The Summicron-C prime lenses from Leica were introduced at NAB 2013. With 2014 right around the corner, Leica is gearing up to deliver their new Summicron-C primes very soon. But how has Leica gone about producing these new lenses in a way that benefits the Leica brand as well as the cinematographer considering them as a prime lens option? There are plenty of questions that this new set of prime lens demands answers to. We’ll take a look at their performance specs, and image characteristics here.
Summicron-C, The basics
The Summicron name from Leica has always implied a maximum aperture of f/2.0. Similarly, in the case of their cinema line of lenses, it refers to a max aperture of T2.0. The “C” following the Summicron name indicates it’s cinematic design. As one would expect, the Leica name implies these lenses are top-notch in terms of build quality and image performance. One of the great features of the new Summicron-C primes is their smaller and lighter design when compared to the Summilux-C or other modern high-end cinema prime lenses. They’ll come equipped with a proper Arri PL mount and a common 95mm front diameters. The set will launch with an 18, 25, 35, 50, 75, and 100mm with more focal lengths to be added in the near future.
But 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.
Price and availability
The initial set of 8 lenses will run you about $100,800 ($16,800 per lens). Shipping will begin late December in decent quantities. Leica has prepared very well and is capable of producing up to 30 sets of Summicron-Cs per month. The additional focal lengths will be added early 2014 and will include a 21, 29, 40, and 135mm. More focal lengths are being considered, but nothing concrete just yet. One other fun detail to note if you’re a Red Dot fan: Leica is working on an Arri PL to Leica M adapter that will allow you to use these new primes on a Leica M body. Why the hell would you want to do that? Leica says it could be a great location scouting tool or a clever take on the directors finder via live view. This adapter will attach to the mount and base plate of the M body and provide support for the heavy primes. If a firmware update for the M bodies could provide frame guidelines for common cinema formats, this could indeed be an interesting accessory. No word of pricing or delivery just yet for this adapter.
(this post amended and revised on 12/23/2013)