Thursday, May 10, 2018

1950s excellence: the Leica 50mm f/2.0 Type 2 Summicron-DR lens

Leitz 50mm f/2.0 dual range Summicron lens in original box. 
Introduction. Leica's 50mm Summicron lenses have been famous for optical and mechanical excellence for over 60 years. Leica's term Summicron means a lens with maximum aperture of f/2.0. They have been improved over the decades and are still in production - how many other consumer products have lasted over a half century? Even more amazing, a new lens will fit on a 50-year-old Leica M body, or a 60-year-old lens will work on a brand new film or digital body. When you consider the longevity, Leica lenses are reasonable price, despite the hatred (or envy) from many modern digital photographers.

A convenient summary with photographs of the different Summicron versions is on Ken Rockwell's site.
5cm f/2.0 Summitar lens in extended (ready to photograph) position
Summitar. The predecessor lens, the 5cm Summitar, was in production from 1939 to 1953, with 170,761 units total. War-time lenses were uncoated, but from 1946 on, they were anti-reflection coated. Eastman Kodak and Zeiss had coated optics for military use during the war, but coating all air-glass surfaces on general civilian optics became widespread only after World War II. The Summitar had a complicated design of 7 elements in 4 groups. Human computers using mechanical calculators and trigonometry tables must have made a heroic effort to compute the ray paths. The Summitar's central sharpness is superb, but the edges fall off, and there is some field curvature. This can be used creatively, and regardless, "sharpness" is not normally the factor that makes a photograph successful. For examples, please look at some of my 2017 Nepal articles. In 1953, the Summitar lens cost $158 in USA.

Summicron Type 1. The first Summicron, the Type 1, was introduced in 1952. It was an update of the Summitar, also mounted in a collapsible barrel. I do not know if the formulation of this new lens benefitted from early-vintage electronic computers. For a German consumer product, I suspect no. The first electronic computers after World War II were used for ballistics analysis, atomic weapons research, rocket trajectories, and military optics. The 1953 USA cost for the Summicron was $183.

A note on collapsible lenses: When E. Leitz company introduced its first camera in 1923, it used perforated cine film but doubled the frame size to 24×36 mm. All other cameras then used much larger roll film or individual sheet film. So the new small image surface became known as miniature format. The cameras were intended for travel or adventures like mountain climbing. Therefore, the manufacturers wanted to make the cameras compact and portable. One way to do that was to build a lens in a barrel that could be collapsed into the body. As the years went by, cameras grew larger and heavier (like automobiles or, most grotesquely, American SUVs). The Zeiss Contarex of 1960 had grown to 910 grams for just the body. The Nikon F with its metering head was a big package, as well. And today, the digital single lens reflex (DSLR) in "full frame" size is an enormous bulbous thing graced with a protruding penile lens that points at its subject like a cannon. Just tell the DSLR fanbois that they really have the miniature format.
Type 2 Summicron lens with single focus range.
Summicron Type 2. E. Leitz introduced their Type 2 Summicron in 1956. It was in production until 1968. To improve the precision of the glass alignment, Leitz mounted Type 2 optics in a rigid barrel. It was a masterpiece of mechanical precision and elegance, but the construction of brushed chrome over brass made it heavy. This lens was also most likely hand designed.

Leitz began computer-aided lens computations after about 1960 at their factory in Midland, Ontario, Canada, under the guidance of Dr. Walter Mandler (from Erwin Puts). It is an interesting history of international competition that about this time, Japanese optical companies such as Canon, Nikon, and Topcon were also exploring new lens designs with the aide of early computers. They were able to market lenses with almost as refined optical characteristics as Leica but at lower price. The brilliance of the Japanese companies was to bring superb optics to a wide audience at reasonable price.

Leitz made two version of the Type 2 lens. One had a single focus range covering 1m to infinity. The photograph above shows a 1963 lens that I bought from a friend in town. It was available in M-mount  (63,055 units) as well as the 39mm thread mount (1160 units; now a rare collector item).
Dual range Summicron without goggles.
Dual range Summicron with goggles attached on the flat plate. The lens has been extended to its closest focus distance.
The second version had a dual focus range and is known as the DR. The normal range was 1m to infinity. But if you wanted to focus on a closer object, you slid a spectacle viewfinder attachment onto a flat plate on the top of the lens. The goggles depressed a button, which let the lens focus from 0.48 to 0.88 m. The goggles correct the parallax of the rangefinder view. It was a clever way to let a rangefinder camera focus more closely than the normal 0.8 or 1.0 meter. A reflex camera does not have these limitations, but in the 1950s, most miniature camera photographers were still using rangefinders. Total production was 55,145 units.

My stepdad bought the DR in the pictures above in 1962. This lens and M2 camera took family pictures in Greece and traveled to Asia, Africa, the Indian Ocean, and North America. Now it photographs urban decay in Mississippi. This one has pristine coating.

I could not find a complete Leica price booklet from the 1960s, but I found a few prices in US $ for M2 and lenses:
  • M2 w/50mm f/2 rigid Summicron 423.00
  • M2 w/50mm f/2 DR Summicron 465.00
Optical unit and focus mount of Summicon-DR lens. Serial numbers must match.
Special note: the optical unit can be unscrewed from the focus unit. If you buy a used DR lens, the serial numbers must match. Do not accept an unmatched lens.

I also have a Type 4 50mm Summicron from 1984 or 1985 production. I will write about it in a future article. It is mounted in a lighter weight alloy barrel as opposed to the gorgeous brushed chrome of my DR unit.

Test with Kodak BW400CN film. On a recent day trip through rural Mississippi south of I-20, I grabbed a roll of Kodak BW400CN. I have had mixed results in the past. Sometimes it looks muddy, but sometimes I like the tonality. Could there be differences in the C-41 chemistry? Regardless, here are a few samples exposed through my Leica M2 and the 50mm Summicron-DR. I was surprised how the film renders green as quite light, but only for long exposures in settings such as dense underbrush. I do not recall seeing this before. The BW is pretty grainy, but I like the effect.
Abandoned farm house, Rte 18 in Brandon, MS.
Remains of a gasoline station, Raleigh. Taken with polarizer filter.
Big Smittys, Hwy 149, Mendenhall, MS. This is a former Pan-Am filling station. 
Main Street, Mendenhall, MS. Polarizer used to darken sky.
Shop on MS 28 east of Georgetown.
Historic Crossroads Store on Old Port Gibson Road, Reganton, MS.

Laney, D. 1994. Leica Camera and Lens Pocket Book, 6th Edition revised and updated, Hove Collectors' Books, East Sussux, UK, 142 p.


An interesting 2007 article about Leica cameras is in The New Yorker, September 24, 2007 Issue, Candid Camera, The cult of Leica.

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