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Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0
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Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0
 
The Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 on Leica M 240. © 2015 Thorsten Overgaard
   
 
   

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0

By: Thorsten Overgaard

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The Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 has been labeled “The best 50mm lens in the world”. I asked myself "how is it the best?" and when I came up short, I interviewed the designer of the lens himself, Mr. Peter Karbe.

 

The story of the ridiculously normal looking $8,250 Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 lens for the Leica M cameras is the vision of a perfect lens, dreamt of for years by the master lens designer Peter Karbe.

He knew it was possible to make it, but unfortunately at the same time he also knew it would be impossible to demand from customers what it would cost.

In this article I will try to define what is so wonderful about it, and I will also give the backstory as to how this lens became reality.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Robin Isabella Overgaard in Berlin. Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

The Peter Karbe Interview that almost didn't happen

When I visited the old Leica Camera AG factory in Solms in Germany in January 2013 I video-recorded a talk I had with legendary lens designer Peter Karbe. Unfortunately the sound was so bad (made on the D-Lux 6), I decided to do a written interview and not use the video. It was lying in the archive for a while.

When we met in April 2014 in the new canteen in Wetzlar, I told him this was the reason the interview hadn't been published.

"Well, I haven't been missing it", he replied with a big laugh and an attitude that overall show the nature of Peter Karbe. He reminds me of a shy school boy that avoids eye contact, but then when you ask about the airplane he is holding in his hand, he forgets his shyness and explains enthusiastically all about it.

 


The Leica M Monochrom "Henri" with the Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 lens. They were both released in May 2012 in Berlin, and promoted a new level of resolution in details and sharpness.

 

Peter Karbe is Dope

What keeps him busy and enthusiastic in his office is funny enough also what can get him out of the office and speak enthusiastically and forget his shyness:

Lenses!

He obviously loves everything about lenses. I rememeber when he was doing a talk some years ago about the Noctilux f/0.95. This private person in front of 100 people, so enthusiastic about the details of the design that he can keep talking about it.

People I've talked with through the years just love Peter Karbe. That goes for high and low inside and outside Leica. Peter Karbe is dope!

 

(Definition of dope slang: "Awesome", "extremely cool").




One of the rare occasions where Peter Karbe was outside his office: October 2013 with hard-core fans in Singapore who also got him to sign his lenses. Photo by Ronald Yeoh.

 

50mm Fetish

I may not be a broadly known fact, but Peter Karbe finds 50mm lenses fascinating. He has made the outstanding 50mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4 that he admitted in fact is an APO design though it doesn't say on the lens. Him and his team decided to conquor the rules of everything and make a 50mm f/0.95 that is both lightstrong and a groundbreaking great lens wide open.

Peter Karbe finds the whole history of Leica 50mm lenses fascinating. Maybe one day we will have a talk about all of them, that is more than 20.

 

             
 

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More light, higher performance, but compact

Since the 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 with the asphere technologly of 1966, the development of lenses has moved towards higher performance through glass technology since 1975.

With addition of further glass technology, floating elements, APO, more compact focusing mechanisms inside the lenses, as well as new ways to mount the lenses, in recent years, we arrive at what is possible today. The 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 


From Peter Karbes lecture on the Noctilux and how the want for fast lenses drive technology. September 2010. © Thorsten Overgaard.

 

The 50 APO was a difficult lens not only to produce, but also to grasp the concept of for the users. When the Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 surfaced as prototypes in the stores, I used to meet people who told me, “If I should spend that much on a lens, I would rather get the Noctilux.”

Two weeks later I would talk to the same people and they would say, “I saw the lens in the store. It is fantastic! – I ordered one!”

I would ask, “What is it that is so fantastic?” and they would answer, “It’s fantastic!”

For me, I couldn't grasp what was fantastic. I suspect nobody really has been able to define what it is that is fantastic about this lens. So naturally, when I met Peter Karbe, that was my question.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
East Berlin. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

Interview with Peter Karbe about the 50mm APO

 

Is this lens extremely sharp, or what is it that is so fantastic about it, Peter Karbe?

“Perhaps it is the sharpest lens in the world,” he smiles, “I don’t know! Sharpness is far from the only concept behind this lens.“

“This precision you always see in Leica lenses reflects in bokeh (out of focus). It is not always the lens design; but it is always a matter of high quality production.”

 

Peter Karbe with the a "Optics Konstrucktionsbüche" of Prof. Max Berek from 1930.
Peter Karbe with one of the many "Optische Konstruktionsbücher" notebooks of Max Berek from the 1930's. Photo: © Thorsten Overgaard. Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 Version II.

 

The Noctilux also requires high precision in production. You told that story a couple of years ago, how Leica Camera AG had to build new grinding machines with much smaller tolerances because the existing ones didn’t offer precision enough for a f/0.95 lens. This is an even smaller lens construction.

