The Japanese Summilux: The Canon 50/1.4 LTM Lens

Jan 16, 2017  By Bill Rosauer

Everyone knows the motto of the Boy Scouts of America – Be Prepared. For a photographer, being prepared means having the tools on hand to do the job: what camera and lens combination will you need to get an anticipated job done. When travelling, you need to consider the camera and lenses you might need for whatever photographic situations you might encounter, but still keep the load small enough and light enough to not get in your way. If you are a gear head like me, this is part of the fun (or headache) when preparing to travel – assembling the kit of essential cameras and lenses, anticipating what photographic situations you will find yourself in and what you need to take with you to deal with them.  This game of “what’s in my bag” is played out constantly on numerous photographic enthusiasts’ websites. This is where the M system comes into its own. You can travel with a minimum of bulk, but still keep all of your bases covered.

Last November, we had planned a trip to Las Vegas to celebrate my older son’s bachelor party. I know, what goes in Vegas, stays in Vegas! We’ll leave that to the kids. Me, I am happy just being out there shooting in the target rich environment that Las Vegas presents. In my kit, I had my M9-P and Monochrom, a 21/2.8 ASPH, 35/1.4 ASPH, a 90 and couple of 50mm lenses that I would be testing. This is a fairly typical travel kit for me, and with it I could handle anything from landscapes to portraits. I had recently acquired a Zeiss Sonnar C 50/1.5 and a Canon 50/1.4 LTM lens, and I also had a Leica Q along which Leica USA had graciously lent me for the trip. Of course, everything fit into my trusty FOGG Forté bag. With testing and writing for Viewfinder always in mind, I thought I had more than enough gear to work with.

As luck would have it, my brother-in-law, who was along for the festivities, managed to obtain some choice last minute tickets to the Carlos Santana show at the House of Blues Theater in our hotel. Of course, we jumped at the chance to see the legend in concert. The last time I saw Santana live was almost forty years ago in my college days! The show was in a few hours and I had no time to go back up to the room, but luckily I had the two fifties in my bag, along with the 90 and the Q. It would have to do! I also worried about being branded as a professional and being denied admission to the venue with my camera, but security let me pass through without any issues. Are you a professional? Of course not, I said! As usual, the M cameras’ unobtrusive, non-threatening, “that looks like it’s just an old camera” appearance saved the day. Once we took our seats, I realized we were much closer to the stage than I had ever anticipated, being at the first high-top table to the right of the stage, literally ten feet away from some of the band members! From past experience, I had anticipated the 90mm being barely adequate in reach for a concert venue, but a 50 would work just fine here. But which 50 to choose? As this was only the second day of the trip, I was not yet fully familiar with either lens’s traits, but being mindful of the Sonnar’s reputation for focus shift, I went with what I knew would be the safe choice – the Canon. I know, one should be fully versed on the equipment you plan to use, but that was the point of having the two 50mm with me for testing. Fortunately, the Canon 50/1.4 worked out quite well for this potentially difficult assignment. A few initial test shots, using the rear display to zoom in to check on areas of critical focus and the histogram for exposure, indicated I was good to go.

If you are not familiar with it, the 50/1.4 Canon LTM lens was made by Canon for their rangefinder cameras which were competing with Nikon, Zeiss and of course Leica in the late fifties and sixties. Back then, before the coming of the SLR age, competition was fierce among these brands and having a high-speed standard lens was essential to add prestige to your brand’s image and standing in the photographic world. Having a high-speed normal lens in your line-up was also a necessity and not a luxury with the slow film emulsions available in those days. When the Canon lens was designed, Kodachrome slide films typically had an ASA of 10, and Kodak Super XX B&W emulsions were barely hitting ASA 200! Zeiss had the legendary Sonnar, Nikon the fine Nikkor and Leica of course had the Summarit 1.5 which was soon succeeded by the Summilux. The Canon lens, introduced in 1957 (Type I), was followed by the Type II lens (1959) of identical specification to the Type I and it continued in production until 1972, when Canon discontinued it along with the entire interchangeable lens rangefinder line in favor of their SLR line. Serial numbers range from 1000 to 29390 for the Type I and 29681 to 120705 for the Type II lens. Jason Howe, in his excellent on-line article on this lens, has dubbed it the “Japanese Summilux”, which seems to be an apt description. Canon also offered a 50/1.2 in LTM and a 50/.095 lens in Canon RF bayonet mount (the so called “Dream Lens”) during this period. These lenses have their own unique character and following, but the 50/1.4 is a superior all-around performer in comparison.

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Interesting review Bill,

Would like to know how this lens compared with its f/1.2 brother.
Anyway, I already have the f/1.8. Probably will sell that one and replace with the f/1.4 🙂

    Andre, sorry for seeing this so late! The 1.4 is a much better lens than the 1.2. The 1.2 has really interesting bokeh, but no where near as sharp. See my article Bokeh Kings to see how the 1.2 fares in comparison to many of the other classic and modern Leica compatible 50mm lenses.

Hi Bill,
I have the 50mm 1.4 LTM as well, but a different lens hood. Can you tell me more about the hood pictured?

    Hi Federico, the hood is one I got off eBay. Don’t remember the vendor, but you can usually get them for under $10 with shipping. Do a search under the filter size and the words “vented hood”

I use my Canon 50/1.4 with my M2 and my M9. I have also used the Type 4 ‘Cron and the Type 2 ‘Cron. I have not used a ‘Lux. I can say without equivocation, that the Canon lens is optically, if not mechanically, in the same league as the two ‘Crons. It’s an absolutely wonderful lens.

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