Lens review: The Leica 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE

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I couldn’t find a product shot in my archive, so you’re going to have to settle for one of me using it instead.

Not long after this lens was initially released and generally available – early 2012 – I published a guest post review here on the Leica Blog. At that point, I’d had no more than a couple of weeks to shoot with the lens, and certainly not under any kind of duress or pressure. Since then, I’ve both encountered many situations with the lens and used it as pretty much the go-to on my M9-P in the hopes of making 35mm one of the intuitive focal lengths in my repertoire. It didn’t stick, and somewhere in the middle of last year, I landed up selling it to one of my students.

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Diner. All images in this review shot with the Leica M9-P except where otherwise noted.

I’ve been meaning to do a full review for some time now, but the reality is that there have been many other things which have gotten in the way – or perhaps I should stop making excuses for being lazy.

The 35mm f1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE is version seven in a long and distinguished line of lenses – some may even think of them as legendary and quintessentially Leica. They’ve grown larger, heavier and more expensive as time moved on – earlier versions were practically pancakes compared to the 35 FLE, but admittedly they were also relatively poor performers at maximum aperture. The previous version (VI) featured a single aspherical element (there was a very rare double aspherical version produced too, relatively early on in the life of this lens) and was known for being both an excellent optic, but hamstrung by one huge flaw: focus shift.

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Saute

Focus shift is when the focal plane changes distance on stopping down, even though the lens elements aren’t moved. This typically happens in fast, non-symmetric lens designs. In practical terms, it isn’t an issue with mirrorless cameras because they’re always focusing at shooting aperture anyway and on the sensor plane; for SLRs, you focus wide open and need to take into account shift when stopped down (DOF preview helps here); for rangefinders, you’re mostly out of luck since you never see where your depth of field plane lies anyway. Basically, the 35 ASPH VI could be calibrated to focus perfectly wide open, or stopped down slightly; at much smaller apertures (8 onwards) it’s a wash anyway as the increase depth of field covers any movement in the focal plane. In my limited experience with the VI, the shift was very noticeable and quite a pain since correct calibration for all of my other lenses would correspond to slightly stopped down for the 35; I landed up selling it and getting the 35/2 ASPH instead, which is both an outstanding optic and exhibits no focus shift.

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Reflecting

The new 35 FLE (VII, code 11663) retains the same fundamental 9/5 optical design as the 35 ASPH VI, except for one important difference: a number of elements – the rear group, I believe – move separately from the front elements to correct for focus shift, especially at close distances. Both lenses have concave front and rear elements. As a result of the secondary helicoid, the focusing action is definitely stiffer than the old lens, especially when new. Some use will help the lens to break in and acquire the perfect amount of resistance, however – mine certainly did. (As always, it goes to prove that practice improves your photographic experience…)

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Cigar man. From my recent exhibition

The inevitable question is ‘does the FLE group work as intended?’ The short answer is yes – you can stop reading here if that’s all you wanted to know and you were otherwise happy with the older lens. There’s a noticeable improvement in practical image quality close up and/ or wide open; partially because I feel the optics of this version have been somehow refined, and partially because it’s now easy to hit perfect focus even when the lens is used wide open. In several thousand images shot with this lens, I haven’t seen any evidence of focus shift.

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Sometimes it’s best not to look up

As far as resolution goes, the lens – my sample at least – exceeds the 35/2 ASPH at every aperture, and seems to have a slightly crisper rendition with improved microcontrast. All in all, an impressive performance. Color rendition is neutral, and takes cinematic color shifts in processing well. Corner performance is almost as good as center performance, with only very slight softness and lateral chromatic aberration visible on high contrast edges when shot wide open; both markedly improve at f2 and match the center at f2.8. Overall, it seems to match the rendition of other Peter-Karbe era lenses very well; I’d say its character is closest to the 50/1.4 ASPH in rendition, splitting scenes into clean, pleasingly cinematic planes regardless of aperture. Subjects stand out with a very three-dimensional rendition thanks to the excellent microcontrast and low presence of CA, though overall contrast seems to be slightly lower than the 50/1.4 ASPH and 35/2 ASPH – not necessarily a bad thing to aid retention of dynamic range on digital. There’s also very little field curvature that I can see.