 

“In the 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH, the tolerance for all the elements is very tight.  We had to adjust everything to an unheard standard to be extremely precise."

"It has a lot to do with precision in production to get the results we wanted. The most of the high price of this lens – $8,250 – is the result of the precision assembling. It’s not exotic glass or something; it’s the assembling that is very precise.“

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
American actor Terence Hines. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0. The photo was made with available soft light from the windows covered with white curtails. You can read more about in The Story Behind That Picture "The Hollywood Murder". 400 ISO, 1/180 second @ f/2.0.
© 2014-2015 Thorsten Overgaard.

 

If I should design my own perfect lens, I would look at the old 50mm Summicron Version II and start there. If you look at the skin details and textures of that lens, they are very alive. But I would wish for accurate colors, more tight light control and less overflow of light (especially in the details).

What considerations did you have when you had to design the 50 APO: What are the decisions you made when you designed the new APO?

 

“There are many aspects you have to think about when you start from scratch. The concept behind is a traditional Leica concept.”
 
“You are familiar with the old one. You know what you can expect from it. Now you have a new one and you will have to get familiar with a new one. You get to learn the aberrations … and in the 50 APO they are hard to find!“

 

(Definition of aberration, in optics: The failure of rays to converge at one focus because of limitations or defects in a lens or mirror. The word aberration comes from Latin, "to stray" and "wandering away").

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015East Berlin. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

“Some are pixel-peepers and try to look for all the aberrations, and they are hard to find in this one. Others look at the overall image and the colors.“

“The concept behind the 50 APO is to realize the best performance in small size.“

“What is best performance? You may ask,” he pauses and look at me as if this is a question he asked himself many times.

“Well, it is for example to maintain a high sharpness from infinity to close focus. The old Summicron is a Mandler design with a high performance. It’s a very good lens but there is a variation when you change distance. You have a performance-fall.“

“Also, when you stop down the aperture, you have a little unsharpness in the center of the field.“

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Tour photographer for Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, Aaron Meekcoms, in my Los Angeles workshop. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0. 2500 ISO.

 

When I look at the qualities in the 50mm Summilux f/1.4 with the pearl bokeh in black and white, accurate colors and high contrast, or the soft but detailed look of the old 50mm Summicron f/2.0 II, or the dreamy "controlled overflow of light" look of the 50mm Noctilux f/0.95 … I know you can’t make one lens that contain all these qualities at the same time.

So how do you select which ones to keep and which ones to focus on? 

 

“It’s sharpness and all the aberrations are controlled. Is very technical how we control the aberrations. It is very much a Leica tradition in the programs we use, how we look at the aberrations and how we try to control them.”

“You will not find that in any other companies that does what we do. It is all typical Leica and is based on Barnack’s view and technology.”

“It’s not a formula or a computer algorithm. We have drawings of aberrations and then we look at them and think about which aberrations will result in which effect in the image. We control the aberrations directly with each image in mind.“

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
The cornerstone in British fashion. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

That makes sense. You most choose which to keep and which to remove. Some look cool others you want to get rid of?

 

"Yes, it is a choice with the image in mind. It is also very important to understand that we try to remove the aberrations within the system. Each lens element is chosen to deliver the performance by itself."

"In some other designs you will find strong lens elements, and when you combine them you will get a sharp lens. But each element will contribute strong aberrations. So traditionally other lens designers will try to reduce aberrations with other elements."

"At Leica we aim to reduce and minimize it within each element itself, with each surface and so forth. That is the concept and thinking behind everything we do."

"Minimize."

"Look at the M system. We aim to keep it compact and each element has a certain task and this need to be selected carefully. That is the general description and the reason we try so hard."

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
The birthday party. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0. 2500 ISO.

 

  Grundlagen der praktischen Optik
  Max Berek wrote the textbook on optical design that everybody studies even today when they want to learn lens design, “Grundlagen der praktischen Optik” (published first time in 1930 by W. de Gruyter & co.).
Available as eBook or printed book.

   

So any other lens designer could do this, or do you have an extra secret?

”They need to understand why, and they need to know how to do that. That is our history of ideas at Leica.“

“We have a history of ideas.”

 

Leica basically did optics for 166 years, since the Optical Institute (renamed in 1869 to Ernst Leitz) was established in 1849?

“I’m talking about history for photographic lenses. The optics for Leica microscopes stretches a bit longer back. The history I represent started with Max Berek (1886-1949) when he designed the first 50mm f/3.5 lens for the Ur-Leica that Oskar Barnack made in 1911. That is our heritage. We learned from that.

"Everybody at Leica try to learn from that which others did before us,” he smiles. “It’s not learned at a university. We learned from them.”

