A Tempting Mix of Unusual Bokeh: Leica 21mm F1.4 Summilux Review

If you want a wide-angle with unique bokeh and plenty of flare potential, look no further.

The latest high-end lenses brag about uniform sharpness across every pixel of the photograph. But, for those who find uniformity boring, there’s the Leica 21mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH. The ultra-wide, ultra-bright M-mount lens delivers more character than technical perfection. But, more than that, the lens delivers a variety of character, from the varying shapes of the bokeh to several different types of flare.

Of course, as an M-mount lens, it’s also manual focus only — and pricey. The $8,795 lens is a luxury item for photographers that want the feel of a classic lens on a digital body. The question is, did Leica find the right balance between character and image quality? That’s going to depend on the photographer behind this lens.

Too Long, Didn’t Read.

The Leica 21mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH falls in line with what I’ve come to expect with Leica — a well-built lens that delivers images with more character than technical perfection. The metal build is great, while you can get lots of different types of flare and even different shapes of bokeh.

Leica 21mm F1.4 Summilux ASPH Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Metal build
  • Classic design with full depth of field scale
  • Virtually undetectable barrel distortion
  • Plenty of character
  • Great color

Cons

  • Aberration prevents perfect circular shape for stars and bokeh balls
  • Some softness at the center when shooting wide open and at the edges even when stepping down
  • Manual focus only
  • No weather sealing

Gear Used

I used the Leica 21mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH with the Leica M10-R body and an add-on EVF. I stashed my loaner Leica gear in the Wandrd PRVKE Lite bag.

Innovations

The Leica 21mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH is designed to minimize barrel distortion and vignetting. This lens has been around for a few years; however, it still features a design and build that is hard, if not impossible, to find outside of Leica optics. 

Leica 21mm F1.4 Summilux ASPH Tech Specs

According to Leica, the 21mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH is constructed with the following specifications:

  • Angle of view (diagonal, horizontal, vertical) 92° / 81° / 
  • Number of lenses/groups: 10 / 8 
  • Focal length: 21.6 mm 
  • Position of entrance pupil: 24.4 mm (related to the first lens surface in light direction)
  • Focusing range: 0.7 m to infinity 
  • Distance setting Scales: Combined meter/feet graduation 
  • Smallest object field: 685 x 1027 mm 
  • Largest reproduction ratio: 1:29 
  • Aperture Setting/Function: With click-stops, half values available, manual diaphragm 
  • Lowest value: 16 
  • Bayonet: Leica M quick-change bayonet with 6-bit lens identification bar code for digital M models 
  • Filter mount: Series filter VIII in lens hood 
  • Lens hood: Separate, screw-on type 
  • Length: 66 / 77 mm (without / with lens hood) Largest diameter: approx. 69.5 mm 
  • Weight: approx. 580 g 

Ergonomics

Wide angles and wide apertures tend to create obnoxiously large lenses. However, I found the Leica 21mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH surprisingly small. At just over three inches long with the hood, the 21mm still fit in the palm of my hand. Without the screw-on hood, it’s just a touch over 2.5 inches long.

As one of Leica’s metal lenses, the lens is a little heavy for the short stature, but not terribly so. It weighs about 20 ounces. The weight of the lens pulls the M10-R forward a bit. It didn’t feel so front-heavy that the camera was hard to grip, however.

Like other Leica M-mount lenses, the 21mm takes on a classic look reminiscent of film. Closest to the lens mount is a focal distance scale. A depth of field scale is fixed on the lens’s barrel, while the rotating focus ring houses the focal distance in both feet and meters. This will give you an idea of what will be in focus at what aperture. Many modern lenses are eliminating the focal distance scale, and the lenses that have it typically don’t have a depth of field scale. Of course, most modern lenses have autofocus, but the feature gives the lens a classic look and makes the lens easier to use.

North of the smooth turning focus ring is an aperture ring with a nice click to it. The aperture ring is quite thin. It’s a little harder to reach for blindly. But, since it lacks the lined texture of the focus ring, I could still reach for the right ring without pulling my eye from the viewfinder.

The lens includes a screw-in metal hood. It matches the body so well, it almost looks like part of the lens. Unfortunately, the 21mm lens does not accept screw-in filters, but the hood holds a specially sized Leica Series Filter VIII. That prevents using a generic filter on the lens, though Leica purists probably won’t care.

Build Quality

With a metal build, the 21mm feels like a Leica. It’s sturdy in the hands, and the rings have a great feel to them. Metal builds are much sturdier in the long run. The downside to metal construction is that the paint can wear. The review sample I used had some silver showing on the hood and in a few spots on the rings.

Leica doesn’t categorize any of its lenses as weather-sealed. I used this lens in a light drizzle, but I didn’t risk more for such a pricey lens without weather-sealing. I would really love it if Leica could maintain that classic look with some weather-sealing, particularly for a wide-angle lens that’s practically made for the outdoors.

