Summilux 24/1.4

place voltaire desat

Place Voltaire, Arles

It's late at night; the bars are closed, or closing. The yellow glare of sodium vapour lamps lights the square. But the resolution in this hand-held shot, wide open at ISO 2500 (Leica M8.2), is remarkable -- as is the absence of flare. Turning the colour saturation right down gives a vintage ambience. You can't really judge it in a picture that is only about 550x1000 pixels, but at this sort of distance, depth of field is still quite great at full aperture. The foreground has been cropped out of this picture as it is merely empty road.

AT FIRST SIGHT

For most people, the initial reaction is incredulity. "Six thousand dollars for a lens? You gotta be kidding".

But the advantages of a long-term lens test are striking, as well as being simple and obvious. There are three, or perhaps four, stages to owning and using any piece of equipment.

m8 hood on

At first, almost any new piece of equipment has its charms: we want to see what it is like, and we want to see what we can do with it. If it is any good, it may well enable us to do things we could not do before, or at the very least, it may help us to see things in a new light. This is the 'falling in love' stage. With a new 24/1.4 lens, it is easy to see how this phase comes about. Both of us fell in love with the Summilux.

 

M8, 24 Summilux

The bright magenta of the dichroic UV/IR filter can be seen clearly here, along with the (rather easy to lose) slip-on lens cover. We actually prefer Optech's 'hood hats' (aka 'shower caps') because they are quicker and easier to use and more secure. This style of lens cap is in our opinion the one shortcoming of a number of Leica's newer lenses, even though it is admirably compact.

m8 hood + filter

 

Hood-cum-filter-holder

Integrating the design like this allows for a Series VII (51mm drop-in) filter. Again, the dichroic nature of the filter is very clear.

The second stage arrives when the honeymoon with is over. We start seeing its faults. It is not exactly what we wanted; perhaps we can live without it, or with something we already have that is close enough, or with something else altogether on which we can spend our hard-earned money. This is not the same as saying it is no good. Rather, it is like a longer-term love affair, when we realize that the object of our affections is not, in fact, perfect in every way.

 

It took quite a while for Roger to admit to himself that although the field of view of the 24mm on his M8.2 was only 10% wider than the field of view of 35mm on 35mm, it was just a little bit too wide. Also, the 24mm frame lines in the M8.2 (the widest in the viewfinder) are very close to the edge of the frame. Frances always used a separate finder on full-frame 35mm cameras and therefore treated the 24mm much more as its own lens, rather than as a substitute 35mm.

roni fir. 1

Ateliers SNCF, Arles

Another subject with potential for high flare. The real surprise comes when you enlarge the black blob of a figure (see below right ) and it is seen to have a surprising amount of detail. M8.2.

roni fig. 1 crop

The third stage is revealed by how it fits into the rest of our armoury. With a lens, it might become a standard, the one we go to more or less automatically; or a lens we use seldom, but value very highly for its properties when we do use it; or a lens that's quite nice to have, but is really only a second string to another, similar lens, so we would not really miss it. This is where the Summilux shines. Despite the objections noted above, it has become Roger's standard lens on his M8.2 -- he's got used to the wider angle of view -- so Frances doesn't get to use it much.

The fourth stage doesn't always arrive, but if it does, it happens when the equipment is superseded. It was good in its day, we accept, but now, something better has come along. Roger feels like this about his Leica M4-P (new in 1982 or so) and his MP (new in 2005 or so). On the other hand, he still prefers his pre-aspheric 35/1.4 Summilux to the current aspheric version, at least for film, because it's compact and easy to use and gives him all the quality he needs.

In other words, when you try it, you may start to see why the 24/1.4 Summilux is worth that sort of money. This assumes, of course, that you can find the money: $5,995 is almost six thousand good reasons why most people don't try it. But it is, quite simply, one of the most amazing lenses of all time. The resolution, contrast and 'sparkle' are astonishing for a lens of any aperture, and of course, there's the truly remarkable maximum aperture.

As already noted, Frances uses it on film, while Roger uses it almost exclusively on the M8.2 where the 1.33x crop factor makes it the equivalent of a 32mm lens in full-frame terms. If you want something akin to the 35mm focal length on full-frame, the alternative is a 28mm: about a 37mm equivalent. But there isn't (or wasn't when the new Summiluxes were introduced) a 28 Summilux: just a Summicron (Summicron = f/2, Summilux = f/1.4, Noctilus = f/1.2, then f/1, now f/0.95). To be sure, the 28/2 Summicron is only two-thirds of the price: $3995 instead of $5995, but it's also a stop slower. For that matter, you can buy a 24/2.8 Elmarit-M for $3795, at which point $2200 for two extra stops looks like something of a bargain. Or there's the Zeiss ZM 25/2.8 for under $1000.

abbey frontage

Abbey fortress

Again, the foreground has been cropped out in the interest of composition, but you can see from the upper corners that even at modest apertures there is the kind of vignetting you would expect from an ultra-wide when used on film (here, Kodak Ektar 100).

