Without a doubt, one of the benefits of getting into the Leica M system is for their astonishingly high quality optics. Especially over the last 25 years, Leica M lenses have achieved a high level reputation for outstanding optical quality.
Brand new, current Leica M lenses are expensive. But not all new M mount lenses are. Two easily available series of M mount lenses are from Voigtlander and Zeiss, both made by Cosina.
The pricing difference is enormous when comparing the same focal length and nearly identical widest aperture. For this article, Downtown Camera in Toronto gave me access to the classic “normal” focal length for a full frame or film Leica M body, the 50mm (the focal length of choice for legendary photojournalist, Henri Cartier-Bresson) with the high speed aperture of f1.4 or f1.5 (for our purposes).
Featured in this article are Leica’s 50mm f1.4 Summilux, the Zeiss ZM 50mm f1.5 C Sonnar and the Voigtlander 50mm f1.5 Nokton.
Full Disclosure: I was not paid to write this article by any outside party. I did not receive any payment, gifts or equipment from Leica Camera, Zeiss or Voigtlander, the three brands being written about in my article.
I did not purchase any of the lenses – they were lent to me, free of charge, by Downtown Camera in Toronto. Downtown Camera is the most respected photographic retailer in this city. Harry Mac, the owner, has given me free reign to write about these lenses.
I rarely look at optical test reports. When it comes to contemporary lenses, especially primes for rangefinder or mirrorless cameras, I find the performance to be more than good enough for my abilities. Nor do I possess the proper lab equipment to execute a comprehensive optical test.
With that said, I do have certain characteristics I’m looking for, both photographically and when it comes to build and physical handling. Everybody wants a well-built, easy to use lens. For photographic characteristics, it depends on what the end use is.
For a high-speed 50mm, my primary interests in seeing how theses three lenses compared, are as follows –
- Build quality & physical handling: over the years, the way a lens feels and operates in my hands has become more important. While a solid build quality is not directly related to great optics – I’ve used a variety of light, plastic barreled AF lenses which have great IQ – there’s something satisfying about handling a well-built, smoothly operating lens. For a lens that I will own for decades, not merely years, I’m looking for that quality build.
- My primary interest in a high speed 50mm is using it wide open for people photos. What kind of photographic look does the lens have when shooting wide open for a portrait? Shooting wide open is always a challenge for any lens when it comes to IQ, so I wanted to see if there is an improvement as the price of the lens goes up. I also wanted to see how different the character is of the Zeiss Sonnar (an old school optical formulation – see notes below) versus the modern Leica Summilux.
- How do the lenses compare at an optimal aperture of f5.6? For most lenses of different quality and price points, this is where the IQ gap closes. It’s possible for a budget lens, to perform as nicely as a premium competitor, at optimal apertures.
For Part I, I’ll concentrate on my first interest, Build Quality and Physical Handling. I compare three high speed, 50mm lenses from Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander. And just for fun, I’ve thrown in a Zeiss Touit 32mm (the APS-C equivalent of a 50mm in full frame) f1.8 in the Fuji X mount, for size and weight comparison.
OVERVIEW & PRICE POINT
Leica 50mm Summilux f1.4 Aspherical
At the top of the pricing pyramid, sits Leica’s own premium 50mm Summilux f1.4 Aspherical lens. All Leica lenses with the Summilux name have a maximum aperture of f1.4, and tend to be larger and heavier than their Summicron sisters (f2 lenses). The lens is made in Germany.
This lens has a built-in hood that slides smoothly out into position, and then locks with a twist so that it doesn’t inadvertently retract. It also has a concave focusing tab, that’s easy to operate and use.
Retail price for Leica’s normal focal length is around $5,000 Canadian.
Zeiss 50mm f1.5 C Sonnar ZM
An equally famous name in photographic optics is that of Zeiss. While nominally a German company, not all of their lenses are made there, and most of their ZM (M mount compatible) lenses are made in Japan for them by Cosina, a very reputable manufacturer.
As part of this comparison, I’ll be using the Zeiss ZM C Sonnar 50mm f1.5 This is a solidly built optic, with an interesting design aim: while it has modern coatings, the optical design harkens back to the old school Sonnar design, which supposedly provides an older style look when shot wide open. When the lens is stopped down, it tends to perform like other contemporary lenses.
The Zeiss hood is not included in the price of the lens – it has to be purchased separately. There’s a gently raised “bump” that’s used as a focusing tab.
Retail price for the Zeiss 50mm f.15 Sonnar is considerably less than the Leica Summilux. It sells for $1500.00 Canadian.
Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f1.5 Aspherical
The lowest cost lens in this comparison is the Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f1.5 Aspherical. Also made by Cosina in Japan, the lens’ barrel is styled after the original Nokton, from the 1950’s, which was available for the Leica screw mount. The one being compared is the Black aluminum model, but it’s also available in a heavy, chromed brass version for a truly nostalgic look.
Optics are contemporary in formulation, and it’s the least expensive of the three, at $995 Canadian.
SIZE & WEIGHT COMPARISON
DSLR users who’ve never used Leica M optics before are always startled at how petite most M mount normal to moderate wide and tele lenses are. While the current Leica M lenses have grown in size compared to previous generation (Mandler era lenses, and earlier) optics, they’re still quite small and handy. Zeiss and Voigtlander lenses are also petite.
In the comparison photos, you can see that of the three lenses on review, the Leica Summilux is the longest (with its hood retracted), followed by the Voigtlander Nokton, and then the Zeiss Sonnar is very short.
Again, keep this size comparison in context: all three are tiny lenses compared to a typical, high speed 50mm prime, pro quality optic. In the context of shooting street photography, documentary work or public events, any one of these lenses on a rangefinder camera will be a discrete package.
Typically, the Leica Summilux is the heaviest of the bunch, coming in at 331 grams. That makes it nearly 100 grams heavier than the Zeiss Planar, and 103 grams heavier than the Voigtlander. That makes the Voigtlander the winner, if light weight is a priority concern.
Please note, however, this is NOT quite a fair comparison to the other two lenses, for one reason – the Summilux’s metal hood cannot be removed. The hood alone would add to the weight.
So why didn’t I weigh all three lenses with their respective hoods? The reason is, the Zeiss Sonnar doesn’t come with its own hood – the prospective buyer needs to purchase it as an additional cost accessory, and there wasn’t one available for this testing.
Again, despite the Summilux being the “heaviest” of the three here, none of these lenses are heavy in the overall context of camera gear. A 50mm M lens on a rangefinder body is light enough to carry all day without difficulty for most photographers.
JOKER IN THE PACK
Just for giggles, I’ve compared the size and weight of a completely different lens, the Zeiss Touit 32mm f1.8 for the Fuji X system. This lens is NOT compatible with the M mount. M mount lenses, however, can be used on Fuji X bodies with an adapter.
In addition to the Leica M rangefinder, my other favorite camera system these days is the Fuji X, specifically the rangefinder form X-Pro1 with its optical viewfinder. Fuji X is APS-C format, so the Zeiss 32mm is the closest equivalent to a 50mm lens in the Leica’s full frame size.
Size – It’s nearly as tall as the Leica Summilux. The Leica lens has its hood retracted, and the Zeiss Touit X is shown without its bayonet hood. The Zeiss Touit does use a very long plastic hood which works great for both flare and physical protection, but it does add quite a bit to the length.
The diameter, however, is quite a bit fatter than all of the other M mount lenses.
Weight – at 207 grams, it’s 21 grams lighter than Voigtlander. Compared to the “heavy weight” in this test, the luxurious Leica Summilux, it’s a noticeable 124 grams lighter. Keep in mind that includes the Leica’s metal hood (since it can’t be removed). But the Zeiss Touit hood is made of ultra light plastic, so the Zeiss X mount prime is still considerably lighter.
The build quality and feel of this Zeiss Touit lens is excellent, and the same can be said about its close cousin, the Fuji XF 35mm. By necessity, however, that quality feel is different from an M lens.
M mount lenses are all mechanical and manual focus. X mount lenses have to be light enough to be focused with an AF motor and are designed for digital sensors on a mirrorless system, which partially explains their larger diameters compared to M lenses. As a long-term Leica M user, when I added the Fuji X system to my personal gear a while ago, I knew to expect a different feel when it came to handling.
BUILD QUALITY & FEEL
I’ve used Leitz/Leica M optics for over 30 years, and they always a distinctive, high quality build. There’s no rattling, creaking, or extraneous movement. There is a feeling that they’re hewn from a solid block of metal.
As much as I loving using Leica rangefinders, I’ve never been a cult collector of Leica M gear. To me, the greatest thing about Leica M equipment is using them for photography, not collecting them to place them on a shelf.
Having said that, I can easily see the allure of obsessing over Leica M equipment. Their build quality is jewel-like, and the feeling of quality, built with first rate materials and superb craftsmanship, is very seductive.
Over the decades, I’ve purchased Leitz/Leica M mount lenses both new and used. The smoothness of the focusing barrel and solid clicks of the aperture ring hardly fade, even with a lens that’s seen a lot of mileage. Case in point, is a Canadian-made, Mandler era 50mm Summicron that I owned for twenty years. I bought it used, and two decades later, it still felt smooth to operate.
