By Johnny Martyr
If you’ve read my 5 LTM 50 for $500 or Less, you’ll know how deep the rabbit hole I have walked, looking for the perfect 50mm Leica-mount lens. Despite the belief that you shouldn’t have to spend a fortune on a Leica 50mm mount, I eventually felt the need to spend a bit more to get one go-to 50 to use with my Leica M6 TTL. I landed on the Leitz 50mm f2 Summicron by chance.
I’m shooting weddings in 2021 with my 50/1.5 Summarit, which has long been the go-to for my M6 because I enjoy its size, weight, and balance. Summarit gave me various looks; vintage on the wider eyelet and quite modern on stopped and hooded. However, the wedding took place early in the morning with harsh window lighting in a small room, and I found that Summarit, even with its hood on, revealed more light and veil flare than I would have liked for this somewhat unusual location and timing of the wedding. As a wedding photographer, having a lens that you can point anywhere and get consistent results at any distance and at any aperture is important. These expectations can be challenging with vintage lenses so I started looking for something a bit more modern for this reason alone.
In describing what happened to an old friend, Joey Pasco, he offered to loan him his 1979 Summicron Leitz 50mm f2. Ironically, this is the lens I recommended to Joey when he bought his first Leica a few years ago and here he is, back in my court.
Ken Rockwell appears to refer to this iteration of the Leitz 50mm Summicron as Version IV but Dan Tamarkin classifies it as Version III. While I agree with Tamarkin’s logic, Rockwell’s logic is probably more followed. So I’m just going to avoid the whole versioning convention altogether and call it the Summicron 50mm 1979 or the Summicron Tiger Paw 50mm.
Whatever you want to call it, the 1979 Summicron 50mm was the first production year of the optical formula of any Summicron 50mm since. Amazingly, if you go out and buy a new, non-APO 50 Cron 2023, it will have basically the same glass inside as this 1979 model.
This universally loved lens was designed by the renowned Walter Mandler and originally manufactured at the Canadian Leica factory.
Indeed, when I saw the loud MADE IN CANADA lettering on the front ring and the oddly named “Tiger Paw” focusing tab, the Leica snob in me was already starting to roll its eyes. But hey, this is a generous loan from a good friend, as well as a lens that has been in production for almost 45 years. Who am I to refuse?
Let’s take a moment to talk about convex focus tabs. The early Summicron 35mm IV also had this tab. Photographers nicknamed it “Tiger Claw” or “Tiger Claw”. Personally, I think someone just misheard “claw” and started saying “claw” because to me those tabs look like claws, not claws! Anyway, I can’t find an exact date or serial number range of Tiger Paw Summicrons before Leica switched to the more common/popular concave focusing tab. It appears that the 1979-1982 Summicron 50mm made in Canada, had the Tiger Paw. Beyond that, I’m not sure and it’s possible that there isn’t a shortcut. I believe that some of the Tiger’s Claws were also converted into sunken tabs, further muddying the water.
Visually, Tiger Paw annoys me, but in use, it’s just as effective for me as sunken tabs. Since I also shoot a lot with my Voigtländer 40mm 1.4 Nokton which has a concave focus tab, I prefer to have something different on my 50 so it’s easy to tell apart. The 40/1.4 is a bad example because the aperture ring also has tabs, so there’s no way I’m confusing this lens. But my point is just that I want to have a clear distinction. Given the choice I’d probably buy the concave style tab but sometimes you get what goes into your life.
In contrast to today’s stylish barrels, the 1979 Tiger Paw is the physically lightest iteration at the 50 Cron. With its anodized aluminum barrel, the Tiger Paw only holds a third less than the newest 50 Cron. It’s also half a millimeter shorter. These are not the specs I would be looking for. Frankly if I had read more before using the lens I would have probably removed it. I usually prefer heavy brass lenses. But the combination of the light weight, large focusing tab, and short focus throw makes controlling the 79 Tiger Paw feel incredibly fast and easy.
I haven’t handled the newer 50mm Summicron in years but Dan Tamarkin recently lent me a 1970 Summicron 50mm built at Wetzlar that would be classified as a Version II or “.7m” Summicron based on its minimum focusing distance. Rockwell would classify this as Version III. However, the focus throw in this previous iteration was a bit longer and the focus ring was tabless. I found that I prefer the Tiger Paw style. For 50/2, fast focus worked for me. For others, they may prefer the more precise focusing of the Cron 50mm 1969-1979. That one also happens to be Dan’s favorite.
