PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

4May/115

Leica 90mm Summarit-M Review

The 90mm Summarit-M is the only reasonable “long” lens for the unreasonable M system, that is both its claim to fame and explains why it doesn’t appear to be very successful in the marketplace.  This Summarit also serves as the replacement for the venerable and universally loved 90mm Elmarit-M, a lens that is difficult to replace in the minds and hearts of longtime Leica photographers.  As a result the 90mm Summarit-M is a lens that is appreciated in relative silence vis-à-vis the Internet.

The Summarit-M family of lenses is the latest response to the most obvious and persistent criticism of Leica’s business strategy.   They aren’t the first response by far… for decades Leica sold compact 50mm and 90mm Elmarit-M lenses at much lower prices.  The arrival of the Summarits marked both the end of those two Elmarit lines and the beginning of a formal reorganization of entry-level Leica lenses under a separate sub-brand.

To be honest I was never really interested in getting a Summarit for my money.  My interest in them only went as far as curiosity.  The 90mm Summarit-M seemed like a good choice of starting point to learn about the Summarit family because I was also curious to try the longer focal length on the M camera.  Roger at LensRentals.com kindly sent me a copy of this lens so that I could share what I learned.

Operation

The 90mm Summarit-M looks and feels like every other Leica lens, to the exception of the rubber focus grip and the font used for inscriptions.  The quality of this simulacrum is exceptional, and it instantly blew away all my reservations pertaining to the build quality of the Summarits.  The only meaningful differences in aesthetic come from the inclusion of the rubber grip, which in my opinion is less than attractive.

The aperture ring of this Summarit has a truly excellent feel.  It is not as luscious as that of the 75mm APO Summicron-M ASPH (review), but feels superior to that of the wide-angle Leica M lenses I have used.  You can expect to put some mileage on the aperture ring of the Summarit because of the precarious balance of focus, depth-of-field and image quality inherent in a fast (-ish) 90mm spherical lens.

Manual focus is not easy with a 90mm lens on a rangefinder and completely impossible unless the rangefinder is calibrated to the lens, assuming perfect calibration is even possible.  Right out of the box I experienced consistent focus errors with this lens sample on my camera.  Focus was spot-on at about 2m, but consistently landed in front (a little) at closer distances and to the back (a lot) at longer distances.

That’s when I decided to try to fix the back-focus first via a rangefinder adjustment because it was the most visible of the two.  I observed that the definition of infinity had drifted on my camera and I set out to make it perfect again.  Unfortunately once I restored the definition of infinity, the Summarit front-focused badly at close distances.  Before I made any further adjustments I decided to research this issue more in depth.  In a separate article (link) I explained why I won't be making any further adjustments for lenses of this type.

Lastly, and this is a minor point compared to such trouble, manual focus is a bit laborious with this Summarit because it is extremely stiff.  Rubber is not a good material for focusing grips, it irritates fingertips more than metal, but with this amount of resistance the lens would be difficult to operate without it.

Drawing

The 90mm Summarit-M is a very competent optic at all apertures.  It delivers sharp images of whatever ends up being in focus when you trip the shutter.  I’m not turning this to comedy, it is sincerely difficult to support claims for what this lens can actually deliver in the field because of the problems getting it to focus where you intend to.

Starting from the full aperture of f/2.5 the Summarit-M draws very fine detail with low contrast and micro-contrast, and fairly generous chromatic aberrations.  Only a slight improvement in resolving power and contrast is observed as you stop down to f/4, but chromatic aberrations improve substantially.  At this aperture, and particularly at longer distances, the Summarit-M can saturate the M9’s sensor with sharp images.  There is very little incentive to stop down further except to increase depth of field and hide focus error, but even at f/11+ this isn’t always possible with a 90mm lens.

Bokeh quality is pretty average at full aperture and starts to become good around f/4.  In particular the transition from focus to defocus isn’t particularly graceful with this lens, with not much improvement available by stopping down.  Fine detail trapped in the transition takes on a nervous look; this is not an enjoyable trait but occasionally this creates the impression of sharp focus in images that are factually mis-focused.

Lastly resistance to flare is low and the lens is too shallow to shade itself, so in my opinion the use of the optional hood is actually mandatory out under the Sun.  Stepping down the lens to around f/5.6 helps to reduce the incidence of flares due to oblique rays.  When shooting against the light in an indoor setting, the lens produces a generous dose of Leica’s signature golden veiling flare at all apertures.  While it is not unpleasant, I would personally prefer to get less of the effect.

Conclusion

The 90mm Summarit-M is the most cost-efficient way to get to get Leica’s visual signature in a telephoto package.  However there is nothing efficient about the usability issues that I encountered and explained (or attempted to anyway).  For users of mirrorless cameras the Summarit is a simple lens that comes without any superlative properties except in the substance of its build quality.

Would I recommend this lens to other photographers?  No. Look at the other Summarits first.

Samples


Comments (5) Trackbacks (3)
  1. I think pretty much everything in this review reminds me of the Elmarit-M, but it has better build quality and a built in shade.
    Thanks for yet another informative review and I really appreciate that you’re not afraid to outright “not recommend” a lens. Most reviewers seem afraid of taking a strong opinion on a lens. Steve Huff has great reviews, but he glows a bit strongly when it comes to Leica lenses and as much as he loves each and every lens he reviews, he still seems inclined to constantly trade them for something new. If he doesn’t like something, he doesn’t even post a review, which doesn’t help anybody.
    Thanks again!

    • Thank you for the kind words Warren.

      I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the state of reviewing on the internet: too many reviewers like everything, never say anything bad, and as a result it’s hard to take them seriously.

      Unfortunately I don’t get tremendously rewarded for my behavior. I don’t get a ton of traffic like some other people and as a result I’m not likely to get any more free rentals like the one that made this review possible.

      Olivier

  2. Sad story.
    For the others reviews we usually learnt to read between the words…
    Phenix jc

  3. Think this is a great lens…..maybe not the best build quality, but Leica quality are the best you can get 😉

  4. Agree with Ola. I had the Elmarit and replaced it (at a profit) with a like-new (someonenwhomread a bad review?) Summarit.

    I couldn’t be happier. Yes, it (and any 90) is hard to focus well, but when you nail it it is gorgeous. Every bit as nice of rendering as the Elmarit, nicer bokeh (the 75 Summaritnis even better) and lighter weight.

    I also replaced my 35 and 50 Summicrons with Summarits. Better bokeh (especially the 35), lighter weight, and better flare resistance.


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