The Uncelebrated Forty Year Anniversary of the Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M Version IV
I am particularly miffed that Leica has opened their new Hong Kong boutique so close to where I generally am during the weekdays. It means I can no longer just step outside to do my photowalks. Of course, no one really recognizes me out of context. But the minute one of my partners-in-crime is seen with me, the jig is up - so to speak. So, what am I suppose to do? Go further afield… or perhaps even trek to bridge and tunnel country… or shoot later in the wee small hours while the whole wide world is fast asleep?
Many assumed that I would have welcomed such proximity, and that I would have definitely popped over for a quick visit. Much to everyone’s surprise, I haven’t been there. You see, I don’t see a point… nor do I see a point in visiting all the different Leica shops worldwide when I am venturing off to points unknown. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I believe Leica makes a fine product. But there’s a difference between an objective appreciation of what a brand produces and a subjective devotion to the brand itself.
For this reason, I have never subscribed to the mainstream practice of dressing up my cameras… or my cars… or even myself. I mean, I haven’t even bought or worn a suit in over ten years. Having said that, in no way am I suggesting that it’s unnecessary to buy accessories for your cameras, like leather straps, or half cases, or soft release buttons. After all, am I not one who has repeatedly modified cameras beyond recognition? I would be a hypocrite if I cast out the first stone on those who embellish their cameras less permanently.
Still, there is something to be said about simple. In our mad rush to complicate everyday life, one modest lens has managed to rise above the rest. Obviously, I am referring to the Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M Version IV, the benchmark of excellence for forty years. Yet despite the significance of this lens, it is often overlooked and passed over for trendier new releases. Admittedly, even I left mine on the shelf for many years collecting dust. That is, until recently. And now that I’m shooting it, I’m wondering how I made that oversight.
But, it’s easy to see how the venerable 50 Summicron has been pushed aside so unceremoniously. It’s just not a very sexy lens anymore - especially with how the Leica APO 50mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH has grabbed all the limelight. After all, the APO 50 is almost four times the value of the 50 Cron. So from a purely mathematical perspective, the APO 50 should be four times better. It must be. I mean, the 50 Cron has neither apochromatic correction or aspherical lens elements, which makes it significantly less of a lens.
Okay, so the APO 50 has a few more party tricks up its lens hood. It’s better corrected for distortions and color aberrations. But, by how much? By almost four times? Unfortunately, my eyes are not sophisticated enough to discern any differences between the performance of either lenses ninety-nine percent of the time - let alone a difference of a factor of four. Mind you, I am not saying that the APO 50 is not a better lens. But really, can it be that much better that the 50 Cron? Thing is, I actually prefer the 50 Cron to the APO 50.
To some, that may seem like a provocative statement. I mean, how can I not prefer the APO 50 more. After all, millions of Euros were poured into the research and development of what is essentially the most perfect lens ever made. But, perfection does not necessarily or automatically make a lens or a camera better in actual use. And in the case of the APO 50, the folks at Wetzlar made a rather unfortunate design decision, which I believe contributes to its comparatively less enjoyable user experience.
In my opinion, I believe the folks at Wetzlar chose form over function in the design of the APO 50. Aesthetically speaking, the APO 50 is a much more elegant design. It has a relatively cleaner silhouette when looking down at the focusing guide and appears noticeably more streamlined than the 50 Cron, which is considerably more tapered in appearance with an uneven toothlike profile from the base to the front of the lens. As such, the new APO 50 looks much better. But then, how does that help with improving the user experience?
When a lens is expected to be four times better than its non-apochromatic and non-aspherical predecessor, I suppose the natural inclination is to look the part. The APO 50 is a striking lens. Not only does it come in black, it also comes in anodized silver, anodized red, solid titanium, and a throwback black chrome variant without a focusing tab. Truly, the APO is a study in product design. One can only wonder if the folks at Wetzlar will come up with yet another design variant to spruce up our otherwise dreary camera setup.
To be fair to the APO 50, it is a product of contemporary business practice, as a sign of our times. Back in 1979, when the fourth iteration 50 Cron was released, our present day obsession with beating market forecasts was not as pressing a corporate issue. Those were simpler times when a quality lens was just a quality lens. And in 1994, when the 50 Cron was refreshed with an update, the designers lopped off the focusing tab and added a retractable lens hoods, which significantly improved the handling of the lens.
