PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux


Summicron Examples at f/5.6

A friend of mine asked out of honest curiosity what the difference was between different pieces of high-end equipment. He asked from the point of view of a photography outsider.  More precisely, his real question is what does equipement worth $11K do that equipement worth $3.5K doesn't do?

Here is a very simple comparison, and let me tell you right off the bat that it's completely fair.  The premise makes it fair to compare lenses with an order of magnitude difference in price.  You'll find the more expensive equipment is both handily superior but at the same time the gain is far from proportional to cost.

The cheap lens in the test is a Nikkor AF-D 18-35mm ED zoom, and it's mounted on a D700.  As far as wide zooms go this one is extremely ordinary, it's just like the other zooms I've seen covering this focal range and at this price point.  This lens formerly occupied the market segment where the 16-35mm f/4G VR currently is.

The expensive lens in the test is a Leica 28mm Summicron-M ASPH, on the M9.  This lens is not ordinary at all, though it has solid competition in the 2/28mm Distagon ZF.  Compared to the Nikkor this lens is about six times brigther, a quarter of the size and yet feels heavier, oh and it costs about eight times more to buy.

I will be using this scene shot earlier today with both lenses at f/5.6:

This is the Leica full image.  The Nikon is essentially identical at this resolution of course.

Near the right edge:

Nikkor sample: AF-D 18-35mm at 28mm and f/5.6.

Leica sample: 28mm Summicron-M ASPH at f/5.6.

Near the left edge:

Nikkor sample: AF-D 18-35mm at 28mm and f/5.6.

Leica sample: 28mm Summicron-M ASPH at f/5.6.

In the outer regions is where all the money goes, so it's obvious this is where the Summicron beats the Nikkor.  Incidentally that's where all the pixels are too, if you're counting.  We haven't looked deep into the corners here, but the further out you go the worse it gets for Nikkor.

In the center the differences are much more subtle, and basically boil down to sensor resolution differences.  Here are crops form the center of the same image.

Nikkor sample: AF-D 18-35mm at 28mm and f/5.6.

Leica sample: 28mm Summicron-M ASPH at f/5.6.

Conclusion... no conclusion.

Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Comparing one of the top five 28mm fixed lenses in it’s sweet spot with an “average zoom” almost wide open… fair indeed 😉

    I’d say that a more fair comparison would be with the AI-s Nikkor 28/2.8 (one of the best two nikkor 28mm along side with the 28/1.4) at f/5.6 to f/8, that would be more fun! …hey, even the AF-D version would be more a fair comparison, including price-wise… 😉

    Plus, it would be interesting as I’ve only compared the cron directly with the CV 28/1.9 and the Nikkor 28/1.4 (my main 28) on film. would be fun to see how they fair on digital.

    • Firstly, thanks for the comment Alex. You’re right that there are many lenses that are more interesting to compare against.

      However just like the price basis of comparison makes it fair to compare cheap and expensive lenses, the choice of aperture is completely fair too. It’s the *same* aperture, what could be more fair? I don’t care if one lens is peaked and the other is not, it’s part of the reality of cheap lensest that they peak at small apertures that can’t be used except on tripods or at noon.

      I can also add that the Nikkor 18-35mm never really gets rid of these blurry outer regions, even at f/11, so it wouldn’t matter.

      As for the primes… it’s important in this case (responding to my friend) to compare to a $500 zoom because that’s what more people use and even that is considered high-end by a lot of people (including him). In a prime comparison like you I expect a more even gradient of excellent performance and so I agree with you that the comparison would be more “fair” in the sense that the Nikkors would have a fighting chance.

      Specifically the Nikkor f/1.4 lens is (and always was) an extremely expensive item, so it better rank up there with the Summicron. I might pick the Zeiss 2/28mm Distagon for this purpose, that is a lens I enjoyed thouroughly and found to be extremely sharp.

      = Anyway =

      This comparison is not intended for an audience that includes prime shooters. If you shoot primes, you’ve already figured out what I’m trying to say.



