Leica Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-asph – Distancing with the Subject

Leica Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-asph - Distancing with the Subject

Lens Review

Leica Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-asph – Distancing with the Subject

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Leica M240-P, Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a

Based on what I can find online about Saul Leiter, he shot with a telephoto lens from 90mm up to 150mm. I was inspired by his abstract color street photography. So after using and loving the Nikon 105mm f2.5 AIS, I decided to try out the Leica Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-ASPH lens because it is one of the fastest telephoto lenses in Leica’s line up. I heard that the Summicron 90mm f2 Version 1 is good, the weight of it stopped me from even thinking about it. In this post, I’ll share my brief experience using the lens, its versions and background, and the pros and cons I discovered along the way.

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Leica M10, Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a

Let’s take a quick detour before the deep look into the lens history. The 90mm lens? It’s a secret weapon for nailing that creamy background separation that just makes portraits pop. It’s also ace for zoning in on just the bits of a scene I want to capture, keeping all the distractions out of the shot. And in a bustling place like Hong Kong, where you’ve got ads everywhere and crowds that just don’t quit, that 90mm lets me steal moments of calm from the chaos. It’s pretty awesome.

Background and History of the Lens

The Leica Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-ASPH lens was produced between 1980 and 1998, with a few different mechanical iterations. All of these “version II” lenses share the same optics and feature an 11-blade aperture diaphragm. There are differences in weight and filter size, with mine having a 55mm filter size and weighing in at 485g with the closest focusing distance at 1 meter. This lens was manufactured in Canada.

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55mm filter size
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Finishing

Version 1 (1958-1980): Introduced in 1958 including three exterior alterations, six elements in five groups, and a 15 blade aperture in older versions and later equipped with 12 blade aperture. Manufactured in Germany with a collapsible lens hood.

Version 2, (1980-1998): Improved optical design with seven elements in five groups and an 11 blade aperture. Produced in Germany and Canada with collapsible lens hood. Between 1980 and 1981, a version was produced that accepted only a 49mm filter and weighed just 410 grams. This model was exclusively available in black. Starting in 1982, the design closely resembled the current APO-ASPH model and similarly accommodated 55mm filters.

APO-Summicron 90mm f2 (1998-Present): Apochromatic correction for reduced chromatic aberrations, five elements in five groups, and a focus tab for easier manual focusing. Features a built-in, telescoping lens hood.

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Hood fully retracted
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Hood fully extended

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Experience with the Summicron 90mm

I bought the Leica 90mm f2 Pre-ASPH lens out of curiosity and to explore the difference in perspective between the 90mm and 105mm focal lengths. I was impressed by how telephoto lenses can compress and separate objects from the background, creating a unique visual experience.

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Leica Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a, Ilford HP5+, Kodak D76
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Leica Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a, Ilford HP5+, Kodak D76
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Leica M10, Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a

Pros: Build Quality and Bokeh

The build quality of the Leica Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-ASPH lens is excellent, as expected from Leica. The all-metal construction feels solid and durable. The slide-out hood is a nice touch and adds to the overall aesthetic of the lens. The aperture ring and focusing ring were placed perfectly.

The bokeh produced by this lens is creamy and smooth, making it ideal for portrait photography. The lens does an excellent job of separating the subject from the background, providing a beautiful sense of depth to the images.

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Leica M10, Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a
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Leica M10, Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a

Cons: Focus, Hood, and Weight

Unfortunately, I’ve found achieving sharp focus at f/2 quite challenging with this lens. To get the best performance, you really have to be selective when pairing it with your rangefinder camera. Some might say the lenses aren’t sharp, but it could just be that the focus isn’t dialed in correctly — a slight movement can make a big difference with a rangefinder. The longer focus throw and increased resistance complicate quick, intuitive focusing. Also, the very shallow depth of field at f/2 means that nailing perfect focus is tough. I found myself missing critical focus at f/2 about 20% of the time, which was pretty annoying. If I decide to keep using this lens, I might look into getting a viewfinder magnifier (1.4x for a 0.72x camera) or an EVF to help.

The lens hood is pretty bulky, and with a minimum focusing distance of 1m, things can get tricky without a magnifier. The brass version of the lens is heavy, making precise framing a challenge unless you’re on a Mirrorless or using a EVF.