“Our first lens designer was Max Berek. His concept was to reduce the aberration of each element, or of each lens surface. “

“Reduce the contribution of aberration from each surface, you could say. Control all aberrations … but that is too complicated to explain here, I think!” Peter laughs but looks like he would love to talk about it all week.

 


Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Princess Joy Villa at The Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0. 3200 ISO.

 

I am not so interested in more sharpness, I think. I’m trying to understand what you see as the main improvements in the new 50mm APO, besides the resolution and contrast?

 

“You don’t care about the sharpness? You mean the resolution!"

"You look at the light and the focus point with the much higher contrast. I know your pictures, and you work with depth of field. You need a certain level of sharpness."

"On axis the old Summicron II is perfect. It has color aberration, but on optical axis there is no doubt about it. On the optical axis (symmetry) the old and the new Summicron are very similar, so this was not a target for the APO. In fact there is not a very big difference on axis between them.”

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Lulu Anderson in Hollywood. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0. 3200 ISO.

 

If I have a photo with a soft lens and increase the contrast in Lightroom, I increase the contrast in the picture overall. You are talking about only high contrast where the focus is.

 

“Yes!” Peter points a finger in the air and I feel like the student who finally got it, “the contrast has to fall off very fast in terms of depth of field. That’s it. That is the idea – and the ideal. The fall off has to be very fast!

“You point the lens and shoot, and where the focal plane is, the contrast should be high. The front and behind should fall off very fast. That is the difference between the older Summicron lenses and the APO-Summicron. Not in terms of sharpness but in terms of contrast behavior.“

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Berlin. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

 
     
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I like the 90mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 that seem to have so much more horsepower that it looks so natural and easy. As if the lens doesn’t even have to try to get the colors, details and feeling of surface or skin texture right and natural. It just gets it all effortless. Is there a relation between the 50mm APO (designed by Peter Karbe) and the 90mm APO (deigned by Lothar Kölsch) in the way they work?

(Peter Karbe doesn't really answer the similarities, but the 90mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 is known for being a new generation of lens design from 1998. The lens doesn't change quality from wide open a f/2.0 to f/16.)

 

“Due to the high-performance of the 50mm APO, the contrast – the smooth focus contrast … mmm“, Peter Karbe takes a deep breath before he continues to explain: ”Okay, the contrast has to go up towards focus and fall off behind focus.”

“From infinity to the focus point the contrast becomes better and better, and then it falls off after the focus point. We don’t talk about a maximum contrast or if it is 92% or 95% or 85%. That is not the big issue.“

“The big issue is how the contrast falls off out of focus. It has to fall off fast, ideally.”

Peter Karbe draws a curve in the air like a small hilltop: “This is the contrast behavior of the old Summicron, and this” – he draws a pyramid in the air with his finger – “is the new APO-Summicron.”

He laughs, “Its exaggerated” and makes the gestures in the air again, “but that is the principle!”

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
On a boat trip at Cambridge University. Matthias Frei and Hartmut Henninge from I-SHOT-IT.COM and Ernst Schlogelhofer. Leica M Monochrom with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0

 

I look at a lens how it treats light and the look I get. Does the 50mm APO get me a magic look?

“Technically speaking, my interpretation of a good picture is: You get closer and you see more.”

 

Wow, that is well said!

It’s interesting, because I used the APO for a day at Cambridge University some time back. I didn’t think much of the pictures and had them lying around on the hard drive for some months. Then when I finally confronted them to see what I could make out of it, I noticed there was nothing added. They were very natural or neutral: They had a pleasant look, but no special look like the 50mm Summilux or 50mm Noctilux has.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Cambridge University: It took about 60 seconds before the guard turned on the creaking chair and gave me the look. They have those looks. Leica M Monochrom with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0

 

A good microphone doesn’t add, remove or change anything. It just records what is. I saw the 50mm APO like that after I had looked at my pictures again. It doesn’t have a fingerprint you can recognize; it is almost like there is no lens.

 

“In my opinion the 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 is a new interpretation of no light photography. It has nothing to do with available light or low light. You have structures like black leather with structures inside,” Peter Karbe says and point at the black leather sofa in the reception at the Leica Camera AG reception.

“Let’s compare it to sailing,” he adds: “If there is much wind everybody can sail. If there is not much wind, it is hard to sail. 

“It’s the same with low light. You don’t have so much light so the contrast is low. So you need a lens that sees structure and details.”

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Inside the room of Ernst's daughter in the girls quarter at Cambridge University. It actually is more a small apartment than a room, with a separate bedroom. Leica M Monochrom with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0

 

“It’s not available light,” Peter Karbe pauses, “but low light photography.”

“If you have to do a comparison between lenses and see which is a good lens and which is a weak lens, it is best to do it in low light.”