      • Just a note…
        I don’t only shoot primes! 🙂

        …most of what I shoot is street, so for instance, I love the AF-S 17-35/2.8, but it is big, heavy and very scary, so I take it either as a bad weather lens (it’s practically waterproof) or on special occasions, like shooting the wildfires that surrounded Moscow last summer. My two favorite lenses for street are the 28/1.4 I mentioned above and the good old Ai-s 28-50/3.5 which covers all of my favorite focal lengths / distances, costs 100-250$ used, is very sharp center to corner starting at f/3.5, but when wide open has a very weird plain of focus (when focused at 2m, 75% of image diameter is flat focused at that distance but the corners are sharp at infinity) so it needs to be focused very carefully… and it does not matter because most of my daylight pics are shot at f/8 – f/11 and hyper focused 😉

        What I’m trying to say here, is that to be completely, 100% fair, the most important thing one has to understand is the concept of “enough quality”.

        For example: if one is using an M9 in available light, at 1/8 – 1/15sec most of the time, then there’s not much difference to see between “almost” any lens, when that lens is bright enough, that is 🙂

        …thus, for any set of specific context, skill and equipment there is a very specific “enough quality” level, usually equal the the “weakest link limit”, above which there is no difference in perceived quality regardless of the absolutes 😉

  2. Dang Alex beat me to it, I was also going to say you should compare it to the lovely 28mm f2.8 AIS (forget the AF-D), for the money it’s a cracker. Super low distortion, and small min focus distance. I own one.
    I’m sure the 28mm Summicron is rather nice though 😉

  3. There is a conclusion possible though. A conclusion around what is best for YOUR situation. Revolving around a few questions:

    –Do you actually see the differences at the shots above?
    –If so, is the difference worth a $ 7500,=? Is it even possible for you to shell out so much money for a camera-lens combo?

    From these questions everyone can make its own decisions. That is the value of comparisons like this. The other proposed comparisons are less valueable in my opinion.


    Because they compare lenses from different systems with each other (Like a D3x – CZ 28/2.0 combo with a Leica M9 – summicron 28 combo). Who needs these comparisons? Everyone who want to shell out so much money for a camera-lens combo knows what he wants to buy and why. If he does not he is not worth the equipment IMHO. Therefore the proposed comparisons are scientifically flawed and will only give room to discussions like “my D3x with lens xyz is actually better then your M9 with lens abc”. I do not think this will contribute greatly to better pictures for anyone.

    I am quite sure that both combo’s in my example are exemplary in their performance though totally different in the approach to photography. You should not judge either of them by their absolute performance but for their ability to make the best possible pictures in a given (often “practiced by the buyer”) photographic situation.

    Just my 2 c….



    • Fantastic comment!

      However there is still a paradox between Leica’s legendary quality and our supposed inability to compare with it. Even contrived comparisons have their place.

      To fit this inside the framework you laid out: in the long term seeing comparisons between F and M systems helps someone make up his mind whether he wants to invest into an F or M system. You take this a as pre-conceived decision, but it had to be formed at some point.


      • You are right Oliver: the decision about a camera system is indeed formed at some point. The point I am trying to make is that lens/picture quality is only a part of the total attributes, traits of a certain system. And all big players in the camera system field easily get to a performance level that is “more then enough”. This makes that the final decision is more depending on the usability of a certain system in the circumstances where you are going to use the system.

        For instance:
        Alex above is mentioning the Nikkor 17-35 to be a too intimidating lens for street shooting. That is an extra argument to buy an M9 with a lux-28. It gives him the same headroom (seeing that the Nikon’s may have a higher usable ISO where the Leica lens is faster) while also getting the rangefinder that is more usable in the streetwork IMHO.

        If you want to go for macro or long telelenses then the M-system is out of the question and you can only decide between SLR brands, each with its own system attributes. If you want to use long telelenses then you need to go with Canon or Nikon as Pentax and Sony lack the choice in lenses there.

        In my opinion the choice of a camera system is primarily made with the intended use of the system in mind while choosing the system that fits most optimally to the attributes of the intended assignments. Lens quality is, again in my opinion, not a primary decisive factor as long as there is “enough” quality (whatever that means). The lengthy discussions on lens quality and which lens/system is performing better is mainly fired by amateurs (with deep pockets) who want to own “the best there is” and defend there choices at all cost.

        This is now 4 c….. 🙂

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