Of course, many people just don't need the speed, and can't see the logic of a 24/1.4: they never need more than f/2.8. It's also true that with modern high-ISO cameras and films, there's a lot less need for speed than there used to be. In the days when High Speed Ektachrome was the fastest colour film available, at 160 ASA, an f/1.4 lens would have been a lot more use than it is today with the ISO 2500 maximum on the M8.2.

Even so, there are those for whom an ultra-fast 'standard' wide-angle (on the M8.2) or ultrawide (on film) has enormous appeal. Some want the extra speed in order to be able to shoot by 'available darkness'. Others prize the possibility of selective focus, though as you can see from our bokeh article we have mixed feelings about this. For either group, the Summilux 24mm is truly superb. Actually, there's a third group: those who must have the latest, the best and (if at all possible) the most expensive. Needless to say, the Summilux 24mm is just about perfect for them, too.

claudia, seated

It's a big lens, but not huge: despite the size and weight, the camera-plus-lens sits beautifully in the hand. With 10 glasses (one aspheric) in eight groups, and a floating group to optimize focus all the way down to 0.7m (about 28.5 inches), it weighs 500g (17.6 oz.); is 61mm (2.4 inches) in diameter; is 110mm (4.3 inches) long overall with the hood in place; and projects forwards from the lens flange by 98mm (3.9 inches).Take the lens hood off and the length and projection shrink by 22mm (0.84 inch). The hood is however highly desirable (it is supplied with the lens), for three reasons. First, there is the usual shading function. Second, there is mechanical protection: the front of the glass is frighteningly close to the front of the rim. Third, it doubles as a filter holder for Series VII (51mm diameter) filters. This is of course why the front glass is so close to the front of the filter mount: you'd a much bigger filter otherwise, and in fact, you can get one, which is fitted to a 72mm adapter.

 

Claudia

A completely different style from anything else so far, and an illustration of how the 24 Summilux has become Roger's standard lens on the M8.2. He wanted to try the old 'long legs' trick with a wide-angle, pointing the toes so the feet don't look too big -- and it worked! Of course it helps that Claudia has long, well-shaped legs to start with. ISO, as far as Roger recalls, was 640; the lens was at f/1.4, focused on Claudia's face, so her feet are slightly out of focus.

 

 

The hood is the 're-entrant' style, with a reverse slope on the front, and is 'ventilated' with a cut-out to allow the user to see more through the viewfinder. Even so, the lens cuts out a substantial fragment, perhaps 20% by visual estimation, of the lower right hand corner of the automatically-selected 24mm frame -- which is of course the biggest in the M8 and M8.2, and which, to be honest, is a bit tight in the viewfinder. The hood also uses Leica's 'positive stop' screw for attachment: slower than a bayonet, but much more firm and secure.

Focusing is by collar, about 90 degrees from infinity to the closest focus, but about half the focusing movement is taken up by the range from 1.5 metres/5 feet to 70cm/28.5 inches. The focusing movement is of course wonderfully smooth, with just the right amount of drag. Apertures are marked at full stops to f/16, with half-stop detents.

claudia sewing

All right: what's the image like technically? Unsurprisingly there is quite a lot of vignetting at full aperture, but by f/2.8 (which is, after all, the maximum aperture of many 24 or 25 mm lenses) it is as low as for any 21mm lens at that aperture. Distortion is 2.2% maximum, but as Leica's instruction book says, this is 'negligible for the majority of photographic applications'. To be sure, the Zeiss C-Biogon 21/4.5 delivers only about a quarter as much, but then, it is one-tenth as fast at 32/3 stops slower (and, admittedly, 3mm wider -- but the 21mm Summilux delivers only 2.3%). Sharpness, resolution and contrast are truly astonishing: the only real limits are the sensor or the film, assuming of course that your hand is rock-steady or that you are using a tripod.

 

Claudia sewing

 

Claudia proved a wonderfully willing model, brilliant at taking directions, but the main reason she is so photogenic is her extraordinary natural gracefulness, which is further accentuated by her gymnastics, dancing and cheerleading.

Shooting at full aperture with the Summilux on the M8.2 gave a very 'three-dimensional' look, throwing the background just far enough out of focus while still leaving it recognizable. If only Roger had thought to remove the waste-paper basket (full of scraps of material) behind her!

 

Of course, there are quite a few genuine reasons why it may not suit you. The price, for a start. You may not care for the focal length: Roger doesn't, on film, and to be honest, on the 18x27mm sensor of the Leica, for him it's a toss-up between 24mm and 28mm as a 'standard wide'. The 24mm frame is definitely tight in the viewfinder, though we supplement it with the tiny 28/35 (on 35mm) Voigtländer finder: much less cut-off, and while the 28 equates exactly to the field of view of a 21mm, you have to learn to compensate a bit for the 35mm finder (which covers a little less than the field of view of the 24mm on the M8/M8.2. You may never need the speed. But if you like the focal length; and need the speed, even if only sometimes; and can afford it; well, rush out and buy it...

cheese plate

Cheese plate

With ultrawides, even f/1.4 does not necessarily imply impossibly shallow depth of field. Here, you can see that the plane of focus is the rearmost piece of cheese and the wine-jug, so that the handle of the knife is less than sharp. But the falloff behind the jug is very smooth, and you can still recognize the chair, if not the radiator behind it, in the upper left part of the image. It would have been better to focus on the middle piece of cheese or even the closest: depth of field falls off very quickly either side of 70cm or so, but is then less abrupt.

