The Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 Asph FLE is to my knowledge the most expensive 35mm lens for fullframe money can buy and it is also very highly regarded among the few that can afford it. But does it make any sense to use this lens on an A7 series camera? Read the review to find out.
This lens was also featured in my fast 35mm manual focus lenses comparison you might want to have a look at.
Initially I only wanted to find out whether the “Front filter solution” for rangefinder wide angle lenses (see this article) also works on the Summilux 35mm 1.4 FLE. I knew someone who owns this lens and to my suprise he gave it to me for a full week. So at first a huge “Thank you!” to Stuttgart based wedding and portrait photographer Rocco! Still, I usually use lenses at least 3-4 weeks, often even months before writing a final conclusion, so at the end you will only get my “Impressions after one week of usage”.
Specifications / Version History
The Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 has been around since 1960 and to my knowledge there have been three different versions which have been produced in greater numbers:
- Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4
- Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 Asph
- Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 Asph “FLE” (“FLoating Elements”)
Over the years the Summilux 35mm has grown in size but each reincarnation is said to have optically surpassed it’s predecessor. The newest version reviewed here features a “floating elements” design to maintain the optical quality across all distances. The lens has the following specifications:
- Diameter: 56 mm
- Field of view: 63° (diagonally)
- Length: 46 mm
- Weight: 328g + adapter
- Filter Diameter: 46 mm
- Number of Aperture Blades: 9 (curved slightly inward)
- Elements/Groups: 9/5
- Close Focusing Distance: 0.7 m (~0.3 m with VM-E helicoid adapter)
- Maximum Magnification: 1:17.4 (~1:6.0 with VM-E helicoid adapter)
- Mount: Leica-M
You may also have a look at Leica’s official page.
Handling / Build Quality
Considering the specifications this is a very small lens: it is shorter than the Voigtlander VM 35mm 1.7 and significantly thinner, shorter and lighter than the Zeiss ZM 35mm 1.4. For 5 grand you expect perfect build quality and this is pretty much what you get: all metal casing, half stop click stops, focus ring with perfect resistance even after years of usage. What I did not really like: this lens features a focus tab but apart from it the focus ring isn’t structured but completely even instead (apart from the paintings which are engraved). This contributes to the small size of the lens so one can’t really complain here.
As the owner wasn’t happy with the results this very lens was also more than once in service and the whole optics have already been replaced.
Like the ZM 35mm 1.4 this lens features a floating elements design. But unlike the Zeiss it is not an internal focusing mechanism, the lens extends when focusing and the rear group changes its position relative to the front group. There is also a square hood included in the package.
Vignetting / Colorcast
Wide open there is strong vignetting of roughly 3.4 EV, stopped down to f/2.0 it improves to 2.4 EV, at f/2.8 it is 2.1 EV and at f/8.0 still 1.6 EV. This is not an unusual performance for a rangefinder lens with these parameters, but the small diameter certainly takes it’s toll here and compared to the bigger Zeiss ZM 35mm 1.4 vignetting is a little higher.
Even on the A7rII and A7s I can see a slight green color cast towards the edges. I can’t tell you if this gets worse when using the A7(II) and especially A7r, the latter being especially known for encountering theses issues.
The Leica 35mm 1.4 Asph FLE is a rangefinder lens developed for the Leica-M digital cameras. It is not optimized for the thick filter stack in front of the A7 sensors which leads to some problems, especially a significant field curvature. This means for a flat subject when focusing at the center of the frame the corners will look blurred. This can be somewhat compensated by using a specific front end filter which I did here. See this article for further reference.
As this is a lens with a floating elements design the correct distance between lens and sensor can be very important. I was using the VM-E helicoid close focus adapter (retracted) for most shots if not otherwise stated. The distance is pretty exact with this adapter and hard infinity focus stop was correct as well.
At f/1.4 contrast is a bit dampened and you can see some purple fringing. At f/2.0 there is a significant boost in contrast and the purple fringing is almost completely gone. For best across frame sharpness stop down to f/8.0. As you can also see adding a 5m PCX filter will increase the resolution in the corners even at f/8.0.
close focus (70 cm)
close focus (30 cm with VM-E helicoid adapter)
At the native minimum focus distance of 70 cm there is nothing to complain about, good at f/1.4 and excellent by f/2.8. If you reduce the minimum focus distance with a helicoid adapter (like I did here with the Voigtlander VM-E close focus adapter (affiliate link)) the image gets a bit soft at f/1.4 and f/2.0 but improves considerably on stopping down to f/2.8. Keep in mind the lens was never intended to be used at these focus distances by the designers.
I also had to refocus the lens stopped down because of significant focus shift, see the corresponding section farther down this review.
More of a let down. Contrast stays on a very high level, but I often found some ghosts and rainbow artifacts in my shots without really pushing the lens. I didn’t use a hood here, but with the sun almost in the center of the frame I don’t think it would have been of any help anyway.
Both – the Zeiss ZM 1.4/35 and Voigtlander 1.7/35 – perform significantly better here.
So far any rangefinder wide angle lens I have used had pretty bad coma correction wide open and unfortunately the Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 Asph FLE is no exception. You can even notice it in the embedded low res samples here. I would normally shoot scenes like this stopped down anyway, but in case you are looking for a fast wideangle to use wide open for astrophotography this is not your lens. Naturally the problem goes away on stopping down and doing so to f/2.8 helps a lot already.
Distortion without (before) and with correction (after)
Distortion is pretty high for such an expensive 35mm lens, especially when taking into account many people will also want to use this lens on analogue film cameras. There is distinct barrel distortion which I often had to correct in post with the corresponding Lightroom profile.