The 1979 and newer 50 Cron have a shorter focus throw. I imagine the type of barrel will affect the quality of the silencer and some have a concave focus tab or currently, no tab at all.
Over the years, I’ve heard shooters use the term “snap into focus” but I didn’t really appreciate the meaning of this phrase until I used this lens. I found that given the amount of throw and attenuation on other 50mm lenses I’ve used, it’s easy to miss the point of focus and need to back out. But with the 1979 Tiger Paw, the focus ring stops instantly when your eye sees the focus hit, giving the impression of a snap-in-focus.
I’ve taken a lot of personal pictures with Tiger Paw to get a sense of how it’s handled before I get to anything serious. But recently I shot a full engagement session using it as my only lens in a number of different lighting situations at the glamorous LINE Hotel in Washington, DC. I thought I’d share this as they provide various examples of these simple little 50’s amazing performance.
In the photo below Kara, I have a lot of depth of field, maybe shooting at about f4 and about 3 feet away. So focus isn’t important but I worked really fast to capture her and her fiancé Jan candidly as they got dressed and ready for their engagement session at The Line Hotel in DC. The fast focus of Tiger Paw is very effective and fun for this shot.
The aperture ring is also very fast, light and positive. It reminds me of my old Voigtlander 50mm 1.5 Nokton where it balances precision with fast movements and marking adjustments with small quiet but firm clicks. I’d say it feels comparable to the Summicron 1970 Dan and imagine that the feel of the aperture ring hasn’t changed significantly on the Summicron 50mm 1969 and newer.
On the early Summicron foldable, the aperture settings were spaced closer to f2 and closer to each other closer to f16. But since 1956, aperture settings have been spaced the same as any other lens.
Speaking of the foldable Summicron, I tackled it at Pro Photo in DC a few months ago. They are noticeably heavier than Tiger Paw, or even their very similar Summitar counterparts.
Most of the photos presented here were taken with the Kodak Tri-X and rated/processed for EI 1600 in HC110b. As I often do, I’d rather push my film than stick to the only available exposure setting while indoors. I mean I could search at f2 at 1/60 at ISO 400 but that wouldn’t give me as many options as the EI 1600 where I could stop or open as I wanted.
Joey doesn’t own a hood for Summicron but also never finds the need to buy one either. So I photographed Tiger Paw for a few months without a hood to see how critical I think the hood is. Kara and Jan’s engagement photo shoot was done without a veil. Summicron handled the flare of window light beautifully. For the record, the image of Jan looking in the mirror, she is right beside a bright window and wearing white in this scene. The contrast ratio is very high. But Summicron controlled the wild light like a champ, without a hood.
I’ll tell you, shooting Summicron for almost a year without a hood was doing just fine until I took this photo of the Arc de Triomphe in September. The flare from the street light on the top left is exactly why I started using a hood on this lens. I was amazed after using it in various lighting situations how ugly this unusual flare was. But this relatively controlled flare pales in comparison to the sometimes unpredictable flare of vintage Leitz lens caps – the reason I wanted Cron to begin with.
The iconic 12585 was a proper hood for the post-1969 Summicron 50mm and it’s what I now use regularly. I really enjoy it in terms of style and function. I wish the mounting cap was upside down because it’s not made of plastic. My copy fits but isn’t ideal. I also found that my old ITDOO hood fits the 79 Summicron and fits better than on my Summitar or the 12585 on the Summicron. Since the IDOO is non-ventilated and blunderbuss-like, I prefer the smaller, more modern 12585 but one of these will save me from a flare in Paris.
1994 and newer 50 Cron had a built in pull-out hood. If you want to use a hood, I think the built-in hood is great because there are fewer accessories to worry about. But if you won’t be using a hood, or prefer to choose your own style hood, the Summicron 1979-1994 is the newest 50mm Summicron that will accommodate your style.
I really enjoyed the results I got from the 1979 Leitz 50mm Summicron Tiger Paw and really used it too. So I went ahead and ended the test drive of this amazing little lens on sale. Big thanks to Joey Pasco for walking me back to where I started with this humble little lens.
And congratulations on your engagement Kara and Jan, can’t wait to see you at your wedding!
Thanks for reading and happy shooting!
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