical shooting distance stopped down at f/2.8
Examination of detail, stopped down at f/5.6
2. Leica Noctilux, Summilux, Summarit f/1.5, Summicron @ f/2
In terms of the methodology of the shootout, each sample images were shot three or four times, with only the best image published on this blog post. The selected images are representational of the images not selected, in that every image was shot the same way. Exposure was more or less consistent, with tweaking of ±½ stop at time of image capture to account for variance in indirect outdoor lighting and lens optic characteristics.
Exposure was metered in camera and verified by live view with the assistance of the Visoflex 020. Focus was also verified by the external EVF. Only the third set of images captured at f/2.8 were shot on a tripod. The other three sets (plus the final magnified crop) were all captured hand held at closer shooting distance. Ideally, I would've wanted to capture every sample image on a tripod. But unfortunately, the shooting environment did not permit greater control.
For the first three image sets captured at the normal resolution of 24 megapixels, I limited the shootout to only the Leica M10. It made sense, given time constraint and the need to rely on the Visoflex 020 for greater accuracy in the documentation. In addition to that, I also expanded the shootout to include the Sony A7R Mark III. To fully appreciate each lens, it was necessary to see how each lens resolved detail at high resolution.
3. Leica Noctilux, Summilux, Summarit f/1.5, Summicron @ f/2.8
Before I continue with this informal evaluation of 50mm Leica lenses, it should be noted for the record that there is no such distinction as being the best. For the most part, a lens can only be best on certain measurable or observable criteria, like speed, weight, compactness, ability to resolve detail across the aperture range or even value. Because of that, I will not be playing top trump and rank each lens from best to worst.
The objective of this shootout (which I've gone at length not to label as a comparison) is to provide a visual record, under a very narrow spectrum of shooting criteria, in order to offer some concrete observable evidence of how each lens perform relative to one another. From this visual record, it's up to each individual to decide which lens is best. Invariably, this will be influenced by each person's own specific needs as well as personal biases.
So it's possible that the Leica 50mm f/0.95 may not be the best performing lens. It could even be possible that the incremental advantage in speed and size isn't worth the investment. Moreover, it could even be possible that a much older version 50mm Leica lens might be better, given other performance consideration like rendering or overall definition in resolving detail. But like I said, it all depends on the eye of the beholder.
4. Leica Noctilux, Summilux, Summarit f/1.5, Summicron @ f/5.6
Now if you ask me for my opinion, most of the lenses in this shootout performed more similarly than differently. Admittedly, faster lenses isolated the subject more with increased background blur, and older lenses were softer outside of center. But for the most part, definition of resolved detail appear to be similar between lenses when stopped down and closer to the center. That said, faster lenses will always be at an advantage in low light situations.
However, what I believe the takeaway is from this shootout is just how well older Leica lenses have held up, and how incremental the improvements between newer and older iterations appear to be on first inspection. Mind you, this is not to say that newer Leica lenses aren't observably better than the iterations they're replacing. But it is to say that older Leica lenses shouldn't be forsaken just because the folks at Wetzlar have stopped producing them.
To that end, the results of this shootout has brought the Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M Version III to my attention. Given its size, investment requirement, and overall performance, I found this lens to be exceptionally good value. So for this reason, I've been favoring this lens as of late. That said, the Version III Summicron might not be for you. Knowing how different we all are, it's really up to you to figure out which lens is best for you, with the help of the results from this shootout.
5. Leica Noctilux, Summilux, Summarit f/1.5, Summicron @ High Magnification
Figuratively speaking, the efforts of this blog post can only bring you to water. In the end, it's up to you to take the initiative in quenching your curiosity. Besides, this is suppose to be a simple post. Like I said, I have a flight to catch on route to Hong Kong. The plane is about to take off from JFK.
As a post script, the Leica 50mm f/2 ELCAN-M also performed surprisingly well. Also worth noting, the ELCAN is also the most compact lens in this shootout (and probably the rarest).
Images have not been tweaked in post processing. Only high magnification image set has been cropped.
* The Leica 50mm f/1 Noctilux-M came in three cosmetic versions. They're all optically the same. The final version was used in this shootout.
** The Version II Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M came in two versions - the goggle version and the rigid version - both of which are optically the same. The rigid version was used in this shootout.
*** The Version IV Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M came in two versions - the earlier version with a clip-on hood and the later version with the retractable hood. They're both optically the same.The later version 50/2 also came with six bit encoding. The six bit encoded version was used in this shootout.