Challenging, but a Worthy Slice of Focus: Leica 90mm F1.5 Summilux ASPH

The Leica 90 f1.5 Summilux ASPH rewards patience with some spectacular flare.

Leica’s Summilux lenses boast ultra-bright apertures, but until recently these ultra-fast lenses have been limited to wide-angle and standard focal lengths. The Leica 90mm f1.5 Summilux ASPH is the Summilux line’s first 90mm, joining 90mms from the Summicron and Macro-Elmar line-ups. Mixing the wide aperture of the Summilux line with a longer focal length creates a tiny slice of perfect focus that fades quickly into a spectacular blur.

The lens brings that tiny slice of focus to the rangefinder M-bodies, complete with spectacular flare. The all-metal design is the fully manual focus lens that Leica fans have come to expect from the M mount. The $13,695 price makes the lens the third most expensive in the M-mount family currently offered by Leica. Just how does it feel to shoot with a $13.7k lens, and which Leica photographers are going to fall in love with this lens?

Too Long, Didn’t Read

The Leica 90mm f1.5 Summilux ASPH creates a thin slice of super-sharp focus with obliterated backgrounds, in a metal lens that feels very vintage. But, getting a 90mm f1.5 perfectly in focus using manual focus is a challenge reserved for only the most seasoned M mount photographers. There is also a bit of aberration to contend with.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Dreamy bokeh
  • A tiny slice of sharpness when wide open
  • Plenty of character-building flare
  • Metal, vintage build
  • Excellent feel and handling
  • Demands the kind of patience that will help many photographers get it right in camera

Cons

  • Manual focus only, but that’s all M lenses
  • No image stabilization, but that’s all M lenses
  • Some aberration, particularly towards the edges
  • $13k

Gear Used

I tested the 90mm with the Leica M10-R. I also used the Visoflex electronic viewfinder – you’ll want one with this lens to take advantage of focus peaking. (Be forewarned, however, that the EVF only worked half the time when I was wearing my glasses.)

Innovations

The Leica 90mm f1.5 Summilux ASPH looks old-school but packs in a sharpness similar to modern lenses. The 90mm uses a floating lens element for sharpness to the corners. While floating lens elements aren’t new, Leica says it’s uncommon for a smaller lens.

Tech Specs

Taken from the specs on Leica’s Website.

  • Angle view (diagonal, horizontal, vertical)
    • For 35mm (24 x 36 mm): approx. 27°/23°/15°,
    • For M8: approx. 21°/17°/11°
  • Number of elements/groups: 8/6
  • Entrance pupil for bayonet: 27,2 mm
  • Focusing range: 1 m to infinity
  • Distance setting: Scala: combined meter-/feet-increments
  • Smallest object field: for 35 mm: 211 x 317 mm; for M8: 158 x 238 mm
  • Highest reproduction ratio: 1:8,8
  • Diaphragm Setting/type: preset, with click-stops, half values available
  • Smallest aperture: f16
  • Number of aperture blades: 11
  • Bayonet: Leica M quick-change bayonet
  • Filter thread: E67
  • Lens hood: Integrated
  • Dimensions and weight
    • Length: approx. 91/102 mm (without/with extended lens hood)
    • Diameter: approx. 74 mm
    • Weight: approx. 1010 g

Ergonomics

The Leica 90mm f1.5 Summilux ASPH feels more like a vintage film lens than modern mirrorless glass. That’s due to both the metal body and the lens’s classic labeling. The metal build gives the lens some heft at more than 2.2 pounds. It created a front-heavy combo with the M10-R body. The M10-R’s lack of a grip required more patience and breath-holding to keep such a heavy lens steady.

Closest to the lens, the 90mm features a retro-feeling depth of field scale. Modern lenses, if they even have a focal distance scale, typically omit the depth of field chart. This lens allows you to see the focal distance and the range of what’s in focus for the aperture you select.

Just north of that focal scale, of course, is the focus ring. The ring is nice and wide, easy to grab, and turns smoothly. The lens is not internally focusing, so the length of the lens varies as you focus.

Next up is the aperture ring. Unlike the focus ring, the aperture turns with a nice click. That makes it easy to feel for the settings between the ones labeled on the ring itself. Not much wider than the number labels, this one is thinner than the focus ring. That and the different texture makes it easier to blindly reach for the right control.

Hidden at the front of the lens is an integrated hood. It twists forward when you want it and back when you don’t. The hood is so well designed it looks like part of the lens barrel. I didn’t even realize the hood was there until I took a closer look at the lens’s list of features.

The front of the lens is mostly glass, attesting to just how wide open this lens can get. The front will accept 67mm screw-in filters. A tripod mount is included on the bottom of the lens itself, rather than on a removable collar.

Build Quality

Leica is the exception to the expression “they don’t make things like they used to.” The classic atheistic isn’t just for looks. The lens barrel is all metal, including that exceptionally well-hidden twist out the hood. This 90mm feels like a luxury lens.

Leica, unfortunately, doesn’t have a weather-sealed designation for their M-mount lenses. I shot this in a very light sprinkle. But, without weather sealing being listed in the specifications, I didn’t risk such a pricey lens in much moisture.

Focus

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the Leica 90mm f1.5 Summilux ASPH is a manual focus lens. Getting such a wide-aperture lens perfectly in focus is a challenge. That challenge is exaggerated by the longer focal length of the lens. At the closest possible distance to the lens (3.28ft/1m), you’ll get a depth of field that’s only about a centimeter wide at f1.5. Breathe, and you’re out of focus.

Using the add-on electronic viewfinder, I would sometimes get a few pixels of red focus peaking in the eyes shooting portraits wide open. That was on a cloudy day. Shooting backlit into the sun, the lens flare rendered the focus peaking useless until above f2.8. Focus peaking works based on contrast. Flare reduces that contrast. Using the add-on EVF with focus peaking was the most challenging and sometimes almost impossible with backlighting.