When shooting wide open, you may notice the edges of the frame getting soft. Lens flare can be a cool effect, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. And be warned — it’s easy to end up with camera shake when shooting film at night at slower shutter speeds like 1/15 or 1/30.

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Leica M10, Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a
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Leica M10, Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a

90mm Perspective and Tips

One of the most common uses for a medium telephoto lens is portraiture, yet personally, I lean towards the look of a 50mm lens for this genre. The 50mm offers a perspective that feels more natural to me, while telephoto lenses tend to flatten and compress the scene, which also affects the portrayal of the subject’s character. When I use telephoto lenses on the street, I often find myself stepping back to maintain an appropriate distance; the 90mm, in particular, has proven to be a good fit for street photography.

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Leica Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a, Ilford HP5+, Kodak D76
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Leica M10, Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a

“Leiter often shot with a telephoto lens, which created a flattening effect on street scenes. Signs that were far off in the distance looked like they were just as close as the person crossing the street just a few feet away from the camera. Items near and far looked like they were all part of the same scene. This flattened look combined with creative framing made some of his images almost look like collages.”

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Leica M10, Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a

When using a 90mm lens, it’s important to be mindful of your distance from the subject. This lens forces me to maintain a certain distance, allowing me to observe and carefully select the right scene. An added benefit is that by keeping your distance, you become less noticeable, reducing the likelihood of drawing attention to yourself. I’ve also found that shooting in vertical orientation with a 90mm lens often results in cleaner, neater compositions with proportions that are easier to manage.

However, it’s essential to remember that this is a rangefinder lens, which means what you frame might not be exactly what you capture in the photo—this discrepancy becomes more pronounced with a 90mm lens as you get closer to your subject.

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Leica M240-P, Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a
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Leica M10, Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a

Final Thoughts

In summary, the Leica Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-ASPH lens offers excellent build quality and produces beautiful bokeh, making it an attractive option for not only portraitures but also street photographers. However, the challenges with focusing and the large hood, combined with the heavy weight of the brass version, can make it less appealing for some users. While I ultimately decided to sell the lens, you may check out Voigtlander APO Skopar 90mm f/2.8 and Leica Tele-Elmarit 90mm f/2.8 for a one stop slower and lighter option. Also, it took me some time to adapt into the 90mm frameline. It would be perfect if you are using a mirrorless camera or M bodies with an EVF. This lens is a true stellar! Comment if you also own this lens and share with me your joys or even issues you’ve encountered with it! Happy shooting!

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Leica M10, Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a
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Leica M10, Summicron 90mm f2 Pre-a
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Reflx Lab 800
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Reflx Lab 400D
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Reflx Lab 200T
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Metal replacement hood for 28/35 Leica Lens

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4 Comments

  1. I share your view. I was hesitant but then bought a summarex in good condition to experiment with “tele street photography” as I call it and found the experience quite engaging and interesting. This idea of becoming invisible by creating distance to the subject, next to the idea of trying to find “features” and make “abstract” pictures out of them. Leiter was also my inspiration!
    It tells me how important is it to experiment the “whole spectrum” from ultra wide photography to tele photography. Picking the Lux 24 vs the Summarex puts me in very different moods and leads to very different styles

    • Thanks Philippe, which one do you enjoy the most or which one put you in the most uncomfortable place that you wanna make better images with it?

  2. Hi Anson. Thanks for your reply and your interesting question 🙂 It made me think. “Most probably” the Lux 24 makes me a bit uncomfortable as there is no escape from coming quite close to the subject in certain contexts. There are obviously techniques like shooting from the hip or making it seems like the subject is “not the main subject” if I don’t center the lens, nevertheless there must be some quick thinking to implement the strategy and make the picture. With the Rex 75, the main challenge is the focusing especially if wide open (it is more technical). Though being an older lens, a slight missed focus is less visible or distracting.
    So overall both are enjoyable in different ways, maybe the Rex a bit more as the experience is more relaxing, the Lux 24 more uncomfortable and more challenging to make successful shots

    Is your experience different?

    • Your experience resonates with me. Also there is a factor has to be considered, which is the location. Environment also play a significant role to me. In Hong Kong, I tend to shoot it with tele photo lenses because environment usually has so many distracting elements. Totally agreed that I enjoy using both in different ways!

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