“If you don’t have so much light you need to collect each photon!” Peter Karbe laughs and I can sort of imagine him hunting photons in the air with a net, as if it was summer birds, “and the better the lens is to perform, to focus, the slower you can go down with the light.”

“Reflections and suppression of reflections is also part of that. That’s one aspect of perfection I think.”

“If there is sunlight you have high contrast and many structures with high contrast, so it’s easy to take a picture.“

 

With that we ended off. I found it intersting how little I know about lens design, and how technical Peter Karbes understanding of things must be. Yet we managed to talk about the same with different language.

I hope this interview clarifies some of the things people have been asking me about.

 

(Definition: photons are the fundamental particle of light and have zero mass. The word comes from Greek 'light'.)

 

         
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Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
A wet and dark evening in Aarhus, Denmark. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0. 3200 ISO.

 

         
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The 50mm Noctilux or the 50mm APO-Summicron?

A perhaps relevant question I get again and again, is "Do you prefer the Noctilux or the 50mm APO?"

Many know my love and admiration for the Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 that I have had mounted on the camera almost exclusively for the last 2-3 years in sunshine and rain.

Before that, when the Leica M9 was my main camera, it was the Leica 50mm Summicron-M Version II from 1964 I used almost exclusively.

In 2014 I decided to force myself to use the Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 almost exclusively on the Leica M 240. It was obvious to me that if I had to understand this lens, I had to use it a lot. There is so many reasons - aberrations as Peter Karbe would call them - not to use the 50mm Summicron from 1964. Yet that was what I had done from 2009 to 2012. First out of need and curiosity because I had the lens when I got the Leica M9. Later I just couldn't live without it.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Faye unpacking. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 with B+W ND-filter (X4/2-stop/0.6).

 

Despite the old Summicron's lack of ability to manage colors when shot against the light, to name one clear and strong aberration - I managed to make images in both black and white that was clearly detailed and sharp, contrasty and - given not too difficult light conditions - created great color photographs.

The concept "perfect 50mm lens" has really bugged me. What's going to happen to my images when I use a perfect lens? That is what the 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 was promoted as, and I am sure Leica Camera AG have been regretting this marketing strategy a few times during the period where the new lens was first delayed, then recalled, not to mention the lenses people have sent back for service because they had dropped them or bumped into something so they went out of adjustment.

I think the conclusion is that no such perfect lens exists. You cannot buy yourself into "perfect".

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
My son Oliver and Brittany. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

Perfect is something a lens turns into when you use it. You add the perfection, so to say. The 50mm Summicron from 1964 turned out to be a perfect lens for me. Not that I didn't notice when it didn't perform as I would want, but perfect in the sense that is was my lens and I have made a lot of photographs with it that worked exactly as I wanted them to. Exactly as Peter Karbe said, I knew the lens and knew what to expect and how to make it perform.

Using a lens will always be an interrelation between the technology and me as user. When I got used to the 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 I knew what to expect and how one or the other scenario would look. That interrelation result in that I see and make the type of photographs that the 50mm Noctilux is good at.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
I like this look at lot: It looks like a classic lens, yet the lens is able to control a massive amount of light breaking through from above, and at the same time display a lot of details and tones in the shadows. And it maintains a strong contrast.Classic meets new technology. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.


After a few months I decided to let my hearth decide which lens to use. I wouldn't force myself to use the 50mm APO-Summicron; I would pick the lens that I really wanted to use that day or for the assignment.

Mostly I would pick the Noctilux. It was for me the easy one, the relaiable one.

Not very different than deciding which car to drive today. You pick the one that is the most fun driving. Not necessarily the one with the best fuel economy or the most expensive one.

Just the one you feel like using.

 

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Working the devices. Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

What I really think of the
Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0

There is something about using the Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 that is not very satisfying when I use it. It doesn't perform in a way that makes me happy.

This lens keeps under-performing what I somehow expect when I am out and about photographing. Then, when I look at the pictures after a while, I am struck and surprised how well it performs photographs that are classic looking, simple, relaxed ... yet perfect.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Family on tour. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

I think the term "perfect" make me expect something visible awesome, something in the order of a miracle. I also find myself worrying if the lens bumped into something that might misplace the elements. Something that would make the lens less "perfect".

What makes it perfect, if anything, is that it doesn't show any visible speciality. Other lenses have their fingerprints and a look. The 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 simply don't have anything other than that it got it all. It didn't miss a beat, it recorded the light and all details.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Above the underground station. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

It recorded with clarity, clean colors, scary realistic details. It all looks natural. Add to that an interesting ability to see in the dark. Without the milky look the older Summicron lens has when faced with lots of light behind the subject.

In an age where so much software and so much photographic equipment is based on fluffy features that will do this and that ... meeting a piece of high tech that simply doesn't add anything. That's the miracle!