Getting the lens ring in the right spot was difficult while shooting handheld. As a result, I shot fewer wide-open images than I usually do. I needed to widen the depth of field to increase the chances of a sharp shot. This was particularly true for portraits when the slightest movement by the subject threw off the shot. This would, however, be less true for seasoned Leica M-mount shooters than for someone accustomed to autofocus lenses, like me.

Leica also brags about the lens’s one meter (3.28 feet) minimum focusing distance. There were a few times where I wanted to get in closer, however. Sigma’s, Canon’s, and Nikon’s (DSLR) 85mm f1.4 can shoot as close as 2.79 feet, though that 5mm will make a slight difference in how close the subject appears.

But, fast focusing encourages fast shooting. Manual focus lenses force you to slow down: a 90mm f1.5 one moreso. I tend to put more thought into the composition and making everything perfect when working with manual focus. When it’s impossible to just point and shoot, every image is more of a  photograph than a snapshot.

Ease of Use

Because it’s a manual lens, the Leica 90mm f1.5 Summilux ASPH requires some patience. But, it’s also not like using manual focus on your typical DSLR. With the M10-R, you have the rangefinder viewfinder to line up the two images in the center. You can use the LCD or hot shoe electronic viewfinder to access focus peaking. Or, using the depth of field scale, you can take advantage of the zone focusing technique.

Longer lenses create a smaller depth of field. That, in turn, makes them more difficult to focus. This lens will be most loved by Leica M shooters that have perfected the craft of manual focus on wider and standard focal length lenses. I wouldn’t recommend the 90mm for photographers that are just starting out with the M system. Starting with a wider focal length is less daunting.

Image Quality

The harder the challenge, the bigger reward. Focusing was a challenge — but then I opened the images. The f1.5 at 90mm melts away everything but that tiny slice of focus. And that tiny slice of focus is spectacularly sharp. This is, of course, paired with Leica’s level of color and character.

Bokeh

The Leica 90mm Summilux delivers plenty of bokeh at f1.5. The background just melts away. Grass becomes a blur so smooth, it almost looks like background paper. The longer focal length and full-frame sensor mean there’s still some bokeh to be had when stepping the lens down as well. Points of light are soft and circular. I didn’t spot onion ringing or soap bubble bokeh.

Sharpness

That super soft background mixes with pinpoint sharpness. When the focus is perfect, images are very sharp, even towards the edges of the frame. There’s a slight corner fall off. I didn’t think the lens was as sharp as some of Sony’s G Master optics, but that’s okay because Sony’s lenses are sometimes too see-every-pore sharp.

Lens Character

Unedited JPEG

When you have a lens with a lot of bokeh and a lot of sharpness, you get photographs with character. Sunlight through the trees produced some nice, soft white flare with just the right amount of reduced contrast for a light and colorful look. But, if the light hits the lens just right, this 90mm produces an excellent range of different types of flare. I was able to get some sun halos, circular spots, and some purple flare reminiscent of a light leak on film.

Edited RAW Photo
A close crop of the same image showing aberration

I did spot colored fringing in several shots, however. In some tree branches that were just out of focus behind the subject, there’s some ghosting and red and green fringing. This aberration was the strongest towards the edges of the image.

Color Rendering

The 90mm Summilux captured good color. The lens was able to tell different hues apart slightly better than some others that I’ve tested. With the M10-R, colors were bright and soft and easily manipulated by setting the exposure to capture darker, somber tones, or light and bright. 

Extra Image Samples

From day one, the Phoblographer has been huge on transparency with our audience. Nothing from this review is sponsored. Further, lots of folks will post reviews and show lots of editing in the photos. The problem then becomes that anyone and everyone can do the same thing. You’re not showing what the lens can do. So we have a whole section in our Extra Image Samples area to show off edited and unedited photos. From this, you can make a decision for yourself.

Edited

Unedited

Conclusions

Likes

  • The bokeh is spectacular.
  • The focal point is very sharp, even wide open and even towards the edges.
  • The metal vintage build is a joy to shoot with.
  • This lens demands patience, but that in turn creates stronger compositions.

Dislikes

  • The 90mm lacks autofocus and image stabilization.
  • There’s some noticeable aberration, particularly towards the edges in backlighting.
  • It’s pricey, but, of course, that’s not unexpected for a Leica lens.

From a purely technical standpoint, it’s easy to hate on this lens. There’s no autofocus and no stabilization, yet it costs more than my current vehicle is worth.

But Leica is hardly the perfect camera for pixel peppers (or, for that matter, photographers concerned about price). The Leica 90mm f1.5 Summilux ASPH delivers an ultra-thin slice of tack-sharp subject surrounded by awe-worthy bokeh. It delivers the sharpness of a modern lens, but without a complete absence of character. And it’s all inside a metal design that’s a pure joy to hold in your hands.  

Nailing the focus is a challenge, but that makes this a lens that not every average Joe can shoot with. Patience shooting is rewarded with stronger in-camera compositions, stunning bokeh, and plenty of character. If you’re a Leica photographer that has mastered the art of working with M lenses, the Leica 90mm f1.5 Summilux ASPH is a worthy challenge for portraiture. It’s not a lens for the impatient, the tech-focused, or the strict budget. But, I can see Leica photographers really loving this lens for portrait work. 

I’m giving the Leica 90mm f1.5 Summilux ASPH four out of five stars. Want one? Check Amazon for the latest prices.

Hillary Grigonis

Hillary K. Grigonis is a photographer and tech writer based in Michigan. She shoots weddings and portraits at Hillary K Photography. A mother of three, she enjoys hiking, camping, crafting, and reading.