I was running around in headless chicken mode, preparing for a trip to Pagosa Springs, Colorado. I knew I’d be shooting the night sky, but wasn’t sure which wide-angle lens to take. Conventional wisdom told me to bring the 25mm f/2.8 for a wider field. But I knew my particular 25mm lens was an older design, made with conventional spherical lens elements.
Get Ploughed – La Cumbre Witch’s Tit Pumpkin Ale at the Range Cafe, Albuquerque
Zeiss 25mm f/2.8 Biogon T* ZM at about 19″
Fuji X-E2 crop-sensor camera
On the other hand, I also had a 28mm f/2.8 ASPH lens made with aspherical elements – they don’t have the constant curvature of spherical surfaces. Asphericals bend the light in a different way. They make sure light rays from the scene’s outer limits map to where they’re supposed to at the sensor’s corners and edges, instead of smearing off to the wrong locations.
Sunset light in the neighborhood – slight corner darkening (vignetting)
Leica 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M ASPH
They’re Both Sharp – What Else Is There?
Both the 25mm and 28mm seemed to give great sharpness to the edges of the full frame, but the 28mm ASPH seemed just a little sharper. It was almost clinical in the way you could magnify a small piece of the picture and still have it sharp enough to cut you.
But there are other lens “features” to think about. Every camera lens ever made darkens the corners at least slightly, especially wide-angle lenses at large apertures. This “feature”, referred to as vignetting, was used by portrait photographers in the last century to create a naturally-rounded dark frame around a centered human subject. It’s less severe with most full-frame lenses on crop-sensor cameras, since the sensor crops out the dark corners.
But if you’re photographing a large starfield with a wide-open lens on a full-frame camera, you’ll want an evenly-lit scene without dark corners. Newer lens designs do this pretty well. Sure, there’s dark corners at the widest full aperture, but it’s way less than even 10-year-old lenses.
I didn’t want to take the time to set up perfectly-even lighting across a white-ish wall to check vignetting. So I did a quick and dirty test. The wall behind my monitor collects reflected light from a pair of fluorescent tubes above it, and to my naked eye, it’s uniform enough.
And here’s what I saw.
The older 25mm design showed extreme darkening in the corners at its widest f/2.8. The much newer 28mm lens showed much less at f/2.8. So I knew which lens to use.
Plato Combinacion del Rancho, the Range Cafe
35mm f/2 RF Summicron on Leica M10
I had to back up and include more of the table for sharp food at 26″ minimum focus. I prefer tighter shot design, like the beer and drink shots above and below.
Most lenses for rangefinder cameras have close-focusing limits of about 27 inches. This may sound close, but for a lens 35mm, 28mm or wider, it isn’t. To really yank a viewer into the picture, you need to get closer. And for adventure or travel shooting, you need that closeup in a wide view.
Shooting food with a crop-sensor Fuji X-E2 mirrorless camera, I used the Zeiss 25mm f/2.8 Biogon T*. The X-E2 gave me a 37 1/2 mm full-frame (FF) field of view (FOV) from that lens. It also gave a 33 1/3 mm FF FOV on Leica’s first serious digital camera, the crop-sensor M8. That’s why I bought it in the first place.
Aside from the FOV, the 25mm focuses down to 19″. That’s a huge advantage with food or anything else I’m getting close to. For a typical dinner plate or drinks, ~35mm FF FOV used 19 inches away seems to suit me. But Leica’s own 35mm lenses won’t get me closer than 26 inches on a full-frame M10 camera, and that’s with an older 35mm f/2 RF Summicron from 1958. That 7 inches makes a difference.
Voigtlander 35mm f/1.2 Nokton VM II at about 19″
So I picked up a Voigtlander 35mm f/1.2 Nokton ASPH VM II. It focuses down to 19 inches, with reasonable corner sharpness from those aspherical elements (again). And the f/1.2 aperture gives me super-narrow depth of field isolation wide-open. Unfortunately, the copy I bought from eBay wasn’t the great deal it first appeared, since it front-(mis)focused about 3 inches with the rangefinder. I’ve been focusing it with live view, but it will be going to www.dagcamera.com for adjustment. It’s a bit heavy to carry all the time as my main 35mm lens, so I tend to bring it just for travel when I won’t have to carry it very far.