The difference in approach between the 50 Cron and the APO 50 speaks volumes about the manner in which the folks at Wetzlar regard priorities. True the APO 50 is optically superior to the 50 Cron. But the design of the APO 50 demonstrates how far the folks at Wetzlar have deviated from the core of its founding principles. Form - albeit an important factor - shouldn’t lead function. With the 50 Cron, it is form that follows function. Because of that, the 50 Cron offers a much better tactile handling experience than the APO 50.
Where the APO 50 has a large exposed retractable hood placed at the top part of the lens, the 50 Cron has its retractable hood tucked behind the aperture ring. The hidden placement of the hood puts the aperture ring at the top of the lens, which makes finding it with your index finger more intuitive. As for the APO 50, you have to feel for it between the retractable hood and the focusing tab. And as for the uneven profile of the 50 Cron, that tapering at the top of the lens makes the aperture ring a more natural finger reach.
You cannot go wrong with the 50 Cron. Optically it is phenomenal. According to the Leica Pocket Book, eighth edition, the 50 Cron documents with “no distortion”. It has “high overall contrast and good central definition of very fine textural details becoming a little soft in the outer zones of the picture.” Compared to its predecessor, it is also “high in micro-contrast, which gives the definition of fine detail its sparkle and clarity and improves in crispness of major subject outlines.” Not exactly a slouch, this 50 Cron is.
In addition, the Leica Pocket Book, eighth edition also states that “astigmatism and coma are highly corrected at wider apertures. Aperture f/4 is the optimum with outstanding reproduction of very fine detail over most of the picture area”. Still, the 50 Cron is no APO 50. Where the 50 Cron is softer, the APO 50 is sharper. Where the 50 Cron is high in micro-contrast or more corrected for astigmatism and coma, the APO 50 is even better. But then again, no one can tell the difference, except for those few with discerning eyes.
And that is the point. There comes a time in which improvements to perfection can no longer be appreciated by the naked eye. The APO 50 is a phenomenally good lens. Knowing the APO 50 is just that much better than the 50 Cron fills one with a sense of superiority - which I find misplaced. I mean, what good is that if the naked eye can’t make out the improvements? Superiority is only academic if it cannot be appreciated in real life. But, better is better, which is why the APO 50 is the darling of the Summicron universe.
Ironically, on a blog entry dedicated to the forty year anniversary of the 50 Cron, I have spent most of it writing about the APO 50. Although symbolically, I suppose it demonstrates the ongoing perspective towards the 50 Cron’s position in Wetzlar’s hierarchy of current product offering. Yes, the 50 Cron is still being manufactured - if you haven’t figured out by now. But since the 50 Cron is so completely overshadowed by the APO 50, who is going to know it’s still in production, let alone be aware that this year is its forty year anniversary?
As such, there hasn’t been so much as a peep from Wetzlar. In recent weeks, the only mention of the 50 Cron has been the Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M Version IV Safari Edition - which is part of the Leica M10-P Safari Edition. Clearly, no one at Wetzlar has checked-off the date of the forty year anniversary on their calendar. By comparison, the talk of town has been the Leica Q2 in addition to a spattering of limited edition cameras - all thrown in for good measure I guess. I mean, business is business.
Admittedly, it may seem as if I am unfairly singling out Leica for its current business practices of opening posh new boutiques and preoccupation towards cosmetic design considerations. However, there is a reason to my madness. With all the announcements of new boutique openings and limited edition variants, I’m hoping that Leica puts two and two together and releases the lens I really want - a forty year commemorative Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M Version IV solid titanium edition. I know, I’m just as bad.
But for now, I’ve found myself Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH Titanium that has somehow been liberated from its accompanying Leica M7 Titanium Fifty Year Anniversary set. Needless to say, I am going to put the 50 Cron back on the bench. As for everyone else - if you have never shot the 50 Cron or haven’t shot it for a while - dust it off and take it out for a photowalk. You never know. You might actually be surprised. After all, the Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M has been the benchmark of excellence for forty years.
PS - The APO 50 is really phenomenal. But, it’s not for me. I just never bonded with the user experience, which is very important to me.
I hear the Leica Store Causeway Bay Hong Kong serves good espresso - not that I know. I haven’t had a sip in over fifteen years. If you’re around the area, show your support and have cup.
All images have been digitized on a Pakon F135, automatically cropped from full negative during the scanning process, and tweaked in Adobe Lightroom.