Rumours abounded in the last quarter of this year that Leica were set to release a new lightweight and much more affordable version of their top-end prime range of cinema lenses, the Summilux-C; which were first introduced at NAB 2013. This month Leica began shipping their new series the Summicron-C Prime. But how do they perform when compared to the far more expensive Summilux series? A recent blog post from photographer and lens maker Matthew Duclos, of Duclos Lenses (who was lucky enough to get his hands on the new glass), compared the two and it seems the Summicron are pretty darn good.
Leica’s Summilux-C lenses are regarded as one of the world’s best cinematic lens; their quality of build has been lending itself to beautiful cinematic creations since their release earlier this year.
However, the joy of owning and using the high-end glass came only to the few, with a price tag worthy of hiring a security team to safeguard them (particularly when considering the FBI’s involvement investigating the recent theft of a $500, 000 set). It wasn’t long after the Summilux-C lenses began appearing in film productions that rumours began to swell within industry circles that Leica were releasing a new series of primes with the same optical quality- only in a smaller, lightweight and slightly more affordable package; the Summicron-C Prime lens series.
Earlier this month, Jon Fauer at Film and Digital Times, tried out the new lenses and had this to say:
“The new Leica Summicron-C lenses are a cost-effective companion to their Summilux-C siblings, as comfortable on the new generation of PL mount cameras introduced lately (F5, F55, C300, C500, Epic Dragon) as they are on Alexa, F65, Epic and One. The Summicrons have a simpler design than Summiluxes, making them more affordable. Nevertheless, quality and performance remains high”.
Matthew Duclos recently got a hands-on with these little beauties and set up a series of questions he wanted the primes to answer. Here’s what he found:
How do they perform optically?
Excellent! I had some time with the lenses in the shop and every focal length resolved at least 200 lp/mm in the center with little to no focus fall-of throughout the field. One of the big questions everyone has been asking pertains to their coverage – particularly in regards to RED’s new Dragon sensor. Leica is claiming an image circle of 34mm+. Hah… That’s modest. As I tested each focal length I found that they’ll cover upwards of 35-36mm even on the wide focal lengths. With a minimum image circle requirement of 34.5mm, the Summicron-C primes will absolutely cover the Dragon sensor without any issues. As expected, there is some very minor light falloff but nothing I wouldn’t expect for lenses designed for a cinema format. There is a very minor amount of breathing to note but nothing unreasonable. Distortion is well controlled, discreetly apparent in the 18mm and 25mm, almost none throughout the rest of the set. Unlike the Summilux-C primes, the new Summicron-C lenses are strictly spherical elements and lack any of Leica’s superb aspherical, aberration inhibiting designs. Despite the lack of aspherical elements, the Summicron-C primes still hold their own against the likes of other high-end cinema lenses.
Build quality and materials?
There aren’t many surprises here. You’ll find the same build quality and high-end materials one would expect from Leica. The aluminum barrels all have focus and iris gears in uniform positions from the mount making lens swapping very simple with follow focus or motor rigs. The Summicron-C primes feature a helix style focus mechanism (focus threads) as opposed to the cam design found in the Summilux-C and other exotic, top-tier primes. This makes manufacturing much easier which translates to a lower cost. The lubrication is consistently buttery smooth throughout the set and the end-stops are crisp and solid. There’s no funny business with these primes – no rare exotic materials – no clever back-lit scales – no lens data transmission… They’re straight forward optics in simple, solid housings. One feature that I can’t decide if I like or not is the choice of aperture design. I usually like to see the most circular aperture possible for cinema use, but the Summicron-C primes sport an 8-blade iris that provides a octagonal shape at most T-stops less than wide open. The reason I say I don’t know if I like it or not is that it doesn’t make a huge difference. It will certainly effect the shape of your bokeh, but it’s no necessarily good or bad. One other design feature I don’t like is the location of the focus distance marks. The operator-side focus distance marks are towards the front of the lens whereas the dumb-side focus marks are closer to the center of the lens. I feel this should be the other way around making it easier for the operator to view the focus marks from behind the lens. Again, not a big deal… Just a detail I observed. Some folks are concerned about manufacturing since these Leica Summicron-C lenses are engraved “Made in Japan” where most would expect to see “Made in Germany”. Honestly, this doesn’t bother me at all. It’s a global market and almost every lens manufacture shares the work load internationally these days. Arri (Germany) has a healthy relationship with Fujinon (Japan). Cooke (United Kingdom) works with Angenieux (France). Zeiss and Sony, Arri and Zeiss, and many, many more – you get the idea. CW Sonderoptic, a partner of Leica who designs and manufactures these cinema lenses, is still the final word in quality control from the factory and simply won’t accept anything unworthy of the Leica badge.
What’s the difference?
A lot of folks are going to be comparing the new Summicron-C lenses to other cinema primes. So let’s start with their big brothers: The Summilux-C primes offer superb performance with a premium price tag. They’re a perfect example of the exponential price:performance increase. At a certain point in lens design and production, just a smidge more performance commands a dramatic price increase. So one could consider the smaller, lighter, slower, cheaper Summicron-C lenses a sort of Summilux-light. The Summicron-C primes are 30% shorter and 20% lighter than the Summilux-C as well as one stop slower. This is all at a cost approximately 2/3 that of the Summilux-C primes. There are tons of other options available these days which make the Summicron-Cs a tough sell. One could easily compare the new Leicas to a classic standard such as Arri Ultra Primes which are still a top option for professional cinematographers. Or a modern option like the recently released Schneider Xenon-FF primes with a very attractive price. The Summicron-C primes are about 4x the price of the Schneider Xenons. Does this mean that you should expect 4x the performance. No… Of course not. That’s not how lenses work and anyone who’s purchased a lens or two before knows that you don’t simply choose a lens, or in this case a set of lenses, based on price alone. I often resort to an automotive comparison that works perfectly in this scenario. If we were all looking for best value, we’d all be driving a Honda Civic. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Honda Civic. It works great for a lot of drivers. And yet, some of us prefer something a bit more exotic, maybe something that’s built just a little bit better. That same logic applies to the Summicron-C primes.
Pricing and Availability:
These lenses are still going to put a substantial dent in your wallet (or possibly a mortgage on your house) with an initial set starting from around $100,800 USD (that’s around $16,800 USD per lens). The new lenses started shipping earlier this month and the new year will bring a further number of focal lengths with 21, 29, 40, and 135mm to begin shipping over the coming months. In addition, Leica has also begun working on a Arri PL to Leica M adapter so these lenses will fit to the Leica M-body. The advantage (in having the smaller body) being for location scouting or possibly using the live view as a director’s finder. Although it stands to reason that ‘some’ professional hobbyists (or indie rentals) may choose a lens of this quality, which equates to extra sales for Leica.
For pricing & availability, also shipping worldwide from: www.bandpro.com
Read more from Matthew Duclos at his blog: matthewduclos.wordpress.com
And check out Jon Fauer’s piece on the new lenses here: www.fdtimes.com/2013/12/06/leica-summicron-c-lenses-arrive/
*This article was edited on 30/12/2013 to update a quote from Jon Fauer’s recent article on Summicron-C lenses.