Eighteen more examples of pictures shot with the 24 Summilux follow, or you can go back to the illustrated or unillustrated lists of articles, or to the home page. Many of the pictures in the Arles 2009 report were also shot with the 24 Summilux.

 

cups and chair

 

 

girl on railing

Beakers, table, chair

Devotees of very shallow depth of field may be able to gain a further idea of the d-o-f of this lens at its closest focusing distance, though of course even an 8x12 inch/30x45cm print would look different. (M8.2, ISO 2500)

Girl on railing

Leicas are wonderfully unobtrusive, and the 24mm is not 'too wide' even on the M8.2. This is at the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie at Arles 2009; ISO was probably 160.

 

candy store

Candy store

This is a wonderful shop in Aigues-Mortes near Arles. The town itself is something of a tourist trap, but (like, say, New Orleans or San Francisco) it is a very attractive tourist trap. As Leica says, distortion is negligible for most practical photographic applications.

 

 

blessed virgin

 

 

door and pipe

Shrine of the Blessed Virgin

On film, this time: Kodak Ektar 100. Exposure was extremely critical, and difficult. Overexposing Ektar 100 leads to garish, oversaturated colours, but with a wide tonal range, Frances preferred slight overexposure to slight underexposure.

Door and drainpipe

Back to the M8.2 and we see the wonderfully cobbled-together approach which characterizes so many small French towns and villages; when most of it is working, it makes sense to replace only those parts that are defective.

 

white blocks and people

Ateliers SNCF, Arles

Even if you are underwhelmed by some of the exhibitions, the venues at the Rencontres are often very striking indeed and can furnish good images in their own right, as well as being a good place to try out lenses and refine your technique. Note the way in which the glazing bars in the windows are still rendered reasonably faithfully, despite being out of focus. Roger used the M8.2 here on auto-exposure.

 

fire escape, coupole

 

fidelity number 2

 

Fire escape, Coupole, Arles

The Coupole is one of the major exhibition venues in Arles (at the Rencontres). Frances noticed this fire escape but had the wrong lens on her camera (18mm on full frame 35mm) so Roger used the 24mm on his M8.2.

 

Our Lady of Fidelity

There were two shrines to Our Lady of Fidelity, side by side in a field. Why? Who knows? Frances shot this on Kodak Ektar 100, as far as we recall with a Voigtländer Bessa-R2.

courtyard with railing

Courtyard, Arles

The older parts of Arles are full of tiny courtyards and dead-ends, and a wide-angle is more or less essential. With full-frame 35mm, anything from 15mm to 35mm works fine; with the M8/M8.2, as here, a 24mm is about as long as you want to go.

 

door and railing, mono
bar n d p mono

Stairs and railing, XII century church

The reason there is so little black and white in this module is that our darkroom was temporarily out of commission; this is a scanned conversion from Ektar 100.

 

Hotel du Nord du Pinus

Another conversion, this time from an M8.2 file. We're getting better at B+W conversions but still greatly prefer real B+W film for B+W photography.

bee hives

Beehives

Sharpening is one of those digital tools that it is almost equally easy to under-use as to over-use: a very great deal depends on the subject matter. The rough-sawn, flaky-painted wood here is quite hard to oversharpen, whereas (for example) an overshapened facial complexion quite soon looks like some awful skin disease. (M8.2)

 

football player
lanterns

Footballer

On full-frame 35mm, Roger likes 35mm because it allows (in his view) just the right balance between subject and context. With the M8.2, it's a choice between 24mm (32mm equivalent) and 28mm (37mm equivalent).

Lanterns

Despite the faintly ecclesiastical look (is that a novice's cowl and hood?) this is actually no more than a part of the Bastille Day celebrations in the village in which we have lived since 2002. (M8.2)



les americains

Les Americains

Robert Frank's The Americans is one of the great iconic works of photograpy, and to come across a box with this label behind the scenes at Arles 2009 provoked a certain frisson. You can see, though, that the 24mm used close-up (even on the M8.2) causes marked diverging verticals in the picture.

 

orangs paint
claudia, backlit

Paint, Arles

There is distressingly much graffiti in Arles, and even flung paint, as here; but what intrigued Roger was the curiously three-dimensional way in which the paint seems to hang in front of the stonework. (M8.2)

Claudia

Only a slight apology for featuring Claudia once more. This is, after all, a very fair illustration of the flare resistance of the 24mm at full aperture: beyond the south-facing window is bright August sunlight. (M8.2)



pedestrian crossing

Pedestrian crossing

Perhaps the true measure of any lens is whether it makes you want to go out and take pictures with it, even 'something for nothing' pictures like this. The subject could hardly be more mundane (or indeed pedestrian): a kerb, a road, a crossing. And yet it was one of Roger's favourite pictures from a 2000 km (1200 mile) trip...

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© 2009 Roger W. Hicks