50 Summilux-SL f/1.4 Review (first look)

October 18, 2016  |  Review


First let me start by saying there is a discrepancy as to if this is a final production sample or not. I was told by someone I trust at Leica Germany that this was in fact a final production sample. However, I was told by a Leica employee locally that it was not final because there were going to be firmware updates for both the lens and the body (which means final hardware w/firmware updates on the way). Now, I’ve also seen sample images from a friends 50SL (how he got one is beyond my knowledge, and a moot point). His copy of the lens actually seems worse from the sample photos he sent me (it has that infamous onion ring bokeh and is much more flat/dull). He claims it is definitely a final production sample as this is what he was told. His samples initially had me worried for the lens, but the copy I used is better from what I can tell. So who knows what’s going on! 

A hard truth: There is no bad lens in this day and age. These days, it’s more a question of if one lens is worth the price premium over another. Some M lenses are so gorgeous that I’d fight tooth and nail to defend their worth. But others leave me scratching my head as to why they cost so much. The cameras these lenses are put on are also a factor – I love the M240-P sensor and I don’t like the SL sensor. 

I wouldn’t defend the 50 Summilux-SL as savagely as I’d defend some M lenses. But I’ll write my take on it, show some images, and let you guys be the judge if it’s worth the price. But at $5,295 USD, I’d hope you’ll read a lot more reviews and look at a lot more samples then just mine.

First impressions: It’s big, but not as heavy as I’d have thought. It doesn’t balance well on the SL for an all-day-walk-around prime, but it’s headed in the right direction. The recently announced Summicron line should be just right on the SL body. I also tried to use the grip, but something about it just bothered me with the 50SL. If I had the 90-280 or even the 24-90 on instead, I might have liked using the grip.
iPhone shot to show size in hand: in-hand

Distortion control: This lens has barrel distortion. I would have thought for the size – and fact that Leica calls it a “reference lens” – the designers? engineers? wouldn’t have resorted to digital corrections. But they have. On the upside, if you don’t know what I’m talking about then you’ll probably never notice the barrel distortion. Mouse over the photo below to see it with and without Leica’s baked-in corrections.
(not as bad as the Q, but strange considering the focal length).
Unedited DNGs converted to jpg and resized:

An edited version for fun:

Another sample of distortion (no mouse over, you get the idea):
The Bends

Corner performance: I can’t really tell. Between the distortion control and my inability to shoot brick walls perfectly straight on, I just can’t tell. My take is that the corners are soft wide open and stay soft stopped down quite a bit (f/5.6). BUT I didn’t break out the tools and measure if the wall was straight and if the camera was perfectly parallel. I also am looking at the shots before digital corrections. Other testers might not do that.
For what it’s worth, I have a folder full of DNGs of various distances and f/stops. I can post this if someone is REALLY interested. (Nothing at infinity as I don’t know how one shoots infinity in a city centre, and I don’t feel like paying a cover charge to go to the MBS rooftop pool.)

Vignetting: It’s bad at f/1.4 but by f/2 it’s so-so. By f/4 it’s almost gone. This isn’t an issue for me personally, as I’m mostly shooting portraits and a bit of vignetting (the natural type) can actually aid in drawing the eye to my usually-central subject. 
@ f/1.4: f/1.4
@ f/2: f/2.0
@ f/2.8: f/2.8
@ f/4: f/4.0

Flare control: There’s some good and some bad. The good is that when you see flare, it’s pretty. The bad is that it can create a hazy veil much like the 75APO, leaching all the contrast out of your shot. But overall it wasn’t that easy to get this lens to flare uncontrollably. 
Random flare samples:
vanity flare

Fringing: This is where things get a bit odd. I’m not entirely convinced that this lens doesn’t have CA. I see it sometimes, and in other instances I don’t when I should. My best guess is that it’s sometimes being corrected in camera. My attempt to undo this correction hasn’t had the results I thought it would, so let’s just say that this lens has CA but it’s controlled optically. Or it’s very well hidden digitally. I’ll let someone else figure it out.
Samples anyway:

Contrast: It’s a pretty contrasty lens in certain situations, but the elements have to be aligned and the sun has to be at the right angle and so on.. Overall it has a good amount of contrast in regular shooting conditions.

AF: I’m very sad to report that the AF is pretty terrible. If anyone has the 35 Summilux-TL you’ll understand what I mean. Just image that, but worse. It hunts unpredictably with static subjects and it has a hard time locking focus on moving subjects when I’m planted in a stationary position. It’s not as slow as the S-lenses, but it’s far less sure-footed. HOPEFULLY there will be an AF update for the SL-body as well as an AF update for this lens before launch. If Fuji can do it, I’m sure Leica can too. Leica if you’re reading this.. Update the AF before launch. Because as it stands it’s a very frustrating $5,000 lens. EDIT: I was told there would be a AF update before launch. I hope Leica can deliver on this.

Magic dust… Where did it all go? Can Leica kidnap the seven dwarves and get them to dig some more up? I haven’t seen M/R rendering from any of the SL lenses. At first I thought it was a prime vs zoom thing. But after playing with the 50SL, I really just think something’s missing. (Though in all fairness it could be my dislike for the SL sensor that is clouding my judgement.) Of course this is subjective – I just figured I’d add in my thoughts. And before anyone asks how I can tell from a short period of time. It’s simple, I know what to look for. Also, I go out and shoot exactly the way I’d shoot for work/play and I judge based on prior experience. Maybe you look for different things in lenses than I do, and that’s fine. Another honest possibility could be that I’m just so used to the rendering of the 50 Summicron-APO that I don’t really like anything else anymore. Not saying I don’t like the 50SL, but I don’t like it as much as the 50APO. 

A few minor disappointments that make the lens slightly less enjoyable are:

The minimum focusing distance is really quite far. For a walk around lens I would have liked to have had a slightly closer minimum focus. It’s hard to take quirky shots of little pets and such. Maybe this is digitally limited by Leica for distortion purposes, maybe one has nothing to do with the other. Maybe it feels more like a 45mm to me, I’m not quite sure what’s going on.

I also find the lack of a focusing scale to be inconvenient. I know it’s on camera, but I just like knowing I’ve hit the closest distance via feel/sight/touch. TBH I don’t know why the manual focus ring is even on the lens. It’s so bad in use I’d have preferred they just left it out and if whatever they left out made the lens smaller, which would have been a bonus.

Overall I’m not unhappy having played with the 50 Summilux-SL a couple of times. I’m just unhappy that Leica expects us to pay so much for it. It’s better then the Sigma 50mm ART lens but it’s worse then the 55mm Otus lens. Wait. Let me rephrase that: IMHO it’s not optically as excellent as the Otus 55/1.4, so I can’t fathom why it’s big and expensive.

Will I buy this lens? Possibly, as there really isn’t an ideal alternative if I want to continue using the SL (I’m not a fan of zooms, and I can RF my M faster the I can EVF-MF my SL). Should I wait and see if the 37/75 cron lenses are better performers.. Probably. Will I wait, probably not ;)

Gallery (Random edited images):