The retractable and locking hood on the Leica Summilux is a really nice feature. It’s really well made, and a short twist locks the hood into place. For obvious reasons, one would never lose the hood, yet it’s so easy to retract that one can reduce the volume of the lens immediately, when placing it in your camera bag.
The focusing markings and depth of field scales are brightly etched in white and yellow, and very easy to use, even in dim light. The classic, raised plastic red dot is easy to spot or feel, for mounting the lens on the M body.
The Zeiss 50mm f1.5 C Sonnar ZM is a fraction of the price of the Leica Summilux, but it, too, feels like a first quality optic. Focusing isn’t quite up to the Leica’s smoothness, but one can only tell the difference when switching from the Leica to the Zeiss, and then back again. Otherwise, I couldn’t imagine any M user who wouldn’t be happy with the focusing feel.
Same with the aperture ring. The detents are easy to feel, so one can adjust the aperture without having to look at the ring.
The white markings (metric) are very easy to read. The red markings (imperial) are OK in bright light, and difficult to see in dim lighting, which is annoying. Same with the lens mounting dot. It’s raised, so it’s easy to detect by touch. But it’s a medium blue, so it isn’t as easy to spot as Leica’s bright red. Medium blue is the corporate colour of Zeiss, so it was done for corporate, rather than practical reasons.
I don’t own this Zeiss Sonnar, so I can’t comment on what it’s like to use it long-term. But I do own the Zeiss ZM Biogon 28mm and have used it for nearly a year. While a year isn’t really “long” in the context of M gear, I can say that the Zeiss ZM 28mm still operates solidly and smoothly, after that time period.
Unfortunately, the excellent Zeiss 50mm hood has to be purchased separately. And it’s not inexpensive either – street price is around $85 US, closer to $100 Canadian.
The upside is, it’s a high quality hood. Solid metal, and it has a well-designed, spring-loaded bayonet mount, which all but prevents it from falling off, inadvertently. It has also a vented design, which means there’s a cutout in the hood. This means less blockage of the field of view, when using the optical finder on a Leica M camera.
The Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f1.5 Aspherical, despite being the lowest priced of the three (although still not “cheap” when compared to garden variety DSLR and mirrorless standard lenses), has an excellent feel for both its focusing barrel and aperture ring. It’s perhaps a step behind the Summilux and Zeiss in smoothness and build quality, but to be honest, I wonder how much of my perception is affected by the fact that it’s the least expensive of the three lenses being tested?
I can’t comment on this specific Voigtlander’s durability. But in the past, I’ve owned Voigtlander lenses for several years.
The Voigltander lenses I’ve previously owned are: the 15mm Leica screw mount (converted to M mount with an adapter), the massive, 35mm f1.2 Nokton (original version) and the 28mm 1.9 Nokton. As the years went by, the finish wore off more quickly than on my Leitz and Leica lenses, and the operational feel of the focusing and aperture rings would develop subtle play. To be fair, it didn’t seem to affect the end results, photographically. They are still quality lenses, but the higher price of the Zeiss ZM and Leica M lenses get you superior durability and build quality.
The all white markings on the Voigtlander 50mm Nokton are very easy to read, although they’re in metric only. This is good in the sense that it reduces visual clutter on the lens barrel, but bad if one prefers imperial measurements.
The mounting dot is tiny and isn’t raised, so it’s a bit inconvenient compared to the Leica and Zeiss dots. At least it’s a bright red, so that helps to spot it.
The Voigtlander comes with a very slim, hood. It provides a little bit of physical protection, but it’s difficult to see how it would provide much shading of the front element. Still, it’s better to have something included with the lens, rather than having to purchase it, as with the Zeiss.
Focusing handles are an often overlooked feature with M rangefinder lenses. But that little addition gives the street photographer a tremendous advantage in getting her or his images in focus, discretely and quickly. A skilled street shooter using M lenses with focusing handles or tabs, will know, by feel, where to rotate the lens to achieve ideal focus, without looking at their camera and before they even raise it to their eye for framing. It’s a tremendous advantage to have what you want in focus before you’re prepared to shoot. Even the fastest AF systems can’t beat that.
Many Leica lenses have a substantially sized, plastic, concave focusing handle. This Summilux is no exception, which makes the lens very easy to focus for those who are used to this technique.
Many of the current Zeiss ZM lenses have a focusing “bump” built into its focus ring. At first, I wasn’t convinced that this little bump would be as good as a Leica handle or tab, but in practice, it’s almost as easy to use. In some cases, it’s easier, as it’s more convenient to reach from any angle, compared to the concave shape of the plastic Leica tab.
The Voigtlander Nokton tested here doesn’t have a focusing tab.
That’s my overview on price, size, weight, build characteristics and handling. Part II will show comparison photos of the three M mount lenses wide open and at f5.6.