 

The most clear and true colors of any Leica lens

There is one case where I pick the 50mm APO-Summicron over the 50mm Noctilux, and that is when I want clean and clear colors. The photo of Terence Hines (above in the article) taught me that. The 50mm APO-Summicron has extremely lively and accurate colors.

Then again. I have done a few photo sessions where I have used the Noctilux and the APO-Summicron so as to try to compare them.

It goes like this: I trust the Noctilux to make me my images, but I suspect that the 50mm APO would capture it more real and clean.

I did a series of images recently where I made sure to have both lenses (and I used two cameras). I ended up choosing a Noctilux photo as the final one (for a frontpage). For the untrained eye (or perhaps anybody who didn't know it was two lenses), the differences wouldn't be obvious. What the Noctilux photo had - and usually has - was that feel I wanted. It just had a better atmosphere and emotion.

The 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 often has the look of a medium format when you pixelpeep the pictures. You blow them up to 100% size and the details are quite amazing. However, in my opinion, that is not as relevant for as the overall emotion and message of the photograph.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015Outdoor Ping-Pong. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

Darkness and the Leica 50mm APO-Summicron

Darkness is probably where I have used the lens the least, but the few times I have used it in darkness, I have realized that it actually see details that other lenses don't.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Christmas in Austin, Texas. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0. 3200 ISO.

 

The Leica 50mm Noctilux-M f/1.0 and f/0.95 used to be the ultimate low light lens. Fortunately I meet more and more people who realize it is not a low light lens, but a lens that sees light different. With a ND-filter on the Noctilux to neutrally reduce the amount of light it becomes a very exotic and rare tool even in strong sunshine. The way it deals with light is what makes it special. Not that it works in the dark. It's a nice feature, but it's not the key feature. With higher ISO-speeds the amount of light becomes less important, but the way it handles light will always be relevant.

The same goes for the 50mm APO-Summicron. It seems as if Peter Karbe and his team actually found a way to "use every photon". It has some very intersting and surprising features in low light and shadows.

As we will be getting new sensors in future cameras that will be able to go into even higher ISO range, the Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 will become an even more intersting and valuable tool where there is - as Peter Karbe says it - no light.

 

Joy Villa in Kyoto - Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Princess Joy Villa in a low light setting with soft light reflected from a window. Kyoto, December 2014. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0. 3200 ISO at f/2.0, 1/90 second.

 

The wrong f-stop in Lightroom

There is no physical or electronic connection between the f-stop on a Leica M lens and the Leica M camera; which means that there is no recording of the f-stop used.

When you anyways can see an f-stop in Lightroom it is because it is calculated based on what the small eye on the top front of the Leica M body perceive to be the light condition, compared to how much light hits the sensor.

It is very often quite accurate. Though when you use a ND-filter that reduces the light with for example 2 stops, a f/2.0 lens looks as it is either a f/4.0 lens or that the f/2.0 lens was stopped down two stops to f/4.0. So even that also usually is accurate in Lightroom (if you remember that you had an ND-filter on).

However, my experience with the 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 is that the "guessed" f-stop is often wrong. It will go to extremes as f/11 or f/16 when the lens is in fact f/2.0.

I cannot find any reasonable (or actually any at all) explanation for this and have asked Leica Camera AG. I haven't gotten an answer yet why this could be.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

Epilogue

When we met with Peter Karbe, we also inquired into what he is working on currently.


Peter Karbe revealed that he is working on a lot of new things ... but he wasn't allowed to talk about it. You hear it here first!

 

 

The backstory

Peter Karbe knew for years it was possible to make the perfect 50mm lens, but unfortunately at the same time he also knew it would be impossible to demand from customers what it would cost.

I frankly don't know what happened that changed things. But let me guess: Inside the old Leica Camera AG factory building in Solms, built in a less fortunate period of the 100 year era of the Leica camera brand was a crazy CEO - in a sort of good way - Mr Steven Lee (2006-2007) who had grown a lens-designer-crush on the shy and genius Peter Karbe.

Also inside that pathetic 1980-style factory building was the visionary Andres Kaufmann who had bought his way into the Leica factory. He bought a Leica pocket camera a few years before and liked it so much he lusted for more.

In retrospect some could compare Andreas Kaufmann to Steve Jobs. He took over a trainwreck and turned it into thriving financial success.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Teipei Airport. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0. 3200 ISO

 

To complete the picture, Leica at this point in time - beside working on not dying - had launched an expensive R&D program to develop the Leica medium-format camera Leica S. A project so daring it was nothing less than to live or die in the attempt.

What exactly happened inside the factory that made them give Peter Karbe the green light to make the dream lens is up to anyone to speculate about. A deciding factor could be that all over the world enthusiastic people were on waiting lists for Leica lenses. The exotic Leica lenses such as the $5,000 Leica 35mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4, the $4,000 Leica 90mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 (two years waiting list), the $10,500 Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 (one year waiting list) ... the list goes on.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Mila playing by the pool in Clearwater, Florida. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 with B+W ND-filter (X4/2-stop/0.6).

