The dreamy 50mm ‘Lux David English shares his insights about the Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH and APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH.

What’s the best 50mm lens? There’s no simple answer to that question. And the reason it’s complicated becomes clear when you look at Leica’s own 50mm M-mount lenses. I haven’t shot with all of Leica’s 50mm lenses, but two that I have used are about as different as you can imagine for two lenses to be—given that they’re from the same manufacturer and have the same focal length.

The two lenses are the Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. and Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH.. Compared with the Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH., the Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. costs roughly twice as much. That’s because it’s the sharpest of all of Leica’s standard lenses. However, sharpness isn’t the only critical measure. There’s also the character of the lens. Both lenses produce amazingly fine photos. Yet their photos seem to go into two very different directions.

Images from the Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. are breathtaking because they’re almost hyper-real. That’s especially true when shooting with the M Monochrom camera. It’s no coincidence that the Monochrom and Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. were announced on the same day. They’re an unbeatable full-frame combination for producing true-to-life black-and-white digital images.

Strictly speaking, the Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. is less accurate, even when combined with a Monochrom. Yet it brings other benefits to the relationship. The Monochrom and Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. can produce images with an ethereal, dreamlike quality that’s just as impressive as the hyper-real images from the Monochrom and Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH.. The Noctilux is best known as the dreamy lens in Leica’s 50mm line-up, but the Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. shares some of those same elusive qualities.

When I started shooting with the Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. in 2014, I set aside my Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH.. Though I did bring both with me to photokina that year. I shot with both lenses at Cologne’s Melaten-Friedhof cemetery on alternate days, sometimes shooting the same monument or statue in slightly different light. Later when processing those photos, I realized that I often preferred the Summilux shots, because its rendering seemed to be a better match for the cemetery.

So late last year, I dusted off my Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. and decided to give it a workout during three tradeshow trips to Tokyo, New York, and Las Vegas. The goal was to look for scenes and environments that might bring out the special qualities of the lens.

A great lens is like a fine actor. Without the right scene that matches up with the personality of the lens, you might never realize just how much potential is waiting to be untapped. Similarly, the choice of your lens should sync up with what you’re trying to achieve with your photography. With photo journalism, accuracy is usually more important than a specific look. The Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. might be a better choice in that situation. With fine art photography, where the tone or feel of the image may be more important than a realistic result, the Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. might be a better choice.

Based on this recent experience, the Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. has become one of my favorite lenses again, even though I’m primarily a wide-angle shooter. It has a modern design, yet it retains much of the flavor of the classic Leica lenses from previous decades. As you can see from these photos, it can be sharp when you need it be, without being clinical or cold. It’s also unusually small and lightweight for a Summilux lens (only the 35mm Summilux-M is smaller and lighter). Those diminutive dimensions are especially welcome when you need a compact camera for low-light situations.

All of these images were shot with a Monochrom camera. And because I was using a fast Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. lens that’s well suited for a wide range of naturally lit environments, I was able to shoot all the images at the base ISO setting (ISO 320) for maximum image quality.

© David English

There are many stylistic techniques that you can use to bring out the dreamy quality of an image. With the photo titled Tokyo International Forum #6, more than half the image is hidden from view. Each figure is partially obscured in shadow to the degree that you have to look closely to determine the direction or context for some of the people. Compositionally, the photo is split along diagonal lines. The left side with the solitary walking figure expands downward toward the bright light, while the right side with the reclining figures expands upward toward the dappled light. The diverging lines and shadows set up a tension that gives the otherwise sleepy setting a visual lift.

© David English

Reflections can also provide a dreamlike quality by seeming to distort familiar objects. Because we understand the context of how reflections work, we can view a reflected image simultaneously as real and unreal—with no apparent contradiction. With the photo titled Chrysler Building Reflection #2, the familiar object is New York’s Chrysler Building as it’s being reflected along the surface of an adjacent building. The main interest for the viewer is to understand how the reflected building is both captured and distorted at the same time. Each window pane becomes a separate mirror that offers a unique perspective on the overall reflection. Fortunately, the Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. and Monochrom are able to convey this complexity without imposing a strong digital imprint.

