By Johnny Martyr
If you’ve read my blog 5 LTM 50’s for $500 or Less, you will have some idea how deep a rabbit hole I’ve gone down, searching for the perfect Leica-mount 50mm lens. Despite a belief that you don’t need to spend a lot on a Leica mount 50mm, I eventually found it necessary to spend a bit more to get a single go-to 50 for use with my Leica M6 TTL‘s. I landed on the Leitz 50mm f2 Summicron by happenstance.
I photographed a wedding in 2021 on my 50/1.5 Summarit, which has long been the go-to for my M6 because I enjoy the size, weight and balance of it. The Summarit offers me a range of looks; vintage at wider apertures and pretty modern when stopped down and hooded. However, the wedding was in the morning with harsh window lighting in a small room, and I found that the Summarit, even with its hood, exhibited more glow and veiling flare than I wanted for this somewhat unusual wedding location and time. As a wedding photographer, having a lens that I you can point anywhere and get consistent results at any distance and any aperture is important. This expectation can be a challenge with vintage lenses so I started looking for something a bit more modern for this reason alone.
In describing what happened to long-time friend, Joey Pasco, he offered to lend me his 1979 Leitz 50mm f2 Summicron. Ironically, this was the lens that I recommended to Joey when he bought his first Leica several years ago and now here it is, back in my court.
Ken Rockwell seems to refer to this iteration of the Leitz 50mm Summicron as a Version IV but Dan Tamarkin classifies it as a Version III. While I agree with Tamarkin’s logic, Rockwell’s is probably more widely followed. So I’m just going to circumvent the entire versioning convention all together and call this the 1979 50mm Summicron or 50mm Summicron Tiger Paw.
Whatever you want to name it, the 1979 50mm Summicron is the first production year of the optical formula of all 50mm Summicrons since. Amazingly, if you go out and buy a brand new, 2023 non-APO 50 Cron, it’s going to have basically the same glass in it as this 1979 model.
This universally loved lens was designed by the famed Walter Mandler and originally built at the Canadian Leica factory.
Admittedly, when I saw the loudly inscribed MADE IN CANADA on the front ring and weird focusing tab nicknamed “Tiger Paw,” the Leica snob in me was already starting to roll his eyes. But hey, this was a generous borrow from a good friend, as well as a lens that’s stayed in production for nearly 45 years. Who was I turn it down?
Let’s take a moment to talk about the convex focus tab. The early IV 35mm Summicron has this tab also. Photographers have nicknamed it “Tiger Paw” or “Tiger Claw.” Personally, I think someone just misheard “paw” and started saying “claw” because the tab looks like a paw to me, not a claw! Anyway, I was unable to find an exact date or serial number range of Tiger Paw Summicrons before Leica switched over to the more common/popular concave focusing tab. It does seem that 1979-1982 50mm Summicrons that were made in Canada, had the Tiger Paw. Beyond that, I’m unsure and it’s possible that there was no hard cut over anyway. I believe that some Tiger Paws were converted to concave tabs also, further muddying the waters.
Visually, the Tiger Paw kind of bothers me but in use, it is just as effective for me as a concave tab. Because I also frequently shoot with the Voigtländer 40mm 1.4 Nokton which has a concave focus tab, I rather like having something different on my 50 so that they are easily distinguished. The 40/1.4 is sort of a bad example because it’s aperture ring also has tabs, so there is no way that I’d confuse these lenses. But my point is simply that I like to have an obvious difference. If given the choice, I probably would have bought a concave style tab but you get what finds its way into your life sometimes.
Unlike the current style barrel, the 1979 Tiger Paw is the physically lightest iteration of 50 Cron. With its anodized aluminum barrel, the Tiger Paw clocks in at just over a third less than the latest 50 Cron. It’s also half a millimeter shorter. These aren’t specs that I would have sought out though. Frankly if I’d read more before using the lens, I might have even written it off. I usually prefer weighty brass lenses. But the combination of light weight, large focusing tab and short focus throw make the handling of the 79 Tiger Paw feel very speedy and effortless.
I haven’t handled a newer 50mm Summicron for years but Dan Tamarkin recently lent me a 1970 50mm Summicron built in Wetzlar which he would classify as a Version II or “.7m” Summicron based on its minimal focus distance. Rockwell would classify this as a Version III. Anyway, the focus throw on this previous iteration is a little longer and the focus ring lacks a tab. I found that I preferred the Tiger Paw style. For a 50/2, speedy focus is useful for me. For someone else, they may prefer the more precise focusing of the 1969-1979 50mm Cron. That one happens to be Dan’s favorite as well.