In the center the light discs are evenly lit, but unfortunately they show some outlining (similar to the Loxia 35mm 2.0) towards the borders. On very close close examination one can also spot a slight onion ring structure caused by the aspherical element.
The cat’s eye effect – describing light discs becoming ovals towards the borders and corners – is also very pronounced.
Comparison Leica 35mm firstname.lastname@example.org <-> Voigtlander 35mm email@example.com:
Before: Leica 35mm 1.4 @ 1.4 | After: Voigtlander 35mm 1.7 @ 1.7
Comparison Leica 35mm firstname.lastname@example.org <-> Voigtlander 35mm email@example.com | 100% crops:
Before: Leica 35mm 1.4 @ 1.4 | After: Voigtlander 35mm 1.7 @ 1.7 | 100% crops
The transition zone (the area between in-focus and out-of-focus) can also look a little rough depending on the focusing distance, but this is unfortunately true for most fast 35mm lenses.
But in the end this is a highly subjective topic and I have also taken quite a few shots where I actually quite like the bokeh (like the one below), so best judge from the sample images for yourself and your needs.
As this lens features 9 aperture blades you will get 18-pointed sunstars around point light sources. This is not my preferred rendering, but as this is a highly subjective topic you might want to have a look at this article and decide for yourself what you prefer.
Sony A7rII | Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 FLE Asph | 100% crop | before: f/1.4, after: f/2.8
Longitudinal CA (loCA) are quite pronounced wide open, much better stopped down to f/2.0 and hardly field relevant from f/2.8 onwards. Wide open the performance isn’t exactly something to write home about, to my eyes the ZM 35mm 1.4 performs noticeably better in this category.
Sony A7rII | Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 Asph FLE | 100% crop | Before: f/1.4 / After f/2.8
Unfortunately I found this lens to show significant focus shift. Focus shift describes the effect of the plane of optimal focus shifting on stopping down. This is actually less of an issue with the A7 cameras as you will most of the time stop down first and focus after that, but more of a problem with most Leica rangefinder cameras.
Sony A7rII | Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 Asph FLE | 100% crop | Before: f/1.4 / After f/2.8 (no refocus)
As you can see in this comparison wide open performance at the minimum focus distance (70 cm) is pretty decent as is to be expected from a lens featuring a floating elements design, but when stopping down to f/2.8 (without touching the focusing ring) the image looks actually worse.
Because of the focus shift you need to stop down first and refocus after that to get much better image quality:
Sony A7rII | Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 Asph FLE | 100% crop | Before: f/2.8 (as focused at f/1.4) / After f/2.8 (refocused for optimal sharpness)
Voigtlander Ultron 1.7/35:
A very good performer for a decent price. By giving up half a stop of speed you gain much better flare resistance and more even across frame sharpness wide open. To my eyes bokeh is also slightly better as the light discs are evenly lit and won’t show an onion ring structure (see comparison above). This lens does not feature a floating elements design and therefore struggles a bit at the minimum focus distance and exhibits comparable focus shift.
Zeiss ZM 35mm 1.4 T* Distagon:
This is Zeiss’ most recent rangefinder lens and was “the answer” to the Leica reviewed here. It also features a floating elements design and I think optically it is the better lens: less loCA, better across frame sharpness, better flare resistance and no field relevant focus shift. The downsides are size and weight in comparison to the Leica, but while the Zeiss is known as a “big and heavy” lens among Leica users it is still pretty small (and also lighter) compared to the native Sony Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZA T* FE.
Zeiss Loxia 35mm 2.0:
This is Zeiss’ native manual 35mm for E-mount. It is based on a Biogon design and therefore renders quite differently compared to the other lenses here and needs stopping down to f/8.0 to really shine. I have been using the Loxia for almost a year now and wasn’t unsatisfied with it for landscape and architecture photography. If you are solely looking for a landscape lens – and prefer to have a native lens – this one is still worth a look.
Sony Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZA T* FE:
I still haven’t laid my hands on one of these yet. It is heavier than the ZM including adapter and more importantly it is huge by comparison. I have also seen some sample images showing very bad onion rings. If you want/need a 35mm with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 and Autofocus this is pretty much your only option right now (the Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art still seems to not working properly with the MC-11 adapter).
Older manual 35 mm lenses:
There are simply too much options here to cover them all but in case you can get by with a slower and bigger lens you may start taking a look at our Canon FD 35 mm comparison.
Impressions after one week of usage
What really stands out here is the small size of the Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 FLE Asph: it is smaller, lighter and shorter than the Zeiss ZM 35mm 1.4 and even a tad shorter than the half-a-stop slower Voigtlander 35mm 1.7.
But this minituarization seems to have taken its toll here, because I can see no other category where it stands out compared to the other two rangefinder lenses.
When it comes to sharpness I expect this lens to perform better on a Leica M camera (which is also true for the other two). But other things like flare resistance, focus shift, loCA, bokeh and distortion will be (almost) the same.
This clearly is not a bad lens on absolute terms, but if you compare it to the competition (as I did in this 35mm comparison) you start to wonder what you are paying the premium for.
So for Sony users I would rather recommend getting the VM 35mm 1.7 instead, if you can live with a half-a-stop slower lens (otherwise get the ZM 35mm 1.4).
For Leica users I would recommend getting the Zeiss ZM 35mm 1.4 which is almost completely free of focus shift which will make it easier get consistent results across the whole aperture range.