The Leica Summitar 5cm lens

In the third article in the series, renowned photographer Mark Fairhurst explains why he loves his cheap Leica Summitar 5cm lens.

In 1939 Batman made his first appearance in a comic. Judy Garland sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Ghandi started his protest about British rule in India. There was civil war in Spain, and Germany had a spat with a neighbour that ended up getting pretty serious for all of us.

It was a year of turmoil. Historic events that changed the world.

But, it was also the year that Leica made the Summitar 5cm lens that I bought at the turn of the 21st century. It must have been used to record events during that time, and beyond. If only it could tell me what it saw.

Made in Wetzlar, the home of Leica, it is a collapsible lens that oozes beauty and quality. I have used it on film and digital Leica camera bodies and despite its flaws compared to today’s high tech screamingly sharp lenses, I love it: soft, dreamy images when shot at its widest aperture. Incredible detail when closed down to F3.2 and beyond, my ‘Summi” is always carried with me in my camera bag.

With an adapter to make it fit Leica’s M-series cameras from 1954 onwards, this little screw-threaded lens closes down into the camera body, making a camera small enough to fit into one’s coat pocket. When needed, simply twist and pull and you are ready to start creating images.

Why did I buy this lens? Mainly because I didn’t have a big budget, and this offered a cost-effective first step into the this iconic brand.

I have used it on a few magazine portrait shoots, shooting in black and white and editors and readers raved about the beauty of the images it created; while they have their place, a modern day lens coupled with a digital body makes for an image that I find too eye achingly sharp for some subjects. Interestingly, some of the most enduring and iconic images that have endured over the years would not stand up to the scrutiny of today’s need for razor sharp photos, but their quality captures our imagination and inspires us to try and replicate them.

Having a single optical coating, the Summitar produces wonderful low-ish contrast photographs at wider apertures. However, in bright sunlight it has a tendency to flare a little. And yet, sometimes this can be used to great effect dependent on what your subject is, and the effect you are looking to create.

Used for portraits it produces wonderful smooth skin tones in the 1930’s style, and proves popular with subjects who are conscious of their ‘laughter lines’. As for bokeh, the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out of focus parts of an image, when you get the right background your mind will be blown!

The Summitar 5cm has a beautifully made 10-blade aperture iris, so when you shoot at an aperture of F2 the soft dreamy out of focus background gives an amazing swirly effect.

One thing you may find strange is the aperture settings: wide open at F2, the next stops are, 2.2, 3.2, 4.5, 6.3, 9 and 12.5! Later lenses, on all makes, became more standardized to the ones we are familiar with today.

Needless to say, this little gem of an item is beautifully engineered. Granted, mine has been serviced at some point in its life but everything moves smoothly and continues to do what it is supposed with total precision. Not bad for something that has been around for 80 years…

Focusing as close as one metre through to infinity, it also has a distance scale on the barrel allowing for hyperfocal focusing, a way of pre-focussing favoured by street photographers such as the late, great Henri Cartier Bresson because it allows you to set a smaller aperture and a certain distance and ‘shoot on the hoof’, so to speak. It takes a little practice, but once mastered you can shoot pretty much what you want without having to fuss over manual focusing. Yes, it can be an expensive gamble if you are using film as not every shot will be perfect but when you are shooting on a digital body, who cares?

Some clever people have produced special adapters that allow you to use Leica lenses on other makes of camera such as Sony, Canon, and Nikon. Purists will shudder, but does it matter? I don’t think it does; a camera is a camera and you should enjoy what you can create with it regardless of brand.

But, that said, I enjoy pushing my limits on a more basic, and sometimes very expensive, make like Leica. It gives, I think, a Zen-like quality to your efforts.

Buying pre 1960’s Leicas can be cheaper than you might think. A body from the 1940’s can be as little as £150, and with a good lens, a tad under £400 in total, which is outstanding value for the engineering involved and the images it can create. And while my lens works well on my Leica M9 digital body, I prefer the images it renders on a film body.

In summary, if you want something a little different, something traditional, and something capable of producing unique images, buying an old Leica lens will open up a whole new world for you, for not a lot of money.

Have fun!


At this time of writing, I am planning on creating some courses on rangefinder photography. Please feel free to contact with me via my website, if you think you might be interested in attending.


Mark Fairhurst @MrMarkFairhurst