Leica’s Worst Summicron 50mm F/2 is one of the Best (and Priciest) Legacy Fifties Around – Summicron V3 Lens Review

Leica’s Worst Summicron 50mm F/2 is one of the Best (and Priciest) Legacy Fifties Around – Summicron V3 Lens Review

2000 1125 Josh Solomon

Longtime readers of the site will know that I’m far from a Leica fanboy. I generally prefer Japanese manufacturers and often champion their products’ value over their pricier, hyper-mythologized German counterparts. Considering my aversion to Leica, it’s only fitting that James would ask me to talk about that company’s most storied lens, the Summicron 50mm f/2. Either the universe has a wonderful sense of irony, or James has a cruel sense of humor. It’s probably both. In any case, I’ve been suckered into the risky business of writing about a Leica product once again, so let’s get on with it.

The Leica Summicron 50mm f/2 is Leica’s most famous lens. Forget the speedy and expensive Summilux and Noctilux; the Summicron is the lens that earned Leica glass its place at the very top. With the Summicron, Leica set the standard for how a 50mm lens should look and behave, a standard that holds to this day. When you hear the name “Summicron”, you immediately know that you’ll be dealing with the don of the 50mm family.

But as with all things Leica-related, it’s not that simple. The Summicron evolved throughout its history, and although some of these differences are incredibly minute, debate rages on about which ‘cron is the best ‘cron. There’s the original collapsible Summicron, the rigid Summicron, the Dual-Range Summicron, the Summicron V3, the Summicron-M, the Summicron V5, and the current absurdly-priced APO-Summicron-M f/2 ASPH, all of which have their own set of fans and critics. While we’re not here to delve into that debate it’s important to know which Summicron we’re talking about, if only to cover our asses.

The Summicron I’m stuck with today is the Summicron V3, famous in Leica fandom for being the black sheep of the ‘cron family and, to some, the lens that let the family down. But to really understand why the V3 comes with such a bad reputation, we should look at the history of Leica itself.

The Summicron V3 was manufactured from 1969-1979, a time Leica would probably like to either redo or forget entirely. The previous decade stripped Leica of the unofficial “Best Camera Manufacturer” title and gave it instead to Nikon. It was simple; rangefinders were out and SLRs were in, which spelled certain doom for rangefinder-centric Leica.

The brand quickly found themselves playing catch-up to more forward-thinking Japanese manufacturers. Though Leica tried to stay relevant by developing their Leicaflex SLR and updating their flagship rangefinder system, both pursuits eventually ended in almost complete disaster. The Leicaflex cameras never offered anything significantly different from other SLRs and the too-radical-for-Leicaphiles M5 flopped hard, leaving the once-legendary manufacturer in dire straits.

In their flailing, the brand made an unthinkable move that still angers some Leica geeks to this day – they changed the optical formula of their most sacred lens, the Summicron. Changed from the original 7/6 formula to a simpler 6/5 formula, the new lens produced greater contrast and featured a shorter focusing distance of 28” (0.7m), improvements by any standard. But in doing this, Leica committed the cardinal sin for many die-hard Leicaphiles – they screwed with tradition. And one doesn’t just screw with tradition when it comes to Leica.

As a result, the Summicron V3 has been treated as the runt of the Summicron litter. But after shooting it for a little over a month, I have to say that most of these criticisms are wildly overblown. Sure, the V3 might not stack up when compared to its siblings, but when compared to every other fifty in the world it proves to be one of the best in the category.

Among other things, Summicrons are renowned for their outstanding sharpness and resolving power. But the V3 is considered inferior to all other Summicrons in this specific department. This noted, I honestly can’t see myself asking for images sharper than what the V3 delivers. 100% crops of images off the full-frame Sony A7 look absolutely stunning, every single detail being rendered clearly and with artistic precision. It’s also worth noting that heavy crops of these images can still stand on their own, a testament to the Summicron’s quality at all areas of the frame.

But where the V3 really starts to show its legendary character is when we notice that it retains resolution and sharpness to the edges of the frame at every aperture (and yes, that deserves italics). The Summicron V3 is every bit as sharp to the corners from f/2 to f/16. One need not stop-down for a sharper image; it’s all there at every aperture if you need it. Unbelievable.

The Summicron V3 continues to excel when it comes to subject isolation and, you guessed it, bokeh. Its maximum aperture of f/2 might not sound terribly fast, but it more than makes up for its lack of speed in the quality of its subject isolation. Backgrounds don’t just fall off a cliff with this lens. In-focus areas fade gracefully into their backgrounds, which are some of the smoothest in 35mm photography.  Even more interesting is that the while the Summicron is based on the traditional Double-Gauss lens formula, famous for its distracting and busy bokeh, it somehow sidesteps that issue entirely and instead gives the most beautiful bokeh this side of a Zeiss Sonnar.