© David English

The previous photo distorted a familiar object using reflections to give it a surreal appearance. Another strategy is leave the familiar object unaltered, but place it into an environment that’s naturally surreal. With the photo titled Aria Hallway #4, the woman seems to be walking along an expanding pattern that extends across the floor into the nearby walls. Because she’s in the optimal position (from our point of view), she seems to riding a wavelike visual effect. As you might guess, I had to wait quite a while for someone to randomly walk into the ideal spot. Sometimes all it takes is a bit of patience and a pair of comfortable shoes.

 

© David English

Shadows can be especially interesting when they create a geometric pattern that enhances or reveals a human figure. That’s the basis for much of the great film noir cinematography, though the basic principles also apply to street photography. With the photo titled Manhattan Shadows #18, I had to wait again for someone to randomly complete the composition. I knew the shadows would hold their pattern for only a limited amount of time, and I was lucky to catch her at just the right moment when her flying hair was beautifully backlit. I like to think of every photo as a miniature movie. A still image doesn’t move, but it can set up a mini-narrative that directs the viewer to use his or her imagination to fill in the details hidden by the shadows.

When combined with the Monochrom, the Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. is remarkably adept at recreating the classic black-and-white photography of the 1940s and 1950s. It doesn’t have the ultra-precise rendering of the Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. or the lush bokeh of the 50mm Noctilux-M. But it does combine some of the special qualities of both lenses. And it’s small enough to go unnoticed as you seek out extraordinary images along shadowy streets and buildings.

This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky, and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2. He is currently using an M Monochrom, X Vario, and Q. You can see his photos at protozoid.com. His main website is davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is classicfilmpreview.com.

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13 comments

  • Two wonderful lenses and well put at use by a master.
    In the 50mm range i much prefer the summicron-m, the last dr Mandler design still in production for
    the classic black-and-white photography.
    I use the 50mm summicron-m with tri-x or hp5 for classic look
    and my 35 summicron-m asph with delta 100 for the modern almost grainless look.
    Each lenses has a personality and you can mix it with a film of your choosing to produce a unique couple dancing with the light.
    Well in the digital realm you can consider each sensor, ccd cmos color or mono as a particular film or dancer that is.

    • Thanks, Éric. Much appreciated. The more I use the various lenses, the more I understand their quirks and personalities. We’re lucky to have such a wide range of M-mount lenses going back to the 1950s.

  • Mr. English always educates and fascinates THANK YOU, never miss your posts!

  • David,

    Having followed your work, I seem to come away with a sense that the maturity of your style is drafted from your choice of not just specific focal lengths but the the specific lens models. I see what appears to be an evolution to the 21SE and 50 Lux after years of marriage to the 24Lux and 18SE. Is there something very personal in these choices or is it more experimentation and what happens to be in your bag at the time? Also do you tend to use your lenses at or close to widest aperture, or stopped down, and does this dictate one model over another?

    Fabulous work as always.

  • Freud and psychoanalysis are well represented in black and white photography.

  • Interesting, I dream in color which is perhaps why I shoot accordingly. Never considered the genesis of that proclivity until your comment.

    Fab work. Much to be envied in your style.

    • Thanks, Flip. Much appreciated. There may be a generational element, as well. I remember reading an article that suggested that people who grew up watching black-and-white television may be more inclined to dream in black-and-white than people who grew up watching color television.

  • David. Quick and hopefully innocuous follow on questions.

    What has prompted the change in lens focal length choices over the years? I see your migration from the 24mm lux and 18mm SE to the 21mm SE and 50 Lux. Would you say that you have found a style identity with these choices or are your decisions more of what is at hand, changing up for variety and just enjoying the ride?

    I have found the 24mm SE as a staple.

    • It’s a combination of things. Some of it relates to my transition from the M9 to the Monochrom. With the Monochrom’s higher base ISO and more film-like noise, I don’t feel as strong a need for using the faster Lux lenses. That has shifted me away from the 24mm Lux to the 24mm Elmar. I tend to rely on the 21mm SE because it has become my favorite wide-angle lens. I love the way it renders. And I do like to change the mix from time to time, in part so that I can have something to write about here.

      That said, I plan to give the 35mm Lux a good workout, as I haven’t used it much with the Monochrom. And I’ve been itching to go back to the 18mm SE. It’s a great focal length with the right content.

      There probably are some stylistic influences, as well. I’m seeking out shadowy images more than before, so I’m looking for lenses that can render objects distinctly from the background. The Elmar and Super-Elmar lenses seem to be particularly well-suited for that.

      Mostly, I’m just enjoying the ride.

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