Choosing Leica mount lenses is always a bit of a struggle for me. I can find things I like and don’t like about them all. And the ones that meet my ideal specs are often out of my price range. So I will end up buying another lens as a reaction to something I did or did not like about the last one and eventually, I’ll have spent on several lenses what I could have spent on just one all around general purpose lens.
When I bought my 1930 Leica, it came with a nickel Summar. I didn’t really have any need or interest in the Summar because I already owned and loved my Summitar (also a 50mm f2 collapsible.) But because I had it, I wanted to try the Summar. It turned out that I enjoyed that uncoated, early Leitz look as well as the diminutive physical size of the Summar but wanting something more flare resistant, I was lead to purchase a nickel Elmar. For 12 hour weddings, I need a fast 50 though, something that can stay on my camera sun up to sun down if necessary. So when my Voigtlander Nokton 50/1.5 bit the dust, I got the Leitz Summarit 50/1.5. And lately, I’m kinda wanting to get another Nokton.
What’s a picky, demanding photographer on a budget to do?!
So listen, I’m writing this blog to share my experience with these 5 LTM 50’s for $500 or less because I accidently acquired this experience, not because I recommend repeating it! It might be wiser to just buy that multi-thousand dollar 50mm lens and be finished the search so that you can spend your time shooting. But maybe, one or two of these cheaper 50’s will be perfect for your individual purposes and you won’t have to buy 5 cheap lenses or 1 expensive one.
Maybe 50 isn’t your go-to length, you’re rocking a lower cost system or you already blew all your cash on that coveted Leica M but need something to mount on it. Regardless the reason for your interest in a budget lens, 50mm is one focal length that I still don’t believe should require lifetime payment plans. There are so many to choose from and enjoy!
Generally, most any Leica mount 50 below about $700 is going to be LTM, rather than M mount. There are some exceptions such as those wallet-tempting 7Artisans but, aside from lower cost, in my opinion, it’s smart to run LTM rather than M lenses where possible.
LTM lenses are shining examples of how good an investment the Leica rangefinder system is because LTM lenses can be used on cameras dating from the 1930’s until this very day and across numerous brands. Seamlessly in most cases. I don’t even own an M mount 50. You don’t really need to either if you don’t want to. And all you’ll need to make your LTM work on the latest M body is an LTM adapter.
Oh, and just to let you know, all the example images below will be portraits taken on Kodak Tri-X three to four feet away for as direct a comparison that a scatter-brained stream of consciousness shooter like myself can offer! Obviously each lens will exhibit more obvious differences at full aperture but I hope these give you some idea of their “average” performance and character for real world use.
Here we go!
Leitz Elmar 5cm f3.5
Typical lens cost = $130 – $400 | FIKUS = $30 – $70 | FISON $30 – $250 | VALOO – $100 – $200
The Leitz Elmar 5cm (50mm) is essentially the first and one of the best Leica lenses ever designed or constructed, as agreed on by pretty much everyone. Due to it’s modest maximum aperture and relative ubiquity, it’s an affordable lens with many good deals to be had. What this lens lacks in speed, it makes up for with size and enjoyment. When collapsed into a Barnack, the rig is pocketable, and when extended, even with a hood mounted, viewfinder blockage is non-existent or minimal on most bodies. There is a certain gestalt to running the Elmar on a Barnack because the Elmar was originally designed as a non-interchangeable part of the first Leica cameras. The 5cm Elmar is really as much at the heart of early 35mm photography. These lenses are fantastic performers with excellent flare resistance despite little or no UV coating. Unlike faster lenses of the era, character is very consistent across the aperture and distance range, making them easier to use effectively regardless of the lighting situation. A Summar, for example, may be as sharp as the Elmar at the same settings but its rendering can be softened by veiling flare in conditions where the Elmar simply doesn’t flinch. Yes, the aperture control is unusual but not as annoying as it may look, just a tad slower to operate than conventional ring-style aperture. Focus control is very smooth and classic Leica with the little focus knob and infinity lock. This is an ancient lens so most copies have non-standard aperture scales and of course, no click-stops or anti-UV coating. This isn’t the lens for low light work of course but you might just be surprised how infrequently you need anything faster than f3.5 during the day. Many folks run their 5cm Elmars sans hood but none of its available hoods are really THAT big and the VALOO hood can even be used to change aperture faster/more easily. The Elmar remains a legendary, budget-friendly, and high-performing choice for any M39 screw mount camera body and isn’t too shabby on an M either.
