Quick comparison - Battle of the 50s
We like to carry our camera around at night, so naturally shooting with the aperture wide open just comes naturally. So, we were curious about something. How would a classic lens from Canon, the beautiful 50mm f/1.8 Serenar from the early 1950s, perform against it's late 50s (1959-1961) Leica counterpart, the 50mm Summilux-M Version 1, when shooting wide open in evening ambient light? And then just for perspective we thought, what would both of these 50mm lenses look like compared to something more modern? So we grabbed our camera, stopped by our local antique shop, and got our hands on these two 50+ year old lenses. The results were a little bit surprising.
|Canon 50mm Serenar at f/1.8|
Canon 50mm Serenar at f/1.8
We tried our best to focus, switch lenses and maintain composition between shots. The examples, all shot in raw with identical B&W profiles applied in Adobe Lightroom, are each remarkably simmilar, yet several key defining factors of each lens can clearly be observed, even in our quick and dirty comparison. The Canon Serenar, when shot at f/1.8, was able to render the out of focus bokeh areas in a surprisingly pleasing way to our subjective eye. Comparing this to several other Voigtlander lenses, or even other Canon lenses from later eras, the bokeh appears to be vastly superior. The overall fidelity of the image, despite being at f/1.8, is curiously crisp in the in-focus areas. There's exceptional contrast, and in-focus objects have great definition. Having used this lens in daylight scenarios, we can say that there is noticeable falloff. But in literally every case, we've found it to be pleasing. In the above shot, it's not so noticeable however.
|Leica 50mm Summilux (Version 1) at f/1.4|
Leica 50mm Summilux (Version 1) at f/1.4
The Summilux, not surprisingly as it can reach f/1.4, has the strongest bokeh. But as you can see in the example above, the bokeh effect isn't just technically strong, it's visually strong in that it's beautifully, smoothly rendered (yes, technically a subjective criterion, but go ahead and disagree and see who backs you up other than Carl Zeiss employees). Where this lens often gets criticized however is clearly visible - the in-focus areas lack the exceptional definition of the Summicron, and still fall far short of the definition of the Canon Serenar. Contrast is a bit more muted on the Summilux compared to both the Serenar and the Summicron, and there is strong vignetting at f/1.4 (although we still think it's beautiful and don't want to get rid of it). As we like to think of it, the Summilux Version 1 is simply designed to make a greater artistic interpretation of reality than the other lenses. Georges Seurat just put little blobs of paint on a canvas, and we celebrate his pointillistic work as genius. Can't we afford the Summilux Version 1 the same standing? One other small, but interesting point about the Summilux is that it's not actually 50mm. Rather, it's probably about 51 to 52mm in length, maybe longer. This is a well documented fact about the Summilux range, insofar that many (but not all lenses) have a "secret code" on them, indicating the real length. The lens we shot with did not have a code, so we have no idea what the real length of it was. But you can clearly see a slight zoom from it compared to the Serenar and the the Summicron. While in this case we were shooting hand-held(so there's going to be variation), the variation will still be apparent when, for example, using a tripod and taking landscape shots. This lens, unlike the Summicron, feels highly un-technical. And that's part of the appeal.
In this case, we don't think there's such a thing as a "winner" of the lenses, at least not in terms of image rendering. If you're on a budget, the Serenar will be by far the cheapest lens. It has without a doubt the best price performance of the three. If you're criteria is build quality, it's hard to say. Each lens, even the Canon, feels exceptionally well crafted, and with regular care, could easily function for 500 years or more in our opinion. That's impressive.
Overall, each lens seems to have have it's niche, though any of these lenses can overlap quite easily. The Summilux, in our opinion, is exceptionally well suited for portraits and other beauty shots, if you're going to be shooting at f/1.4. This is mostly due in part to the superior bokeh, however the strong vignetting enhances this function, and the slightly soft look tends to make many people happy when they see themselves rendered this way.
The Serenar, we think, is just exceptionally well suited for any and every scenario where you're relying on ambient light. It generally has a superior image to the Summilux, and despite it's narrower f/1.8 aperture, we would still prefer to do any night shots with it, simply for the higher overall image quality.
And then, stepping into the world of today, the Summarit is just a regular, go-to lens. For anything daytime based that isn't dependant on intense bokeh, this lens hands down takes the cake. It's not as well suited for ambient light night photography or portraits with incredible bokeh, but it's still not difficult at all to accomplish either of these with it, if you have no other options. As the "budget" lens for today's Leica lineup too, it's not too hard to find used copies online that are similarly priced to the Summilux Version 1(which are both still considerably more expensive than the Canon Serenar).
Extra Comparison Shots :
|Canon 50mm Serenar at f/1.8|
|Leica 50mm Summarit-M at f/2.5|