On Vacation With The Leica SL Summilux 50mm f/1.4

I received the new SL Summilux 50mm f/1.4 in late December, right before I left for a two week vacation in the Philippines. I’ve used the SL system for the past year to document travel and moments with family, and I was eager to observe how the new 50mm performed. The 24-90 and 90-280 lenses performed admirably for documenting moments like school events and dance performances, when snappy autofocus capabilities came in handy. But I still gravitated towards M lenses when taking portraits of family and friends, preferring the shallow depth of field offered by apertures faster than f/2.8.  The 50SL promised both AF and a shallow DOF - did it deliver?

AF IQ and Sharpness

En route to the Philippines, I took a few still life shots to test AF IQ and sharpness. Here are a few images and my observations.

Fruits in Airport.

With natural light from large airport windows streaming from the left, the lens rendered the gradual transition from glitter points to areas in shadow very well; background bokeh was pleasant and what you would expect shooting at f/1.4.

Fruits in Airport (Crop). I had aimed the single AF point (out of 49 possible) right at the body of the pineapple for which I present this cropped image, and given the relatively well lit environment the contrast detect technology nailed it.

This closer look reveals a level of sharpness I’ve seen in lenses like the 50APO for the M system; while resolving power isn’t necessarily a plus for close-up portraits of people, the detail captured in this pineapple photographed from about five feet away, wide open, was impressive and satisfied any attempt at pixel peeping from my end.  The parts of the pineapple that melted into the background transitioned into bokeh very well. 

For me, the 50SL achieved an impressive balance between that distinctive shallow DOF look that makes portraits with the Noctilux so special, and the crisp sharpness that the 50APO-M delivers. This has, I suppose, always been the promise of the Summilux lenses, with its maximum aperture of f/1.4 lying between the f/0.95 of the Noct and the Summicron’s f/2.0.  For this first try, the 50SL definitely delivered.

The first test shot, however, was in relatively less challenging natural light conditions. I moved into a section of the airport with predominantly indoor lighting, and took this next shot.

Decor. 

Buried in one corner of the airport facilities was this Christmas tree; to test camera and lens IQ I shot all auto. Despite not being as well illuminated, the SL body chose to shoot at ISO100 (up from base ISO of 50) and shutter speed of 1/100 (I had set it to 1/2f).  Shot at f/1.4, both the background (wall/ceiling) and foreground decor (leaves on the tree; Christmas balls) are not in focus.  I aimed the single AF point right at the angel at the middle of the wreath, placed on top of the tree (I work well enough with focusing and recomposing, but what a pleasure to use the SL’s joystick to aim the AF point right at the part of the frame I want to capture).

I noticed the slightest bit of hunting with the AF when I tried to take this shot.  It was hard to distinguish whether it was the relatively less ideal lighting conditions (at ISO100 it wasn’t that dark) or the several points of contrast at which I was aiming; let’s take a closer look at that angel.

Decor (Close Up).

The tree was about eight feet tall, and I was shooting from below so if I was shooting with an M I would have used 5x or 10x magnification and focused on the details of the angel that I wanted to capture.

It is probably not immediately detectable from even this closer crop, but I wasn’t very happy about how the right side of this image was in sharp focus but the left side wasn’t.  You can tell if you look not at the angel but at the details of the wreath on the right half, and compare that with the left half.  The AF point (in green) encompassed the top half of the angel (including its head, wings and trumpet), and I was standing about five to six feet away, shooting from below. I expected that the entire image would be in sharper focus.

That isn’t necessarily the fault of AF IQ.  I was shooting with a very shallow DOF and if I had an M with me I might have been more careful about assuring that I was physically positioned to capture the plane on which the angel and wreath lay. The detail on the angel and wreath also presented several points of contrast, which would tend to fool most AF systems. You just can’t expect machine IQ to do all your work for you, anticipating what your mind wanted to be in focus.

I took several other shots in varying light conditions, and there are two situations when AF IQ seemed like it struggled.  First, when lighting conditions necessitated auto ISO to float above 1600, AF tended to hunt and wasn’t as snappy.  Here’s a shot at (auto) ISO 3200 of one of my daughters; she was watching a movie on the plane ride, and the only source of light was the screen about 18 inches away from her face.

ISO 3200. 

AF nailed her dominant eye but took a few additional seconds to achieve focus. The SL’s Maestro II processor shoots clean at ISO 3200 and above (Adobe LR applied auto NR / Luminance of +15 when I imported this image).

The other situation where AF struggled a little was when you shot at relatively close range, at less than 3.3 feet. It took a few extra seconds for me to get this shot (which may explain my daughter’s rather pleasant mien), but a closer focus throw is definitely welcome, and the slightly slower AF is straightforward to work with once you know the system’s quirks - just back up a bit if you want maximum speed and accuracy from AF.

Close Focus Throw / Pleasant Mien.

Throughout our vacation, I took portraits of family and friends, shots of my kids in action, and environmental portraits of the magnificent beach where we stayed for a few days. In bright sunlight it was useful to have a 3-stop ND filter when I was shooting wide open (that 82mm filter is one serious piece of glass). 

Pool Dance.

My daughter wasn’t standing still for any of the ten or so shots I took while she put on this impromptu performance at the kiddie pool.  In eight out of ten shots, AF aimed at her face nailed the shot perfectly.

Walking on Water.

This shot was taken at 4:30am. At ISO1600 and bright lights in the background, the AF hunted slightly as I tried to have it focus on my (backlit) daughter in the foreground.

Good Morning.

My family was out early looking for marine life that surfaced at low tide. At 6:30am we were well within ideal Golden Hour lighting conditions, and the 50SL had no problem capturing this image. I pulled back Highlights and upped Shadows slightly in Lightroom.

The 50SL was the only lens I brought during our two week trip, and it performed magnificently. Any perceived shortcomings had straightforward workarounds, and could ostensibly be improved by firmware updates.  It successfully combined elements of the 50APO’s near-biting sharpness along with that magical Noctilux shallow DOF look, and AF came in especially handy when my energetic little daughters were close by, weren’t standing still, and I wanted to shoot wide open.

Happy New Year.

Low light and close focus throw? No problem. Back up a bit, and wait for the AF to achieve focus.

One real test for me, however, of a lens’s ultimate usefulness is whether I would be motivated to carry it around all the time.  The SL’s zoom lenses perform very well, but they end up in use during special occasions, and not as a daily carry - because of their size and weight.  There are always trade-offs when it comes to image quality and lens size - perhaps future optics engineering will be able to combine compact size and weight, fast aperture and autofocus, but we aren’t there yet.  The 50SL is not small and light, certainly when compared to even the Noctilux, but it is appreciably smaller than the 24-90, and its image quality and AF IQ offer benefits (for me) that justify the extra size and weight.  I carried the 50SL on the SL typ 601 body all day, every day over the last two weeks, and it wasn’t burdensome at all, although I would understand if some might prefer a hand grip over a neck strap over longer periods of shooting.

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Victor Calanog assesses markets, geopolitics, and commercial real estate fundamentals in his day job as an economist. His proudest title, however, is Dada to his two daughters, both of whom keep him busy running around, testing photographic equipment. Catch some of his work on Instagram at @_the.looking.glass.