1979 and newer 50 Cron’s have the shorter focus throw. I imagine barrel type will affect quality of dampening and some have concave focus tabs or currently, no tab at all.
Over the years, I’ve heard rangefinder shooters use the term “snap into focus” but I didn’t really appreciate the meaning of this phrase until using this lens. I think that given the amount of throw and dampening on other 50mm lenses I’ve used, it is easy to go past the focus point and need to rack back. But with the 1979 Tiger Paw, the focus ring stops on a dime the moment your eye sees the focus hit, giving that snap into focus feel.
I’ve been shooting a lot of personal images with the Tiger Paw to understand how it handles before I do anything serious. But recently I shot a full engagement session using it as my only lens in a number of different lighting situations at the glamourous LINE Hotel in Washington, DC. I figured that I’d share these as they provide a range of examples of this unassuming little 50’s astonishing performance.
In the photograph below of Kara, I had plenty of depth of field, probably shooting at around f4 and about 3 feet away. So focus wasn’t critical but I was working very rapidly to catch her and her fiancé Jan in candids as they got dressed and ready for their engagement session at The Line Hotel in DC. The fast focusing of the Tiger Paw was very effective and enjoyable for this shoot.
The aperture ring is also very speedy, light and positive. It reminds me of my old Voigtlander 50mm 1.5 Nokton in that it balances precision with rapid movement and punctuates adjustments with quiet but affirming little clicks. I’d say that it feels about comparable to Dan’s 1970 Summicron and imagine that the feel of the aperture ring doesn’t change significantly on any of the 1969 and newer 50mm Summicrons.
On the early collapsible Summicrons, the aperture settings were spaced increasingly further apart closer to f2 and increasingly closer together approaching f16. But since 1956, aperture settings are spaced evenly apart like any other lens.
Speaking of the collapsible Summicrons, I handled one at Pro Photo in DC a few months ago. They are noticeably heavier than the Tiger Paw, or even their strikingly similar Summitar counterpart.
Most of the photos presented here were taken on Kodak Tri-X and rated/processed for EI 1600 in HC110b. As I often do, I’d rather push my film than cling to my only available exposure settings when indoors. By this I mean that I could have eeked by at f2 at 1/60th at 400 ISO but it wouldn’t have given me as much choice as EI 1600 where I could stop down or open up as desired.
Joey didn’t own a hood for the Summicron but also never found a need to purchase it. So I shot the Tiger Paw for a few months without a hood to get an idea of how critical I thought a hood might be. Kara and Jan’s engagement shoot was without a hood. The Summicron handled flare from window light beautifully. Of note, that image of Jan looking in the mirror, he was directly beside a bright window and wearing white in this scene. The contrast ratio was very high. But the Summicron controlled stray light like a champ, without a hood.
I’ll tell you though, shooting the Summicron for nearly a year without a hood worked out fine until I took this photo of the Arc de Triomphe in September. That flare from a street light on the upper left was the precise reason that I started using a hood on this lens. I was astonished after using it in so many varied lighting situations how ugly this unusual flare was. But this relatively controlled flare is nothing compared to the sometimes difficult-to-predict veiling flare of vintage Leitz lenses – the reason I wanted the Cron to begin with.
The iconic 12585 is the correct hood for post 1969 50mm Summicrons and it’s what I now use on it pretty regularly. I really enjoy in terms of style and function. I wish the reverse-mount cap for it wasn’t made of plastic though. My copy fits okay but is not ideal. I also found that my old ITDOO hood fits the 79 Summicron and is more snug than on my Summitar or the 12585 on the Summicron. Since the IDOO is not vented and resembles a blunderbuss, I prefer the smaller, more modern 12585 but either one would have saved me from the flare in Paris.
1994 and newer 50 Crons have a built-in pull-out hood. If you want to use a hood, I think built-in ones are great because it’s one less accessory to keep track of. But if you’re not going to use a hood, or just prefer to choose your own style hood, the 1979-1994 Summicron is the most recent 50mm Summicron that will accommodate your style.
I’ve really enjoyed both the results that I’ve gotten from the 1979 Leitz 50mm Summicron Tiger Paw as well as actually using it. So I went ahead and ended my test drive of this remarkable little lens with a sale. Thanks so much to Joey Pasco for leading me back to the beginning with this unassuming little lens.
And congrats on your engagement Kara and Jan, can’t wait to see you at your wedding!
Thanks for reading and happy shooting!
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