 

Leica Camera AG was a factory where the employees would spend more time answering calls about "When can I get more lenses?" with "We don't know!" than counting the nonexistent stock. The worlds most expensive lenses for 35mm cameras couldn't be produced fast enough to supply demand.

In light of this if you are a true adventurer, of course a $8,000 lens can be marketed and sold.

Yes, that pretty much sums up what anybody in a business school should know about this example of decision-making and market analysis of supply and demand.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
The Magolia Cafe in Austin, Texas; a 24-hour American diner with a cast of interesting characters.
Leica M 240
with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0
. 200 ISO

 

 

Making the Leica brand

I don't like to talk about left and right brain, but in this context it might help to shed some light over what Leica is, and how it became Leica.

The beginning of Leica was when a genius, Oskar Barnack, trollyed around in Wetzlar in 1910-1911 and somehow combined his fasination for motion picture with an idea of putting motion picture film inside a small, portable metal box with a lens attached. This became the first Leica camera, the Ur-Leica.

 

"Barnack's camera," or the Ur-Leica
"Barnack's camera," "Barnacks apperatus", or the Ur-Leica as it is called. It was first introduced to the market as Leica A at the 1925 spring fair in Leipzig, and then they sold 1,000 the first year. The original prototype that Oskar Barnack built of the camera (above) resides in a safe at Leica Camera AG in Wetzlar.
Photo: © 2012-2015 Thorsten Overgaard.

 

The owner of Leica back then, the Leitz family, had made microscopes for almost a lifetime and had lost a lot after World War I; the whole Russian market to be exact. School kids would collect their dads paycheck at noon in the factory in Wetzlar, then run as fast as they could to the bakery to buy bread before the inflation caught up with them. It was hard times.

Nevertheless, at a point where things had looked realy awfull for a number of years, the Leitz family decided to put this new technology into production and make a batch of 1,000 cameras to be launched in 1925.

Despite a lot of wise peoples advice that such a small camera could never work, the Leitz family and their dedicated staff made it into the worlds dominating camera for the next 35-40 years.

Without this reckless decision made at the worst possible time, Leica wouldn't have become Leica.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
They are so polite in the UK. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0. 200 ISO

One of many highlights in the period after the introduction of the Leica was the Leica 50mm Noctilux-M f/1.2 that was an impossible lens made into reality in the 1960's.

Some of the highlights in recent years of similar reckless impossible dreams made into reality is the Leica M9 full-frame digital rangefinder (which was definitely impossible to make untill it surfaced in 2009), the Leica M Monochrom black and white digital rangefinder (that nobody in their right mind would make), the 21mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4 lens (that is too big and expensive for anybody to want) and the re-make of the above mentioned Noctilux f/1.0 to a modern 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95!

Oh yes, and the Leica S as well. A complete new camera system developed from scratch, aimed at a professional market it has even today hardly started to penetrate. But so popular amongst well-off and wealthy photo-enthusiasts, that segment alone has made it into a financial success.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0. 200 ISO

 

Something interesting happens when you apply German precision engineering to stupid dreams: They work and become state of the art tools. The stuff people dream of because nobody else does such stuff in a world where most braindamage in research and development departments is occupied with how to make more stuff for less money.

 

 

Lightroom Survival Kit

 

The impossible dream lens

The 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 lens follows this pattern of unlikely dreams made into reality by reckless decisions from the minds of dreamers. Ideas realized at times where any banker with a sound mind would have required the key to the factory and spent every hour awake trying to split the company up in smaller pieces to liquidate it.

In contrast to this clearly right-brain management of the brand is the left-brain: The defensive and cautious products aimed at pleasing what is presumed to be the market that everybody is fighting to get a fair share of.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
The Hong Kong tunnel. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0. 3200 ISO

 

It is unlikely Leica would have survived without both the left-brain and the right-brain, but what should be noted is that without the reckless decisions about launching crazy products into the market, the Leica brand wouldn't be so special.

Steve Jobs said in 2010 that Apple was always about how to make the best possible product for the end-user, and it always would be. This is a strategy that led Apple to becoming the most valuable company in the world.

It's not a bad idea to make the best possible products.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Hong Kong. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

In all fairness, the left-brain products from Leica have supported the company well. The small cameras made with Panasonic have generated a lot of revenue in times where Leica Camera AG wouldn't have survived without it.

The binoculars are still an important part of the Leica Camera AG revenue.

The 100th year anniversary of the Leica camera in 2014 was an avalanche of left-brained decisions to make limited editions of almost everything in the catalog, with a brain-dead "100 Year" stamp on top.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
New York. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

If we take a short trip in the time machine to year 2050 and look back, then how many will rememeber the Leica with a "100 Year " stamp on the top plate?