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Sunset over the Gulf of Thailand

The look of modern Leica lenses is defined as much as by the out-of-focus areas as those that are in focus. Whilst a number of aficionados, shooters and pundits alike wax lyrical about the quality of the bokeh defining the various eras in lens design, I think the focal transition zones are much more telling. The rendition of edges in that zone – specifically, the presence of lateral/ longitudinal chromatic aberration and double imaging, and the abruptness of the transition – says a lot about both the design of the lens, and its overall character. In this way, the new-era aspherical Leica lenses all share the same characteristic of having a very fast, clean transition between zones; this is perhaps typified by the 50/1.4 ASPH. I’m sure Erwin Puts and others would have far more detail to add, but this level of understanding is probably sufficient for your average photographer.

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Puddle

In practical terms, it means that you probably want to choose a set of lenses based on the look you prefer. Earlier, Mandler-era lenses with shallower, more gentle transitions between zones tend to be appear generally softer and of lower contrast, though this doesn’t mean the in-focus areas have any lower resolution than later ASPH optics. In contrast, the ASPH designs have a much faster, more abrupt – transition, which slices your scene neatly into planes of focus. It’s cleaner, but I personally find suits the digital medium much better than film because the distinct-edges work together with the discrete pixels of the imaging medium to create a doubly-sharp impression. I personally prefer to use ASPH glass on digital cameras and Mandler-era on film.

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Occulus. M-Monochrom

I haven’t said anything about the build quality up to this point, because as with all Leica lenses, it’s pretty much a non-issue. The 35 FLE is a heavy, solid lump of machined aluminum (I can only imagine how heavy it would be if they did a chrome version with a brass substrate) that doesn’t clunk or rattle when shaken. The two controls move smoothly; my aperture ring could have used more resistance though; it was a bit too easy to move from setting to setting accidentally. As mentioned earlier, you do need to work the focusing ring to break it in; otherwise using the focusing tab can result in some unpleasant bruises on your finger. I’m actually a huge fan of focusing tabs because they make things so much faster in practice, especially on a well-used and smooth lens.

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Fergus Henderson in action

The other huge improvement over the 35 ASPH VI is the hood: no longer is it an enormous clip on plastic monstrosity that both somehow manages to be stubborn (when you want to take it off) and easy to lose/ crack (when you have it in your camera bag) – and to make things worse, it also massively obstructed the viewfinder. Instead, we get a streamlined hood that screws on, managing to stop with perfect alignment thanks to cleverly machined threads; it’s got a tiny cutout in one corner to allow viewing through, but I found that the lens is best used without a hood; simply attach the included blanking ring to cover the hood threads, and use the supplied round cap (instead of that flimsy slip-on plastic thing that covers the hood). In this way, it becomes compact and doesn’t obstruct the finder at all.

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Peter Bendheim, good friend and photographer

Out of curiosity, I tried the lens on my OM-D, expecting the same outstanding level of performance as seen on the M9-P; no dice. I was sorely disappointed, and reminded of why I dislike using non-native lenses on other systems, especially those with very short back flange distances. The microlenses covering the sensor form part of the optical system, and tend to interact in strange ways with the optics of legacy lenses. Unfortunately, it was no different here: the 35 FLE showed bad smearing and lateral chromatic aberration (plus purple fringing) and wasn’t acceptable until f5.6 or thereabouts; I can’t recommend using this lens on M4/3 – those who want a fast 70mm will have to look elsewhere.

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You can use it for interiors, too!

I’m going to conclude this review by saying quite simply this is perhaps the best 35mm lens I’ve ever used; regular readers and those who know me will also know that I don’t make statements like this lightly. It’s an outstanding performer at all apertures, and there is effectively no penalty for shooting wide open; your rangefinder calibration and eyesight are going to make far more of a difference to achieved resolution than the aperture selected. It doesn’t quite render in the same perfectly neutral, transparent fashion as the 50/2 Summicron APO-ASPH, but it does have the same very pleasing, clean, three-dimensional quality as the newer ASPH glass – I think it would make a great companion to the 50/1.4 ASPH, 75/2 APO-ASPH and 90/2 APO-ASPH, or even one of the wider lenses like the 21/1.4 ASPH (another lens I keep meaning to review) and the 24/1.4 ASPH. If you’re a 35mm aficionado: close your eyes, gird your wallet and buy this lens, then never look at another 35mm again. It’s that good.

