The Leica 35mm Summilux Asph Review

It has been three years now since I bought my used Leica 35mm Summilux Asph (version I) and paired it with my digital Leica M's. It has been my go to lens since then, and actually, my only one during our round the world trip. After thousands of pictures taken with it, I feel I have learnt the insides and outs of the lens and now work with it as an inherent part of my street photography style. Since I often get emails and questions regarding this lens, I thought I would share my knowledge in a comprehensive article. This is by no way a technical review, but a personal appraisal of the capabilities of the lens and a description of how I use it in street photography.

Note that a new version of this lens was released by Leica in 2010, the 35mm Summilux Asph FLE (or version II). Though this lens boasts a floating element, the difference in image quality is extremely small and except for a reduction of the focus shift (described in a later section), the lenses basically perform the same. At least equally enough, that no difference will be perceived when used in street photography.

(All pictures of this article were taken in India with the Leica M8 and 35mm Lux Asph. I did post process them as usual to show my final interpretation of the rendering of this combo).

Leica M8 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F2.8, 1/350, ISO160

1) Do you need a F1.4 aperture ?

When weighting your options for a new 35mm lens, the question of whether you do actually need a F1.4 aperture should come up first. Indeed, as a general rule, the larger the aperture, the most expensive the lens is. In the Leica world, that can translate to a difference of over $2000 when buying the Summilux new.  So make sure you don't lay out extra cash for something you don't really need.

When shooting street photography on a Leica M, there are basically three reasons that justify the need for a F1.4 aperture (compared to a slower 35mm lens) :

– the use selective focus in mid distances (3 to 5 meters). Indeed, between 0.7 and 3 meters, a F2.0 lens will already achieve significant background separation.
– the need of an extra stop for low light conditions.  With a 35mm lens and some technique, you can achieve good sharpness at a speed of 1/8th, especially when your subjects are static. Nevertheless, in scenes involving moving subjects, you'll need at least 1/60th to minimize motion blur. To get to that speed and assuming a max ISO800 (image quality will suffer abover on a digital M) , the F1.4 aperture will result necessary.
– the use of the wide open rendering for creative purposes. In general, due to their optical formulas, 35mm F1.4 lenses have a less saturated and contrasty look when used wide open. Corners also display less resolution which can create interesting transition effects from blur to sharpness.

This being said, if you are a day light photographer or shoot mainly with extensive depths of field, pass your way. A F2.0 or F2.8 lens will suffice to fill your needs. No need to spend the extra cash and bear with the extra size of a F1.4 lens.

Leica M8 with 35mm Lux Asph at F1.4, 1/750, ISO160

2) What is so special about the 35mm Lux Asph ?

Make no mistake, most M 35mm lenses manufactured by Leica or Voigtlander are great performers (see section below). Matched to a good photographer, any of these will excel. Yet, the 35mm Lux Asph has a set of qualities that put together leads to a unique capability :

– high contrast (not excessive though)
– excellent sharpness from center to corners.
– great clarity
– smooth bokeh (a subjective criteria – see section below)
– and all of this, starting at F1.4 and throughout the whole aperture range.

It is as simple as this ; there is no other lens that can match all these attributes. Yet it does lead to the question, as a potential buyer, whether these characteristics meet the specific needs of your style of street photography ? If one prefers the classic rendering, this is definitely not the best lens to achieve it. Similarly, if you have a preference for less contrasty files (because of harsh light shooting conditions), then there are other options that will fit better your requisite.

Overall, the 35mm Lux Asph renders a modern look. The images it produces are often described as full of punch and, or in other words, have the famous "Leica pop". And this, again, whatever the aperture you set it on.

Leica M8 with 35mm Lux Asph at F2.8, 1/125, ISO160

3) Focus shift

The 35mm Lux Asph suffers from focus shift. In a few words, the effective focus point shifts behind your intended focus point as you close the aperture. As an example, imagine that you set the focus on the eyes of a given subject at 1.4. Stopping down the lens to F2.8 (and keeping the camera's focus point as is) will result in a shift backwards of the sharpness zone. In the pictues above, the eyes of the subject will no longer be in perfect focus at F2.8 and shift closer to his ears.

Some users have reported that their 35mm Lux Asph v1 does not suffer from focus shift. I see three answers to that :
– they need an eye check-up
– the lens has been mechanically optimized for perfect focus at another aperture than F1.4.
– the rangefinder mechanism is slightly off and has displaced the focus point.

More important than its definition, the question should be "Does focus shift matter when shooting street photography?. The answer to that is "yes" and "no". If you shoot mainly at F1.4 or F8.0 (thin or large depths of field), focus shift will have no impact. By definition, there is no focus shift at F1.4 since it is the base aperture. To the contrary, there is focus shift at F8.0, yet the extensive depth of field makes it undetectable. This leaves roughly the F2.8 to F5.6 range, where focus shift will cause most problems and impact your pictures. The solution to that is to set the focus point a little bit in front of your intended target. While not the most desirable method, one quickly can get used to it and it becomes second nature after a while. I'll also add that perfect focus is often not fundamental to the the success of a good street picture. And unless you print large sizes (A3), you will only notice it when pixel peeping on your computer screen.

If you do not want to deal with focus shift, you can evidently opt to go for new version of the 35mm Summilux Asph, the FLE version (or vII). Its new optical formula reduces significantly the impact of focus shift.  Since few of these can be found in the used market, you'll unluckily have to pay the hefty new price that goes with it.

Example of focus shift at F2.8. I focused on the girl in white but focus point shifted to the woman.

4) Bokeh

As we enter the subjective part of this section, let me state that bokeh (out of focus area) is usually described by two terms : smooth or harsh. Nevertheless, smooth does not mean good and harsh is not automatically bad. Here we get into personal preferences. Overall, I would say that I have noticed more appreciation towards smooth bokehs. Let's also note that bokeh will depend not only on the lens but also on other factors of a given scene. Variables such as distance to subject, aperture and type of background all play a significant role in the way bokeh takes form. Yet coming back to the 35mm Lux Asph, its bokeh can definitely be described as smooth. Elements in the background give a sensation of melting shapes and there is no trace of the double lining effect that can often be seen while using other lenses.

Leica M8 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F1.4, 1/125th, ISO160

5) How do I shoot street photography with it ?

As you might know, I am mostly a wide open shooter. This forces me to constantly deal with bokeh and thin sharpness zones. This section gives a few tips on how I incorporate the characteristics of this lens in my every day street shooting.

– at very close distances (0.7 – 1 meter), the background will dissolve completely at F1.4. So much that the bokeh might distract the viewer from the main elements of the picture. Unless it is a street portrait with a uniform background, I find it best to stop down to F2.8 or smaller.
– from 1 meter to 2 meters, the depth of field at F1.4 is still very difficult to manage. For these instances when I do not have time to focus accurately, I find it also preferable to stop down at F2.8 and zone focus. The background will still blur significantly and it will reduce the risks of mis-focus.
– from 2 to 3 meters. I basically always shoot wide open when depth is present behind my subjects. Be it zone focus by estimating the distance, or manual focus through the viewfinder, the zone of sharpness is large enough that I'll seldom mis-focus. Bokeh at these distances is in general extremely smooth and the 35mm Lux Asph excels wide open at this range.
– around 5 meters. One is still able to get background separation with a F1.4 lens. This is in my opinion the biggest difference between a F2 and F1.4 lens in terms of capability.
– whatever the distance, if there is no depth behind my subject, I'll usually stop down to F2.8 or smaller and make sure both my subject and the background are in focus.

Of course, this is a very personal way of shooting. Each of us will find what works best for his style of photography. Nevertheless, it shows how the F1.4 can result important to one's style and how to deal with its strengths and weaknesses.

Leica M8 with 35mm Lux Asph at F1.4, 1/1000, ISO160

6) What are other Leica and competitive offerings ?

I have owned or tested all 35mm F1.4 lenses in the Leica and Voigtländer product ranges. Here is a list of their main differences compared to the 35mm Lux Asph :

Cosina Voigtländer Nokton 1.2 ($1400)
– Great all around performer in terms of resolution.
– very smooth bokeh
– lower contrast, especially wide open.
– unluckily, this a big and heavy lens in rangefinder standards.

CV Nokton 1.4 ($630)
– significantly lesser resolution wide open, especially in the corners. Halo effects on bright areas of the picture.
– lower contrast lens with a rendering between modern and classic.
– bokeh is harsher and curly.
– prone to severe focus shift.
– small size and weight.

Leica 35mm Lux pre-ash ($1200-$2000 based on used condition)
– some versions do not focus correctly on the M9 (be cautious when you buy)
– significantly less contrast and resolution, especially wide open
– renders the famous "classic look"
– only available used
– small size and weight.

Leica Summicron Asph  ($3195)
– performs pretty much equal to the 35mm Lux, yet does not have the rendering of the F1.4 aperture.
– smaller size
– amazing build quality.

7) Conclusion

In terms of performance, the Leica Lux Asph is King of the 35mm F1.4 lenses. Though not the smallest lens in this category, it balances perfectly on the M8 or M9 by providing good stability and blocking only a small part of the viewfinder. Its rendering is modern, with high contrast, resolution and clarity. Compared to a modern F2.0 lens, the Lux Asph brings to the table an extra stop and that special F1.4 look, with a slight desaturation and lower contrast.

On the used market, it currently sells for $2500 to $3000, while it will take $4'990 of your hard earned money to acquire it new. Since competitive lenses can be acquired new for as low as $600, one can legitimately ask himself whether it is worth the hefty price tag ? It obviously depends on your financial situation, but the good thing about Leica lenses is that they tend to keep their value over time, especially when bought used. So if any day you need the cash or no longer use the lens, you'll get back your intial investment easily. And more importantly, you'll have enjoyed the ultimate image quality meanwhile.

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