That's right, very few! What we will be talking about will be the 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0, the Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95, the Leica M Monochrom, the Leica M9 and possibly the Leica S family.

Those dream-toys are what made and still make the Leica brand.

In 2050 those products will still be traded on eBay, just like the 35 year old Leica Noctilux-M f/1.0 from 1980 is still traded at lossless prices if you bought the lens back then and sold it now.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
On the U-Bahn underground train in Berlin. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

We forgive you, Leica Camera AG

In a few years, if not already, most of us will have forgotten the clumpsy introduction of the Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0. Let's recapture it while we still remember, and then forget about it:

The final stages of introducing the lens turned out to be painful for both CEO Alfred Schopf and the lens designer Peter Karbe, and a few others. For some very long months that must have felt like eternity, nobody was really happy to talk about when the lens would actually start to ship. The level of precision work assembling the new lens was on the edge of what even Leica Camera AG could manage.

To put things in perspective, the Leica Cine lenses are so demanding to produce that the people with the most steady hands have been moved over to that production line. They came from the Noctilux production, amongst other places.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Robin having a Frozen moment in Hong Kong. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

Whatever the idea as to how the 50mm APO could be produced and assembled, and by who, Leica Camera AG had to make a few adjustments before they got the hang of it.

When the lens finally started shipping in small numbers, Leica Camera AG had to go through the embarassment of recalling some of the first lenses to investigate occasional flare problems that Lloyd Chambers at digiloyd.com had reported about. For a very long time nobody at Leica Camera AG couldt explain the reason for the occasional flare, even less find a solution for it.

Eventually they figured it out and got it right. Or they stopped wondering and went back to the original plan on how to make it right and followed it rigidly.

Now people are waiting happily as usual for this wonderful lens that doesn't look much different than others from the outside, except the accompanying price tag of $8,250.

 

 

Definitions

 

APO
stands for "apochromatically corrected" lenses. In most lenses, optical design concentrates the focus of blue light and green light into a single plane, but red light falls slightly into another plane of focus. Red subjects, therefore, would be ever so slightly out of focus compared to blue and green subjects in the same frame. In APO lenses, the design and expense has been put in to making red light focus on the same plane as blue and green. Under a microscope you would see that all light subject is now in focus, creating a sharper image overall. Many manufacturers offer APO designs, but in most of these only the very center of the lens is APO corrected. Leica prides itself on making most of the frame APO corrected.

     
 
Before correction   APO lens

 

ASPH
… stands for "aspheric design". Most lenses have a spherical design - that is, the radius of curvature is constant. These are easy to manufacture by grinding while "spinning" the glass. This design however restricts the number of optical corrections that can be made to the design to render the most realistic image possible. ASPH lenses, however, involve usually 1 element that does *not* have a constant radius of curvature. These elements can be made by 1) expensive manual grinding, 2) molded plastic, 3) Leica's patented "press" process, where the element is pressed into an aspherical ("non-spherical") shape. This design allows the manufacturer to introduce corrections into compact lens designs that weren't possible before. Practically, the lens performs "better" (up to interpretation) due to increased correction of the image, in a package not significantly bigger than the spherical version.

ASPH is a method where the glass is pressed, and if you think about it for a little while, it means that you can make shapes that you can't possibly grind: With grinding you can make a curved shape. With pressing (ASPH) you can make the shape of circles in the water if that is what is required.

     
Normal speric lens (grinded)   ASPH (note the shape of the glass as result of pressing reather than grinding)

There is another Aspherical lens manufacture technique: an uneven coating layer is applied to a spherical lens. The coating is thicker on the edges (or on the center, depending). Canon "Lens Work II" calls these "simulated" aspherical lenses. Simulated and Glass-Molded (GMo) asphericals show up in non-L Canon lenses, while the L lenses have actual ground aspheric elements.

 

Bokeh
the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens : It's a matter of taste and usually photographers discuss a 'nice' or 'pleasant' bokeh (the out-of-focus area is always unsharp why the quality discussed is if one likes the way it renders or not by a particular lens).
ORIGIN from Japanese 'bo-ke' which mean 'fuzziness' or 'blur.'

 

Summicron
Refers to the maximum lens aperture - here f2.0 . There are many guesses how this name came about, a popular one being that the "summi" came from "summit" (summit means the highest point of a hill or mountain; the highest attainable level of achievement) while the "cron" came from "chroma" (ie. for colour). Not so: The name (Summi)cron was used because the lens used Crown glass for the first time, which Leitz bought from Chance Brothers in England. The first batch of lenses were named Summikron (Crown = Krone in Deutsch). The Summi(cron) is a development from the original Summar (the 50mm f2.0 lens annoy 1933)

 

Mandler, Dr. Walter (1922 - 2005)
Legendary Leica lens designer. Read more in Leica History.