Note: half of the images in my exhibition Diametric Opposites were shot with this lens. All of the color ones, in fact.

The Leica 35mm f1.4 ASPH Summilux-M FLE (VII, 11663) is available here from B&H and Amazon

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Thanks for the review Ming. I tried my 50 lux ASPH on my OMD and similar was disappointed. In agree, these lenses should be used on an M.

    • It’s amazing just how much of a difference the microlens configuration makes. Interesting – just how bad was the 50 ASPH on the OM-D? I found that at 50mm and up, things were okay (but didn’t have that particular lens to try). The Zeiss ZM 2/50 Planar does pretty well, though – easily as well as the 45/1.8. I was thinking of getting one and having it do double duty on the M 240 and OM-D…

      • Well i should put the word “disappointed” in some context. The results and output, to my untrained eye were fine, yet no better than my 45/1.8…..the actual colours and rendering was almost identical to the point it didn’t entice me to want to use it over the Oly.

      • Just wide open 1.4 and 2. I didn’t think to test it beyond this……

      • Ming

        You may be giving the interaction between the lens and OM-D micro lenses a little too much credit for the results you obtained. In my experience adapting Leica M and R lenses to M43 and NEX cameras, there is only a 20% probability that the adapter will hold the lens in the proper position relative to the camera sensor. With the adapters I have used, my results have been as follows.

        1. The adapter will hold the lens too far away from the sensor preventing focus at infinity. Probability of getting this 40%.
        2. The adapter will hold the lens too close to the sensor preventing proper close focus. Probability of getting this 20%.
        3. The adapter will not hold the lens square to the sensor plane, inducing swing, tilt, or both. Probability of getting this 20%.
        4. The adapter will hold the lens in the proper position relative to the sensor. Probability of getting this 20%.

        Even though I am saying there is a 20% probability an adapter will work out of the box, due to manufacturing tolerances in the lens mount, camera mount, and in the adapter, any given adapter may work better with certain lenses than others. Unfortunately, the price of the adapter is no indication to how well the adapter will position the lens. US$250 German adapters have had the same issues as $40 adapters from Hong Kong. And medium priced American made adapters have given me both the best and worst results.

        In the end, with an an adapter that holds the lens in the proper position a M43 or NEX sensor can show what a lens can deliver. So, if you are not getting pleasing results, try a different adapter. Though, curvature of field does limit this as the lens gets wider and the distance to the subject gets greater. From my experience a 25mm Zeiss M-lens will have noticeable softness towards the edges on a NEX sensor, and a Leica 21mm will have noticeable edge softness on a M43 sensor.

        PaulB

        • Very true – except I’ve tried a number of adaptors, including several high-spec Panasonic and Voigtlander ones. Same thing. The ebay specials on the other hand…are a lottery and you might get any one of what you describe as 1-4. The only solution is to try the lens at intermediate distances which eliminates 1 and 2, but not 3 – which is what I did, along with several adaptors. The wides don’t work well. 50mm and up is good, but I’m not seeing huge advantages over native lenses – yet. The Zeiss ZM 2/50 Planar is pretty close with the 45/1.8, with perhaps a touch more microcontrast. Then again, I haven’t tried the 50 APO on the OM-D…

  2. Hi Ming,
    I was never quite interested in this lens despite the many glowing testimonials. Your review is compelling and now I will be poorer (cash) because of it, but a richer photographer. This lens and the 90mm Apo are so rare, nearly impossible to find, so I may not have any choice but to wait for a short while. I would be very interested in your 21/1.4 review also, do you have any time frame?
    Thank you.

  3. Wonderful review and wonderful pictures. For not liking the 35mm focal length you sure took some stunning pictures with it. :-) Very impressive.

