PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux


A rational Leica-M lens roadmap

It’s ironic that halfway through writing this piece, the ongoing economic tsunami splashed at my door. I wasn’t in any financial shape to act on my Leica musings, but that has slipped further out now. One can only imagine how hard this hits Leica themselves, my thoughts go to them.

Saying this now I get a sinking feeling in my stomach. I understand why there’s a fire sale going for APO Summicron-M lenses in the used gear forums. It would render my soul to splinters to have to do this.

This opinion piece records my recent thoughts about M-system lenses, in the early spring of 2009. It’s obvious to see what’s there to rationalize about, and why this theory will continue to evolve. It’s all about cost and the perceived value returned.

There are two assumptions that are implicit in my thinking. The first is that an “entry” M camera will come to exist eventually. I have written about the hypothetical entry camera before, but it occurs to me now that this camera might simply be the existing M8 when further devalued over time (their price is already halved in the used market).

The second assumption is that Japanese DSLR systems are unavoidable. Japanese DSLR systems provide vast capabilities at low cost and are the clear choice for many applications (e.g. high magnifications). This guides my analysis towards emphasizing system strengths (dual-system approach) rather than mitigating their weaknesses (single-system approach).

In my opinion, the “soul” of the DRF offering lies in its extreme quality and compactness. These are the parameters I aim to emphasize within budget.

Position at the entry point

The label of “entry level” goes to Zeiss in my analysis. I am not looking at Voigtlander because of quality concerns lately, possibly the subject of a separate article. Without a doubt, a Zeiss ZM outfit would deliver truly excellent results.

The ZM lens draws on the strengths of the DRF platform combined with amazing T* contrast for high-impact imagery. Value opposite the equivalent Zeiss ZF outfit is surprisingly good: equivalent-or-better performance at an unexpectedly lower price over most of the range. My analysis could stop here (it won’t!) because I believe that the Zeiss ZM offer the best value, period.

I have many favorites in the ZM lineup: 2.8/21mm Biogon, 2.8/25mm Biogon, 2/35mm Biogon, 2/50mm Planar and 2/85mm Sonnar. The comparison to Leica’s line-up can be harsh, the reality is that you could own most of these ZMs for the price of certain single Leica lenses.

The 2/85 Sonnar lens invites a dilemma however. This lens is not a budget item by any definition, as it rivals outstanding Leica lenses in every way. Unfortunately its little brother, the 4/85 Tele-Tessar, is challenged by attractive Leica Summarits that offer both significant capabilities and the Leica name. The gap from f/2 to f/4 may be a bridge too far in the end.

Possible Zeiss ZM kits:

• Option A - $1661
2.8/25 Biogon T*
2/50 Planar T*

• Option B - $3789
2/35 Biogon T*
2/85 Sonnar T*

Yet I wonder if the Zeiss T* « signature » is what I am looking for in a DRF kit. Every day I enjoy this feel in my DSLR images. I have come to think of it as being part of my visual style. The opportunity to match color and plasticity across an entire body of work is appealing – but that is to deny the appeal of experiencing a new take on color, as seen by the masters.

Entry within the Leica brand

Earlier I mentioned the core values (as I perceive them) of the DRF in the of world DSLRs: extreme quality and compactness. Not all Leica lenses are created equal, obviously, some embody these principles more than others. At the top of the pile are many of my favorites, and few are budget items.

In my mind, none are more exemplary of the DRF mantra than the 24mm f/3.8 Elmar-M ASPH, which has caught my attention in a major way recently. The lens is small, light and in a league of its own optically. It’s also among the least expensive of Leica’s ASPH lenses. The only weakness of the Elmar is its low speed, which I would argue isn’t an issue when a high-ISO DSLR with lower-quality fast lenses is also in the bag.

The 24mm Elmar-M ASPH is my no-brainer pick as the foundation of a DRF outfit. One lens does not a system make, however, and the challenge is to decide what to join to the Elmar to form a kit. The ideal choice in my opinion would be a reformulated 50mm f/2 Summicron ASPH based on a shrunken Summilux ASPH design. I strongly suspect this lens will come sooner rather than later, but unfortunately isn’t available today.

Three options appeal to me in the interim. The first is the 50mm f/2.5 Summarit, a very compact and affordable lens that delivers performance very close to that of the current Summicron for half the price. The second is the 75mm f/2.5 Summarit, a nice complement which delivers very good performance in a package that is both small and relatively affordable. The last is the 75mm APO-Summicron ASPH, an expensive lens that represents the same unusual level of performance and long-term value as the Elmar-M ASPH.

I must note that the 24mm Elmar is not the only option for the wide-normal lens. The miniature 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M ASPH is very popular with its lower price, smaller size and almost a stop faster aperture.

Possible Leica kits:

• Option C – $2790
2.8/28 Elmarit ASPH
2.5/75 Summarit

• Option D - $3390
3.8/24 Elmar ASPH
2.5/50 Summarit

• Option E - $3690
3.8/24 Elmar ASPH
2.5/75 Summarit

• Option F - $5390
3.8/24 Elmar ASPH
2/75 APO Summicron ASPH

(prices include a $300 rebate per lens that is currently offered)

This is where my thinking ends. It will take quite some time before I have the opportunity to act here, but I have an idea of what my choices might look like.

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Hi:

    I’ve been shooting Nikon for decades and, as always, any time I see a Leica I think ‘one day.’ Well, I’ve been thinking about it more and more these days but I just can’t bite the bullet for the reason you cite.

    How long can Leica sell ten megapixel cameras in a world with 24 megapixel cameras.

  2. Hi Andy,

    I think Leica can in fact continue to sell their 10MP camera for a little while longer. It’s not what I want to see, but I’m just stating the facts – they can and will.

    Their 10MP is actually pretty good when you have enough light to feed it, better than other 10MPs you may have seen before. The secret is the absence of AA filter. Side-by-side with a 5D Mk-II I must say that the M8.2 does better than I’d have expected.

    Personally I’m just going to sit tight and wait. I’m going under the belief/delusion that in about 2 years they will ship what I want.

  3. I agree with Erwin about the necessity of a new Summicron 50 Asph. But isn’t the Planar ZM 50 a temporary replacement? I don’t know how it performs on M9, but on M8 closed to f5,6 it is quite good. In some ways it is superior to the fantastic Apo-Summicron 2/75: the Planar almost never flairs, while the Apo-Summicron is problematic in interiors when windows are sun-lit.

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