Contrast on the Summicron V3 is an interesting thing to consider. The reduction in the V3’s lens elements was meant to lighten the lens and to increase contrast. It accomplished both things, but the slight bump in contrast really isn’t as great as one would expect. Contrast is still of the flatter variety, typical of the Summicron design. But what separates the V3 (and all Summicrons) from the rest is not the amount of contrast the lens has, but the way that it treats contrast. The Summicron V3 offers an uncommonly subtle and smooth grade between light and shadow, resulting in truly lifelike and 3D renderings of scenes and subjects. I suspect that it’s this special characteristic that catapulted the Summicron to the fame and status it currently enjoys.

This understated, finely handled contrast hints at the lens’ overall character. It’s not a lens that bashes you over the head with how good it is. It doesn’t punch you in the face with contrast, slice your eyes open with its sharpness, or leave you hypnotized Cameron Frye-style by its resolution. It instead offers the perfect mixture of all these attributes, resulting in images which have a depth and subtlety most lens manufacturers can only dream of coaxing from their glass.

As great the Summicron V3 is, there are a few problems. While the V3 is a fantastic lens optically, its build quality really lets it down. It’s not a badly built or ugly lens, but when laid next to a couple of older pre-AI Nikon lenses and some older (and newer) Leica lenses, it just doesn’t feel as solid. The aperture ring clicks just a little bit past f/2, the paintwork and engraving of the lettering seems just a bit sloppy, and overall the lens feels just a little too lightweight, a little too hollow. On really close examination, it’s easy to see why the Leica faithful poo-poo this lens and ditch it in favor of the more finely-made rigid and DR Summicrons.

There’s also the room’s resident elephant – that Leica price. Even though the Summicron V3 is the black sheep of the Summicron family, it still fetches over $800 on the used market. This places the V3 far beyond the reach of shooters who simply don’t have the dough, or don’t care to spend $800 on a manual focus lens from the 1970s. The high price creates a sharply defined barrier of entry, fostering a culture of envy and GAS on one side, and a culture of snobbery and supremacy on the other. It’s a sorry situation, but a very real one, and one that factors in when considering buying Leica.

The price begs the question; is the Summicron V3 worth it? Yes and no. On one hand, it’s one of the best 50mm lenses I’ve ever tested. It’s a lens whose whole is somehow greater than the already incredible sum of its parts. I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves in Leica circles, and I’d love to see it get its day in the sun. But do I think it’s worth the rather outrageous $800 price tag? That’s hard to say, but it does make one hell of an argument for itself.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
  • Another really enjoyable review here. Nice pictures Josh.

  • Granted that I don’t have a point of reference to compare as this is the only Leica lens I’ve ever used, I love this lens and among the multitude of 50s I own, it’s by far my favourite lens.

  • Great article and photos.

  • For not being a Leica guy you sure were gushing with love and appreciation for this lens. You just drove up the price with this review.

  • German have devised everything when it comes to cameras, lenses and etc. The rest of the World produce good or bad copies.

  • Great write up, Josh.
    From my own experience this lens is indeed (visibly) great! It is better (except for the bokeh) than my Sonnar ZM. But a cheaper way to get to this IQ level is buying a brand new ZM Planar. MTF suggests the Planar is slighty better at a lower price and you have warranty.

    There is a cheaper way to get this lens however: just buy the R version. It is the same lens for less than half price. You can buy the R version with an SL-2 for less than the M version alone! A no-brainer if you ask me…

    • I’ve been wanting to try the Planar for a long time! James is a big fan of the Summicron-R and I believe he uses it on his Leicaflex SL2. An equally fantastic lens.

      • I’ve owned and used plenty of lenses (nice ones too) but the Planar is the first one that made me say “WHOA” and seriously shocked me when looking at images in LR for the first time.

  • yeah build quality suck. it’s also the first leica lens i own for my recently acquired m4. i find the focusing ring way too stiff and the throw is too long. going to get rid of it and find a nice used v4 instead.

    • If the focusing ring is too stiff, either it’s dried out, or, more likely, someone re-lubed it with too much, too thick grease.
      Just having it lubed properly (assuming the glass doen’t need cleaned) won’t be terribly expensive.
      And if the lubrication is correct, the throw won’t seem so long.

