Perhaps the most versatile lens of all, the 35mm. Leica has a long tradition in designing that focal length. The first was the Elmar 3.5/35 in 1930! It was a very compact lens that offered a a wider Depth-of-Field than the popular 50mm and thus perfect for the newly developing form of dynamic urban reportage photography.
There have been two differnt 35mm lens types in the Leitz program, the Summicron (since 1958) and the Summilux (since 1961). When the first Summilux was introduced it was a dream right from the beginning. Such a fast wide angle lens has never been on the market before. Leitz Canada was able to find a compromise between a huge aperture and a wide Field-of-View. In the 60s that was a sensation, today this lens is not convincing anymore. The first version of the Summilux 35 shows wide open a low contrast, is prone to flare and coma. Today this lens cannot be recommended unless you are a collector or want that special effect caused by aberrations. The double-gauss construction was so difficult to improve that even that excellent and experienced Leitz designers were not able to succeed. It was the idea and feasibility of aspherical lenses that enabled the Leica labs in 1990 to launch a new Summilux 1.4/35 Asperical which showed a much better performance, but which was – due to its two aspherical lenses – absolutely uneconomic. That is why that lens was on the market for only four years, until the latest version was published in 1994. The latest design offers a fantastic performance despite employing only one aspherical lens. So, if you want a 1.4/35, you should go for the latest version and keep your fingers off the first one.
Perhaps you don’t need f/1.4 and are happy with a 2/35, or you don’t feel like paying the money for a Summilux, the Summicron might be the lens for you.
The first Summicron was launched in 1958 as an eight element design. Strangely enough the Summaron 2.8/35 was marketed in the same year which made use of the new Leitz Lanthanium glass that could be molten without the radioactive Thorium. The highly refractory glass allowed a better correction which improved the speed of the Summaron from f/3.5 to f/2.8. The Summicron benefitted from the new glass as well, the f/2 performance, however, was not on a level that we wish for today. The Summicron six lens successor of 1969 offered a higher contrast but mainly with a distinctive hot spot in the centre and weak corners. A re-design in 1971 did not improve things a lot. The fourth version though, the one published in 1979, was a huge step ahead and offered a considerable plus in performance. The latest edition, the Summicron 2/35 Asph, provides an even better performance with a vastly improved overall contrast and a fantastic 3D effect which this lens is famous for, but many users say that it has lost the characteristic and very pleasant bokeh of the fourth version. Anyway, the 1979 Summicron 35 is perhaps a fantastic way to save some money if you find a good copy on the used lens market.
(Source: LFI 2006)
It was a very difficult thing to calculate a 90° angle lens even after WWII. Before the 1950s the lens designers weren’t able to come up with a suitable solution, Zeiss and Schneider were the first ones. In 1958 Leitz adopted the Schneider design and even used their name: Super-Angulon 4/21. This lens, however, was not a really good lens, at least not by todays means: it showed poor contrast wide open and a strong corner darkening even at f/8.
Its successor, the 1963 Super-Angulon 3.4/21, was considerably better at f/4 but still suffered from soft textures, somewhat typical for the Angulon design. In 1980 finally, Leitz came out with its first retrofocus superwide angle 21mm lens, the Elmarit 2.8/21. This early Elmarit 21 was better than the Angulons but still not excellent: low contrast wide open, tendency to flare and a vignetting of 2.5 stops. It was the 1997 Elmarit-M 2.8/21 Asph that for the first time showed a brilliant performance even wide open. So make sure to get the latest version if your budget allows.
It is kind of funnny that the first 24mm lens for the M-system was the Elmarit-M 2.8/24 Asph in 1996. Only Leica’s wide experience in the aspherical lens technology made it possible to launch a 24mm lens with a Leicaesque performance. It is generally accepted that the Elmarit-M 2.8/24 Asph is a better lens than the Elmarit-R 2.8/24 which is based on a Minolta design.
28mm lenses have a long tradition for Leica rangefinder cameras. In 1935 already, the Hektor 6.3/28 was the most “extreme” wideangle lens that was possible. In order to cope with the resulting aberrations the design needed to sport a very slow aperture of f/6.3. And still the performance was rather poor. The 1955 Summaron 5.6/28 was a considerable improvement, at least in the image centre. Towards the corners the image quality detriorated quickly.
The first Elmarit 2.8/28 of 1965 neither was an excellent lens and resembled the Angulons in character. In 1972 Leitz calculated a new, retrofocus, version in Canada which did not improve things a lot. It was not before 1979 when Leitz was able to introduce a better version which worked as the quality standard of 28mm lenses until 1993 when Leitz put the latest version of the Elmarit-M 2.8/28 on the market. This eight lens design still is one of the best 28mm lenses you can find. Leica does not sell this lens anymore, but it is recommendable to look for it on the used lens market.
In 2000 Leica introduced the Summicron-M 2/28 Asph which is about the same size as the Elmarit, shows an even better performance and is a whole stop faster. Aspheric lens know-how again was the key to this almost perfect performance.
(Source: LFI 2006)