Made to fit Leica’s R mount SLR cameras, Leitz R series lenses don’t enjoy the fanfare heaped on their M mount brethren. No surprise; Leica shooters skew toward rangefinders, and sticker shock keeps kids looking for cheap legacy lenses from buying an R. Which is a shame, because I’ve been shooting the 50mm Summicron R for the past year and it’s a stunning performer in nearly every way.
Versions and Build
The original Leicaflex saw the first release of a Summicron 50mm in R mount. This lens is differentiated by later lenses by its single cam mount. It remained in production until 1968, at which time a version with two metering cams was made to fit the new Leicaflex SL (and the subsequent SL2). For later R series cameras, these lenses could also be supplied with the required three cam mounts.
All three of these Summicron models were made in Wetzlar, with optical construction consisting of six elements in five groups. Aperture increments actuate in single stops from f/2 to f/16. Close focus distance is just twenty inches.
In 1977, production of the Summicron R was shifted to Leitz Canada. At this time, the optical formula was updated and improved. The six elements in four groups construction provided higher contrast and improved flatness of field compared with the earlier lenses. It also provided a built-in collapsible lens hood. This later lens was produced in various configurations to fit earlier Leicaflex and later SL and SL2 cameras, as well as the more modern R cam cameras. There’s also a Safari version (painted green) to match the Safari R3.
It should be noted that none of this matters if you’re shooting with an adapter fitted to a mirror-less camera.
The version that I shoot is the earlier optical formula sporting the two cam mount, made contemporaneously with the Leicaflex SL2. This lens performs better than the earlier single cam version due to improved optical coatings, but lacks the increased contrast and flatness found in the later Leitz Canada version.
Any and all versions of the Summicron R 50mm feel utterly fantastic in practical use. Fit and finish is what we’d expect from a lens bearing the Leitz name. Aperture rings click with mechanical precision, focus throw is smooth and perfectly weighted. The barrels are made entirely of metal, as are the filter retaining rings and lens hoods (whether detachable or built-in).
None of this is of any great surprise. Let’s move on.
Image Quality and Performance
Shots made with the Summicron R 50mm are sharp in the center at all apertures, a bit spongy in the corners wide open. Close the aperture down and (predictably) things tighten up. By f/4 we’re seeing acceptably sharp rendition from corner to corner, and at f/8 it’s a world-class lens. Nail your focus at any aperture setting and unless you’re a serious pixel-peeper, you’ll be pleased.
But this whole sharpness paragraph doesn’t really matter much. The Summicron R 50mm has a personality that eschews quantifiable metrics. If you can’t make a great photo with this lens it’s certainly not because the lens isn’t sharp enough.
Low light performance is excellent, contrary to what some fans of the Summilux have to say. The Summicron, though only sporting a maximum aperture of f/2, will work perfectly in any light conditions. If you’re shooting film in the dark, get some high sensitivity stuff and go to work. Modern film’s impressive exposure latitude will help nudge you to where you need to be. If you’re shooting on a digital camera then you’ve likely outgrown your fear of the dark long ago. In 2018, even the most basic mirror-less cameras have truly mind-blowing high ISO performance.
Bokeh rendition, though always a subjective trait, is undeniably schizophrenic. More so than with most other lenses I’ve used, the quality of the blurred areas of shots made with the Summicron R 50mm will vary greatly depending on factors such as distance to subject, distance to background, positioning of light sources, and possibly the current moon phase. At times, blur is smooth as silk, while at other times it’s busy as a bee. Mixed metaphors not withstanding, the quality of bokeh made with this lens makes it a difficult lens to comfortably squeeze into the simple boxes with which gear reviewers are so preoccupied.
The gallery below aptly illustrates the point. In the shot of my eldest daughter on the beach we’re seeing characterful bokeh that surprisingly mimics the swirl effect most often associated with Soviet era lenses, like the Helios 44 M. In the shot of the bee perched before a green background, we see none of this swirling effect, but this shot (made at minimum focus distance) is incredibly busy. With its hard edges, the bokeh here can be called nothing if not distracting. The very next shot, showing a bee this time before a golden background, is far less busy. Bokeh in this shot is softer, and though not perfectly blended, it’s at least more pleasing than the previous frame. Chalk this up to the greater distance between subject and background.
But what the lens does incredibly well when speaking of focus, is found in the transition from in-focus to out-of-focus elements of a frame. There’s a smoothing effect that imbues these two-dimensional photographs with an uncanny suggestion of depth. This is a hard quality to quantify (I just use my eyeballs), but it’s a quality that I truly love and something that I rarely find in a standard lens.
Where the lens stumbles mightily, and this is shown in the gallery above in all its horror, is in truly abysmal mitigation of flares and ghosts when shooting directly toward a light source. Actually, it may be more accurate to say that it stumbles when shooting even remotely near a light source. If there’s a bright light, get it behind your back before firing that shutter.
The result of this foible is not just flaring, but more egregiously, the diminishing of contrast across the entire frame. And when I say “diminishing” I mean “nuked from orbit.” When that front element is struck by stray light or even pointed toward a strong light source, expect any and all contrast in your shot to dissolve faster than an Alka-Seltzer.
I’ve shot lenses that suffer from flares and ghost and diminished contrast when shot facing bright light, but I’ve never shot any that are as bad as this. On most lenses it’s also possible to choke down the aperture and eliminate some of the aberration, or fit a big honking lens hood and shield the front element. Not so with the Summicron. The sample shots above were made with progressively tighter apertures, and no amount of stopping down made any appreciable difference (though by f/16 I did manage to make multiple flares out of one light source). The Leitz lens hood, while delectably metallic, did nothing to solve the problem.
But aside from this troubling result, shooting the Summicron R is a joy. Sample shots in the included galleries show that in normal shooting conditions micro contrast is strong, creating deep images with punch. Color rendition is accurate. Chromatic aberration is handled well enough (though not perfectly). Distortion is non-existent.
What’s most exciting about the Summicron R is that it has its own distinct and interesting personality. It’s a wonderfully characterful lens whether it’s mounted to one of Leica’s R mount film cameras or one of today’s masterful digital mirrorless cameras (Leica even makes an adapter to use R lenses on their newest mirrorless, the Leica CL).
But whether or not it’s the right lens for you will depend on the answers to certain questions. Got an R mount camera? Then owning this fifty is a no-brainer. If you don’t have an R mount machine, however, the conversation gets a little more complicated.
For mirror-less shooters on a rigid budget, there are plenty of nifty fifties that will satisfy your needs at a fraction of the cost. Do you want your lens to say Leica on it? If so, an R mount lens might be the most cost-effective fix. The M mount Summicron will certainly cost double the price.
I think the Summicron R is worth the extra scratch. Some of my favorite shots of the past year have been made with this lens. It imbues photos with a depth and an unquantifiable character that’s hard to argue against. Portraits look alive, landscapes stretch realistically to the horizon, the aperture’s fast enough for low light, and the lens feels incredible in the hands. What more do you want from a standard lens?