Sunday, February 7 2021

Leica Summicron-M 90mm (pre-ASPH)

This will be a shortish review of the Leica M 90mm Summicron, the pre-ASPH version, sometimes referred to as version III or the E55, model number 11136.

orchids

90mm is a classic portrait length, though it can be challenging to frame on a rangefinder (small frame lines) and focus at large aperture (rangefinder accuracy). It’s still a useful focal length to have around.

This is big and heavy for an M lens. Focus throw is long and heavy, much like the 75mm Summilux. This makes it easy to precisely adjust focus, but slow. I prefer a lighter focus feel and with this lens I find it useful to pre-focus to speed the process up. There might be some minimal focus shift with the lens, but I often shoot it wide open or stopped down to f/5.6, where it has been mostly fine.

Neutron the cat in a peach box.

Much has been said about the 90mm APO-Summicron, how sharp it is, how it gets soft at short range, etc. This is not that lens. Wide open, it is lower contrast and softer. Stopped down, the contrast gets better and it sharpens up. Again, this is not unlike the 75mm Summilux. It’s not quite as much of a character lens as the 75mm,1 but it is not ‘modern’ and overly sterile.

That being said, it’s ‘sharp enough’. Pictures wide open are really pleasant, even on 40+ MP cameras. It is certainly not as sharp as my sharpest lenses, but it’s good enough. At times I’m tempted to get an APO-Summicron (used, if the price was right). Then I’m reminded I don’t shoot 90mm much and the pictures this lens makes are very nice.

Todd the monster listening to headphones.

Shot on T-Max 400.

It does flare if you get a lot of light coming in near the axis of the lens; low angle shots into the sun with the sun reflecting off a hardwood floor. This is a challenging situation for sure, but it is something to be aware of since flare is not reflected in the RF viewfinder.

It works very well on my M10 Monochrom, film Ms, and the Sony A7rII as well. While I’ve had issues with other M lenses on the Sony,2 90mm has always been fine in my experience, and this lens is no exception.

This is a bit cliché, but this lens has a real ‘classic’ look to it. And as fast, quasi-modern Leica lenses go, it’s also very affordable. It doesn’t have all of the caché that the 75 Summilux has, and it’s a bit less versatile (a stop slower, longer minimum focus distance), but in many respects, it is similar in signature and in my opinion, is a good value.

Obviously, if you want a sharper or lighter lens, there are other options, like the 90 APO-Summicron, the 90 Macro-Elmar M, or the Zeiss Tele-Tessar 85/4. Hopefully Voigtlander releases a high performing 90mm lens; they’ve really been on a roll in the past few years.

Here is a link to photos from the lens that I’ve posted to flickr.

Gravel piles with birds on them.

Shot on a Sony A7rII.

Box of tea from China with cat smelling it.

  1. I seem to recall wilder, swirly bokeh with the 75mm Summilux wide open. ↩︎

  2. You often read, “Any M lens longer than 35mm works fine,” which is just not true in my experience. Some newer designs wider than 35mm are good from what I’ve seen (Leica WATE, 28mm Summilux, etc.), and from personal experience, I can say the 50 Summilux ASPH (not good at all in the corners) and the Zeiss 50mm C Sonnar (some squirrely astigmatism or something in the corners) are less than ideal. If you have specific M lenses that work great on the Sony, great, but for the ‘best’ Sony manual focus experience, just get some FE mount Voigtlander and Zeiss lenses; it really is much better. ↩︎


Wednesday, December 30 2020

RRS Micro Ball(head)

My only ‘real’ tripod is the little Leica tabletop tripod. Not cheap, but consistently gets great reviews as one of the better table top tripods. The design has barely changed for decades, so one can pick it up relatively cheap used. I bought mine ten years ago, and as I also needed a small ballhead to level the camera, I also bought a little Novoflex ballhead. Leica makes one as well, but it’s also pricey1 and a bit larger. It’s supposed to be a great unit, but for reasons I have forgotten, I didn’t buy it.

Really Right Stuff BC-18 Micro Ballhead

Long story short, the little Novoflex ballhead gave up the ghost earlier in the year, so I had to get a replacement. After a bit of research, I got the Really Right Stuff BC-18 Micro Ball. Really Right Stuff (RRS) also makes a small panning ballhead, the BPC-16, but this page convinced me to go with the BC-18 instead.

This is a very brief review. This ballhead is great. The BC-18 is very easy to adjust and is very steady. Combined with my table top tripod, it’s still compact enough to fit in the front pocket of my smallish camera bag (Think Tank Photo Retrospective 5). Possibly one of the better photographic purchases I’ve made. I should note I’ve never owned a ‘real’ or full-sized ballhead.

Two caveats for its use:

  1. You need a quick release plate. For my digital M, I bought the RRS M10 modular plate with the handgrip. If you want a handgrip (or not), this is a good option. For film Ms, as RRS no longer makes plates for those, I am using the much cheaper Acratech 2048. The Sony is just getting a generic $10 plate from Amazon.
  2. Unlike the BPC-16, the BC-18 comes with a non-removable 1/4"-20 male stud on the bottom. The Leica tripod has the same. I bought a 0.7" inch tall female-female adapter to solve this problem. I am happy to report that this works great.

RRS also makes table top tripod that has the appropriate tapped hole for the BC-18. Someday I might pick it up; it’s probably pretty good as well.


  1. These are also available used for much cheaper as they have been made for decades as well. ↩︎


Sunday, December 27 2020

Zeiss C Sonnar 50mm ZM

About a year and a half ago, I finally broke down and purchased the Zeiss C Sonnar T* 1.5/50mm ZM. I don’t know why. I had been intrigued by it for years, but questioned how much I’d use it when I already had the wonderful Leica Summilux-M 50mm ASPH. I also have a classic Sonnar design in the Nippon Kogaku Nikkor-S 50/1.4 LTM lens, so why spend more money for a remake? Well, the Nikkor is an interesting lens, but the ergonomics of it are funny compared to modern lenses, it flares oddly, and it is decidedly soft wide open. It is a nice lens, but I moved on from it years ago.

Zeiss was running a promotion for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo missions, and given my current employer, how could I resist that? Furthermore, as I had been shooting Sony more than the Leica, the 50 ASPH was not getting used much, and the it appeared to me that the C Sonnar wasn’t too bad on the Sony (unlike the 50 ASPH). So I finally succumbed.

Note: I don’t shoot as much as I should, and when I do, apparently it’s all cats (forgive me).

Usage

The lens is good. Nice and compact, good hood, etc. Don’t really like the 1/3 fstop clicks on the aperture ring, but this is a ZM, so that’s what you get. If you’ve shot a ZM lens, nothing new or surprising here.

The most annoying thing about the lens is the 0.9m minimum focus distance. Not a problem 95% of the time, big problem 5% of the time. I’ve been shooting rangefinders for long enough that I’m okay with the normal 0.7m minimum. With a 50mm lens, I’m used to a certain tight framing with a 50mm, and I can’t quite get that with this lens. Of course, on the Sony, I’m spoiled with much short minimum focus distances, but I haven’t really internalized that yet.

murphy sleeping

Focus shift

Focus shift, the thing that scared me away from the lens, and that is a constant topic of discussion, isn’t that bad. It’s there for sure, but find out where your lens is calibrated (mine appears to be f/1.5) and you are good. f/2 isn’t too bad, but then you go off a little bit until f/4–f/5.6. Frankly, my conception of it isn’t fully formed yet because I have been shooting it a lot at f/1.5.

I must admit I’ve not developed any of the few shots on film I’ve taken with it, but I would be surprised if the shift would be that bad or noticeable on a film like Tri-X.

On the Sony, of course, there’s no issue with shift. The same is true if you are using liveview on a Leica.

Photos

I like the look of it. At f/1.5, the aberrations in the image give a very nice halo around certain elements right outside the focal plane. In the following photo, you can see the effect if you look closely at the cat whiskers (see the crop). It’s true that this likely wouldn’t be visible if the print or enlargement wasn’t big.

scritch
whiskers out of focus

I have been shooting it mostly at f/1.5, but between f/2.8 and f/4, the image cleans up quite a bit and is reasonably sharp. Not sharp sharp, but good enough. Get another lens if you need the resolution. For more candid-type photography, I think it is sharp enough. It is noticeably less sharp wide open than the Summilux ASPH, but nothing that is concerning. It’s also more contrasty wide open. I’m not sure if that is true across all examples of these two lenses, but my Summilux is less contrasty at f/1.4 and on par with the C Sonnar probably around f/2.

I think I’ve noticed it get a little squirrely on the edges on the Sony, possibly due to the different sensor–see the bush above the fence on the right hand side.

hatchet throwing - funny background

Summary

I like the lens a lot, and shoot with it more right now that the Summilux ASPH. If I were going on a trip, I’d probably take the Summilux for versatility, but I’d be fine with just this lens if it was my only 50mm. It’s all been said before because this lens has been around for quite some time, but a Planar or Summicron is the better all around lens, unless you know you want this one. Nowadays, I’d probably recommend one of the Voigtlander 50mm lenses as a good value proposition; the new 50/1.5 II looks great1, the prior Nokton Aspherical seems nice, and the upcoming APO is probably going to be fantastic.

How often does one get the chance to buy a classic design like the C Sonnar, with just enough improvements to make you not feel like you are using an antique, but not so much as to ruin the magic?

More photos from this lens can be found on flickr.


  1. It also looks a lot like the C Sonnar. I bet it is going to be a bit like a cleaned up C Sonnar: ‘better’ performance, less character. ↩︎


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