  • Randle P. McMurphy November 16, 2017 at 6:19 am

    As I started getting interrested in photography I asked my grandfather why he didnt buy a Nikon or Leica ?
    I know he was using a Contax instead and took pictures since he was a young guy in the war.
    “Lenses” he said – its´s all about the lenses and Carl Zeiss has the sharpest of all !
    Before he died he gave me his last camera a Contax 137 and two lenses a Planar 1,4/50 and Distangon 2,8/35.

    Took me some years till I finally touched it and took some pictures because I was just to focused on Nikon and later Leica M.
    Funny enough that I was shocked when I did and compared the 50 Cron with the Planar – both on high resolution Agfa APX25.
    Carl Zeiss seems to be the better choice !
    Mechanically it is not close to Leica or Nikkor lenses and it is manufactored in Japan but the optic itself is just amazing !

  • Great review, Josh. It brought back fond memories of my V3 which I bought in ‘70. I was working at a camera store in Boston at the time and the owner let me pay for it via paycheck deductions. Don’t think I saw a check for two months. It was a wonderful lens especially in how it handled contrast and transitions from mid tones to highlights. It was definitely sharp but not extreme. Where the V3 shined for me is how the silver prints just popped. Not sure if links work, but here are three random images which I think are typical of how the lens performed.

    Boys on rock, Wilton NH 1979

    Man holding nose, Boston 1972

    Scowling lady, Boston 1972


    • Great photos there.

      • Guess even a “black sheep” V3 can produce a fairly nice image once in awhile. Of course mine was made in Midland vs Wetzlar, which I recall was the topic of much discussion when I worked at the camera shop in the ‘70s.

  • I have a Leicaflex Standard and 2 Leicaflex SLs. I loved the writeup of this “black sheep” lens because for many Leicaphiles, the Leicaflexes – and to an extent their R-successors – are viewed as the black sheep of Leicas. It’s partially why one can get a very nice Leicaflex (Standard or SL) and a very nice 50mm Summicron-R mark 1 from 1963 – 1976 for under $500. At the same time, the Leicaflexes are a big part of why Leica went from a world photographic power to “almost killed”; every Leicaflex SL2 (and possibly the SL and Standard) was sold at a loss on the assumption the money would be made up by lenses. (Leica decided to put the Loss-Leader model to use in the photographic equivalent of a Mercedes S-Class…). That being said, I love my Leicaflexes and my R lenses, black sheep or not, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. (And that includes a non-metered Nikon F, an M3 with a 1950s ‘Lux, etc.,)

  • Where does the second version of the r mount summicron fit into this? Would it be like the m mount v3 or another one?

    • AFAIK the R and M versions for the fifties have always been identical

      • Sweet! thanks so far the shots are great so I am happy with it. Just havent had a lot of rolls shot with it yet to gather a good sense.

      • I think this is not possible because of the SLR mirror. The back element of the M lens sits near the lens mount. The R version has to clear the mirror and sits further forward. It is likely slightly retrofocus in its design. They’re are different designs.

  • Hi Josh,
    Nice review. The increase in contrast referred to when this lens is usually discussed is lens contrast rather than overall contrast you imply here. To my mind, this version is arguably the most flawed, but for black and white work, also provides the closest to my ideal. A high point before Leica lenses became slightly too clinical.

  • Jason Ganz makes good points regarding Leicaflex. I bought an SL last year for £65 from Peter Loy in London. Pristine condition but non functioning meter. Ok, I have meters and currently use Weston Master V with it. Yes, they are heavy, but, R3/4 are dicey purchases because of the electronics going bad. Then you are left with 1/90. With my SL, I have 1 sec to 1/2000 and no batteries to run down.

  • I’ve had this lens for two years now and still remember how blown away I was the first time I reviewed its images. This version is considered not sharp by 50mm Summicron M standards? I remember thinking that must be a joke because the lens is amazing and has created some of my sharpest, best looking color and b/w images period. I came very close to trading it in toward a V4 but decided that I prefer the smaller profile and feel of my V3 and to me the IQ difference was indiscernible.

    One characteristic I noticed that both of our lenses have is markings on the aperture blades. Is that an area that becomes polished from almost fifty years of use or is it (hopefully not) oil?

  • I have used it, and it’s a wonderful lens!

  • I think it’s worth noting that we’re talking about a lens that has been out of production for nearly forty years. Yes, it still commands a high price, but still beats the pants off many other (non-Leica) 50s. Show me another lens with a similar resell value. So, if you buy one, and you don’t like it, you can resell on Ebay for likely the same as you paid.