Reasons to buy the Elmar – history, sharpness, very little veiling flare, compactness, economy
Reasons to avoid the Elmar – speed
Leitz Summar 5cm f2
Typical lens cost = $130 – $900 | SOOMP = $50 – $250 | FISON $30 – $25
The Leitz Summar was the company’s first “fast lens” if one doesn’t count the rare 5cm 2.5 Hektor. Released in 1932, the Summar is said to have been on backorder for over a year due to unusually high demand. Summar’s wide maximum aperture makes it a nearly modern lens in terms of specs but with the handling and performance quirks of early 20th century photography. In particular conditions, the Summar can flare heavily and produce captivating swirly bokeh as an effects lens. Even in the most favorable conditions, f2 is on the soft side with obvious edge fall-off, but not to an unacceptable degree. The Summar also exhibits that classic “Leica glow” to the highlights. The middle of this lens is reasonable sharp through its focus range and it’s nearly as compact as the Elmar. These early lenses are all about condition. If you want to eek out every drop of performance, top dollar must be spent on an infrequently used, well-maintained example. I hear that having the Summar UV coated can really clean up it’s tendency to flare, or maybe just using a yellow filter to recover contrast. And a proper hood is also encouraged. There were a number of interesting variations on Summar’s barrel, so steer clear of the rigid, black nose and nickel copies to keep costs in check. This is a great daily carry and fun lens that is more versatile than the Elmar but will take a little more understanding and appreciation for quirkiness in brighter conditions. My particular copy is very early and exhibits some cleaning marks but remains quite sharp stopped down, particularly in indoor lighting where flare is less of a concern. The Leica 5cm Summar is an often overlooked classic with excellent size and handling with fun performance.
Reasons to buy the Summar – speed, compactness, economy, character
Reasons to avoid the Summar – veiling flare reduces sharpness/contrast
Leitz Summitar 5cm f2
Typical lens cost = $200 – $600 | SOOPD = $50 – $100 | SOOFM = $50 – $100 | ITDOO = $30 – $250
The Summitar is the sweet spot between budget and performance for many LTM Leica photographers. Noticeably larger than the Summar but it is also noticeably sharper, more controlled and consistent in its renderings. The Summitar is the height of 50mm lens development prior to the popularization of Petzval field curvature correction that brought the Summicron into historical status and lens design into modernity. Where Summar images can look dated and soft, Summitar images playfully blend crisp subjects and flare resistance with painterly backgrounds and moderate fall-off at wider apertures. I’d venture to say that a good copy of the Summitar, used at closer distances at middle apertures will deliver that 3d pop that is more commonly associated with 1960’s and newer M lenses. There are roughly three flavors of Summitar – uncoated with 10 blades, coated with 10 blades and coated with 6 blades. The coated 10 blade copies are most desired for the “best of both worlds” character noted above, but I am very content with the coated 6 blade copy that found its way into my life. Unlike the speed-restricting Elmar and somewhat quirky Summar, I’ve never talked to a Summitar shooter who didn’t praise this lens as an all-purpose 50. (except for Jeremy Zorns) The Summitar is small, reasonably fast and competitively sharp. It’s aperture control is closer to a modern lens than the Elmar and Summar with modern f-stop scale, but it is still void of click-stops. Hoods can be a hot topic with Summitar, so be sure to read about your options. To me, the main reasons you’d want the Elmar or Summar over the Summitar could only be about budget, haptics and/or being deliberately anachronistic! The Summitar leans more to an affordable Summicron than just a Summar variant.
Reasons to buy the Summitar – speed, sharpness, compactness, economy
Reasons to avoid the Summitar – you insist on the Summicron!
Leitz Summarit 5cm 1.5
Typical lens cost = $350 – $1000 | XOONS $120 – $200
If you know my work, you know I like to shoot in the dark, which is why I sought out the Summarit. The 50/2’s noted above are absolutely lovely and get plenty of use but if I were to keep just one Leitz 50, it would hands down be my enchanting, inspiring and controversial little 5cm Summarit 1.5. There’s some context one has to know in order to understand this weird lens. It was 1949 and Leitz was under some pressure to answer Japan’s excellent LTM offerings. Rather than let Nikon beat them to the punch, Leitz licensed out a design by Taylor and Hobson, the 50mm 1.5 Xenon. T&H’s design included an aperture ring that was marked opposite Leitz’s but I guess there wasn’t time or motivation to change it. This, and perhaps the lack of Leica glow and just a harsher character in general, gives away that the Summarit was not a true blood Leitz product. That being said, Leitz added their own sophisticated coatings, tight construction tolerances and heavy chroming, to bring the T&H product up to snuff. In early literature, the Summarit was touted as a top tier lens that could take ones photography into a whole new realm. And while I personally agree, it seems that many decades of shooters’ negative opinions of the Summarit’s wide open performance and it’s un-pure DNA turned Summarit into a bit of a dirty word; now used to name Leica’s line of budget M lenses. And look, I get it. The dreamy wide open character of the Summarit is certainly not for everyone or every shooting situation. But I still strongly endorse it because I have never handled a lens that has been so enjoyable, rewarding and just plain fun to use. I tend not to run the Summarit on my Barnacks as it’s quite dense and, with the beautifully crafted XOONS hood mounted, viewfinder blockage is unavoidable. But on my Canon ViL, Voigtlander Bessa R2 or particularly Leica M6 TTL, the Summarit feels not only at home, but like an enhancement to the camera body. It is wonderfully dense but very small for a fast 50. Focus throw via the knob is on the long side as expected and damping is on the heavy side but very smooth. The variable distanced aperture click stops are a mechanical delight. Matt Osborne, in particular, lamented in his 2020 review, the veiling flare or “milky” look with this lens, but I don’t think he was using the XOONS hood and maybe you should lose that UV filter, Matt! This hood is pure art, made of brass with a rare black crinkle finish. It looks great and it cleans up the Summarit’s performance keenly. Stopped down to f4-f8 with XOONS mounted, the bastardly Summarit of 1949 can easily be confused with a modern lens. Sharpness is not clinical but is quite pleasing. Pop is not exactly 3d but there is an inexplicable depth to Summarit’s treatment of in and out of focus areas. Now, as you open it up, Summarit begins to drift. Out of focus points of light become ovals and crescents and swirl. Full aperture is the furthest thing from sharp. A good, well calibrated rangefinder like the M3 or M6 TTL .85 might be called into question by this lens. Focus is not obvious at wide apertures but more of a casual suggestion that sends ones eye around the frame to get lost in smooth bokeh. I’m a b&w guy but the muted tonality and delicate rendering of the Summarit is quite nice for fanciful color portraits that I’ve seen. And for me, running the Summarit is like having two lenses in one – a strong portrait lens and a dreamy art lens. If this isn’t for you, I get it. But if this duality at all interests you, I would urge you to give the 5cm 1.5 Summarit a try!
Reasons to buy the Summarit – speed, character, hand-feel
Reasons to avoid the Summarit – you want a sharper/smaller lens or a more modern rendering
Voigtlander 50mm Nokton 1.5
Typical lens cost = $300 – $600 | hood usually included
If nothing above impressed you because you want a more modern look and are less concerned with the tiny sizes and the haptics for which Leica is known, Cosina Voigtlander’s first version of the popular 50mm 1.5 Nokton might be for you. This lens is the largest in this list and is a bit silly looking on a Barnack but reasonably balanced on an M. The Nokton will make you forget about flaring and delivers generous micro-contrast and tone-accurate rendering all day, throughout its range. It’s remarkably sharp at full aperture, minimum distance as many fast 50 shooters want. The Voigt 50/1.5 is a shockingly high-performing lens and makes a great go-to for someone who never wants to buy another 50mm again. That being said, my copy failed on me with fairly heavy use, not once but twice. You simply cannot expect the same Leica build quality with Cosina products but results are absolutely stellar, rivaled only by much more modern/expensive Leitz and Zeiss glass.
Reasons to buy the Nokton – speed, sharpness, micro-contrast, almost no flare, economy
Reasons to avoid the Nokton – size, build quality
You know, as I look at all my sample photos, I’m reminded that the major differences between these and pretty much all lenses of the same focal length are really only seen in very particular situations and in their physical handling – both of which are very subjective in regards to what and how one shoots. And hey, there are probably thousands of 50mm LTM and M mount lenses to choose from, and they are all probably pretty great in their own right. So don’t be like me. Don’t buy 5 different 50mm lenses expecting any truly significant difference! But hopefully, my journey can help inform your next purchase.
Thanks for reading and happy shooting!
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