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.
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.
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.
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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