In late 2007, Leica released the original Summarit-M lenses — a line of lenses built to compete squarely against the more budget friendly offerings from their rivals Zeiss and Voigtlander. For those stepping into a digital Leica M for the first time, the less expensive competitor's lenses were much easier to stomach than the undeniably costly Leica glass.
The Summarit-M line was the solution. Less expensive than the slightly faster Summicron glass, but still providing the optical excellence and superb build quality that Leica lenses are well-known for. They certainly weren't inexpensive by any stretch of the imagination, but they were cheap enough to give Zeiss and Voigtlander a run for their money and make a first-time M-shooter's purchasing decision a little bit more difficult.
This year Leica has released an update to the Summarit-M line, in all four focal lengths: 35mm, 50mm, 75mm, and 90mm. The updated lenses retain the same general optical formula as the originals, but are packaged with nicer build-quality, nicer included accessories, and a very slightly faster maximum aperture. I've spent about a month with the new 35mm Summarit f/2.4, and have been pleasantly surprised with how it performed in just about every situation I tossed its direction.
Build Quality & Handling
Make no mistake, this is a small lens. At just 197g, it's one of the lightest lenses in Leica's entire lineup, and while it can be easy to attribute lightness to a shoddy build-quality, rest assured this lens is built very nicely and feels as precise, high quality, and long-lasting as all of Leica's other lenses. It's made of anodized aluminum instead of brass, whether you get the black or the silver model, and the finishing is, of course, flawless.
Without the hood, this lens isn't much larger than the 28mm Elmarit-M f/2.8 ASPH — another one of my favorite ultra-tiny pieces of M glass. Proportionally it feels perfectly at home on the M240, and because of its inherent lightness, it never felt front-heavy or unevenly distributed.
The included hood is a screw-on "crushed coke can" type hood, reminiscent of those included with the Fuji X-series lenses. It feels very high quality, and screws on confidently and smoothly every time. There's even a clever notch cut out on the bottom that ensures it's screwed on straight every single time. Details, people. They matter.
The cap is also lovely, made of metal, and a joy to fit and remove. The interior rim is lined with a felt-like material and it slides on with just the right amount of resistance. Nicely done. The new Summarit lenses now include the standard zippered leather case, instead of the crummy felt pouch included with the previous model. It's a nice case, beautiful to look at and hold, and will very likely sit on a shelf and never get used. At least that has been my experience.
Lastly, this lens has a focus tab. I cannot explain how grateful I am that Leica put a focus tab on this lens. It's a very short focus throw, and the tab feels absolutely perfect. Combined with the small size of the lens and the buttery smooth focus action, this is truly a joy to use. Ergonomically it's about as perfect as a lens can be, in my opinion.
There isn't really anything new about the optical formula of this lens. It's the same 6 element/4 group design that was in the last 35mm Summarit, but that shouldn't be considered a bad thing by any means. The original Summarit lenses were quietly brilliant performers, and if you had no need for ultra-fast glass, they were a truly excellent and economical choice.
You may notice, however, that the maximum aperture of this lens is now f/2.4, instead of the original f/2.5. While that may seem like an improvement, it has actually been rumored that the original lenses were f/2.4 as well, but Leica marketed them as f/2.5 to prevent them from cannibalizing the sales of the Summicron f/2.0 lenses. Seems like an odd move to me, but perhaps that's why I don't work in marketing. Regardless, a change from f/2.5 to f/2.4 is such a small change that it's unlikely to make an appreciable difference in your images either way.
Optically I found the 35mm to be very pleasant. It is a very sharp lens, but not quite as clinical as the 50mm Summicron. It has a smooth, almost classical rendering to it but with the sharpness and undeniable precision of a modern lens. Corners do get slightly softer at the far edges, particularly at f/2.4, but it's not something that I would have even noticed had I not been searching for it. It's truly a non-issue.
Bokeh, when you're able to achieve it, is okay but nothing particularly special. I wouldn't call it distracting by any means, but it's certainly not buttery smooth like that from the Summarit's more expensive brethren. It doesn't really matter though, because with the relatively wide angle of 35mm and a maximum aperture of f/2.4, you aren't likely to be throwing things way out of focus very often. Save that for the 50s, 75s, and 90s.
The only real optical issue I had with this lens was flare, but even that was fairly well-controlled and easily avoidable as long as you were paying attention. When I tried to make it flare, I certainly could, even with the lens hood attached. The lens hood did improve things, but it's worth mentioning that the flare reared its head from time to time no matter what. Personally, I don't mind flare in my images occasionally, and the flare from this lens is definitely pleasant to look at. As with any lens, be mindful of it, and it won't ever bother you.
Value & Conclusion
With these updated lenses also comes an updated price tag. The 35mm Summarit is now priced at $1980, and while it's significantly more expensive than the previous generation, it's still priced quite a bit lower than the next lens in the lineup, the 35 Summicron ($2811). I've spent time with the 35 Summicron, the 35 Summilux, and even some 35s from Zeiss and Voigtlander and I feel that the 35 Summarit holds its own against them all pretty well. The build is excellent, the optics are brilliant in typical Leica fashion, and ergonomically it's about as perfect as a 35mm lens can be. I could see this lens being a terrific travel companion because of its lightweight build, small size, and less concern of lugging around a shockingly expensive hunk of glass.
It's difficult to say whether or not this is the right 35mm for you, but I can say that despite the slower aperture and lower price, it shouldn't be considered a compromise in any way. Zeiss does make some phenomenal M-lenses for much less money, but they aren't Leica lenses, and to many people, that's an important distinction. The point is, the Summarit line feels right at home along with Leica's other legendary lenses, and I don't believe should be overlooked in favor of the more expensive glass.
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