A while back I wrote about a lens that I had a hard time selling — the Pentax FA Limited 31mm f/1.8. What led me to part ways with that is what I consider to be a nearly perfect optic — one that is fast, sharp, and compact — without sacrificing character.
I’m talking the Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4 ASPH. A lens that, I’ll be the first to admit, I spent entirely too much money on. A few years back, a coworker brought his Leica M6 into the office. I picked it up and looked through the finder. I felt the weight and admired its relatively compact form factor. I said to myself “I need one of these.”
But, at that point, I wasn’t really shooting that much film. (How quickly things change!) So I wanted a digital Leica. Which gave me one option — the oft-maligned M8. Now, I’ll write about the M8 in the future — but let me say here that it’s a fine camera. It’s not full frame, and you have to use special infrared blocking filters on your lenses, and there are a few other quirks — but the file quality blows any other digital that I’ve used out of the water. (Probably because I haven’t used the full-frame digital M9!)
The M8’s lack of a full frame sensor is actually what led me to the 35mm focal length for my first Leica lens. The camera’s 1.33x crop factor gives the 35mm an approximate “normal” field of view, rather than its moderate wide-angle field of view when used with film. That’s the field of view I’m most comfortable with for general shooting — and I was dead set on an f/1.4 lens — so the Summilux was the lens I had to have.
It’s not a purchase that I regret. The Summilux is pretty fantastic. Its wide aperture allows you to use in really low light, and to create a nice, smoothly blurred background. It captures vibrant colors, and black and white images have wonderful contrast. The lens is also pretty compact. It’s about half the size of the Pentax 31mm, which was probably the closest SLR lens I owned in terms of speed and field of view.
The only really bad thing about the lens is a bit of focus shift when stopping it down. Wide open, focus is tack sharp, but when you stop down to f/1.7 through around f/4.5, the focus can be a little bit off — this is due to the lack of a floating element that moves as the lens focuses. Leica has released a new version of the lens that has a floating element and eliminates this issue, but it’s not a pronounced enough issue to make me considering upgrade.
Even though I’m normally a 50mm shooter, I do find 35mm to be an extremely useful focal length. It can be used for shooting events and evenings with friends, landscapes and cityscapes, signage, wider portraits, street scenes and whatever else you may point your camera at. And when I am shooting digital with the M8, the Summilux 35mm becomes the perfect normal lens.
Regardless of the situation, I’m always confident that I’ll get the best image I can frame and capture from the Summilux. But don’t take my word on it. The proof is always in the pudding, as they say — so I’ve selected some of my favorite shots with this lens for your enjoyment.