  4. Another great review, thanks. Leica M lenses are simply beautiful.

    Which focal length would you prefer instead of 35mm then? 28mm? I’m about to purchase a fast prime for my D800 and couldn’t decide between Nikkor 28mm f/1.8G and new Sigma 35mm f/1.4.

  5. “I’ve been meaning to do a full review for some time now, but the reality is that there have been many other things which have gotten in the way – or perhaps I should stop making excuses for being lazy.”

    No one can ever consider you lazy! You are a powerhouse. Don’t burn yourself out.

    Thanks for your dedication and I hope you are well rewarded for all your efforts.

  6. “In practical terms, it isn’t an issue with mirrorless cameras because they’re always focusing at shooting aperture anyway”

    Could you explain this? Because, if that is the case, it strikes me as odd that the E-PM1 offers the option of setting a DoF preview button.

    • Yes, but only for lenses whose apertures the camera can control directly. With legacy and adapted lenses, it’s 100% mechanical – the camera has no way of controlling the iris, so you view and focus at whatever you set.

      • So, if I understand correctly, with all MFT lenses focus shift could happen? Even when focussing manually. Unless you hit the DoF preview button and focus while holding this button (if the camera allows that).

        Why manual legacy lenses will not have this problem makes perfect sense :)

        PS – Can’t help asking . . . As an engineer I’m always curious about the working of things. Thanks!

        • Err…no. The camera focuses the image directly on the sensor at the shooting aperture (with native lenses), unless you tell it to do otherwise. Focus shift is impossible.

          Firstly, don’t confuse mechanical focus coupling and shooting wide open (RFs are coupled to match the lens’ wide open properties, as are SLRs) and M4/3. Secondly, use AF. It’s more accurate than you will be.

      • Do the mirrorless cameras really focus with the lens stopped down? At least before I hit the shutter button I do not see this behavior. Maybe I am misunderstanding what you wrote.

        • Native lenses: can do either depending on how you set up the camera.
          Legacy lenses: no coupling between camera and aperture, so they focus/ view at whatever you set.

      • I just checked, and my Pen Mini does not focus with the aperture stopped down. If I understand correctly, this suggests that focus shift is still possible…

      • Sorry, the first sentence of my last comment is quite ambiguous. Here is a better version:

        My Pen Mini does not stop down the aperture when focussing, both in AF and in MF.

  7. energiaemovimento says:

    Another fine review. This kind of equipment is sadly way out of my league, but I keep learning about it and saving that data on the back of my brain for better times ;) interesting info about cross-performance between systems – something to think about… You are the first person I’ve seen mentioning that, and it makes a lot of sense. Always learrning @ mt’s blog! Regards!

    • Thanks – the 35/2 ASPH offers very similar performance, just a stop slower (and at half the price for a used one) – so perhaps not quite so out of reach :)

  8. Another excellent review, Ming! This kind of equipment is way out of my league, but I keep learning about this stuff and saving the data on the back of my brain for better day$. Master’s degrees and years of academic patience should pay out eventually (or hopefully).

    Also, very interesting though about focus shift and cross-system lens optic usage – you are the first person I’ve ever seen write bout it, and that makes perfect sense. Maybe you could delve deeper into this and create a reference article on the subject, especially for us M4/3 users (tinkerers and thrifters by very nature). As usual, always learning at MT’s Blog ;]

  9. GeoDesigner says:

    Hey Ming, no need to publish this one – sorry for the double comment above, I typed the first one on my phone riding to work and the browser crashed – so I wrote the second one at work. Feel free to delete one of them to keep things neat ;]

  10. John Parkyn says:

    Hello Ming,

    Thank you for the review, but I got lost… Could be my reading power…. In the first paragraph you write that you weren’t too keen on the 35/1.4 Summilux FLE and sold it, but later you love it… I’m confused… Did you buy a new one?

    Why the change of heart?

    • I did sell it. Love the lens for its optics and rendering, but personally I’ve never liked the 35mm focal length – it just isn’t intuitive to the way I see/ compose. This doesn’t stop the 35 FLE from being one of the best lenses I’ve ever used (much like the Nikon 400/2.8 VRII is too, but I’d never buy something I wouldn’t use).

