It's hard to figure out what came over me towards the end of last year. But I convinced myself that 35mm was a natural focal length for me, and I should ditch a zoom (the very good 24-105mm f/4L IS) and go for a quality prime lens.
The Canon 35mm f/1.4L was the obvious choice although expensive. Then some devil put the word 'Leica' into my head. Leica lens users rave about the 'characteristics' of such lenses, the tonality, '3D' rendering, ability to handle high contrast and difficult lighting with ease, and last but not least, the obscure 'Leica glow'.
I had to see this for myself. Looking into the Leica system I could see that the R lenses were the most viable, so when I could lay my hands on a well-used 1983 specimen of a 35mm Summicron for just $100 more than a 2nd-hand Canon 35mm f/2, the deal was virtually done even before I had personally seen the lens.
The Summicron looks even more handsome with a Titanium-colored Contax filter
The lens is well-constructed, solid, boasting an all-metal barrel engraved with numerals and figures. The focus ring is buttery smooth with negligible wobble. There is some play in the aperture ring but it is by no means loose, and is supposed to be normal. The ring clicks confidently in half stops from f/2 to f/16.
The lens features a built in hood, but it appears impossible to me to pull the hood into position with the Contax filter in the way. The Summicron takes 55mm filters and the front element does not rotate during focusing.
The lens carries 6 elements in 6 groups, none of which are cemented. The closest focusing distance is 0.3m, identical to that of the 35mm f/1.4. Because of the build quality the lens weighs in at 430gm but still remains quite compact.
When attached to an EOS camera with the adapter, the Leica lens remains an all-manual lens. Focus is done manually and the aperture closes down to the specified aperture as the aperture ring is turned. This means that it is often necessary to focus with the aperture wide open before stopping down to take the picture.
Adapters with reverse-engineered chips do exist and allow for AF confirmation. However I had no success with this and had to deal with sporadic Err 01 and Err 99 messages. Apparently a piece of paper must be inserted just behind the camera's lens mount to hold a specific pin in place. Not something I wanted to mess with, so I went with the plain adapter in the end.
With this lens mounted, I often need to dial in +2/3 exposure compensation even for an average scene.
Manual focusing with this lens is relatively easy assuming you use a camera that has a large viewfinder. This is where the FF cameras have a clear advantage. With the 100% viewfinder of the 1Ds, this lens was a joy to use except under low light conditions where focusing becomes challenging. Because of the reasonable depth of field even at wide open aperture, there is some room for focusing error...not that you'd intentionally do so.
It is difficult to objectively quantify the optical quality of this lens. I'm not a lens expert and have not been in the hobby for too long. However the most obvious difference between the Summicron and a good L lens appears to be in color rendition. Colors from the Summicron do not appear to be as 'red-heavy' and are muted in a very pleasing manner. The resulting pictures are almost vintage and some have colors I only remember getting from film.
Naturally, post-processing affects this to some degree. Nevertheless I get the feeling that the colors of the Summicron never seem to shout. Under terrible indoor lighting conditions the Leica reproduces these conditions faithfully.
The lens has an excellent feel of sharpness at wide open aperture, but a certain smoothness. Perhaps it demonstrates what some reviewers have said: that the 'Cron 35 has excellent contrast and micro contrast from wide open but the resolution is not very high. Stop down to f/2.8 and beyond and sharpness and contrast picks up across the field. But even at f/5.6 or so the very extreme corners of the image still show some softness on a FF body.
In outdoor photography the lens really shines when used slightly stopped down. A circular polarizer and fill-flash was used in the image below, producing something resembling a 3D effect and rich colors. I'm surprised at the result, particularly because it was taken under the harshest mid-afternoon lighting. More than one person has seen this image and remarked that it was either 'unreal' or looked 'fake'. Needless to say, there's no such thing as a magic lens and lighting plays a big role in the appearance of an image.
'Unreal' or 'fake'
Great performance wide open: attractive bokeh without any compromise to image quality
That being said, I have no complaints about the bokeh at this stage, and it's nicer than most I've seen from a wide-angle or standard lens when used for general photography. In closeup photography and when stopping down, the bokeh can look rather harsh and highlights take on a hexagonal shape, which is not particularly desireable. Just as with any other lens, increasing the subject to background distance will help to negate some of this issue.
It is rare to find significant instances of CA in an image. However under more extreme backlit conditions it's entirely possible to force some of it to the surface:
CA in a backlit situation...arguably, not all that disturbing given the conditions
Vignetting is visible at wide open aperture and it is obvious. However, given the scope/ nature of photography at such apertures, it may not be a significant issue.
Vignetting at wide open