Too Many 35mm Lenses?
The 35mm Nokton was my third 35mm lens. In addition to it and the 35mm f/2 RF Summicron from 1958, I also have a 35mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH released in 1999 (with those aspherical elements again). I bought that lens to improve the corners at f/2 over the older 35mm Summicron. It still doesn’t let you get closer than 27 inches.
But the 35mm Summicron ASPH went back to Leica for repair last fall, so for awhile, my only fully-functional 35mm lens was the goggled 35mm RF Summicron. I rediscovered just how sharp that lens is near its center, and its nice warm colors.
50mm f/1.5 Summarit
60 years of haze, plus scratched front element from over-zealous cleaning
Too Many 50mm Lenses?
Then there’s the tale of the 50mms. This focal length is a good all-rounder – the 45-degree FF FOV works pretty well for people shots, events, and street-shooting. I started with the one I inherited, a 50mm f/1.5 Summarit from 1954. My overeager teenaged cleaning scratched the heck out of the front element – coatings were very soft on that lens. And it wasn’t super-sharp at the large f/1.5 aperture, which I used a lot with the limited film sensitivities of the late 1960s and 1970s. Over time, some haze from Midwestern humidity began to grow inside.
(Older lenses can avoid haze if they’re stored in a dry environment, with some of those little silica gel packets to absorb moisture.)
I had a 20-year hiatus from Leica gear, opting for Canon manual focus and eventually, Nikon autofocus gear instead. It was lots cheaper, and more capable for the sports and event pictures I was shooting.
Then I got a couple bonuses at an engineering job in 2001, so I picked up some used Leica gear – an M6 TTL film camera, along with a 50mm f/1.4 Summilux. Though not aspherical, that lens was much sharper than the Summarit, and became my go-to 50mm lens.
Lens flare in backlight at a holiday party
50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M (no ASPH)
But at a holiday party last fall, shooting that 50mm Summilux into the eastern sun caused massive lens flares and almost whited-out (well, oranged-out) several pictures.
50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH – backlight without flare
When I saw a good eBay deal on a 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH, I picked it up. It’s far more immune to flare from sunny backlighting, something I encounter often. And its aspherical elements and modern coatings give best sharpness to the corners at f/1.4. It beats the cr@p out of the 50mm Summarit and the non-ASPH 50mm Summilux – if you like very sharp pictures. Some prefer a softer look for portraits, especially of women. The older lenses will give you that softer look – so I’m keeping at least the 50mm f/1.5 Summarit after a re-coating.
You can start to see how I ended up with multiple lenses at the same focal length. They all do something slightly different. Or they disappoint you, and there’s something that performs better, and there’s a good deal or a bonus, and you say. “What the heck!”
No matter how I got ’em, I try to use ’em all. There’s no one lens that does everything, in spite of what you may have heard about zooms. Just don’t get me started on zooms…
Sniffing at the dog park
50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH
Yes, I know what you’re thinking (que the old Magnum, P.I. theme). Why don’t I use the 25mm close-up on the full-frame camera, and just crop?
When I started with digital, I had just 2.7MP in a Nikon D1H. So I learned to crop it in the camera. Even with today’s 24MP or 30MP sensors, I’d rather stay as close as possible to the sensor’s full resolution. And when I look through the viewfinder, seeing the entire field of view affects how I shoot. I want to see the perspective I’m going to get in the image file. It may cost a bit more for another lens, but that’s why I want close to the field of view I’ll use in the final pictures.
Huff, S. (May 18, 2013) More Classic Lenses: Leica 50 1.5 Summarit & the Canon 50 1.2 LTM. Retrieved from http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2013/05/18/more-classic-lenses-leica-50-1-5-summarit-the-canon-50-1-2-ltm/
Puts, E. (2011) Leica Compendium. Third edition. Houten, Netherlands: imX/Photosite
Rockwell, K. (2011) LEICA 35mm f/2 LEITZ SUMMICRON 8 Element (1958-1974). Retrieved from http://kenrockwell.com/leica/35mm-f2-8-element.htm
Weitz, A. (2012) Why ED, LD, ELD, SLD and ASPH Glass Make a Difference in Your Photographs. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/y986bjr7