Focus

Like other M mount lenses, the Leica 21mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH is manual focus only. While that has some obvious disadvantages, focusing wasn’t too terribly difficult with focus peaking in the add-on EVF. I used this lens alongside Leica’s 90mm f1.4, and in comparison, focusing was a breeze. The wider focal length gives you a little more room for error. Even at the closest focusing distance, you have about four inches of depth of field to play with at f1.4. That meant focus peaking still worked when shooting wide open.

The 21mm focuses as close as .7 meters or about 2.3 feet from the front of the lens. There were a few occasions where I wanted to get in closer. But you don’t really buy a 21mm for its close-up capabilities.

Of course, manual focus makes Astrophotography pretty easy! However, it isn’t the most ideal lens for it.

Ease of Use

As a manual focus lens, the Leica 21mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH requires some patience. With focus peaking on the EVF, the manual focus slowed me down a bit but wasn’t terribly frustrating. With such a wide-angle, the depth of field is wide enough that you can breathe without throwing the shot out of focus. That said, the Leica M isn’t really a system for beginners. It’s a system for photographers who want to slow down, put more thought into each photograph, and shoot digitally with the feel of film.

Image Quality

The Leica 21mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH is a great lens for the character-seeking photographer but not so great at being technically correct. Aberration causes some misshaped bokeh, and at f1.4, images have a soft glow. There’s also some vignetting.

Bokeh

Wide angles aren’t known for their bokeh, but the f1.4 creates plenty of background separation. This lens could easily create an almost glow-like appearance. 

Close crop, center
Close crop, upper right corner
Close crop, right edge

Bokeh balls, however, from this lens come in all shapes and sizes outside the expected cat eye bokeh towards the edges. All of the crops above were taken out of the same image. Points of light were round at the very center of the image but quickly changed shape due to aberration towards the edges of the image. Aberration gave the bokeh on the extreme edges the shape of a trapezoid. Bokeh between the center and the edges had a comet tail. The points of light did have a soap bubble appearance, and a few of them were actually rainbow-colored. If you want bokeh outside the norm with a lot of character, this is a good lens. If you’re a stickler for perfectly round bokeh, this isn’t the lens for you.

Sharpness

Images from the 21mm have more of a soft glow than the uber-sharpness that recent high-end mirrorless lenses are achieving. At f1.4, the center had a soft glow. As the aperture increases, you lose a little glow and gain some sharpness, with some great sharpness coming in at f2.4. While the center sharpness increases, the corners maintain some of that softer glow.

Lens Character

Edited RAW

In case the mixed bag of bokeh balls didn’t clue you in already, the Leica 21mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH is full of character. Flare, too, appears to cover the gamut. Depending on how the light hits the lens (and whether or not you remove the hood), you can get a soft white streaky flare, rainbow flare, ghosting dots, or arch flare.

The lens, however, hasn’t escaped aberration (which is also the likely cause of the wide variety of different bokeh shapes). In astrophotography images, the stars at the center are nice and round. The stars towards the edges, however, are streaky. This is caused by coma aberration.

The lens has some vignetting, darkest at f1.4 but lessens up a bit as the aperture narrows. While vignetting is definitely present, I didn’t find it terribly strong or distracting.

Barrel distortion, however, is surprisingly well-controlled for such a wide-angle lens. Lines only had the slightest bend towards the edges. I didn’t notice barrel distortion at all in real-world shots.

Color Rendering

Colors coming from the Leica 21mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH are lovely. You can get some accurate color at most apertures. With the bit of glow that this lens has wide open, you get colors that aren’t as perfect but have a dreamy feel. Overexposing just a bit and shooting wide open produced some great, dreamy colors.

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 metal build feels great.
  • I love the classic look of this lens with the depth of field scale.
  • Barrel distortion is very well controlled.
  • This lens just oozes with character, including a wide range of possibilities for flare.
  • I love the color — you can create a light and dreamy look by slightly overexposing at f1.4.

Dislikes

  • Noticeable aberration changes the shape of bokeh at the edges and also isn’t ideal for astrophotography.
  • Wide-open apertures are a bit soft, and the edges remain a little soft even when stepping down.
  • There’s no weather-sealing.
  • It’s a manual focus lens.

If you want technical perfection, the Leica 21mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH isn’t for you. But, if you are looking for a wide-angle with character, this 21mm may be a perfect choice. Wide-open, you can get a soft and dreamy look with some fun-shaped soap bubble bokeh. Stepping down a bit, you can get some great sharpness and a bit less vignetting. And that’s wrapped up in a classic-looking lens with a metal build and hood.

I’m giving the Leica 21mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH three out of five stars. Want one? Check out 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.