Otto Geier, supervisor of the Optics Department of Ernst Leitz Canada (on the right), with the legendary lens designer Dr. Walter Mandler.

 

 

Other resources for the Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0

Erwin Puts' few precise words on the precision and technical accomplishments the new 50mm implies:

"I cannot repeat it often enough, but high-quality imagery with a lens of small dimensions is very difficult to achieve. The 50mm APO-Summicron-M needed to have a front lens diameter of 39 mm (the normal filter size for Leica Summicron standard lenses). The new 50mm APO-Summicron-M has eight elements that have to be fitted in a small-sized mount and there is indeed hardly room for air in this mount. This is a second problem: when lens elements are packed as closely as in the 50mm APO-SummicroniM the potential for aberration correction is restricted. It is a triumph of optical and mechanical design" - Erwin Puts
See his Page 1 and Page 2 of his article on the 50mm APO.

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 sample photo by Thorsten Overgaard © 2015
Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.

 

Steve Huff also have reviewed the Leica 50mm APO-Summicron in his Part 1: "Technically, the best 50mm lens I have ever shot with. Period. End of Story. Done Deal. No contest. Really!" – Steve Huff.

Howard Shooter wrote this article, "Copenhagen with the Leica M 240 and 50 APO-Summicron" article.

 

Peter Karbe interview on the Leica 50mm APO-Summicron ASPH f/2.0


Peter Karbe & the Leica APO-Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 ASPH. from Leica Camera.

 

Comments

Feel free to send me an e-mail with comments, suggestions, ideas, corrections - or simply post your comment below.

 

 

Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 on  Leica M 240 © 2015 Thorsten Overgaard
One last image to sleep on: The Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 on my Leica M 240.

   
   

- Thorsten Overgaard
April 4, 2015


    Thank you!
For help, corrections and information to

Peter Karbe
Erwin Puts




   
   
leica.overgaard.dk
Thorsten Overgaard's Leica Article Index
Leica M cameras:   Leica S:
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Leica 21mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4   Leica R8/R9/DMR film & digital 35mm dSLR cameras
Leica 21mm Leica Super-Elmar-M ASPH f/3.4   Leica R10 [cancelled]
Leica 21mm Super-Angulon-M f/3.4   Leica R4 35mm film SLR
Leica 28mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4   Leica R3 electronic 35mm film SLR
Leica 35mm Summilux-M ASPH FLE f/1.4   Leicaflex SL/SL mot 35mm film SLR
Leica 35mm Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0    
Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95   Leica R lenses:
Leica 50mm Noctilux-M f/1.0 and f/1.2   Leica 19mm Elmarit-R f/2.8
Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH f//1.4   Leica 35mm Elmarit-R f/2.8
Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0   Leica 50mm Summicron-R f/2.0
Leitz 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 "rigid" Series II   Leica 60mm Macro-Elmarit f/2.8
Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4   Leica 80mm Summilux-F f/1.4
Leica 75mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0   Leica 90mm Summicron-R f/2.0
Leica 90mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0   Leica 180mm Elmarit-R f/2.8
Leica 90mm Summarit-M f/2.5   Leica 400mm Telyt-R f/6.8
Leica 90mm Elmarit f/2.8   Leica 35-70mm Vario-Elmarit-R f/2.8
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Above: The Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 on my Leica M 240. © 2015 Thorsten Overgaard.

New Article and Interview on the Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0

 

 

Leica logo

LEItz CAmera = LEICA
Founded 1849 in Wetzlar, Germany.

 

 

 

Thorsten von Overgaard
Thorsten von Overgaard
in Hong Kong by Lee Yu Chaun.

 

 

 

 

The photos on this page have been edited in Adobe Lightroom 3.6 and few or none have been adjusted further in Photoshop. To read more about my workflow, visit the page of my "Lightroom Survival Kit".

 

 



Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 is $8,250 at BH Photo & Video

Shopping list for the 50 APO:

B+W ND filter 39mm diameter, 2-stop
Lens cap (if you really want it)

 

 


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Leica Definitions
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Leica Lens Compendium
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Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95
Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M f/2.0
Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0
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Thorsten Overgaard
Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish writer and photographer, specializing in portrait photography and documentary photography, known for writings about photography and as an educator. Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via e-mail.

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Photo seminars Berlin Copenhagen and Hong Kong



 


Joy Villa, Thorsten von Overgaard & Peter Karbe 2014
Joy Villa, Thorsten Overgaard and Peter Karbe in Wetzlar.

 


 

 


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Photo seminars Berlin Copenhagen and Hong Kong




 

 
Photo seminars Berlin Copenhagen and Hong Kong          
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