The Executive Summary: The Leica 50mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M
Anybody looking for a critical tear down of the 50 APO anywhere in the photographic world will be in for a monumental task. The truth is that besides the exceptionally high $8250 cost of entry, this lens deserves the positive reputation it has garnered. This summary will not be straying from that particular path; if you’re shooting an M mount camera or using a mirrorless camera that can be adapted to the M mount you will be hard pressed to find a better normal lens. Objectively speaking.
I say objectively because there are many tastes in photographic imaging out there. In the past few years we have seen a few lens designs catering to the fastidious, lenses such as the Otus series from Zeiss and Summilux-M series from Leica. At the opposite pole we have more character centric lenses such as the Lomography 85mm Petzval lens or the majority of Lensbaby lenses. In between we have a tremendous selection of lenses from various other manufacturers that vary greatly in their rendering and technical prowess, pick your poison – or better yet delve deep into the grab bag blindly for a gem, reviewers be damned.
Unlike most other high end lens manufacturers I would describe Leica as having a constrained design philosophy overall, generally speaking their raison d’etre has been to create as small a lens as possible with exceptional performance at maximum aperture. This design ethos has been extended with the design and manufacture of the 50 APO. This lens is small, tiny, in fact, and yet has exceptional performance at every aperture. The MTF data reads like a love letter to the fastidious, or as Gregory Simpson would say, the performance fetishists. This is Leica’s handcrafted statement of bluesky lens design and brand superiority – albeit at a sizable financial cost, of course.
But this ‘perfection’ is where the rub lies. I just can’t fault this lens technically, apochromatic color and corrections mean images free of fringing and spherical aberrations, an incredibly flat field of focus, not to mention sharpness that just hurts the eyes… Just a few of my favorite things as a performance fetishist (I admit it). But this is where Leica have triumphantly strode forward, with an exceptional technical statement into dangerous territory. Once the goosebumps have ebbed from the performance of this lens just how much character can it generate for its owner? More often than not, the character of a lens is a product of its faults, and this lens has very, very few. It’s a possibility for some that they may find the 50 APO a little on the sterile side. That’s a purely subjective thing of course, and no amount of internet forum and review browbeating will change the subjectiveness of this equation. It’s in the eye of the beholder, silly.
Regardless of concerns over foo-foo notions of character I can’t help but get excited when talking about the 50 APO. It’s a marvel of lens design, and as such, has my unconditional respect. But hold up, because there’s one thing keeping me from recommending it to everyone with deep pockets; the Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. The 50 Lux does 85% of what the APO can do technically, but with a beautifully unique rendering and an extra stop of light. I’d also be remiss not to mention the 50 Lux is roughly half the price. Yet, despite my love for the 50 Lux, there is some irony in that it has had the same questions asked of it in terms of character, particularly in comparison to its forerunner the Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ‘pre-asph’. History repeats itself and I’m sure that in the coming years, photographic taste in imaging will continue to evolve, so perhaps in the future, just like the current 50 Lux before it, the APO will be heralded as the lens that can do it all… So who am I to stand in the way of progress?