    Also, Leica will also still service the lens with a smile (and a tidy bill, one should add).

  • Back in the day when I shot film and had Leica M bodies, I tried and tested both V3 and V4/5 50 mm ‘crons extensively. Ergonomically the V3 was the best hands down and it’s focusing feel, ring placement and longer throw was the best of the lot. I also liked the slightly greater separation of the aperture ring and focus ring. Another feature carried over on to the V3 was the ability to unscrew the optical unit from the focusing mount for Visoflex use. This was the last version to do this little trick and most current users are unaware of this little feature. Optically, the only real difference I could detect on side by side comparison was slightly less veiling glare with introduction of point sources of lights in the frame that reduced microcontast. To some it, this is preferable giving the famed “Leica look” having a creamer look as opposed to a scalpel sharp look. Resolution was equally great in all versions when tested on USAF test charts at all apertures and unlike Japanese SLR 50s, they are razor sharp out to the corners. Comparing V4 and V5, I prefer the V4 because it shares the V3 clip-on reversible lens hood compared to the built-in non-effective hood on the V5 and even the obscenly expensive 50 APO ‘cron. V3 or V4 choice is what you value most, the old school Leica look of V3 or scalpel sharp images of V4/5. Both are great and preferable to V2 with less contrast and 1 meter close focus. The DR V2 is in it’s own class with a 19″ close focus but still has less contrast yet slightly higher central resolution. Build quality and weight is also the highest of the group on the DR ‘cron.

  • Great review, Josh. May I ask what adapter you used for the Sony A7?

  • This was my first Leica lens. I tend to buy Zeiss and Voigtlander because they tend to offer 90% of the results for 1/4 to 1/3 the price, and as a film shooter, the differences are less notable than on digital. This lens really blew me away when I shot Acros 100; the ability to zoom in and see fine detail made the image almost look like it was shot with medium format. The lens resolves more detail than my Nikon 50’s and my Zeiss Sonnar (obviously). I have had it flare on me some, but in a situation where one can expect it to. The lens is right at home on either my M4 which was made in the same year as my lens, or on my M6 when I am shooting indoors and really start to value the light meter.
    I chose this lens over V1 to focus to .7m, over V4 because it has a slightly longer focus throw which makes zone focusing a little easier, and over V5 due to price and that lame built-in hood. A truly amazing lens that give both sharpness with a little bit of character.

  • I was not aware of any reputation issue with this lens. I sold a few of these back then, and tested it. It was outstanding in every way.

  • Did you shoot on a standard a7 or perhaps know how the lens would perform on such? And what adapter did you use?


    • This was in fact shot on the original Sony A7. The adapter was a standard Fotodiox Leica M to Sony E.

  • The color skopar 50 2.5 is what this summicron was not :X

  • Wow. Nicely written review.
    I just bought this lens and I’m waiting for the results…
    Nice to hear from another bass playing leica shooter ; )

  • Late to the party here but I still want to add my support for the V3. When speaking of Leica 50/2s, I have a Summar, Summitar, Summicron V1 and this V3. I would love to have a 50 APO but my bank account and wife have both told me, “No way!” So, I’m happy with the results of my V3. Although I do have a Summilux ASPH which gets the most of my 50mm love and affection but the Cron V3 comes out to play once in a while and never ceases to produce outstanding results every single time!

  • This one more great review here.
    I have seen all comments.
    Yess the Zeiss Planar is the best for the price, but sometimes for me too bright, this is one reason I have sold my Contax G2 and their marvelous lens, I do not regret.
    When we go to Leica lens on film, I will say that this is in BW they give the best. Reason why most famous classic M Leica shooter had Leica lens.
    After many, many many test, I will say for the V3, it is compact, it is excellebt on BW, it is not expensive 😉 for a Leica, … but time after time, I have decided to find a daily lens which is the Canon LTM 50mm 1.4. The Canon is really not expensive, it is sharp enough, it has this 1.4, it is good for colours and BW, for 100 $, it does the job very well and gives this little old school touch which works well on film and digital.
    But, in the Leica world the V3 is a good choice, we can pair it wisely which any digital camera.

  • I remember when it came out. It is a splendid lens in every respect.

  • What many Leica users did not know was that Leitz was constantly improving their lenses by various means. One of their methods was to use higher-quality glass types as they became available. They were able to reduce the number of elements by using glasses with higher refractive indices. These glass types also allowed for softer curves. Fewer elements and softer curves allowed for easier manufacturing, but in no way did they represent a lessening of quality. the increase in contrast over the previous version was noticeable.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon