Let’s start off with a truthful statement, my journey into Leica is not as long as what many might think. It was only in 2018 since my first Leica-related review with the M240 followed by the Leica Q, which quickly escalated into the Q2, M10, the 50mm Summicron (Ver IV) and 35mm Summicron (Ver III) and next thing, it’s kinda crazy to know that I am here with the 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.
The 7th of its lineage, the 35mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH FLE (Floating elements)
Writing this review took quite a bit of will-power, simply because it was difficult finding time within the Covid-19 mess that has taken hold of the world since February 2020 but I think its time to stop finding excuses.
I prefer writing a proper review, instead of the typical spec-sheet style or one with 5000 words but containing no samples and or even worse, cut and pasted official advertorial shots. And in this sense, I shall separate the review into a few main parts to guide the reader through:
- Introduction to the Leica 35mm f1.4 Summilux FLE
- Handling, Optical performance & Samples
1. This is the second camera review I have done while under COVID-19 quarantine rules, hence do forgive the lack of variety of photo samples.
2. All samples here were shot by me with the M10 and 35mm Summilux FLE, both my personal copies.
3. I was not paid in any form for this review, and the opinions shared are my personal views, hence the freedom in allowing myself to be honest.
4. I reserve ownerships to these images, I am generally very easy-going with ownership as I believe photography should be generous. Still, there have been a few cases where readers have notified me of others who have used the images for purposes of profit.
For brevity’s sake, I shall be referring to the lens as the FLE from this point onwards.
Part 1 – Introduction to The 35mm f1.4 Summilux FLE
The first thing that comes to my mind is the price tag of the FLE (2010 onwards) at a mind-boggling USD5895 (SGD7840 in Singapore). Even for me who started with the more modest 35mm Summicron (my review of the 35mm Summicron Ver III here) the price of the FLE was tough to stomach but let’s put this aside first until the conclusion.
To be clear, the FLE (Floating elements version) is model 11 663.
The FLE is the 7th iteration in a distinguished line of 35mm Summilux-es in Leica’s history from 1960 onwards. The earlier versions were much smaller but had lesser than optimal optical performance at maximum aperture.
The previous version (simply 35mm Summilux ASPH from 1994 to 2010) featured a single aspherical element and was itself already known as one of the highest performing pieces of optics in Leica, but, unfortunately, faced a fatal flaw in some copies – focus shift.
There is actually a much rarer double-aspherical version of the 35mm Summilux produced by Leica, but production was soon stopped due to the high production cost involved and a copy can easily fetch USD15k upwards in auctions. I have never handled it.
What is particularly extraordinary here is that Leica improved on the 1994-2010 version VI’s optical performance other than fixing the focal shift issue. To many users, the previous 35/1.4 ASPH (1994-2010) offered such excellent performance that they thought the touted improvements were marketing speak.
The FLE adds floating elements to improve optical performance at all distances. Leica informed that the improvements are most noticeable at close distances, which is interesting because the way I shoot is pretty intimate, trying to get close to the subject and many times I am actually shooting at minimum focusing distance.
Part 2 – Handling, Optical Performance
Handling the lens does take a bit getting used to with it being heavier than my 35mm and 50mm Summicrons, however, the sheer potential of image quality one gets has made this lens almost a permanent resident on my camera.
The focusing tab runs buttery smooth with the right amount of resistance and, and true to Leica, the screw-on hood is basically engineered with the exact amount of threads so that it comes to rest perfectly aligned to the lens. Superficial, yes, but I am more impressed than anything else.
The FLE on the M10, despite the larger size of the lens, a grip isn’t needed.
The optical performance of the FLE in simple words, is the best 35mm I’ve ever used.
As far as resolution goes, the lens exceeds my 46 years old 35mm Summicron Ver III at every aperture, with a much crispier rendition. In short, impressive.
Unlike Fujifilm (whose’s rendition is beautiful in their own right), Leica’s strength is in its natural rendition and the FLE renders very well. The FLE’s corner performance is almost as good as center performance, with only very slight softness and once you hit f2 or f2.8, the FLE easily gives sharpness across the frame.
f1.4, ISO1250, 1/30s
A big wow came with how subjects stand out with a very three-dimensional rendition thanks to the excellent micro-contrast and low presence of CA.
If one has ever dreamt of shooting in low light with a Leica rangefinder, this lens is going to make that happen, for example, the shots above were done wide open and around late 8pm, where it was pretty dark.
Analyzing bokeh is beyond my ability, and in my opinion, so subjective that someone as lacking as me will not want to touch it with a 3-foot pole (yes, social distancing I heard you) but personally I look at how the lens transits from focused zones to the out of focused zones a lot. The rendition of edges in that zone – and in this sense, the FLE gives a very smooth, pleasant, clean transition between zones while providing that much desired 3-D pop in the images.
Coma, which is when points of light in the corners get blur, is almost nonexistent and the FLE presents no visible distortion.
In short, if I have to try my hardest to find something to complain about the lens, it will really be that at f1.4, the depth of field is so thin that it is not easy to get the manual focusing done right and this does have to come with practice. In fact, I simply remind myself there are people shooting f0.95 out there to make myself feel better.
Part 3 – Conclusion
It seems that the most impactful way to make the 35mm Summilux FLE a better piece of optics can be seen as blasphemous by the Leica purists, which is to give it auto-focus, which well, ain’t happening since Leica has the SL series for this.
And that will be taking the easy way out, for the amount of satisfaction when one nails the shot with a rangefinder is difficult to describe unless one has really shot with one.
Yes, it does cost USD5895, but for those willing to pay, doing so obtains one of the best pieces of optics Leica makes, and if you know Leica, this is quite a worthy achievement. A simple reminder also is that for a full-frame sized sensor, the FLE easily comes in at near half the weight of the 35mm f1.4 equivalents from other brands.
The 35mm Summilux FLE stands as one of the highest performing lens within the Leica M family, continuing the legacy of its 35mm Summilux line, and yes, worth every penny it will make your pocket lighter.
Thank you for reading.