The Ultra-Fast Advantage; Case In Point: Leica’s Summilux-M 21mm f/1.4 & 24mm f/1.4 Lenses

There are plenty of other good (but significantly slower) 21mm and 24/25mm lenses on the market, almost all cheaper, smaller, lighter, and exhibiting less distortion than the two under discussion here. The 2.2 percent maximum distortion for the Summilux 24mm and 2.3 percent for the 21mm are, as Leica’s instruction book says, “negligible for the majority of photographic applications,” but if you want virtually zero distortion, and you don’t mind the speed loss, the 21mm f/4.5 Zeiss Biogon is a better choice. Unfortunately it is 32⁄3 stops slower, or 1⁄10 of the speed.

Roger’s dream standard outfit in digital: Leica M8.2 with 24mm f/1.4 Summilux. The Series VII UV/IR filter explains the strong magenta cast on the front of the lens.

These are not lenses for everyone. You have to like the focal length(s); need the speed; be prepared to put up with the compromises that are necessary in order to get the speed (bulk, weight, distortion); and, of course, find $5995 for each of them, or $11,990 for the pair. Neither of us has ever spent the price of even one of these lenses on a car.

The 21mm is slightly bigger and takes Series VIII filters instead of Series VII: the quickest way to tell the two lenses apart is to read the label. Even at f/1.4, at 1 meter (40 inches) the depth of field of the 21mm is around 30cm or a foot, so depth of field is not negligible.

There are however very good reasons to buy ultra-fast lenses. The first, and most compelling in our view, is for taking handheld pictures, possibly of moving subjects, in low light. The second, very much the present fashion, is selective focus.

(Top): Ali Baba’s Cave. If you’re ever in Arles, go there! The extreme wide-angle effect and the shallow depth of field at full aperture are both clear. (Leica MP (Kodak Ektar 100), 21mm.) (Above): Ali Baba’s Cave in Arles. The owner, Idris, sells fascinating North African goods at very modest prices. The Leica M8.2 (digital) and the 24mm: equivalent on film, 32mm. The smaller field of view (as compared with film) means that there are fewer really close objects at the edges of the field of view, at least in a shot like this, so apparent depth of field is greater, even at f/1.4.
All Photos © 2009, Roger Hicks Ltd., All Rights Reserved

Low Light
With today’s high-speed films, and even higher-speed digital sensors, ultra-fast lenses are less necessary than they used to be. Today, many people turn up their noses at having “only” ISO 2500 on the Leica M8 and M8.2. But that’s more than 15x the speed of the old High Speed Ektachrome (ASA 160—which was only available in 20-exposure rolls) or 3x to 4x the speed of “pushed” Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP4. Sure, some people pushed further, but shadow detail soon became a fleeting memory. For comparison, a 21mm f/1.4 Summilux is 21⁄2 stops faster than a 21mm f/3.4 Super Angulon: about 6x.

To many, though, this means only one thing. With ultra-fast lenses and high-speed films or sensors, the frontiers of “available darkness” photography are pushed back even further. What is more, most people reckon they can hold a rangefinder camera steadier than a reflex, often for another step or even two steps on the shutter speed dial. No one is sure why, though it may be something to do with continuous viewing. Add to this the unobtrusiveness of a Leica: to most people, it just looks like a big
point-and-shoot. Suddenly you begin to see why Leicas retain a professional following to this day.

Backward (and sideways) compatibility: the 24mm f/1.4 on a 1961 Leica M2 with a 2005 Abrahamsson Rapidwinder, a “no-name” rewind adapter from the ’70s and an old 21mm Leica finder.

There is also the point that lower film or sensor speeds normally translate straight into better image quality: more sharpness, and less noise or grain. If you have an f/1.4 lens on your camera, you can choose whether to go for (let us say) ISO 100 at f/1.4 or ISO 400 at f/2.8—though the latter will of course give you more depth of field, which brings us on to the second reason why people buy fast lenses: selective focus.

Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus, Arles: possibly the most stunning hotel interior in Arles, against strong competition. Even at full aperture, depth of field is often adequate, and allows the use of low ISO speeds for maximum quality. (Leica M8.2 (digital), 24mm.)