Ming Thein: A Shooter’s Review of the 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE

Malaysian photographer Ming Thein has previously contributed to the Leica Camera Blog with his impressions of the V-Lux 3. He is a member of Getty Images, a noted horological photographer and documenter of life. Here he shares his thoughts on the 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE.

Chinese New Year is traditionally a time for gathering with family and friends, eating, drinking and generally making merry in Asia. It’s much like Christmas and the New Year in the West, except without the cold weather and short days. This year is supposedly more auspicious than most, because the 12-year Zodiac cycle has arrived at the year of the Dragon. My wife, who works at a local hospital, tells me that they are projecting increased revenue as it’s a traditionally popular time to have babies.

But let’s backtrack one week. Leaving with more equipment than I arrived has become a bad habit of mine whenever visiting the Leica offices here. At the local launch event in Kuala Lumpur for the V-Lux 3 was a display cabinet with M-System products; an unfamiliar lens was inside and it followed me home. The recent 35 f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE (Floating Lens Element), hereafter known as the 35 FLE, has been in short supply since its launch. Not surprising, since 35mm is the staple photojournalistic focal length, and one of the legendary ones for Leica shooters. To be honest though, it’s never appealed to me as a focal length as I just tend to see better compositions in either longer or wider focal lengths — typically 24/28mm for work in close quarters or 50/85mm for a more cinematic feel. 35mm is no man’s land, but curiosity got the better of me this time. My experience with the immediately previous 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH (VI) was both brief and admittedly unremarkable. I couldn’t justify owning a lens that I wouldn’t use very much and both samples I tried exhibited focus shift. This is where the plane of focus moves towards or away from the camera as the lens is stopped down. The helicoid may be adjusted for and optimized to deliver sharp images either wide open at f/1.4 or stopped down, but never both. The shift is usually significant enough that depth of field increases with stopping down do not cover the change until f/8 or so – making the lens effectively either an f/1.4 or f/8 optic.

I had a much better experience with the 35 f/2 Summicron-M ASPH on my M8 and M6TTL. That lens is completely free of focus shift and one of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever used, with excellent micro contrast structure that creates a very three dimensional feel to the image. Sadly though, 35mm and f/2 aren’t usually enough to create much background separation, especially if your subject is at moderate distances.

So how did the new 35 FLE fare? I’m pleased to report that the floating element group (supposedly to correct for both focus shift and aberrations at close focus distances) does its job very well, and in the hundreds of images I’ve shot with the lens so far I haven’t seen any evidence of focus shift. It also beats the 35 f/2 ASPH for sharpness at every aperture, which is an achievement. It’s on par with the 50 f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. There is some lateral chromatic aberration visible at high contrast edges, especially in the corners; it goes away after stopping down a little. The same can be said of vignetting. Center and border sharpness is excellent already at f/1.4, with uniform biting sharpness achieved across the frame into the far corners by f/4. There is no trace of ghosting and only minimal flare when shooting into the light. Contrast is maintained well, but lowered just slightly — which gives the images a very cinematic feel. Contributing to this is sharp definition of the plane of focus, with a fast transition to soft bokeh both in front and behind the subject. The 35 FLE’s rendition feels similar to the 50 f/1.4 ASPH and to a lesser extent the 50 f/0.95 ASPH, but with a slightly different color signature — it’s hard to describe, but it feels a little more neutral and natural. Overall contrast is good, slightly lower than both the 35 f/2 ASPH and 50 f/1.4 ASPH; it does help retain more dynamic range on digital bodies. However, the micro contrast structure of the 35 FLE seems better than both.

One other nice touch is the new hood is much smaller than its predecessor, and far less unwieldy; it simply screws on to the end of the lens, and cleverly machined threads stop rotation once it’s reached the correct orientation. The hood is both metal and vented to minimize finder blockage. There’s also a blank ring to cover over the hood threads, which I prefer because it doesn’t obstruct the finder at all. Needless to say, the physical finishing is excellent. The focusing ring — tabbed, which I’m a big fan of because you can tell focus distance by feel alone — was a little stiff at first, probably because there’s now an extra helicoid inside the lens to move the floating element group. After some use it’s now reached the perfect level of smooth resistance. I’d like the aperture ring to be a bit stiffer, though. It’s too easy to bump and suddenly find yourself shooting at f/4.

But enough of the technical jargon; the short version is that I like this lens very much. Enough so that I haven’t touched either the 28mm or 50mm since mounting it to my M9-P and that I plan to add one to the arsenal very soon. I think I’m now a 35mm convert. It’s long enough to separate, wide enough to give context. And with the f/1.4 maximal aperture, it’s bright enough to shoot under almost any light conditions. The true test of that will be when I cover the 2012 Thaipusam celebrations next month … stay tuned.

-Ming Thein

You can see more of his work on www.mingthein.com and www.flickr.com/mingthein.