  11. Gary Morris says:

    Your review sold me. I clicked on your Amazon link and bough one. I’ll see how this fits in with my favorite Leica glass (28 ‘Cron and Noct .95 ASPH). On a parenthetical note, your comments on the large plastic lens hood on the former lens can also apply to the current 28 ‘Cron… that lens hood greatly detracts from an otherwise SUPERB lens. I’ve replaced that abomination of a lens hood with (1) a Leica E46 UV filter and (2) a B+W 46-49mm step-up ring screwed into the E46 UV filter. This setup works very well for stray light and does not cause any light loss in the corners. Thanks again for the great review!

    • Thanks for the support, Gary. I just gave up on the hood of my 28/2 ASPH and shoot it naked. Oddly enough, I don’t seem to have flare problems. :)

  12. Ming

    We ran out of reply options above.

    From your reply it sounds like we are having much the same experience over all. Though for a few of my errant adapters, I took the trouble to tune them to my lenses and now the native lenses approach what the Leica lenses give. The one exception is the Panasonic-Leica 25mm f1.4 Summilux. This lend really shines.

    Though, the other side of the coin is the native m43 lenses I have are good enough and use auto focus, that the quality convenience trade off is definitely in the favor of the M43 lenses. The Leica lenses on M43 is definitely for those times when you will be working slow and deliberate.

    PaulB

    • I think you captured it precisely in the last sentence: if I’m wanting convenience and speed – then that’s why I’m using M 4/3 in the first place. If absolute image quality is my goal or I want to work slow and deliberate, then I’d probably use the D800E or the Hasselblad.

      • Those are good choices. When I want to work truely slow and deliberate, and I don’t mind the extra weight, I use a Linhof or a Sinar. Unfortunately, the weight is more of an issues than I would like at times.

        PaulB

        • Actually, I think there’s a small niche for a mini-view camera – perhaps along the lines of the FlexBody or ArcBody with a few more movements. Given the quality of today’s digital sensors, it might be a very interesting option even if it only had say the sensor from a D800E…

  13. I work just around the corner from St. John Restaurant in London and have been chatting to Fergus Henderson for years (he’s often to be found at the bar around lunch time). That portrait captures his wildly eccentric spirit, charm and humour better than any I’ve ever seen, in no small part down to the beautiful Summilux. I’ve increasingly been coming to the view that 35mm lenses are just perfect for contextualising portraiture like this, so much would have got lost at 50mm. The lens is definitely the next I am going to look out for, as an upgrade to my 35mm Summicron. Thank you taking real pictures and not endless pictures of walls, post, trees against walls, odd night shots at varying apertures and then basing a review on that type of image. Res ipas loquitur, as the Romans used to say, in terms of your pictures

  14. Of course, it’s “res ipsa loquitur”, if I could only type properly! (Let the facts speak for themselves).

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Not long after this lens was initially released and generally available – early 2012 – I published a guest post review here on the Leica Blog. At that point, I’d had no more than a couple of weeks to shoot with the lens, and certainly not under any kind of duress or pressure. Since then, I’ve both encountered many situations with the lens and used it as pretty much the go-to on my M9-P in the hopes of making 35mm one of the intuitive focal lengths in my repertoire. It didn’t stick, and somewhere in the middle of last year, I landed up selling it to one of my students.  [...]

  2. [...] I couldn't find a product shot in my archive, so you're going to have to settle for one of me using it instead. Not long after this lens was initially released and generally available – early 2012 …  [...]

  3. […] 35/2 Summicron-M ASPH* 7/10 – B&H Amazon Leica 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE* 9/10 – review B&H Amazon Leica 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH 8/10 – review B&H Amazon Leica 50/1.4 […]

  4. […] the problem was, I got artistically stronger images the following year shot with a Leica M9-P and 35/1.4 ASPH FLE – that set can be seen here on Flickr – despite having to not only focus manually, but […]

  5. […] do this – the only few that instantly come to mind are the Olympus 75/1.8, Contax 2/45 Planar, Leica 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE, Nikon PCE 85/2.8 Micro and Nikon 200/2 VR, but even the latter is somewhat overshadowed by its […]

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