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.
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.
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.
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.
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.